Episode 7: Aristotle, Erich Fromm, and the Buddha

Updated: May 1, 2021



Previous Episode: Aristotle built on Plato's idea of the aidos, and introduced the idea of 'change' in terms of growth and development. We understood Aristotle's idea of the cultivation of character using Alica Juarrero's work on a dynamical-system. Read my post on Episode 6 here.





What are we doing to cultivate our character? How much time do we regularly devote to it?


For Aristotle, the hallmark of rationality is being able to step back and recognize your own foolishness and capacity for self-deception, rather than ‘being logical' which is an idea we have reduced it to. It involves realizing your potential through the cultivation of character.


As Plato suggested, we have a meta-drive to be in contact with reality. Aristotle developed this idea, suggesting that one of our biggest motivations for rationality is our desire to be as close to reality as possible by means that are as reliable as possible. This brought Aristotle to the idea of what it means to truly 'know something'.


We often believe that knowing something means being able to give an accurate description of it; ‘I know what a chair is if I can really describe it well.' But who knows a chair better--- someone who can describe it well or someone who makes a chair? The answer is the chairmaker, who causes a chair to be.


This is because if you can make a chair you understand its essence. The chairmaker has an aidos of the chair, which the accurate descriptor doesn't have (refer to 'aidos' and the bird example in lecture). The chairmaker uses the aidos in their mind to actualize the potential in the wood to make the chair.


For Aristotle, to know something is to conform to it; to take the same shape of it. When you know something, your mind takes on the same SFO (structural-functional organization) like it. So if you could take that aidos from your mind and actualize it into some potential, you could cause it to be.


So what does Aristotle mean by this conformity theory of knowing?


If knowing something means your mind is in conformity with it, that implies that there is no distinction between knowing and being. When you merely describe something you are on the ‘outside' in a sense, but when you have an aidos of something, you are no longer separate from it. Charles Taylor coined the term 'contact epistemology' which means that to know something is to be in contact with it; to actually participate in the same form as the thing (participatory knowing).

This draws a powerful connection between the mind and reality.


The conformity theory of knowing (being) also satisfies our desire for being in contact with reality. If we are truly in contact with the world, how we make sense of things matches the same pattern of how things are actually organized.


So how do you know if something is real?


Say, for example, you like this guy at a party. The next morning your friend Ira, tells you that she heard him say that he liked you too. But obviously, you can't just take her word for it (you want to make sure) and so you say something like, 'Oh but you were hammered last night, how would you know?’. Then she says this was at the beginning when no one was drinking. But you still don't want to get your hopes up so you say something like. 'maybe you didn't hear properly, so many people were talking,’ and then she insists that she heard it clearly and not just that, but two of your other friends heard it too. Now you're convinced that he probably has some feelings for you too.


But what did you do to arrive at that conclusion?


1) You made sure Ira's cognitive functioning wasn't distorted when she heard it (she was sober)


2) You made sure the environment wasn't distorted in any way (the noise)


3) You made sure there was intersubjective agreement (your other friends heard it too)


We often engage in this process or attempt to be fully in touch with reality, on a daily basis.


So if such instances are an attempt to get in touch with reality....what is the structure of reality itself (the SFO of the world). During Aristotle's time, there was a geocentric world view; it was largely believed that things were moving around us and that we, the world, were at the center. He believed that things move because they have an internal drive. His theory is that everything is made out of the elements of earth, water, air, and fire. Things that are made out of earth want to naturally be with the earth naturally is, at the center; so, as you move things away from the earth, they fall back towards it. Water is on the surface, fire moves up and the air is above. Think about burning wood --- the fire goes up, the water spreads out as condensation, the ash (the earth part) falls down.


So the earth is at the center and everything moves through the process of natural motion, with intention. Everything has a purpose, and moves meaningfully, just like we do.


It doesn't matter whether this theory of the world is true or false. What matters is the process Aristotle used to arrive at this conclusion. In order to develop a coherent view of the world, Aristotle used the process of rational reflection and arrived at a conclusion. If his theory is plausible then that view of the world suggests that we are in fact in conformity with reality and the two theories (the theory of how we know something is real and the theory of reality itself) mutually support each other.


That's how one forms a strong world-view; you have an account of the world --- and you have an account of how you know the world. If these two theories mutually support each other, one has worldview attunement. This indicates that there is a deep connection between your understanding of your understanding and your understanding of the world.


People have a strong sense of belonging when they have worldview attunement. For Aristotle and others who accepted his theory at the time, there was a clear connection between an account of the world and who they fit into it. Many of us today do not have that connection; although we have a scientific view of the world, it does not point to any existential values in terms of how to make us feel like we belong or make our lives more meaningful.


In other words, we do not have nomological order, which is an attuned world view that is generated by existential modes, consonant with our scientific understanding of reality.


The Axial Revolution in India


One of the ways in which people respond to the meaning crisis existentially, personally, and professionally is through the phenomenon of mindfulness. Somehow, mindfulness and its cultivation is a way of retrieving the project of wisdom, self-transcendence, and deepening the meaning we find in our lives.


Siddhartha Gautama was the doorway into the axial revolution of India. When he was born, sages said that he would either become a great king or an important religious figure. So his father did everything he could to ensure that Siddhartha would not turn to any religious spiritual quests; he rigged and manipulated his environment so he never saw anything distressing and was constantly fed with things that gave him instant gratification.


Eric Fromm talks about how we have two modes; the 'having' mode and the 'being' mode. Our 'having' needs are met by owning things and so my understanding of things in that mode is categorical (I have a car, it helps me get around the city). On the other hand, the being mode involves becoming; a stage of development, it's not about having something but becoming a different person in the process. For example, when you're in love with somebody, you don't have them, rather, you become better people together and individually; being in love is different from having sex, although the two are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes we just want to have sex with someone, that comes from the having mode (not the being mode) because that doesn't have much to do with growth and development. On the other hand, being in love involves mutual and individual growth and development.


Fromm's point is not that one mode is better than the other but rather that we mix them up. We suffer from modal confusion, which involves trying to solve our being needs by having things. We often confuse being mature with having a car, being in love with having sex and being beautiful with having a certain product. The point is not that being mature and having a car simultaneously is not possible but that they are two different things and one does not 'give' us the other. This often leads to deep existential confusion.


The palace symbolizes the having mode.


So for Siddhartha, he had a lot of things because of his palace and royal status. But when he left the palace, something shifted. We will take a look at this in the next lecture.



PS: Sorry about the long break. Had a few commitments and then problems with the website, but should be back to posting once every few days now. Feel free to post your thoughts about this lecture in the comment section below. :)

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