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Perspectives on Science 8.4 (2000) 444-459

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Recent Work on Aristotelian Biology

Marjorie Grene
Virginia Tech

The past several decades have seen a proliferation of scholarly work on Aristotle's biological writings. The recent publication of James Lennoz's collected essays, Aristotle's Philosophy of Biology, seems a fitting occasion to look at some aspects of this literature, since he, together with his co-worker Allan Gotthelf, has been one of its most conspicuous contributors. The proceedings of a conference on Aristotelian biology, held at Bad-Homburg in 1995, and published in 1997 under the editorship of Wolfgang Kullmann and Sabine Follinger, includes essays by a representative group of such specialists. G.E.R. Lloyd's Aristotelian Explorations of 1996, though not entirely concerned with the biology, does deal principally with this area; and a more recent work by Kullmann, published in 1998, Aristoteles und die moderne Wissenschaft, though more ambitions in its overall aims, also bears in large part on the interpretation of the biological writings. Without attempting to delve into the periodical literature (which, for those interested, seems to be pretty well covered in the bibliographies of the works in question), I shall present some of the issues for the interpretation of Aristotle's biological works raised in these volumes. 1

In part, the work in question has served chiefly to illuminate the texts, a telos that is always worth pursuing for a thinker as complex and often as obscure as Aristotle. Before I proceed to more controversial questions, let me just mention a few of these cases. Both Lloyd and Lennox, for example, take up the problem of spontaneous generation in Aristotle (in Lloyd's [End Page 444] case including the related problem of metamorphosis). One way to put the question is to ask how what is chancy or "spontaneous," and by definition rare, can produce regular results. Another is to ask how reproduction, or something analogous to it, can eventuate from processes that, in terms of Aristotle's usual causal thinking, lack the end-directedness characteristic of generation in the "normal" case. Although the two writers present different resolutions of these problems, they both lead us to reflect on some of the complexities of Aristotle's biological thought. Similarly, Lloyd's examination of the varieties of perception exhibits perplexing details in Aristotle's accounts of this activity, characteristic for all animals, especially with respect to the basic and most pervasive of the senses, that of touch. Lennoz presents a coherent and illuminating reading of the History of Animals--if we take it apart from his chief methodological thesis, to which I shall return. And he makes what seems to me a most useful suggestion with respect to the rendering of the terms eidos and genos. Following the lead of David Balme, who showed in his ground-braking studies that Aristotle used these concepts in his biological works, not in something like the Linnaean sense of "species" and "genus," but at numerous, seemingly arbitrary ranges of reference, Lennox suggests that we render the terms denoting them regularly as "form" and "kind," abandoning the misleading distinction between eidos' "form" and eidos' "species" which was introduced in the Latin tradition, and stressing what appear to be their original meanings: one to do with the operating principle of a natural entity, and the other with its kin or family, its line of descent. (Unfortunately, Lennox himself does not stick to this practice.) I should also add that Kullmann, in his ambitious book, takes definite issue with this reading; I'm afraid in this case I agree so definitely with Lennox's position, which certainly accords with the view of most Aristotelian scholars, that I cannot count this disagreement among the issues we need to look at.

The participants in the Bad Homburg conference also present illuminating contributions to some special interpretive problems. Again, let me mention just a few. Two basic concerns in reading Aristotle on living things are, on the one hand, his concept of teleology, and on the other, the role of matter in "composites," that is, entities characterized by...


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