The “Arkhe”: Notes on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” V.1


Arkhe” (pl. “arkhai“) is an untranslatable Greek word that includes the meanings of the English words “principle”, “origin”, “basis”, “leader”, “oldest”, “first” and others. In my view, philosophy, science and engineering all seek the arkhe behind everything, and every major scientific revolution in science seems to reduce the number of principles needed for explaining things without decreasing predictive power.

Defined at length in Metaphysics V.1 by Aristotle, where he defines with the meaning given below; for the sake of the unGreeked reader, I have underlined all words that translate “arkhe”.

“‘BEGINNING‘ [Gk. arkhe] means

  1. That part of a thing from which one would start first, e.g a line or a road has a beginning in either of the contrary directions.
  2. That from which each thing would best be originated, e.g. even in learning we must sometimes begin not from the first point and the beginning of the subject, but from the point from which we should learn most easily.
  3. That from which, as an immanent part, a thing first comes to be, e,g, as the keel of a ship and the foundation of a house, while in animals some suppose the heart, others the brain, others some other part, to be of this nature.
  4. That from which, not as an immanent part, a thing first comes to be, and from which the movement or the change naturally first begins, as a child comes from its father and its mother, and a fight from abusive language.
  5. That at whose will that which is moved is moved and that which changes changes, e.g. the magistracies in cities, and oligarchies and monarchies and tyrannies, are called arhchai, and so are the arts, and of these especially the architectonic arts.
  6. That from which a thing can first be known,-this also is called the beginning of the thing, e.g.the hypotheses are the beginnings of demonstrations. (Causes are spoken of in an equal number of senses; for all causes are beginnings.)

It is common, then, to all beginnings to be the first point from which a thing either is or comes to be or is known; but of these some are immanent in the thing and others are outside. Hence the nature of a thing is a beginning, and so is the element of a thing, and thought and will, and essence, and the final cause-for the good and the beautiful are the beginning both of the knowledge and of the movement of many things. ”

Arkhe is also the dominant theme of Metaphysics Book I.1-2. Section one distinguishes the use of principles in a theory or an “art”(tekne) from other forms of cognition that do not depend on principle, such as sensation and experience. Section two refines the concept of value of principles, while also distinguishing tow things that both use principles: theoretical science and productive or practical knowledge. An especially relevant passage from section two is this:

“Since we are seeking this knowledge, we must inquire of what kind are the causes and the principles, the knowledge of which is Wisdom. If one were to take the notions we have about the wise man, this might perhaps make the answer more evident. We suppose first, then, that the wise man knows all things, as far as possible, although he has not knowledge of each of them in detail; secondly, that he who can learn things that are difficult, and not easy for man to know, is wise (sense-perception is common to all, and therefore easy and no mark of Wisdom); again, that he who is more exact and more capable of teaching the causes is wiser, in every branch of knowledge; and that of the sciences, also, that which is desirable on its own account and for the sake of knowing it is more of the nature of Wisdom than that which is desirable on account of its results, and the superior science is more of the nature of Wisdom than the ancillary; for the wise man must not be ordered but must order, and he must not obey another, but the less wise must obey him.” 

This is a very important concept for evolutionary philosophy, since much of the its elegance derives from the fact that many phenomena that are often thought to lack an explanation are amenable to evolutionary explanation: For example: ethics. Ethics is clearly a behavior of certain animals, and this alone is enough to make evolution its default explanation, even if certain questions remain unanswered in the short term. Biologists often are confronted with behaviors that are difficult to explain, but they never doubt that and explanation exists or that evolution will provide the explanation. If biology was in a theoretical crisis (ripe for paradigm shift), then they would be open to non-evolutionary approaches, but given that there is no crisis, we are warranted in assuming an evolutionary explanation.

Granted the above, ethics must inherit principles from some wider domain of beings. orthodox philosophy has placed ethics directly under metaphysics, but this classification has not helped to clarify or resolve issues in ethical theory over many centuries or millennia. In my view, moral naturalism adds value by positing that ethical beings inherit principles from biology in the same way that biology inherits principles from physics and physics inherits principles from metaphysics.



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