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Concluding Remarks on Werner Jaeger and Aristotle's Metaphysics

(This is the fourth and final post in a series of studies on Werner Jaeger's work on Aristotle's philosophical development. Post 1Post 2. Post 3. It would be best to read parts 1, 2 and 3 prior to reading this post.)

            Werner Jaeger finishes his work by summarizing Aristotle’s philosophical anthropology, ethics, and his understanding of philosophy. Jaeger’s work has been revolutionary in the world of Aristotelian studies. As Jonathan Barnes notes, “The pioneer of ‘developmental studies’ was the German scholar Werner Jaeger. His book Aristotle—Fundamentals of his Development, which was first published in German in 1923, determined the course of Aristotelian scholarship for half a century.”[1] In this article Barnes draws out the very same observations as I have noted above, both concerning the basic principles from which Jaeger starts, as well as the major difficulties with Jaeger’s extreme theory.[2] Though one should not attempt to say anything on Aristotle without interacting with Jaeger, it is the opinion of this thinker that Jaeger’s work is far too extreme to be of much use in the development of Aristotle’s theory. His unsupported presuppositions push Jaeger into a circular argument which eats away at the trustworthiness of his theory. Probably the most important lessons that we can learn from Jaeger are: (1) that it is very difficult to present any dogmatic theory of the development of Aristotle. There are far too many suppositions that must be held and too many questionable deductions that must be drawn in order to arrive at any likely theory.

(2) Aristotle’s philosophy most likely developed over time, however it is impossible to prove, with any degree of likely hood, whether Aristotle moved away from Platonism or remained within Platonism. It is obvious that Aristotle disagreed with a number of Platonic claims, however, it is also obvious that he did not reject, in its entirety, Platonic philosophy. Rather, it seems that his is somewhat of a modified Platonism.

(3) We must be careful, when attempting to construct, from the Metaphysics, a general overview of Aristotle’s metaphysical thoughts, not to read the thoughts of later philosophers into Aristotle; and, it is possible to construct a general idea of Aristotle’s views concerning being, and this in spite of the fact that it is difficult to know when Aristotle wrote the Metaphysics. On this a comment of Jonathan Barnes is most helpful, “But there is a false antithesis in the air; for it is evident that development and system-building cannot be antithetical attributes, inasmuch as even the most rigid of systematic philosophers will have developed – he will not have been born with a silver system in his mouth. Thus the dynamic Aristotle and the systematic Aristotle should not be thought of as irreconcilable enemies.”[3] It seems, therefore, that we are more than warranted to attempt to understand Aristotle’s metaphysical thought, and to attempt to discover its general order – in other words, to attempt to give an outline of Aristotle’s systematic metaphysics.

[1]Jonathan Barnes, “Life and Work,” in The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (1995; repr., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 16.

[2]Cf. Ibid., 16-18.

[3]Barnes, LW, 22.

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