One, Many, Same, Different

Book Iota (X) of Aristotle’s Metaphysics extends the discussion in book Delta (V) of things said in many ways, going into detail on what makes things one, many, the same, or different. These are extremely important matters for any sound reasoning, though somewhat technical in nature. It also contains Aristotle’s sharp critique of the saying of Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things”.

“[T]here are four senses in which something is said to be one primarily and in its own right, rather than incidentally” (ch.1, p. 185).

As to the first, “oneness belongs to what is continuous, either simply or, especially, by nature, and not by contact or a binding cord (and of these that is more so one and is more primary of which the motion is more indivisible and simple)” (ibid).

Continuity in a material is the lowest degree of something being one in its own right. That which is materially united by contact or by any artificial means would not be one in its own right.

As to the second, “[oneness] belongs still more to what is whole and has some form and look, especially if something is of that sort by nature and not by force, as those things are that are so by means of glue or bolts or being tied with a cord, but rather has in itself that which is responsible for its being continuous. And something is of this sort if its motion is one and indivisible in place and time; and so it is clear that, if something that has a source of motion that moves it in the primary kind of the primary class of motions (by which I mean a circular type of change of place), this is one magnitude in the primary sense” (ibid).

Being a whole is a higher degree of unity than being materially continuous. The association of circular motion with a strong unity is relevant to the upcoming argument in book Lambda (XII) about the first cause.

“So some things are one in this way, insofar as they are continuous or whole, but others are one because the articulation of them is one, and of this sort are those things of which the thinking is one, and this in turn is of this sort if it is indivisible, and an act of thinking is indivisible if it is of something indivisible in form or in number” (ibid, emphasis added).

As to the third, “a particular thing is one by being indivisible in number” (ibid, emphasis added).

These would include all the independent and non-independent things that were extensively discussed in book Zeta (VII).

He continues, “but that which is one by means of intelligibility and knowledge is indivisible in form, so [fourth] what is responsible for the oneness of independent things would be one in the primary sense” (ibid, emphasis added).

I expect that this last kind will turn out to be the first cause.

“But it is necessary to notice that one must not take the sorts of things that are spoken of as one as being meant in the same way as what it is to be one, or what the articulation of it is” (p. 186).

This is analogous to the distinction between saying something about something in general, and saying what something is, also discussed in book Zeta. He illustrates this below, with the example of fire.

“The same thing would also be the case with ‘element’ and ’cause’, if one had to speak about them, distinguishing the things to which the words are applied, and giving a definition of the words. For there is a sense in which fire is an element… and a sense in which it is not; for being fire is not the same thing as being an element…. And it is that way also with ’cause’ and ‘one’ and all such things, and this is why being one is being indivisible, just exactly what it is to be a this, separate on its own in either place or form or thinking, or to be both whole and indivisible, but especially to be the primary measure of each class of things, and, in the most governing sense, of the class of things with quantity, for it has come from there to apply to other things” (ibid).

Being one in the third sense above (being a particular thing) is now said to be “just exactly what it is to be a this“. This foreshadows an extensive one-to-one mapping he will develop below, between all the ways of the saying of being he elaborates in book Delta (V), and the ways of the saying of oneness.

He goes on to speak at some length about measures, which we would call units of measurement.

The most important point is that “a measure is always the same kind of thing as what it measures, for the measure of magnitudes is a magnitude, and in particular, that of length is a length, of breadth a breadth, of spoken sounds a spoken sound, of weight a weight, and of numerical units a numerical unit” (p. 188, emphasis added).

The distinction he makes here tracks perfectly with the way that different types, dimensions, and variables are handled separately in the operations defined by modern mathematics.

“And we speak of knowledge or sense perception as a measure of things for the same reason, because we recognize something by means of them, although they are measured more than they measure” (ibid).

The simultaneously humorous and serious caveat that “they are measured more than they measure” means that knowledge and perception are constrained by reality. More precisely, they are involved in mutual dependencies with the realities of things that they at once measure and are measured by.

“And Protagoras says a human being is the measure of all things, as if he were saying that a knower or perceiver were the measure, and these because the one has knowledge and the other perception, which we say are the measures of their objects. So while saying nothing, these people appear to be saying something extraordinary” (ibid).

Aristotle, at the end of his discussion of measure (longer and more detailed than included here), refers to Protagoras’ famous saying, commonly quoted as “Man is the measure of all things”. With uncharacteristic sharpness, he calls this “saying nothing”. Why? This seems worthy of a short digression.

Protagoras was a prominent Sophist, who appears in Plato’s dialogue of the same name. He wrote a controversial treatise entitled Truth, which began with the sentence, “Of all things the measure is man: of those that are, that they are; and of those that are not, that they are not”. Plato and Aristotle both took Protagoras to be asserting a kind of individualist relativism. Reportedly, the skeptic Sextus Empiricus also read him this way. Plato took him to deny any objective reality. Aristotle in book Gamma (IV) shows rare outrage at his other reported claim that “it is not possible to contradict”. I didn’t mention him by name in my account, but Aristotle names him there as well.

Aristotle implies it is a bit more plausible to much more specifically say that knowledge and perception are measures of things, but even that only with the caveat that really “they are measured more than they measure”.

But why go on to add with such sharpness that Protagoras is “saying nothing”? I suspect the answer may lie with the other part of Aristotle’s interpretation: “as if he were saying that a knower or perceiver were the measure, and these because the one has knowledge and the other perception”.

I’m inclined to think Aristotle would regard it as outrageous to transfer what may (ambiguously) be said of specific knowledge and perception, to an unqualified saying about one who is said to possess knowledge and perception in general.

Aristotle has just given an account of what a measure is, that it must be of the same kind as the things that it measures. How could one thing (“man”) possibly be the measure of countless things that have no common measure? That does sound like nonsense. Any measure has to be of one kind or another. Modern mathematics agrees that kinds, dimensions, variables can only be collapsed together if very specific criteria are met.

What Aristotle emphasizes here about knowledge and perception — that they have a remarkable involvement with things that also measure them — seems very consistent with his general views. But the way Protagoras implicitly presents “man” as their possessor makes the possessor stand apart from the mutual involvement with things that Aristotle emphasizes, in which knowledge and perception and things measure one another. In splendid isolation from all constraints of real measure, the possessor seems to have arbitrary freedom to claim whatever she wishes.

I intuitively associate Protagoras with the attitude that what’s true for you is true for you, but what’s true for me is true for me, so don’t tell me I’m wrong, and I won’t tell you you’re wrong! Then and now, such sentiments had and have a superficial appeal, because they seem to express a live-and-let-live attitude, which seems to be a good thing. But the way it is expressed, in fact it completely undermines any possibility of meaningful dialogue, which undermines reason itself, which undermines the very thing that makes us human.

Back to the text, Aristotle turns to illustrating the one-to-one mapping I mentioned between sayings about being and sayings about oneness.

“[S]ince not even being itself is an independent thing as though it were some one thing capable of having being apart from the many beings (since it is common to them), other than solely as a thing attributed to them, it is clear that oneness is not a universal either” (ch. 2, p. 189).

For Aristotle, neither Being nor the One is an independent thing in its own right. He will nonetheless argue in book Lambda (XII) that there is a first cause for all things.

“What’s more, what is true about oneness must hold true in a similar way for all things; and being and oneness are meant in equally many ways” (ibid).

“And the same account applies also to the other classes of things, … and [if] in all instances it is the case both that the number is a number of something and that oneness is some particular one thing, and oneness itself is not the thinghood of it, then it must also be the same way with independent things” (p. 190).

“[S]o too in thinghood, one independent thing is oneness itself; and that oneness in a certain way means the same thing as being, is clear from the fact that it follows along equally through the ways being is attributed, and is not any one of them (for instance, it is not what anything is, nor of-what-sort anything is, but stands similarly toward them just as being does), and from the fact that no other thing is predicated in ‘one human being’ over and above what is predicated in ‘human being’ (just as being is not something over and above what and of-what-sort and how-much a thing is), or in ‘being one’ over and above being any particular thing” (ibid).

Saying something is one human being is the same as saying it is a human being. In book Zeta, he analogously said that “good” and “being good” are the same.

Things are often one in one respect, but many in another. The one and the many are “contraries, and not opposed as contradictories or as what are called relative terms” (ch. 3, p. 190). Next he turns to the meanings of same, other, and different.

“Since the same is meant in more than one way, in one way we sometimes speak of what is the same in number, but we say it in another sense if things are one in meaning as well as in number, as you are one with yourself in both form and material, and in another again if the articulation of the primary thinghood of things is one, for instance in the way equal straight lines are the same, … but in these equality is oneness” (p. 191).

In Fregean terms, things are what Aristotle calls one in number when they have the same reference. They are what Aristotle calls one in meaning when they have the same sense. Frege illustrates how they differ by saying that the morning star and the evening star have the same reference, but different sense.

“Things are alike if, not being simply the same, nor without difference in their composite thinghood, they are the same in form, just as a larger square is like a smaller one…. Other things are alike if they have the same form, and have it in them to be more and less, but are neither more nor less than one another. Other things, if they are the same attribute, and one in form, say white, more and less intensely, people say are alike because their form is one. Other things are alike if they have more things the same than different, either simply or superficially, as tin is like silver insofar as it is white, and gold is like fire insofar as it is yellow and fiery-red” (ibid).

“So it is clear also that other and unlike are meant in more than one way” (ibid).

“[B]ut difference is something other than otherness…. [W]hat is different from something is different in some particular respect, so it must necessarily be the same in some respect as that with which it differs” (p. 192).

For Aristotle, calling two things different presupposes that they can be meaningfully compared in the first place. This is not the case for things that are just “other” than one another. Black is different from white; they are both colors. But an apostrophe is just other than an aardvark.

This is followed by a ten-page discussion of technical details of contrariety, which I will mostly skip. Contrariety supports a definitive ruling out of some things based on other things. This has great importance for reasoning.

Incidentally, Aristotle explains why there is no essential difference between human beings with different colorings.

“And since one sort of thing is articulation while another is material, those contrarieties that are in the articulation make a difference in species, but those that are in what is conceived together with the material do not make such a difference. This is the reason that whiteness of a human being, and blackness, do not make such a difference…. For there is a difference between a white human being and a black horse, but that is not insofar as the one is white and the other is black” (ch. 9, pp. 201-202).

Finally, he argues that destructibility and indestructibility inhere in things by necessity. Whether a thing is destructible or not depends strictly on what genus of things its species belongs to.

“[A] destructible thing and an indestructible thing must be different in genus…. Therefore it is necessary that destructibility either be the thinghood or be present in the thinghood of each destructible thing; and the same argument also concerns the indestructible, since both are among things present by necessity” (ch. 10, p. 202).