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” (book VII chapter 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 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 consists of 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.