Zacharski M. The Normative Aspect of the Concept of physis and the Origin of the Naturalistic Fallacy
M. Zacharski *
THE NORMATIVE ASPECT OF THE CONCEPT OF φύσις
The text is given in author’s edition.
In the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. there were two key-words of the Greek philosophical, political and legal thought – νόμος and φύσις. Initially, they were not opposed to each other. However, the intellectual climate of democratic Athens in the 5th century B.C. led them to be regarded as an antithesis1. The juxtaposition of the concepts of νόμος and φύσις was originally meant to illustrate the separation between convention and nature. It is significant that these concepts were regarded as mutually exclusive. Existence by convention precluded existence by nature. It was also valid the other way around2. The encounter of these two words (νόμος and φύσις), both having so many connotations, made the antithesis catchy and applicable in different contexts. For νόμος may mean the “convention”, “usage”, “custom”, “law”, “statute”. In the deep semantic structure of the word lies the verb νέμειν – “to dispense”, “to distribute”. It is also believed that there is a relation between the word νόμος and the verb νομίζειν – “to use customarily”, “to practise”, “to be accustomed”, “to esteem”, “to consider”3. The meaning of φύσις was shaped primarily by Presocratic natural philosophers. Generally speaking, φύσις means “nature”. Depending on the context of the use of this antithesis, the terms have different meanings. Hence its numerous interpretations, and a long discussion of the scholars4. The connotations of νόμος are always strictly prescriptive and normative, and of φύσις mostly descriptive. However, φύσις in some contexts also has a prescriptive meaning5. One could ask how φύσις acquired a normative aspect, retaining of course its original – ethically neutral character. In this paper I intend to demonstrate that the concept of φύσις in its development by the time of the authors of the νόμος – φύσις antithesis, i.e. the Sophists in the 5th century B.C., had acquired a prescriptive aspect, which resulted in the emergence of the naturalistic fallacy6 in the European intellectual culture.
Originally, the character of the term φύσις was purely descriptive. The word was first used in Homer's Odyssey and meant “appearance”7. The inclination of the Ionian philosophers towards the study of nature of the universe, contributed to the development of the concept of φύσις. Nature was the main concern of Presocratic physical philosophers. The moral, prescriptive aspect of the concept of nature (φύσις) had already appeared in the doctrine of Anaximander to become fully revealed later in the doctrine of Socrates and Plato, and the concept of natural law. According to Themistius, Anaximander was the first philosopher to write a treatise On nature8. Doubts, however, have been raised about the title. Some scholars wonder whether it is possible that it was the original title already in the 6th century B.C., and argue that the term φύσις in its general meaning “nature” was probably not used until the 5th century B.C.9. Anaximander drew the parallel between δίκη, ruling among the people, and the order of the universe. He claimed that δίκη applies to the cosmos as well as to the legal regulation of the polis. The process of passing-away and coming-to-be is described by Anaximander in terms of litigation10. This view of nature from the perspective of the terms characteristic of the description of social order is a turning point in the approach to the concept of nature. For it is the moment in which φύσις obtained the normative aspect for the first time, although it still retained a descriptive character11.
The next step on the way to make φύσις a normative category is the thought of Heraclitus of Ephesus, who said:
Human behaviour can be in accordance with φύσις, thus the Heraclitian φύσις is a perceivable principle or rule that can be abstracted from the reality which surrounds people. Equally relevant is the passage of Heraclitus, in which the philosopher wrote:
One divine law, according to the thought of Heraclitus, feeds all human laws. This divine law Heraclitus called λόγος. The philosopher perceived the analogy between the structure of the polis and the structure of the universe.
In this context one should not neglect the Pythagorean doctrine. Philolaus of Tarentum, a Pythagorean from the turn of the 5th century B.C., states that “everything exists by nature, not by establishment”12. According to Pythagorean philosophy, the cosmos should be the model for the creation of social order13. It is worth mentioning that the first, according to Aristotle, creator of the ideal constitution, Hippodamus of Miletus, who lived in the 5th century B.C., is regarded as the Pythagorean and is often referred to as “Hippodamus the Pythagorean”14.
Of great importance to the issue of φύσις is the doctrine of the Sophists. The νόμος – φύσις antithesis is an instrument characteristic of this particular intellectual formation. The juxtaposition of these concepts appeared probably for the first time in the doctrine of the teacher of Socrates – Archelaus, who applied it to ethical considerations. Diogenes Laertius tells us Archelaus argued that what is just and what is shameful does not derive from nature, but from positive law15.
A fluent use of the νόμος – φύσις antithesis was characteristic of the doctrine of the two Sophists – Hippias of Elis and Antiphon. Researchers of the natural law indicate that the concept of φύσις in the doctrine of the Sophists has a strong normative aspect16. However, we are not able to reconstruct from the doctrine of the Sophists what they meant by φύσις. None of the numerous treatises on nature written by the Sophists survived to our times. In fact, probably the safest way, according to some scholars, is to define φύσις by the negation of νόμος17. Nature then is everything that does not exist by convention. It does not help, however, if we want to explore the scope and the content of the term φύσις. Besides, the Sophists could not agree among themselves as to the suitability of φύσις in application to social order. A natural state, according to the view of Protagoras, was not the desirable one. The appropriate agent, giving the man his human status, is νόμος – convention. Man at the beginning was naked, unshod, unbedded and unarmed, and only by the fact that Zeus sent Hermes providing a man with Dike and Aidos, poleis could be created and the political life emerged18. However, Hippias and Antiphon indicated on φύσις as the source of ethical reflection against νόμος. Hippias argued that law often constrains us against nature19. Yet Antiphon sought the basis of equality in the biological human nature and claimed that it is barbaric to respect only those of noble birth20, for all men are equal by nature.
The concept of φύσις in the thought of the Sophists was certainly something different than Socrates’ idea of nature. Socrates believed that the essence of human nature lies in the human soul, strictly speaking – in his intellectual and moral personality21. The Sophists probably perceived the notion of nature from the perspective of the research of Presocratic physical philosophers, for whom φύσις meant, as today we would say, “biological” or “scientific” nature. This approach is supported by the fact that Antiphon, explaining the origin of equality among people, refers to the purely biological quality – all breathe through the mouth and nostrils and eat using their hands22.
We are not able to answer the question of how the Sophists understood the concept of φύσις. Nevertheless, what we know is that they used this term also in the normative context. Therefore, we shall now explore how the Sophists expressed a prescriptive aspect of φύσις. We have to bear in mind that the Greek language was not so strongly conceptualised at the time. Many terms and concepts we owe to Plato and Aristotle. Plato uses the term νόμος τῆς φύσεως for the first time leaving no doubt as to a prescriptive aspect of φύσις. In the 4th century B.C. Demosthenes could say: “Nature herself has decreed it in the unwritten laws and the heart of men”23. At that time the relation between the common law (νόμος κοινός) and nature (φύσις) was not put in doubt, and φύσις was undoubtedly a category of ethical judgment24. But the Sophists were not talking about natural law or laws of nature expressis verbis. However, they used the term φύσις in such a way that its normative character is not difficult to detect. Hippias in Plato’s Protagoras spoke to the citizens with these words:
The usage of words φύσις and νόμος in dative draws our attention. It can be translated as “by nature” and “by law”. In this context, nature, however, does not need to be treated as a normative concept and hence the word φύσις translated as “according to nature”. This word may, in this case, specify a state in the descriptive sense. Thus it means only that in a natural state all people are equal. This can also be expressed by an adjective – “naturally”. Νόμος, however, as a normative category, violates nature by imposing rules contrary to nature. In this passage treating φύσις as a descriptive term, we emphasise the discrepancy between the concepts of νόμος and φύσις, indicating the mutual exclusion of both terms. They belong to two different ontological categories. However, treating φύσις as a normative concept, we are moving on the same ontological level, stating that there is a principle of φύσις, which implies the equality of all people. Hippias certainly knew Anaximander’s thought which draws a parallel between the δίκη existing among people on one hand and the cosmic order on the other. Both interpretations are, however, in my opinion, equal in terms of linguistic analysis.
The other Sophist – Antiphon said:
In this passage the insufficient conceptualisation of the Greek language is revealed. It is distinctive that it is not precise, what are these things originating from laws (τὰ τῶν νόμων) and what are those arising from nature (τὰ τῆς φύσεως). The Sophist uses only the neuter plural form of the article. We therefore have to guess what the subject is. Presumably these phrases denote some things which have their origin in laws or in nature (if we believe the genetives “τῶν νόμων” and “τῆς φύσεως” to appear in the function of genetivus originis). The attribute of things derived from nature indicating on its necessity do not prejudge the normative character of φύσις. For necessity on one hand brings φύσις close to law, and on the other moves it far from the legislative aspect, depending on interpretation. Necessity (ἀνάγκη) is, according to the Presocratic philosophy, a cosmological force that permeates the universe. Therefore, we can see the prescriptive aspect of φύσις from the perspective of the notion of necessity. In this approach necessity expresses the strenght of the command-rule that reigns over the nature. In other words nature imposes its severe rules in such a strong way, that they are necessary. Thucydides tells us this is how the Athenians justified their attitude toward the Melians, imposing on them the right of the stronger – a natural necessity25. However, if we look at the normativity of φύσις admitting that it manifests itself only in a situation of choice, and therefore only when it is possible to act in accordance with or against nature, our interpretation is quite different: the necessity excludes the choice, since the decrees of nature are imposed regardless of the will of the agent. It is a question of distinguishing the laws of nature, which cannot be broken (e.g. because every time you drop a stone, it falls to the ground) from the natural law, which is typical of social relations. In fact, when we speak of laws of nature, we do not mean the normative or prescriptive aspect of nature. We say “laws of nature” but the consciousness of their unbreakable quiddity places them as a concept in the realm of description26. An equally distinctive thought was expressed by Antiphon in the following sentence:
In this case, the normative aspect of φύσις is essentially undisputed. The form of the verb in optative (ἄγοι), which refers to both τοὺς νόμους and to τὰ τῆς φύσεως clearly shows the connotation associated with obedience to the laws. Τὰ τῆς φύσεως is thus a clear reference to the standards derived from nature.
The final stage of the saturation of the word φύσις with its normative aspect is its application in the doctrine of Socrates and Plato, who used the term φύσις in a formulation with the term νόμος, which has a strictly prescriptive character. Plato was the first to use the term νόμος τῆς φύσεως. Callicles, a character of the dialogue Gorgias, uttered these words in the context of justice27. Later νόμος τῆς φύσεως appears in Timaeus28. There is of course a certain difference between the meaning of those words used by Callicles, who used it in the context of natural law and justice, and the meaning of this term found in Timaeus, where νόμος τῆς φύσεως refers to laws of nature. This is a crucial distinction29. Plato sensed a strong correlation between the concepts of νόμος and φύσις, rejecting the antithesis of the Sophists. It is worth mentioning that also the Anonymus Iamblichi reconciled νόμος and φύσις:
Of great importance is the utterance, which combines the concepts of νόμος and φύσις in the formulation of Callicles:
As to the normative and prescriptive aspects of the concept of φύσις, they prove to be indisputable at this point. Confidence in this case is guaranteed by the word νόμος. The same term appears in the utterance of Timaeus in Plato’s dialogue bearing his name:
We have already pointed out that there exists a difference between the first and the second use. Callicles means natural law in the context of social order, while Timaeus refers to the laws of nature.
After describing the genesis of the normative character of φύσις, which is revealed in the development of European thought in the concept of natural law, I would like to point out that the beginning of the process of saturating the normative connotations of the concept of φύσις is the moment of the emergence of the naturalistic fallacy in terms of David Hume’s priciple. Hume in his Treatise of Human Nature has noted that there is no logical implication between what is and what ought to be30. It is therefore a mistake to derive the obligations from being. Φύσις in a descriptive sense does not generate the problem. Complications begin when we start speaking of the normative and prescriptive aspects of the term φύσις. All of the above-mentioned philosophers who contributed to the perceiving of nature as a pattern of conduct made this mistake, while passing from the descriptive to the normative aspect of φύσις. In my opinion it is not an anachronism to assign the naturalistic fallacy to these philosophers, although it was not described until the 18th century A.D. Despite having been described subsequently to the emergence of all thoughts from the passages commented above, logic was encompassed in the structure of language. In my view, the dispute between idealists and their opponents concerning mathematics is irrelevant in terms of logic. To summarise it briefly – the former claim that mathematics is discovered by the people over the course of time, but its everlasting existence is indisputable, while the latter, that mathematics is created by people along with the progress of science31. Logic32 cannot be discussed from that point of view, because it refers to the structure of language33. As to mathematics a sui generis language is applied. Neither Presocratic philosophers nor even Plato (although he introduced in his method some elements characteristic of logic – e.g. definitions) could not be aware of the naturalistic fallacy they committed. It seems it would be possible on the basis of the logic of the Stoics, which those philosophers still did not know. But one cannot claim that the logic of Aristotle did not exist before he described it and, therefore, logical fallacies cannot be found in any utterance from before the time of its discovery34.
It is interesting that at the source of the naturalistic fallacy, i.e. in the doctrine of Anaxagoras, there is a projection of the sphere of obligation upon the realm of being, which is opposite to the thought of later philosophers who agreed to recognise the normative aspect of φύσις. Anaxagoras using the terms from the domain of social order to describe the realm of matter, was the first to fall into the trap of combining features of the descriptive and prescriptive aspects in one concept. I believe this is the very beginning of the naturalistic fallacy.
The concept of φύσις which emerged in Greek philosophy influenced the conception of law, not only in antiquity but also in modern times and determined the thinking about law. The idea of the unwritten law35, which is common for all people, traditionally and culturally associated with the conceptions of natural law since antiquity36, is still present in the philosophy of law. The thinkers still deal with the problem of the naturalistic fallacy, which concerns most (if not all) of the conceptions of natural law. The solution of this issue would have been one of the top achievements in philosophy37.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
* Michał Zacharski, PhD. Student, University of Warsaw.
1 Cf. Ostwald M. From Popular Sovereignty to Sovereignty of Law. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1986. P. 260-266.
2 See Guthrie W.K.C. The Sophists. London, New York, Melbourne, 1969. P. 55.
3 See ibid.
4 See e.g.: Heinimann F. Νόμος und Φύσις: Herkunft und Bedeutung einer Antithese im Griechischen Denken des 5. Jahrhunderts. Basel, 1945; Guthrie W.K.C. Op. cit.; Ostwald M. Op. cit.; Romilly J., de. The Great Sophists in Periclean Athens. Transl. J. Lloyd. Oxford, New York, 1992; Long A.A. Law and Nature in Greek Thought // Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law / Ed. by M. Gagarin, D. Cohen. Cambridge, 2005. P. 412-430.
5 See Long A.A. Op. cit. P. 412.
6 See e.g.: Frankena W.K. The Naturalistic Fallacy // The Mind. 1939. Vol. 48. № 192. P. 464-477.
7 Cf. Hom. Od. X. 303.
8 Them. Or. XXVI. 383 Dindorf.
9 Cf. Kirk G. Heraclitus, the Cosmic Fragments. Cambridge, 1954. P. 227 f.
10 See Jaeger W. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Vol. 1. Transl. G. Highet. New York, 1939. P. 159; cf. Adams J.L. The Law of Nature in Greco-Roman Thought // The Journal of Religion. 1945. Vol. 25. № 2. P. 99; cf. Crowe M.B. The Changing Profile of the Natural Law. The Hague, 1977. P. 2; cf. DK 12A 9: λέγει δʹ αὐτὴν µήτε ὕδωρ µήτε ἄλλο τι τῶν καλουµένων εἶναι στοιχείων, ἀλλʹ ἑτέραν τινὰ φύσιν ἄπειρον, ἐξ ἧς ἅπαντας γίνεσθαι τοὺς οὐρανοὺς καὶ τοὺς ἐν αὐτοῖς κόσµους· ἐξ ὧν δὲ ... τάξιν [B1]; cf. DK 12B 1 to which there is a reference in the fragment 12A 9: Ἀ...ἀρχὴν εἴρηκε τῶν ὄντων τὸ ἄπειρον ἐξ ὧν δὲ ἡ γένεσίς ἐστι τοῖς οὖσι, καὶ τὴν φθορὰν εἰς ταῦτα γίνεσθαι κατὰ τὸ χρεὼν· διδόναι γὰρ αὐτὰ δίκην καὶ τίσιν ἀλλήλοις τῆς ἀδικίας κατὰ τὴν τοῦ χρόνου τάξιν.
11 If we are not to believe in the testimony of Simplicius as to the terms used by Anaximander, this moment cannot be assigned to Anaximander, but to his successors. Nevertheless, Anaximander certainly contributed to the moralisation of φύσις, since his philosophy is referring to issues comprised in the concept of φύσις; see Adams J.L. Op. cit. P. 99, n. 10.
12 Cf. DK 44 B9.
13 See Gajda J. Prawo natury i umowa społeczna w filozofii przedsokratejskiej. Wrocław, 1986. S. 68-70; cf. Mielczarski C. Idee społeczno-polityczne sofistów. U źródeł europejskiego pluralizmu politycznego. Warszawa, 2006. P. 55-56; cf. Adams J.L. Op. cit. P. 99. On the number theory of reality see Crowe M.B. Op. cit. P. 3; cf. DK 44B 11.
14 On views of Hippodamus see Arist. Pol. 1267b 20 – 1268a 16.
15 Cf. Diog. Laert. II. 16. M. Ostwald doubts that Archelaus expressed his moral doctrine in terms of νόμος and φύσις (Ostwald M. Op. cit. P. 262). The researcher also considers Hippocrates as the precursor of the νόμος-φύσις antithesis (De aere aquis locis; Ostwald M. Op. cit. P. 261), but as argued by F. Heinimann, νόμος and φύσις in the thought of Hippocrates are unlikely to have been opposed (Heinimann F. Op. cit. S. 26-28).
16 See Adams J.L. Op. cit. P. 101-103. J. de Romilly indicates that Hippias believed in the unwritten law, which was of divine or natural origin (Romilly J., de. Op. cit. P. 115). Cf. Guthrie W.K.C. Op. cit. P. 100 (as he comments on the dictates of nature).
17 See Barker E. Greek Political Theory: Plato and His Predecessors. London, 1925. P. 75.
18 Cf. Pl. Prot. 320c – 328d.
19 Cf. Pl. Prot. 337d.
20 Cf. DK 87B 44.
21 Armstrong A.H. An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy. Littlefield, 1983. P. 29.
22 DK 87B 44.
23 Dem. XVIII. 275.
24 Cf. Guthrie W.K.C. Op. cit. P. 118; on universal laws “according to nature” cf. Arist. Rhet. 1368b 7, 1373b 6, 1375a 32; see also Carey C. Νόμος in Attic Rhetoric and Oratory // The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1996. Vol. 116. P. 37.
25 Thuc. V. 105. 2.
26 On the relation of nature and necessity see Guthrie W.K.C. Op. cit. P. 99-101.
27 Pl. Gor. 483c – 483e.
28 Pl. Tim. 83e.
29 Cf. Long A.A. Op. cit. P. 413.
30 Hume D. Treatise of Human Nature. Sioux Falls, 2007. P. 335.
31 See e.g.: http://www.scienceandreligiontoday.com/2010/04/01/is-mathematics-invented-or-discovered (date of access: 26.03.2011).
32 At least in antiquity when the term logic and the propositional logic itself were based on the structures of language.
33 See Cochiarella N.B. Logic and Ontology // Axiomathes 2001. Vol. 12. P. 117-150.
34 Especially if we bear in mind the incidental findings in the field of logic, such as the discovery of the law of identity by Parmenides; on the logical aspect of the work of Parmenides see Cornford F.M. From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation. New York, 1957. P. 214-216.
35 On the unwritten law in terms of the ancient views and the opposition of the state law and the unwritten law see Guthrie W.K.C. Op. cit. P. 117-131; cf. Wallace R.W. Νόμος/Φύσις: The Anti-Democratic Context // Φύσις and Νόμος. Power, Justice and the Agonistical Ideal of Life in High Classicism / Ed. by A.L. Pierris. Patras, 2007. P. 28-29.
36 See Crowe M.B. Op. cit.; Strauss L. Natural Right and History. Chicago, 1950.
37 See Finnis J. Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford, 1980.
Adams J.L. The Law of Nature in Greco-Roman Thought // The Journal of Religion. 1945. Vol. 25. № 2. P. 97-118.
LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS
DK – Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, griechish und deutsch / H.A. Diels (Hrsg.). Bd. 1-3.
THE NORMATIVE ASPECT OF THE CONCEPT OF φύσις
In the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. there were two key-words of the Greek philosophical, political and legal thought – νόμος and φύσις. The intellectual climate of 5th-century Athens led them to be regarded as the antithesis. The νόμος – φύσις antinomy constituted a tool of legal and political criticism. Undoubtedly the concept of νόμος comprises a prescriptive and normative aspect. However, an initially descriptive term φύσις raises doubts as to its prescriptive connotations. This paper deals with the history of the normative aspect of φύσις from Anaximander to Socrates and Plato. The analysis of the sources confirms that there was a distinct process of saturation of the term φύσις with prescriptive and normative meaning.
In this tendency of φύσις to become the category of ethical judgment the author reveals the origin of the naturalistic fallacy. The idea of combining the descriptive and prescriptive connotations in one term coincides in time with the emergence of the “is-ought” issue described by David Hume.
For citation use: [Zacharski, M. 2012, 24 April. “The Normative Aspect of the Concept of φύσις and the Origin of the Naturalistic Fallacy.” Yaroslavl State University, Centre for Classical Studies. http://antik-yar.ru/events-2/ancient-civilization-political-institutions-and-legal-regulation/zacharski-m?lang=en].
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