- Aristotle on the Uses of Contemplation by Matthew D. Walker
Matthew Walker’s book argues that contemplation (theoria) is not useless as “traditionally” claimed, but serves the crucial function of guiding what Walker frequently refers to as human life activities, most importantly (on his account) the self-maintenance of the human organism. By this phrase, he includes the full range of psychic functions essential to a perishable organism, extending down to nourishment and reproduction. As such, contemplation not only becomes the central organizing principle of Aristotle’s ethics, but also must be understood in connection with Aristotle’s natural philosophy.
The book’s early chapters strike me as following something like the order of the De anima, leading from what is perhaps inevitably called the standard reading (a survey of predecessors) regarding contemplation’s place as the ultimate end of human flourishing, to the basic or “threptic” functions of life (nutrition and reproduction), to sensory capacities, and culminating in a consideration of nous as both a natural and perhaps more than natural capacity.
With that dual possibility raised, the book’s second half concentrates on the Nicomachean Ethics. Maintaining the unity of the work as a whole, Walker begins with a rereading of its opening chapters. He moves on to some of his best analysis, identifying an essential role [End Page 551] for contemplation in Aristotle’s treatment of friendship. He concludes with an enriched account of contemplation as self-awareness of the human animal’s status between gods and beasts. Such self-awareness comes only through contemplating god, who mirrors the human soul’s most essential features, while not being subject to human limitations. Contemplation becomes supremely “useful” in attaining human happiness.
Throughout the book, Walker draws on texts from across the Aristotelian corpus, including all three ethical treatises (with the Nicomachean Ethics appropriately at the center), works in which nous plays an important role (Posterior Analytics, De anima, Metaphysics), texts that might seem like outliers but the inclusion of which is fruitful (Parts of Animals, Problems, Protrepticus), and more surprisingly the Greater Alcibiades. The inclusion of this possibly spurious Platonic work warrants further comment. Walker’s book originated as a Ph.D. dissertation and includes portions of several articles derived from it. Thus, seven pages devoted to similarities between the Nicomachean Ethics and the Alcibiades borrows from Walker’s published papers. His interest lies with what the dialogue says about how one gains self-awareness through contemplation. Just as an eye sees its special virtue in contemplating another eye, so does the soul come to recognize itself by contemplating the soul of another, which for the dialogue’s author (though not for Aristotle) could be either a friend or a lover. Beyond the soul, Socrates includes God as an object of contemplation, thus foreshadowing and perhaps influencing Aristotle’s analysis of contemplation. Walker’s reading is quite interesting, but it is hardly probative of Aristotle’s influences or intentions. I do not see why the core ideas could not have been relegated to footnotes directing the reader to the original article. This was not the only time I had this impression that inclusion of material derived from Walker’s earlier publications was somewhat gratuitous.
In rejecting what he terms standard readings of the uselessness of contemplation, Walker corrects an unfortunate, if extreme, tendency in certain analytic interpretations of the Ethics he associates with scholars likes Wilkes, Nagel, Nightingale, and Nussbaum. In finding an important “use” after all, he seems to follow Gabriel Richardson Lear and, to a lesser extent, David Reeve (though two studies of the Ethics by the latter relevant to Walker’s thesis are nowhere cited). But the supposed position that contemplation is “altogether useless for human self-maintenance” feels like something of a strawman (2). While I agree that the interpretations of extremists like Nagel and Wilkes are deficient, Walker, it seems to me, rejects one extreme by over-emphasizing the opposite one in the importance he gives to the soul’s so-called threptic functions in Aristotle’s ethical theory...