Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

Biological remarks on man as a political animal in Aristotle

with 5 comments

Dear all,

Ten days ago, I was in Manchester for the 9th Annual meeting of the MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory. I presented a paper in the “Animals and Political Theory” session. I also had the pleasure of meeting Manuel Knoll (Fatih University) and Barry Stocker (Istanbul Technical University) there. I visited their Nietzsche workshop two or three times during the conference. There was really good energy in that workshop.

The title of my paper was “Biological Perspectives on Man as a Political Animal in Aristotle”. My point in this paper was to make a thoroughly zoological reading of Aristotle’s Politics, I.2, where we read the notorious formula that man is by nature a political animal.

Philosophical interest in Aristotle’s zoological writings has increased so much, since the last quarter of the 20th century that today we talk about “a biological turn” in Aristotelian studies. One fundamental and immediate repercussion of this interest has been a reexamination of Aristotle’s theory of science and scientific reasoning, as well as his theory of definition and substance. Today, there is an ocean of high quality literature on the relation between the Metaphysics, the Analytics, and the zoological corpus.

A similar effect has to be noted for the Politics also. Thanks to the “biological turn,” Aristotle’s Politics is no longer among the main references for arguments exalting political life as a human privilege. It is now common knowledge that man is not the only political animal for Aristotle: bees, wasps, ants, and cranes are also political animals for him. However, there is still work to do here to reach a complete understanding of all the biological implications of Aristotle’s conception of man as a political animal. The effect of the biological turn seems to be limited to shifting the place, not the content, of the accent on man’s privileged position. In Politics, Aristotle says, not only that man is by nature a political animal, but also that he is more political than other political animals. We tend to explain man’s being more political by reference to features like his being rational, capable of language, and perceptive about issues of justice. We think that man is more political because he has those features, of which all other animals deprived. Not only is this view widely spread among philosophers; anyone who has ever given a second in his lifetime to think about this question would also say, more or less, the same thing. And maybe this is the correct view. I don’t know. What I tried to show in my paper was that this was not Aristotle’s position in Politics, I.2.

My argument was, briefly, the following: When we say that man is more political because he has reason, language, and the perception (aesthesis, says Aristotle) of the just and the unjust, with this “because” we mean to refer man’s greater degree of politicalness to these extra-biological features man possesses, in addition to his being biologically political like a bee. On this account, man’s greater politicalness is not a form or specification of the biological aspect itself. It is explained by man’s going beyond what is biologically political, and having extra non-biological, yet politically pertinent, features. In this account, man is political as an animal, yet he is more political otherwise than animal, otherwise than biologically. The clearest example of this approach can be found in Wolfgang Kullmann, “Man as a Political Animal in Aristotle,” in A Companion to Aristotle’s Politics, eds. D. Keyt and F. D. Miller, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).

I tried to show that this is not how Aristotle works on animal differentiae. Comparison by “the more and the less” is one of two main categories of comparison (the other: analogy) Aristotle uses in his biological treatises to study animal differentiae. For him, the differences of the more and the less result from the specific forms animal differentiae take. Accordingly, if political animals differ among themselves by the more and the less, this must be the result of differentiation within the biological aspect (here, “being political”) itself, as the biological aspect it is, and not the result of the addition of an extra-biological aspect. The greater degree of man’s political character must be accounted for on the basis of his animality and as a differentiation of his political praxis, understood in a zoological sense (as Aristotle himself does in History of Animals, I.1). It is not “otherwise than animal,” but as an animal that man is more political.

In the rest of my paper, I argued that reason, language, and perceptiveness about justice do not explain the political animal man is. That is, these exclusively human features do not explain why man would go beyond the domestic sphere to found cities or states. The logic of Politics, I.2 requires that the political relevance of our exclusively human features be explained by reference to man’s greater degree of politicalness, and not the other way around.

According to the conclusions I reached, Aristotle does not say that man is more political than the other political animals because he has reason, language, or a perception of justice.


How does this sound? Comments are welcome.

Written by Refik Guremen

September 18, 2012 at 10:30 am

5 Responses

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  1. Hi Refik!

    I was only able to quickly scan this entry but I saw that an important discussion was missing from your argument regarding man and other animals. You seem to use man and human being interchangeably; is that because you follow Aristotle’s lead on this or is it just a simple grammatical mistake and you meant to talk about human beings in general when you said “man,” although Aristotle might not have done so? As you know, in his works on biology (specifically in the History of Animals), he makes such claims as women being less then men because of their biological attributes (she has fewer teeth, for example – by the way, what a great empiricist – did it not occur to him to simply count?).

    Anyway, I am referring to this passage that you have: “Thanks to the “biological turn,” Aristotle’s Politics is no longer among the main references for arguments exalting political life as a human privilege. It is now common knowledge that man is not the only political animal for Aristotle: bees, wasps, ants, and cranes are also political animals for him. However, there is still work to do here to reach a complete understanding of all the biological implications of Aristotle’s conception of man as a political animal.”

    In light and because of this biological turn that you mention, one other point that needs to be discussed here whether and in what sense woman is (also) a political animal. I am worried that if you do not explicitly talk about this issue, you risk identifying man with human being, which makes for a historically and philosophy incomplete discussion of the concept of the political animal in Aristotle. You do not need to respond, I just wanted to bring this to your attention. I hope that this helps.


    September 22, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    • Dear Dilek,

      I am sorry for this belated answer; and I thank you very much for your comment. I would like to say a few words.

      For Aristotle, “human being” is a political animal at the species level. And as you would know, the human species is an ultimate species. It cannot be divided into sub-species. “Man” and “woman”, “black” and “white” are not sub-species of “human”. So, at the species level woman is no less political than man. May be, I should have chosen the neutral “human being” rather than “man”.

      However, for Aristotle again (and for most of the Greek at that time, philosopher or not), the complete human form was incarnated by the male individual. Woman was more matter than form. So, even if you write “human being”, this would sound “man” in such a Greek context. The way I wrote it was both technically and culturally correct… if this matters.

      I am not looking to make any excuses on behalf of the Greek male chauvinism, but I don’t think we really need to account for it at every step we make either.

      Thank you again for this comment.

      Refik Guremen

      September 27, 2012 at 6:34 pm

      • Two great points (the point about no subspecies of human beings, and the male-female asymmetry in the species itself, attested by Aristotle) – both of which, I would suggest, significantly enrich your thesis if you explain them throughout the paper. Thus, these are not merely extensions of Greek male chauvinism (which indeed does not need to be accounted for at each step or justified for that matter, as you say) but they significantly contribute to the discussion of why human being is a political animal, which I take to be your main concern in this project. Let me give an example:

        A related and philosophically interesting question would be (since human species has to be understood without sexual difference -“at the species level woman is no less political than man”-): how can it be that they must be or are differentiated at the “cultural” level (what are the justifications in Aristotle’s text -or his time?- for asserting that male is the form while female is the matter? This is how I read the arguments of the History of Animals that I mentioned in my original comment. How to reconcile these two positions is an important philosophical problem that I see as very much related to your central argument here, and this is not (merely) a technical, linguistic, or extra-philosophical issue.

        I hope that this clarifies where my comment was coming from.

        Dilek Huseyinzadegan

        September 20, 2013 at 9:22 pm

        • Dear Dilek,

          Thank you for the new comment, which comes one year after the first one. I call this a follow up!

          The first point I want to underline is the following: the argument about man being the form and woman the matter is strictly and exclusively biological (you’ll find more about it in Generation of Animals) and it has no explicit cultural extensions in Aristotle. I mean, it is not meant to provide the biological foundations for a cultural fact. It is however part of a group of separate arguments about women being naturally deficient in certain human capacities (like, for example, their having the deliberative part of the soul, yet, without any authority – Pol., I, 13). A derivative relation between these arguments would be hard to establish, if not impossible. The problem is: since the biological and/or the cultural inferiority of women is not an aporia for Aristotle, there is no elaborate argument about it. I mean, woman inferiority is not a question to solve for him (it is for Plato, in the Republic).

          The status of women in Plato, in Aristotle and in Ancient Greece in general is actually a popular theme among classicists. As far as I know, Susan Blundell’s Woman in Ancient Greece (Harvard UP, 1995) is one of the main references. And there are tens of articles you can easily find on Jstor.

          I hope my answer is pertinent.

          Refik Guremen

          September 24, 2013 at 8:06 pm

  2. Hi Refik, thanks for the interest post. Lately, I’ve been reading about evolutionary biology and thinking about its repercussions for other disciplines. As we know, the application of the former especially to social sciences is usually resisted and regarded in terms of some form of social darwinism. Yet the number of thinkers who argue that this need not be the case is on the rise. Their research highlights the sense of justice, cooperation and political arrangements among other species and opens the way for explaining man’s politicalness in terms of his animality. I tend to agree with them that these considerations have interesting consequences for social and political philosophy and I have read your post with these views in mind. There are two related points that your post initially brings to my mind. Accounting for politicalness in terms of animality seems to make more compelling the question of what ” exclusively human” might amount to? Aristotle seems to be using “political animal” in different senses in different works, dont we also need to account that the zoological sense in History of Animals is the most basic?
    very interesting topic, thanks again for introducing it.


    October 7, 2012 at 5:12 pm

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