Circular Justification and Explanation in Aristotle

in Phronesis
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Aristotle’s account of epistēmē is foundationalist. In contrast, the web of dialectical argumentation that constitutes justification for scientific principles is coherentist. Aristotle’s account of explanation is structurally parallel to the argument for a foundationalist account of justification. He accepts the first argument but his coherentist accounts of justification indicate that he would not accept the second. Where is the disanalogy? For Aristotle, the intelligibility of a demonstrative premise is the cause of the intelligibility of a demonstrated conclusion and causation is asymmetric. Within the Posterior Analytics itself, Aristotle does not account for this, but elsewhere he develops the resources for doing so: the cause is what acts on a substrate to actualize a potential in that substrate, resulting in the effect. On the other hand, it may well happen that two propositions entail each other, in which case one may as well justify the one on the basis of the other as vice versa.

Circular Justification and Explanation in Aristotle

in Phronesis



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See for example Armstrong 1973150-61; Fumerton 2010.


See for example Rescher 1974697-8; Moser and vander Nat 2002 32; Irwin 2010 240-1.


Bronstein 201229-62 argues that the primary goal of the chapter is to establish perceptual knowledge as the preexisting knowing that is the basis for demonstrative knowledge.


See for example Irwin 1988134. Irwin takes this account of the grasp of first principles as direct and noninferential as found in the Posterior Analytics to be in tension with Top. 1.2 101a36-b3 and holds that Aristotle resolved the matter only in his later writings.


As is emphasized by Bolton 199998.


See Bronstein 201255-6arguing that the universal that is said to come to a stand at APo 2.19 100b19 is the intelligible content implicit in perception and actualized by induction. Harari 2004 30-2 points out that when Aristotle talks of the perception of universals he is using aisthanesthai in a different sense from the way he uses the term when talking of the perception of sensibles and points to EN 6.9 1142a26-9 as a passage in which Aristotle explicitly makes the distinction.


See Taylor 1990127-8: ‘[T]he process of concept acquisition envisaged by Aristotle takes as its basic data perception of individual instances of kinds such as man or horse. If such perception is to be totally reliable as the theory requires then the perceiver must already have a certain sort of knowledge of what men or horses are like.’


This conclusion is also drawn by Kosman 1973387-9. There will be no such inferences if we go beyond what the text explicitly says and see such principles when arrived at as self-certifying unrevisable and hence no longer in need of any epistemological grounding.


See for example Irwin 198849-50.


Lloyd 1976.


I am here in agreement with Matthen 19879-10: ‘The constraints placed on the starting points are constraints relevant to the operation of the causal processes that produce knowledge rather than to epistemological requirements concerning justification. That is Aristotle does not seem to be trying to justify one’s confidence in (or knowledge of) a conclusion by appealing to the greater confidence that one attaches to the premisses from which one derives that conclusion. Rather he is claiming that the degree to which one knows a proposition is a result of a transference of knowledge from premisses to conclusion much as the warmth of the coffee I am drinking was transferred to it from the stove with which it was in contact. And just as the coffee is not as warm as the stove that heats it the conclusion is not as well-known as the premisses that make it known.’ Matthen does not here say what he takes being better known to consist in but insofar as he emphasizes the role of demonstration as revelatory of causes he must mean something like ‘being more intelligible’.


Cf. Irwin 1988127-9who takes justification in Aristotle to be a matter of the transmission of certainty. His evidence for this is APo 1.3 72b36-73a6 where Aristotle rejects the possibility of circular demonstration. As demonstration is for Aristotle a mode of inference with unique features by virtue of which it is explanatory this passage cannot be taken to be evidence for Aristotle’s views concerning the possibility of circular justification; nor can it be used as evidence that Aristotle rejects justification through coherence. Barnes 1990 75-9 likewise misses the point of the argument against circular demonstration in Posterior Analytics 1.3 as he understands it to be primarily concerned with excluding the possibility of circular justification in the sciences.


See Smith 199752-4.


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