Hegel on Hegel’s Logic

By his own account, Hegel makes a “completely fresh start” in what he calls logic (Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., 1st preface, p. 9). Robert Pippin points out that insofar as it has precursors, the principal debts of Hegel’s effort are to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Judgment and to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, none of which are ordinarily viewed as works of “logic”. Translator George di Giovanni calls it a “discourse about discourse” (p. xxxv). Fundamentally, it is about meaning, and the conditions for anything to be intelligible.

“[A]n altogether new concept… is at work here…. [Philosophy] cannot borrow its method from a subordinate science, such as mathematics, any more than it can remain satisfied with categorical assurances of inner intuition, or can make use of argumentation based on external reflection. On the contrary, it can only be the nature of the content which is responsible for movement in scientific knowledge, for it is the content’s own reflection that first posits and generates what that content is” (pp. 9-10).

He emphasizes “the nature of the content” (which is to say meaning), and “content’s own reflection”. That reflection, moreover, “first posits and generates what that content is“. Meaning’s own reflection “posits and generates” what it means. We are not far from Aristotle’s thought thinking itself that is the cause of the what-it-is of things. Hegel shares with Kant and Aristotle a discursively reflective view of thought and meaning.

I still prefer to speak of “knowledge” rather than “science” in a philosophical context. But Hegel just means a disciplined form of knowledge. The German word for science (Wissenschaft) literally means something like the art of knowing (wissen). Our word “science” comes from Latin scientia (knowledge in a strong sense). According to di Giovanni, wissen for Hegel “signifies the product or the origin, rather than the process, of reason” (p. lxx). It is distinguished from Erkenntnis (confusingly also rendered by some translators as “knowledge”), which starts from a root meaning of acquaintance or recognition, and comes to refer to the process of reason.

“The forms of thought are first set out and stored in human language…. In everything that the human being has interiorized, in everything that in some way or another has become for him a representation, in whatever he has made his own, there has language penetrated, and everything that he transforms into language and expresses in it contains a category, whether concealed, mixed, or well defined. So much is logic natural to the human being, [it] is indeed his very nature. If we however contrast nature as such, as the realm of the physical, with the realm of the spiritual, then we must say that logic is the supernatural element that permeates all his natural behavior, his ways of sensing, intuiting, desiring, his needs and impulses; and it thereby makes them into something truly human, even though only formally human — makes them into representations and purposes” (2nd preface, p. 12).

Our involvement with linguistic meaning is “our very nature”, or is the “supernatural” element in our natural behavior that makes us truly human. As one reading of Aristotle puts it, what makes us human is that we are talking animals.

“But even when logical matters and their expressions are common coin in a culture, still, as I have said elsewhere, what is familiar is for that reason not known…. To indicate the general features of the course that cognition goes through as it leaves familiar acquaintance behind, the essential moments in the relationship of scientific thought to this natural thought, this is the purpose of the present preface” (p. 13).

“First of all, it must be regarded as an infinite step forward that the forms of thought have been freed from the material in which they are submerged in self-conscious intuition, in representation, as well as in our desires and volitions or, more accurately, in ideational desiring and willing (and there is no human desire or volition without ideation); a step forward that these universalities have been brought to light and made the subject of study on their own, as was done by Plato, and after him by Aristotle especially” (pp. 13-14).

He credits Plato and Aristotle with first clearly articulating notions of thought and meaning in a way that is independent of particular subjectivity. Next he cautions against the illusion of mastery.

“We do not indeed say of our feelings, impulses, interests, that they serve us; on the contrary, they count as independent forces and powers, so that to have this particular feeling, to desire and to will this particular thing, to make this our interest — just this, is what we are. And it is more likely that we become conscious of obeying our feelings, impulses, passions, interests, not to mention our habits, than of having them in our possession, still less, in view of our intimate union with them, of their being means at our disposal. Such determinations of mind and spirit, when contrasted with the universality which we are conscious of being and in which we have our freedom, quickly show themselves to be particulars, and we rather regard ourselves to be caught up in their particularities and to be dominated by them. It is all the less plausible, therefore, to believe that the thought determinations that pervade all our representations — whether these are purely theoretical or hold a material belonging to sensation, impulse, will — that such thought determinations are at our service; that it is we who have them in our possession and not they who have us in theirs” (p. 15).

We are masters neither of our feelings nor of our thought.

“[W]hen the content that motivates a subject to action is drawn out of its immediate unity with the subject and is made to stand before it as an object, then it is that the freedom of spirit begins” (p. 17).

True freedom of spirit is the very opposite of following one’s arbitrary will or impulse.

“The most important point for the nature of spirit is the relation, not only of what it implicitly is in itself to what it actually is, but of what it knows itself to be to what it actually is” (ibid).

Here he already raises the Aristotelian theme of the priority of actuality.

“As impulses the categories do their work only instinctively; they are brought to consciousness one by one and so are variable and mutually confusing, thus affording to spirit only fragmentary and uncertain actuality. To purify these categories and in them to elevate spirit to truth and freedom, this is therefore the loftier business of logic” (ibid).

Hegel’s logic thus serves a profound ethical purpose.

“It is soon evident that what in ordinary reflection is, as content, at first separated from the form cannot in fact be formless, … that it rather possesses form in it; indeed that it receives soul and substance from the form alone and that it is this form itself which is transformed into only the semblance of a content…. By thus introducing content into logical consideration, it is not the things, but rather the fact [Sache], the concept of the things, that becomes the subject matter” (pp. 18-19).

What the moderns call “content” is a special case of what Plato and Aristotle call form. Hegel calls it a “semblance” of content. But its role in his logic is pivotal. Logic is concerned not with things as such but with meanings, Aristotelian forms, the what-it-is of things. What the translator calls “fact” seems rather different from ordinary English usage.

Mathematical Things and Forms

We’ve reached the end of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, though there are in fact two more books, Mu (XIII) and Nu (XIV).

Aristotle’s main point of contention with his former colleagues of the Platonic Academy is whether or not mathematical objects and forms understood as universals are independent things in their own right. Both books Mu and Nu (XIV) are concerned with this, and have a somewhat polemical character. I think Aristotle’s own distinctive views on form are better expressed in what has been said already, so I will mostly focus on the other remarks he makes in book Mu, and will skip book Nu entirely.

Book Mu does not clearly refer to the preceding book Lambda (XII), but does refer to previous discussion of “the thinghood that has being as being-at-work” (Sachs tr., ch. 1, p. 253) as well as to discussion on aporias.

“Now it is necessary, if mathematical things are, that they be either in the perceptible things, as some people say, or separate from the perceptible things (and some people also speak of them that way); or if they are not present in either way, then they do not have being or they have it in some other manner. So for us the dispute will not be about whether they have being, but about the manner of their being” (pp. 253-254).

I take especial note of the last sentence above. This could also serve as a comment on what is at stake in the Metaphysics in general — questions not really about being as if it were one thing, but about what things are, and the ways they are.

He goes on to argue that mathematical things are neither “in” perceptible things, nor are they separate things in their own right. “In” for Aristotle suggests a material constituent.

“It has been said sufficiently, then, that mathematical things are not independent things more than bodies are, nor are they prior in being to perceptible things, but only in articulation, nor are they capable of being somewhere as separate; but since they are not capable of being in perceptible things either, it is clear that either they have no being at all, or that they have being in a certain manner and for this reason do not have being simply, for we speak of being in a number of ways” (ch. 2, p. 257).

For those who insist that the whole Metaphysics is a single linear development and not just generally coherent with itself, and also that being finally acquires an unequivocal sense, it seems inconvenient that now, after book Lambda, he continues to emphasize that being is said in many ways.

I think the Metaphysics is very much coherent with itself, but is not a single linear development pointing toward Being, and that he never wavers on the emphasis that being is said in many ways, although he does sometimes use the word equivocally himself. If the whole thing points toward something, that something is the good and the beautiful, and not Being.

He goes on to make some positive remarks about mathematics.

“Now just as the things that are universal within mathematics are not about things that are separate from magnitudes and numbers, but are about these, but not insofar as they are of such a sort as to have magnitude or to be discrete, it is clear that it is also possible for there to be both articulations and demonstrations about perceptible magnitudes, not insofar as they are perceptible but insofar as they are of certain sorts” (ch. 3, p. 257).

He is saying that insofar as there is mathematical knowledge, it is not about magnitude or number as such, but about more specific things such as right triangles or even numbers. Similarly, the meaning of articulations and demonstrations about perceptible magnitudes does not depend on their perceptibility as such.

“[S]ince it is true to say simply that there are not only separate things but also things that are not separate…, it is also true to say simply that there are mathematical things and that they are of such a sort as people say….If it is about things which incidentally are perceptible, but is not concerned with them insofar as they are perceptible, mathematical knowledge will not be about perceptible things; however, it will not be about other separate beings besides these either” (p. 258).

Mathematical things are bona fide things in the broad sense, but not all things are separate or independent. Some are attributed to others.

“[I]f someone examines anything concerning these attributes, insofar as they are such, positing them to be separate, he will not on this account cause anything to be false, any more than when one draws a line on the ground that is not a foot long, and says it is a foot long, for the false assumption is not in the proposition…. [F]or this reason the geometers speak rightly” (pp. 258-259).

Mistaken belief about the independence of mathematical things is incidental to the doing of mathematics. It is irrelevant to the results of constructions or calculations.

“And since the good and the beautiful are different (for the former is always involved in action but the beautiful is also present in motionless things), those who claim that the mathematical kinds of knowledge say nothing about what is beautiful and good are wrong…. The greatest forms of the beautiful are order and symmetry and determinateness, which the mathematical kinds of knowledge most of all display. And since these make their appearance as causes of many things…, it is clear that these kinds of knowledge would also speak about what has responsibility in the manner of the beautiful as a cause in some manner” (p. 259).

Here he not only recognizes mathematical beauty, but relates it to the beauty associated with that-for-the-sake-of-which as a cause.

“The opinion about the forms came to those who spoke about them as a result of being persuaded by the Heraclitean writings that it is true that all perceptible things are always in flux, so that, if knowledge and thought are to be about anything, there must be, besides the perceptible things, some other enduring natures, since there can be no knowledge of things in flux. And then Socrates made it his business to be concerned with the moral virtues, and on account of them first sought to define things in a universal way. For among those who studied nature, only to a small extent did Democritus attain to this… and before that the Pythagoreans did about some few things…. But it is reasonable that Socrates sought after what something is…. But Socrates did not make the universals or the definitions separate, while those who came next did, and called beings of this sort forms” (ch. 4, p. 260).

Aristotle rejects the Heraclitean doctrine of radical flux that influenced Plato. He says Plato was driven to assert separate forms because he wanted to assert that there is knowledge, in spite of his Heracliteanism about perceptible things. Aristotle says that driven by a concern for ethics, Socrates — and not any of those we know as the pre-Socratics — was the first to seriously inquire about what things are. Aristotle has been inquiring about the what-it-is of things and its causes and sources, and we have seen in abundance his concern for the good and the beautiful. Aristotle is claiming a Socratic heritage, and claiming to be truer to it than the Platonists: “Socrates did not make the universals or the definitions separate”.

There follows a long argument against Platonic views about the forms, at the end of which he observes:

“[K]nowledge, like knowing, has two senses, the one as in potency, the other as at-work. The potency, being, like material, universal and indeterminate, is of what is universal and indeterminate, but the being-at-work is determinate and of something determinate; being a this it is of a this, but incidentally sight sees a universal color because this color that it sees is a color, and this A that the grammarian contemplates is an A” (ch. 10, p. 279).

If I am reading this right, he is saying here that being as universal and indeterminate is to being-at-work as potentiality is to being-at-work. If that is so, then the priority of actuality over potentiality would also seem to be a priority of actuality over being. Once again, it just doesn’t seem that being is the principal term.

In any case, he returns to the ultimately ethical theme of the priority of actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment over potentiality, and of particular concrete things over universals in the ordinary logical sense. This still has to be carefully balanced with his other view that there is no knowledge of particulars; knowledge is of universals only.

Positive concern for the priority of actuality is in my opinion the primary thing that underlies his sharp critique of the Platonists. The second — evidenced in the part I skipped over — was the popularity within the Academy of a kind of Pythagorean mystique of numbers that also identified the forms with numbers, in sometimes baffling ways. Plato himself was apparently not immune to this.

Many think Aristotle claims to have knowledge of non-perceptible particular independent everlasting things. I think this interpretation relies on ambiguous use of Aristotle’s saying of “knowledge” in different ways in different contexts. Sometimes he means it very strictly, other times much more loosely. Some translations add confusion by using the same English “knowledge” for other Greek words like gnosis, which I think for Aristotle means personal acquaintance with things nearer to us, whereas episteme is supposed to be about things in their own right.

I do not think that Aristotle means to claim knowledge in the strong sense about ultimate things, but rather that his attitude was in a way closer to that of Kant, who held them to have the highest importance but not to be knowable in the strict sense. This means we do not have to equivocate about what knowledge is.

The wisdom that is called sophia in book capital Alpha initially seems to be concerned with universals in the ordinary sense, as true episteme or knowledge genuinely is. It turns out in book Lambda that sophia‘s primary concern is not with universals in the ordinary sense at all, but with analogous relations that a uniquely positioned particular or particulars has or have to all other things.

In any case, my own view is that the wisdom or sophia concerning these highest things ought to be understood as aligned not so much with knowledge or episteme, as with the ethical or “practical” wisdom (phronesis) that is explicitly said to be a wisdom about particulars. A wisdom about particulars is not prevented from making — and indeed presumably would make — use of knowledge of any universals that genuinely apply. Nonetheless it is the wisdom about particulars that judges which universals should apply in a particular case.

New State Not a Change?

“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).

Toward a First Cause

Book Kappa (XI) of Aristotle’s Metaphysics briefly reviews material from books Beta (III), Gamma (IV), and Epsilon (VI) about the aims of the ultimate inquiry into first things that is still to be pursued. It also incorporates a brief review of his discussions in Physics books II, III, and V about what motion and change are. Both parts of the presentation here add more explicit hints that we will be looking for something that is both separate and unmoved. These hints are the book’s main interest.

Perhaps surprisingly given its review of content from the Physics, Metaphysics Kappa makes no reference to the detailed argument in Physics book VIII that there is a first unmoved mover of all things, or to the related background about unmoved things in Physics book VII. The beginning of Physics book VIII refers back to “our course on physics”, which is ambiguous, but could imply that it was written later, and possibly after Metaphysics Kappa, which would explain why book VIII’s argument about the first mover is not mentioned here.

“But neither ought one to set down the kind of knowledge being sought as concerning the causes spoken of in the writings about nature, since it is not about that for the sake of which (for this sort of cause is the good, and this belongs among actions and things that are in motion, and it moves things first — for that is the sort of thing an end is — but a thing that first moves them is not present among immovable things). And in general, there is an impasse whether the knowledge now being sought is about perceptible independent things at all, or not, but about other things. For if it is about others, it would be about either the forms or the mathematical things, but it is apparent that there are no forms…. But neither is the knowledge being sought about mathematical things, nor is it a knowledge of perceptible independent things, since they are destructible” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., pp. 205-206).

This passage is interesting in a couple of ways. The knowledge being sought in the inquiry to be conducted is now more definitely said to be not about perceptible independent things, not about mathematical things, and not about Platonic forms.

He also points out that what he calls physics is concerned primarily with what he calls sources of motion and change. It does not address questions about the good or that-for-the-sake-of which, except in an incidental way. But in Parts of Animals book I, he clearly says that in the overall scheme of things, the good and that-for-the-sake-of-which are more primary than sources of motion. The implication here in Metaphysics Kappa is that the inquiry being prepared for will address them in their own right.

“Also, ought one to set down anything besides the particular thing or not, and is the knowledge being sought about particulars?” (ch. 2, p. 207).

For Aristotle, no universal is an independent thing. The knowledge being sought does seem to be about particulars.

“And there is besides an impasse, that all knowledge is of universals and of the suchness of things, but thinghood does not belong to universal” (p. 208).

Knowledge, however, is concerned with universals. This was the major impasse remaining at the end of book Zeta (VII).

“Now since the knowledge that belongs to the philosopher concerns being as being universally and not in relation to a part, … if it is meant in accordance with something common, it would be subject to one knowledge. It seems to be meant in the way that has been spoken of, in just the way that medical and healthy are meant” (ch. 3, p. 209).

He refers back to the discussion of how the saying of being in the other categories points back to the saying of substance-essence-thinghood.

“Since all being is meant in accordance with something that is one and common, even though it is meant in a number of ways, … such things are capable of being subject to one knowledge” (p. 211).

This enables us to say that there is after all one knowledge that can be said to be of being as such. It will address the proper saying of substance-essence-thinghood directly, and the proper saying of being in the other categories in a derivative way.

“And since the mathematician uses common notions in a particular way, it would also belong to the primary sort of philosophy to study the things that govern these” (ch. 4, p. 211).

He seems to assert in passing that first philosophy includes what we would call the foundations of mathematics. Elsewhere he mentions that the first principles of mathematics are similarly supposed to be applicable to all things. But mathematics does not address what things in general are in their own right.

“And it is the same way also with the knowledge about nature as with mathematics, for physics studies the attributes and sources of beings insofar as they are in motion and not insofar as they are, (but we have said that the primary sort of knowledge is about these things to the extent that the things underlying them are beings, but not insofar as they are anything else). For this reason one must set down both this sort of knowledge and the mathematical sort as parts of wisdom” (pp. 211-212).

Neither mathematics nor what Aristotle calls physics addresses substance-essence-thinghood, or what things are in their own right. It is left to first philosophy to do this, as well as to inquire into the ultimate principles that underlie mathematics and physics.

Just as in book Gamma (IV), Aristotle’s claim that there is after all a knowledge that applies to all being as such, and that the philosopher is the one who has it, is immediately followed by a somewhat lengthy expression of outrage against those who claim a right to contradict themselves, or deny that there is any such thing as contradiction. Just as in book Gamma, the concerns he expresses are about dialogue, the understanding of meaning, and the possibility of sound reasoning.

This makes perfect sense when we recall that Aristotle has consistently treated being in a transitive way, as always being this or being that; and as intimately involved with saying, especially the saying of what things properly are in their own right. He has at the same time treated saying as meaningful saying, intimately involved with reasoning. So we should not be surprised when it turns out that the knowledge that applies to all being as such has to do with fundamental principles and presuppositions of reasoning and the understanding of meaning.

“Now those who are going to participate in a discussion with each other must in some way understand what they say…. It is necessary then for each of the words to be intelligible and to mean something, and not many things but only one, but if it does mean more than one thing, it is necessary to make clear to which of these one is applying the word. So the one who says ‘this is and is not’ denies that which he says, and so he denies that the word means what it means, which is impossible” (ch. 5, p. 212).

Then he again expresses outrage at what he takes to be Protagoras’ claim that truth is entirely subjective. If this were the case, there would be no being as Aristotle understands it. Being “in its own right” is discursively communicable intelligibility.

“Something closely resembling these things being discussed is what was said by Protagoras, for he said that a human being is the measure of all things, meaning nothing else than that what seems so to each person is solidly so” (ch. 6, p. 213).

“And since it is necessary for each sort of knowledge to know in some way what something is, … one must not let it go unnoticed in what way the one who studies nature needs to define it and how he needs to get hold of the articulation of the thinghood of things” (ch. 7, p. 217).

The inquiry to be pursued here is implicitly presupposed by physical inquiries. To the extent that one of these two, taken in itself, governs the other, taken in itself, the inquiry to be pursued here is more primary than physics (or mathematics).

“Now the study of nature is about things having a source of motion within themselves, while mathematics is contemplative and concerns something that remains the same, but is not separate. Therefore, about the sort of being that is separate and motionless, there is another sort of knowledge that is different from both of these, if there is any such independent thing — I mean something separate and motionless — which is just what we shall try to show. And if there is any such nature among beings, that would be where the divine also is, and this would be the primary and most governing source of things. It is clear, then, that there are three classes of contemplative knowledge: physics, mathematics, and theology” (ibid).

What he calls nature is a source of motion within something “as itself” (all other sources of motion he calls potentialities).

Now he explicitly mentions that he intends to show that there is a kind of being that is both separate and motionless, as he understands these two terms. He says that if there is such a thing, it will be “where the divine is”, and it will be “the primary and most governing source of things”. First philosophy will therefore be alternately characterized as theology.

He returns to the impasse about knowledge in first philosophy. “One might be at an impasse whether the knowledge of being as being ought to be set down as universal or not” (p. 218). Knowledge is supposed to be concerned with universals, but we are seeking an independent thing, and no logical universal is an independent thing.

In the earlier suggestion of a solution to this impasse, he re-interpreted the many ways in which being is said for the different categories, re-describing them as multiple derivative meanings pointing to one primary meaning. This seemed to eliminate the need to refer to a universal that abstracts over the ways being is said for the different categories.

Now he complements this by introducing a new way of speaking universally, which does not depend on abstraction. Instead, universality can be achieved by referring to a concrete thing or things that is or are concretely the cause or causes of all things, and that therefore is or are prior to all the rest.

“So if natural independent things are primary among beings, then also physics would be the primary sort of knowledge; but if there is another nature and independent thing that is separate and motionless, it is necessary that the knowledge of it be other than and prior to physics, and universal by being prior” (ibid).

Everything that Aristotle calls independent, he also calls separate. Also equivalent to these is calling something a this. As noted earlier, the challenge is to find something that is independent and separate and a this, but that is also unmoved in his sense. The impasse about universality will be conclusively resolved by finding something that is universal not in the sense of being abstract, but rather, as he says, universal in the sense of being “prior” to all other things, because it is a cause for all of them.

“And that, of what is so incidentally, there are not causes and sources of the same sort as there are of what is so in its own right, is clear, for then everything would be by necessity” (ch. 8, p. 219).

As he said in book Zeta (VII), the contingency of incidental being must have contingent, incidental causes. Now he relates this more specifically to a consideration of that-for-the-sake-of-which.

“That which is for the sake of something is present in things that happen by nature or as a result of thinking, but it is fortune when any of these happen incidentally, for just as being is in one way in its own right and in another way incidental, so also with cause. And fortune is an incidental cause in the things that are by choice, among those that happen for the sake of something, for which reason fortune and thinking concern the same things, since there is no choice apart from thinking…. And since nothing incidental takes precedence over things in their own right, neither then do incidental causes, so if fortune or chance is a cause of the heavens, intelligence and nature have a prior responsibility” (pp. 219-220).

There is such a thing as fortune or things happening by chance, but “intelligence and nature have a prior responsibility”, just as what things are in their own right takes precedence over things that are the case incidentally.

“Something is in one way only as at-work, in another way as in potency, and in another way both in potency and at-work, and again in one way as a being, in another as a so-much, in other ways in the rest of the categories; and there is no motion apart from things, since something changes always according to the categories of being, and there is nothing common to these which is not within a single category” (ch. 9, p. 220).

Every change is understood by Aristotle as a change with respect to one of the categories. What is common to these is not an abstraction, but the single concrete sense for one category (substance-essence-thinghood), from which the senses for the other categories are derived.

Here he mentions being in the sense of potentiality and actuality, before he mentions being in the senses of the categories. Next, he summarizes the Physics‘ account of motion. “Motion” is the (incomplete) actualization of a potentiality, where actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment would be its complete actualization.

“So the being-at-work-staying-itself [entelechy, identified by Aristotle with actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment] of what is in potency, whenever it is at-work as a being-at-work-staying-itself, not as itself but as movable, is motion” (p. 221).

“And the reason for motion’s seeming to be indefinite is that it is not possible to place it as a potency or as a being-at-work of beings, for neither is what is capable of being so-much necessarily in motion, nor what is actively so-much; and motion seems to be a certain sort of being-at-work, but incomplete, and the reason is that the potency of which it is the [complete] being-at-work is itself incomplete. And for this reason it is hard to grasp what it is, for it is necessary to place it either as a deprivation or as a potency or as an unqualified being-at-work, but none of these seems admissible; so what remains is what has been said, both that it is a being-at-work and that it is the sort of being-at-work that has been described, which is difficult to bring into focus but capable of being” (p. 222).

Motion is an incomplete actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment. This is a rather subtle thought, the grasping of which requires that we first understand that-for-the-sake-of-which, actuality, and potentiality. (Motion in the modern sense, on the other hand, has no teleological significance. It is entirely reducible to measurable quantities. It it not that one of these is “right” and the other “wrong” — they are two different concepts, grounded in different kinds of explanation.)

“And it is clear that motion is in the movable thing, for it is the being-at-work-staying-itself of this by the action of the thing capable of causing motion. And the being-at-work of the thing capable of causing motion is not different, since it is necessary that it be the being-at-work-staying-itself of both; for a thing is capable of causing motion by its potency and is in motion by being-at-work, but it is capable of being-at-work upon the thing moved, so that the being-at-work of both alike is one, just as the interval from one to two and from two to one is the same, and the uphill and downhill road, though the being of them is not one, and similarly also in the case of the thing causing motion and the thing moved” (ibid).

Motion for Aristotle is always said to be in the thing moved, not in the mover. The potentialities of mover and moved with respect to any motion are said to be one.

“Now it is not possible for the infinite to be something separate…. Also, how could the infinite admit of being something in its own right, if number and magnitude, of which the infinite is an attribute, do not?…. And it is clear that it is not possible for there to be an infinite actively…. [T]hat there is no infinite among perceptible things is clear…. [N]or could there be a number that is separate and infinite, since a number or that which has a number is countable…. In general it is impossible for there to be an infinite body and a place for bodies” (ch. 10, pp. 222-224).

As he argues in greater detail in the Physics, there is no “separate” or “actual” infinite.

“[T]here is something that is moved primarily on account of itself, and this is what is moved in its own right. And this is the same way also with the thing that causes motion, for it does so either incidentally, or on account of a part, or in its own right” (ch. 11, p. 225).

There is something that is a mover in its own right.

“But the forms and the attributes…, such as knowledge and heat, are motionless; it is not heat that is a motion but the process of heating. Change that is not incidental is not present in all things but in contraries and what is between the and in contradictories, and belief in this comes from considering examples” (ibid).

For Aristotle, it is only composite things (i.e., those he understands as formed from material) that are subject to motion and change. In his sense, for instance, a composite thing may undergo a process of becoming warmer, and that would be a kind of motion of the thing. But heat itself is not a composite thing. (That heat itself does not move would be true even under the modern interpretation of it as the amount of molecular motion within a material.)

“A thing that changes does so either from one underlying thing to another, or from what is not a subject to what is not another subject, or from what is not a subject to that subject (and by ‘subject’ I mean what is declared affirmatively), so that there must be three kinds of change, since that from what is not one subject to what is not another subject is not a change, for they are neither contraries nor is there a contradiction, because there is no opposition between them” (ibid).

“And since every motion is a change, and the kinds of change mentioned are three, but those that result from coming-into-being or destruction are not motions, and these are the changes between contradictories, it is necessary that change from one subject to another be the only sort of change that is motion” (p. 226).

A “subject” here is just some thing that underlies something else that has the character of an attribute. I would infer that the change from one subject to another that is spoken of here is a reference to the way that something that is potentially X becomes actually X by the action of something else that is already actually X, as the parent of a child and the Platonic “model” of an artifact were said to be.

“So if the ways of attributing being are divided into thinghood, quality, place, acting or being acted upon, relation, and quantity, there are necessarily three kinds of motion, with respect to the of-what-sort, the how-much, and the place. There is no motion with respect to thinghood, because nothing is contrary to an independent thing, nor of relation …, nor is there a motion of acting and being acted upon, nor of moving and being moved, because there is not a motion of a motion or a coming into being of coming into being, or generally a change of a change…. For every motion is a change from one thing to another, and this is also with coming into being and destruction, except that these are changes into one sort of opposites, while motion is a change into another sort” (ch. 12, pp. 226-227).

The modern concept of acceleration is not a “change of a change”, but a change in a rate of change. Surprisingly, he does not seem to mention change with respect to place, or locomotion, here.

“Also, it would go to infinity if there were to be a change of a change and a coming into being of coming into being…. And since of infinite things there is no first one, there would not be a first becoming, and therefore no next one either, and then nothing would either come into being or be moved or change” (pp. 227-228).

Here as elsewhere, Aristotle is anxious to avoid any form of infinite regress. Showing that there is a separate, unmoved, everlasting thing that moves others is what will enable him to do that. That will be the main task of book Lambda (XII).

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).

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.

Independent Things

Having just posted notes on Aristotle’s Metaphysics book Zeta (VII), 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” (ch. 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 Delta (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.

Being as Such?

Aristotle begins book Gamma (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” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., p. 53).

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

Here in book Gamma, 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” (ch. 2, 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 Delta, 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 Gamma.

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 Gamma 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.


“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 Beta (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” (ch. 1, 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?” (ch. 2, p. 36).

“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” (ch. 3, 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” (p. 44).

“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” (ch. 4, 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” (ch. 6, pp. 51-52).