THE ARISTOTLE'S ERROR FILE: Digest of reports!


Starting tomorrow, Harari's dissent:
Is man [sic] really the rational animal?

So Aristotle, our first great logician, is widely said to have said.

It isn't entirely clear what the gentleman meant by the statement which gets translated that way. But as his famous statement is commonly taken, is his statement true? Or are we "seeing ourselves from afar" when we define our own species that way?

Just how "rational" are we humans in our basic essence? We'll be exploring that question all year, including all this week.

Before long, we'll even examine the ways our brightest thinkers get led astray "when doing philosophy." After two decades of wasted time, we'll let the later Wittgenstein's jumbled but deeply instructive work help us examine that question.

Our failing nation's upper-end journalists like to discuss wardrobe, body language, "shtupping" and hair. Our elite logicians are asleep in the woods and lack the skills to help us.

How "rational" are we in the end? Last week, we considered the bromide which is now widely described as "Aristotle's error:"
Tuesday, February 5: Rational animals on the prowl! The Times frisks Roger's Stone's clothes.

Wednesday, February 6: Rational animals just wanna have fun! Waldman gets it right.

Thursday, February 7: Blind to a blindingly obvious point! The rational critter in action.

Friday, February 8: Badly in need of a whole new gestalt! Our own tribe's non-rational actors.
Are we humans defined by our rational ways? Starting tomorrow, right here at this site, Professor Harari's dissent!


  1. Ramachandran describes Aristotle's error as a mistaken explanation for a visual after image. HuffPost chronicles six things Aristotle got wrong, beginning with eels.

    I don't think Aristotle made only one error, so referring to his error in the singular is misleading. We can perhaps call this Somerby's error.

  2. 12,000,000 people bought Harari’s book, fueling his popularity on the lecture circuit. His fees must be impressive. Perhaps those fans have been led by a “fiction” to plop down hard-earned cash that goes to Mr Harari’s bank account in the belief that he is some sort of guru who holds the key to mankind’s current problems, and who writes a highly speculative account of the history of Homo sapiens.

    Somerby is apparently one of them, although he never quite tells us what the upshot of Harari’s book really is. Total nihilism and despair? Gloomy predictions of future dystopias? A way out of the crisis?

    The message appeals to Somerby, just as he finds it appealing to discover mental illness in Gödel that he uses to make his point about the irrationality of man.

  3. Using reason to explore serious questions isn't incompatible with gossip and storytelling (narrative). I don't understand why Somerby juxtaposes the two. Neither Harari nor Aristotle said they were mutually exclusive. Why cannot humans do both? They serve different purposes, both valid and valuable to humanity.

  4. "Are we humans defined by our rational ways?"

    I thought we were defined by our DNA. Somerby really ought review the way philosophers and everyday people thought about reason during the Enlightenment. They thought that reason was given to man by the creator in order to know God and understand His world. They thought that men had reason but women and animals did not, hence only men could be priests and pastors. Because women lacked reason, they were not fit to own property, make their own decisions, and because they were closer to their instincts, they were susceptible to lust and the temptations of the devil, and thus had to be "protected" constantly. Upper class women, that is. Lower class working women were fair game if they had not fathers, brothers or husbands to protect them from upper class men with reason. Because men had reason, they also had free will and will power was the answer to every problem, so punishment was harsh, even for things like debt. Women and animals were not held responsible for their actions, but they were often punished anyway. Does that seem rational to you? Maybe it was to cause them to fear God and shun the devil's temptations?

    Because men didn't understand how to apply reason properly, they didn't know that you can reach wrong conclusions using correct logic, if you start with the wrong axioms. So kangaroo trials reached ridiculous conclusions that were unchallenged by common sense because "logic" had been applied. Similarly, wrong science was done because they hadn't yet adopted empiricism to test their conclusions against real-world results. But it was all very rational. The Church itself applied reason to justify its dogma, often very convoluted and implausible arguments to justify questionable church actions. So rationality was misused to support self-serving ends. You can say this is not really reason but it seemed reasonable at the time. That's the point.

    Maybe this is history instead of philosophy. Or maybe this just supports Somerby's claim that man in not the rational animal. But things got better... doesn't Somerby care about the progress in rationality that has been made? Women are now allowed to vote and go outdoors without a male some cultures.

  5. Is man [sic] really the rational animal? So Aristotle, our first great logician, is widely said to have said.

    No, it’s not widely said that Aristotle claimed any such thing, mostly because Aristotle said nothing of the sort.

    Here’s what Aristotle actually said (in his Politics, Book I:

    … ὅτι ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον
    [it is evident] that a man is by nature a political animal

    (Emphasis mine.)

    It isn't entirely clear what the gentleman meant by the statement which gets translated that way.

    It is entirely clear what Aristotle meant by the statement he actually made, and which is translated in that way because scholars know what Aristotle’s Greek means. You can look these words up in any Greek-English lexicon: anthropos, man; politikon, political. And if that isn’t enough, Aristotle goes to great length to describe what he means: human beings are more political than “gregarious animals” (ἀγελαίου ζῴου) like bees because humans possess the faculty of speech by which they can communicate the rules for building a just society.

    But as his famous statement is commonly taken, is his statement true?
    It’s not his statement, so it’s not famously his statement and it’s not commonly taken to be his statement.

    If TDH wants to defend the banality that people don’t act reasonably, then he should do so without pretending that he’s waging a valiant struggle against famous opponents.