“Of all cases it would be most natural to suppose that there is alteration in figures and shapes, and in states and in the process of acquiring and losing these; but as a matter of fact in neither of these two cases is there alteration” (Aristotle, Physics book VII ch. 3, Collected Works, Barnes ed., vol. 1, p. 412).
What the translator calls a matter of fact, I would call a matter of terminology. All specialties tend to develop their own terminology, and philosophers do likewise. Aristotle uses many Greek terms with meanings that were already specialized in his day. Modern disciplines and common speech have evolved their own choices using different criteria.
“[T]here is alteration only in things that are said to be affected in their own right by sensible things…. For when anything has been completely shaped or structured, we do not call it by the name of its material: e.g. we do not call the statue bronze or the candle wax or the bed wood, but we use a paronymous expression and call them brazen, waxen, and wooden respectively. But when a thing has been affected or altered in any way we still call it by the original name: thus we speak of the bronze or the wax being fluid or hard or hot…, giving the matter the same name as the affection” (ibid).
Aristotle makes his usual semantic distinction between the matter, the form, and the composite of both. He wants to specialize the term that is translated as “change” or “alteration” to apply only to the matter, and to use different locutions with regard to the form and the composite.
“Again, states, whether of the body or of the soul, are not alterations. For some are excellences and some are defects, and neither excellence nor defect is an alteration: excellence is a perfection (… since it is then really in its natural state: e.g. a circle is perfect when it becomes really a circle and when it is best), while defect is a perishing of or departure from this condition. So just as when speaking of a house we do not call its arrival at perfection an alteration…, the same holds good in the case of excellences and defects and of the things that possess or acquire them” (ibid).
As we might also anticipate, he strongly emphasizes a teleological and normative perspective on these matters.
“Further, we say that all excellences depend on particular relations. Thus bodily excellences such as health and fitness we regard as consisting in a blending of… elements in due proportion, in relation either to one another within the body or to the surrounding; and in like manner we regard beauty, strength, and all other excellences and defects. Each of them exists in virtue of a particular relation and puts that which possesses it in a good or bad condition with regard to its proper affections” (pp. 412-413).
Most fascinating of all is this emphasis on particular relations. Good and bad conditions are explained in terms of these.
“Since, then, relatives are neither themselves alterations nor the subjects of alterations or of becoming or in fact of any change whatever, it is evident that neither states nor the process of losing and acquiring states are alterations, though it may be true that their becoming or perishing, like that of form and shape, necessarily involves the alteration of certain other things…. For each defect or excellence involves a relation with those things from which the possessor is naturally subject to alteration: thus excellence disposes its possessor to be unaffected or to be affected thus and so, while defect disposes its possessor to be affected or unaffected in a contrary way” (p. 413).
Relations in themselves are static abstractions of conditions. But some of the things involved in these relations are subject to change or alteration. This is a sophisticated way of approaching the matter.
“And the case is similar in regard to the states of the soul, all of which too exist in virtue of particular relations…. Consequently these cannot be alterations either, nor can the process of losing and acquiring them be so, though their becoming is necessarily the result of an alteration of the sensitive part of the soul, and this is altered by sensible objects…. Consequently, although their becoming is accompanied by an alteration, they are not themselves alterations” (ibid).
States of the soul are to be viewed in this relational way. Their becoming is said to be accompanied by an alteration, not itself to be an alteration.
“And again, the states of the intellectual part of the soul are not alterations; nor is there any becoming of them. For the possession of knowledge most especially depends on a particular relation” (ibid).
Knowledge also “most especially” involves being in a particular relation. It is not just the possession of some content.
“It is evident, then, from the preceding argument that alteration and being altered occur in sensible things and in the sensitive part of the soul and, except accidentally, in nothing else” (p. 414).