Biological remarks on man as a political animal in Aristotle
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.