Refuting Aristotle, Empiricism – Gordon Clark Quotes

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This is a list of Gordon Clark quotes about Aristotle and Empiricism. For each quote, there is a link where you can purchase the book where the quote came from.

For Gordon Clark quotes about empiricism in general, visit Gordon Clark Quotes – Empiricism.

Gordon Clark Refutes Aristotle, Empiricism (Wheaton Lectures)

From Clark and His Critics, published by the Trinity Foundation (page numbers are from the Apple Books e-book).

Headings have been added to help follow the flow of Clark’s argumentation.

Empiricism (Sense Experience) Must Explain Knowledge Starting from a Blank Slate

Aristotle, rejecting Platonism, proposed to base a knowledge on sensory experience. To do this, he must not only develop the definitions of man, of justice, and of equality from sensation, but on a more fundamental level, he must determine the categories and ultimately defend the law of contradiction. In none of this can I see that he was successful.

As an aid in grasping the following analysis, a word may be required to explain the significance of sensory epistemology and to indicate the steps that Aristotle had to take. The problem of course is to account for knowledge. The empirical solution of the problem depends on developing all knowledge out of sensory experience. Aristotle would not allow an infant to be born already omniscient. He would not even permit the infant to possess any a priori equipment for learning. Of course, a person is born with sense organs, but the mind as such can have no “forms” of its own, for if it had, these innate elements would affect and therefore distort the reception of sensory objects. It would be like looking through colored glasses: We would not see or think things as they really were. At the start, therefore, the mind is a perfect blank. It is actually nothing before it thinks.

Concepts and Categories

Now, after a child has received many sensations and has retained them in the form of memory images, Aristotle must explain the production of concepts. Of course, he will have to explain how we construct the concepts of man, cube, and justice; but what is more important, Aristotle must explain the “categories.” These differ from ordinary concepts. It is possible to get through life, and to do considerable thinking too, without ever knowing some concepts. Few of us know many botanical concepts; an Englishman or at least a Tibetan has no concept of baseball. Yet they think and they may think profoundly on other subjects. The categories, however, are concepts so basic that without them no one can think at all. Unless we had the concept or category of quality, of quantity, of relation, we could not think of botany, baseball, or anything else.

Aristotle’s first category is substance or reality. In fact, this is a double category, for there are primary realities and secondary realities. The following analysis will expose a difficulty in this first category, will show that the other categories are confused, and will conclude that Aristotle fails to arrive at the law of contradiction by his empirical method.

Refuting the Category of Reality

Aristotle began by asserting that individual sense objects, like Socrates, Bucephalus, and Mount Olympus, are the primary realities. Classes or concepts, like man, horse, and mountain, are secondary realities. Now, Aristotle’s difficulties start, not with the secondary realities, but right at the beginning with sensory individuals.

Are the Parts of Primary Realities Not Primary Realities?

If a lover of Colorado may substitute Mount Blanca or Mount Horn for Mount Olympus, the argument against taking individual sense objects as primary realities can be stated in American nomenclature. One may ask, if the universe is an aggregate of individual things, is Mount Blanca such an individual thing, or is Mount Blanca itself a composite of the individual rocks and strata that contribute to its great mass? If Mount Blanca is the primary reality, a single rock would be but a fraction of an individual; it itself would not be individual and therefore would not be real. This is not a plausible position for Aristotle to take, and in fact he says the opposite in another connection, as we shall see in a moment.

Are the Aggregates of Primary Realities Not Primary Realities

Let us look next in the opposite direction. Instead of the rock as a part of Mount Blanca, let us examine the mountain range of which Mount Blanca is a part. This massive mountain stands at the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Is it then really a thing, an individual, a primary reality? Or is it but a part of an individual, and hence not a reality? If the entire range is the primary reality, then Mount Blanca is not a real thing, and this contradicts Aristotle’s example. What is worse, if we go still further, the Sangre de Cristo Range may not be a thing, but only a part of the entire Rocky Mountain chain, perhaps including the Andes as well. Which then is the individual: rock, mountain, or range? The question is embarrassing, for the identification of individuals cannot be made on the empirical basis Aristotle adopts.

Are Living Beings Primary Realities?

Whatever may be the case with inanimate rocks and mountains, the bodies of men and animals have always been recognized as a persuasive consideration in favor of natural classification and of the individuality on which such classification is based. But the difficulty of which Mount Blanca is an example attaches even to the natural bodies of animals. For example, is the bear that prowls over Mount Blanca an individual thing and a primary reality? If it seems so, remember that as Mount Blanca is composed of rocks, so the bear has teeth, claws, and red corpuscles. Are teeth and corpuscles individual things? Corpuscles, if not teeth, seem to have some claim to being individual organisms with a life span of their own. In any case, since the constituent parts of animal bodies, the corpuscles, the cells, and even the teeth, replace themselves with observable rapidity, the reality of the animal cannot be identified as a particular set of parts, unless one wishes to say that the bear today is not the same individual that he was yesterday. Aristotle does not wish to say so. He insists that the most distinctive mark of substance or reality is its numerical unity throughout qualitative change. This insistence, however, only leads to greater difficulties. How can Aristotle determine whether the changing composition of the blood stream is a qualitative change through which the animal remains, or whether it is a substantial change by which a new animal replaces a previous animal? In the face of such questions we may be pardoned for suspecting a vicious circle. It seems that Aristotle sometimes determines numerical unity by a prior knowledge of what a substance is, and at other times identifies substance by its numerical unity.

Empiricism Prevents the Existence of Individuals

Whether Leibniz can justify the individuality of his monads is a different question, for Leibniz has a totally different epistemology. But for Empiricists, both for Aristotle’s so-called conceptualism and all the more for William of Occam’s thorough-going nominalism, the physical continuum and the Heraclitean flux prevent the identification and even the existence of individuals. If perchance an Empiricist wishes to take refuge in the individuality of atoms, or, as is now necessary, in the sub-atomic particles, the following section on science will dislodge him. There is therefore no hope for a philosophy that identifies primary realities with sensory objects. If anyone in unbelief petulantly exclaims, “How can you be so stupid as to doubt the reality of this house and this tree right now before your eyes?” the only reply is to ask the embarrassing questions over again.

To go still further, the difficulties with Aristotle’s theory of categories are even worse, if that be possible, than those attaching to his primary realities.

The categories, as was said before, are those concepts without which it is impossible to think anything. Without them, obviously, Aristotelianism cannot go very far. But to indicate that with them one cannot go very far either, it is not necessary to analyze all ten. Two are sufficient. To clinch the argument therefore, the categories of quality and relation will be examined.

Refuting the Category of Relation

Relatives, says Aristotle, are whatever is said to be of something else, or otherwise referred to something. For example, a cousin is a relation because a cousin is always a cousin of someone. But Socrates, like Mount Olympus, is a primary substance because Socrates is never a Socrates of anything.

It is by this arrangement that Aristotle would defend the position that a stone on Mount Olympus and a corpuscle in a bear’s blood stream are primary substances. His examples, however, happen to be a head and a hand. Suppose a head lies severed on a battlefield. Although a head is always the head of somebody, it is not a relative because we can know a severed head without knowing whose head it is. The head therefore is a substance and a primary reality.

Relation Is More Complicated than Aristotle Claims

This explanation, unfortunately for Aristotle, does not clearly avoid making a head a relative. For, although we do not know whose head it is on the battlefield, we could not know that a head is a head unless we knew its relation to a body. The meaning of head consists precisely in that relation.

Are Primary Realities Composites of Primary Realities?

Furthermore, this example of the head reinforces a previous difficulty. If head, hand, and corpuscles are primary realities, how can the man and the bear retain the numerical unity of a primary substance if they themselves are composites of primary substances?

Refuting the Category of Quality

In the next place, an examination of the category of quality will complete the destruction of Aristotelian epistemology.

Problems With the Category of Quality

Aristotle says that the distinctive feature of quality is the fact that likeness and unlikeness can be predicated with reference to quality only. But this is not plausible. Suppose two men are not only qualitatively heavy, but also exactly and therefore quantitatively two hundred pounds. Are they then not alike quantitatively? What is worse, perhaps two hundred pounds is not a quantity, but a relation between a man and a unit of weight. In this case likeness would fall in the category of relation. Or, more clearly, the distinction between quality and relation cannot be maintained. Surely two people are alike in being cousins, a relation, or in being men, a substance.

Sensory Epistemology is a Failure

The suspicion that the theory of categories collapses is strengthened by noting that Aristotle himself admits that some things can be both qualities and relatives; and still more so when, after choosing an example of a given category in one passage, he uses the same example for another category in a second passage.

This analysis of the categories destroys Aristotelian epistemology because the categories are supposed to be grasped by an infallible intuition, inductively arising from sensible particulars. Says Aristotle, when, among the many sensations we constantly experience, one of a number of logically indiscriminate particulars has made a stand (whatever “making a stand” may mean), then for the first time there is a universal in the soul. Again, another stand is made, and the process does not stop until the indivisible universals (the categories) are obtained. This sort of intuition, says Aristotle, is foolproof and unfailingly accurate. But our argument makes it impossible to agree with him — impossible for three reasons. The categories did not turn out to be distinguishable concepts. Second, primary realities could not be identified. And, third, if sensory experience cannot deal with mountains and bears, much less can it account for Plato’s favorite examples: the ethical concept of justice and the mathematical concept of cube.

Therefore, the conclusion is that the sensory epistemology of Aristotle is a failure.

Gordon H. Clark. “Clark and His Critics.” Apple Books. 52-63.

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