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Aristotelian Categories: Too Many or Too Few?
Aristotle defined the concept of ‘Substance’ to delineate all living and non-living things. All Substances consisted of ‘form’ (soul) and matter. Substances were to be described by way of Categories. For Aristotle, the primary category was the substance itself. Apart from substance, Aristotle defined nine other categories – ‘quantity’, ‘quality’, ‘relation’, ‘time’, ‘place’, ‘condition’, ‘position’, ‘action’ and ‘passion’ (Aristotle, Lecture 08).
The modern day equivalent to the Categories could very well be the ‘exif’ metadata associated with digital photographs! Every photograph taken carries information about light, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, tonal gradation and location so that the photograph can be understood in its full perspective.
While the categories describe the Substance comprehensively, the moot point is whether the human brain can grasp all the categories in a single span of attention. In fact, span of attention of human beings is not so large to take in ten attributes of description of a substance. This assertion can be understood if we take daily parlance into account. When talking about any object, we mention the most prominent attributes of the object. Rarely do we mention the object with all nine ‘Accidents’. If we Google ‘span of control’ in the field of management, we would see that a human beings traditionally controlled between 1 to 4 subordinates. While the number has risen to 1 to 10 in the modern days of flatter organizations, around 7 would be the upper limit of the span of control.
The analogy of ‘span of control’ could well be applied to the concept of ‘categories’. It would be prudent to reduce the number of categories so that the human brain could process them adequately. While each category is important, it may be possible to club a few categories. For instance, ‘action’ and ‘passion’ could be clubbed into one category called ‘interaction’ that could signify the interaction of the Substance with others. Similarly, ‘relation’, ‘place’ and ‘position’ could be combined into a category called ‘geotype’, which would call for descriptions of the geographical and spatial orientation of the Substance. ‘Condition’ as a category may be considered superfluous. Whether an Substance is healthy or ill could be revealed in subsequent conversation. It may not be the primary category of a Substance. Given these options, the Accidents would reduce to: ‘quantity’, ‘quality’, ‘geotype’, ‘time’ and ‘interaction’. Including Substance itself, there would be six categories. Six categories would be simpler to comprehend to the human brain. A lesser number of categories would also force human beings to concentrate on the crucial and special attributes of a Substance to describe its essence. The reduced number of categories would not detract from a full description of the Substance, as all former categories would now become sub-categories in respective fields as discussed above.
Best Major Solution to the Problem of the Universals
A universal is a general concept that includes many individuals. Philosophers have long pondered over the problem of how best to describe universals. Plato opted for exaggerated realism. According to Plato, every universal concept could be related to a form that could exist independent of space and time. Thus, manhood, humanity, redness, courage and kindness could exist as forms. All universal things, therefore, had a generalized source that did not have a material seed. Nominalism rejected the idea of exaggerated realism and instead, resorted to cynicism by stating that all universal things were merely words and had no essence. Conceptualism held that all universals were products of human imagination and were held only within the human consciousness. Moderate realism, propounded by Aristotle, held that universals emanated from the particular. Thus, manhood emanated from man, and womanhood emanated from woman, and so on (Aristotle, Lecture 09).
Nominalism is the weakest of the major solutions. It cannot be said that the universals are mere words. If universals were only words, they would not have evoked as much passion and emotion as they do. For instance, there would have been no struggle across generations for equality and fairness. No one would be interested in independence. The pursuit of happiness would not find a mention in the constitution of the United States. Thus, it can safely be said that the universals are more than words.
Slightly tougher would be to deal with conceptualism. Are universals only in the human consciousness? It may not be so, as even animals follow concepts of equality. Packs of lions hunt together. Mother hens cater to the requirements of their younger ones, adhering to concepts of care and nurture. Therefore, the universals exist beyond human consciousness. On this argument, one could discount conceptualism to be the strongest solution to the problem of the universals.
The choice then narrows down between exaggerated realism and moderate realism. Exaggerated realism claims that the universal emanates from the particular. However, on deeper analysis, it would appear that not all universals could emanate from particulars. For instance, happiness and joy would need to be described as concepts that exist independent of their subjects. Courage and redness cannot have a reference point. In this aspect, exaggerated realism appears to be the most apt solution of the problem of universals. Every universal thing can be attributed to a concept that exists formless in time and space, independent of material things. Given this idea, it would be apt to depict all universal things as forms that actually exist.
Those who would argue against the concept of universals being generalized forms can best be refuted by the concept of the source of all things – God. If the root of all things is finally attributed to God, a concept that even Aristotle, despite his material leanings, had to accommodate, then the analogy could be definitely extended to the universals. It is only because concepts of equality, brotherhood and freedom are timeless and manifest that people across generations have recognized them in the same way. If these concepts were rooted to material things, their essence would have changed over time.
In view of the arguments elucidated above, it could be averred that exaggerated realism is the soundest solution to the problem of the universals.
St Augustine’s Concept of Time: Real or Unreal?
Philosophers have debated the concept of Time throughout history. Plato averred Time to belong to the religious plane, in the form of eternity. Aristotle gave a mechanistic meaning to the concept of time, attributing time to be a measure of motion.
The inherent difficulty of us humans to look at time in the framework of St Augustine is because of latter day contraptions called watches that arise in the mental horizon whenever the word time is mentioned. However, it would be instructive to leave the imagery of horology apart while observing the real nature of time.
St Augustine argued against the mechanistic description of time as espoused by Aristotle on the grounds that not all things moved. The sun stood still, yet its age could be measured by time. St Augustine posited that time was a concept in the human mind and attributed time to manifest psychological dimensions in the human mind. For human beings, memory indicated the past, attention focused on the present and hopes looked at the future. In this milieu, St Augustine accommodated the concepts of free will and foreknowledge, arguing that while humans had the free will to perform actions, God occupied a ‘vantage point’ beyond time; thus defusing the tension between free will and divine foreknowledge (St Augustine, Lecture 11).
Given St Augustine’s viewpoint of time being a concept bearing psychological dimensions in the human mind, the question whether St Augustine’s concept of time was real or unreal can best be answered after observing everyday activities and phrases. We have a phrase – ‘time stands still’. This happens when a boy looks at a girl with eyes filled with love for the first time. Time also is said to be ‘passing very fast’. This happens when a busy worker works with his heart and soul through the workweek. ‘Time passes heavily’ denotes instances when the student waits anxiously in the headmaster’s office, awaiting a rebuke for a rule broken earlier in the day. In all these phrases, it is the human concept of time that is at play. If Aristotle were to measure time, he would have measured it is seconds and minutes. Yet, human consciousness measures the same amount of time in milliseconds and in ages, depending upon the situation.
The moot point is – is the human concept of time real or a figment of imagination? Again, if time were to be universal, then time standing still for the lovers would be the same moment when time flew for the harried worker. If time were accepted to be a concept in the human brain, it would also have to be accepted that time would pass differently for all, given their unique circumstances.
Therefore, in St Augustine’s worldview, time would be all things to all people. There would be no standard time, and therefore no frame of universal reference apart from the vantage point maintained by God. Time, therefore, is relative, according to St Augustine.
When we observe the concept of time being relative, we may adduce to familiar ground as discovered by Einstein. He went ahead from the mechanistic concept of Newtonian time and found that time was relative to light. In this milieu, it could be said that while St Augustine’s concept of time appears unreal in the mechanistic world, it begins to make sense in the relativistic framework. In many ways, St Augustine was to Aristotle what Einstein was to Newton.
Therefore, it could be concluded that the relativistic concept of time as espoused by St Augustine was as real as that described by Aristotle. Both were real in their own frameworks.
Requirement of Four Causes
Aristotle developed the concept of cause to understand the ‘historical development of a thing’. He created a framework of four causes: material, formal, efficient and final. The material cause delineated that out of which something was made. The formal cause depicted that into which something was made. The efficient cause would denote the means with which the material transformed into the formal. The final cause indicated the sake for which something happened, underlining the purpose for the thing (Aristotle, Lecture 08).
Aristotle would have felt the need for four causes to create a holistic framework to describe why a thing came into existence in the first place. Individually, none of the causes would be adequate for the purpose. If the material cause were the sole cause in Aristotle’s framework, it would only indicated from where a thing generated. There would be no indication of the process of its evolution, its final shape and its function. Similarly, the formal cause would bear no information about the source of a thing, its transformative process and function. Merely stating the efficient cause would miss out on both the source and the purpose.
Another way of understanding Aristotle’s imperatives to delineate four causes would be to look at the problem from the framework of popular idiom. There is always a debate whether the means are more important than the ends. Some people say that ends justify the means. For such people, the final cause is more important than the material, formal and efficient causes. However, the votaries of the ends justifying the means are often stumped when something that was born of improper means is exposed and vilified even if the thing is performing a socially accepted function at the end of the day. A President may be doing a good job, but if his criminal antecedents are brought to light, he might be impeached. Therefore, the material would be deemed to be as important as the final. The process of transformation throws light on the inherent strength of the thing and its staying power. People who achieve greatness through a process of struggle would invariably stick to their stands and principles as opposed to those born with a golden spoon. Coal is transformed to diamond only through intense heat. Therefore, the transformative process is important to be kept in mind, as it would indicate whether the final function would be long lasting and genuine or otherwise. The formal is the physical attribute of the thing that performs the final function. This aspect is required in everyday parlance. One may fly in the air. Flying is the final function. But the act of flying could be by sitting in an airplane, flying with a jetpack, or simply falling with the force of gravity while bungee-jumping.
Thus, all four causes are equally important in everyday life. Aristotle recognized that, and designed a framework that catered to the root causes, the transformative effects, the processes and the final functions. All modern day analysis, from fishbone diagrams to business analytics, germinates from the causes designed by Aristotle.
Aristotle. Lecture 08. n.d Print.
Aristotle. Lecture 09. n.d Print.
St Augustine. Lecture 11. n.d. Print.
The Concept of Time. Lecture 10. n.d. Print.
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