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Phylogeny, Ontogeny, and Hierarchy ala Jasper Neel’s Aristotle’s Voice

This is a brief discussion of a small snippet of one of my favorite books, Aristotle’s Voice, by Jasper Neel. I highly recommend it, especially read after or alongside reading Aristotle.


Phylogeny: In the case used by Neel, phylogeny refers to the evolution or historical development of current composition studies. According to Neel, this history could begin at any one of a number of sites, including but not limited to ancient Greece, and that “such phylogeny explains both the historical development of and the general nature of ‘the composition teacher'” (6). This phylogenic approach to studying what occurs in composition classrooms today gives an historic, cultural background that highlights the various influences that intersect within the composition instructor, whether or not he or she is consciously aware of those influences.

Ontogeny: Contrasted with phylogeny, ontogeny studies the development of a specific organism. He claims to write “for all those composition teachers who cannot realistically seek more than ontogeny [since] phylogeny will have to wait for the miniscule percentage of composition teachers who become lifelong professionals” (7).  Within the scope of this work, he seeks to inform those for whom ontogeny might be the only reasonable means of analysis for their composition teaching practices, by making the phylogeny visible. In addition, he includes his own ontogenic information that details his personal route to taking the position he currently holds.

Neel’s approach in Aristotle’s Voice integrates these two approaches, giving both the historic and individual history that led him, personally, to the perspectives he espouses, as well as highlighting the effects that these lines of thought have had in shaping the philosophic underpinnings of the Western paradigm. In alignment with the issues he describes, he likewise does this by combining both a “human” and “professional” voice within the writing, rhetorically validating it as legitimate to both of these aspects of human writing and endeavors.

“In Aristotle’s system, soul is privileged over body, intelligence over emotion, humans over animals, men over women, and freemen over slaves. Is it possible for the field of composition studies to extract the first three hierarchies — the ones privileging soul, intelligence, and human — while leaving aside the other two hierarchies — the ones privileging male and freeman?” (26).

This quote struck me as problematic in that it seemed to imply that the first three hierarchies were “legitimate” whereas the last two were not. Or, perhaps more specifically, these first three categories may not be seen as appropriate for consideration or arising within the composition classroom, or at least not to the degree as the last two categories. I am not certain about the foundation of that assumption, or whether I am even reading that in the way it was intended, but the distinction between the first three and last two hierarchies seems inseparable from the entire system of binary, hierarchical “logic” entailed by all such pairings.

Just as Neel traces the phylogeny of composition studies back through Aristotle (and by association, Plato), the implications of all such hierarchical pairings is evidenced by this passage as well. Do we want to continue to privilege soul over body? Intelligence over emotion? Human over animal? Or do these categorical distinctions likewise lead to the kinds of injustice and suffering he refers to regarding racism? (13).

Multiple sites of suffering can be implicated as arising from the very categories left out of this equation. For instance, the soul (or perhaps in currently accepted metaphysical terms, the “mind”[1]) being privileged over the body in Western society has arguably led to a disconnected mind/body state where the physical, i.e. that which keeps the biological organism alive, is ignored or subverted in order to listen to the demands of the mind/soul. This leads to a host of ills including substance abuse (where those substances harm the body), poor posture (which can lead to debilitating and degerative conditions, chronic pain, or even paralysis), lack of exercise (leading to obesity, heart problems, and potentially life threatening conditions), and general failure for the human organism to take care of itself as an organism, despite the obvious counter-survival implications of these choices. In addition, those steeped in Western ideology often claim a “detachment” from their bodies and/or do not experience, or attend to the experience, that occurs at the bodily/sensate level, thus cutting them off from a host of experiences that they do not even realize they are missing, as their position from within that ideology has so privileged the soul/mind state over that of the body that those experiences are negated to the point that very little language even exists to speak of it, if it is noted at all.[2]

The privileging of intelligence over emotion, likewise, is implicated in various forms of suffering, many of which can arise from the detached, professional state of mind described by Neel, and promoted by Aristotle, in this chapter. If one can make (or hear) a “logical” argument for why it is okay for groups or individuals to suffer, say, from starvation or acts of war, then it allows the speaker or hearer to detach from emotions such as sadness, grief, outrage, or compassion, all of which might move him or her to act in such a way as to promote an ending of that suffering. If, instead, he or she hears the argument “logically” and sets aside these emotions that rebel against such suffering, then that removal of emotions as a legitimate or sufficient motivation for action allows that situation of suffering to remain unchanged. Just as the ignoring of the body in order to privilege the desires of the soul/mind have the potential to separate human beings from the full range of their human experience, so too does the separation of the emotions from logic serve very similar ends.

In addition, emotions often seem to underlie actions anyway; the “logic” at work, including from within Aristotle’s own writing, at times seems more like “logical sounding justification” for what one wishes on an emotional level to do. This seems to happen more often in cases where the emotions underlying the desired action — such as apathy, bigotry, hatred, or flippancy — are “less noble” than the kinds of emotions mentioned above. Whereas emotions such as sadness or compassion are sometime labeled as a sign of intellectual “weakness” in a culture based in competition and individualism, acting from the emotions of apathy or laziness might be judged as “worse” in the great hierarchy of meaning in Western society, thus “logical sounding arguments” for the continuance of suffering abound, which again contributes to the kinds of ills described by Neel regarding racism.

Lastly, the privileging of humans over animals leads to untold suffering for organisms that do not happen to be the relatively hairless bipeds described by Aristotle as being “naturally” in a position of superiority over them. Just as the master/slave dichotomy, the human/animal pairing completely ignores that on many fundamental “natural” levels, human beings are animals, thus this hierarchy is a rather biased and somewhat arbitrary assumption made by the only animal that has access to the creation of texts that support this privileging.  This hierarchy also contributes to the one class of racism described by Neel where groups designated as “Other” can be classed as being “like animals,” and thus discounted. In addition to the obvious oppressive tendencies inherent in this attempt at classifying the human “Other” as an animal is also the largely unquestioned assumption that animals “naturally” have fewer rights than humans do. Just as the slave is viewed as being “made for” the master to dominate, so too are animals viewed as existing solely for exploitation and use by humans. To see the master and slave as belonging to the same class of beings in Aristotle’s day is possibly no more or less radical than viewing animals and humans as belonging to the same class of beings today, though the logic in those distinctions is largely the same.

I think that composition studies should universally question all hierarchical assumptions, regardless of the particular items presented in those positions, should, in fact, question the entire structure of hierarchy and binary pairings in its entirety. “Meaning” for Western society has largely rested within a comparison of opposites, with the commonly held belief that one side of that equation does not have meaning without the other side, and that one side is “naturally” superior. (Practically any two placeholders can be substituted for this maxim: Light and darkness, male and female, right and wrong, life and death, good and bad, etc.) This way of measuring seems inescapable for many steeped in this paradigm, despite the existence of other ways of viewing reality that do not hold these opposites as creating the tension that (naturally?) constructs meaning. However, as is customary for Western thinking, the impulse is to place these paradigms in the class of “Other” and privilege the Western binary system over it as superior, and to call that privileging either logical or natural, much as Aristotle taught us to do so many years ago.

[1] As Neel points out in the next chapter, the Greek word often translated as “soul” means something akin to breath or self-aware beingness. Within current rhetorics of neuroscience, a distinction is typically made between “mind” and “brain” as categories of inquiry and study. In a culture that academically discounts or ignores the idea of a “soul,” the category “mind” has largely taken its place as the site of self-reflexive awareness that coincides with Neel’s later description.

[2] Work by Eugene Gendlin discusses from a philosophical, as well as a psychological, level the ways in which people have a “felt sense” of experience that they then attempt to translate into a discursive medium. Theorists in the study of dance and movement discuss similar issues, such as those posed by Jaida Kin Samudra in “Memory in Our Body: Thick Participation and the Translation of Kinesthetic Experience.”

From: Neel, Jasper. “Introduction” and “The Rhetoric and Politics of Slavery.” Aristotle’s Voice. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1994.


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