Aristotle on the Track of Knowable Reality / Substance

Lecture Notes

Not for citation in scholarly work

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last minor revisions: October 10, 2008

For a far more detailed treatment of these issues, containing references to passages in Aristotle and supporting an interpretation along these lines, see T. Irwin, Aristotle's First Principles (Oxford, 1988). The distinction between pure (or weak) dialectic and strong dialectic is borrowed from Irwin.

Using the metaphysical and epistemological types from the dialogue on knowledge and reality, we'd have to say that Aristotle is a metaphysical realist. Ultimately, we have to class him with the critical realists, certainly not a relativist or a skeptic. Sometimes he seems to be a na´ve realist, for instance, when he seems to say that the senses, by themselves, cannot lie, but his considered view in metaphysics and biology is not that of na´ve realism.

Aristotle's starting points in his search for the nature of knowledge and reality are the starting points for all his inquiries, ta phainomena, the phenomena, which fall into two groups:

a) ta endoxa, received beliefs, held by the many or by the (reputedly) wise
b) sensory information received by the senses
These are not always entirely distinct because sometimes a researcher has to rely on reports from other people. As a biologist, Aristotle collected information about animals observed by travelers who had been to distant lands. Such observations are obviously received by people who tell you what they believed they perceived.

Pure dialectic works with the "phenomena," but refines it, trying to produce a theory that is clear and consistent and yet stays close enough to the phenomena that it can explain why people subscribe to the received beliefs. (Aristotle frequently says that most people grasp a part of the truth; different people grasp different parts.)

Weaknesses of pure dialectic:

* An obvious problem is Garbage In / Garbage Out. Because "pure dialectic" tries to stay close to the received beliefs and ordinary language, if one does not collect a wide enough sample of received beliefs and sift them critically enough, one may end up incorporating falsehoods into theory. The consistency of one's theory does not guarantee that it corresponds to reality. Since Aristotle, at least in theoretical philosophy, wants a theory that corresponds to reality, this is a problem.

* A related problem is that by selecting problems on which the person on the street has opinions, the inquirer gathers a mass of half-baked ideas that can prevent her from engaging in focused investigation. What is sometimes needed is an inquiry that can produce insights so profound that the inquirer has to devise new definitions and new terms to accommodate them.

When Aristotle breaks from pure dialectic and starts using strong dialectic, he overcomes at least some of the limits of pure dialectic.

Outline of What Follows: The search for substance

Aristotle's search for substance is simultaneously a search for what can be known and for reality.

It passes through several stages

I. The "pure dialectic" phase:

A. The Categories. Aristotle takes his first stabs at the major classes of things that are, and comes to rest on primary substance as the basis of the being of everything else. He remains very close to na´ve common sense and ordinary language here. Primary substance is that which is "neither said of a subject nor present in a subject." It is not a genus, like Mammal, nor something present in things like qualities, relationships, etc.

B. The Posterior Analytics. Demonstration in science (episteme) requires knowledge of first principles, which are "true, primary, immediate, better known [by nature], prior to and causative of the conclusion." (APo 1.2)

C. Physics: The introduction of the doctrine of the four causes, at least two of which turn out to be candidates for substance.

a) matter - b) form - c) efficient cause - d) final cause
Physics also introduces distinction between potentiality and actuality.
II. The "strong dialectic" phase

The Metaphysics: Aristotle focuses on a refined set of puzzles regarding substance. He is now leaving aside much of what "ordinary people" and previous philosophers have said, and is concentrating on just a few, closely related issues. This leads to conceptual innovations and refinements that would not have occurred to someone doing metaphysics in the mode of pure dialectic.

The Details

A. The Categories

1. Some distinctions from the Categories
"Stud" is said homonymously of stallions and items used in building construction. (It has different meanings in the two cases.)

"Horse" is said synonymously of Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka. "Horse" refers to the same type of entity. (It has the same meaning in the two cases.)

2. From univocity to saying things in many ways.
Plato seemed to assume that key words are properly used in one sense only. Plato writes in Republic vi that "for every set of many things that we describe in one way, there is a single form." This leads Plato to deny that phenomenal things fully are, for if the Forms have full being, and clearly the phenomena differ from the forms in their being, they must not be as real as the forms.
3. Aristotle relaxes the demand for a single meaning. "Being" (Is) is said in many related ways (substance, quality, etc.) He recognizes several types of being called categories (At one point he lists 10, but two of these can be subsumed under others).
Primary substance (prote ousia): this horse (concrete individual)
quality (of what aspect?): pale
quantity (how much?): three feet tall
relation (relative to what?) offspring of ...
action: running
undergoing (pathos): being ridden
place (where?): at Churchill Downs
time (when?): 1987
The categories are the highest genera (most inclusive types) of being. There is no super genus, no super class called beings that includes them all, as there is, e.g., a super-class called animals which includes all types of animals. That's because there is a single meaning for animal, but there is no single meaning of being.

But this manyness of being is not total disorder. Some of these meanings of being depend upon, though they are not reducible to, other meanings. For example, qualities such as pale exist because there are substances like horses, which happen to be pale. Thus the being of qualities depend upon the being of substances, which could be called primary realities. And the same thing may be said for the being of items in all the non-substance categories. Their reality depends upon the central sense of reality, associated with substance.

What leads Aristotle to give primacy to substance in the Categories?

Substance is "a this," an individual, a subject, separate.

To be a subject is to be something about which other things are said. Socrates is a man (Man is said of Socrates).

To be a subject is also to be something in which other things are present, but need not be present. (Sits is present in Socrates when he is sitting, stands when he is standing, tan when he has acquired a tan, father when he has children.)

Clearly Aristotle is already on the track of reality, an itch he no doubt picked up at Plato's Academy.

But the account of the 10 categories reflects what people in general say, and Aristotle is using pure dialectic at this stage.

He's not even going inside the physical individual. He doesn't discuss the bodily parts of his primary substances or their remote material constituents.

In the Categories, what the Platonists would call Forms appear as species and genera, more abstract classifications of the concrete items in the categories. Thus Man and Animal are species and genus that include this man or this woman. Aristotle calls these secondary substances, because he attributes to them a degree of being dependent on the existence of individuals.

B. Posterior Analytics: What is knowledge?
Here Aristotle is concerned with saying what knowledge is, and what it would take to have knowledge.

For him, knowledge is systematic; it's also static, in the sense that what you know, if you know it, does not change. You can add to it, but if the propositions of a so-called science change, then either it wasn't science before or it's not science now.

Knowledge (episteme) is knowledge of the universal.

Knowledge is deductively organized, it permits of "demonstration" which refers to deductive proof.

It requires indemonstrable first principles. That is, there must be starting points that are true and, Aristotle says, known by nature, whether or not they are known by us. To be known by nature is, in fact, to be what the theoretical philosopher, or person wise in a particular science, knows.

This reflects Aristotle's metaphysical realism. And it means that he cannot ultimately be satisfied with pure dialectic.

Aristotle rejects circular reasoning. If starting from A you can prove B, and starting from B you can prove A, they both cannot be first principles. One of them must be prior to the other. We do not really know until we have determined which.

The starting points known by nature must correspond to fundamental reality, which is what Aristotle has always been interested in when he investigates substance.

So the curious thing is that starting points must not merely be premises for logical reasoning. They must correspond to fundamental realities.

C. Physics
Physics or natural philosophy inquires into nature, which has to do with embodied beings subject to change or motion. Aristotle's interests in substance lie in this area more than in mathematics.

In Physics Book II we find Aristotle's account of the four causes:

that out of which something comes to be and which remains, the matter -- material cause

the form, formula of the essence, what a thing is essentially -- formal cause

the cause of movement or change, or coming to rest -- moving/efficient cause

that for the sake of which, the end (telos) -- final cause

Simple static analysis (clay statue, brass doorknob)
The clay is matter, the shape of the statue is form, the person who makes the state is the moving cause, the purpose for which she makes it (e.g., decoration or a religious function) is the final cause.

Final Cause       Decoration
Moving Cause      Sculptor
Formal cause      Athena shape
Material cause      Clay

Potentiality and actuality. Matter correlates with potentiality, form in the matter with actuality. The words, as such, are potentially a sentence, but only when arranged according to the form is the sentence an actuality. A quantity of marble is potentially a Greek temple, but only when it is shaped into columns and the columns are placed in a special relation to each other does the temple exist in actuality.

Dynamic analysis of production (making the clay statue).

The maker of a statue begins with the immaterial form of the statue in his mind.

Her goal, the final cause of the making process, is to get the entire form into the clay, or perhaps even better, the use of the statue in worship or decoration.

She is the efficient cause, because she is the one that will make the clay, which is potentially the statue, change into the clay which actually embodies the form of statue.

The maker imposes the form upon the matter from outside. In the making process, the form, which was originally without matter in the maker's mind, gradually appears embodied in the matter.

The result, the end-product of making, is the union of matter and form.

This example is one of making or production. Aristotle's real interest is understanding what happens in living organisms. In a living organism, say, a plant, the efficient cause of change toward a complete or mature state is internal to the organism. This turns out to be identical to the individual soul of the organism. This is the plant's nature, both as individual form and internal cause of change.
II. Strong Dialectic in The Metaphysics
In the metaphysics, Aristotle returns to the topic of substance, focusing on candidates for the central meaning of substance whose preliminary specification owes a lot to his own previous inquiries:

A. What is substance? (Criteria)

a. A persisting subject: that of which other things are predicated
b. Primary in knowledge
c. Primary in being
B. What are substances? (Candidates)
a. The basic beings of prior philosophers (atoms, numbers, Forms, etc.)
b. The essence, universal, or genus
c. Subject or substratum (roughly the same as matter)
d. Form
e. The compound of form and matter.
It is worth noting that Aristotle is especially interested in biological science, not to mention understanding human nature, which is of course biological before it is anything else. So his choices ultimately must shed light upon biological being.

C. Aristotle's Solution

After exhaustive investigation of the alternatives and the puzzles that are associated with them, he comes to the following conclusion:

The primary sense of subject is not quite the same as it was in the Categories, but it's not entirely different. It is still a this, an individual, but understood in a peculiar way.

It is (1) the individual form-the soul, e.g., of the human, animal, or plant,
the corresponding (2) proximate matter,
and the (3) "formal compound" of the two.

This takes some mental work: a living being's proximate matter is not identical to its remote matter: the molecules and atoms that make it up. The proximate matter is highly organized-into bodily organs that are arranged very precisely in a certain way. This proximate matter is a precondition for the life activities (growth, perception, self-movement, etc.) that depend on the soul.

Take away the soul, the proximate matter is also destroyed. What you have is a corpse, which is quite distinct from the living body of a plant, animal, or human.

But the proximate matter can be distinguished from the soul as follows:

Able to learn: potentiality
Knowing (not necessarily using): first actuality
Thinking what you know: second actuality
The ability to learn is a potentiality relative to the first actuality Knowing but not necessarily using or contemplating what one knows and to the second actuality, Thinking what one knows.
Proximate matter: potentiality
Soul: first actuality
Activities of the soul: second actuality
Similarly, the body of the living animal consisting of organs, or proximate matter, is potentiality relative to the first actuality Soul and to the second actualities that are Activities of the Soul.

Aristotle's most considered view is that the triplet form, proximate matter, formal compound constitutes the persisting subject. It is this, or one of its three aspects, of which we speak when we say that Socrates is thinking of beauty, or Socrates is a human being, or Socrates has lead in his system.

What is Socrates? Socrates and the essence of Socrates are the same. This is not the remote matter of Socrates' body, but it is the formal compound of the individual soul and the individual organized body as proximate matter.

Aristotle does not deny that the universal is also in a sense substance. Universals have a dependent existence, depending on individual substances. Universals are intelligible forms that may exist in the minds of knowers. They also have a dependent existence in the individual forms, i.e., insofar as there are individual substances that exemplify them.