Causes and Sources

Aristotle distinguishes arché (principle or source) from aitia (cause or reason why). He frequently uses the metonymic shorthand of saying “being” for the sources and causes of being that are the proper concern of first philosophy.

Both “source” and “cause” get chapters in Metaphysics book V’s compendium of things meant in many ways. Sources and causes are also discussed in the short book VI. I have not written about “sources” before. The main effect of book VI though, as we will see, is to significantly narrow the scope of first philosophy.

I very frequently point out issues related to things said in many ways, usually providing a link to my old short post Univocity. This is an extremely important topic. It goes beyond the use of language to the real diversity of the things spoken of. However, book V has 30 chapters, each devoted to a different specific term or terms, so I won’t try to summarize them all. I already covered the chapter on being and “is”. Here I’ll just cherry-pick basic information about sources and a remark on “that for the sake of which” from book V, then go on to a brief discussion of book VI.

All causes are sources (book V chapter 1, Sachs tr., p. 77), but not all sources are causes.

“And what is common to all sources is to be the first thing from which something is or comes to be or is known; of these, some are present within while others are outside. For this reason nature is a source, as are elements, thinking, choice, thinghood, and that for the sake of which; for the good and the beautiful are sources of both the knowledge and the motion of many things” (ibid).

Aristotle’s concept of nature applies especially to living organisms, whose “nature” is an internal source of motion.

Elements are primitive constituents of bodies.

Thinking and choice are additional sources available to rational animals.

The what-it-is of a thing is a source. With sincerest respect for the outstanding translator, I disagree with the choice of “thinghood” for the ousia that Aristotle identifies with the what-it-is of a thing. (But then, I still guardedly use the English terms substance, potentiality, and actuality that I learned originally, to all of which Sachs raises quite legitimate objections. In my opinion, for instance, any of the translations formally proposed for ousia (substance, essence, thinghood, etc.) needs to be used in a guarded way, so I have stuck with the one I learned. The only way I see to get around this is to instead rely on Aristotle’s identification of ousia with the what-it-is, which translates very straightforwardly, and I am now starting to do this some of the time.)

Interestingly, in the above enumeration of sources only one of the four causes is mentioned explicitly: that for the sake of which. Not only that, but in the text the good and the beautiful seems to refer back to what was just mentioned as that for the sake of which.

Mentioning that-for-the-sake-of-which again in the chapter on cause, he explicitly identifies the end with the good.

“But the semen and the doctor and the legislator, and generally the maker, are all causes as that from which the source of change or rest is, but other things as the end or the good of the remaining ones. For that-for-the-sake-of which means to be the best thing and the end of the other things, and let it make no difference to say the good itself or the apparent good” (book V chapter 2, p. 79).

The whole reason the end or that-for-the-sake-of-which predominates over all the other causes in Aristotle is its association with the good.

Moving on to book VI, “[E]very kind of knowledge that is discursive, or takes part in any way in thinking things through, is concerned with causes and sources, of either a precise or a simpler kind” (chapter 1, p. 109).

“[I]t is clear by… a review of examples that there is no demonstration of the thinghood or the what-it-is of things, but some other means of pointing to it” (ibid).

The what-it-is of things is an object of dialectical inquiry rather than demonstration.

“[T]he study of nature concerns things that are indeed separate, but are not motionless, while some mathematics concerns things that are indeed motionless, but presumably not separate, but in truth in material; but the first contemplative study concerns things that are both separate and motionless.”

What Aristotle calls “independent” things he also calls “separate”. This just means that they count as bona fide things having some reality of their own, and are not just any phenomena. First philosophy for Aristotle is concerned especially — though certainly not exclusively, if the text of the Metaphysics serves as a witness — with things that are both separate and unmoved.

“And while it is necessary that all causes be everlasting, these are so most of all, since they are responsible for what appears to us of the divine” (p. 110).

This is why the subject of the Metaphysics is sometimes seen as a kind of theology. Aristotle’s language here carefully delineates his concern in this regard as what appears to us of the divine. The theology here will be purely “natural”. It will not address or assume any specific tradition or revelation, but only what is openly accessible to the inquiry and experience of all rational animals.

It seems quite significant that he says “all causes” are everlasting. A billiard ball clunking into another billiard ball is just an event, not a cause at all for Aristotle. Circumstances affecting the outcomes of events will not be causes either. Form, matter, ends, and sources of motion themselves, he is saying, are not subject to coming-to-be and perishing as composite things are. But circumstances are subject to coming-to-be and perishing, which is why they don’t qualify as causes.

Modern science, on the other hand, depends on a notion of cause that has mostly to do with circumstances being the case or not. Neither notion of cause invalidates the other, but we have to be very careful to avoid confusion when we move back and forth from one to the other.

“Now if there were no other independent thing besides the composite natural ones, the study of nature would be the primary kind of knowledge; but if there is some motionless independent thing, the knowledge of this precedes it and is first philosophy, and it is universal in just that way, because it is first” (p. 111).

This is very important. Normally, universality is associated with classes and abstractions. Here he implies there is an alternate path to speaking about “all things”, by way of the dependency of all concrete things on causes, and thereby on the concrete first cause that he will argue for.

Next he recalls the incidental senses in which we say things about things.

“For some things are results of capacities to produce other things, while others result from no definite art or capacity; for of what is or happens incidentally, the cause too is incidental. Therefore, since not all things are or happen necessarily and always, but most things are and happen for the most part, it is necessary that there be incidental being…. [I]t is clear that there is no knowledge of what is incidental, since all knowledge is of what is so always or for the most part — for how else will anyone learn or teach? For it is necessary to make something definite by means of what it is always or for the most part” (p. 113).

In a somewhat Kant-like way, he is saying we have to recognize that there is incidental being, but we cannot have knowledge of it in the proper sense because incidental being is inherently particular. Following the shorthand established before, incidental “being” concerns things insofar as things are said of them incidentally. It refers specifically to the incidental way in which we say that the one “is” the other. Something just happens to be some way.

“That there are sources and causes which come and go without being in a process of coming-to-be or passing-away is evident. For if this were not so, all things would be by necessity, if there must be some nonincidental cause of what is coming into being or passing away. For will this particular thing be the case or not? It will be if this other thing happened, but if not, not….. Therefore it is clear that the result goes back as far as some starting point, but this no longer goes back to anything else. This, then, will be the origin of what happens in whichever way it chances to, and nothing else will be responsible for its happening. But to what sort of source and what sort of cause such tracing back has gone, whether to material or to that for the sake of which or to a mover, one needs to examine with the greatest care” (p. 114).

Since knowledge is being sought here, incidental causes will not be considered further. Nonetheless, he emphasizes that as causes in his sense, incidental causes too would be outside the sphere of becoming. This means that no event or circumstance is an incidental cause; rather, it may have an incidental cause. The incidental cause may be material or final or a mover, but not a form, because there is no form of what is incidental.

This eliminates one of the ways in which something is said of something — the incidental “is” that was laid out before — from the scope of the inquiry.

This is related to the point that keeps coming up in recent posts, that Aristotelian actuality is not what-is-the-case. The inquiry will end up being concerned precisely with this actuality that is not what-is-the-case. (Hegel in the logic of essence makes a similar move to put off to the side considerations of what is the case, but then at the very end of the logic of the concept, he brings back what is the case, as that within which we live and act. Addressing the gap between what is the case and the actual becomes our task.)

Then more briefly, Aristotle eliminates what was previously called being in the sense of true and false. It is unclear whether he sees any causes specific to this, analogous to those he explicitly mentions for the incidental case. In any case, the true and false — he says here as he also does in On Interpretation — have to do with what he calls combining and separating.

“[B]eing as the true and nonbeing as the false concern combining and separating” (p. 115).

Affirming something of something is “combining” the two somethings, and denying something of something is “separating” them. His choice of grammatical forms in naming these implies that he thinks of combining and separating as activities.

“[T]he false and the true are not in things, …but in thinking” (ibid).

Aristotle says that such combination and separation pertain only to thought, not to independent things. (Kant would say, combination and separation are judgments, not data that could be given to us. The later Kant would add that these judgments have a reflective dimension. Hegel would raise additional questions about the apparent sharpness of Aristotle’s distinction between thought and independent things, just as he does with similar distinctions in Kant. Similarly, he would question the sharpness of the distinction between sayings about things in their own right and incidental sayings.)

It is very common to hear a correspondence theory of truth attributed to Aristotle — i.e., a statement is true because it accurately characterizes the applicable state of affairs. That is just not what he says about truth and falsity, as we just saw. It is not a question of good representation of — or accurate pointing to — something external, but rather of good combining and separating within what is said.

There are many things we might wish Aristotle said more about, like the tantalizing suggestion here about combining and separating. But it is has been estimated that as much as two-thirds of his writings were never circulated in manuscript in the ancient world, and therefore have not come down to us (see Fortunes of Aristotle.)

Of the ways of saying “is” enumerated in book V, this leaves the saying of the what-it-is of things with its metonymic satellites in the other categories, and the saying in relation to potentiality and actuality still on the table.

Next he will take an in-depth look at the what-it-is of things and our saying of it.

(One of the things I admire most about Aristotle is his way of speaking simultaneously and even-handedly both about real things that have independence from us, and about the ways and the activity of our saying of and about them. I think this means he might have been receptive to Hegel’s refinements mentioned above, because Hegel recognizably aims to extend the same kind of Aristotelian evenhandedness to these cases as well. Aristotle could still say that these additional cases point to the focal case of the what-it-is of things, though I think the incidental and the true and false would be related to it as something like modal extensions, rather than metonymic substitutions like the other categories.)

Being as Such?

Aristotle begins book 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” (p. 53).

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

Here in book IV 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” (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 V, 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 IV.

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 IV 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.

Aristotle on Being

In the book of the Metaphysics devoted to things meant in more than one way, Aristotle has a chapter on “being” (book V chapter 7). This is worth quoting in full. What I want to draw attention to is Aristotle’s own very modest, “deflationary” approach in contrast to other writers. His emphasis is on ordinary use of “to be” as a verb, not some grand “ontology”. The word translated as “being” (einai) is literally the infinitive “to be”.

Moreover, being for Aristotle in all of its primary senses is always being this way or that. It is a transitive verb. In a derivative sense, he speaks of ordinary “beings” we encounter in life. I note his strong emphasis on ways things are meaningfully said, and the parallel series of assertions about truth. One might conclude that there are as many kinds of being as there are distinct assertions.

Being is meant in one sense incidentally, in another sense in its own right; in the incidental sense, we say, for example, that the just person is educated, or the human being is educated, or the educated one is a human being, in much the same way as if we were to say that the educated one builds a house because it is incidental to the housebuilder to be educated, or to the educated one to be a housebuilder (for here this is means that this is incidental to this). And it is this way too in the case of the things mentioned; for whenever we say that the human being is educated or the educated one is a human being, or that the white thing is educated or this is white, we mean in some cases that both are incidental to the same thing, in others that something is incidental to a being, and in the case of the educated human being, that the educated is incidental to this person. (And in this sense even the non-white is said to ‘be’ because that to which it is incidental is.) So things that are said incidentally are said to be so either because both belong to the same being, or because one of them belongs to a being, or because the thing itself is, to which belongs that to which it is attributed.”

“But just as many things are said to be in their own right as are meant by the modes of predication; for in as many ways as these are said, in so many ways does to be have meaning. Since, then, of things predicated, some signify what a thing is, others of what sort it is, others how much it is, others to what it is related, others what it is doing or having done to it, others where it is, and others when it is, being means the same thing as each one of these. For it makes no difference whether one says a person is healing or a person heals, or a person is walking or cutting rather than that a person walks or cuts, and similarly in other cases.”

“Also, to be and is signify that something is true, and not to be signifies that it is not true but false, alike in cases of affirmation and denial; for instance, that Socrates is educated indicates that this is true, but that the diagonal is not commensurable means that this is false.”

“Again, being and what is mean in one sense something that is definite as a potency, but in another sense what is fully at work, among these things that have been mentioned. For we say of both one who is capable of seeing and one who is fully at work seeing that he sees, and similarly of both one who is capable of using knowledge and one who is using it that he knows, and also both of that to which rest already belongs and that which is capable of being at rest that it rests. And it is similar in the case of independent things, for we say that Hermes is in the block of stone, and that the half belongs to a line, and that which is not yet ripe is grain. When something is potential and when it is not must be distinguished in other places” (Sachs tr., pp. 86-88).

What We Saw

In passing in the last post I argued that “because I saw it” is not a reason, but a mere reiteration of an assertion. I claimed that we ought always to be able to say something more about why we believe what we do, and suggested that in the current example, this would typically take the form of more detailed claims about what we saw. (See What and Why.)

Previously, I argued against John McDowell’s claim that the space of reasons includes cases in which empirical claims may be non-inferentially justified by reference to other empirical observations. In the current analogy, what McDowell counts as justification in such cases amounts to saying “because I saw something else”. In effect, it is an appeal to another completely indeterminate “seeing”.

By contrast, when we make more detailed claims about what we saw, even though these supplementary claims are not themselves inferences, because they analyze the initial “what”, they may provide the basis for subsequent inference to the original “what”. The axis of justification shifts from other immediate observations to articulated claims about the original observation.

Because the justification now appeals to articulated content rather than to other seeings that are as completely indeterminate as the first, it can now be inferential. Such inferential justification is weaker than deductive proof; unlike a mathematical proof, for instance, it is potentially refutable. But now we have truly entered the space of rational dialogue.

In the situation of “he saw X, she saw Y“, no dialogue is possible. “He saw, she saw” is just as vacuous as “he said, she said”. In both these latter cases, one mere assertion is merely counterposed to another mere assertion, and we can say categorically that no insight could ever be gained from the exchange.

By contrast, as soon as the discussion shifts from a contest of assertions to the articulation of content, something can potentially be learned from it, whether or not we end up endorsing what is said.

An empirical observation may still provide a useful heuristic basis for belief about the world. Additional observations may add to the heuristic “weight” of that basis. But contrary to McDowell, I would not count that heuristic basis as part of the space of reasons. I call something a “reason” if and only if it provides a basis for some reasoning, which is to say some inference or inferences. To call something a non-inferential “reason” makes no sense.

And contrary to both McDowell and Brandom, I do not recognize the existence of non-inferential “knowledge” at all. Every observational report is just a claiming about appearance, and no mere claiming about appearance should count as knowledge.

What we have in the putative case of “observational knowledge” is observational belief. An observational belief may turn out to be well-founded, but any such well-foundedness depends on factors that go beyond the brute fact of the existence of observations.

We can have dialogue about claims about other claims. We cannot have true dialogue about claims about raw appearances — or indeed, properly speaking, about first-order claims at all.

This, I think, is part of the upshot of Hegel’s “logic of being”. Any first-order claim “A is Bconsidered in isolation fares no better than Parmenides’ saying of Being. It is logically vacuous, just because it is isolated. Isolation would mean, for instance, that we have no definition for A or B.

(The way I am using “first order” here for claims is different from the way it is used in predicate logic. In standard mathematical logic, what I am calling an “isolated first-order claim” corresponds to a proposition, rather than any construct in predicate logic. According to Frege, a proposition can only mean either “true” or “false”, so we have a similar lack of information.)

In Aristotelian terms, the claim then reduces to a mere saying, which is actually charitable, because for Aristotle, in the absence of meanings for A and B, we would have failed to express a proposition at all. Mere saying in this sense actually fails to properly say anything at all. If we don’t know what A and B are, “A is B” is the logical equivalent of arbitrary noise.

Conversely, when we do take a first-order claim as meaningful — as we indeed do all the time — we must always already have some higher-order perspective on it that makes it meaningful. All meaningful saying is saying something at a higher-order level.

Saying as Ethical Doing

Saying is a distinctive kind of doing. This goes way beyond the physical uttering of words, and beyond the immediate social aspects of speech acts. It involves the much broader process of the ongoing constitution of shared meaning in which we talking animals participate.

Before we are empirical beings, we are ethical beings. Meaning is deeply, essentially involved with valuations. The constitution of values is also an ongoing, shared process that in principle involves all rational beings past, present, and future. Our sayings — both extraordinary and everyday — contribute to the ongoing constitution of the space of reasons of which all rational beings are co-stewards. We are constantly implicitly adjudicating what is a good reason for what.

If immediate speech acts have ethical significance, this is all the more true of our implicit contributions to these ongoing, interrelated processes of constitution of meanings, valuations, and reasons. Everything we say becomes a good or bad precedent for the future.

Aristotle consistently treated “said of” relations in a normative rather than a merely empirical, factual, representational or referential way. Brandom has developed a “normative pragmatics” to systematically address related concerns. Numerous analytic philosophers have recognized the key point that to say anything at all is implicitly to commit oneself to it. As Brandom has emphasized, this typically entails other commitments as well. I would add that every commitment has meaning not only in terms of the pragmatic “force” of what is said, but also as a commitment in the ethical sense.

It is through our practices of commitment and follow-through that our ethical character is also constituted. As Robert Pippin has pointed out that Hegel emphasized in a very Aristotelian way, what we really wanted is best understood starting from what we actually did. In contrasting all this with the much narrower concept of speech acts, I want to return to an emphasis on what is said, but at the same time to take the “said” in as expansive a sense as possible. This is deeply interwoven with all our practical doings, and to be considered from the point of view of its actualization into a kind of objectivity as shared meaning that is no longer just “my” intention.

Things Said

Saying is a specialized form of doing. When saying and doing are contrasted, what is asserted is a contrast between kinds of doing that have different implications. Proprieties of both saying and doing are matter for material inference.

Implicit consideration of a material-inferential ethical dimension is what distinguishes canonical Aristotelian saying from the mere emission of words. This dimension of ethics of material inference gives more specific content to epistemic conscientiousness.

Saying is also a social act that occurs in a larger social context. This gives it a second ethical dimension, starting from consideration of others and situational appropriateness. (See also Interpretive Charity; Honesty, Kindness; Intellectual Virtue, Love; Mutual Recognition.)