During the second semester of my freshman year, I took a class on Aristotle proctored by my mentor, Dr. Whiting. As I already mentioned in my previous post, I always had an interest in exploring Aristotle’s philosophy more deeply. One of the questions I wanted to focus on during Dr. Whiting’s class was not just how one ought to ground ethical concern for others, but also whether it is possible to ground it in a non-egoistic way. The question became so pressing to me I decided to write my final paper on it, and I took great inspiration from Dr. Whiting’s own work on egoism within Aristotle’s writings on friendship.
The controversy surrounding Aristotle’s notion of the true friend as an extension of the self drew my attention in particular; most of my efforts were devoted to presenting this peculiar aspect of Aristotle’s philosophy in a more flattering light than some commentators take it – as non-egoistic. To oversimplify, self-love – and love of friends in general – is grounded in a self-recognition. For Aristotle, self-love is not a blind love through which you love yourself regardless of the kind of person you are. You can only possess proper self-love if you recognize you possess good character. In other words, you must possess the good (whether that good be genuine or apparent). Far from being egoistic, self-love and love of others (at least for those we have a uniquely close relationship with) is surprisingly impartial under the Aristotelian framework, since it is predicated on seeing the good as instantiated in an individual.
It might seem as if the story ends there: we see the good as appropriate to ourselves, so if we see it instantiated in other people, then we ought to care for them as well. And yet, there seems to be something very troublesome about this line of logic: in what way can it apply to all of humanity? It is reasonable to say that we could discover the character of our close friends and see the good instantiated in them, but this is by no means a simple nor easy process. To truly understand one’s friends – to see them as another self – takes a great degree of time and effort – time and effort that we so often sorely lack. It appears the egoism question has been answered, but the question of universal concern for others is another matter entirely. I think the solution to this puzzle lies somewhere in elucidating a symmetry between the psychological dependence between our present and future selves, and a dependence between ourselves and others.
This is, of course, not the venue to discuss this answer. Afterall, it is my aim to justify such an answer at the end of my research, but I think this tension I discovered provides a good example of where to start one’s philosophical research. I don’t think I am fit to comment on how to get involved in research outside of the philosophical realm, but it is my experience that if you want to start conducting philosophical research, it is first important to take the time to find tensions within an argument you are trying to analyze or trying to make. This might seem counterintuitive at first glance – why would I want to complicate an already complicated process? It is important, however, to keep in mind that my whole research endeavor began with a tension in Aristotle’s writings on friendship. How could it be the case our friends are an extension of ourselves, and yet we also pursue their good for their own sake? It is these tensions, these apparent cuts in the thread of argument, that give the most room for exploration and freedom to develop your own understandings.
Focusing on these tensions, furthermore, can assist in your professional goals, especially if you’re interested in entering academia. For example, I want to enter academia to formulate a virtue ethics that meets the needs our globalized world. I can’t very well do that if I stick to orthodoxy and regurgitate Aristotle to a modern audience. I must reconcile the tensions before I can make any progress on providing theoretical solutions, let alone practical ones. Even outside of academia (and any professional career for that matter) being able to reify and resolve these tensions furnishes you with the experience to not only challenge arguments from the outside, but also the inside. These tensions provide you and the one making the argument the opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of the topics at hand and ultimately provide the path to bridging the gap of disagreement.