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 the compendium of things meant in many ways in Metaphysics book Delta (V). Sources and causes are also discussed in the short book Epsilon (VI). I have not written about “sources” before. The main effect of book Epsilon 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 Delta 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 Delta, then go on to a brief discussion of book Epsilon.
All causes are sources (book Delta (V), ch. 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” (ch. 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 Epsilon, “[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” (ch. 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 Delta, 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.)