Interpreting what Aristotle meant has exercised scholars for centuries. This edited book (written by 14 scholars) looks at one of his densest philosophical forays, his definition of a human being.

His concise definition, “the animal having logos,” is properly translated as “the animal with language” or “the animal who speaks” rather than the traditional “rational animal” translation. This helpful reset comes in the first chapter (by John Russon and Omer Aygün). The two editors of book (listed below) state that the rich meaning inherent in the Greek word logos is the animating principle of this book. It covers the range of significant meanings of logos in the constitution of reason, of the body, of realty and of poetry.

“Or rationality first and foremost,” write Russon and Aygün, “is a rendering manifest of the sense (logos) immanent in the things themselves…The reason we are able to engage in ‘logic’ – in reasoning – is that in dealing with things, we are able to ‘abstract,’ that is, we are able to recognize what can be separated ‘in logos’ even if it cannot be separated in being.” The ability to abstract lets us investigate mathematics, for example.

The key paragraph in the opening chapter contains this nugget: “The most striking thing about our reality as ‘the animal with logos’ is that our experience can also be absolute.” They are led to this statement from an examination of this passage written by Aristotle (archē is an actuating principle, as a cause):

                We conclude that states of knowledge are neither innate in a determinate form,

                nor developed from higher states of knowledge, but from sense-perception. It is

                like a rout in battle stopped by first one man making a stand and then another,

                until the archē has been restored. The soul is so constituted as to be capable

                of this process.

The chapter by Eli Diamond is both fascinating and perverse. He notes the “oppositional picture of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy must have a grain of truth that makes it so difficult to break its spell on us.” His analysis here is most important, as he positions this chapter to show that “Aristotle is at every point revising Plato’s principles in order to realize it more completely.” He insists, quite rightly I think, that Aristotle’s interest in the minute workings of the natural word “does not involve a turn away from Platonic idealism, but rather an intensification of this idealism, one which seeks to realize the deepest ambitions of Plato’s thinking.”

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle employs a curious definition of a human being that he uses frequently. A human, he states, is a ‘two-footed animal.’ Diamond finds this highly problematic. “In this definition of the human there is no reference to thinking, no reference to having logos.” He wonders if body parts should really be included as a differentiating characteristic. Aside from the possibility (which he does not mention) that Aristotle is merely having a chuckle here (pulling our leg, so to speak), Diamond’s excursus here is quite fascinating. He suggests the two-footed difference between us and animals “is a reflection on the way in which our soul’s distinctive nature – its thinking capacity – is embodied.”

Without providing a useful reference, Diamond states it “is a fairly common trope in the older philosophical tradition to notice how our upright posture allows us to look up from the ground and move our gaze uselessly up to the stars.” Uselessly! Really? Our ability to contemplate the cosmos that we can only see by looking up is hardly useless. I found this to be the most jarring statement in the entire book.

A chapter by Whitney Howell looks at the concept of perception. “It is the power of intellect that makes possible our encountering objects of thought in perception. However, because this power defines us as human beings, it also transforms perception itself.” There is an analogy from physics, which Howell could have usefully mentioned. The so-called ‘observer effect’ states the act of observing will influence the phenomena being observed. For example, for a scientist who wants to study an electron, a photon must first interact with it. However, this interaction changes the path of the electron, so the scientists’ perception of the electron changes.

I am going to quote the concluding paragraph in the chapter by John Russon (Univ. of Guelph in Canada), which goes to the central issue of human nature as perceived by Aristotle. “We are the kind of being that is unique for having its second actuality be essential to it: our nature is a second nature. This means we are the being whose definitive ability is the ability to develop new abilities. Such a being is a being that is aware of itself as a being of potentiality, which is why the question of happiness is both natural to it and unresolvable. That we can take a perspective on our life as a whole, that we can define our lives from the perspective of the future, means that we cannot, in our lives, settle the question of the meaning of our lives.” To invert one word he uses: unsettling. Dealing with the “essentiality of history,” this work by Russon is an important text to study. To quote Peter Filkins (2024), “The result is a sense of time that tinctures the present with the past, while also maintaining a lyric appreciation of what T.S. Eliot described as “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” Indeed, this book strives to show that the presence of the past here in the 21st century is crucial to our perception of human nature.

Agyün writes another chapter, this one on wishful thinking in Aristotle, which leads him expound on reality. “Wish,” he states, “is a self-refuting desire. While offering humans access to truth and to correspondence with reality by means of logic and science, logos also exposes humans to a specifically human realm of unreality…As having logos, human beings are uniquely capable of interpreting the world as mere happenstance, and of relating to unreality and to contradictions at the risk of claiming to become ‘similar to a plant.’” In a dramatic conclusion, Agyün writes that “the human being is thus capable of desiring to do something that is refused even to gods themselves according to Aristotle’s quotation of Agathon: namely, “to make undone whatever has been done.’”

There is much else in the book of note, but I will just mention one more, which could be used by school teachers who might have to defend their budget. When we hear music, Aristotle wrote, “we experience a change in the soul” that determines the character of citizens without resorting to rational discourse.  Author of the chapter, Jacob Singer, also quotes Aristotle as saying music reflects the polis (or city) in general, which “is not a mere aggregate of persons, but, as we say, a union sufficing for the purposes of life.” A great line for the managers of symphony orchestras to use when their budgets are under review!

There is a typo on pg. 101: “is fundamentally severed the” should be “is fundamentally severed from the”.

Like the word logos itself, this book is richly varied. I recommend it to any student of philosophy, especially those with an interest in sociology.

About the Editors:

Gregory Kirk is Associate Teaching Professor of Philosophy at Northern Arizona University

Joseph Arel teaches in the Philosophy Department at the University of Southern Maine

Aristotle on Human Nature is by Bloomsbury. It lists for $103.50.

Image: Aristotle

Ref: Peter Filkins (2024), “The unspeakable spoken.” The New Criterion 42(8).

Here is a complete list of the chapters:

Part I. The Logos of Logos
1. Language, Logic and Metaphysics: The Being with Logos and the Logos of Being
John Russon and Ömer Aygün
Part II. The Logos of Phusis
2. “For there are gods here too”: Embodied Essence, Two-Footedness, and the Animal with Logos
Eli Diamond
3. The Significance of Self-Nourishment: Aristotle’s De Anima II.4
Greg Recco
4. Flesh as Logos
Rebecca Steiner Goldner
5. Perception, Thought, and Error in Aristotle’s De Anima
Whitney Howell
6. “Actuality in the First Sense” and the Question of Human Nature in Aristotle
John Russon
Part III. The Logos of Ethos
7. Wishful Thinking in Aristotle
Ömer Aygün
8. The Dissociative Power of Logos in Taking Account of Oneself
Gregory Kirk
9. Aristotle on the Rationality of Virtue
Eve Rabinoff
10. Learning how to be at Leisure through Musical Education
Jacob Singer
Part IV. The Logos of the Polis
11. The Vicissitudes of Logos: On Nature, Character and Time-of-Life
Robert Metcalf
12. Practical Logos in Aristotle’s Ethics, Rhetoric and Politics
Fred Guerin
13. The Movement of Political Animals
Joseph Arel
14. Aristotle: The Politics of Life and the Life of Politics
Walter Brogan
15. Logos and the Polis in the Poetics
Patricia Fagan

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.