ARISTOTLE’S ERROR: Philosopher fails!

MONDAY, JULY 14, 2014

Prologue—The Pew pop quiz: Arrayed on Olympus, Homer’s gods were the first anthropologists.

Several years later, Aristotle came along.

In retrospect, the gods pretty much got it right. They laughed and laughed, then rolled their eyes, at the follies of us, the humans.

In their view, life among the early Greeks constituted an early version of the Springer show.

Aristotle was more upbeat. “Man [sic] is the rational animal,” he’s often said to have said.

In one way, you can’t blame Aristotle for making this notorious error. To cite just one example:

According to the leading authority, Aristotle posited the existence of a fifth element (aether) in addition to the four already known to exist (earth, water, air and fire). Having seen himself solve so many riddles, it was only natural for him to think that everyone else was highly “rational” too.

We’ll guess that the gods laughed hard at Aristotle’s saying. Also, at one set of results from Pew’s recent survey, which mortals can link to here.

Every few years, the folk at Pew execute one of their “political typology” surveys. Truth to tell, their categories are right up there with earth, air, aether and fire.

We’ll guess that the gods avert their gaze from this work. That said, everyone in the modern press corps is required to take Pew’s survey seriously, or to ignore it.

Here at THE HOWLER, we were struck by the results of the survey’s fiendish pop quiz. Even as their shared their opinions on every conceivable topic, respondents were asked two factual questions:
Factual questions from recent Pew survey:
Q.41: Just as far as you know, which political party has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives?
Q.42: Just as far as you know, which political party has a majority in the U.S. Senate?
It has been widely reported that the Republican Party has a majority in the House. Despite this fact, a nation of rational animals provided these answers to Pew:
Answers to factual question from Pew:
Just as far as you know, which political party has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives?
Republican Party: 58 percent
Democratic Party: 30 percent
Don’t know: 12 percent
How many people actually knew the answer to that question? Ultimately, there’s no way to tell, since guessing was allowed. (If everyone had flipped a coin, 50 percent of respondents would have answered correctly, give or take!)

That said, a smaller number—54 percent—correctly said that the Democratic Party was in the majority in the Senate. And here we reach our most telling statistic:

According to Pew, “just 40% of Americans” answered both these questions correctly. On that basis, we’ll take a guess:

We’ll guess that roughly one-third of American adults could truly be said to know the answers to those basic factual questions. This sets the framework for the anthropology lessons we’ll be performing all week right here at The Chuckle Hut.

To state the obvious, no one is required to know who holds the majority in the Senate. You aren’t a bad person if you don’t know. You aren’t stupid, unworthy or unintelligent. You aren’t even non-rational.

That said, those basic results to that Pew pop quiz give the lie to a great deal of posturing which can be seen all through the American press:

As it turns out, the American people aren’t pretty sharp when it comes to basic political knowledge! Despite this rather obvious fact, American journalists routinely insist that the American people are pretty sharp. It’s a modern equivalent to Aristotle’s high-blown claim about our rational greatness.

In the end, we the people just aren’t all that sharp! With the rise of talk radio, this fact began becoming uncomfortably clear. The later invention of comment threads has made this fact even more obvious.

Here’s the problem:

As part of our general imperfection, we tend to be able to see the dumbness of those in other political tribes. It may be harder for us to spot such qualities in members of our own clans. Just as they have always done, the gods are laughing about this trait.

All this week, we’ll discuss Aristotle’s anthropological error. Indecently, we’ll focus on the way it surfaces within our own political/cultural tribes.

Tomorrow: To the fainting couch


  1. I think people tend to know what they need to in order to live their daily lives. If they don't know important facts about politics, perhaps it is because these facts have no impact whatsoever of everyday life. Those who know the answers to questions like these tend to follow politics as a hobby.

    1. Exactly, and please note how Bob speaks with forked tongue:

      "To state the obvious, no one is required to know who holds the majority in the Senate. You aren’t a bad person if you don’t know. You aren’t stupid, unworthy or unintelligent. You aren’t even non-rational."

      Which is quickly followed by:

      "As it turns out, the American people aren’t pretty sharp when it comes to basic political knowledge! Despite this rather obvious fact, American journalists routinely insist that the American people are pretty sharp. It’s a modern equivalent to Aristotle’s high-blown claim about our rational greatness."

      Well, well, well. Bob is not only smarter than all those other American people, he is also smarter than Aristotle.

      I'm sure that will play well to his fans who yearn to believe they are just so much smarter than the "people" as Bob continually feeds them exactly that sweet hay.

    2. Bob and his fans aren't necessarily smarter than the average tribalist, but they do rely less on deluding themselves that they are smarter, a delusion that boosts the tribalist's self image but at the cost of his critical thinking and thus ability to avoid adopting ignorant, unsupported conclusions about most questions.

    3. There is no contradiction between these juxtaposed statements. Lacking specific knowledge in a narrow domain has nothing to do with intelligence. That is your construction.

      Neither modern humans nor Aristotle are rational in the sense of adhering to formal logic. That is a major finding of cognitive psychology, not Somerby. It too has nothing to do with whether anyone is intelligent or not.

      Your purpose here is just to call Somerby names. What happened, troll, did you sleep in and miss your chance to post the first comment?

    4. Anonymous @ 11.44.

      If the purpose of 11:18 is "just to call Somerby names, why did he/she not do so?

      If I read your inference correctly, and calling names is not the best of human activities, why were you the one to do so?

    5. 11:18 called him a person who speaks with a forked tongue (e.g., a liar) and someone who thinks he is smarter than Aristotle (e.g., arrogant). Do you think you need to to use words like poopy head to engage in name-calling?

    6. Anonymous @ 11:18 described how Bob speaks. He described how Bob thinks.

      Bob himself uses these kinds of descriptions regularly. He sometimes calls people names as well. Let us look at the difference, using the post following this one:

      "Grimy attack dogs like Dowd are going to misstate, overstate, omit and obscure as they endlessly flog this deeply troubling possible problem. Their own journalistic misconduct is going to go unremarked.

      Dowd’s column is a prime example of a long-standing type of very bad, very dumb, deeply destructive “journalism.” In that sense, it’s very much like Krystal Ball’s recent subhuman commentary, which came at you “from the left.”"

      In the first highlighted section, Bob is clearly calling Dowd a dog. a grimy, attack one at that.

      In the second highlighted section he is clearly describing the nature of Ball's comments, not the person herself. He has, after all, called people in the media "prehuman droogs" when he wanted to give them a name instead of describe an action.

      That said, "Troll", as you used it, was clearly name calling.

      Misusing language in any domain does indicate a lack of intelligence.

  2. Knowing which party holds the majority in Congress will get you points on Jeopardy!

    But how many of us know who run the majorities?

  3. Or perhaps, in a time when it seems to be a reasonable judgment that the other tribe, with the help of conscious or unconscious collaborators who act as leaders of our own tribe, is keeping 25 million people who really would like to work unemployed and living from hand-to-mouth, and another 50-100 million people struggling financially more than they should have to, and when, therefore, the apparently rational choice for eventually bringing such massive suffering to an end is to drive as many members of the other tribe as possible out of positions of power, eliciting chuckles about the timeless human failings in our own tribe or aimless flailing against some of its more prominent spokespeople no matter what they are saying at the time, is a self-indulgent waste or words and brain-power.

    If one chooses to focus on the collaborators, and that is a reasonable and potentially invaluable choice, perhaps more useful than telling us what horrible people they are for succumbing as humans do to the temptations of striving for membership in the elite tribe that sips cocktails together in shared compounds during performance breaks, would be more focused identification of when the collaborators are doing something that detracts from the effort to drive the other tribe out of all positions of power. There are times when the collaborators revert to their original tribal inclinations in order to keep their leadership positions and are not acting as collaborators. On those occasions they do things that help advance our tribe at the expense of the other tribe. When that happens they should at least be left alone, at best praised. But when they are collaborating, such as when they adopt the points-of-view of the other tribe about members of our tribe who may someday displace members of the other tribe in order to pay dues for membership in the elite tribe, they should be attacked without mercy and made to feel as much pain as possible for their lack of loyalty.

    In any case, let’s have a little perspective about what’s important here.

  4. We have our first bit of evidence that TDH actually does read his commentariat.

    1. Excellent work, deadrat, as always. BOB must be proud to have you comment on his excellent blog.


  5. We have our first bit of evidence that TDH actually does read his commentariat.

    1. People like you are no doubt why he stopped.

    2. What evidence is there he has?

  6. Once again, Bob cherry-picks the two answers to two questions on a rather wide-ranging survey to support his contention that "we, the people" are dumb.

    I know his fans won't do so because they have already been told what the survey says and what to think about it.

    But others of a more open mind might want to click onto the survey and read it. I found it quite fascinating.

    And also, the opposite of proof that the people are dumb.

    1. Once again, the entire problem with the universe is Bob Somerby. Without his cherry-picking we would all open-mindedly conclude that people are not dumb at all.

    2. No, Somerby is no more of a "problem" than a tiny pimple on an ass.

      But Bob does remind me of the preacher who tells his flock comforting tales about how THEY are all saved, and it is all those "other people" -- you know, the real sinners -- who cause all the worlds problems.

      Heck, if all those "other people" were just as smart as Somerby and his flock, we'd have no problems at all, would we?

  7. Somerby says:

    [QUOTE] ...Aristotle was more upbeat. “Man [sic] is the rational animal,” he’s often said to have said.

    In one way, you can’t blame Aristotle for making this notorious error.... [END QUOTE]

    I don't think it was Aristotle who was ever confused on this point. Here, precisely, is what Benjamin Jowett says the Ancient, himself, said in Politics Book 1, Part 2 [my emphasis]:

    [QUOTE]>>>>> ...When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best.

    Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the "Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one, " whom Homer denounces- the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts.

    Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

    Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. But things are defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they no longer have their proper quality, but only that they have the same name. The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors.

    For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society. <<<<<[END QUOTE]

    1. Thank you, CMike, for posting that.

      Seems that a little learning is indeed a dangerous thing. A freshman level course in philosophy taken decades ago might lead a blogger to think he knows more about Aristotle than he actually does.

  8. People complain about the low turnout in elections, but given the ignorance maybe this is a good thing. Do people who vote know the answers? Pollsters need to ask about this.

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