Notes on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” Book I

These are my notes on the first book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.  They contain a few original thoughts, and should give you an idea as to whether you would like to read this work. Book I is a good introduction to Aristotle if you have already read the early Greeks. The only other thing that he wrote that might be good to read ahead of this is Physics Book II, for which you can find my notes here.


The value of knowledge

For Aristotle, knowledge is inherently good. Some knowledge, to be sure, is only of instrumental value, but the deepest and most valuable knowledge is inherently good and thus ought to be valued for its own sake.

Likewise, sensory input is also valued for its own sake, because nature has fitted us to enjoy senses so that we take initiative in exploring and paying attention to the world around us.

[Note on evolution and the “inherent value” of knowledge.]

[From a modern evolutionary standpoint, knowledge and sensation are not an inherent value, but rather these are adaptations intrumental for the goal of  not going extinct, which from an evolutionary perspective is the only inherent value. It is this latter value which alone is inherently valued in living nature, and this is true whether there are any creatures who are aware of it or not. Even if humans disagree, that does not change reality. 

It might be that case that disagreeing with evolution is actually better from an evolutionary standpoint, and this does not at all make evolution false; it just means that it is not “Good” to know the Truth. However, in all my work I assume that the Truth is Good as well as Beautiful. But that is just my assumption because that’s my adaptive strategy. I will also assume that the reader also sees Truth as Good and Beautiful.

So what Aristotle says here about knowledge of the highest truths being inherently good must be taken as being true from within the standpoint of the evolved organism (for us) rather that being true in theory, or “in itself”. In theory, we really do not know this to be true, but most people who read philosophy will assume it to be true, for otherwise, they would not be reading it.]

Sensation, Experience, Knowledge

Sensation, Experience, Knowledge are somewhat similar, but they should not be confused with each other.

Sensation – Perception of such and such a thing here and now. Very often in philosophy sensation and perception are defined separately, but it seems that in this context they are lumped together when contrasted with experience. Aristotle claims that invertebrates ( which he calls “non-sanguinous animals”, animals wothout blood) have only sensation without experience. [Citation ?]

Experience – The memory of many sensations and perceptions of things which are continuous over time. Aristotle claims that non-human vertebrates (“sanguinous animals”) have only sensation and experience without knowledge. [Citation ?]

Knowledge (“episteme“, “tekne“) – After experience, humans can derive knowledge of the causes and principles that underlie the objects and processes that we experience.  Aristotle claims that only humans (“animals having logos“) have knowledge. [Citation ?]

“From a practical point of view” experience is as good as art, skill or knowledge. But for Aristotle, the person with knowledge of principles is “wiser” than one with experience.

[ On the distinction between inherent and instrumental value.]

[From an evolutionary or historical viewpoint, it is clear that there is considerable overlap and crossing-over between inherent and instrumental value.

Take for example, the practices of hunting, fishing, gardening, and herding. For brevity’s sake, we will refer only to “hunting”, but it will be clear that everything we say applies to a great many other things.

Hunting clearly falls under the Aristotle’s category of “productive art”, meaning that it is not inherently good for its own sake but is valued for the production of food. I take it as self-evident that all living creatures that hunt only do so in order to eat and this avoid extinction. So far we agree with Aristotle, but if we look closely, this view ignores certain facts:

  • Our cats and dogs very often enjoy chasing animals that they don’t bother to eat even when they are not hungry.
  • Humans also still hunt animals and seem to think of the activity as being inherently good. People who could very easily and cheaply obtain food from the grocery go through a lot of expense and trouble to go hunting.

Similar observations could be made about fishing, gardening and herding animals. On the one hand these activities are “productive arts” and thus clearly of instrumental value, but it also seems that people experience these activities as being inherently good.

Why is this? It seems that this is likely due to the long evolutionary history we have with these activities. So many generations of our ancestors depended for their survival on these skills, so that those who survived were those who enjoyed them for their own sake. In this way, we see that the inherent/instrumental value distinction is not as absolute as Aristotle might think. However, this does not undermine most of what he says about them, and I think that his basic arguments are sound.]

Ch. 2 – Wisdom: Knowledge of First Causes

  • Common views about wisdom:
    • “Knows all things” but not “every particular”.
    • Understands that which is difficult.
    • “More accurate”.
    • “More capable of understanding the causes”.
    • Inherently good, not instrumental.
    • Authoritative or supervisory rather than subsidiary.
      • Architecture, not construction.
      • Science, not medicine.
      • Medicine, not Nursing.
  • Because of the above points, the highest wisdom will be:
    • More universal or abstract.
    • More primary.
    • Of “what is most knowable” in itself.
    • Be of the highest “final cause” (summum bonum).
  • Wisdom = “knowledge of first principles and causes including the first cause”.

Ch. 3 – Early materialism: material causes

Philosophy seeks principles and causes in the “really real” (onto on, ousia ). For the physiologoi (Thales, Anaximenes. Heraclitus, et al), this was matter. Because all change is change of an underlying matter that persists through change, the matter is the really real, while its superficial appearances are only relatively real.

The form-matter distinction

Late in the chapter, we see that the “differentiae” of the prime matter (“primary substratum”) as being in some sense “formal”.

“Now they [the atomists] enumerate these differetia:

  • shape
  • arrangement
  • position
  • [size]”

Each of these is a “form” of matter; not unlike the atomic forms that define our modern conception of matter.

Ch. 4 Slightly later materialism: Efficient causes

  • The earliest thinkers lacked efficient causes.
    • Physiologoi
      • Thales
      • Anaximenes
    • Eleatics
      • Parmenides
      • Melissus
  • But pluralists made one of their natural elements serve as a source of movement.
    • Hesiod – Eros, “chief among all immortals”
    • Heraclitus – fire
    • Empedocles
      • Eros – Good, gathering, creating
      • Eris – Evil, dissipation, decay
    • Anaxagoras – Mind (“deus ex machine”)

Ch. 5 – Pythagoras

  • Pythagoras introduces mathematics into the study of nature.
    • Numbers resemble things which come into being.
      • Resemblance = formal cause
      • Musical forms
        • Both Mathematical and Sensible
        • Emotive content relates to Eros
        • The numerical nature of these forms are hidden.
      • Astronomy
        • Very mathematical – considered a branch of mathematics in the ancient world.
        • Sensible forms in space and time that are perfectly mathematically precise.
        • Astrological thesis – “As above, So Below.”
          • Days
          • Tides
          • Seasons
            • Weather
            • Life cycles
        • Yin/Yang binary opposites
          • Odd/Even
          • One/Many
          • Right/Left
          • Male/Female
          • Rest/Motion
      • Treat numbers as part of material causes.
        • “But as we have seen, form and matter are correlative”
          • Form is “Intelligible matter”
          • Matter differentiates by form
            • Atoms, Elements
            • Molecules, Compounds
      • Excludes efficient causes
      • Problems
        • No efficient causes.
        • Superficial use of mathematics
          • Numerology
          • Idolization of Decimal numeral 
          • system
        • Aristotle’s summary of above:
        • “From what has been said, then, and from the wise men who have now sat in council with us, we have got thus much—on the one hand from the earliest philosophers, who regard the first principle as corporeal (for water and fire and such things are bodies), and of whom some suppose that there is one corporeal principle, others that there are more than one, but both put these under the head of matter; and on the other hand from some who posit both this cause and besides this the source of movement, which we have got from some as single and from others as twofold. Down to the Italian school, then, and apart from it, philosophers have treated these subjects rather obscurely, except that, as we said, they have in fact used two kinds of cause, and one of these—the source of movement—some treat as one and others as two. But the Pythagoreans have said in the same way that there are two principles, but added this much, which is peculiar to them, that they thought that finitude and infinity were not attributes of certain other things, e.g. of fire or earth or anything else of this kind, but that infinity itself and unity itself were the substance of the things of which they are predicated. This is why number was the substance of all things. On this subject, then, they expressed themselves thus; and regarding the question of essence they began to make statements and definitions, but treated the matter too simply. For they both defined superficially and thought that the first subject of which a given definition was predicable was the substance of the thing defined, as if one supposed that ‘double’ and ‘2’ were the same, because 2 is the first thing of which ‘double’ is predicable. But surely to be double and to be 2 are not the same; if they are, one thing will be many—a consequence which they actually drew. From the earlier philosophers, then, and from their successors we can learn thus much.”

    Ch. 6 – Plato

    • Platonism “bears a strong resemblance” to Pythagoreanism.
    • Plato “affirmed that sensibles exist only by participation in the Forms”,
      • while Pythagoras said that things imitate the numbers.
      • But neither school really properly defined either relationship.
    • For Plato, both Forms and numbers are eternal and unchangeable, but
      • while each Form is uniquely itself,
      • numbers are many of the same kind.
      • The “Divided Line”:
        1. Forms (Formal Principle = “the One” = unity among many)
        2. Numbers
          • intermediary category
          • Combination of both:
            • “One”
            • Great/Small (Magnitude)
        3. Sensibles
          1. Material principle = magnitude
      • Aristotle seems to say here that Plato does not treat of efficient and final causes.
        • However, Plato often deals with “the Good”, as in the purpose of political cooperation in The Republic.
        • Ad there are two efficient cause found in Plato:
          • The “Demiurge” or “Divine Workman” in the “Timaeus”
          • Eros in the “Symposum”

    Ch. 7 – Review of Chs. 3 – 6

    Previous thinkers did not treat the formal causes properly, not even Plato, who neglects their role in [natural ?] change. Plato, merely uses the forms to impart essence to objects. [Classification ?]

    Ch. 8 – Criticism of Early Systems

    • Physiologoi
      • Problems with monism
        • Ignore non-physical beings
        • Ignore efficient causes
        • Ignore formal causes
        • Dogmatically assign one element as the Arkhe or “Prime Matter”
      • Problems with Pluralism
        • Elements do not remain themselves but transform into one another.
        • Insufficient treatment of efficient causes.
        • Qualitative change requires a single substratum.
        • Anaxagoras
          • Previously unmixed state?
          • Some elements cannot mix.
          • Affections and attributes
            • Cannot exist apart
            • Therefore cannot be a mixture.

    Ch. 8


    Ch. 9,10 – Criticisms of Plato

    1. While Forms ought to be fewer in number than sensible beings, it seems that there would be more Forms than particulars. This is because there ought to be Forms for each of the following:
      • Sciences / Arts
      • Negations
      • Perishables – because we can recognize them.
      • Relative terms
      • The particulars themselves – because we can recognize individuals, not just species and genera.
    2. ?
    3. ?
    4. Forms are useless for explanation:
      • Cannot cause motion.
      • Cannot be substance unless it is in a substance.
    5. Things are not compounded of Forms.
      • What uses Forms as models?
      • You can be like something regardless of Forms.
      • If Form and participation are admitted, each thing will have many Forms.
      • Forms have other Forms, which destroy the absoluteness of the form/matter distinction.
    6. If Forms are apart, they cannot be the substance of particulars.
      1. Non-substances come into being the same way as substances (that have Forms).
      2. In the Phaedo, Plato calls the Forms “causes of being and becoming”.
        1. Forms or not, becoming requires efficient causes.
        2. Many things become without Forms.
          1. (“houses” and “rings” [Which are not substances but should have Forms])
    7. If a concrete individual is a ratio or numerical harmony, then it is a formal cause, but material causes needs must also exist.
    8. Platonists have abandoned physics, but cannot speak of Forms except as causes of sensible beings.


































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