Changing Aristotle's mind and world : critical notes on McDowell's Aristotle

Philosophy Study 2 (11):804-821 (2012)
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Abstract

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is central to John McDowell’s classic Mind and World. In Lectures IV and V of that work, McDowell makes three claims concerning Aristotle’s ethics: first, that Aristotle did not base his ethics on an externalist, naturalistic basis (including a theory of human nature); second, that attempts to read him as an ethical naturalist are a modern anachronism, generated by the supposed need to ground all viable philosophical claims on claims analogous to the natural sciences; and third, that a suitably construed Aristotelian conception of “second nature” can form the basis of a viable contemporary philosophy of mind, world, and normativity. This paper challenges each of these three claims. Aristotle’s ethics, we will claim alongside Terence Irwin, Bernard Williams, Philippa Foot, and many premodern commentators, is based in the kind of physics, metaphysics, and metaphysical biology that McDowell says it cannot be. Historically, we will argue that McDowell’s argument that Aristotle’s ethical reasoning is “autonomous” or “self-standing” is distinctly modern, citing evidence from the leading medieval commentators on the Nicomachean Ethics. The felt need to which McDowell responds, of reading Aristotle’s ethical or political thought as wholly non-metaphysical, arises from out of the successes of the natural sciences in the modern world, which he agrees discredit the Aristotelian, teleological account of nature. In the final part of the paper, we propose that McDowell’s account of normativity, rooted in the non-metaphysical “second nature” he reads into Aristotle, we will contend, is as it stands inescapably relativistic. On a different note, we need also to recognize, as McDowell does not, that this is a new Aristotle, one shaped by our requirements and space of reasons, not the mind and world of the Greek Philosopher himself.

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Matthew Sharpe
Deakin University

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