The Tool of Tools and the Form of Forms (revised)

Vintage working tools on wooden background.

The so-called “logical” works of Aristotle have been grouped together under the title “Organon” (tool, organ) since his first major editor assembled them in the 1st century B.C.  It seems Andronicus of Rhodes employed this label to suggest that Aristotle considered the study of logic to be the great propadeutic, the unavoidable preparatory instrument one must learn to use before embarking upon the real world studied by physics, psychology, metaphysics, ethics and the other sciences. Although one has traditionally seen a significant measure of truth in this claim, a couple of questions have always troubled its articulation.

One is that the philosopher dedicates so very much time to this instrument. The “Analytics”, his work treating of logical inference proper, is so extensive it came to be divided into two quite large (and quite difficult) works. If you group the other texts of the Organon (the Categories, On Interpretation, the Topics and the Sophistical Refutations–not to mention the Rhetoric and the Poetics, which Arab Aristotelians included, not without reason) together with the Analytics, you have material for a couple of years study, at the very least.

The second question is even more perplexing. If the Stagirite considered these logical works to be so intrinsically instrumental to his vast philosophical project, why, when we survey his physical, psychological, metaphysical and ethical/political treatises–and even his incomplete Poetics–do we find nary a reference to them?  If we are busily building the edifice of philosophy with our hammer, saw, screw driver, pliers and all the other tools of a well-stocked toolbox, shouldn’t we catch sight–at least on occasion–of their active and indispensable role in producing the structure? (“Hand me a hammer.”  “Now I need the pliers.” etc.)

Some have suggested–rather lamely, in my opinion–that since we only have a fourth or even just a fifth of all Aristotle wrote, we can suppose that he did make these cross-references in the works that have been lost. Unconvinced by this, I find a better answer in his work which discusses the very nature of the intellect (nous), which is our faculty that employs logical procedure to begin with. I suggest this text gives full credit to the name given to logic by Andronicus, but also explains both why it receives such protracted attention at first and then seems to be almost forgotten in the remaining treatises about the “real world.”

When Aristotle famously defines man as a rational animal, we do well to remember the amplitude of the adjective in Greek:  logikon, meaning that we are animals that produce logoi, i.e. discourses. We don’t bark or squeak like some fellow animals (at least not in our finer moments) but we speak, and when we speak we utter various sorts of discourses. Within the womb of the very first concept we generate: that of being (the most universal, the most fecund but as such the least specific of all concepts), we produce logoi that specify beings by signifying ideas and feelings in our souls, but above all things, persons and ideas outside of us in the world. Such discourses are mostly approximative (what Aristotle will call enthymemes, that is, arguments with implicit components), but then come the dialectical, poetical and–for the fortunate few–scientific discourses as well. Since we evidently perform all these acts, we must have the power to do so. That power, or faculty, is called the nous (which we can translate as intellect, mind, reason or intelligence).


Now in the De Anima, where Aristotle studies psychology (the science of “souls” in all their forms, powers and acts), he arrives at a curious statement in the third book when discussing that power in man that produces discourse.  The nous is compared to the hand, for the hand is that by which we handle just about everything, as the nous is that by which we think about everything. Like the mouth and the mind, the hand is so designed that it can open–but it only opens in order to close. As our mouth opens to speak, but (hopefully!) soon closes to listen; or opens to eat, and then (again, hopefully) closes to chew and swallow, our mind seems to show the same pattern. It opens, but only in order to then bite down, as it were, on knowledge.

Aristotle is particularly interested in the analogy between the mind and the hand. The latter is naturally open and so constituted that it can grasp virtually any tool that is presented to it. It is relevant here that in our European languages the words we typically use to bespeak understanding and intellectual activity are “manual”:  We “grasp” something; we “comprehend” something (from prehendere, in Latin, meaning to grasp). In German the analogous words are ergreifenerfassen (both originally meaning to take something into one’s hand). In a sense the hand is the body’s tool, but due to its extraordinary versatility and ability to assume a large number of configurations (picking up an apple, turning a screwdriver, wielding a hammer, pushing and pulling a saw, gesticulating, and so on), it would be better, Aristotle suggests, to call it the “tool of tools”.tools-tool-hand-construction-23602042

The intellect would seem to do in an immaterial way what the hand does in a material way. It too “grasps” something; it too is in the service, as it were, of the “tools” it wields (concepts, judgments, arguments, hypotheses, etc.). However, the versatility and adaptability of the material hand is limited by its very materiality; it does indeed manifest our rational nature (as Aristotle asserts) but it only manifests it, it does not constitute it. That rational nature is intrinsic to the nous, which, as an immaterial power, is able–unlike the material hand–to be entirely versatile and adaptable in relation to the formalities it grasps. The hand still has a fixed form (palm, thumb and four fingers); the nous has not only no material configuration at all, but its immaterial “form” is precisely to have no form. It can accept, “become” all forms because by nature it possesses none. Analogous to clay that is formless so that it can be formed into any shape one desires, the intellect is formless so that it can receive any knowable form. It is open by nature, and much more so than even the most open and receptive human hand you can find. A “form” that is thus open to all forms should be called, Aristotle writes, the “form of forms”.

It is this radically open nature of the nous that brings Aristotle to affirm–in one of his more famous and surprising statements–that the intellectual soul is, in a certain sense, all existing things. Anything and everything that is now, or that ever was, or that ever could be is in principle knowable by an intellect whose very object is, quite simply, being.  Just as some medieval philosophers called the “spirit” (the intellectual “part”–or better center–of the soul) the anima animae, the “soul of the soul,” the soul of the rational animal not only besouls the matter of the body, it also is itself in turn besouled by its spiritual core. This “animation” means that it is open to, and quite literally alive to all being,  capax universi (in the words of Thomas Aquinas). Through it, the soul “becomes all things” in the sense that its immaterial form permits it to be in-formed by any and all reality with which it is confronted. It can become, intentionally (i.e., in an immaterial mode of being that signifies, that thus “tends toward” a reality beyond it) what the things known are in reality (in the extra-mental world of things).

All this explains why logical studies are considered instrumental, not just in the sense that you need a certain proficiency in them in order to think coherently in the sciences of the real, but also because they study the very intellectual “hand” of the human soul. The Greek word Aristotle uses to say “tool of tools” is the very word Andronicus uses to refer to logic: organon.  The hand is the “organon of organons.”  The mind, in turn, is the “eidon of eidons.” Applying, analogically, the notion of organon (tool) to that of the “form” of the intellect, the eidon (form), the further step of calling logical studies a tool is a short one. That intellectual organ exists only in order to reach out to reality. Its reach is so complex, so rich with articulations (not unlike the fingers of a hand), and the discourses it produces so multi-faceted in the ways in which thought can be logikon, Aristotle delves deeply and extensively into its world, exploring how it works, and why. He does this by “taking it apart” (the root meaning of the word “analysis”; thus, his name for logic: “analytics”).  This is the reason he spends so much time with this study.

But there is more. The absence of any conspicuous reference back to the logical works in his theoretical or practical scientific treatises is, in fact, evidence of the truly “instrumental” nature of logic in the immaterial world of knowing. The concepts, the judgments, the syllogisms and all the rest of our intentional cognitive software–unlike the wooden and metallic density of a carpenter’s tools–are intentional realities, existing only in and of the mind. The scholastics called them “second intentions”, insofar as they refer not directly to the realities beyond them (as do “first intentions”, with which we cognitively interact with extra-mental being), but rather to the ways in which beings exist in the mind, once they are known, and only insofar as they are known.

Now, to the extent we are thinking coherently, and allowing the realities we encounter in sensation to enter into and temper our cognitive faculties, these “second intentions” function almost invisibly. They are transparent to the realities to which they provide access, like the lenses in a pair of glasses, or the pane of glass in your living room window. You look through them and not at them. It is only when the lenses crack, or a baseball sails through your window pane, or when things simply get dirty, that you pay any attention to the glass. Likewise, it is only when thinking goes awry that we need to reach for the logical toolbox; similarly, we only call the carpenter to come back when the house needs repairs. As it turns out, Aristotle’s substantive treatises about reality need few repairs.


On the abused, the corrupted and the exceptional

Abusus non tollit usum.   Corruptio optimi pessima.   Exceptio probat regulam.

These three Latin adages have helped me to stay sane more perhaps that the thousands of pages of philosophy I have read.  In short, they remind me not to forswear use because of abuse; not to overlook excellence because of the horror of its corruption; and not to relativize rules just because the exceptions are so teasing.  The easy slope of the mind into these betrayals is observable wherever one looks, particularly in this particularly abusive, corrupt and exceptional age in which we live.

First, let me translate – the need for this is itself a sad feature of a culture no longer conversant in its classical tongues:  ‘Abuse does not preclude use,’  ‘The corruption of the best is the worst,’ and  ‘The exception proves the rule.’



The first is rather simple. We continue to cut our baguettes with knives, despite the number of human necks that have been likewise cut with the same sharp instrument. Where would our culture be without knives? The principle of the adage here on display is that only things intrinsically good can be abused. You cannot really abuse trash, or mistreat garbage. But you can abuse a child, and we instinctively know the reason: because a child is the most precious thing our sad world possesses. We forget this general truth, however, when it is religion that is being abused, as many mentally slip into an illogical argument for its abolition. Abusive politicians and policemen are also a scourge, but a world without politics and policing is a world with nothing to order and nothing to defend. So the next time someone displays indignation over the abuse of this or of that, look quickly at the value of the abused item, and beware of the temptation to merrily cut off noses to spite faces you’ve yet to behold.


Partially overlapping with this principle is the second. As abuse is only of inherently good things, so is the abuse and corruption of the very best things productive of the very worst, as we saw with children – and, I repeat, with religion. We do not find a crushed mosquito revolting, but a dog corpse already makes us jump with horror and disgust. The better the body, the more repellent the remains. Late antiquity wracked its collective brain as it watched the magnificent Roman civilization slowly decay and putrefy, challenging historians and philosophers for centuries to come – from Augustine to Gibbon –  to make sense of one the very best of human societies turning into one of the very worst. Whether or not you believe in angels, it is significant that traditional Semitic angelology has it that the very highest of the angels fell to become the very lowest; the initially quite lovely name of ‘Lucifer’ (‘Light-Bearer’) now sounds, well, luciferian. Another example is this: the closest and most intimate of human bonds are those of blood, the sacred family ties; however, the bloodiest of human conflicts involve fratricides and civil wars. Likewise, no enemy is as fierce as a friend turned fiend. The list of the best becoming the worst goes on and on.


The third adage is potentially the most controversial, although, in practice, it seems perhaps the most obvious. Without going into the more intricate philosophical or even scientific ways in which it might be questioned, I think we are justified in thinking, at least first of all, of its functioning in our daily affairs. Most people are right-handed and the world is full of acknowledgments of this statistical preponderance – from automobile production, road construction and classroom desks, the order of strings on most guitars and violins, and – on a somewhat darker note – all the way to ‘sinister’ allusions and left-handed compliments. Still, we make allowances for lefties wherever we can. After all, they are not guilty of their orientation. We would be over-accomodating, however, were we to insist that half of all classroom seats have left-handed desks. Clearly, the left-handed fact is an exception to the right-handed, and it draws attention to — ‘proves’ – the rule. Such proof does not, however, require us to extirpate the exceptions, or banish them to a ghetto. It just means the world is far more interesting, and beautiful, in part because it is not imperiously symmetrical.

As long as one fears that acknowledging an exception endangers the rule, living and life-nourishing norms and natural majorities will continue to harden into laws of Medes and Persians,  with minds biting down on 100% rules as the only way to honor nature.  But even modern science – once proud of its ‘laws of nature’ of necessary and universal validity – is now accustomed to conceding that it is dealing with statistical probabilities in most cases, and with tendencies and approximations that are simply thrown into clearer profile by the very exceptions that deny them universality.

If I have to swerve into the wrong lane in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian, that moment of exceptional behavior simply highlights with a touch of drama how important it is – 99% of the time – to stay in the right lane (and for pedestrians to keep off the street). I should like to escort this principle into more controversial territory, but I will leave that for another day.