The Neo-Aristotelian Revival

Aristotle Statued ImageThe Neo-Aristotelian Revival

What does it take for a philosophical project to count as neo-Aristotelian? We (the editors) suggest five possible criteria of demarcation:

First, neo-Aristotelian philosophers count the concept of potentiality as an essential feature of their metaphysics. A neo-Aristotelian philosophy embraces what is commonly called causal powers ontology, in which both active and passive powers are regarded as fundamental features of particular things in the world that bring about change by some kind of natural necessity. In this picture, the passage of time essentially involves intrinsic changes, and these changes are the actualization of prior potentialities. Causation is reducible neither to patterns of categorical fact (as the neo-Humean project) nor to fundamental, transcendent laws of nature (as in the Armstrongian project). A causal powers ontology entails the reality of some type of teleology, since powers exhibit what George Molnar called ‘natural intentionality’, being directed toward possibly unrealized (future) actualities.

Secondly, a neo-Aristotelian account must include what Jonathan Schaffer has called a ‘layered’ or ‘structured’ view of reality, insofar as some entities and properties are regarded as being more fundamental than others, and other entities and properties are considered to be derived, existing in virtue of the existence of something more fundamental. The fundamental entities, according to some neo-Aristotelians, are basic substances; according to others, certain primary powers.

Thirdly, a neo-Aristotelian account of reality is not monistic but involves a plurality of entities, both simple and composite. The whole cosmos is not the only substances, nor is everything made from a single set of simple substances, but the world also includes natural unities like biological organisms, which are composite substances.

Fourthly, substances in nature belong to recurring natural kinds, each with its own intelligible nature or essence. These commonalities are not subjective, conventional, or wholly mind-dependent. With the possible exception of artifacts, neo-Aristotelians embrace a ‘sparse’ theory of real natures or essences (to use David Lewis’s terminology). There are no adventitious or arbitrarily constructed kinds of things (like Nelson Goodman’s grue). It is the task of empirical science to discover which kinds really exist and which causal powers are grounded in each kind.

Finally, neo-Aristotelians reject extreme realism or Platonism. Neo-Aristotelian accounts of nature include no appeal to non-immanent, non-natural universals; they instead hold that mathematical models of the physical world should be regarded as idealizations that invariably involve an empirical loss of scientifically relevant information.

– Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science – 


– Lucas G. Westman

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