Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Greek Words 2

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Theoria (θεωρία) – witnessing, contemplation, theory (theoros—onlooker, spectator)

In Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer gives us a good guide to theoria: “…watching something is a genuine mode of participating. Here we can recall the concept of sacral communion that lies behind the original Greek concept of theoria. Theoros means someone who takes part in a delegation to a festival. Such a person has no other distinction or function than to be there. Thus the theoros is a spectator in the proper sense of the word, since he participates in the solemn act through his presence at it and thus sacred law accords him a distinction: for example, inviolability.

“In the same way, Greek metaphysics still conceives the essence of theoria and of nous as being purely present to what is truly real, and for us too the ability to act theoretically is defined by the fact that in attending to something one is able to forget one’s own purposes. But theoria is not to be conceived primarily as subjective conduct, as a self-determination of the subject, but in terms of what it is contemplating. Theoria is a true participation, not something active but something passive (pathos), namely being totally involved in and carried away by what one sees.” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 124-125)

In a later essay, he says of theoria: “The word means observing (the constellations, for example), being an onlooker (at a play, for instance), or a delegate participating in a festival. It does not mean a mere ‘seeing’ that establishes what is present or stores up information. Contemplatio does not dwell on a particular entity, but in a region. Theoria is not so much the individual momentary act as a way of comporting oneself, a position and condition. It is ‘being present’ in the lovely double sense that means that the person is not only present but completely present. Participants in a ritual or ceremony are present in this way when they are engrossed in their participation as such, and this always includes their participating equally with others or possible others. Thus theory is not in the first instance a behavior whereby we control an object or put it at our disposal by explaining it. It has to do with a good of another kind.” (Gadamer, Praise of Theory, 31-32)

Gadamer says this about the relationship between theoria and praxis in Aristotle: “The priority of theoria is based on the ontological superiority of its objects, namely, beings that always are. In contrast, the world of praxis belongs to that reality or being that can be one way but also be another. Consequently, knowledge of what is to be done in practice must be placed second to theoria. Even so, both dispositions of knowing and reason are something supreme. Practical reasonableness, phronesis, as well as theoretical reasonableness are ‘best-nesses’ (aretai). That which is highest in the human being—which Aristotle likes to call ‘nous’ or the divine—is actualized in both of them.” (Gadamer, The Idea of the Good, 174-175)

Werner Jaeger speaks to a transformation in the notion of theoria when he says in a chapter of exposition on Plato’s Laws: “Plato thinks his state is so different from everything else, so unique, that he wonders about its relation to the rest of the world. ….spiritually too it must be shut off from all chance influences which might interrupt the influence of its perfect laws. No citizen may travel abroad except heralds, ambassadors, and ‘theoroi’: by which Plato does not mean the city’s representatives at festivals (the usual sense of the word), but men with the spirit of scientific research who will go abroad to theorein, to ‘contemplate’ the civilization and alws of other men and study conditions abroad at their leisure.” (Jaeger, Paideia, vol. 3, 258-259)

Hannah Arendt says in her controversial The Human Condition: “Theoria, or ‘contemplation,’ is the word given to the experience of the eternal, as distinguished from all other attitudes, which at most may pertain to immortality. It may be that the philosophers’ discovery of the eternal was helped by their very justified doubt of the chances of the polis for immortality or even permanence, and it may be that the shock of this discovery was so overwhelming that they could not but look down upon all striving for immortality as vanity and vainglory, certainly placing themselves thereby into open opposition to the ancient city-states and the religion which inspired it.” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 20-21)

Of Aristotle’s use of theoria, Pierre Hadot says, “…for Aristotle philosophy consists in a ‘theoretical’ way of life. We must not, however, confuse the term ‘theoretical’ with ‘theoretic.’” (Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 80) Hadot’s translator, Michael Chase, clarifies the Greek relation: “The distinction here is between the French words théorique [“theoretic”—MK] (which means ‘speculative; having no relation to reality or practice’ and derives from the Greek theorikos) and théorétique [“theoretical”—MK] (which means ‘relative to pure knowledge or speculation’ and derives from the Greek theoretikos).” (293n.13)

Hadot continues: “‘Theoretic’ is a word of Greek origin but does not appear in Aristotle. In a nonphilosophical context, it meant ‘referring to processions.’ In modern parlance, ‘the theoretic’ is opposed to ‘the practical’ the way the abstract and speculative is opposed to the concrete. From this perspective, then, we may oppose a purely theoretic philosophical discourse to a practical, lived philosophical life. Aristotle himself, however, uses only the word ‘theoretical’ [theoretikos], and he uses it to designate, on the one hand, the mode of knowledge whose goal is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and not some goal outside itself; and on the other, the way of life which consists in devoting one’s life to this mode of knowledge. … From this perspective, ‘theoretical’ philosophy is at the same time ethics. … It means wanting knowledge for its own sake, without pursuing any other particular, egoistic interest which would be alien to knowledge. This is an ethics of disinterestedness and of objectivity.” (80-81)

John Herman Randall, Jr. adds in this connection at the outset of his Aristotle, “The ‘theoretical life’ is not for him the life of quiet ‘contemplation,’ serene and unemotional, but the life of nous, of theoria, of intelligence, burning, immoderate, without bounds or limits.” (Randall, Aristotle, 1) I should note here that the Greek theoria was translated by the Romans into Latin as contemplatio, and that accordingly, Hadot and Randall (more explicitly) are buffeting overly Thomistic understandings of Aristotle (and our Greek, as opposed to Latinate, heritage). (I should also note that despite Gadamer’s fondness for Latinate derivations of theoria, he generally avoids the pitfalls that go with it—on the other hand, see below on praxis.)

In George A. Kennedy’s translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, his glossary includes: “Theoros, pl. theoroi (m.): a spectator; one who listens to a speech but is not asked to take a specific action, as in the case of epideictic.” (Kennedy, On Rhetoric, 302)

In his entry on Carneades (a “leader of the Academic Skeptics,” c. 213-c. 128 B.C.E.), Philip P. Hallie writes of the epistemology of the time, “All philosophers of this era held that knowledge came by way of phantasia (representations [often, ‘imagination,’ sometimes ‘impressions’—MK]), not by way of pure, intuitive theoria (knowledge of intelligible forms). The Stoics, in particular, believed that the mind in certain cases receives sense representations that irresistibly make the mind assent to them (phantasia kataleptike). Such true representations are the foundations upon which the Stoics built their whole dogmatic epistemology and metaphysics.” (Encyclopedia, vol. 2, 33)

The weight of Thomistic tradition tells us to translate theoria as (from Richard McKeon’s glossary): “CONTEMPLATIO, contemplation, taken either strictly for the act of the intellect meditating divine things, and thus contemplation is the act of the wise man, or in another way commonly for every act by which any one sequestered from exterior affairs considers God…. By contemplation one considers God as he is in himself, by speculation as he is imaged in created things as in a mirror (speculation from speculum [Latin for “mirror”—MK]).” (McKeon, Selections, 439)

Praxis (πράξησ) – doing, acting, action, practice

Richard T. De George’s short entry in the Oxford Companion: “The Greek word for ‘action’. It enters the philosophical literature as a quasi-technical term with Aristotle (meaning ‘doing’ rather than ‘making [something]’), is developed by some of the Left Hegelians, and is now primarily associated with Marx and Marxism.” (Oxford Companion, 713)

Calvin O. Schrag’s longer entry in the Cambridge Dictionary begins: “(from Greek prasso, ‘doing’, ‘acting’), in Aristotle, the sphere of thought and action that comprises the ethical and political life of man, contrasted with the theoretical designs of logic and epistemology (theoria). It was thus that ‘praxis’ acquired its general definition of ‘practice’ through a contrastive comparison with ‘theory’.” (Cambridge Dictionary, 731)

Hans-Georg Gadamer says, “Aristotle developed practical philosophy, which includes politics, in express opposition to the ideal of theory and theoretical philosophy. In doing so he raised human practice into an independent domain of knowledge. ‘Praxis’ signifies all things practical, including all human behavior and all the ways people organize themselves in this world, not least of which is politics and, within that, legislation.” (Gadamer, Praise of Theory, 56)

With my limited understanding, moving from the Greek to the Latin with Richard McKeon’s help presents a difficulty. On the one hand, we have the Latin word “PRAXIS,” which stands for, oddly, “praxis, actions or operations considered in their bearing on good or evil, practical activities.” (McKeon, Selections, 483) On the other hand, we also have “ACTIO, action, properly the actuality of a power, as being is the actuality of a substance or essence. Contrasted therefore to passion.” (425) (Note: the Greek dynamis can be translated as either “power” or “potential.”) On yet another hand, we have “FACERE, to do, action,” which we should compare to “FACTIO, making; usually contrasted with action (or in particular that action which is called intelligence [which in Greek, is phronesis]….” McKeon includes an interesting quotation from Aquinas (from his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics): “For although we can use the name making, which in greek is praxis, concerning natural things, as when we say that heat and an actual thing makes such an actual being, still we use it more properly concerning those things which are made by the understanding, in which the understanding of the agent has dominion over what it makes so that it can make it thus or otherwise, which does not happen in natural things….” (454)

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