Independent Things

Having just posted notes on Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book Zeta, I wanted to pause for some personal reflections. The hands-on engagement of putting together a textual commentary like that with extensive quotes always gives me a quality of insight into the material that I don’t get from just reading or re-reading a text.

One of the ways Aristotle stands out as a philosopher — to speak a bit figuratively — is his philosophically generous attitude toward not only living, “independent” beings, but ordinary “things” of all sorts. This carries over into his ethics.

Engagement in the world, approached the right way, need be no distraction from our essential concerns. Rather, for Aristotle it is a fulfillment of the “purpose” of the kind of beings that we are. He encourages us to cultivate a feeling of being fundamentally at home in life in the world, a feeling strong enough to remain ultimately unshaken by our emotional responses to events and circumstances. By contrast, Plotinus, for instance, though appreciative of beauty in all its forms, ultimately directs our attention both spiritually and philosophically away from the world and toward the One. Modern philosophers tend to view the world as inert matter for us to manipulate, not something with which we would feel kinship and a sense of belonging.

Hegel criticizes Kant for being “too tender” toward objects, but I feel that this and some other remarks are a bit lacking in interpretive charity, even though Hegel is deeply Kantian in many ways. In particular, I have a lot more sympathy for Kant’s notion of “things in themselves” than Hegel did.

Kantian things in themselves don’t exactly align with either Aristotle’s notion of independent things or with the what-it-is of those things, but they have relations to both, which may suggest an alternate way out of the Kantian “impasse” that troubles Hegel. What Hegel regards as an unresolved impasse in Kant in this area is the irreducible gap Kant sets up between knowledge and things in themselves. But Aristotle also says we do not have knowledge of independent things or their what-it-is.

We may have knowledge of their articulations, but articulations are only expressible in terms of universals (words with posited meanings that are applicable to multiple things), while independent things and their what-it-is are particulars. Therefore, for Aristotle too there will be a sort of Kantian gap between knowledge and independent things. I have praised this as a kind of “epistemic modesty”.

We have only experience and acquaintance with independent things, not knowledge. We may also dialectically inquire, interpret, and make judgments about them, thus reaching relatively well-founded belief, but we cannot know them, because they are particulars independent of us, while all knowledge (episteme) is discursive.

When it comes to the what-it-is of things as distinct from the independent things themselves, we have no experience or acquaintance either, but only the “long detour” of dialectic, interpretation, and judgment. This, it seems to me, is what Hegel’s logic of essence addresses. In the logic of essence, Hegel speaks to Aristotelian considerations, and I would now say more specifically that Hegel’s logic of essence explores more or less the same dialectical level as Metaphysics book Zeta.

Kant’s things in themselves seem utterly remote and mysterious to nearly everyone — I dare say much more so than the Aristotelian what-it-is. A historical reason for this is not far to seek. Kant’s intellectual formation was in the milieu of the Wolffian school, within which the small fraction of the works of Leibniz published in his lifetime played a leading role.

Leibniz developed the highly original notion of the “complete essence” of a thing, corresponding to the way God would know it — as including every true statement about a thing, including all the empirical facts applicable to its past, present, and future. Leibniz’ God is concerned with the totality of logical truth about a thing.

From the point of view of Aristotle or Hegel, this turn to the totality of logical and factual truth abolishes the distinction between essence and what is not essence. It thus effectively abolishes the more specific concept of essence and a “deeper truth”. An emphasis on complete essence also foregrounds something we could not possibly experience over the sensible independent things with articulable properties that we do experience.

For Leibniz, naturally enough, only God knows complete essences. Humans could not possibly know them. What I want to suggest here is that the reason the Kantian thing-in-itself is inherently unknowable by us is that it basically is a Leibnizian complete essence.

Because a complete essence is no longer a proper what-it-is that can potentially be distinguished from the many incidental facts about a thing, it is far less tractable to Aristotelian or Hegelian dialectic than a what-it-is that at least potentially can be so distinguished. A complete essence poses head-on what Hegel calls the “problem of indifference”, which plagued early modern philosophy. Among all the true statements about a thing, there is no clear way to pick out which would be more relevant to what Aristotle would call the articulation of what-it-is.

While Aristotelian independent things and their what-it-is are unknowable because they are particulars, they remain relatively tractable to dialectical inquiry, and are therefore not radically unknowable to humans in the way a complete essence or thing in itself would be. Certainly Aristotle seems to say more about them that is meaningful than Kant is able to say about things in themselves.

Hegel wants to abolish things “in themselves” — not at all because he wants to abolish Aristotelian independent things or their what-it-is, but because he objects both to the Hermetic isolation of complete essences from one another and to the problem of indifference that complete essences pose. He in effect goes back to Aristotle on this.

It is important to emphasize that the independence of an Aristotelian independent thing means it cannot be just an object of consciousness. It is supposed to be a reality in its own right. While this is not the only point of view we may adopt, the kind of deeper truth that Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel all seek is not to be found by fleeing the world and leaving such realities behind.

If we accept an Aristotelian revision of the Kantian gap between knowledge and what is, the gap no longer brings inquiry to a halt. Then the broadly Kantian view that there is a gap and the broadly Hegelian view that we can go a long way toward overcoming it can both be sustained. (See also Practical Wisdom.)

The What-It-Is of Things

We’ve now reached the beginning of a much more sustained argument at the heart of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The sequence of books Zeta, Eta, and Theta (VII-IX in Sachs’ translation) has a much tighter cohesion than the Metaphysics as a whole. These are commonly referred to by scholars as the “central” books. Here I will cover book Zeta (VII).

We have also reached the transition from initial questions about being (einai) to the development of answers that will be expressed entirely in terms of ousia (substance, essence, thinghood, the what-it-is of things). Neither Aristotle’s questions nor his answers have to do with being in the sense of existence.

“[Being] signifies what something is and a this, but also of what sort or how much something is, or any of the other things attributed in that way. But… the way that is first among these is what something is, which indicates its thinghood” (book VII chapter 1, Sachs tr., p. 117).

“[S]omeone might be at an impasse whether each thing such as walking or healing or sitting is or is not a being, and similarly with anything else whatever of such a kind; for none of them is either of such a nature as to be by itself nor capable of being separated from an independent thing” (ibid).

I would call these “things”, but not “beings” or “independent things”.

Rather than attempting to speak about existence in general, he is concerned about the relative “independence” of particular things that are to be understood first in terms of what they are. This independence signifies both an internal cohesiveness associated with relative persistence in time, and a relative independence from us. Independent things are not just random phenomena, and they do not arbitrarily bend to our will. On the other hand, what they are can only be developed discursively, which implicitly involves us and our interpretation and judgment.

“[T]hinghood is primary in every sense, in articulation, in knowledge, and in time. For none of the other ways of attributing being is separate, but only this one; and in articulation this one is primary (for in the articulation of anything, that of its thinghood must be included); and we believe that we know each thing most of all when we know what it is…. And in fact, the thing that has been sought both anciently and now, and always, and is always a source of impasses, ‘what is being?’, is just this: what is thinghood?” (pp. 117-118).

Here he pretty much literally says that asking the famous “question of being” is asking the wrong question. From here on out, the inquiry will revolve around the status of definite “things” rather than of being in general — that is to say, it will focus on what things are, and on their “independence” as characterized above. We should still think of definite things in a higher-order way and not just one by one, but we will never leave definiteness behind.

Now the dialectical work begins in earnest. The first problem he addresses is that the preliminary separation of ousia from the more derivative senses of being was effected by treating the ousia as a kind of substrate in which all attributes inhere. This leads to the thought that it must after all be matter, but that cannot be right, because it is the form that allows something to be picked out as separate.

“But since at the start we distinguished in how many ways we define thinghood, and of these a certain one seemed to be what something keeps on being in order to be, one ought to examine that. And first let us say some things about it from the standpoint of logic, because what it is for each thing to be is what is said of it in its own right” (chapter 4, p. 120).

Again, it is vital to emphasize how questions of what things are are to be answered in terms of what is properly said about them. We will be concerned with proprieties of interpretation and judgment.

His concern with definiteness leads to a consideration of definition, and what it is to be a definable thing.

“Therefore there is a what-it-is-for-it-to-be of all those things of which the articulation is a definition. And it is not the case that there is a definition whenever a name means the same thing as a statement…, but only if the statement articulates some primary thing, and things of this kind are all those that are not articulated by attributing one thing to another” (p. 122).

Again, not being attributed to something else has to do with “independence”.

“This is clear: that a definition and a what-it-is-for-something-to-be belong primarily and simply to independent things. It is not that they do not belong to the other things in a way that resembles this, but only that they do not belong to them primarily…. And for this reason there will be a statement and a definition of a pale person, but in a different way than of pale, or of an independent thing” (p. 123).

“Therefore in one sense there will not be a definition of anything, nor a what-it-is-for-something-to-be present in anything, except of and in independent things, but in another sense there will be” (chapter 5, p. 124).

Independent things come first for Aristotle, but this emphasis is not exclusive. Derivative things — and corresponding things said in categories other than that of substance or thinghood — will also be taken into account.

“But one must investigate whether each thing is the same as, or different from, what it keeps on being in order to be” (chapter 6, p. 125).

“For there is knowledge of anything only when we recognize what it is for it to be…. Therefore the good and being-good must be one thing, and so too the beautiful and being-beautiful…. So by these arguments, each thing itself and what it is for it to be are one and the same, in a way that is not incidental, and this follows also because knowing each of them is just this: to know what it is for it to be…. In what way, then, what it is for something to be is the same as each thing, and in what way it is not, have been said” (pp. 126-127).

Once again, he directs our attention to definite form (or meaningful “content”, in the way many contemporary philosophers speak). Whether we call it form or content, the idea is to focus on meaning, and on wherever meaning is concentrated.

Next he begins to raise issues related to becoming.

“Of the things that come into being, some come about by nature, some by art, and some as a result of chance, but everything that comes into being becomes something, from something, and by the action of something… [J]ust as is always said, coming into being would be impossible if there were nothing present beforehand” (chapter 7, p. 128).

This is Aristotle’s more specific version of what Leibniz calls the principle of sufficient reason. Next he explains that becoming applies only to composite wholes that include both matter and form. In the way that Aristotle thinks about these matters, it is not correct to say that the form or what-it-is-to-be a thing comes into being.

“[J]ust as one does not make the underlying thing, the bronze, so too one does not make the sphere, except in the incidental sense that the bronze sphere is a sphere, and one makes that…. Therefore it is clear that the form, or whatever one ought to call the shapeliness that is worked into the perceptible thing, does not come into being, and that coming-into-being does not even pertain to it, or to what it is for something to be (for this is what comes to be in something else…)” (chapter 8, p. 131).

“So it is clear from what has been said that what is spoken of as form or thinghood does not come into being, but the composite whole that is named in consequence of this does come into being; and it is clear that there is material present in everything that comes into being, so that it is not only this but also that…. So it is rather the case that one makes or begets a certain kind of thing out of some this, and when it has been generated it is this-thing-of-this-kind” (p. 132).

Aristotle maintains a delicate balance in speaking about form. He strongly endorses the broad Platonic thesis of the importance of form, while refusing to take literally the more specific Platonic suggestions about the independence of form, which Plato’s other students elevated to a dogma.

“Therefore it is clear that the causal responsibility attributed to the forms, in the sense that some people are in the habit of speaking of the forms, as if they are certain things apart from the particulars, is of no use, at least in relation to coming-into-being and independent things” (ibid).

According to Aristotle, by virtue of their very “independence”, the kind of forms advocated by the Platonists would be cut off from the world, and could not possibly serve as causes of anything.

“[I]n a certain way everything comes into being from something that shares its name, just as the things do that are by nature (for instance a house comes from a house, insofar as it comes about by the action of an intelligence, since its form is the art by which it is built)” (chapter 9, p. 133).

In the natural case, living beings beget other similar living beings.

“And it is not only about thinghood that the argument shows that the form does not come into being, but in the same way, the argument concerns in common all the primary things, such as how much something is, and of what sort, and the other ways of attributing being” (p. 134).

In general, Aristotle wants to insist that none of the determinations according to the Categories, considered just in themselves, “comes into being”. It is always the composite things that have such determinations that come to have them.

“But what is to be understood from these considerations as peculiar to an independent thing is that a different independent thing that is fully at work, and that makes it, must be present beforehand” (ibid).

Next he asks whether the articulation of the parts must be present in the articulation of the whole.

The conclusion is that “[A]ll those things that are parts in the sense of material, and into which something divides up as into material, are derivative from the whole; but either all or some of those that are parts in the sense of belonging to the articulation and to the thinghood that is disclosed in the articulation, are more primary than it” (chapter 10, p. 137).

“And since the soul of an animal (for this is the thinghood of an ensouled thing) is its thinghood as disclosed in speech, and its form, and what it is for a certain sort of body to be (at any rate, each part of it, if it is defined well, will not be defined without its activity, which will not belong to it without perception), either all or some parts of the soul are more primary than the whole animal as a composite, and similarly with each particular kind, but the body and its parts are derivative from the thinghood in this sense, and it is not the thinghood but the composite whole that divides up into these as material” (ibid).

The soul of an animal is its form. This is a profound but difficult teaching. As for Plato, for Aristotle too forms as such are not supposed to be subject to becoming. This would seem to make them static. But at the very least, souls belong to hylomorphic composites that are subject to becoming. And it seems that souls themselves are involved in actions and passions (except from the standpoint of Plotinus, which is not Aristotle’s).

Something is clearly being said in more than one way here. The apparently static character of form will eventually be superseded or supplemented in the account of potentiality and actuality that is to come in book IX.

“But a human being or a horse in general, and the things that are in this way after the manner of particulars, but universally, are not thinghood but a certain kind of composite of such-and-such an articulation with such-and-such material, understood universally, while the particular, composed of ultimate material, is already Socrates, and similarly in other cases” (ibid).

Here he carefully distinguishes between an abstract universal of a kind of composite, and the what-it is of composites of that kind — e.g., between “a horse” and the what-it-is of a horse. Putting this together with what was said earlier, we can conclude that the what-it-is of a horse will be equivalent to “being a horse”, but distinct from “the horse itself” as an independent thing and a composite.

“But the parts of a thing’s articulation belong only to the form, and the articulation is of the universal; for being a circle and a circle, or being a soul and the soul, are the same thing. But of the composite already there is no definition” (ibid).

All composites are particulars, and for Aristotle no particular as such is definable.

“But the material is not known in its own right. And one sort of material is perceptible, the other intelligible, the perceptible, for example, bronze or wood, or any movable material, while the intelligible is that which is present in perceptible things, taken not as perceptible, as for example mathematical things are” (p. 138).

What is known in its own right seems to be only form, the what-it-is. The qualification “in its own right” is important. It leaves space open for other things to still be known in an indirect way.

“One might reasonably be confused about what sort of things are parts of the form, and what sort are parts not of that but of the all-inclusive composite. And yet so long as this is not clear, it is not possible to define any particular thing, since the definition is of the universal and the form; so if it is not clear what sort of parts are present in the manner of material and what sort not, neither will the articulation of the thing be evident…. For example, the form of a human being always appears in flesh and bones and parts of that sort: are they then also parts of the form and of its articulation? Or are they not, but just material…?” (chapter 11, pp. 138-139).

He points out that it will not always be easy to distinguish what belongs to a form itself, and what belongs to a composite that has the form.

“[T]hat is why tracing everything back in this way, and taking away the material, is overly fastidious, for presumably some things are such-and-such in such-and-such, or such-and-such in such-and-such a condition…. For it is not a hand of any sort that is part of a human being, but one capable of accomplishing its work” (p. 140).

The example of the hand introduces a distinction by that-for-the-sake-of-which, that could be applied even if we said the form was the same. Here we have a first intimation that the what-it-is of something may after all not be adequately characterized by form alone.

“And it is clear too that the soul is the primary independent thing, while the body is material, and the human being or animal in general is what is made of both, understood universally; and if it is also true that the soul of Socrates is Socrates, then names such as Socrates or Corsicus have two meanings (for some people mean by them a soul, but others the composite), but if Socrates is simply this soul plus this body, then the particular is just like the universal” (ibid).

“What, then, the what-it-keeps-on-being-in-order-to-be-at-all of something is, have been stated in a general way that applies to everything…. For the thinghood of a composite is the form that is in it, and the whole that is made out of that and the material is called an independent thing” (p. 141).

Here he dips back to a more categorical identification of the what-it-is with form.

Next he raises the question, what makes a definition one? This seems to be a digression or supplementary remark, though possibly it anticipates further criticism of Platonism that lies ahead.

The discussion of definition is narrowed to “definitions that result from divisions” (chapter 12, p. 143), in which kinds of things are defined by their distinctions from other kinds within some common scope. This is sometimes known as Platonic division, and it is illustrated in Plato’s Sophist.

Definition will be explained in terms of difference, but Aristotle’s notion that gets translated as “difference” has an important nuance we might not anticipate. In book V he says “All those things are called different that are other but the same in some respect” (p. 89). Naively, we might expect “different” to mean the same as “other”, but in the translation here Aristotle uses “other” for the unrestricted case that includes things with no relation at all to one another, and “different” only for things that are comparable in some way, and therefore must also have some underlying similarity. Thus he avoids what Hegel calls the “problem of indifference”.

“But surely it is necessary also to divide the difference into its differences; for instance, provided-with-feet is a difference belonging to animal, and next one must recognize the difference within animal-provided-with feet insofar as it is provided with feet, so that one ought not to say that of what is provided with feet, one sort is feathered and another featherless, if one is to state things properly (for one would do this rather out of ineptness), but instead that one sort is cloven-footed and the other uncloven, since these are differences that belong to a foot, cloven-footedness being a certain kind of footedness. And one wants to go on continually in this way until one gets to things that have no differences; and then there will be just as many kinds of foot as there are specific differences, and the kinds of animals-provided-with-feet will be equal in number to the differences. So if that is the way these things are, it is clear that the difference that brings the statement to completion will be the thinghood of the thing and its definition” (ibid).

“So if a difference comes into being out of a difference, the one that brings this to completion will be the form and the thinghood of the thing; but if a difference is brought in incidentally, such as if one were to divide what is provided with feet into one sort that is white and another sort that is black, there would be as many differences as cuts. Therefore it is clear that a definition is an articulation consisting of differences, and arising out of the last of these when it is right…. But there is no ordering in the thinghood of the thing; for how is one to think of one thing as following and another preceding?” (p. 144).

Here he omits the critique of the binary character of Platonic division that he makes in Parts of Animals book I. As he expounds here, in a hierarchical ordering of differences, it is the most specific difference at the bottom of such a hierarchy that picks out the what-it-is of a thing. But he also wants to say that the what-it-is itself is a simple unity without internal ordering. Next he moves to explicit criticism of some Platonic positions.

“[I]t seems to some people that the universal is responsible for a thing most of all, and that the universal is a governing source, and for that reason let us go over this. For it seems to be impossible for any of the things meant universally to be thinghood. For in the first place, the thinghood of each thing is what each is on its own, which does not belong to it by virtue of anything else, while the universal… is of such a nature as to belong to more than one thing” (chapter 13, p. 144).

“Again, thinghood is what is not attributed to any underlying thing, but the universal is always attributed to some underlying thing…. And what’s more, it is impossible and absurd that what is a this and an independent thing, if it is composed of anything, should have as a component… an of-such-a-sort…. So for those who pay attention, it is clear from these things that nothing that belongs to anything universally is thinghood, and that none of the things attributed as common properties signifies a this, but only an of-this-sort” (p. 145).

Platonic forms are generally considered to have universal import, although I think Plotinus argues that there are also forms of individuals.

“But there is an impasse. For if no independent thing can be made of universals, … and no independent thing admits of being composed of active independent things, every independent thing would not be composed of parts, so that there could not be an articulation in speech of any independent thing…. Therefore, there will be no definition of anything; or in a certain way there will be and in a certain way there will not. And what is said will be more clear from things said later” (p. 146).

More generally, independent things seem to be particulars, and Aristotle says that properly speaking, there are no definitions of particulars. That of course does not prevent dialectical inquiry and clarification about them.

“But it is also clear from these same things what follows for those who say that the forms are independent things and separate, and at the same time make the form be a compound of a general class and its specific differences…. [I]f it is impossible for things to be this way, it is clear that there are not forms of perceptible things in the way that some people say there are” (chapter 14, pp. 146-147).

Another paradox about Platonic forms — seemingly acknowledged by Plato himself in the first part of the Parmenides — is that they are supposed to have universal import, but themselves to be a kind of immaterial particulars.

“[T]here is destruction of all those things that are called independent things…, but of the articulation there is no destruction…. And this is why there is no definition of nor demonstration about particular perceptible independent things…. For this reason it is necessary, when one is making distinctions aiming at a definition of any of the particulars, not to be unaware that it is always subject to be annulled, since the thing cannot be defined” (chapter 15, pp. 147-148).

Independent things are destroyed, but their what-it-is is not. Here he mentions explicitly that particulars cannot be defined, though this does not stop us from inquiring and making judgments about them.

“But neither can any form be defined, since they say that the form is a particular and is separate; but it is necessary that an articulation be composed of words, and that the definer will not make up a word (since it will be unknown), but the words must be names given in common to everything, so that they must also belong to something else” (p. 148).

Strictly speaking, all definitions without exception implicitly depend on other definitions. If the words used in the definition of a thing did not themselves have definitions, we could not understand them. The larger our web of connected, consistent definitions, the greater the confidence we can have in it. I think another relevant point is that we don’t have knowledge of the correctness of any isolated definition, though we could have knowledge of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of one definition with others. Definitions in general are a matter of dialectic and judgment.

He mentions problems involved with the definition of unique things. The errors here are an instance of more general errors in specifying too much or too little for sound identification of unique instances of kinds.

“For people miss the mark not only by adding things of a sort such that, if they were taken away, the sun would still be the sun, such as ‘going around the earth’, or ‘hidden at night’ (for if it were to stand still or shine at night it would no longer be the sun, but it would be absurd if it were not, since ‘the sun’ signifies a certain independent thing), but also by including things that admit of applying to something else, such that, if another thing of that kind came into being, it would clearly be a sun; therefore the articulation is common, but the sun was understood to be among the particular things” (p. 149).

“And it is clear that most of what seem to be independent things are potencies, not only the parts of animals…, but also earth and fire and air, since none of them is one, but just like a heap, until some one thing is ripened or born out of them (chapter 16, p. 149, emphasis added).

The seeming is all-important here. He actually means to deny that these are independent things. Only when “some one thing is ripened or born” might there then be an independent thing.

“And since one is meant in just the same way as being, and the thinghood that belongs to what is one is also one, and those things of which the thinghood is one are one in number, it is clear that neither oneness nor being admits of being the thinghood of things…. [B]eing and oneness are thinghood more so than are sourcehood and elementality and causality, but it is not at all even these…; for thinghood belongs to nothing other than itself and that which has it, of which it is the thinghood” (p. 150).

Aristotle here clearly emphasizes a self-containedness of the what-it-is of a thing. This seems to be motivated by a concern correlative to that for independence in things. Leibniz would later take this to an extreme with his monadology. Hegel goes in the other direction, questioning the self-containedness of a what-it-is. I think Aristotle is implicitly maintaining a Kant-like duality between the self-containedness of an undefinable indemonstrable what-it-is in itself, and his view of the difference-based character of definitions and knowledge, which I think also ought to extend to what I have called relatively well-founded belief. We could perhaps then resolve the duality between self-containedness and knowledge, somewhat in the way that Hegel resolves the Kantian ones, while at the same time preserving an Aristotelian respect for the independence in things.

“And yet, even if we had not seen the stars, nevertheless I suppose there would have been everlasting independent things besides the ones we know, so that now too, even if we cannot say what they are, it is still presumably necessary that there be some. That, then, none of the things attributed universally is an independent thing, and that no independent thing is composed of independent things, is clear” (pp. 150-151).

Now he really sounds like Kant: “even if we cannot say what they are, it is still presumably necessary that there be some.”

“But what one ought to say thinghood is, and of what sort it is, let us speak again, as though making another start; for perhaps from these discussions there will also be clarity about that kind of thinghood that is separate from perceptible independent things. Now since thinghood is a certain kind of source and cause, one must go after it from that starting point. And the why of things is always sought after in this way: why one thing belongs to something else” (chapter 17, p. 151).

Now he explicitly suggests that there is something separate from perceptible independent things.

“Now why something is itself is not a quest after anything…. But one could search for the reason why a human being is a certain sort of animal…. For example, ‘why does it thunder?’ is, ‘why does noise come about in the clouds?’, for thus it is one thing’s belonging to another that is inquired after…. It is clear, then, that one is looking for what is responsible, which in some case, as presumably with a house or a bed, is that for the sake of which it is, but in some cases it is that which first set the thing in motion, since this too is responsible for it. But while the latter is looked for in cases of coming into being and destruction, the former applies even to the being of something” (pp. 151-152).

Identity by itself cannot be a reason for anything. Meanwhile, he mentions that that-for-the-sake-of-which also applies to things outside of becoming.

“But the thing in question escapes notice most of all in those cases in which one thing is not said to belong to another, as when the thing one is seeking is what a human being is, because one states it simply and does not distinguish that these things are this thing. But it is necessary to inquire by dividing things at the joints; and if one does not do this, it becomes a cross between inquiring after nothing and inquiring after something…. Accordingly, it is clear that in the case of simple things, there is no process of inquiry or teaching, but a different way of questing after such things” (p. 152).

Knowledge for Aristotle is concerned with things “belonging” to other things. It is expressed by things said of other things. Of particulars or singular things taken in isolation, may we have acquaintance or experience. We may have dialectical inquiry, and perhaps good judgment, but not knowledge.

Causes and Sources

Aristotle distinguishes arché (principle or source) from aitia (cause or reason why). He frequently uses the metonymic shorthand of saying “being” for the sources and causes of being that are the proper concern of first philosophy.

Both “source” and “cause” get chapters in Metaphysics book V’s compendium of things meant in many ways. Sources and causes are also discussed in the short book VI. I have not written about “sources” before. The main effect of book VI though, as we will see, is to significantly narrow the scope of first philosophy.

I very frequently point out issues related to things said in many ways, usually providing a link to my old short post Univocity. This is an extremely important topic. It goes beyond the use of language to the real diversity of the things spoken of. However, book V has 30 chapters, each devoted to a different specific term or terms, so I won’t try to summarize them all. I already covered the chapter on being and “is”. Here I’ll just cherry-pick basic information about sources and a remark on “that for the sake of which” from book V, then go on to a brief discussion of book VI.

All causes are sources (book V chapter 1, Sachs tr., p. 77), but not all sources are causes.

“And what is common to all sources is to be the first thing from which something is or comes to be or is known; of these, some are present within while others are outside. For this reason nature is a source, as are elements, thinking, choice, thinghood, and that for the sake of which; for the good and the beautiful are sources of both the knowledge and the motion of many things” (ibid).

Aristotle’s concept of nature applies especially to living organisms, whose “nature” is an internal source of motion.

Elements are primitive constituents of bodies.

Thinking and choice are additional sources available to rational animals.

The what-it-is of a thing is a source. With sincerest respect for the outstanding translator, I disagree with the choice of “thinghood” for the ousia that Aristotle identifies with the what-it-is of a thing. (But then, I still guardedly use the English terms substance, potentiality, and actuality that I learned originally, to all of which Sachs raises quite legitimate objections. In my opinion, for instance, any of the translations formally proposed for ousia (substance, essence, thinghood, etc.) needs to be used in a guarded way, so I have stuck with the one I learned. The only way I see to get around this is to instead rely on Aristotle’s identification of ousia with the what-it-is, which translates very straightforwardly, and I am now starting to do this some of the time.)

Interestingly, in the above enumeration of sources only one of the four causes is mentioned explicitly: that for the sake of which. Not only that, but in the text the good and the beautiful seems to refer back to what was just mentioned as that for the sake of which.

Mentioning that-for-the-sake-of-which again in the chapter on cause, he explicitly identifies the end with the good.

“But the semen and the doctor and the legislator, and generally the maker, are all causes as that from which the source of change or rest is, but other things as the end or the good of the remaining ones. For that-for-the-sake-of which means to be the best thing and the end of the other things, and let it make no difference to say the good itself or the apparent good” (book V chapter 2, p. 79).

The whole reason the end or that-for-the-sake-of-which predominates over all the other causes in Aristotle is its association with the good.

Moving on to book VI, “[E]very kind of knowledge that is discursive, or takes part in any way in thinking things through, is concerned with causes and sources, of either a precise or a simpler kind” (chapter 1, p. 109).

“[I]t is clear by… a review of examples that there is no demonstration of the thinghood or the what-it-is of things, but some other means of pointing to it” (ibid).

The what-it-is of things is an object of dialectical inquiry rather than demonstration.

“[T]he study of nature concerns things that are indeed separate, but are not motionless, while some mathematics concerns things that are indeed motionless, but presumably not separate, but in truth in material; but the first contemplative study concerns things that are both separate and motionless.”

What Aristotle calls “independent” things he also calls “separate”. This just means that they count as bona fide things having some reality of their own, and are not just any phenomena. First philosophy for Aristotle is concerned especially — though certainly not exclusively, if the text of the Metaphysics serves as a witness — with things that are both separate and unmoved.

“And while it is necessary that all causes be everlasting, these are so most of all, since they are responsible for what appears to us of the divine” (p. 110).

This is why the subject of the Metaphysics is sometimes seen as a kind of theology. Aristotle’s language here carefully delineates his concern in this regard as what appears to us of the divine. The theology here will be purely “natural”. It will not address or assume any specific tradition or revelation, but only what is openly accessible to the inquiry and experience of all rational animals.

It seems quite significant that he says “all causes” are everlasting. A billiard ball clunking into another billiard ball is just an event, not a cause at all for Aristotle. Circumstances affecting the outcomes of events will not be causes either. Form, matter, ends, and sources of motion themselves, he is saying, are not subject to coming-to-be and perishing as composite things are. But circumstances are subject to coming-to-be and perishing, which is why they don’t qualify as causes.

Modern science, on the other hand, depends on a notion of cause that has mostly to do with circumstances being the case or not. Neither notion of cause invalidates the other, but we have to be very careful to avoid confusion when we move back and forth from one to the other.

“Now if there were no other independent thing besides the composite natural ones, the study of nature would be the primary kind of knowledge; but if there is some motionless independent thing, the knowledge of this precedes it and is first philosophy, and it is universal in just that way, because it is first” (p. 111).

This is very important. Normally, universality is associated with classes and abstractions. Here he implies there is an alternate path to speaking about “all things”, by way of the dependency of all concrete things on causes, and thereby on the concrete first cause that he will argue for.

Next he recalls the incidental senses in which we say things about things.

“For some things are results of capacities to produce other things, while others result from no definite art or capacity; for of what is or happens incidentally, the cause too is incidental. Therefore, since not all things are or happen necessarily and always, but most things are and happen for the most part, it is necessary that there be incidental being…. [I]t is clear that there is no knowledge of what is incidental, since all knowledge is of what is so always or for the most part — for how else will anyone learn or teach? For it is necessary to make something definite by means of what it is always or for the most part” (p. 113).

In a somewhat Kant-like way, he is saying we have to recognize that there is incidental being, but we cannot have knowledge of it in the proper sense because incidental being is inherently particular. Following the shorthand established before, incidental “being” concerns things insofar as things are said of them incidentally. It refers specifically to the incidental way in which we say that the one “is” the other. Something just happens to be some way.

“That there are sources and causes which come and go without being in a process of coming-to-be or passing-away is evident. For if this were not so, all things would be by necessity, if there must be some nonincidental cause of what is coming into being or passing away. For will this particular thing be the case or not? It will be if this other thing happened, but if not, not….. Therefore it is clear that the result goes back as far as some starting point, but this no longer goes back to anything else. This, then, will be the origin of what happens in whichever way it chances to, and nothing else will be responsible for its happening. But to what sort of source and what sort of cause such tracing back has gone, whether to material or to that for the sake of which or to a mover, one needs to examine with the greatest care” (p. 114).

Since knowledge is being sought here, incidental causes will not be considered further. Nonetheless, he emphasizes that as causes in his sense, incidental causes too would be outside the sphere of becoming. This means that no event or circumstance is an incidental cause; rather, it may have an incidental cause. The incidental cause may be material or final or a mover, but not a form, because there is no form of what is incidental.

This eliminates one of the ways in which something is said of something — the incidental “is” that was laid out before — from the scope of the inquiry.

This is related to the point that keeps coming up in recent posts, that Aristotelian actuality is not what-is-the-case. The inquiry will end up being concerned precisely with this actuality that is not what-is-the-case. (Hegel in the logic of essence makes a similar move to put off to the side considerations of what is the case, but then at the very end of the logic of the concept, he brings back what is the case, as that within which we live and act. Addressing the gap between what is the case and the actual becomes our task.)

Then more briefly, Aristotle eliminates what was previously called being in the sense of true and false. It is unclear whether he sees any causes specific to this, analogous to those he explicitly mentions for the incidental case. In any case, the true and false — he says here as he also does in On Interpretation — have to do with what he calls combining and separating.

“[B]eing as the true and nonbeing as the false concern combining and separating” (p. 115).

Affirming something of something is “combining” the two somethings, and denying something of something is “separating” them. His choice of grammatical forms in naming these implies that he thinks of combining and separating as activities.

“[T]he false and the true are not in things, …but in thinking” (ibid).

Aristotle says that such combination and separation pertain only to thought, not to independent things. (Kant would say, combination and separation are judgments, not data that could be given to us. The later Kant would add that these judgments have a reflective dimension. Hegel would raise additional questions about the apparent sharpness of Aristotle’s distinction between thought and independent things, just as he does with similar distinctions in Kant. Similarly, he would question the sharpness of the distinction between sayings about things in their own right and incidental sayings.)

It is very common to hear a correspondence theory of truth attributed to Aristotle — i.e., a statement is true because it accurately characterizes the applicable state of affairs. That is just not what he says about truth and falsity, as we just saw. It is not a question of good representation of — or accurate pointing to — something external, but rather of good combining and separating within what is said.

There are many things we might wish Aristotle said more about, like the tantalizing suggestion here about combining and separating. But it is has been estimated that as much as two-thirds of his writings were never circulated in manuscript in the ancient world, and therefore have not come down to us (see Fortunes of Aristotle.)

Of the ways of saying “is” enumerated in book V, this leaves the saying of the what-it-is of things with its metonymic satellites in the other categories, and the saying in relation to potentiality and actuality still on the table.

Next he will take an in-depth look at the what-it-is of things and our saying of it.

(One of the things I admire most about Aristotle is his way of speaking simultaneously and even-handedly both about real things that have independence from us, and about the ways and the activity of our saying of and about them. I think this means he might have been receptive to Hegel’s refinements mentioned above, because Hegel recognizably aims to extend the same kind of Aristotelian evenhandedness to these cases as well. Aristotle could still say that these additional cases point to the focal case of the what-it-is of things, though I think the incidental and the true and false would be related to it as something like modal extensions, rather than metonymic substitutions like the other categories.)

Being as Such?

Aristotle begins book IV of the Metaphysics by saying that after all, “There is a kind of knowledge that contemplates what is insofar as it is, and what belongs to it in its own right” (p. 53).

To understand what this really means, we need to consider book IV as a whole, also taking into account in advance Aristotle’s disambiguation of “being” and “is” in book V. (There is another enumeration of the meanings of being in book VI, but it is does not really add anything to the one in book V.)

Here in book IV he adds the new element that “Being is meant in more than one way, but pointing toward one meaning and some one nature rather than ambiguously…. just as every healthful thing points toward health…. For some things are called beings because they are independent things, others because they are attributes of independent things, others because they are ways into thinghood, or destructions or deprivations or qualities of thinghood, or are productive or generative of independent things, or of things spoken of in relation to independent things, or negations of any of these or of thinghood, on account of which we say even nonbeing is nonbeing. So just as there is one kind of knowledge of healthful things, this is similarly the case with the other things as well” (pp. 53-54).

Classically, “said in many ways” means said homonymously, like “flies” in “Time flies like an arrow” and “Fruit flies like bananas”. The same sound and spelling are used for different meanings that have no discernible relation to one another.

The comparison to health gives a pretty clear indication of what he wants to say here. But the “one thing” that is pointed to in the same way that health is pointed to is not “being”, but rather the concept of what Sachs calls independent things (“substances”).

In the disambiguation in book V, Aristotle says “just as many things are said to be in their own right as are meant by the modes of predication”. This is an allusion to the various ways in which things are said, which are enumerated and discussed in an elementary way in the Categories. Ousia (“substance”, or what Sachs calls “independent thinghood”) has a somewhat privileged place in this enumeration — we might say, just because it is the one that the others “point” to. Ousia will later turn out to be the “what it is” or “what it was to have been” of a thing.

The uses of “is” that he mentions are exclusively the transitive ones. He does not even mention any case like “Socrates is, full stop”. There is absolutely no mention of an “is” of existence, as opposed to the “is” of saying something about something. Saying something about something is the only role of “is” here, and this is strongly borne out by the remainder of the text of book IV.

Saying the what-it-is of something of that thing is for Aristotle the central, focal way of saying something about something in general. The other ways of saying something about something form what linguists might call a family of metonymies clustered around the saying of what-it-is. Metonymy involves indirectly referring to a thing by referring to one of its attributes. By contrast, Aristotle takes the what-it-is to refer directly to the thing (which is probably why Sachs calls the what-it-is the “thinghood” of the thing).

All the ways of saying something about something have in common that they are ways of saying something about something. In Sachs’ language, they are “modes of predication”. But the saying of what-it-is serves as a kind of paradigm for the rest.

The main body of book IV is actually a long polemic against the Sophists and the friends of Cratylus. It is about the conditions of rational discourse.

A number of the Sophists outraged Aristotle by making flagrantly self-contradictory assertions, and claiming a right to do so. Very uncharacteristically, Aristotle seems to lose his cool over this. He goes on and on about it, beating the dead horse into the ground. He does so because for him this is a violation of fundamental ethics.

To deliberately assert something and its contrary, or to claim a right to do so, is not just to talk nonsense. Aristotle implies it is deeply immoral — the deepest possible violation of intellectual integrity and the integrity of thought. As he says, it is completely impossible to have dialogue with someone who insists on this, and dialogue is the foundation of reason. For Aristotle, such a person hardly even qualifies as human.

Kant and Hegel treat unity of apperception not as something that spontaneously happens, but as the fulfillment of an ethical norm. When we commit ourselves to something by asserting it, we are then also morally committed to the assertion of what follows from it, and even more so to the denial of what is contrary to it. Aristotle’s outrage shows how strongly he shares this point of view.

The friends of Cratylus were radical Heracliteans. Heraclitus famously said that all things flow, and you cannot step in the same river twice. Cratylus claimed it would be more correct to say you cannot step in the same river once. Effectively, this means there is no such thing as being the same at all, so “same” has no real meaning. But if there is no sameness, there can be no contradiction, because contradiction is saying contrary things about the same thing. So the friends of Cratylus too ended up justifying what we would regard as self-contradictory statements.

So when Aristotle is concerned to assert that there is after all a knowledge of being as such and that it is the business of the philosopher to have it, all the evidence in book IV leads to the conclusion that what he is really saying is that the philosopher doesn’t just believe but knows that contraries are not true of the same thing in the same respect at the same time. This is simultaneously a genuine knowledge and a condition of any possible dialogue, a moral imperative as Kant would say.

The only other thing besides the principle of non-contradiction that Aristotle mentions in book IV as applying to being as such is mathematical axioms, which are similarly supposed to be true of all things whatsoever (he does not enumerate them).

Famously, Aquinas read Aristotle’s notion of “pointing toward one meaning” as a kind of analogy. The notion of an analogy of being is better considered as original to Aquinas. Analogy is a symmetrical relationship. If A is analogous to B, we should be able to conclude that B is similarly analogous to A.

But Aristotle’s example of the relation of health to healthful things is not symmetrical; health has a kind of logical primacy over healthful things, and Aristotle very explicitly gives the saying of what-it-is a similar primacy over its metonymic relatives corresponding to the other categories. That is the very means by which he gets from the non-univocity of being to a single concept. That concept is ousia — i.e., “substance”, “essence”, what Sachs calls “thinghood”, or the what-it-is of a thing.

Some commentators have argued that the subject of the Metaphysics is “ousiology”. That seems more accurate than the conventional “ontology”. In any case, Aristotle’s focus is on the conditions of meaningful saying, and especially on saying of what-it-is — not at all on being in the sense of existence.

In the big picture, existence as such is just not an important philosophical concept for Aristotle. What something is and why it is that way are what he is concerned with.

There will be a further level beyond this, in which we will further distinguish the saying of what something is by looking at it in potential and in act, where these terms are understood in a way that is independent of motion, and instead is oriented toward that-for-the-sake-of-which and the good.

Aporias

“Aporia” is Aristotle’s Greek technical term used by many philosophers in English for what Sachs in his glossary to the Metaphysics calls an “impasse” or “logical stalemate that seems to make a question unanswerable. In fact, it is the impasses that reveal what the genuine questions are” (p. lv).

Book III of the Metaphysics develops many such impasses. I take this as evidence of Aristotle’s extraordinary intellectual honesty and depth of insight.

Aristotle writes, “[T]hose who inquire without first coming to an impasse are like people who are ignorant of which way they need to walk, and on top of these things, …one never knows whether one has found the thing sought for or not. For the end is not apparent to this one, but to the one who has first been at an impasse it is clear. And further, one must be better off for judging if one has heard all the disputing arguments as if they were opponents in a lawsuit” (p. 35).

“About all these things it is not only difficult to find a way to the truth, but it is not even an easy thing to articulate the difficulties well” (p. 37).

For anyone who has been following recent posts a little, we have seen abundant examples of such challenging but fruitful impasses in the development of Hegel’s Logic. Those were not just some weird things that Hegel cooked up, but yet more evidence of Hegel’s profoundly Aristotelian approach.

Aristotle mentions a long series of such impasses related to the subject matter of the Metaphysics, including those about the nature and number of causes; whether causes are universal or particular; whether there are things beyond perceptible things; the status of mathematical objects; and whether there are causes that are independent of what he calls matter (or “material”, as Sachs calls it to help disambiguate Aristotle’s more “logical” distinction from modern physicalistic concepts).

“Furthermore, the most difficult question of all, that has in it the greatest impasse, is whether one and being, as the Pythagoreans and Plato said, are not anything different, but are the thinghood of things — or whether this is not so, but the underlying thing is something different” (p. 36).

“And there is a question whether the sources of things are universal or like particular things, and whether they have being potentially or at work, and in turn whether they are at work in some other way or by way of motion” (p. 37).

“But now if there are a number of kinds of knowledge of the causes, and a different one for a different source, which of these ought one to say is the one… being sought?” (ibid).

“And in general, is there one or more than one kind of knowledge about all beings? And if there is not one, with what sort of beings ought one to place this kind of knowledge? But that there is one about them all is not reasonable; for then there would also be one kind of demonstrative knowledge about all attributes” (p. 39).

“But it is not possible for either oneness or being to be a single genus of things…. [I]f oneness or being is a genus, no differentia would either be or be one…. And on top of these things, the differentia are sources still more than are the genera” (p. 43).

“So from these things, it seems that the predicates applied directly to the individual things are sources more than are the general classes; but then in turn, in what way one ought to understand these to be sources is not easy to say…. For if there is nothing apart from particular things, while the particulars are infinite, how is it possible to get a hold of a knowledge of infinitely many things? For insofar as something is one and the same, and insofar as it is present as a universal, in this way we know everything. But if this is necessary, and there has to be something apart from particulars, the general classes of things would have to have being apart from the particulars…. But we just went through an argument that this is impossible” (p. 44).

“Now if there is nothing apart from the particulars, there could be nothing intelligible, but everything would be perceptible and of nothing could there be knowledge, unless someone claims that perception is knowledge. What’s more, neither could there be anything everlasting or motionless (since all perceptible things pass away and are in motion). But surely if there is nothing everlasting, neither could there be coming-into-being. For there must be something that comes into being and something out of which it comes into being” (pp. 44-45).

“And an impasse no lesser than any has been neglected by both present and earlier thinkers, as to whether the sources of destructible and indestructible things are the same or different. For if they are the same, in what way and through what cause are some things destructible and others indestructible?…. But about mythological subtleties it is not worthwhile to inquire seriously; but on the part of those who speak by means of demonstrations, one must learn by persistent questioning why in the world, when things come from the same sources, some of the things have an everlasting nature but others pass away. But since they neither state any cause, nor is it reasonable that it be so, it is clear that there could not be the same sources or causes of them” (p. 46).

“[B]ut if there are different sources, one impasse is whether they themselves would be destructible or indestructible…. Furthermore, no one has even tried to speak about different sources, but all say that the same sources belong to all things. But they gulp down the thing first stated as an impasse as though taking it to be something small.”

“But the most difficult thing of all to examine, as well as the most necessary for knowing the truth, is whether being and oneness are the thinghood of things…. But surely if there should be some being-itself and one-itself, there is a considerable impasse about how there would be anything besides these — I mean how things will be more than one” (pp. 47-48).

“So it is necessary to raise both these impasses about the sources, and one as to whether they are universal or what we call particular. For if they are universals, they will not be independent things. (For none of the common predicates signifies a this but rather an of-this-sort, while an independent thing is a this….) So if the sources are universal, these things follow; but if they are not universal but are in the same way as particulars, there will be no knowledge, since of all things the knowledge is universal” (pp. 51-52).

Infinity, Finitude, and the Good

Plato and Aristotle both attribute great significance to the reality, goodness, and importance for reasoning of limits. Aristotle staunchly opposes assertions of really existing infinity, or of an infinite regress of reasons.

(Despite the opinions of some mathematicians, all that modern mathematics truly requires is “potential” infinity — the ability to construct something arbitrarily large or small through arbitrarily many definite acts of extending, dividing, or whatever of some definite thing. This is consistent, for instance, with the modern grounding of the infinities of calculus in analysis based on the concept of limits. On the frontiers of mathematical research, homotopy type theory and univalent foundations allow the most extravagant “classical” mathematics of higher infinities to be expressed in terms of definite constructions.)

Aristotle’s position on this is closely tied to his central concepts of ends and the good (see also Aristotle on Explanation).

“And since that for the sake of which something is is an end, and this sort of thing is what is not for the sake of anything else, but they are for the sake of it, then if there is any such last thing, there will not be an infinity, but if there is no such thing, there will be nothing for the sake of which it is. But those who make there be an infinite are unaware that they abolish the nature of the good. (Yet no one would make an effort to do anything if he were not going to come to a limit.) And there would not be intelligence among beings; for what has intelligence always acts for the sake of something, and this is a limit” (Metaphysics book II chapter 2, Sachs tr., p. 31).

This is also central to his argument for the existence of a first cause.

The emphasis on a kind of finitude here should not be taken to imply any dogmatic attachment to particular formulations or representations, such as Hegel for instance objected to. In the following chapter, in part echoing the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle notes, “Some people expect everything to be said with precision, while others are annoyed by precision, either because they can’t keep the connections straight or because of its hairsplitting pettiness. For precision does have something of this sort about it, so that, just as in business agreements, so also in reasoning it seems to people to be ungenerous. For this reason one must have been trained in how one ought to receive each kind of argument, since it is absurd to be searching at the same time for knowledge and for the direction to knowledge; and it is not possible to get either of the two easily” (pp. 32-33).

“Courses of lectures go along with one’s habits; for in the way that we are accustomed, in that way we think it fitting for something to be said, and what departs from this does not seem the same, but through lack of acquaintance seems too obscure and alien. For we are used to what is familiar. And what great strength the customary has, the laws show, in which mythical and childish things are of greater strength than knowing about them, because of custom” (p. 32).

This last remark clearly shows that Aristotle’s emphasis on the shareability and actual sharedness of values does not at all mean he assumes that what is held to be authoritative by one’s own community or society is always right. Unlike Socrates, who after his eloquent defense meekly accepted his city’s ignorant condemnation, Aristotle at one point fled Athens “lest the Athenians sin against philosophy twice”. This lesson is crucial to the understanding of Hegel as well.

The Knowledge Sought

Following the emphasis of al-Farabi on demonstrative “science”, the Latin scholastic tradition treated “metaphysics” as a completed science. Some writers attributed such a completed science to Aristotle, while others, following in the wake of Avicenna, put forward their own improvements.

With respect to being, Aristotle himself speaks of knowledge sought rather than possessed. In inquiring about being “as such”, he is exploring a question given prominence by others. Far from claiming to have final knowledge of being as such, he highlights the ambiguity of “being”. There can be no “as such” — and hence no final knowledge — of an ambiguous thing.

This is not the end of the story, however. The very first sentence of the Metaphysics is “All human beings by nature stretch themselves out toward knowing. A sign of this is our love of the senses; for even apart from their use, they are loved on their own account (Sachs tr., p. 1).

We are after knowledge of something. It is just not clear that that something would be accurately characterized as “being”, full stop.

“[A] sign of the one who knows and the one who does not is being able to teach, and for this reason we regard the art, more than the experience, to be knowledge” (p. 2).

“Further, we consider none of the senses to be wisdom, even though they are the most authoritative ways of knowing particulars; but they do not pick out the why of anything” (ibid).

“[T]he person with experience seems wiser than those who have any perception whatever, the artisan wiser than those with experience, the master craftsman wiser than the manual laborer, and the contemplative arts more so than the productive ones. It is apparent, then, that wisdom is a knowledge concerned with certain sources and causes” (p. 3).

This concern with sources and causes, with the why, is the true subject matter of the Metaphysics. This is emphasized again at length in book VI.

“Since we are seeking this knowledge, this should be examined: about what sort of causes and what sort of sources wisdom is the knowledge. Now if one takes the accepted opinions we have about the wise man, perhaps from this it will become more clear. We assume first that the wise man knows all things, in the way that is possible, though he does not have knowledge of them as particulars. Next, we assume that the one who is able to know things that are difficult, and not easy for a human being to know, is wise; for perceiving is common to everyone, for which reason it is an easy thing and nothing wise. Further, we assume the one who has more precision and is more able to teach the causes is wiser concerning each kind of knowledge. And among the kinds of knowledge, we assume the one that is for its own sake and chosen for the sake of knowing more to be wisdom than the one chosen for the sake of results” (ibid).

“Now of these, the knowing of all things must belong to the one who has most of all the universal knowledge, since he knows in a certain way all the things that come under it; and these are just about the most difficult things for human beings to know, those that are most universal, since they are farthest away from the senses. And the most precise kinds of knowledge are the ones that are most directed at first things, since those that reason from fewer things are more precise than those that reason from extra ones” (p. 4).

For long I struggled with this last statement. How could a knowledge of first things be the most precise of all? In the Topics, he says that first principles can only be investigated by dialectic: “[T]his task belongs properly, or most appropriately, to dialectic; for dialectic is a process of criticism wherein lies the path to the principles of all inquiries” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., p. 168).

Some commentators — influenced by al-Farabi and the subsequent tradition’s overwhelming emphasis on the place of demonstration as opposed to dialectic in Aristotle — have considered it a puzzle or a defect that the Metaphysics and other Aristotelian texts do not seem to consist in demonstrations as described in the Prior Analytics. The answer is that the Metaphysics and the others generally do follow the model of dialectic articulated in the Topics, as the Topics itself says they ought to.

Returning to the Metaphysics, Aristotle has already stressed that the most universal knowledge is also the most difficult. Also, he standardly distinguishes between how things are “in themselves” and how they are “for us”. The knowledge of first things would be most precise in itself, not necessarily for us in our relative achievement of it.

To anticipate, I think the final conclusion of the Metaphysics will be something like “All things are ultimately moved by love of the good”. The qualification “ultimately” is essential to making sense of this.

(For Aristotle himself, all becoming and terrestrial motion are grounded in — though not in detail determined by — the entelechy or entelechies of circular celestial motion. The stars are a kind of everlasting living beings endowed with superior intellect, and are directly moved by love of the first cause. This might seem quaint to modern people. I find the love part beautiful in a poetic sort of way, but think Aristotle’s theoretical astronomy in general and his views of the special status of celestial objects have relatively little impact on interpretation of the rest of his work — particularly with respect to the teleology affecting earthly things and the discussions here in the Metaphysics.)

Plato says that the Good surpasses all things in ancientness and power. He represents Socrates as provocatively arguing that all beings desire the good, regardless of how confused they may be about what the good really is. No one deliberately and self-consciously desires what they recognize as evil. That is impossible, because it is logically self-contradictory. For the same reason, there also could not be a “principle” of evil. This is a tremendously powerful thought, of unparalleled importance for ethics. It sets a fundamental tone of charitable interpretation, in diametrical contrast to the kind of point of view that says those people over there are just evil.

Aristotle, however, says that Plato does not clearly explain the mode of activity of the Good, or how it acts as a cause. According to Aristotle, when Plato does gesture in this direction, he lapses into treating the Good as either a formal cause or an efficient cause, or both. But speaking in terms of formal or efficient causality loses what is most essential about the good — what many contemporary philosophers would call its normative character.

Aristotle considered his own contribution in this area to be a thorough account of how all things are ultimately moved by that for the sake of which, and of how the Good indirectly influences things just as that for the sake of which. This, once again, is what Kant called “internal teleology”.

After the horrors of the 20th century, many people have lost faith in the fundamental goodness of life. This is basically an emotional response. The indubitable factuality of horrendous evil in the world is not an Aristotelian or Hegelian actuality, and does not touch actuality. The factuality of evil does pose a roadblock for common interpretations of particular providence or “external” teleology, but not for Aristotelian or Hegelian teleology.

But how could a knowledge of first things be exact? We certainly don’t have knowledge of the first cause in itself. But coming back to my formulation “All things are ultimately moved by love of the good”, this does meet Aristotle’s criterion of simplicity: all things are said to be ultimately moved by one thing (even though more directly, they are moved by their own love of whatever they do love, which seems good to them within the limits of their understanding).

We have exact knowledge neither of the first cause in itself nor of the particulars we encounter in life, but perhaps we can after all have exact, certain knowledge that “All things are ultimately moved by love of the good”. This is the kind of thing I think Aristotle is suggesting. (See also Aristotle on Explanation.)

Aristotle on Being

In the book of the Metaphysics devoted to things meant in more than one way, Aristotle has a chapter on “being” (book V chapter 7). This is worth quoting in full. What I want to draw attention to is Aristotle’s own very modest, “deflationary” approach in contrast to other writers. His emphasis is on ordinary use of “to be” as a verb, not some grand “ontology”. The word translated as “being” (einai) is literally the infinitive “to be”.

Moreover, being for Aristotle in all of its primary senses is always being this way or that. It is a transitive verb. In a derivative sense, he speaks of ordinary “beings” we encounter in life. I note his strong emphasis on ways things are meaningfully said, and the parallel series of assertions about truth. One might conclude that there are as many kinds of being as there are distinct assertions.

Being is meant in one sense incidentally, in another sense in its own right; in the incidental sense, we say, for example, that the just person is educated, or the human being is educated, or the educated one is a human being, in much the same way as if we were to say that the educated one builds a house because it is incidental to the housebuilder to be educated, or to the educated one to be a housebuilder (for here this is means that this is incidental to this). And it is this way too in the case of the things mentioned; for whenever we say that the human being is educated or the educated one is a human being, or that the white thing is educated or this is white, we mean in some cases that both are incidental to the same thing, in others that something is incidental to a being, and in the case of the educated human being, that the educated is incidental to this person. (And in this sense even the non-white is said to ‘be’ because that to which it is incidental is.) So things that are said incidentally are said to be so either because both belong to the same being, or because one of them belongs to a being, or because the thing itself is, to which belongs that to which it is attributed.”

“But just as many things are said to be in their own right as are meant by the modes of predication; for in as many ways as these are said, in so many ways does to be have meaning. Since, then, of things predicated, some signify what a thing is, others of what sort it is, others how much it is, others to what it is related, others what it is doing or having done to it, others where it is, and others when it is, being means the same thing as each one of these. For it makes no difference whether one says a person is healing or a person heals, or a person is walking or cutting rather than that a person walks or cuts, and similarly in other cases.”

“Also, to be and is signify that something is true, and not to be signifies that it is not true but false, alike in cases of affirmation and denial; for instance, that Socrates is educated indicates that this is true, but that the diagonal is not commensurable means that this is false.”

“Again, being and what is mean in one sense something that is definite as a potency, but in another sense what is fully at work, among these things that have been mentioned. For we say of both one who is capable of seeing and one who is fully at work seeing that he sees, and similarly of both one who is capable of using knowledge and one who is using it that he knows, and also both of that to which rest already belongs and that which is capable of being at rest that it rests. And it is similar in the case of independent things, for we say that Hermes is in the block of stone, and that the half belongs to a line, and that which is not yet ripe is grain. When something is potential and when it is not must be distinguished in other places” (Sachs tr., pp. 86-88).

Entelechy

I think “entelechy” — or what Kant called internal teleology — is probably the most important guiding concept of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (rather than the “Being” championed by many). There is a great deal to unpack from this single word. Here is a start.

The primary examples of entelechy are living beings. Aristotle also suggests that pure thought (nous) is an entelechy. I think the same could be said of ethos, or ethical culture.

Sachs’ invaluable glossary explains the Greek entelecheia as “A fusion of the idea of completeness with that of continuity or persistence. Aristotle invents the word by combining enteles (complete, full-grown) with echein (= hexis, to be a certain way by the continuing effort of holding on in that condition), while at the same time punning on endelecheia (persistence) by inserting telos (completion [what I have been calling “end”]). This is a three-ring circus of a word, at the heart of everything in Aristotle’s thinking, including the definition of motion. Its power to carry meaning depends on the working together of all the things Aristotle has packed into it. Some commentators explain it as meaning being-at-an-end, which misses the point entirely” (p. li).

He points out the etymological connection of echein (literally, “to have”) with hexis, or “Any condition that a thing has by its own effort of holding on in a certain way. Examples are knowledge and all virtues or excellences, including those of the body such as health” (p. xlix).

I previously suggested a very literal rendering of entelechy as something like “in [it] end having”, with the implication that it more directly means being subject to internal teleology. As Sachs says, this is very different from just being at an end. The latter would imply a completely static condition not subject to further development.

Entelechy is Aristotle’s more sophisticated, “higher order” notion of an active preservation of stability within change, which in the argument of the Metaphysics accompanies the eventual replacement of the initial definition of ousia (“substance”, which Sachs renders as “thinghood”) from the Categories as a kind of substrate or logical “subject” in which properties inhere. What he replaced that notion of substrate with was a series of more refined notions of ousia as form, “what it was to have been” a thing, and what I am still calling potentiality and actuality.

Whether we speak of active preservation of stability within change or simply of persistence (implicitly in contrast with its absence), time is involved. Reference to change makes that indisputable. Persistence is a bit more of a gray area, since in popular terms lasting forever is associated with eternity, but strictly speaking, “eternal” means outside of time (which is why the scholastics invented the different word “sempiternal” for things said to persist forever in time).

Sachs’ translation for what I will continue to simply anglicize as “entelechy” is “being-at-work-staying-itself”. This is closely related to energeia (“actuality”), which Sachs renders as being-at-work. I think it is important that there is nothing literally corresponding to “being” in the Greek for either of these, and want to avoid importing connotations of Avicennist, Thomist, Scotist, or Heideggerian views of the special status of being into Aristotle.

I also think “staying itself” tends to suggest a purely static notion of the identity of a “self” that is foreign to Aristotle. Sachs might respond that “at-work-staying” negates the connotation that “itself” is static, but I don’t think this necessarily follows. It might take significant effort to remain exactly the same, but this is not what Aristotle is getting at. To be substantially the same is not to be exactly the same.

Entelechy is intimately connected with actuality (energeia) and potentiality (dynamis). As Sachs points out, “actuality” in common contemporary usage has connotations of being a simple matter of fact that are at odds with the teleological, value-oriented significance of energeia in Aristotle.

“The primary sense of the word [entelecheia] belongs to activities that are not motions; examples of these are seeing, knowing, and happiness, each understood as an ongoing state that is complete at every instant, but the human being that can experience them is similarly a being-at-work, constituted by metabolism. Since the end and completion of any genuine being is its being-at-work, the meaning of the word [energeia] converges [with that of entelecheia]” (p. li).

If we take “being” purely as a transitive verb (as it is indeed properly meant here), my objection above to connotations of its use as a noun could be overcome. But in English, “being” remains ambiguous, and it is not there in the Greek.

Further, though it has the good connotation of something being in process, “at work” also introduces all the ambiguities of agency and efficient causation, in which overly strong modern notions tend to get inappropriately substituted for Aristotle’s carefully refined “weak” concepts. Aristotle very deliberately develops weak concepts for these because — unlike most of the scholastics and the moderns — he thinks of all agency and causing of motion as subordinate to value-oriented entelechy and teleology.

Sachs’ glossary explains dynamis (“potentiality”, which he calls “potency”) as “The innate tendency of anything to be at work in ways characteristic of the kind of thing it is…. A potency in its proper sense will always emerge into activity, when the proper conditions are present and nothing prevents it” (p. lvii).

He notes that it has a secondary sense of mere logical possibility, but says Aristotle never uses it that way.

I fully agree that potentiality in Aristotle never means mere logical possibility. Kant’s notion of “real” as distinct from logical possibility comes closer, but it still lacks any teleological dimension. I think Paul Ricoeur’s “capability” comes closer than Sachs’ “potency”, because it it seems more suggestive of a relation to an end.

However, I am very sympathetic to Gwenaëlle Aubry’s argument that Aristotelian dynamis should not be understood in terms of any kind of Platonic or scholastic power. “Power” once again suggests all the ambiguities of efficient causality. I think such a reading is incompatible with the primacy of final causality over efficient causality in Aristotle. (Historically, of course, the divergence of scholastic “power” from Aristotelian dynamis was accompanied by assertions of a very non-Aristotelian primacy of efficient causality.) To my ear, “potency” has the same effect. (See also Potentiality and Ends.)

Sachs had said that entelechy is also at the heart of Aristotle’s definition of motion. (Motion with respect to place is only one kind of motion for Aristotle; he also speaks of changes with respect to substance, quality, and quantity as “motions”. He also says there are activities that are not motions.)

Properly speaking, motion (kinesis) for Aristotle is only “in” the thing that is moved. That is how it becomes reasonable to speak of unmoved movers. A moved mover is indeed moved, but not insofar as it is itself a mover, only in some other way. He says there is no “motion” in being-at-work or actuality as such, but there is activity.

In book III chapter 1 of the Physics, Aristotle says that “the fulfillment [energeia] of what is potentially, as such, is motion — e.g. the fulfillment of what is alterable, as alterable, is alteration; … of what can come to be and pass away, coming to be and passing away; of what can be carried along, locomotion” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., vol. I, p. 343).

Sachs expresses this by saying that as long as “potency is at-work-staying-itself as a potency, there is motion” (p. lv). Otherwise said, motion is the entelechy and “actuality” of a potentiality as potentiality. As I’ve noted before, Aristotle doesn’t just divide things into actual and potential, as if they were mutually exclusive, but at times uses these notions in a layered way.

A mover (kinoun) is “Whatever causes motion in something else. The phrase ‘efficient cause’ is nowhere in Aristotle’s writings, and is highly misleading; it implies that the cause of every motion is a push or a pull…. That there should be incidental, intermediate links by which motions are passed along when things bump explains nothing. That motion should originate in something motionless is only puzzling if one assumes that what is motionless must be inert; the motionless sources of motion to which Aristotle refers are fully at-work, and in their activity there is no motion because their being-at-work is complete at every instant” (pp. lv-lvi).

It is worth noting that Aristotle has a relatively relaxed notion of completeness or perfection. We tend to define perfection in a kind of unconditional terms that are alien to him. For Aristotle in general, complete actualization or perfection is always “after a kind”, and it is supposed to be achievable. But also, it is only unmoved movers (and not organic beings) whose being-at-work is being said to be complete at every instant.

When he says “the phrase ‘efficient cause’ is nowhere in Aristotle’s writings”, he means that “efficient” is another Latin-derived term that diverges from the Greek. Aristotle in book II chapter 3 of the Physics speaks of “the primary source of the change or rest” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., vol. I, p. 332), but again we have to be careful to avoid importing assumptions about what this means.

As I’ve pointed out several times before, the primary source of the change in building a house according to Aristotle is the art of building, not the carpenter or the hammer or the hammer’s blow, and everything in this whole series is a means to an end. The end of building a house, which guides the form of the whole series, is something like protection from the elements. Neither the end nor the source of motion is itself an entelechy. But the house-building example is a case of external teleology. Correspondingly, it requires an external source of motion.

Internal teleology and the entelechy that implements it are more subtle; entelechy is an in itself “unmoving” and “unchanging” activity. The things subject to motion and change in the proper sense are only indirectly moved by it (by means of some source of motion).

We might say that Kantian transcendental subjectivity and Hegelian spirit are also entelechies.

Recently I suggested that what makes Hegel’s “subjective logic” to be “subjective” is its focus on the activity of interpretation and judgment, which in fact always aims to be “objective” in the sense of reaching toward deeper truth, and has nothing at all to do with what we call “merely subjective”. This is a sense of “subjective” appropriate to what Kant calls transcendental as opposed to empirical subjectivity. This higher kind of subjectivity, characteristic of what Hegel calls “self-consciousness” and of the activity of Kantian reflective judgment, would be very well characterized as an entelechy.

I strongly suspect that what Hegel metaphorically calls “logical motion” would be expressed by Aristotle in terms of the end-governed “unmoving activity” of entelechy.

Sachs on Dialectic

My former St. John’s tutor Joe Sachs, from whom I especially learned to appreciate Aristotle’s biology, later produced a wonderful series of translations of Aristotle and Plato, on which I often rely. The first part of his introduction to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, entitled “Ways of Writing and Ways of Being”, emphasizes the Metaphysics’ dialectical character.

“Two mistakes give rise to the widespread opinion that Aristotle’s Metaphysics is not a whole. One of them is that written treatises must always be conceived deductively, even if they are presented with their highest assumptions given last. The other is the belief that, in the first place, all wholeness of thinking must be logical [i.e., deductive]” (p. xi).

Robert Pippin has argued that none of Hegel’s works is intended to implement a deductive order, and that even his Logic is fundamentally structured as a kind of narrative of a development. Previously, Paul Ricoeur developed an extensive account of the “logic” of such narrative structures. Both make very significant use of Aristotle.

Sachs notes that in Plato’s Meno, “dialectic is explained as the way of doing things that suits friendly conversation about serious questions. Unlike debate, where the aim is victory in verbal combat, dialectical speech cannot be content to say something true, but must get at the truth only by way of things the other person already understands and acknowledges” (p. xiii, emphasis added; see also Aristotelian Dialectic).

Plato is here anticipating both Aristotle’s more developed account of friendship and Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition. The ethical and more specifically “intellectual” aspects of such conversation with another person are deeply intertwined.

Sachs goes on to note that in the Topics (Aristotle’s treatise on dialectic), Aristotle explains how the same kinds of benefits can follow from a written account that does not take the literary form of a conversation, but proceeds by reasoning from “things that seem true to everyone, or to most people, or else to the wise, and of the latter either to all of them or most of them or to those who are best known and most respected” (ibid).

Sachs continues, “By writing in this way, or reading things written in this way, one will not only gain agility in thinking and become better at conversation, but one can also get at the heart of all knowledge, since dialectic ‘contains the road to the starting points of all pursuits’. Dialectical reasoning does not set down permanent beginnings such as, for example, David Hume’s declaration that all knowledge must derive from sense impressions. A dialectical inquiry might assume some opinion that equates knowledge with perception (which is just what happens in the first half of Plato’s Theaetetus), but it would do so in order to try it out and test it. This is the humble meaning of that passage in Plato’s Republic in which Socrates assigns dialectic to the fourth and highest part of his divided line, and to those knowable things ‘which speech itself gets hold of by means of its power of conversing, making its suppositions not ruling beginnings but in fact supports, like scaffoldings and springboards, in order to go up to what is beyond supposition at the beginning of everything’…. Aristotle praises Plato for inquiring whether the philosophic road is down from or up to first principles” (pp. xiii-xiv, citations omitted; see also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

Aristotle also explicitly says near the beginning of the Topics that inquiries into first principles are best pursued in this dialectical way.

“It is already abundantly clear that the dialectical ascent of the Metaphysics is not simply a deduction in reverse. Various roads are traveled, that are partly parallel, partly divergent, but always finally convergent; the goal is not simply to get to an end but to get there well, to cast a variety of lights on the way that it is an end, to reinforce previous conclusions with related observations, and to reflect the true complexity of the topic, in which there is no reason to expect neatness. Such a journey involves repeatedly stopping, backing up, and partially retracing some ground that has already been covered in a different way” (p. xvi).

Sachs is not very sympathetic to Hegel, but I think particularly the interpretations of H.S. Harris and Robert Pippin serve to show that Hegel’s dialectic works in the very same way that Sachs attributes to Plato and Aristotle.

Like Owens and Reale, Sachs ultimately defends a more or less Thomistic claim that for Aristotle, being “in its own right” is identifiable with the first cause, understood as the supreme Being.

I prefer his more neoplatonic-sounding formulation that the good is beyond being, and being depends on it. As I see it, this makes considerations of normativity, ethics, and hermeneutics prior to any possible ontology or epistemology, and I think this is the path Aristotle took.

The “first philosophy” that is Aristotle’s own name for the subject of the Metaphysics is identified by Aristotle with what turns out to be a unique kind of theology. But I would argue that Aristotle’s unique theology is characterized by ultimate explanation in terms of the “upward” movement of what Kant called “internal” teleology, rather than by meditations on the “downward” movement of a creative Act, or on external teleology (see also Thoughts on Teleology; Aristotle on Explanation; Aubry on Aristotle; Not Power and Action; Life: A Necessary Concept?.)

At least in this very important regard and some others, I think Hegel as read by Harris and Pippin is relatively closer to the historic Aristotle than Aquinas is.