Toward Potentiality and Actuality

With the discussion of independent things, the saying of what they are, and the provision for deriving sayings in the other categories from this, we have taken simple saying in the various senses of Aristotle’s Categories about as far as it can go. Although higher dialectical aspects will emerge in what is yet to come, I think the main results of Metaphysics book Zeta (VII) are qualified well enough to be counted by Aristotle as a permanent acquisition that will still be enhanced, but never rolled back.

Aristotelian saying is far from exhausted by saying in the syntactic senses of the Categories, however. We have yet to touch upon its all-important normative aspect, and the corresponding saying of things with an additional modal dimension of potentiality or actuality. This will be intimately involved with that-for-the-sake-of-which (see also Aristotle on Explanation). Book Eta (VIII), treated here, serves as a transition to the main discussion of potentiality and actuality that lies ahead in book Theta (IX).

For Aristotle (and Hegel as well), to say that something is actually X is to judge that it has achieved and is stably continuing to achieve a full expression of what it is to be X, which means it is actively fulfilling that for the sake of which X’s do what they characteristically do (see also Entelechy). In thinking about this, it is important not to set the bar too high — Aristotle thinks it is true of many things.

Then for something to be potentially X, at least within itself it has to be fully “ready” to undergo whatever is required by the process of becoming an actual X, though its becoming an actual X in fact will usually depend on conditions external to it, and in particular on the activity of some other actual X — parents in the case of offspring, and something like a Platonic “model” of the thing in the case of artificial things.

Book Eta begins with a summary of book Zeta, so here it is evident from the text itself that the two are intended to develop one continuous argument. Then book Theta will begin with a very short summary of both Zeta and Eta.

“Now one ought to reckon up the results of what has been said, and, putting them all together, to set out the final point to which they come. And it has been said that the causes, sources, and elements of independent things are being looked for” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., p. 155).

Here again we have a more refined statement of the goal of the inquiry. He then cheerfully points out what is in fact the big new impasse reached in the previous book, concerning the impossibility of defining independent things:

“But in one way it follows from the discussions that what it is for something to be, and what underlies something, are kinds of thinghood, and in another way that thinghood is the general class, more than the specific one, and the universal more than the particulars; and the forms are also connected with the universal and the general class (since it is by the same argument that they seem to be independent things). And since what it is for something to be is thinghood, and the articulation of that is a definition, for that reason distinctions were made about definition and about what something is in virtue of itself; and since a definition is a statement, and a statement has parts, it was also necessary to know about the parts — which sort are parts of an independent thing and which not, and if these are the same ones that are parts of the definition. And further, in the course of this, it turned out that neither the universal nor the general class is thinghood” (ibid).

He highlights the discussion of definition, saving till the end the major issue that the independent thing itself is a particular that cannot be the direct subject of a definition. The subtle cue that there will be something problematic in what is said is his “in one way it follows”.

It is typical of both Aristotle and Hegel to appear to endorse an argument for a while, only to eventually overturn it. This can be seen as preliminarily giving each current argument the benefit of the doubt, rather than attempting to anticipate its future refutation. Both Aristotle and Hegel consider it essential for learning to go through the process of an argument’s dialectical development, and not just anticipate ultimate conclusions, as if out of nowhere.

The last statement — that universals do not directly characterize substance-essence-thinghood, which is always particular — is one of the most important conclusions of the Metaphysics. It means that for Aristotle, knowledge (episteme) also will not apply to independent things, since independent things are particulars. This implies that for independent things, we have to rely on something like the practical judgment cultivated for ethical practice, which is directed at particulars.

Those who have wanted to treat “metaphysics” as a “science of being” are going in the opposite of Aristotle’s direction. First he characterizes “being” as having to do with what things are and what can properly be said about them. Then he says the inquiry is really about the causes of independent things. Then he eventually concludes that knowledge does not apply to independent things, because they are particulars. What he is after here is a kind of practical wisdom, not scholastic “science”.

“But now let us go over what concerns the acknowledged independent things. And these are the perceptible ones. And all perceptible independent things have material. And what underlies something is its thinghood, and in one sense this is the material (and by material I mean that which, while not being actively a this, is a this potentially), but in another sense what underlies something is its articulation and form, which, being a this, is separate in articulation; and a third sort of underlying thing is what is composed of these, of which alone there is coming into being and destruction, and which is separate simply. For of the independent things in the sense that corresponds to the articulation, some are separate simply, while others are not” (pp. 155-156).

Here he explicitly generalizes the notion of an “underlying thing”. In the previous book, he started with the accepted view that this must be some kind of material. Then he adopted a Platonic lesson that the form or articulation of things better characterizes what they are. Then he diverged from the Platonists and concluded that independent things are even more important than form.

He certainly discussed all three cases, but my reading of the previous book was that only the composite of both form and matter ended up fully and properly qualifying as an independent thing. In part, he is being extra generous here to his former colleagues in the Platonic Academy, as well as to common-sense views of material. But he is also setting the stage for a new conclusion we will see shortly.

At this point, I am a little mystified by the implication that both all composites and some forms (presumably, some forms of non-perceptible things, which have been mentioned in passing but not discussed yet) will turn out to be in the same way “separate simply”. His only developed argument about the applicability of “separateness” to forms so far has been against the separateness of the Platonic forms, at least in any context involving perceptible things.

However, it is also true that the previous book does in passing seem to defer discussion of the possibility that there are non-perceptible independent things. To anticipate, it does seem true that any first cause of all, analogous to the first cause of motion he argues for in the Physics, must also be independent, for by definition, “first” means having no dependencies.

“[I]t remains to say what the thinghood of perceptible things is in the sense of being-at-work. And Democritus seems to think there are three ways things differ (for he thinks that the underlying body, the material, is one and the same, while what differ are design, which is shape, twist, which is position, and grouping, which is order). But it is obvious that there are many differences; for instance, some things are spoken of by reference to the composition of their material, as are all those made by mixing, such as milk blended with honey; others by way of a binding-cord, such as a bundle, others by means of glue, such as a book, others by means of bolts, such as a box, others by more than one of these, others by position, such as a threshold and a capstone (since these differ by being placed in a certain way), others by time, such as dinner and breakfast, others by place, such as the winds, and others by the attributes of perceptible things such as hardness and softness, density and rarity, or dryness and fluidity, some things differing by some of these, some by all of them” (ch. 2, pp. 156-157).

As this passage makes clear for non-independent perceptible things, in no case does what he calls the “being-at-work” or “actuality” of things involve what we ordinarily think of as work (which is why I still guardedly use “actuality”). In the case of non-independent perceptible things, the “being-at-work” has to do with whatever makes a unified thing out of material components.

“So one must grasp the kinds of differences (since these will be the source of being)…. So it is clear from these considerations that if thinghood is the cause of each thing’s being, it is among these differences that one must look for what is responsible for the being of each of these things. None of these examples is an independent thing, but still there is an analogous structure in each of them” (p. 157).

As we saw in the previous book, Aristotle sees definitions not in the modern formalist sense of characterizations we simply posit in isolation, but as built up from an ordered series of essential differences that progressively distinguish something from other things. To define something for Aristotle is to clarify its relation to classifying distinctions from other things.

“Now it is clear from these examples that the being-at-work and the articulation are different for different materials” (p. 158).

Kinds of materials are a sort of universals, so we do expect their distinctions to be fully articulable. From his examples above, what is responsible for the unity of material things that are not independent living things is itself something material. What kind of thing this source of material unity will be varies according to the case.

“One must not ignore the fact that it sometimes escapes notice whether a name indicates a composite independent thing or its being-at-work and form” (ch.3, p. 158).

“[W]hat it is for something to be belongs to the form and the being-at-work” (p. 159).

Form establishes a what, though it is a universal what and not a particular what. So far we have only seen examples of the somewhat non-intuitive being-at-work of material, non-independent things, which I just called the “source” in Aristotle’s sense for their material unity.

“Now it is obvious to those who inquire about it that a syllable is not made of its letters plus combination, nor a house out of bricks plus combination…. Nor indeed is humanness animalness plus two-footedness, but there has to be something which is apart from these, since these are its material, and that something is neither an element nor derived from an element, but since people leave this out, they describe its material” (ibid).

Here he continues his dispute with Plato’s other students. Combination is not a material ingredient of anything, even in the sense of purely logical or “intelligible” material.

“But whether those things that are the thinghood of destructible things have being separately is not at all clear yet, except that it is clear for certain things at least that this is not possible, as many as are not capable of being apart from the particulars, such as a house or a piece of furniture. So presumably these things themselves are not independent things, nor is any of the other things that are not composed by nature, for one may posit that nature alone is the thinghood in destructible things” (ibid).

I find the above a bit perplexing. The previous book clearly seemed to assume that there are perceptible independent things, and that at least all earthly perceptible things are destructible, though he seems to assume the stars and planets are indestructible, since he sees no evidence to the contrary. But it seemed that animals and plants were implied to be independent things, and to have their own distinctive substance-essence-thinghood. He definitely said that “the soul of an animal… is its thinghood disclosed in speech”. Isn’t an animal a destructible thing?

“[I]t does not belong to an independent thing to be capable of a definition” (p. 160).

This again was a major conclusion of the previous book.

“[E]ach independent thing is a complete being-at-work-staying-itself [entelechy], and a particular nature” (pp. 160-161).

Here he explicitly associates the independence of independent things with the teleological notion of entelechy.

“[W]henever one is inquiring after what is responsible for something, one must state all the causes the thing admits of” (ch. 4, p. 162).

I silently passed over his discussion of his predecessors in book I, but his main argument there was that none of them took all the causes into account. In particular, even Plato resorted to treating the Good as a formal or efficient cause. Aristotle regards interpretation by that-for-the-sake-of-which as his own major innovation.

“And what is the cause in the sense of form? What it keeps on being in order to be. And what is the cause for the sake of which it is? Its end, though presumably both of the last two causes are the same. And one must state the nearest causes: What is the material? Not fire or earth but the material peculiar to the thing” (ibid).

I just pointed out that Aristotle regards the distinction of that-for-the-sake-of-which from a formal cause as of major importance. His identification of the two here therefore must be intended as less than fully general. Form has senses that do not primarily emphasize any normative component, such as the form of triangularity. But as we have seen, Aristotle also speaks of the souls of animals as forms.

One might say that the soul is the entelechy (literally, “in [it] end having”) of a living body. Entelechies may come in layers. More precisely, the soul would be a name for the “first entelechy” of the body, or its achieved and continuing organic functioning. For Aristotle, this is intrinsically a normative concept. To speak of the entelechy of a body implies that it is not only functioning, but functioning well in relation to its intrinsic ends. Higher ongoing functions — just insofar as they are well realized — involve higher entelechies.

He makes an important point about material. What is usually most relevant is “not fire or earth but the material peculiar to the thing“, such as an organic body or a particular mineral. The more specific a material is, the more form-like it is. We will see shortly that Aristotle takes this to the point of identity between the most specific material and the form of a material thing.

“[T]here will not be material in those things that are or are not without changing” (ch. 5, p. 163).

In the Physics, the material cause was originally developed as part of the explanation of change.

“[A]ll things that have more than one part, and of which the sum is not like a heap, but a whole that is something over and above the parts, have something responsible for them…. But a definition is one statement not by being bundled together like the Iliad, but by being of one thing” (ch. 6, pp. 163-164).

A form is normally treated as an integral whole. A definition implicitly refers to an integral whole.

“Now it is clear that, for those who approach defining and explaining in this way that they are accustomed to [crudely adding specifications together, as in “animal plus two-footed”], it is not possible to give an account of it and resolve the impasse. But if, as we say, there is one thing that is material and one that is form, and the former has being as potency and the latter as being-at-work, the thing sought after would no longer seem to be an impasse” (p. 164).

I think what he is saying here is that the definition applies to the form only, not to the composite. That is probably why he earlier mentioned the ambiguity between a name’s referring to the form, and its referring to the composite. This does resolve some of the earlier puzzles about the applicability of definitions (a definition applies to a form). It is important to recall, though, that he just said again that there is still no direct applicability of definitions — which are expressed in universal terms — to independent things, which are particulars.

“But as many things as do not have either intelligible or perceptible material, are each of them some very thing that is one, just as also some very thing that is, a this, an of-this-sort, a so-much (and this is why neither being nor one is included in definitions), and what it is for something to be is immediately a particular one and a particular being. Hence there is no other thing responsible for the being-one of any of these, nor of the being-a-being of each, since each is immediately a certain being and a certain one, not in the sense of being in a class of beings or ones, nor of being among things that have being apart from particulars” (pp. 164-165).

Now he begins to speak in general about things that have no material. What this will apply to is as yet unspecified.

“But as was said, the highest level of material and the form are one and the same thing; the former potentially, the latter actively, so that looking for what is responsible for their being one is like looking for a cause of one thing; for each of them is a certain one, and what is in potency and what is in activity are in a certain way one thing. Therefore there is nothing else responsible, unless in the case of something that moves it from potency to being-at-work, but everything that does not have material is simply something that is itself one” (p. 165).

Back again to things that do have material, here he makes a point I alluded to earlier. One aspect of Aristotle’s hylomorphism is this identity of the most specific material with the form (for things that have material). Each independent thing has its own entelechy that is the primary cause of its being what it is.

Finally, he reiterates that things without material do not require anything external to give them unity.