This month we talk to Christopher Frey, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Click here to listen to our conversation.
Aristotle thought that after you chop off a person’s hand, it ceases to be a hand in the original sense of the term. Sure, we call it a hand. But it just isn’t a hand in the same sense. It can’t pick up a glass of orange juice, twist doorknobs, or make obscene gestures. It can’t do any of the things that real hands do; and if you can’t do any of the things that real hands do, you don’t get to count as a hand. This is because being a hand–according to Aristotle–isn’t just a matter of having a certain shape, weighing a certain amount, or being located near an arm. Being a hand is really about serving a certain purpose in a person’s life: namely, that of allowing her to grasp objects, use tools, build things, and so on.
In Aristotle’s philosophy, that idea applies generally: the purpose of blood is (let’s say) to oxygenate our cells, so when I cut myself while peeling potatoes, the red stuff all over the kitchen counter isn’t really blood. Why? Well, the whole point of blood is to oxygenate our cells, and this red stuff can’t do that. So whenever you’ve got a part of a creature’s body, it’s only really the part that it is when it’s playing the role in the creature’s life that it’s supposed to play.
Now, most people agree that Aristotle’s idea (which philosophers call ‘organic homonymy’) has something going for it. But Christopher Frey argues that Aristotle actually intended to take it even further. According to Frey, Aristotle didn’t just think that a severed hand wasn’t really a hand–he thought that a severed hand had nothing in common with the original attached hand. It’s as though when a person’s hand is severed, it suddenly transforms into a completely different thing.
Tune in to hear his explanation why!