Aristotle’s answer is knowledge is valuable not for the sake of something else but for its own sake i.e., it is an end in itself. But this theory is threatened by the consideration that we do not value knowledge for its own sake, but for the sake of something else or some practical benefit that it may confer on us. Our modern value system regards something as valuable, and proportionate to the practical advantage that it leads to, but in Aristotle’s taxonomy of values, the most valuable thing is with the least utility value i.e., even though it may be useful, it is not sought for practical benefit but for its own sake or it is an end in itself. So in essence, Aristotle’s answer to this objection is that man is a rational animal i.e., his essence consists in his desire and ability to know and understand. This desire does not have an external cause but is intrinsic to man.
Any practical benefit that may accrue due to knowledge is accidental and is sought not for its own sake but for the sake of something else, which confers a greater good on us and the highest good for man is the most in tandem with his nature. Aristotle gives the example of our preferring sight to other senses because sight is more vivid and able to grasp more variety of things than other senses. Sight is preferred more, not simply for the fact that it enables us certain practical advantages but rather for its own sake. In what follows, Aristotle will argue that knowledge is valued by us for its own sake even though we are not consciously aware of it.
Aristotle begins by referring to the difference between animals and human beings. The former are born with the faculty of sensation and memory. Whereas, those animals that have a more robust memory are able to learn better, and faster than others because memory is a faculty for organizing experience. Yet despite memory, animals do not have much of a rationally organized experience, like human beings who have in addition -the ability to reason and show a greater capacity to connect diverse experiences than animals. The difference between man and animals lies in the fact that the former has in addition the faculty of reason which allows him to grasp more universal features of experience and connect particular experiences on the basis of it to convert them into a single experience.
It is through experience that science and arts arise in human culture, which is lacking in the animal kingdom, and experience itself depend on the rational faculty to grasp universal features implicit in sensory experience.
Aristotle further adds to this thought through comparison of a doctor who treats diseases by symptoms, and one who understands the cause of the disease. Out of the two, even though the former may be expedient in curing diseases, the one who understands the disease is regarded as far more wiser than the latter, and is also capable of being more effective in curing a disease.
The ability to connect different experiences under a single principle does not obliterate the knowledge of particulars but enhances it since such a person can classify. For instance, the diseases into different kinds like phlegmatic or bilious, he can note both the universal features that allows him to group together apparently different diseases together and so also to note the differences of diseases that are similar but only apparently so, and this eventually leads to a better classification or tabulation of different diseases, which enables a person to think through its cause and cure more effectively. So, at this stage, Aristotle has shown that reason belongs to the essential nature of man, and is what distinguishes him from animals. It is also what is the best in man since it allows him to rationally organize his experience, and contemplate the universal, and explain the particular, thereby man is able to probe into the causes or the reason of things, and cultivate higher forms of sciences. The more our experience is rationally organized, the better use can it be put too and hence knowledge is more valuable than any practical advantage that may follow from it.
Aristotle continues, it is found that sometimes people with experience are way more skillful than the wise. A child, for instance, playing a video game is able to navigate his way through the game without understanding the connection between his gadgets and the video game, yet may play the game better than the man who designed the game. The wise man sometimes understands the universal but not the particular, and so is not able to subsume the latter in the former, i.e., relate the two and hence is not able to fructify his knowledge.
Yet a person who does understand the universal is regarded wiser than the man of experience. The reason this is so is that knowledge and understanding are found in the man of art who is superior to the man of experience since an artist’s skill is the result of knowledge and is more than just a habit ingrained through experience (Aristotle gives the example of a master craftsman and a manual labourer).
So we see our skills increase as and when our knowledge and understanding increase.
Example- Fire burns because it has to and there is no choice there and habitual activities are similarly lifeless and mechanical.
This mechanical pattern is broken as and when we exercise our reason and the highest exercise of the reason lies in knowing the causes and the principles. A mind that inquires, that probes into the reason of things are moving more than a person, whose physical activity is coupled with mentally laziness, and hence is comparatively more mechanical in his actions. A mind that inquires and probes is motivated solely by the desire to know and hence is more active than the mind of a man who works for something, but for the sake of something else, his actions are limited by the limited ends he works for, but which he does not seek for their own sake, and hence does not love.
So we can see that the most active being according to Aristotle is the actus Prius, the first cause of the world, his activity is ceaseless because it is not moved by another but by his nature and his movement is of the highest kind because it is universal detached from particulars and so purely contemplative. Note that Aristotle is not propagating physical laziness and he does believe that knowledge could and should be put to good use especially in politics, however, he is determining a taxonomy of values to determine the highest kind of activity for man, since he cannot perfectly imitate God and the highest kind of activity is contemplative because it is least mechanical, and it is seen that in the skilful artist knowledge and understanding lead to a greater form of activity, than someone who acts only by the force of habit.
The highest activity is of the man who inquires and probes into the causes and principles of things, because while every other activity depends on some external stimulus, which being satisfied the action ceases, the desire of knowledge produces ceaseless activity because it is intrinsic to human beings, not depending on the external stimulus and hence for the sake of itself. Such activity since it leads to the greater exercise of reason confers greater good on the person. This takes the argument one step further since Aristotle is here arguing that even when the wise man is unable to put his knowledge to effective use, still he is valued more than the man of experience because it is a higher form of activity.
Aristotle tells us that in Ancient Egypt, once the necessities of life were over, the people were able to use the leisure to aim for something higher, and were able to develop the mathematical sciences before others. The point here is that there are branches of knowledge, like a higher form of mathematics, theoretical astrophysics etc., that lack any useful application to everyday life yet the person who pursues these branches of learning is still regarded as the most skilled in his field.
Example- A person able to solve complex algebraic equations when compared to someone who is able to do only regular arithmetic is regarded as the more skilled mathematician, even though his knowledge is lacking in practical application, and this is because his activity is of a higher kind being done for its own sake.
The point can also be made concerning morality. The one who acts morally but only for the sake of a benefit is less than the person who acts morally for his own sake because he regards the action as good, as intrinsically worthy of being done and as what should be done. The spirit with which an action is performed is more important than the action itself because it is what makes the action worthy or noble.
We can consider an action either intensively or extensively instead of determining the worth of an action based on its outcome. We should rather determine it on the basis of its inner worth which comes from the manner of the spirit with which it is performed. Further, the Ancient Egyptians would have sat idle, if in satisfying their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, they would have exhausted their natural aspirations. But rather they used that leisure to gain more knowledge, because by nature they were compelled to seek more. We always want to know the reason why, but we are never satisfied with it and seek more reasons propelled by our natural desire to know. So the dissatisfaction that we find in the pursuit of our basic needs implies that by our very nature we are compelled to seek more, something that is commensurate with it. This shows that the constraint of satisfying our basic needs is not due to any intrinsic value in them but is due to our desire for greater freedom that it would afford us allowing us to pursue something more in tandem with our intrinsic nature. We want to satisfy these basic needs because we want to get rid of being concerned with them which would actually give us greater freedom in our lives. This is the final stand in the argument that knowledge is preferred for its own sake and all other practical benefits are sought for the sake of it rather than vice-versa.
Now since something natural is also invariable like the fire that burns and emits heat, we do see people around us valuing practical utility more than knowledge. So in what sense is the desire to seek knowledge natural?
Again, does being natural also mean being subjective, that seeking knowledge is like a craving or a psychological urge that is wired within us that we are condemned to pursue despite failures like the donkey pursues his carrot? Is not the pursuit of knowledge a Sisyphean endeavor?
Having determined the order in which knowledge comes prior to any other activity, the reason for regarding the desire to know as natural simply is that what is sought for its own sake is more natural than what is sought for the sake of another, because the latter depends on an external stimulus, is lacking in the intrinsic worth and so is not self-determined. So in the absence of an external cause or reason for the desire for knowledge, its reason must be found to be deeply rooted within human nature. But this still does not solve our problems, I may say that Freedom is my natural state yet actually I fall prey to every second advertisement to buy things that I do not need. In what sense am I free then? In what sense is freedom natural to me if it is not actual? Aristotle’s answer to this is that what is natural is also actual. A long answer to this question would need an examination of Aristotle’s physics and seeing why Aristotle believes that no natural explanation of change can be given and hence a metaphysical answer is our only option. A shorter answer needs us to see the difference between the nature of explanation in citing mechanical causes and final causes. There may be a physical explanation of why a ball is able to move from one point to another but that would be an incomplete explanation because it does not tell us why the ball is moving at all. To complete the explanation, I will have to answer that I threw the ball because I am playing the game of cricket and I am a bowler. Today this would not be counted as a bona fide answer because we are used to making a distinction between the realm of reason and the realm of nature that Aristotle himself did not make. As a matter of fact, naturalism seeks to complete itself by explaining human behaviour which is taken to lie within the realm of reason by citing mechanical causes for human behaviour. Now in ideal conditions according to the law of inertia if something is moving in a certain direction it will keep moving in that direction till something else deters it from its path.
Applying this law to the human mind, it would mean that I will keep thinking a single thought till some external cause does not obstruct this movement thereby allowing the entry of another thought. Aristotle would not have accepted this law of inertia, neither for the physical nor for the mental realm. Naturalists themselves did not find this mechanical mode of explanation congenial because human behaviour does not show such a deterministic structure. A reflex action can be explained through rules wired into us by natural selection but more rational actions depend on considering and weighing different options and acting on them i.e. rational activity can only be found where I could have acted otherwise and my response is not predictable within a stimulus-response model.
Further, even more, complex models like Game Theory have not sufficed as an explanation. The only other option open is to cite the final cause or my reasons for acting or that for the sake of which I act. I initiate an inquiry because I take knowledge to be an end. The knowledge however even though not actually still moves me (it is actual in the sense that it does move me but as a value but not as a physical fact; the end explains why I act in a certain way and so rationalizes the action) because it is sought in an inquiry and so as an end is prior to an action.
If there is no end, no final cause that the movement seeks to achieve then there is no activity, and if there is; then there is no ceasing of that activity. The law of inertia presupposes movement but does not tell us the cause of the movement or why it began in the very first place. Aristotle’s final causes are not ends instituted within us by God, because then it cannot be regarded as natural, being instituted by something external to us, whether that be evolution or God doesn’t matter.
Hence, to be natural, the desire for knowledge should actually move me and it does, but that I cannot consciously realize it, does not deter me from the fact that it is what is moving me.
For example, in ethics, Aristotle believes the highest principle is happiness. Everyone strives to be happy but yet I may act in ways that may sabotage my own happiness or I may not understand what I really want, what would really make me happy. I can take my car and move to a certain destination but on the way, I may get lost and take a wrong direction, but it is still my destination that is moving me.
Aristotle overcomes a fact-value dichotomy through his notion of mimesis or imitation. What moves actus prius is knowledge but that is not an external end for him, and hence he is intrinsically active. In the actus prius, the difference between knowledge and action is overcome since in its self-knowing it moves the world. Less perfect beings unconsciously seek or aspire to this higher level of perfection and so imitate this movement and in this way, the actus prius makes everyone else move, not through external compulsion but through inspiration as it were. So the values of goodness, knowledge, happiness are actualized in us by our imitating the actus prius which is what moves us to our greater good.
The answer to the question – in what sense is freedom natural to me, is this my nature consists in my aspiration to be moved by the most perfect movement of actus prius, and I am free to the extent I can imitate this movement in my life. The desire to know is the compulsion of my nature and is not an external compulsion like the compulsion to satisfy my basic needs is. My nature or essence is not simply a fact about me, it is at once a value and a fact and hence Aristotle is uniting rather than confounding what is and what ought to be. So for Aristotle to say that it is natural for me to seek freedom and that one should seek to be free, to be good is the same thing. My nature or essence moves me to good but this is a different kind of movement than a physical movement which may be due to lack of tandem with my nature gives the sign of disorder. The physical movement is not intrinsically moving but is due to external compulsion or is moved from pressure from outside.
This also reveals to us that a finite being is an essentially temporal being. He is always moving in a certain direction, from past to present to future and so he is an incomplete being – always in the making rather than an end product at any point in time. In this, the kind of movement is not a physical movement but a metaphysical one to be understood in terms of a final cause. This brings us to the final question, is the desire for knowledge a subjective urge but objectively unattainable? Now when I seek the reason for something, I am left dissatisfied and I still seek further reasons. But there must be a finite number of steps in every proof, it must begin and have an end. A proof cannot go onto infinity because it is impossible to survey an infinite number of steps. Everything that is known or explained is either by itself or through another i.e. the principles.
For example the inference, ‘Socrates is mortal’ itself depends on the principle or the major premise in this case ‘All men are mortal’, but this universal premise itself can become subject of scrutiny and be inferred as a conclusion of another inference. But this process cannot go on forever because if we understand something “x” through another “y”, then that is because “y” is prior to “x”, prior not in the sense of being more familiar, but prior in the order of explanations which means it is better known than x but not consciously so and in an inference moving from y to x, the latter gets explained through the former. Now this y itself in the order of explanations may depend on another piece of knowledge and that through another but if there is no final principle then there is no prior and no posterior and no order in the explanations at all, and hence there would be no knowledge and no understanding. So either there is a finite movement terminating in the knowledge of principles or else there is no knowledge. In the sequence of thoughts or the temporal series that constitutes man but which lacks values like knowledge, goodness etc., all states or all members would be equal, there would be no higher or lower. If there is no highest good, then there are no intermediate goods too because the ranking of the preceding parts of the series depends on the highest point in the series.
This however would itself prove to be a contentious point and primarily because philosophers who came later disagreed with Aristotle about the nature of infinity which in this case we can see inextricably is bound with the nature of man itself. Aristotle did not believe in an actual infinite but only in a potential infinite. A potential infinite is a sequence like a mathematical sequence that has no end because it has no highest number. To every number you can add one more and so on to infinity, being subject to endless iterations. An actual infinite is a completed infinite and hence is regarded by Aristotle to be a contradiction in terms. But later philosophers did believe in an actual infinite which they regarded as God. Spinoza, for instance, believed that time, space and causation are measures by which imagination cuts off a complete whole to imagine parts that themselves can never be completed in a finite sequence and are infinitely divisible. Potential infinity however is not really infinite, as the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti points out, if something can be added then it has a limit, a more is less relative to another more and a less is more relative to another less. To anything that can be measured, which knows increase, there would always be something more and hence it would always be limited. Such a mind then cannot grasp infinity. To do so it has to cut it up into a finite number of steps that cannot however ever be completed. The finite is thus a self-contradictory notion since it is always incomplete, it is unreal and the temporality of man is a sign of his limited nature that can never know the infinite which can never occur within a finite series. The immeasurable can never be known through something measurable, the finite can never know the infinite.
Aristotle was aware of these problems and he sought to reconcile his theory of potential infinity which is built on the denial of an actual infinity with the possibility of knowledge and so also of metaphysics. This is the most difficult aspect of Aristotle’s philosophy who likewise believed that the world is eternal and yet he also believed in a first mover. Aristotle believed that an infinite regress of facts is not a threat but an infinite regress of principles is a threat. The search for reasons has to end somewhere which is only possible if there is a final terminus of reasons where the search ends. We have seen an explanation consists of both a physical explanation and a rational explanation.
Now I may take my car to reach a certain destination, I may get lost along the way and reach there through a circuitous route or never reach there at all. So by the finite number of steps in a proof Aristotle does not mean the steps I actually take but that there must actually be an end which is in principle is attainable. There must actually be an answer to a mathematical problem, for instance, it may take an eternity to get to the answer i.e., this capacity is potentially infinite but what is not infinite is the actual proof that solves the mathematical problem.
Aristotle’s philosophy is largely a Platonic reply to Eleatic Monism and it seeks to preserve the finite in face of the infinite or really in a way regards the finite as the infinite. The finite is an incomplete being because he is potentially a complete being because for Aristotle the end that moves the individual is prior and actual in relation to the movements of the individual. So knowledge is prior as a value that moves the individual whether he may realize it or not. Knowledge is actual because there are a finite number of steps through which it can be attained even though attaining it may take us an eternity.
This is opposed to Spinoza’s sub specie aeternitatis vision of the world where the finite is the imagination’s breaking up the infinite into parts that are not possible and so no synthesis of parts with parts can ever lead us to the knowledge of infinite. The finite can never know the infinite; it has to cease for the infinite to be. For the finite is bound by temporality essentially and time is what makes a finite being finite because to be finite is to move and all movement takes place in space and in time. But Aristotle’s preserves the finite standpoint by denying an actual infinite as a contradiction and takes time to be potentially infinite.
Spinoza, on the other hand, takes time to be imaginary and an aberration. The real is the actual infinite and the finite is the contradiction. For one the desire to know is objectively attainable and for the other, the finite being is the obstacle to the knowledge of the infinite. The significance of finiteness for Aristotle lies in his desire to know, to perfect himself which is premised on the reality of a value but for Spinozism finiteness is the denial of infinite and his desire to know the infinite is a sign of his loss of infinity which he cannot stitch back by adding parts to parts. The urge to reach the infinite forces him to accumulate knowledge but the infinite can never be known through addition because it is immeasurable and a number is a unit opposed to another.
For Aristotle, the very fact that we desire knowledge is a sign that we can achieve knowledge while for Spinoza our desire for knowledge is a sign of a subjective impulse for self-preservation that he calls conatus.
In Euthyphro, Plato made a distinction between God’s regarding something as good because of its being good and something being good because God regards it as being good. Aristotle gives an account of knowledge’s being good while Spinoza gives an account of it being regarded as good by reducing it to the drive for self-preservation. The bone of contention between the two lies in this that for Aristotle the temporal series that is a man will on Spinozist grounds be purely mechanical lacking any gradations and so would be meaningless or devoid of values.
Finiteness is the very condition for the existence of values like knowledge and goodness and this fact is not hidden to the Spinozist but he does not find it uncongenial. The difference lies in the manner of explanation, man is a mechanical series of movements if in explaining this series final causes are not cited. For Aristotle, there is something for the sake of which man moves and moves due to his essence and this itself implies the goal is real otherwise the movement goes unexplained because the goal or the value is what moves us actually but for the Spinozist, the movement can be explained merely through mechanical causes and we can grade and measure a sequence but the standard of measurement would not be something real.
By essence, man is moved by self-preservation and this movement is not a movement due to final causes, and so self-preservation is the measure of man’s actions, and this measure is created by man and is or constitutes the man but through this measure, he cannot get to what is by nature immeasurable. This is the difference between the two philosophies and it marks the human predicament that he cannot escape; his reality as a finite being threatened by a vision sub specie aeternitatis.
For Aristotle, human values and the finite standpoint are essentially linked because there is a reason why something moves from one place to another which reason when taken away the movement becomes meaningless or comes to lack an intrinsic meaning and becomes mechanical subject to external impulses. But from an infinite point of view, there is no gap between ”what is” and “what should be” because an actual infinite is perfect and what is perfect does not move because there is no goal for the movement, and so it does not need to and so man’s movements become meanderings to seek something which in a way is already attained but lost because of the seeking itself which seeking is what man is.
For Aristotle, the desire to know is objective because even when we are moved because of our very nature or essence, the final cause of the movement is something beyond us and is real i.e. it is the object of desire that leads to the desire itself and it is to this highest end or the highest good which lies in the contemplation of truth, all other activities are to be subordinated. But when there is no final cause of the desire that constitutes man, no object of desire which explains the desire itself then there is no possibility of objective satisfaction either. One can now see in contrast two radically different ways of understanding what a finite being or what subjectivity is.
Cite this article here:
(APA 7th Edition)
Narula, V. (2021, August 13). The Desire to know. Philotreat. https://www.philotreat.in/guest-post/the-desire-to-know/
Favourite Quote “I do not at all expect to be judged according to prejudices and provisional remarks alone. Whoever seeks to listen to me, listens to the end. It could very well be that in this case he would find something completely different from what, commensurate with his existing and somewhat narrow opinions, he expected to find.” ————— F.W.J. Schelling
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