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Aristotelian Time-Share Salesmen

John Mann reviews The Recovery of the Soul by Kenneth Rankin

A few months ago a special time-share promotion mail shot appeared inviting people to attend an evening presentation at the end of which a wonderful prize of either a car, a colour TV, a video recorder, a holiday or a set of steak knives would be given free (and guess which prize everyone won?) Of course people turned up thinking they would take the prize and leave, but they had not reckoned with the highly unfair training the salesmen had received in what was in essence Aristotelian philosophy – in particular countering scepticism.

All that the salesman required was that a potential customer would enter into dialogue with them – the classic requirement from Aristotle that a sceptic must assert something, which Aristotle could then build on to refute their scepticism. For example having been unable to deny the salesman’s suggestion that they would like a cheap holiday, the customer would find themselves dragged by an awful logic to the conclusion that they must buy a time-share. Having arrived at this dank pit of a conclusion the customer would be unable to argue an escape until they signed up and were allowed to leave.

For reasons no doubt related to the above example philosophers have tried to revise the Aristotelian philosophical heritage, and Kenneth Rankin is another who wishes to change philosophy by changing its Aristotelian foundations.

“many of the most philosophically consequential errors are the work of relatively few thinkers who, in either a grander or a minor scale, almost got their act together. For subsequent generations of philosophers either the error is sanctioned by the achievement or the achievement is debased by the error, or more often than not (with impartial unfairness) both at once. On the grandest scale Aristotle is the archetypal approximator. He comes more closely to the truth and yet leads further away than any other” (xiv)

Rankin’s book attempts to stay true to Aristotle’s original path of enlightenment but revise the lower level details. The first part of the book (the first six chapters) work specifically on Aristotle’s four doctrinal principles: the Reificatory Principle, the Modal Identity Principle, the Psychocentric Principle and the Axiological Principle, identifying their weaknesses, breaking them up and rebuilding them into a firmer structure. Subsequent chapters use this new improved Aristotle to look at more contemporary problems – discussing the problem of identity with reference to, amongst others, Bernard Williams in chapter 7, problems of ethics in chapter 8, problems of time with reference to McTaggart in chapter 9 and drawing out some further arguments in the final chapter 10.

Rankin seems to have a couple of important points he wants to stand out above the very hard work he puts into the fine detail. Firstly that intention isn’t a cause (there is an appendix defending this) and therefore that human action is always underdetermined – and consequently we are free and responsible agents. Secondly he argues for the removal of all transcendent/spiritual aspects of the self or soul (defending a position that Rankin calls ‘physicalism’).

After following Rankin through some often labyrinthian discussions on various details these findings seem somewhat underwhelming, although to be fair Rankin suggests the reader skips to the conclusions to see if the preceding part is worth reading! (I unfortunately didn’t do this so as not to spoil the ending). Nevertheless Rankin’s book is worth reading for his arch and intelligent discussions over a wide range of particular issues. Yet as is frequently the case discussions are more interesting than conclusions.

Philosophers have always tried to ‘overcome’ the existing philosophical tradition, but it wasn’t perhaps until Nietzsche that the problem was perceived as being a struggle with the Socrates- Plato-Aristotle foundation. Throughout the twentieth century thinkers as diverse as Heidegger and Ayer have imagined that by analysing Plato’s (in Rankin’s case Aristotle’s) assumptions and identifying his errors the subsequent errors of the west could be knocked down domino fashion.

“in relation to Aristotle and strictly as philosophers, we are like the human relics of an empire now defunct, who survive on hand-outs, cast-offs, and blood transfusions from regions long since seceded. We huddle in the ruins of an ancient and once thriving city, initial flaws in the design of which are the source of the present debility, not least of ourselves. A few, no doubt, may still reflect some of the old glory more faithfully, but only as curators of on-site museums or as tourist guides. Can we reverse this pathetic decline? For a start I turn back to Aristotle in a spirit not of passive nostalgia but rather reformatory zeal” (xvii)

The problem with these approaches is that they always involve a paradoxical ‘cutting off the branch you’re sitting on’, where the western platonistic tool-box is used to criticise itself. It is the sort of paradox contained in the question/non-question “if this question doesn’t have an answer is it still a question?”

The French social theorist Jean Baudrillard seems to suggest an altogether different response to the problem of western reason. He argues that the postmodern media circus is always full of people trying to sell you something – whether real commercial goods or ideas or attitudes or politics or whatever, the point is they are trying to get you to join in and play their game. Faced by this constant chatter the most authentic response is silence. Instead of joining in with and being destroyed by this white noise of images, theories, beliefs and desires the self maintains itself with an attitude of boredom and indifference. During the recent election the more sophisticated the spin doctors became at designing images and slogans, the more the electorate lost interest – they realised the ‘reasons’ were becoming too dangerous to be taken seriously.

When faced with the Aristotelian time-share salesman, my advice is forget Rankin’s line of arguing the toss about whether intention is a cause – Aristotelian logic will wrong-foot you somehow. Stick to Baudrillard: don’t show up!

© John Mann 1992

The Recovery of the Soul: An Aristotelian Essay on Self-fulfilment by Kenneth Rankin, published by McGill- Queen’s. £38 (hardback)

John Mann is a Software Analyst and lives in Hadleigh, Suffolk

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