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In Defense of Dead White Guys

I start philosophy classes with Book I of Aristotle’s Physics.

The text is dense. It doesn’t teach itself, but I’m there. And I’m funny. The text introduces a few important concepts: elements, causes, starting points, and the relevance of wholes and parts.

Then I just go down a list.

Elements: I introduce the idea that beings are made up of parts. From here, you can go two different ways. Either your parts are made up of other parts and those parts are made up of other parts, and we get smaller and smaller bits of indistinct parts to infinity, or we are going to hit irreducible parts. Those irreducible parts are what we call elements. Elements are distinguished by their qualitative irreducibility. Fire, air, water, and earth are qualities or substantive kinds, distinguished by how they move and what they do. Elements are not quantities of the same kind of thing. This is an important juncture because it opens the way to explain the difference between Newtonian and Aristotelian physics in a relevant way.

Then we talk about causes, and I tease the four causes that are introduced in Book II of Physics — material, formal, efficient, and finalthat answer the questions of what and why things are. Then we move to starting points.

This is where it gets good because the starting point isn’t an abstract temporal point; it’s a beginning with a direction. A beginning with a purpose that figures into a middle and towards an end (or telos). It’s the beginning part of a whole. That’s what makes it the starting point or ἀρχή, which is Greek for beginning, but also Greek for ruling. It’s a beginning that rules by setting the direction and governing what comes afterwards and towards the being’s end or fully functioning realization.

I ask the students to think about the origin of Spiderman. When did Spiderman become Spiderman? The first answer is usually someone saying something about a radioactive spider bite, but then I remind them that after he was bitten, he was doing cage fights, bullying his former bullies, and trying to get rich, are those qualities what make him Spiderman in any meaningful way? Doing whatever he feels like in the moment? No. He becomes Spiderman when he takes responsibility for what having powers means in a world where there are vulnerable people without powers, and how that awareness governs how he should act in society going forward. He becomes Spiderman after he puts together that his negligence led to his uncle’s death. In other words, he becomes Spiderman in a meaningful way when he takes on his function in society.

Now, in the latest Spiderman movie, Spiderman: Far From Home, this is reiterated when Peter realizes that he can’t just off-load the responsibility of Tony Stark’s glasses as a matter of convenience.

I talk about how beginnings are very important and suggest that they should do very well their first semester in college because they don’t want their college career to start by having to dig themselves out of a GPA hole, and how the beginning, since it is more than merely temporal but comes with a direction, is more than half of the whole.

Then we talk about how relationships to wholes are what confer meaning and being. The human heart is what it is because of how it functions to circulate blood. Same with a liver. These are organs, and they get their being and meaning from how they sustain the organic whole, also known as what we call an organism. There are also different kinds of organisms, and what it is to be an organism is to have differentiated parts (organs) that function in a way that sustains the whole towards its mission. This sensibility still survives in how we think about organizations and their differentiated offices that function together to compose a whole organization.

Then I end why how reason is what grasps the whole and can work through and identify the whole being’s differentiated parts. Then I leave them with three quick insights:

1) Artificial intelligence, until it can grasp wholes and differentiate parts relative to the functioning of the whole, will never be “thinking.”

2) This lays the groundwork about how meaning is going to be tied to functional participation within a whole. And self-determination is going to be tied to functional participation within a whole where the participant participates in deciding not only how they are going to participate as a particular organ of the whole — in concert with the other participants — but also, the participant has a share of governance in the shape of the whole in which everyone participates. This is a fine place, if I have time, to teach the qualitative difference between acting as a civilian and acting as a citizen, or acting as a player in the league or acting as a commissioner of the league, and how self-determination is going to entail the same person participating in both differentiated offices.

3) Meaning is going to come from the functional participation and sustenance of the whole towards its mission, not from immediate experience. Which is why Spiderman, as much fun as he was having before Uncle Ben’s death, wasn’t living a particularly meaningful or memorable life. This can also be the ground of many good arguments against a simple utilitarianism, which isn’t concerned with meaning as much as it’s concerned with immediate experience.

We do all of that, then we just read the text, and work through sentence by sentence.

Here is the text:




A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (

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Irami Osei-Frimpong

Irami Osei-Frimpong

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