In After Virtue, Alisdair MacIntyre often refers to Aristotle's "metaphysical biology" with disapproval. What exactly does he mean by this? I assume it is more specific than Aristotle's metaphysics or his biology?


In After Virtue I had tried to present the case for a broadly Aristotelian account of the virtues without making use of or appeal to what I called Aristotle's metaphysical biology.

MacIntyre rejects Aristotle's 'metaphysical biology', p.196:

First, although this account of the virtues is teleological, it does not require any allegiance to Aristotle's metaphysical biology

and also p.163 (full quote further below):

If we reject that biology, as we must...

The clearest clue of what he means is found on p.58, although this is still not that clear to me. He basically equates it with the assertion that the telos of man is the good life:

Aristotelian tradition-whether in its Greek or its medieval versions - involve at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function; and it is when and only when the classical tradition in its integrity has been substantially rejected that moral arguments change their character so that they fall within the scope of some version of the 'No "ought" conclusion from "is" premises' principle. That is to say, 'man' stands to 'good man' as 'watch' stands to 'good watch' or 'farmer' to 'good farmer' within the classical tradition. Aristotle takes it as a starting point for ethical enquiry that the relationship of 'man' to 'living well' is analogous to that of 'harpist' to 'playing the harp well' Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a 16). But the use of 'man' as a functional concept is far older than Aristotle and it does not initially derive from Aristotle's metaphysical biology. It is rooted in the forms of social life to which the theorists of the classical tradition give expression. For according to that tradition to be a man is to fill a set of roles each of which has its own point and purpose: member of a family, citizen, soldier, philosopher, servant of God. It is only when man is thought of as an individual prior to and apart from all roles that 'man' ceases to be a functional concept.


Every activity, every enquiry, every practice aims at some good; for by 'the good' or 'a good' we mean that at which human beings characteristically aim. It is important that Aristotle's initial arguments in the Ethics presuppose that what G .E. Moore was to call the 'naturalistic fallacy' is not a fallacy at all and that statements about what is good - and what is just or courageous or excellent in other ways-just are a kind of factual statement. Human beings, like the members of all other species, have a specific nature; and that nature is such that they have certain aims and goals, such that they move by nature towards a specific telos. The good is defined in terms of their specific characteristics. Hence Aristotle's ethics, expounded as he expounds it, presupposes his metaphysical biology. Aristotle thus sets himself the task of giving an account of the good which is at once local and particular -located in and partially defined by the characteristics of the polis-and yet also cosmic and universal. The tension between these poles is felt throughout the argument of the Ethics.


We have in the course of this account identified a number of points at which Aristotle's account of the virtues can be seriously put in question. Some of these concern parts of Aristotle's theory which not only have to be rejected, but whose rejection need not carry any large implications for our attitudes to his overall theory. So it is, I have suggested, with Aristotle's indefensible defence of slavery. But in at least three areas questions arise which , unless they can be answered satisfactorily, endanger the whole Aristotelian structure. The first of these concerns the way in which Aristotle's teleology presupposes his metaphysical biology. If we reject that biology, as we must, is there any way in which that teleology can be preserved?...any adequate teleological account must provide us with some clear and defensible account of the telos; and any adequate generally Aristotelian account must supply a teleological account which can replace Aristotle's metaphysical biology


3 Answers 3


An expert on Aristotle's ethics could give you a better answer, but since nobody else has taken a shot, I can give you a rough idea.

Aristotle is concerned to answer the moral question, What is a good man? For Aristotle, 'good' here means the same as it does when we ask, What is a good axe? For Aristotle, the essence, perhaps even the soul of an axe, is to cut. So, a good axe is one that cuts well. It is a fact about an axe whether it is good or not. It is easy to identify the purpose of an axe, because it is a human artifact and so it was made for a specific purpose. The problem now is to say how does this idea of purpose carry over to human beings? Unless you introduce creator gods, humans don't have a designated purpose.

For Aristotle, humans do have an essence or a nature. Humans are the rational animal; they are distinguished from other animals by their ability to reason and not be driven just by instincts and appetites. The highest form of existence is a life of rational contemplation. In order for this kind of life to be possible, certain types of behaviour are necessary.

So, Aristotle proceeds from a metaphysical theory about humans and their essence - what they are for - and derives virtuous kinds of behaviour: courage, wisdom, justice, self-control, as being necessary to express and fulfil that essence. The virtues themselves are just facts that we recognise when we see them, and a good person is one who exhibits these virtues.

The problem is that modern biologists do not think in terms of living things having essences, and teleological langauge is deprecated in favour of speaking of adaptations. Livings things do not exist in order to ..., but rather their existence and their properties are an adaptation to their environment over a long period of time. So, MacIntyre proposes to ditch the metaphysical baggage, while retaining the idea of accounting for the moral good in terms of virtuous behaviours. We can still think of moral virtues as behaviours that a society needs its members to have in order to survive and thrive. So we can speak teleologically, e.g. people need to be courageous in order to ... But we can do so in the context of a naturalistic approach to understanding why some behaviours are virtuous and others are vicious, without reference to biological essences.

  • MacIntyre's book is in large part about refuting many aspects of your last paragraph, unfortunately.
    – herman
    Apr 28, 2022 at 15:47
  • @herman Possibly MacIntyre's book would object to many statements from the last passage of Bumble's answer. This clearly shows that there is a dissent between MacIntyre and contemporary biology. How familiar is MacIntyre with contemporary biology?
    – Jo Wehler
    Apr 28, 2022 at 16:18
  • @JoWehler, it does not 'clearly show' that. The problem with that paragraph is not MacIntyre's purported rejection of modern biology, but his critique of modern contemporary/naturalistic ethics which is assumed in the answer.
    – herman
    Apr 28, 2022 at 17:12
  • @herman Who are those contemporary proponents of a naturalistic ethics? Which theses do they proclaim? Against whom does MaxIntyre argue?
    – Jo Wehler
    Apr 28, 2022 at 17:20
  • @JoWehler, I'm not going to summarize the book for you in a comment. I would encourage you to read it.
    – herman
    Apr 29, 2022 at 19:00

MacIntryre does not himself explain what he means by 'metaphysical biology'. However, there is a clue on pg.148 which you have quoted where he writes:

Hence Aristotle's ethics, expounded as he expounds it, presupposes his metaphysical biology. Aristotle thus sets himself the task of giving an account of the good which is at once local and particular, located in and partially defined by the characteristics of the polis, and yet also cosmic and universal.

To understand this "metaphysical biology ... which is at once local and particular ... and yet also cosmic and universal", it is worth looking at the book, Theory & Practise in Aristotle's Natural Science, where Devin Henry states:

David Sedley is perhaps the most well-known defender of the view that attributes to Aristotle a thoroughgoing and comprehensive global teleology in which the entire contents of the natural world - from living things and their parts, to the elements, to the seasons themselves - are so arranged that their mutual interactions contribute to the overall good of the universe. It follows from this that Aristotle's natural teleology cannot be fully grasped except from this global telelogical perspective.

In fact, Sedley argues that:

biological teleology is derivative to a prior cosmic telelogy

Devlin also goes onto say:

In opposition to this, many modern scholars defend what I call the 'organism-centred' view of Aristotle's natural teleology. This reading treats the individual organism as the final end for the sake of which all its features exist, so that final causation in biology can be understood exclusively from the perspective of the individual organism itself.

It is this view of metaphysical biology that MacIntryre endorses, rather than the former, and he pretty much calls it metaphysical biology.

It's probably worth recounting what Aristotle understood as biology given the modern partiality to modernity. The Encyclopedia Brittanica writes:

Aristotle was the first to show an understanding of an overall systemic taxonomy and to recognise units of different degrees within the sysyem ... the most important part of Aristotle's work was devoted to reproduction and the related subjects of heredity and descent. He identified four means of reproduction ... Although Aristotle recognised that species are not stable ... he was far from developing any pre-Darwinian ideas concerning evolution.

In fact, he discusses evolution in his Metaphysics only to reject it.

... Nevertheless, many important scientific principles, some of which are thought of as 20th C concepts, can be ascribed to Aristotle: 1) ... all organisms are structurally and functionally adapted to their habitats 2) Nature is parsimonious: it does not expend unneccessary energy 3) He recognised a basic unity of plan among diverse organisms, a principle that is still conceptually amd scientifically sound. Further, Aristotle also believed that the entire living world could be described as a unified organisation rather than as a collection of diverse groups

An insight that is developed by the science of ecology.

By his observations, Aristotle recognised the importance of structural homology, basically similar organs in different organisms, and functional analogy, different structures that serve somewhat the same function - eg, the hand, the claw and the hoof are analogous structures. 5) Aristotles observations also led to ... the principle that general structures appear before specialised ones and that tissues differentiate before organs.

Finally, its also worth adding that Aristotles metaphysical biology is not without its defenders amongst scientists even today. Probably the most prominent modern defenders are by the chemist, Lovelock and the micro-biologist Margulis with their notion of Gaia developed in the 70s. However, this is limited to the earth itself (and presumably similarly to any other life bearing planet) and unlike Aristotle is not cosmic in scope.

Moreover, his metaphysical biology is pushed to another level by tge French philosopher, Deleuze, with such notions as 'the body without organs', 'rhizome' and 'intensities'. Although Deleuze would not favour the name, Deleuze is an arch-Aristotelian playing in the sandbox made by Aristotle.

  • Although this answer is interesting, it focuses on Aristotle's physical biology. By metaphysical biology, it is clear that MacIntyre is referring to the metaphysical parts of man, and not the physical parts of organisms, and how these metaphysical parts somehow lead to a teleology.
    – herman
    Apr 29, 2022 at 19:07
  • @herman: MacIntyre refers to a "metaphysical biology ... that is cosmic and universal" which is what I've quoted Henry and Sedley on. So I don't see the point of your criticism. Apr 30, 2022 at 13:25

1.) From your quotes I consider MacIntyre’s expression ‚Aristotle’s metaphysical biology‘ a shorthand. It combines the telos-concept from his metaphysics with the ontogenetic development in biology.

Aristotle introduces in his lectures on metaphysics the concept of causa finalis (= telos). It is one of four types of causes necessary to understand an object: Telos is an intrinsic goal which every object has, and which is the same for all objects of a given species. Aristotle considers telos a general concept which applies to all things, also to humans.

From the viewpoint of biology the telos-concept is supported by the observation that plants and animals of the same species develop in the same way. According to Aristotle this uniform manner is due to predetermination.

2.) According to contemporary biology the predetermination is due to the genes which are specific for the species. Here we follow Aristotle.

On the contrary, we do not follow Aristotle when he carries over the telos concept in a plain fashion to humans. Humans are much less determined by their genes to follow the same goal in their life. Anthropology does not reduce to biology. And ethical values and norms do not derive from biological observations.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .