Press enter to see results or esc to cancel.

In Defense of Circles

Ryan Klein


Ancient philosophy faces severe marginalization in the contemporary world, a trend which seems especially true for the philosophy of Aristotle. This is no surprise, for at its very core, Aristotle’s hermeneutical approach to reason fully opposes all that defines the still-popular modern foundationalism. Foundationalists want certain and undeniable epistemic foundations, and, as they might put it, Aristotle misunderstands the ontology of reason and leaves unsatisfied the need for pure philosophy untainted by traditions and conventions. My purpose in this piece is to ask whether we’ve gotten it wrong; is it Aristotelianism or foundationalism that errs in its approach to reason? I argue that with proper philosophical understandings of the natures of the polis and the human being, we are right to conclude that Aristotle’s approach—combined with certain postmodern sentiments—is more reasonable than the foundationalist approach.

I will develop this thesis in four sections, each addressing an aspect of the conflict between the Aristotelian and Foundationalist understandings of reason. I will start (I) by describing an instance of Aristotle’s argumentation to demonstrate the type of reasoning he uses. This will lead us (II) to raise a foundationalist objection and to explain the strict rationalism often found in modernity. In response to this, I will (III) suggest that we turn our attention towards the natures of the polis and the human being for a better understanding of background issues. We will then (IV) discern a different approach to knowledge, one which utilizes the wisdom of Aristotle along with that of a certain epistemological postmodernism.

A last note before we begin: this paper is by no means an attempt to refute foundationalism. There are of course further objections to be raised, and defenses to be made. I do not pretend to provide an exhaustive and final account; I only mean to articulate a particular account of knowing for the sake of spring boarding into further conversation. I will consider thispaper a success if it directs right-wing postmodernists, who have already dismissed foundationalism as a valid theory of knowing, to the Aristotelian hermeneutic, which may be of some help in understanding how we come to know truth in a post-foundationalist world.

I: Virtue Theory and the Good Man

Many arguments utilize the hermeneutical theory which I hope to articulate, but Aristotle’s theory of virtue is a particularly germane demonstration of this epistemic approach. (As we proceed we must remember that our concern is not so much with the content of virtue theory but rather with the kind of reasoning it demonstrates. But of course we have no way to look at this kind of reasoning except by examining it through an actual argument, and so we must dive into virtue theory.) Now for Aristotle, having virtue means being an excellent human, and this means doing good things while avoiding bad ones.1 Thus it becomes important for us to know the difference between good deeds and bad ones. In light of this fact, Aristotle tells us that we can discern the moral status of an action by “that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.”1)2 In other words, the example of the good person is the criterion by which we are to discern good from bad; to be good, do as the good person does. Aristotle emphasizes this point repeatedly in the Ethics, saying “those things that are both valuable and pleasant are such to the good man;”2)3 the pleasures of the good man are “the pleasures proper to man;”3)4 “the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things which are by nature pleasant;”4)5 and, “that which appears so to the good man is thought to really be so.”5)6

An example may be helpful. If you ever have a question about how to smith properly, you would likely either ask a smith or follow his example. In exactly the same way, Aristotle wants us to address questions about morality by following the example set by good people. We learn a craft by following the craftsman, and morality can be thought of as a kind of craft.

If being an excellent human means doing only good deeds and doing good deeds requires you to follow the example of good people, then it is vitally important for us to know who the good people are. Answering this concern, Aristotle tells us “a good man qua good man delights in virtuous actions and is vexed at vicious ones.”6)7 In simpler terms, a good person is good insofar as he is doing good things (and enjoys it). This means that we can discern good people from the bad ones by examining the moral status of their actions. For example: if, in a film, Bill is plotting the destruction of Gotham, then we know he’s a bad guy because that is a bad thing to do.

Virtue theory is a particularly helpful demonstration of Aristotle’s reason because it so clearly starts with something complex, like society, and tries to understand it without breaking it apart; by seeing how everything interacts and works together to form a functioning whole, knowledge increases. As parts of a functioning society, good deeds and good people are of course related; thus, we can discern one by knowledge of the other. One part of a system reveals truths about others, just as the end of a book shed slight on the beginning and vice-versa.

II. Foundationalism

In modernity, this kind of thinking doesn’t get very far without a serious objection. Perhaps we can know a by b or b by a if we already know something about b or a; but do we have such knowledge? Let’s put it another way: imagine you heard that Tom and Steve are alike, but that’s all you know about either one. Imagine you ask a friend what Tom is like, and you’re told he’s like Steve. You ask what Steve is like, and you’re told he’s like Tom. Without already knowing one of the two, this kind of inquiry is not going to get you anywhere. Moderns apply the same critique to Aristotle’s hermeneutic; without already knowing what constitutes either good deeds or good people, we can’t learn anything about either. Therefore, Aristotle’s hermeneutic is circular and unhelpful.

This objection reveals the core of foundationalist epistemology. Descartes, the foundationalist par excellence, noted that a man “brought up from infancy among the French or Germans,” would believe very different things than he would “had he always lived among the Chinese or the Cannibals.”7)8 And if “it is more custom and example that persuades us than any certain knowledge,”8)9 then it’s terribly important which customs are right. Unfortunately, Descartes found that he could not cite anyone “whose opinions seemed to be preferable over those of the others;”9)10 all seemed to be equally arbitrary. Thus he concluded that seeking truth requires you to “rid [yourself] of all opinions,” and to believe only what you can prove with pure and unbiased reason. This became the very core of Cartesian epistemology: to search for truth you must free yourself from arbitrary social belief, establish “a foundation of unshakable first principles,” and from there proceed with a “superstructure of further propositions anchored to the foundation via unshakable inference.”10)11

III: From Ethics to Politics

In the face of Cartesian epistemology, it can be difficult to see how Aristotle’s hermeneutic might still be valuable. Before further exploration, I suggest we step back for a moment and discuss the natures of the human being and the polis, the latter of which foundationalism is so quick to reject as a reliable source of knowledge.

We should begin, as Aristotle does, by noting that all things seem to have one or more natural functions which are oriented towards specific purposes. For example: flute playing is primarily for the sake of creating music and the animal’s instinct to survive is for the sake of preserving life. It also seems obvious that these ends are best accomplished when the natural functions are performed well; good music is produced by good flute playing, and an iPod is best put to use when it plays music and not when someone uses it to scrape dirt from her shoe. If in general the good of a thing lies in the fulfillment of its function, as it seems to, “so would it seem [to be] for man.”11)12 What, then, is this function? This question is difficult; yet it is made simpler if we note that the function of a living thing is also called its nature.12)13 So by looking at our natural activities, we’ll be able to say something about our function.

Of course, humans do many things by nature. Like all plants and animals we seek to survive, and like all other animals we use our senses. But unlike other animals or any plant, we perform certain mental activities13)14: we read, write, go to school, form book clubs and argue over abstract concepts. These kinds of activities are unique to humans, and as they all involve reason we should say that it is rationality which defines us (in addition to animality, as man is a rational animal). Therefore, our function is to reason. This is precisely why “all men by nature desire to know.”14)15 Reason is universal to us, and the goal of reasoning is the discovery of truth; all things always seek their respective ends and therefore also seek to perform their functions well, and thus we naturally want to know.15)16

Let us now ask whether reasoning is done better in isolation or in community. One might say that because reason is done in the mind, which is always an individual possession, reason is intended for isolation. One might also raise an old Cartesian concern: just as a city functions better and is better integrated when it is designed by one man and not many, so too does one man seek truth better than a group of men. However, these objections do not hold. It does not follow that reasoning is better in isolation because minds are individual possessions. More likely a mind is sharpened by other minds; we often overlook ideas others have noticed. If we are in conversation we are all less likely to commit such error. Nor does Descartes’ concern hold here; communal reasoning is not, as the objection assumes, simply lumping together random ideas and forcing them into false agreement. Rather, communal reasoning works when individuals present arguments to each other and ask for responses. Many minds evaluate arguments to see if they stand, and when they do, the group refines them to greater accuracy. In this way, communal reasoning could be thought of as the fulfillment of individual reasoning; to reason well, we need other people.

If reasoning is done best in community (as is survival) and if reasoning is a function we naturally desire to do well, then human community must in part exist for the sake of good reasoning. Therefore it is natural to reason with others in society and to desire agreement with them. When society is functioning as nature intends, this communal reasoning is thoroughly pervasive; the whole polis becomes locked in authentic argument.16)17 It is this collaborative effort which leads to general agreement on certain propositions, and these propositions become the social norms by which the members of the society live out their lives. These values are often enforced by law, but often mere social custom is sufficient. Either way, citizens end up with governing social norms which are inherently rational.

Now, we should exercise some caution in saying that social beliefs are inherently rational. By this I certainly do not mean that all customs of all times have been correct or even concerned with truth. Some are created when violent totalitarian regimes force professions of belief onto the people by threat of death; Caesar commanded all people to revere him as a god for his own benefit, a command which became a custom which became trusted social belief after three generations. What I do mean is that social beliefs, insofar as they come from human society (which, remember, is by definition oriented towards reason), cannot be without reason. They can certainly err, but insofar as they are truly social beliefs and not just products of tyrannical power, they must be constituted by a rational pursuit of truth, put in place for a reason. Thankfully, false remnants of totalitarian policy tend not to last. But even when they do, there is always hope that they will be sifted out from truly social beliefs. Therefore, although there are certainly imposters, we can trust social beliefs to some extent, though not heedlessly and without question. As such, traditions are not arbitrary and irrational, but, in some way, arise out of some rational judgment and so are established for some purpose.

IV: A New-Old Approach to Knowing

This take on human society—and the social beliefs within it—gives a view of tradition which differs fundamentally from that held by foundationalists. This approach, held in a way by Aristotle himself, is an instance of what we now call hermeneutics. Here, instead of treating tradition as an obstacle, we use it as the starting point for reasoning. It’s only reasonable for social beliefs are, on the whole, products of long philosophical histories of truth seeking.17)18 Why should we not inherit the work of our ancestors? It is only when we allow social belief into our inquiry that any real progress can be made at all in the pursuit of truth. Rejecting social belief leaves us directionless and halts any hope of further accomplishment.

We can see the implications of this claim by returning to our earlier problem—how to know good men and good actions. Aristotle knew that Athenian society provided a particular picture of the Good and that his students would be aware of it. Hence, social belief was the starting point for virtue theory. Though we are not Athenians, Aristotle’s method has much to offer us—when slightly modified by postmodern ideals, that is. Today we live in a world of postmodern thought, meaning that foundationalism’s quest to step outside of tradition and seek truth from an unbiased “God’s eye view” has been abandoned; most philosophers look back and argue that what had been thought of as unbiased reason had only been “the continuation of a distinctively Western tradition, not the embodiment of reason itself.”18)19 This has led to the conclusion that this “pure reason” is unattainable because all rational inquiry is inevitably and inescapably formed by a particular tradition; you can no more use “pure reason” than you can speak “pure language.” You can only ever speak a particular language, and you can only ever reason from a particular tradition of thought. To realize this is to move from Modernism to Postmodernism.

This is good news for us.19)20 We are not Athenians, but because tradition is inevitable and so is always molding reason, all people are heirs to some particular tradition of reason with its own particular beliefs—like a picture of good men and good actions. Nobody needs to (or can) start from scratch and build up their own foundational ideas. Tradition and social belief are always the starting point of your reasoning, and if you don’t trust these customs to harbor some degree of rationality, you have little to go on for rational inquiry. You can be certain that wherever you are and however you were raised, you are the heir of a tradition of reason, and you can understand the beliefs handed down to you as definitely fallible, but certainly intelligible.

Of course, these inherited beliefs are never guaranteed to be right. They very well may have erred or gone astray at some point in their development. But, at the very least, they were established for some reason; and we engage with them by both using them as starting points to truth and by questioning their accuracy. This is what we do as rational agents, and it’s just how the hermeneutic circle functions: tradition gives us a starting point—for example, a general picture of good men and good actions—based on rational discussion, and we use the things we learn from our tradition to ask difficult questions and to refine our beliefs to greater accuracy.

V: Conclusion

Hermeneutics is a different approach to knowledge than we generally see in the modern world, but it is an approach we must take seriously in the wake of modernity’s failures. And it seems that, in doing so, we are led to admit the validity of certain “circular” approaches, though they may not ever be as clean and clear as we’d wish them to be. Despite this, hermeneutic circles offer us some real comfort: we come from traditions of reason and so we have a real chance to know things like the nature of good men and good actions. We really can value our seemingly “circular” traditions, though we must always ask questions and look for internal error. We really can know good men by good works and good works by good men, for, though our traditions are fallible, they do provide rational and functional accounts of what is good. As always there are further questions to be asked and further argument to be had, and if these can be articulated in the context of further conversation then this piece will have succeeded. It will be a further success if those who continue to argue for the possibility of truth in a post-foundationalist world will turn to the hermeneutic thought which Aristotle displayed nigh on 2,500 years ago, for I believe that it may prove to be a terribly useful source of wisdom in contemporary epistemic debates.



1 There is of course much more to virtue theory than this simplification suggests, i.e. finding the mean between two extremes, learning intellectual virtues as opposed to habituating yourself into moral virtues, pursuing happiness in the polis and in the contemplative life, etc. For the purposes of this paper, however, it is unnecessary to go into such detail.

2 Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon, Modern Library, 1107a1.

3 Ibid.. 1176a26.
4 Ibid.. 1176b25.

5 Ibid.. 1099a13.

6 Ibid.. 1176a15.

7 Ibid.. 1170a9.

8 René Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Donald A. Cress, II.16.

9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.

11 Newman, Lex, Newman,. “Descartes’ Epistemology.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 03 Dec. 1997. Web. 29 Dec. 2013.
12 Ibid.. 1097b28.
13 For Aristotle, living things are able to move themselves towards ends whereas inanimate objects can only be moved towards ends by external forces. The difference between a nature and a function is the existence of an internal principle of movement.

14 Of course, all animals have some level of brain activity, but the kind of mental action referred to here is that of self-aware beings. This is a different and deeper type of mental activity.
15 Ibid.. 980a.
16 That all things always seek their respective ends is asserted here without much defense due to lack of space, but this should be no mystery. Look at humans; every action ever taken by anyone is ultimately for the sake of happiness. There are of course other ends we seek on the way to happiness, but these are never truly ends in themselves; we want them for the sake of something else, and this ‘something else’ is always, ultimately, happiness.

17 Ibid.. 1179b35.

18It should be noted that Aristotle is somewhat skeptical of social beliefs in light of the old Platonic dichotomy of the one and the many. But here, even the diluted beliefs of the many retain at least some semblance of their original truths, and these inconsistencies can be refined through self-critical inquiry.

19 Phillip Cary, “Art and the Wisdom of Traditions:A Rightwing Postmodernist Perspective,” Acedemia (2006), 20 As I said earlier, this essay is not intended to end debate; rather, my purpose is to articulate a certain stance on the rationality of traditions and the hermeneutic circle. At about this point, more left-wing postmodernists are likely to start rejecting my claim because to them, hermeneutics necessarily entails relativism. I’m don’t intend to prove that they’re wrong. I’m simply trying to show what a non-relativistic theory of knowledge would look like post- foundationalism in light of Aristotle’s own hermeneutical thought.

References   [ + ]

1. 2
2. 3
3. 4
4. 5
5. 6
6. 7
7. 8
8. 9
9. 10
10. 11
11. 12
12. 13
13. 14
14. 15
15. 16
16. 17
17. 18
18. 19
19. 20