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Scots Philosophical Association University of St. Andrews Aristotle on Relativism Author(s): J. D. G. Evans

Scots Philosophical Association University of St. Andrews

Aristotle on Relativism Author(s): J. D. G. Evans Source: The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 96 (Jul., 1974), pp. 193-203

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VOL. 24









Let me first state dogmatically the dialectical situation which we shall

be exploring in detail as this paper develops.

He could view each as presenting his position

in conscious reaction to the other and in the belief that one or other of them is correct. Yet Aristotle regards the theories of each as seriously defective. What I want to consider is why Aristotle finds them inadequate, and what possible position is left for him if he will accept neither of the alternatives. The situation in which he finds himself is characteristic. Time and again he prefaces his accounts with a statement of the conflicting answers of his predecessors, in such a way that even though there is indeed good reason for thinking them all wrong, there seems to be no scope for any further

realist, Protagoras a relativist.

For Aristotle, Plato was a

answer. It is most important for our understanding of Aristotle's conception of philosophy to see the mannerin which he views his problem and the method by which he resolves it. The following passage from the Eudemian Ethics (H 2, 1235b 13-18) tells us much about this:

We must adopt a line of argument which will both best explain to

us the views held about these matters and will resolve the difficulties

and contradictions;

conflicting views are held with

will most


conflicting views to be retained if analysis


and we shall achieve this if we show that the

good reason. For such an

agreed facts;

and it will allow the

can show that each is


accord with the

true and partly false.

In other words, Aristotle wants to preserve the obvious truths of common sense, and at the same time to do full justice to those aspects of the philo-

sophers' paradoxes which incline us to see something in them. He will

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disarm the paradox, by separating the true insight from the outrageous conclusion which was built upon it. He will also eliminate from the com-

bination of all the views the

agreement will be shown to be the consequence of the distortion of the importance of some single aspect of the case. We shall see in detail later how this method operates. The natural place to look for Aristotle's treatment of relativism is Meta-

physics F. In fact I shall be concentrating more on certain other texts.

But I want first to say something about the arguments in r

conflict which presently characterizes it: dis-

and why I

find them not so interesting as certain other discussions. He is here princip- ally concerned with thinkers who deny the law of non-contradiction. He includes under this heading Protagoras, on the ground that his relativization of truth enabled him to allow that p and not-p could each be true for different persons. Now Aristotle maintains that this law is the most fundamental

principle in reasoning; and he argues that it follows from it that it is im-

For a

belief that p is contrary to a belief that not-p; and so someone who, for any substitution for p, believed both, would be in two contrary states. That this

is impossible is a consequence of the law of non-contradiction (Met. F 3). This is not, of course, a proof of the law. What it does establish is that the law is fundamental; for it cannot be doubted by one who accepts it, whatever he claims to the contrary. If it cannot be doubted, it cannot be

proved; and although

saying this,

Aristotle goes on to try to prove it in Met. 1 4-6,1 he misconstrues Aristotle's

purpose. Aristotle divides those who deny the law into two kinds, those who do it for the contentious reason of saying something paradoxical, and those who do it out of a genuine sense of perplexity. The former want to win an argument. Since their demand for a proof of the law cannot be met, their denial of it cannot be refuted.2 Even the peritropic argument,3 which is one of the strongest weapons in the arsenal of the opponent of relativism,

is not conclusive.

This argument claims that the statement " all truth is

relative to the individual who believes it " must be itself an absolute truth

-that is, true for everyone; and so if some person denies it, it must be false

for him.

thesis states that no one ever has a mistaken belief, the dissenter's denial

of this thesis constitutes a counter-instance to it. The thesis cannot co-exist

with someone who denies it.

He can claim

argument by denying that his thesis is 'an absolute truth.

that this thesis is true only for him; and that this is not in the least affected by the fact that it is false for someone else. In taking this stance the relativist assumes the life of a plant, as Aristotle says (1008b 10-12). His position

possible for anyone to believe that there is a counter-instance to it.

Christopher Kirwan says that, despite

It is, then, both true and false for him; and since the relativist

But the extreme relativist can break this

1Aristotle's Metaphysics r, A, E (Oxford, 1971), p. 113. sSee Met. 1009a 16-23, 1011a 8-25, 1012a 17-21. 3Met. 1008a 28-34, 1012b 13-18.

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rules out the possibility of rational discussion and thus is trivialized. But the position is open to him if he wants it.

His interest

lies rather with the victim of honest perplexity who thinks he can see some-

thing in the reasons for the relativist's position and thus is unable to sleep safely with the view of the committed realist. This man needs a therapeutic type of dialectic, which will enable him to see both the nature of the con- siderations which incline him to relativism and how those considerations do not in fact promote the conclusion which he is inclined to draw from them.

numerous arguments in Met. F 4-6 are of a Platonic

So Aristotle is not concerned with an opponent of this type.

The majority of the

character and in many cases were first suggested by Plato's Theaetetus. In some ways they seem to go too far in the Platonic direction. Thus the victim of perplexity needs to be reminded that some things are intelligible and eternal: he has concentrated too much on perceptible changing things. Now this is redolent of Plato, with its suggestion that the nature of reality is to be discovered by attending to the eternal and that the world of flux can be dismissed as not relevant to the enquiry. Yet Aristotle's point cannot be quite this, since he asserts that the law of non-contradiction brooks no

exceptions, not even among perceptible, changing things. His point must rather be to remind the victim of perplexity of something which he knows well, but has temporarily forgotten, in order to make him question whether the law of non-contradiction can be broken anywhere. Relativism, if it is

pushed, tends to be supported by reasons of very general scope. So if a dent can be made in the position in one place, this will lessen its appeal in other areas also. Aristotle's major argument in these chapters is based on an appeal to

1006a 28-7b 18). The burden of this difficult

the notion of essence (r4,

argument is that whatever may be the case with other modes in which subjects can be characterized, at the very least it cannot be the case that the definition, which gives the subject's essence, both is and is not true of it.

I do not propose to go into this argument. I mention it now because it

raises an idea which will recur in the following analysis. There is one set of remarks in F 5 which are suggestive of a point which

we will find developed in the passages to which I am going to turn next.

Aristotle jokingly

that Homer must have been a relativist because

he describes an unconscious Hector as " lying with his mind on other things "


(this is an acceptable

" as if those who are mindless have their minds on things, only on different things " (1009b 28-31). The point of this remark is that relativists do not

admit that people make mistakes or misuse their faculties. For them what

is, on the realist view, the difference between the good and the bad use of

matter of difference without any such accom-

the faculties is just

panying values as the realist imports. Aristotle's use of the word ' mindless '

is suggestive because while this word is used by the realist to describe some-

description of unconsciousnessin Greek): Aristotle says


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one whose mind is functioning poorly, the relativist is able to appeal to its other-totally privative-sense to argue that the realist's use is self-contra- dictory: if the activity of mind is not present in just as satisfactory a form as it is in all other cases, then it is totally lacking. There is no question that Aristotle is a realist. He says " it might seem that knowledge is a measure and the object of knowledge is measured

(but) in a way it is knowledge that is measured by the object of knowledge " (Met. I 6, 1057a 9-12). But he recognizes that realism can go to extremes which make it as unacceptable as relativism; and it is under this heading that the criticism of Plato comes. Where Plato goes wrong is well brought out by a passage in the Topics (Z 8, 146b 36-7a 11), which is a development of a difficulty which Plato himself indicated in the Parmenides (133b-4e). In that work Plato presented an argument that if only objects of the same type are correlative with each other, and if Forms and perceptible particulars are indeed objects of different types, then the Forms, as objects of knowledge, must be objects of the Form Knowledge rather than of the instances of human knowledge which participate in that Form: those instances of know- ledge must be related to objects of the same type as themselves-that is, to the world of perceptible instances.

I could argue that this lamentable conclusion does represent a serious

difficulty for Plato, but not here.4 Aristotle's argument in the Topics runs

as follows. Most of us would think inadequate a definition of desire as

' appetite for the pleasant '; for it ignores the intentionality of desire, the fact that people may make a mistake and desire what appears to them pleasant when it is not really so. Therefore we must amend the definition to include a reference to appearances. But it is not open to the Platonist to make this common-sense move. For his definitions are considered to be definitions of Forms; and it is an axiom of his metaphysics that the cate- gories of the real and the apparent exclude each other. As a Form the object of desire must be real; and so to avoid what is for him the contradiction of admitting that there exists the real apparent good, he has to deny the name


strip this metaphysics of its ontological superstructure of Forms, we have an account which makes it a condition of being an exercise of a faculty that

it does not err in its object.

assimilating Platonic realism to the relativism which it is designed to combat.

This, with other aspects of the case, is well brought out in the discussion of the object of wish in E.N. F 4, to which I,now turn.


desire ' to what does not have the really pleasant as its object. If we

This consequence has the curious effect of

A few preliminary remarks are needed. Aristotle regards wish (Bo6X7a7q)

as the faculty which is concerned with the ultimate grounds for action. This makes it the more natural that the notion of good, the fundamental value notion, should figure centrally in his discussion. Secondly, Aristotle's

4For this,






Concept of





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ethics is eudaimonistic; and he would see no sense in the suggestion that a person could consciously and consistently fail to act in accordance with what he conceives to be the good life.5 The account starts by recognizing two answers to the question " what

is the object of wish ? ". Both answers seem to promote fatal objections;

and yet between them they seem to represent all the possibilities. We are in a typical Aristotelian position. The first answer is that it is the good. This is the Platonic answer; and we have seen that it gives rise to the diffi- culty that someone who wishes something which is in fact other than the good, must be claimed not to be wishing at all. For his alleged " wish "

is for something other than that for which all wishes, by definition, are. The

second answer is that the object of wish is what appears to each person to

be good. This answer has the consequence that it is impossible to distinguish different wishes in order of merit, since there is no common standard by which to measure them. On this view the object of wish has no definite nature, since anything might appear good to some individual. Now the man who has espoused relativism welcomes this consequence; for indeed it

is just what he wants to assert. But Aristotle, in pointing it out, is concerned

not with him but with the person who sees the difficulty in the Platonic account and thus has good reason to identify the object of wish with the apparent good. The basic inadequacy of both accounts is that they force us to obliterate

a distinction which is recognized by common sense and, Aristotle believes,

must be preserved in the true account of the matter. This is the distinction between the successful and the unsuccessful uses of the faculty of wishing. We must allow a use to such sentences as ' he wishes, but his wish is wrong '. But this cannot be allowed on either of the contending accounts. For the realist such wishes are not wishes at all, since they are unrelated to the

object of wish. Similarly the relativist, by making every act of wishing equally related to its object, makes all wishes equally good. In this way the two answers, which looked initially so very much opposed, end up in agree- ment on the cardinal matter of whether there is the possibility of distinguish- ing between wishes in respect of their success. This is ironic because the realist and the relativist believe themselves to be in conflict on this very point. By dialectically assimilating them, Aristotle shows not only that they are wrong as judged by the standards of common sense, but also that they fail in their intention. Clearly what is wrong is that due recognition is not being made of both

the intensional and the extensional aspects of wishing and its

Granted that nobody would deny, if asked what he wishes, that he wishes the good, then this shows that intensionally there is just one object of wish


perhaps lows conflicts with Aristotle's

plex, and yet still have an utterly definite nature.

5A third caveat




None of the talk about

in E.N.





in what fol-


The good may be enormously

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find diversity of nature in

the object from individual to individual. Although Aristotle's account is not couched in this modern jargon, it does incorporate this insight. But to

draw this analytic distinction is not to say which party-realists or relativists




has to

But when we attend

to the ways in which this opaque descrip-



is, when

we note

be filled in for varying













to adjudicate

of this


on this issue. let




me emphasize

once again what is and what is not to be expected

drawn attention to Aristotle's remarks in Metaphysics F on the limits to


also be borne in



the unacceptable

from it.

I have


in this

area, and urged that





will not

his arguments

in that

work should

to accept

but it will,

be read in conjunction

in connection



This must


who are prepared



be moved

by what





be of interest

to those who, recognizing

the unacceptability

of wish

of the

to find anything more


are disturbed

of the

do this

by their inability


of the

he introduces


showing that the two opposing positions are not as incompatible as they

at first seem.

usefulness of which in the present context had gone quite unappreciated by the proponents of the paradoxical views: this is the distinction between the

qualified and the unqualified forms of a concept. He says that the true and

unqualified object of wish is the good, but the object of each man's wish is

In the case of the good man appearance and





what appears good to them and what is good. There are two components in this analysis. Firstly, there is the formal distinction between the object

of wish





qualified form.


precisely that the object of wish

unrelated, neither are they identical. So Aristotle's first criticism of the

contending parties is that by insisting that the object of wish is either the good or the apparent good, they oversimplify and reach a situation of false conflict. Both answers, hedged with the appropriate explanations, must find their place in the full and sober account of the matter. Secondly,

are not




individual persons, the


own account


order to



a logical





case of those


to him.



so that




appears good to him really






is so, whereas

is a distinction



in a general





and the







of the



are not

of wish

objects of each man's of some individual's

For the object

wish is the object

to be-the




It is what appears good to him;

it happens

is the

and the reason and justifica-


of his wish,




for calling this-whatever

6G. E. L. Owen, in Aristotle on Dialectic

think, on the power of the intension/extension


regards the


1968), p. 119, relies overmuch,


to resolve the issue, and seems





be led

this over-reliance to the

by apparent good as the object


of wish.


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Aristotle makes his pronouncement on the substantive issue when he says that the good is the true object of wish and the object of the good man's wish. With this further component of the analysis he firmly nails his colours to the realist mast; and he also shows that the object of wish is not to be understood simply as a general concept, to be specified only when we attend to details of individuals' wishes and determine the object of each man's

wish, but rather as itself something utterly specific-the

this area the vague and general concept is rather that of being the object of someone's wish, since there is no control over the diversity of objects

which can satisfy this description. A parallel case will illustrate both the nature and the scope of Aristotle's reply to the extreme and paradoxical accounts of the relation between the faculty of wish and its object. In gunnery we have a connection of persons

and objects by means of the faculty of shooting. In order for the

of guns to qualify as an exercise of shooting, there has to be a special object

-the target-to which the guns are essentially related. So here we have two

elements-shooting and a target-which

same way as are wishing and its object. Now realism and common sense tell us that there is scope for distinguishing between good and bad shooting,

for allowing that while some shots may hit the target, others may miss it. But on the basis of certain aspects of the account of the relation between

shooting and targets given above, it is not difficult to construct a thesis which disallows this possibility. On the one hand, the extreme realist main- tains that the object of every shot is the target. But it seems clear that the gun of the person who makes a poor shot is not in fact directed at the target, whatever he thinks or intends to the contrary; and so we have to say that whatever he thinks or intends, such a person is not in fact shooting. On the other hand, the extreme relativist maintains that the object of each shot, whatever it is directed at, is its own target. This thesis preserves the cor- relation of shots and targets, which had also been respected by the extreme realist, and preserves the claim that the poor shots are really shots, which the extreme realist had been forced to deny. But, of course, on this account

target; and so the scope for characterizing any shot


letting off

good. Indeed, in

are related to each other in the

shot will hit its

as " poor " is removed.

As with the conflicting accounts of the nature of the object of wish, both these accounts of the object of shooting obliterate the distinction between the successful and the unsuccessful performances of the exercise. Here also there are extremists who will not be disturbed to see shooting as an all-or- nothing matter and not, as most of us suppose, an exercise which is subject to variation in degree. But it is, I hope, less controversial than in the case of the object of wish that something has gone wrong here. Once again, to say that both accounts founder because they ignore the element of intention (the aim) in shooting is true but less than adequate. It is, in fact, only in areas where intention operates that paradoxes of this type can arise. Con-

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sider the following very different type of case. When a number of rivers flow from the heartland of a continent, some converge to enter the sea from the same mouth, but others make their way to the sea independently. Here we may speak of the rivers' " object of seafall" ; but there is no inclination here to produce paradoxical accounts of the nature of this or of these objects, or indeed to see any problem in this area. So we recognize that what gives rise to the problem in the problem cases with which we are concerned is the occurrence within them of aims and intentions. But even when we allow this, we still have a real problem in providing an analysis which will not disqualify the unsuccessful exercises of the faculties from being exercises of that faculty at all, irrespective of what is claimed for them by their per- petrators or by other observers. Aristotle's account suggests a way to do this. In the case of each of the poor shots we must say that it is related not to the target but to its target. Thus its object is not simply and without qualification the object of shooting; but neither is it something which is not in any way a target. Moreover, the relation between a qualified target of this sort and the target is a matter which is open to objective investigation. We can determine why some shots have gone wrong ;7 and we can also rule that certain gun-firings are related to objects themselves so unconnected with the target that these are not shots at all. That is, we have the scope

on the one

for distinguishing the problem cases-the

hand, the good shots and, on the other, the non-shots. The account preserves the notion, so essential to a realist view, of the target, and thus preserves

the distinction between good shooting, which hits the target, and bad shooting, which does not. It does not infringe the requirement that there must be an essential relation between a shot and a target. An oversimple

interpretation of this requirement led the proponents of the extreme positions

to their distorted views of the matter.

unqualified and the qualified forms of being a target enables us, following the indications provided by Aristotle's analysis of the object of wish, to take a more complex view of the relation between shots and targets. Now it is no longer essential that there should be a relation between every shot and the (unqualified) target, at least not the same relation as exists between the

good shot and the target. My purpose in developing this account of shooting as a parallel to Aris- totle's account of wishing has been to show how moves similar to those made by the contending parties in the latter debate lead to positions which will immediately strike the victim of honest perplexity as unacceptable. How- ever, the effect of the comparison can be two-edged; and this promotes a consequence which is both unfortunate and interesting. The metaphysics of gunnery is, in a way, an area too little infested by controversy for the com- parison to be fully useful. The notion of the target-as the object which is

poor shots-from,

But the distinction between the


suggests cf. also 1147b 6-9.



in a very

brief and general way at E.N.

1113a 33-5;

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hit by some but not necessarily by all shots-is so well entrenched in our discourse that there is an implausibility both in the development of the paradoxical positions which make all shooting successful and in the presenta- tion of the notion of the qualified target, which is designed to disarm these

implausible paradoxes. This is unfortunate insofar as it reduces the power of the comparison to illuminate the apparently more problematic area of wishing. But it is also interesting, in that it throws further light on a meta- philosophical issue which has been of central importance in this paper. Aristotle would, I am sure, regard the facts in the area of wishing as essen- tially no more problematic than they are with shooting. He would say that we are very well able to distinguish good from bad wishing, as we are good from bad shooting, even though in the case of wishing the target is not established by decree. But ordinary discourse does not supply an expression,

target', to indicate the special and definite character of

the object of wish; and this both opens the way for the contentious relativist

to maintain that it has no definite character, and lulls the unwary into thinking that what he says may be right. The situation under analysis is one in which the roles of faculty and its

object both need to be kept in proper perspective. The contending parties go wrong by overemphasizing one element of the relation at the expense of the other. The extreme realist is right to insist on the independence of the

But this position

can lead to one which divorces the object from all exercises of the faculty, as we have seen in connection with the difficulties in the Parmenides and the Topics. The extreme relativist overcorrects this defect by making the exercise of the faculty a defining criterion of its object. How much, and how little, Aristotle is prepared to concede to this position is indicated by his assertion that where the objects of human faculties are concerned, the good man is marked by his ability to see the truth and is like a standard and measure.8 The Protagorean echo here cannot be unintended; but Aristotle tempers the relativist position by speaking of the truth and the good man. The latter is, moreover, only like a standard measure. Now if Aristotle were defining the object of wish by reference to the good man, his account would be viciously circular, since we have no way of determining the identity of the latter except by reference to the former. Rather, he must be asserting that it is a necessary characteristic of the object of wish that it be the object of the good man's wish. To see the point of this, we have to remember the consequences of the extreme realist's ignoring this fact and of the extreme relativist's over-reaction to his opponent's position. It is an inevitable con- sequence of the type of therapeutic dialectic which Aristotle is practising in the present analysis that any of his remarks, when taken by itself and

not thought through in terms of its part in the whole account, should seem to provide support for the position of either of the contending parties.

analogous to 'the

object of the faculty from any particular exercise of it.


1113a 31-2.

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I noted earlierthat the major argument against relativism in Metaphysics

T is based on the notions of definition and essence. These notions have

continued to be anathema to committed relativists and a stumbling-block



want to

resolves a problem about definition in a manner similar to that in which he

tackles the difficulties about wishing. The passage is from the

141a 26-2a 16); and as we would expect, given the character of the work, the dialectical aspect of the analysis is even more apparent than in the Ethics. Aristotle's advice at the end of the discussion to " make precise each of such distinctions and use them to advantage in one's dialectic" is not an invitation to the contentious to be self-serving but a reminder that one needs to be sensitive to the context of the dispute when one treats issues of this type.9 The discussion takes its start from two basic theses about definition. The purpose of definition is to instruct us as to the nature of the thing under consideration, and definition must give an account of that thing's essence.

An immediate consequence of this second requirement is that as each thing has a single essence, so it has only one definition. Thus insistence on the realism implicit in the essentialist thesis rules out the possibility that defin- itions of the same thing should be graded as better or worse: only the best will do at all. It should by now be clear that Aristotle will not be content to leave the matter there, with definition viewed simply as an all-or-nothing matter. For attention to the other requirement for definitions-that they be instructive -reveals a complexity which needs to be reflected in the full account. It

is part of Aristotle's realism that he believes there to be a natural order in

which certain things are more intelligible than others, and that the com-

ponents of a thing's essence are prior in this natural order of intelligibility to the thing itself. The former are without qualification more intelligible

than the latter; and they are also, as

more intelligible to the man of sound understanding. So far, then, there is no problem in an unadulterated realist account, since the man of sound understanding is instructed by the definition which presents the essence of the thing concerned. But what is without qualification intelligible may not be so to someone whose understanding is not sound. If he finds more in- telligible an account which describes the thing in terms other than its essential components, he will not be instructed-or will be less well instructed than he might be-by the only account to which the realist will allow the title of " the definition ". Aristotle will not relax the restriction on what may count as a definition.10 But he does recognize that such a sub-definitory

those whose commitment to realism is unsure. But they lie at the basis

the ontological expression which Aristotle gives to his realism; and I

conclude by briefly considering a discussion in which Aristotle

Topics (Z 4,

with the (unqualified) object of wish,

9142a 12-13.

10142a 6-8.

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account should be provided where the audience is of less than sound under- standing, and he describes someone who does this as " defining ".11 Aristotle is mainly concerned to combat a relativist view which, exploit-

ing the fact that what is intelligible to one man