The master of those who know

If Aristotle was crowned as the master of those who know, because he explored all fields of knowledge, he was first and foremost a physicist and biologist. These central aspects of his thought are, however, the least appreciated and taught today. Pierre Pellegrin rehabilitates them.

Synthesis works intended for the general public and students on the thoughts of philosophers have been flourishing on the tables of bookstores for around twenty years.; the offer is particularly provided with regard to Aristotle. Consequently, one might wonder for what purpose it was decided to write a new one. It was undoubtedly first and foremost an editorial imperative which pushed the Presses Universitaires de France to order this work: it is obvious that it had to renew the trs dat What do I know? by Jean Brun from 1961 about Aristotle, and not give a reprint of it. However, P. Pellegrin already engaged in this exercise of synthesis exactly twenty years ago, since he is the author, with M. Crubellier, of the excellent Aristotle, the philosopher and the knowledge, published by Editions du Seuil. We could therefore fear that this work was a simple iteration of existing summaries, and that it was simply written to fill an editorial gap.

Let's say it right away: this is not the case. It stands out from its competitors firstly by its format, since it is very short, which gives it an incisive and sharp tone, but also in that it offers a unique presentation of Aristotle's philosophy. Without obviously sacrificing the interpretive neutrality and rigorous analysis of the text that his profession as a historian of philosophy implies, P. Pellegrin undertakes to deliver a portrait of Aristotle that is deliberately far removed from school presentations and which reveals itself, all in all, to be quite personal.

A thought physical

A first feature of Aristotle that the author presents to us is that he is essentially physicist, that is to say, he studies natural phenomena. Thus, of the four chapters in the book, P. Pellegrin devotes one toAristotle physicist (chapter 2) and another to animals (chapter 3), the latter being natural beings strictly speaking and thus the most proper object of its physics. In fact, around a quarter of the Aristotelian corpus preserved is biological, and more precisely zoological (plants occupying only a marginal place); this quarter is still little studied compared to the rest of the corpus, even if Aristotelian studies have taken what is commonly called a biological turning point for around forty years.

The other two chapters are devoted, one to the complex constitution of the Aristotelian corpus, the impossibility of ordering it chronologically, as well as its importance in the history of philosophy (chapter 1), the other to the fact that physics is not the knowledge of everything (chapter 4), and therefore all the other fields of knowledge that the Stagirite develops: logic, practical philosophy, politics, etc. We understand that Pierre Pellegrin's presentation deliberately marginalizes certain texts and certain themes from the corpus for the benefit of others. If it is of course the reduced format of the collection which imposes this type of choice, we can regret that certain themes, such as Aristotelian ethics, which will undoubtedly interest readers of the collection What do I know?, are also poorly developed: it is summarized in only 7 pages (p. 97 to 103). The choice of Pierre Pellegrin is justified, however, because the physical texts represent a little more than half of the corpus preserved and judged authentic: in fact, the majority of Aristotle's intellectual activity that we know takes place in this particular field of knowledge. Still, it is not the one that is the most taught and studied today.

The controversy against the pre-Socratics

From this choice of giving priority to physics over other knowledge comes what undoubtedly makes the other originality of the proposed presentation. Where the majority of interpreters make the polemics that he develops against Plato (and more broadly against the members of his Academy) the key to his thought, P. Pellegrin affirms thatBefore Being anti-Platonist, Aristotle undertook to refound natural philosophy, which initially set him against philosophers like Democritus. () It is only when he seeks the basis of the criticism he addresses to the pre-Socratics that Aristotle finds himself in the necessity to confront Platonism, or, to put it in other words, it is physics that creates the need for metaphysics and not the other way around (p. 118, see, to the same effect, p. 34 and p. 48).

Such an assertion calls into question the traditional image, which has existed since Antiquity to certain philosophy courses taught in our universities, of an Aristotle spending his life attacking the ideas of his master. However, it is entirely justified within the framework of the book; If Aristotle is above all a physicist, and not a metaphysician or epistemologist, then his main targets are the competing physical systems of his time, such as those of Democritus or Empdocles, and not those which deny the very possibility of physics. The latter only constitute his polemic target in a secondary way, when it comes to founding his physics and not practicing it.

Strong exotic choices

Beyond these two principles which underlie the book, we will find in the work a certain number of strong exegetical options previously defended by P. Pellegrin. For example, he develops the idea according to which Aristotelian zoology remained without equivalent for twenty-two centuries (p. 75), and it has a fundamental homology with that of Cuvier: both give priority to functions over visible characters and thus construct a compared anatomy and not a natural history. P. Pellegrin has already defended this idea vigorously throughout his very recent work (Animals around the world->

We still find the importance of what the author calls the device of two natures in the teleology of the Stagirite (p. 81 to 86): material nature is not hypothetically necessary by formal Nature, but the latter must trick with her in order to obtain the results she wants. From this follows the timeless character of Aristotelian teleology and the fact that nature is not perfect. globallybut that each animal species is perfect in his corner (p. 87). As P. Pellegrin writes, Aristotle posits animal species as perfect with their imperfections (p. 76).

Whether or not we agree with these reading options is undoubtedly not the main thing, insofar as the object of the work is not to defend them, but to present their intellectual and exegetical fertility. The important thing is to see that they offer a living and stimulating picture of the Stagirite's thoughts.

Aristotlian thinking

Thus, this deliberately angular presentation is what allows P. Pellegrin to identify, in his conclusion, three theses which are, according to him, characteristic of the Aristotle thinking. First of all, Aristotleism is a thought which gives precedence to diversity over unity and to the complex over the simple. For example, Aristotelian zoology always makes the diversity of the animal world a priority since, as we have just said, the perfection of nature is not global, but always local. Likewise, the Aristotelian refusal of the uniqueness of science, as well as the irreducible diversity of knowledge which results from it, establishes the character anti-reductionist of his thoughts (p. 31).

Then, this thought places significant trust in sensitive perception, since, under normal conditions, the senses give us access to reality. This is why the author takes up the title of D. Modrak's 1989 book: the power of perception. Finally, the Aristotle thinking always gives precedence to essence over genesis, species over origin, the latter being evacuated by the Stagirite (p. 53). It is the completed essence of the thing, its activity, which makes it properly intelligible and by which it can be understood, and not its genesis, the manner in which it becomes what it is.

According to P. Pellegrin, if one can be an Aristotelian without adhering to the thesis of the existence of the first immobile mover or that of the four elements, one cannot be authentically one without adhering to these three ideas. It is for this reason that Aristotleism is still a very living tradition today and that we should not roll Aristotle in the purple shroud where the dead gods sleep (p. 118) because of the outdated character of this or that point of his thought.

Ultimately, this little book is anything but a classic synthesis of Aristotelian thought: the subject is deliberately biased. This is what makes it stimulating to read.; let us emphasize that the portrait of Aristotle is not arbitrary, but that it is the result of a life of relentless research carried out by one of the greatest current specialists in the Aristotelian corpus.

However, it has the drawback of its advantage: one should not look for an exhaustive presentation of the Stagirite's thought, nor even use it to explore practical philosophy, epistemology or Aristotelian logic. The marginalization of entire sections of Aristotle's thought, if it can be justified (and it is within the framework of the book), will have the disadvantage of disappointing the student or the curious person who would seek a broad and panoptic synthesis. This What do I know? is aimed above all at those looking for an effective working tool to enter into the physics and biology of Aristotle, or who, having sufficient knowledge of the corpus, would be intrigued by this singular and stimulating image that P. Pellegrin offers, in order to rediscover the thought of the high school teacher.