The “Elements” of Musical Composition.

A neo-Aristotelean ontology of musical works.

By Adam Voight.


The current work defines an Aristotelean approach to the ontology of musical works and other related abstracta. The theory would satisfy multiple conditions: 1) It would provide a workable theory of abstract artifacts. 2) It would be consistent with modern scientific naturalism (broadly defined), and 3) It is at least a possible reading of what Aristotle has to say as well as what he should say if he were to answer the questions concerning the coming-to-be of musical compositions.

Table of Contents

I.1. Introduction

A surprisingly hot subfield of analytic philosophy in the past generation has been aesthetics. Of late, one of the more active topics has been the ontology of music, especially the problem of the individuation of musical works. Thus far, no one approach to defining the being of musical works seems to ‘save the phenomena’ to the satisfaction of those involved. A perusal of the ideas on offer is daunting, but thus far there is no distinctly Aristotelean perspective available.1 Two extreme positions include “Musical Platonism”2 and “musical fictionalism”.3 The former claims that musical works are eternal ideas and the latter claims that “music” does not really refer. Aristotle’s general approach was intended to chart a middle path between two similar extremes – Platonism and materialism, and so we might benefit from something similar tailored to today.4 However, in order to make a proposal, I have questioned one thesis that is often taken to be essential to Aristoteleanism: that unlike matter, forms are unchangeable. In my view, we should explore the possibility for an Aristotelean conception of changes of forms and thus essences. If this could be done, it is likely that such a view would be superior to those who ignore essences on the one hand and those who deny their changeability on the other.

My goal being to define a hylomorphic theory of said “abstract artifacts”, I must first defend the claim that there are abstract “elements” or “matter” from which abstract artifacts are made. It is the latter more limited goal with which the current work shall attempt.

I.2 The Ontological Strangeness of Musical Works

Musical works (songs, symphonies, concertos, etc.) are ontologically unique for many reasons:

1) They are abstracta , which ‘are’ in a radically different way from concreta. I will assume that Platonic Ideas are “abstract” in the modern sense assumed here.5

2) They are created. While numbers are not generally thought to be created or invented, it seems much more intuitive to say that composers create their works in some way, while numbers are simply “discovered”. Perhaps transfinite numbers or imaginary numbers might be “invented”, but in general the natural numbers are often though of as “discovered”. Of course, Musical Platonists have differed on this point Kivy (1987) famously claims that they are eternal.

3) They are arbitrary or contingent. – Likewise, abstract artifacts are in most cases far more contingent that the numbers. While there is no room for creativity in the integers, it seem that there is a lot about musical works that is radically contingent or arbitrary. For example, Beethoven could have transposed the Ninth Symphony up a whole step and it would still be the Ninth Symphony, whereas it seems that numbers are pretty much unchangeable. People may debate whether zero, negative numbers, irrational numbers etc. are invented, but they seem much less contingent than musical works.

4) Another difference is that musical works are “perishable”, but not in the same way as an apple or table. Musical works are “lost” when we can no longer know or learn how to perform them and this is something that applies to many other classes of abstract products from biological species to poems or inventions.

In order to handle these difficulties, we shall treat music as a part of Aristotle’s “physics”; a goal-oriented behavior of an organism that takes place in space and time and which is causally efficacious.

II. The Idea of “Musical Physics”

Metaphysics and physics both have as part of their mission the description and explanation of change. Things are not created ex nihilo but from existing matter. In many cases, this matter must be made, as when bricks must be made first for a house, or plants must be grown first for animal’s food. If there were poesis of abstract products, such as a prose, poetic or musical compositions, it would also operate on existing matter. It is typical that this matter would be different matter from concrete products. All products would have their own forms specific to the matter that they are, just as bricks have their own matter and form, and the houses made from brick their own matter and form. For musical composition, this matter is not made of material but rather abstract elements. I will not make too much about the details of how we construe abstractions; perhaps it would have been better to call them “virtual elements”. Here we shall focus on the material cause of music, a.k.a. the classical “Elements of Harmony”. But first we shall have a close look at what “elements” are in Aristotle’s philosophy in the broader non-musical sense.

II. The General Sense of “Elements” in Aristotle

II.A. “Elements” vs. “Matter”

In Aristotle there are two words with similar meaning that might well refer to the “that-from-which” of abstracta: “elements” [stoicheia] and ”matter” [hyle]. I am using the term “elements” rather than “matter” for the following reasons:

  1. It is a term with slightly wider meaning. In other words, all “matter” are “elements”, but not vice versa. For example, the while the “matter” of geometry is space or alternatively, the genus of space, the elements of geometry include in addition to space itself, points, lines, shapes, axioms, theorems et cetera. ‘Elements’ has a much wider applicability.
  2. Intelligible matter” is only mentioned three times in all of Aristotle’s corpus, whereas “elements” is much better explained at length in many different contexts.
  3. Intelligible matter is only ever related to arithmetic and geometry, while “elements” are mentioned with respect to grammar, logic, and many other sciences.
  4. Elements”, has its own entry in Aristotle’s glossary (Book Delta, see below.), while “matter” does not.

For these reasons, I will use the term “elements”, except where said elements are spoken of as a material cause.

II.B. “Elements” defined.

Book V of the Metaphysics consists in a series of definitions of Aristotle’s philosophical terms, including and section three is as follows:

“ ‘Element’ [Greek stoicheion] means (1)[6] the primary component immanent in a thing, and indivisible in kind into other kinds; For example, grammar- the elements of speech are the parts of which speech consists and into which it is ultimately divided, while they are no longer divided into other forms of speech different in kind from them. If they are divided, their parts are of the same kind, as a part of water is water (while a part of the syllable is not a syllable).” “Those who speak of the elements of bodies mean the things into which bodies are ultimately divided, while they are no longer divided into other things differing in kind; and whether the things of this sort are one or more, they call these elements.” “The so-called elements of geometrical proofs, and in general the elements of demonstrations, have a similar character; for the primary demonstrations, each of which is implied in many demonstrations, are called elements of demonstrations; and the primary syllogisms, which have three terms and proceed by means of one middle, are of this nature. (1014a26 – b5)7 

Notice that we have examples of elements from three separate sciences: grammar, nature, and logic. Of these three, it seems that the one most similar to music is that of speech, for the following reasons: 1)The elements are neither wholly physical nor exclusively intelligible. For grammar, the elements something like letters, syllables, and words, with letters being the elements of syllables, which are in turn the elements of words. For logic, the elements are terms, operators, and quantifiers which are the elements of propositions. 2) For both grammar and logic, the elements are made into utterances in much the same way that musical elements are made into musical works. 3) For all three sciences, they deal with objects which are abstract or universal by virtue of the “one above many” argument. In logic, it is possible to give the same argument on different occasions. For grammar, one may also make the same utterance on various occasions, and in music, one may perform the same musical work on various occasions. And in all of these sciences, one cannot say, argue, or perform the same thing with out the thing said/argued/performed first coming to exist in the first place. For these and other reasons, we can see that the works of Aristotle are filled with the exact sorts of “elements” of which we speak here. But that is not all; he often refers to specifically musical elements in many contexts.

III. Musical Elements in Aristotle.

III. A. Musical “Units” In the Metaphysics.

The concept of a distinctly and explicitly musical element is common in the Aristotelean corpus. In the following passage from Metaphysics V, he is defining “one” or “unity”.

The essence of what is one is to be some kind of beginning of number; for the first measure is the beginning, since that by which we first know each class is the first measure of the class; the one, then, it the beginning of the knowable regarding each class. But the one is not the same in all classes. For here it is the quarter-tone, and there it is the vowel of the consonant; and there is another unit of weight and another of movement. But everywhere the one is indivisible either in quantity or in kind.” (1016b18-24)


Units” here are the most fundamental parts or elements, in that letters make up words just as dieses (meaning a smallest interval in music) make up melodies.

We have said previously… that ‘one’ has several meanings…..In music the measure is the diesis, since it is the smallest, and in speech it is the letter … but the measure is not always numerically one. Sometimes there are several, as for instance there are two dieses – not those given by the ear, but those found in ratios – and several articulate sounds that we use for measuring [in phonetics].” (Metaphysics X.1 1053a12-17)

Here we see a musical element compared with others in grammar and units of measurement for weight alongside various physical elements. The elements of each fields are the fundamental units of which those beings are composed. Again, the same comparison is made for letters in grammar and the smallest musical interval. Elements or fundamental units are different in nature for different fields of study. Some fields of study elements that are substances, but others do not, including music.

III. B. Music and other Elements in De Sensu.

In the physical treatises, Aristotle considers the elements of music to be analogous to those of other sciences of sensibles. In the following passage, he treats them in conjunction with color. His discussion assumes an analysis where notes are the elements of chords in (analogically) the same way that black and white pixels can combine into a gray field:

We must now speak of the other colours, reviewing the number of ways in which it is possible for them to arise. It is possible, first, that the white and the black are laid side by side in such a way that while each of them is invisible because of its smallness, the combination of the two becomes visible. This cannot appear as either white or as black, but since it must necessarily have some colour, and can have neither of those, it must be something mixed, a different kind of colour. In this way then, it is possible to accept that there are more colors than just white and black, and that they are many in ratio: for they may lie side by side in the ratio of three to two or that of three to four or in other relations of numbers. (Some may be in no ratio whatsoever, but in some incommensurable relation of excess and deficiency.) Thus they may be in the same condition as concords [symphoniai]: the colors that depend on well ratioed numbers, like concords in their domain, are taken to be the pleasantest of colors (purple and red and a few others of that kind – few for the same reason that concords are few), while those that are not in numbers are the other colours.8 (439b19-440a4)

Aristotle is here anticipating some very modern ideas: primary colors which combine in order to produce secondary colors as well as what we now call “pixels” (the smallest visible unit of visibility). His hypothesis is that the underlying mechanism behind concords and color-wheel aesthetics are based on an underlying unity of principle, which was taken up by Johannes Itten in modern color theory. This is far ahead of his time, since the analogy between them is based on wave-phenomena – one of sound, the other of light. In De Anima, he expands this to taste:

If a concord is a sound, and if a sound and the hearing of it are in a way one, while a concord is a ratio, then the hearing must necessarily be a ratio. For this reason either element in excess – either the high or the low – destroys the hearing : similarly in flavors such excess destroys the taste, in colours what is exceedingly bright or shadowy destroys the sight, and in smelling the same applies to a powerful smell, whether sweet or biter, since the perception is a ratio. That is why, while things are pleasant when they are brought pure and unmixed into the ratio (things such as the high-pitched or the sweet or the salty: for they are pleasant in such circumstances) nevertheless what is mixed, concord, is more pleasant than the high or the low. The perception is a ratio, and things in excess dissolve or destroy it.” (426a27-b7)

So clearly Aristotle’s work is filled with “elements” of many sorts, not all of which are substances in the strict sense. Grammar and music treat of relations among substances: animals and air are substances, but they are not the per se focus of music theory, rather these substances are only “musical” insofar as they contribute to the composition and performance of musical works. The principles of music are not those of a substance per se, but rather emerge from the interactions of many substances, in much the same way as the principles of grammar and strategy. In the next section, we shall treat in detail the process of such emergence of analogous (nonsubstantial) per se objects from the relations among substances.

IV. Elemental “Genealogies” for Houses and Music.

On the view defended here, a neo-Aristotelean theory of music will start with some kind(s) of concrete substance and tell how some quantity, relation, affection, etc. thereof relates to the science in question. The following is a simple but modern description of how the phenomenon of music comes from the relations, qualities or affectations among substances. To clarify this process in true Stagirite fashion, we shall use the analogy with house building.

IV. A. The Genealogy of the Elements of Houses.

House building is a “science”, and its per se object is the production of houses. Pace Plato, the knowledge of a house-builder will include the Form of the House, but following Aristotle, it must also include the matter of the house (wood, stone, bricks), the efficient causes (the different workers and tools available) and the final causes. It is not enough to know the overall purpose of a house (“to live in”), but also the lower-level purposes such as “create a level foundation”, and “make sure the walls are square”. A house builder will not only know the form of level and square, but also why houses need to be level and square in the first place.

Houses are not substances in the strict sense and exist by convention. Their “forms” are not natural but emerge from the skillful interaction of humans and nature. The Form of the House cannot be found in a dictionary or even in a building code, but can only be in the mind of a qualified architect. This is the main difference between a productive science and a theoretical science in Aristotle: a theoretical science knows about a substance such as an atom, a cell or a plant, while a productive science knows about something which is not a substance but whose essence is primarily in the mind of the maker. The principles of housebuilding include axioms that are not the essence of a substance and might not be deduced therefrom. For instance “always make all floors and walls level, plumb, and square” cannot be deduced from the essence of any substance, neither from the essence of the house’s matter, nor from the definition of “house”. While the definitions of “level”, “plumb”, and “square” refer to abstract geometry, the presence of these terms in the definition of the essence of “house” is not rigorously demonstrated but rather emerges from the interaction of builders with material over many generations. This being the case, in place of a demonstration, we need a causal story which I will call a “genealogy”. Such a genealogy will be implicit in the principles and causes of all sciences whose per se objects are not “substances” in the strict sense. The genealogy of the principles and elements of housebuilding are as such:

  1. Substances – First we have atoms, molecules, energy and living things.
  2. Other categories. – Some living things need “shelter” from other things.
  3. Some materials have been found useful to “construct” said shelter.
  4. There are a lot of useful rules to follow that make building such shelter more effective, including some with arithmetic and geometry. Contra Pythagoras, such elements are not being used qua geometrical but are used qua useful for a specific purpose.
  5. Once construction is finished, then living things can “live in” the shelter.

Contra Plato, the builder’s tekne cannot be deduced a priori but are rather learned by those who cooperate to build houses and discuss the pros and cons of different ways of building. So with this in mind, let us look at a similar genealogy for the science of music.


IV. B. The Genealogy of the Elements of Music.

As with house-building, so with music, we need to start from some set of commonly-accepted sumbstances and construct our nonsubstantial elements therefrom.

  1. Substances – First we have atoms, molecules, and living things.
  2. Other categories. – The energy imparts motion to the atoms and molecules.
  3. Some forms of this motion are made or perceived as “sound” by some living things.
  4. Sound is used by living creatures for the following purposes: sensation (mere hearing), communication, or music.
  5. There are a lot of useful rules for making musical sound, including many that involve some arithmetic. Contra Pythagoras and kata Aristoxenus, such rules are not being used qua geometrical but rather qua musical.

According to this framework, music is a science somewhat like phonetics, house building, computer science, or military strategy. In all of these fields, there is a physical substrate or set of elements which can take on various forms imposed on it by rational agents for various purposes. Thus while “music” has no Aristotelean substance as its per se focus, it can define its focus as a certain set of activities that assume a certain physical substrate, principles, purposes, and rational agency of those involved. With that in mind, let us give a full catalogue of the elements of music, from the most fundamental to the most final:

  1. Atoms9
  2. Molecules
  3. Sound
  4. Musical Sound – sound made of notes, intervals, and rhythm.
  5. Melody – Musical sounds in a dynamic sequence.
  6. Harmony – Melodies arranged simultaneously.
  7. Works – Songs, Concertos, Operas, Musicals, etc.
  8. Performances – Social events.
  9. Culture (Ethos) of a People.
  10. The Final Final Cause – There may be some higher telos for music than contributing to the life of a people who have a certain culture.


IV. C. Proximate and Ultimate Elements of Music.

Art and sciences take matter from some more fundamental art: the house builder takes his material and tools from the makers of tools and bricks. Music is similar in this respect. Notice that many of the above elements are not part of music per se:

  1. Elements 1-3 pertain to physics.
  2. Elements 4-10 pertain “music theory” in the widest sense, which might study the ultimate basis for the smallest intervals and scales.
  3. Elements 4-8 are the proper study of musical artists.
  4. Element 9 is in political philosophy.
  5. Element 10 is theology.

The distinctively musical elements (4-8) in this “scala musica” are not substances, but derived by cognitions concerning substances “in a certain respect” – those relations which are musically relevant. For music to be a science, we must know:

  1. What are the per se phenomena that are the focus of music. – Musical sound.
  2. What it is about the focus that makes it music. – The sound exhibiting proportions and patterns of a certain type.
  3. How the elements are defined. – The elements are those most useful for defining said proportions and patterns that define music.
  4. Other causes: formal causes, final causes, etc.

Something like this will be the the most simple version of our theory: There are various substances, including atoms, molecules and living things. The atoms and molecules collect in “atmospheres”; layers of gas surrounding some planets. Atmospheres transmit sound, which animals find useful for hearing events in their environment. Some animals also use sound for “music”, whose purpose is unclear, and it may have multiple uses. However it seems clear that communication is a large part of it, because we find that musical sound has been split into distinguishable elements rather similar to the elements of codes or languages.

This last line is where we come to the fundamental principles of music: in other words, we begin to find the ultimate causes and principles that underly the distinction between normal sound and music. Music exhibits its distinctive character by having all pitches and beats limited to one of a few selected our of many. So the fundamental elements of music are both melodic and rhythmic, but in the following, I shall focus on melodic units or elements, which are intervals. But why is this the case? Because of communication – each unit (pitch or note) must be distinguished from the others so that patterns are easier to recognize.10 This is the origin of the “diesis” or smallest interval. In Greek music, it was a quarter tone, but later on it was dropped and the diesis was made the semitone, perhaps due to the increasing importance of harmony over melody in Western music. In almost all Greek music, harmonies were sung in unison. With the later increase in polyphony, however, quarter tones perhaps seemed too cluttered. Since complex polyphony provided a great many more possibilities than single melodies, Western composers dropped the quarter-tone.

The “whole tone” is another intervallic element derived from the space between the two concords of the fourth and fifth. In both ancient Greek and modern Western scales, we find that the middle of each octave is taken up with the whole step that divides the fourth from the fifth degrees. Below the fourth and above the fifth, we always find a mix of whole tones and smaller intervals depending on the tonality needed for the occasion. Dieses could in theory be defined in many ways, but in order to be more compatible with the structure defined by the concords, it should be some whole number fraction of a major fourth. In modern Western music, we have five semitones below the fourth degree which can be broken up into either the major scale (whole, whole, semitone) or the minor scale (whole, semitone, whole). If you were to try to divide the fourth into three equal units, they would be slightly larger than the whole tone and not so much larger that they would be readily distinguishable nor mathematically proportionate with the other intervals. The three whole tone interval falls directly between the two concords and is the most discordant interval, rarely used for most serious music, but in blues and other blues-influenced styles it is prominent. However, the harmonic structure of such music has been simplified to the extent that it is not too cluttered. If Bach were to try a fugue on the theme containing a tritone, it would not work, but some popular music can get away with it.

This is what we might expect to find as the essence of musical elements – a mix of nature and convention, not so different from grammar and logic. In none of these sciences are the elements substances in the strict sense, but instead they define their elements based on a mix of natural and pragmatic considerations. Once we have the fundamental melodic elements defined as the octave, concords, semitone and whole tone we can add them together to make melodies, which melodies must then obey the rules of “dynamics”. These rules are generalizations of what sorts of rising or falling series of notes or chords “make melodic sense”. Said melodies must at the very least must seem like a unified entity and be complex enought to hold interest but not be too complex to exhibit perceivable order..

In order to accomplish this, composers will follow certain principles:

  1. Define a “motif” or “theme” by the compostition of lower level elements such as notes and rhythyms.
  2. Repeat the motif.– the motif can be used over and over again in the same way that many of the same type of brick are needed to make a house.
  3. The motif undergoes “development”, “variation”, “restatement” – the elements of the motif are slightly re-arranged into a related motif or variation.
  4. Then “resolution”, other dynamic patterns … and so on and so forth.

Thus we have various sets of principles that are not reducible to those of lower levels but which build on them to further the same purpose. Thus far, I have only given a superficial look at the physics of musical poetics or composition; next we shall explore the deeper metaphysics and philosophy of science involved.

V. Music and Ontology.

V. A. Music and Substance.

Music was a prominent topic in classical Greek metaphysics starting from the Pythagorean school, which influenced Plato and Aristotle’s ideas concerning music as mathematical science. Even as late as Aristotle Metaphysics Books I and VII. After that Aristotle’s student Aristoxenus continued the same trend to be even more empirical than the Stagirite, and our views are very much in this latter vein.

V.A.1. Pythagoreanism – Numerical Substance.

On my Aristotelean reading, Pythagorean “substance” is ultimately numerical, so Pythagorean substances are non-sensible ideal beings. My interpretation of them here is based solely on the assumption that their numbers are ideal or abstract beings, their placement “in” those things of which they are the substance notwithstanding. Sensible beings may not seem numerical at first glance, however according to our reading of Pythagoreanism the substance of these beings must be numerical in some way. One way this could be seen is where there is some unlimited substrate, which substrate then takes form through numerical proportionality. On this reading, music is seen to be an example of a sensible phenomena whose essence / substance has been shown to be mathematical ratios that underly rhythms and melody. So while music is not substance per se, it is shown to be more substantial than many other things whose mathematical essence is less clear and which are therefore less beautiful. On this view, the closer to the numerical substance a phenomenon is, the more beautiful it will be. On this view music is far more substantial than other sensible beings, and contrary to our position, it would be one of the substantial sciences, as it was under Platonically-inclined thinkers.

Since Pythagorean metaphysics makes the substance of beings numerical, Pythagorean science should be somewhat “numerological”. In Pythagoreanism, it is of the essence of planets that there are a certain number of them. Which number it is is up for debate, but most numerological astronomers counted seven. The fact that there were seven planets was taken to be a clue to their essence, and their research consisted in looking for other sets of sevens, such as the seven “metals of antiquity”, days of the week, and the number of notes in the diatonic scale. On this view, the discovery of Uranus would throw the “numerological” astronomy into crisis, because through the change of number there would be a corresponding change of planetary essence. However, for either modern or Aristotelean science the number of planets is not essential to the nature of planets. On both of these views, planets are natural concreta whose number is accidental to their nature. Other planets in other solar systems may be fewer than in ours and they will still be essentially the same as our own.

V.A.2. Aristotle: Music as Mathematical Science.

Aristotlean substances are natural concreta that are not mere aggregates but are a separate “this”: in modern terms (which for conveniences’ sake I will use in this work), the following are what he would call Aristotelean substances: atoms, molecules, cells, organs, organisms, planets, and stars. (Whether the inclusion of atoms in this list undermines my entire approach is something best left for a separate work.11)

Aristotle differs from Pythagoras in claiming that numbers are not themselves substance; instead, numbers are properties of concrete physical substances. Thus, because the of the nature of reality, there happen to be planets (for example); the fact that there are a certain number of planets is not really essential to their nature. Pythagoreans, on the contrary, tend to think that the number of planets is essential to their planetary natures, whether these are the number of planets counted, their number in order from the center of the solar system outward, or their periods of revolution. For Pythagoreans, these quantities are the very essence of substance of what the planets are.12 Aristotle is having none of this; for him, there are material beings of such and such type who move in a certain way based on their physical nature, and the number of these beings is accidental. As a result, the number of planets is of no more consequence for astronomy than the number of continents is for geology; in other words, the discovery of a new one (changing its number) does not change its substantial essence.

However, Aristotle has taken up the conception common to his idealistic predecessors that mathematical sciences are more scientific than their non-mathematical counterparts. Some empirical sciences, such as music or astronomy are essentially mathematical while other branches of ‘physics’ are not. Strangely enough, this would include the field of study that we call “modern physics”. In Posterior Analytics, he makes this assumption without any argument:

…[i]t is the task of those who use perception to know the fact that, and that of the mathematical scientists to know the reason why: for the latter possess the demonstrations of the causes, and often do not know the fact that, just as people who study the universal often do not know some of the particular instances because they have not observed them. (78b34 – 79a6)

It is difficult to see how this could be under the more naturalistic approach of Aristotle, where mathematical entities are not substance, nor essence, but rather the mere definition of the essence. In the following, we see where he went wrong with this approach. Through the examples of astronomy and music he seeks to show how mathematical sciences can define the essence of sensibles.

…in all these examples it is clear the nature of the thing and the reason of the fact are identical: the question ‘What is an eclipse?’ and its answer ‘The privation of the moon’s light by the imposition of the earth’ are identical with the question ‘What is the reason of the eclipse?’ or ‘Why does the moon suffer eclipse?’ and the reply ‘Because of the failure of the light through the earth’s shutting it out’. Again, for ‘What is a concord? A commensurate ratio of a high and a low note’, we may substitute ‘What reason makes a high and low note concordant? Their relation according to commensurate numerical ratio.’ ‘Are the high and low note concordant?’ is equivalent to ‘Is their ration commensurate?’; and when we find that it is commensurate, we ask ‘What then, is their ratio?’ (90a15-24)

In the former example, we see that clearly geometrical analysis is essential to predicting and explaining eclipses; however this should not be taken too far: the assumption that Euclidean geometry is axiomatic for physics has recently been disproven and discarded under relativity. However, Euclid will suffice for the solar system’s orbital dynamics as known to Aristotle and Newton. In a sense, modern physics’ recourse to non-Euclidean geometry undermines Aristotle’s argument. Admittedly it is still geometry with different axioms, but there are so many different ways to do non-Euclidean geometry. How does one choose how many spatial dimensions and what topology to use? This can only be derived from the study of cosmology. Thus rather than geometry ruling over astronomy as under the ancien regime, modern astronomy uses whichever version of geometry suits its purpose. Of course, Euclid is still interesting form most mid-scale phenomena, but it no longer exerts the sort of absolute authority we find in ancient science. In my view, this same dethroning of the exact sciences over the empirical in modern astronomy is implied in Aristoxenus’ criticism of dogmatically mathematical music theories.

V.A.3. The Aristoxenian Paradigm Shift in Music Theory.

Aristoxenus (fl. 335 BC), a student of Aristotle, wrote the first major work of music theory, the “Elements of Harmony”. While a student of Pythagoreanism in his native Italy, he converted to Aristoteleanism and eventually created a theory of music that was even less Pythagorean and more ‘physical’ than his teacher’s. Aristoxenus was more faithful to the naturalistic spirit of Aristotle and disregarded the above-criticized assumption that music is an essentially mathematical substance. Because he pursued a science of music theory and because his innovation required a change in how music itself was defined, I call it a “paradigm shift”.

While Aristotle still saw mathematical ratios as being radically essential to music, Aristoxenus’ claim that mathematics was less essential than a species of aesthetic sensation. Thus the essence of music is not Pythagorean substance nor sound qua mathematically rationalized, but rather sound qua sensibly proportioned, by which we mean that which appears properly proportioned rather than that which conforms most exactly to mathematical proportions. In Aristotle’s view, concords just are numerical ratios and nothing else besides. (90a30) But with Aristoxenus, concords have a curious relation with numerical ratios without being identical, almost like the relation between the astronomical solar calendar and paper calendars. Just as there needs to be days added onto leap years to keep our yearly tally of days in line with the revolutions of the earth, so also do we need to adjust the arithmetical proportions of pure Pythagorean temperment to keep it in line with our musical perceptions.

Through hearing we assess the magnitudes of intervals, and through reason we apprehend their functions. … While it is usual in dealing with geometrical diagrams to say ‘let this be straight line’, we must not be satisfied with similar remarks in relation to intervals. The geometer makes no use of the faculty of perception; he does not train his eyesight to assess the straight or the circular or anything else of that kind either well or badly: it is rather the carpenter, the wood turner, and some of the other crafts that concern themselves with this. But for the student of music accuracy of perception stands just about first in order of importance, since if he perceives badly it is impossible for him to give a good account of the things which he does not perceive at all.” (Barker 150)

This means that contra Aristotle, musical proportion is not a species of mathematical proportion. However since we are retaining an Aristotelean conception of science, we have to say that musical proportion is not a species of arithmetical proportion and is defined separately.

Likewise, as befits the author of the “Elements of Harmony”, Aristoxenus also believes in elements that are essentially musical, but which are analogous to other sorts of virtual or abstract elements:

… the order which relates the melodic and unmelodic is similar to that concerned with the combination of letters in speech: for from a given set of letters a syllable is not generated in just any way, but in some ways and not others.” (Barker 153)

He also adheres to a rigorous distinction between arithmetic and musical elements. On the one hand “… we accept that from a purely abstract point of view there is no least interval.”(Barker 160), but on the other

The claim that there is no least interval by which we divide ad infinitum in melody is one that commands assent: there is some greatest number of parts into which melody divides each of the intervals.” (Barker 160)

What prevents a contradiction with the one before is the qualification “in melody”; once we assume that we are speaking of musical intervals and not mere differences in merely physical frequencies, which is what he is taking about “from a purely abstract view.”

Furthermore, there is also found in Aristoxenus the view that musical composition is the placing the musical elements in a certain arrangement:

However, there is a major hurdle in this conception of music; how to explain the presence of numerical ratio in pre-rational sensation without recourse to an abstract conception of substance or subordination of music to mathematics. In my view, this is done by giving an account something like that given above for the ultimate basis for whole tones, semitones, and how they are pieced together to make scales.

The last part of the science is that concerned with melodic composition itself. Since many forms of melody, of all sorts, come into existence in notes which are themselves the same and unchanging, it is clear that this variety depends on the use to which the notes are put: and this is what we call melodic composition.” (Barker 155)

Here we find that the Musician also has our own conception of Universal Hylomorphism: the idea that there are changes where units of matter are arranged into a form without themselves undergoing any change. Just as bronze is not changed by being made a sphere, so also are notes not changes by being composed into a song. The fact that said “matter” is neither wood nor molecule does not change the fact that songs are made from notes in the way a sphere is made from bronze.

V.B.1 Science, Music, and Substance in Aristotle.

Under the idealistic systems of Plato and Pythagoras, one of the main arguments that substance is the “argument from the sciences”. On this view, the sciences of the ideal were the most rigorous and certain and thus the most suitable per se objects are ideal beings. If substance is prior in definition, knowledge and time, (as in Aristotle 1028a30) then the idealists argue that ideal objects are “substance” in the strict sense. This is an objection which Aristotle went to great pains to answer, devoting not only significant portions of books I and VII but all of books XIII and XIV to this and related problems. In the following, I will try to explain a plausible Aristotelean way to rebut the argument from the sciences, which, if successful would undermine Aristotle and boost Plato.

V.B.2. Aristotle’s ‘substance’.

Aristotle uses many of the same words for various related or “analogous” senses. The most famous is “’Being’ is said in many senses.”. As a result, many other substances have analogous senses of the various “be” verbs. Key to the argument of Book Zeta, there is a distinction between two senses of “substance” which we shall discuss on the way to our presnet conclusion. For the sake of distinguishing them in this chapter, we will call them “substance1” and “substance2”. For Aristotle, the following are true:

  1. A substance1 is a compound of matter and form.
  2. Substance2 is the form of a substance1.
  3. The essence of a substance1 is a substance2. (2 and 3 are equivalent statements.)
  4. A substance1 is anything that has substance2.
  5. Conversely, substance2 belongs most properly to substance1..
  6. Substance2 cannot exist separately.
  7. Only substance1 can exist separately.
  8. When substance2 is spoken of as if it were separate from substance1, it is being spoken of “abstractly”.
  9. A substance1 cannot be artificial since artificial beings do not have substance2 in the full and proper sense.13 (The formal cause belongs to it only extrinsically, and the efficient and final causes even less so.)

Such are the basic assumptions concerning substance in what follows.

V.B.3. The distinction between Substantial and Analogous sciences.

It is substance1, the concrete substance1, that is most real. The latter formal substance2 is the content of science, while substance1 is the object of science (in our modern sense of “objective”). I say an object of science, because sciences do not only learn the form of the substance, but the other causes as well, a fact which further tells against the idealist “argument from the sciences”.14 But what I call a “substantial science” does have a substance as its per se object, but these substances are concrete, and the science studies the form as form of the concrete: examples of this include chemistry (the study of atoms and molecules), biology, botany, zoology, medicine, astronomy, geology.

These sciences deal with substances, meaning that members of a particular genus are individuated into concrete units which cannot be divided into smaller units of the same kind. So if you divide an atom, you do not get another atom, but rather an other type of substance. When you divide a molecule, you do not get molecules, but rather atoms. When you divide a cell, you do not get another cell, but rather parts of a cell which cannot come to be nor survive separately. When you divide an organ such as a heart, you do not get another heart, but rather tissue, a mere aggregate of cells of a certain type. Organisms, planets, and stars also exhibit a similar unity, and the fundamental principles of the science include the following the study of atoms and molecules as substances.

  1. The form of the genus – what all atoms share qua atoms.
  2. The elements of matter of the genus – protons, neutron, electrons, etc.
  3. The formal causes of the substance. For atoms, this includes
    • Genus – the essential form shared by all atoms as well as
    • Differentia – the various ways that atoms differ based on the different arrangements of the elements of the genus.
  1. Fourth, other causes as applicable, including efficient and final causes.

A conception of atoms as a certain kind of substance might provide the fundamental principles of a natural science that studies atoms. Today we would call such a science “physics” or “chemistry”, which, for the sake of convenience, would include as well the study of molecules. However, given that our current topic music concerns how matter reacts to certain sorts of sonic energy, we can call this science “physics”. It is exemplary for how a science can be defined by its primary concern with a particular type of substance. In addition, biology is defined by its concern with another type of substance, the organism, which forms its natural ‘unit’ in the same way that atoms and molecules do for our sense of “physics”. The fact that molecules are a different kind of substance only means that its inclusion in the same science is only due to their ontic proximity or pragmatic concerns. It is not so different from how biologists not only study complete organisms, but also their organs and cells. Whether some biologists find it better to specialize in cells of organs is contingent on the usefulness of such a strategy w.r.t. epistemology or application rather than ontology.

So now that we have a preliminary conception of substantial sciences, we also need to see how an analogical science, even those of logic and arithmetic, can find their rigour without having a per se focus on a primary substance.

V.B.4 Analogical Sciences in Book Lambda.

The idealist can respond to the above by pointing out that on Aristotle’s view, the most rigorous sciences paradoxically have the least substantial objects. If mathematics and geometry are not sciences of substance, then what is? Aristotle gives many examples of rigorous sciences that do not focus on per se substances – arithmetic, logic, grammar, and music among others. How would such a science work if it did not have a substantial per se object? The answer may be found in the following passage:

The causes and the principles of different things are in a sense different, but in a sense, if one speaks universally and analogically, they are the same for all. For one might raise the question whether the principles and elements are different or the same for substances and for relative terms, and similarly in the case of each of the categories. But it would be paradoxical if they were the same for all. For then from the same elements will proceed relative terms and substances. (1070a31ff)

Elders (1972) reads this and other nearby related passages as referring solely to Aristotle’s criticism of Platonism where different substances are not univocal in the senses of their categories.15 In that reading, each of the “different things” in line 31 are the different substances whose various categories and predicates are analogically but not univocally “the same” as they are for other classes of substance. In other words, the “different things” refers to different members of the category “substance” – for instance stars, organisms, and atoms. But there are two reasons why we might not limit the reading of “different things” to the category of substance, and they include the following:

  1. In these passages, it seems that the primary difference being discussed is between substance and other categories:
    • different or the same for substances and for relative terms” (1070a34-35)
    • for then from the same elements will proceed relative terms and substances” (1070a37-b01)
    • [T]here is nothing common to and distinct from substance and the other categories….” (1070b01)
    • Substance is not an element in relative terms, nor is any of these an element in substance.” (1070b02-3)
    • None of the elements, then, will be neither a substance or a relative term; but it must be one or the other.”(1070b7-9)
  1. There is independent reason to think that for many sciences, we are forced to speak of non-substances as being “substantial” in a derivative or loose sense. It is these sciences that we speak of here as being “analogical” (as in 1070a31), and the independent grounds for this assumption will be the primary topic of this chapter.

There are two ways that one might argue for such a reading: first, one might claim that this is what Aristotle meant in his texts, or secondly, Aristotle must argue something like this in order to claim that rigorous sciences can have per se objects which are not substance in the strict sense. In the following, I shall pursue the latter thesis, that something like this is needed for a science of music, not to mention logic, grammar, rhetoric, strategy, geometry, arithmetic, and many others. So from this point, I shall argue under this assumption, that the science of “music” grants its objects with a what I shall call “virtual substantiality”, and as such they are the sort of thing that are composed of ‘virtual elements’ or ‘abstract elements’.

On this view, Aristotle could answer the idealists thusly: the rigour of the exact sciences comes not from the substantiality of their per se objects, but rather the fact that they limit their investigation to some dependent category which has well-defined objects. On this view, math investigates substances but not qua substance but rather qua quantifiable being. This places math in a secondary class of sciences that do not deal with a substance as their per se object, but only treat substance qua some other category. If Aristotle is to answer the idealist’s challenge, each accepted science must have some account that defines how it relates to substances in the full concrete sense. So for math, he claims that it deals with substances, if at all, solely in the category of quantity and that this limitation of focus is what gives it its rigour. Other sciences limit themselves in other ways and other categories: logic deals with propositions insofar as they are true or false, grammar deals with sound insofar as it is articulate and meaningful, and music deals with sound insofar as it forms the ‘essence’ of musical works. While there former exact sciences are simply the sciences of the category of quantity, the others are the sciences of something is by nature in the overlap of the ta phusika and the ta pragmata: grammar, for example is the science of articulate sound, meaning that it looks at a particular physical phenomenon – sound, but sound only insofar as it is used by animals for language. Military science, for example, looks at men, horses, weather and terrain – but only insofar as these elements are related to the need for armed groups to control territory. Musical theory also has a similar account that it must give for how it treats sound- sound in so far as it relates to the need for certain living creatures to make sound that is musically structured.


VI. An Possible Objection from Final Causes.

In performance, and existing form is applied to existing matter. In composition, a form is created from abstract elements. Only once this form is created can it then go on to be the form of a musical performance. Thus we have a explanation of a change that occurs. However, there is more than matter and form iin Aristotle’s physics, there is also the final cause. It seems that the analogy between performance and composition might break down down due to the lack of an existing form as final cause. Since there is no form as final cause, how can the change happen? The performer knows what they are after in a performance; how does the composer know?

My initial view, which will be postponed for a future work, is that composition is more akin in this respect to praxis than to tekne. While the content of the science of composition has a lot of overlap with the tekne of performance, in terms of teleology. In this respect they are similar to the relations between military praxis and military science. Praxis is that form of goal-oriented behavior which has no clearly defined form as its telos. If we say that that the goal of praxis is the “Form of the Good”, this is in a much looser sense than with the form of a house. It is highly unlikely that the Good has a form in the same sense as other concreta. When the composer composes, they are seeking to implement a certain specific way of being “good” in a way that we find in other goal-oriented processes that create forms rather than instantiate them:

  1. Praxis – Political action which seeks to maximize the Good.
  2. Invention – Technical action which seems to create a form in matter that can acheive a goal.
  3. Rhetoric – Technical action which seeks to maximize the persuasiveness of speech.
  4. Poetic composition – Technical action which seeks to create a form of poetic speech that is poetically Good.
  5. Musical composition – Technical action which seeks to create a form of musical sound that is musically Good.
  6. Legislation – Political action that seeks to define laws of such a form as to achieve the Good for a people.

In all of these sciences, poesis is at the service of a Good rather than a Form. In each the Form is the product rather than the telos as it is with productive arts or nature. In virtual poesis, the form is created by the maker according to the process given above.


VII. Conclusion.

In contemporary ontology of musical works, there are extreme views who we have been influenced by and we hope that we have saved the relevant phenomena using an Aristotelean “middle path”.

To the fictionalists who deny that compositions are real16 we say that there are many ways of saying “real”, and each differs by virtue of the essence of what is spoken of. For nonsubstances like musical works, we have a conventional or derivative sort of “reality”, but it is its own reality nonetheless, a reality suited to the being of music. Our above “genealogy” of musical elements details the difference between the substantiality of material elements and living things and analogous reality of musical elements of works.

To the Platonists who say that musical works are substances, we claim that such a view is subject to the same objections given by Aristotle so long ago, chief among them being the following: 1) The objection from lack of causality. “Above all, one might discuss the question what on earth the Forms contribute to sensible things, either to those that are eternal or to those that come into being and cease to be.” (991a7-8) How do eternal forms cause composers to reveal them to us in the Plato’s Cave? What is the relationship between the two? We might be satisfied with leaving it open for future inquiry if only there were not a superior option in Aristotle’s immanent forms. 2) The point that no universal is a substance, given that universals are predicated of concreta (1038b15) and cannot exist apart from them.

This is not to say that neither of these views is lacking in value, but we hope that something like our view will seem plausible both for the issue of artificial abstracta but natural ones as well, including biological essences and natural languages. In our view each of these beings has virtual elements specific to the sorts of beings they are: genes17, phonemes, memes or others as needed to save the phenomena in those domains.

End notes

  1. The one who seemed me as the most Aristotelean among them, Nicolas Wolterstorff (1980) is called a sort of a “Platonic (eternal) norm-kind/norm types” in Killin (2018.) 272
  2. Peter Kivy and Julian Dodds are the most respected such “Platonists” of whom neither actually ever cites Plato, something they share with mathematical Platonists since Frege. The best introduction is Kivy (1987) and Ostertag (2012) In the present work, I will refer to “Platonism” with respect to musical works to refer to Kivy’s position in the above-cited piece.

  3.  Killin (2018).

  4.  I admit that we have modern theories that explain music in terms of set theory, qualia, and others which are not part of classical metaphysics and which do not clearly resemble anything that he dealt with. However, the factors adduced in favor of these more recent approaches may be even more amenable to an Aristotelean analysis.

  5.  Rosen 2018

  6.  In the first line, the “(1)” means that these are the primary meanings of ‘element’, the next section (“2”) (not quoted here) begins “people also transfer the word ‘element’ from this meaning and apply it to” another secondary meaning. But the following are the primary meanings of ‘element’.

  7.  All Aristotle quotes, unless otherwise specified, are from McKeon (1941).

  8.  Barker (1990) Page 47.

  9.  Aristotle’s relationship with the atomism of his time is contentious. However, I will simply assume that atoms qualify as Aristotelean substances on the following basis: They are the smallest unit of material bodies which is a “this” and not merely an aggregate of such-and-such. I think that this topic deserves its own full treatment in another piece, but here I shall assume that modern atoms and molecules are substances.

  10.  This is rather similar to how languages separate certain sounds to make “letters” while other sounds are not excepted because they would muddy up the code. For example, letters are often dropped from languages, especially when phonemes from other languages are introduced. For example, when the Francophile Normans conquered England, that introduced a great many new sounds into Old English which led to the elimination of the Scandinavian “ð”, which is midway between a “d” and a “th” or “t”. With the more crowded list of elements to choose from, the Scandinavian “ð” just muddied things up.

  11. I do this to simplify my exposition, to make this work more readable and relevant for non-Aristoteleans. I am thereby choosing to make my thesis primarily a “neo-Aristotelean” theory as opposed to an interpretation of Aristotle’s work. However, my goal is an argument that resembles something he might support if he were alive today.
  12.  The fact that none of these numbers works out to exact ratios could, in a Pythagorean research program, be either explained away or be the goal of future work. For example, the desire to square the numerical messiness of the heavens with the beauty of whole numbers was a major impetus behind Mesoamerican astronomy, and the Pythagoreans could undertake such a project of their own. One might also claim that this mathematical inelegance is empirical “noise” as opposed to the pure signal of the mathematical “music of the spheres”.
  13. Note that the demotion of products of skill from substantiality is especially crucial in the anti-Platonism the motivates the theory of abstract artifacts. Any further treatment of substance will be given when we treat of natural abstract or virtual products, such as biological essences and perhaps natural languages.
  14.  Physics II.2 194a21- 27
  15.  Elders (1972) pg. 114ff.
  16.  Killin 2018
  17.  For biological essences, the distinction of composition and performance is exactly analogous to that of phylogeny and ontogeny, with phylogeny being the manipulation of genes through the efficacy of natural selection.



Barker, Andrew, ed. 1990. Greek Musical Writings Volume 2: Harmonic and Acoustic Theory. Cambridge UP.

Elders, Leo. Aristotle’s Theology. 1972. Van Gorcum and Co. N.V., Assen, The Netherlands.

Killin, Anton, 2018. “Fictionalism about musical works.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 48, No. 2, 266-291.

Kivy, Peter, 1987 “Platonism in Music: Another Kind of Defense.” American Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 24, Number 3, July 1987.

McKeon, Richard, ed. 1941 The Basic Works of Aristotle. Random House. New York.

Ostertag, Gary. 2012. “Critical Study: Julian Dodd. ‘Works of Music: An Essay in Ontology.’” Nous. 46:2 (2012) 355-374.

Rosen, Gideon, “Abstract Objects”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < objects/>.

Witt, Charlotte. 1989. Substance and Essence in Aristotle. Ithaca and London. Cornell U.P.

Wolterstorff, Nicolas. 1980. Works and Worlds of Art. Clarendon Press, Oxford UK.












































Barker, Andrew, ed. 1990. Greek Musical Writings Volume 2: Harmonic and Acoustic Theory. Cambridge UP.

Elders, Leo. Aristotle’s Theology. 1972. Van Gorcum and Co. N.V., Assen, The Netherlands.

Killin, Anton, 2018. “Fictionalism about musical works.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 48, No. 2, 266-291.

Kivy, Peter, 1987 “Platonism in Music: Another Kind of Defense.” American Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 24, Number 3, July 1987.

McKeon, Richard, ed. 1941 The Basic Works of Aristotle. Random House. New York.

Ostertag, Gary. 2012. “Critical Study: Julian Dodd. ‘Works of Music: An Essay in Ontology.’” Nous. 46:2 (2012) 355-374.

Rosen, Gideon, “Abstract Objects”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < objects/>.

Witt, Charlotte. 1989. Substance and Essence in Aristotle. Ithaca and London. Cornell U.P.

Wolterstorff, Nicolas. 1980. Works and Worlds of Art. Clarendon Press, Oxford UK.

1The one who seemed me as the most Aristotelean among them, Nicolas Wolterstorff (1980) is called a sort of a “Platonic (eternal) norm-kind/norm types” in Killin (2018.) 272

2Peter Kivy and Julian Dodds are the most respected such “Platonists” of whom neither actually ever cites Plato, something they share with mathematical Platonists since Frege. The best introduction is Kivy (1987) and Ostertag (2012) In the present work, I will refer to “Platonism” with respect to musical works to refer to Kivy’s position in the above-cited piece.

3Killin (2018).

4 I admit that we have modern theories that explain music in terms of set theory, qualia, and others which are not part of classical metaphysics and which do not clearly resemble anything that he dealt with. However, the factors adduced in favor of these more recent approaches may be even more amenable to an Aristotelean analysis.

5 (Rosen 2018)

6 In the first line, the “(1)” means that these are the primary meanings of ‘element’, the next section (“2”) (not quoted here) begins “people also transfer the word ‘element’ from this meaning and apply it to” another secondary meaning. But the following are the primary meanings of ‘element’.

7All Aristotle quotes, unless otherwise specified, are from McKeon (1941).

8Barker (1990) Page 47.

9Aristotle’s relationship with the atomism of his time is contentious. However, I will simply assume that atoms qualify as Aristotelean substances on the following basis: They are the smallest unit of material bodies which is a “this” and not merely an aggregate of such-and-such. I think that this topic deserves its own full treatment in another piece, but here I shall assume that atoms and molecules are substances.

10This is rather similar to how languages separate certain sounds to make “letters” while other sounds are not excepted because they would muddy up the code. For example, letters are often dropped from languages, especially when phonemes from other languages are introduced. For example, when the Francophile Normans conquered England, that introduced a great many new sounds into Old English which led to the elimination of the Scandinavian “ð”, which is midway between a “d” and a “th” or “t”. With the more crowded list of elements to choose from, the Scandinavian “ð” just muddied things up.

11. I do this to simplify my exposition, to make this work more readable and relevant for non-Aristoteleans. I am thereby choosing to make my thesis primarily a “neo-Aristotelean” theory as opposed to an interpretation of Aristotle’s work. However, my goal is an argument that resembles something he might support if he were alive today.

  • 12 The fact that none of these numbers works out to exact ratios could, in a Pythagorean research program, be either explained away or be the goal of future work. For example, the desire to square the numerical messiness of the heavens with the beauty of whole numbers was a major impetus behind Mesoamerican astronomy, and the Pythagoreans could undertake such a project of their own. One might also claim that this mathematical inelegance is empirical “noise” as opposed to the pure signal of the mathematical “music of the spheres”.

13 Note that the demotion of products of skill from substantiality is especially crucial in the anti-Platonism the motivates the theory of abstract artifacts. Any further treatment of substance will be given when we treat of natural abstract or virtual products, such as biological essences and perhaps natural languages.

14Physics II.2 194a21- 27

15 Elders (1972) pg. 114ff.

16Killin 2018

17 For biological essences, the distinction of composition and performance is exactly analogous to that of phylogeny and ontogeny, with phylogeny being the manipulation of genes through the efficacy of natural selection.

Notes on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” Book IV


IV.1 The Supreme Science of Ontology

Q: What is metaphysics or “first philosophy” about?

A: This science investigates “beingquabeing”. What does that mean?

  • The word “qua” means “as” in Latin.
  • For example,
    • The science of biology investigates living things qua living;insofar as they are alive.
    • Physics studies beings qua physical – insofar as they are matter and energy.
    • Chemistry studies beings insofar as they are made of atoms and molecules.

Now you can study a living creature as such, or you can ignore its biological traits and focus on its character as a merely physical being, for example, its mass and energy. If you study it qua chemical being, you are also ignoring its distinctivelybiological traits and focusing on its atoms and molecules and the chemical reactions inside of it. You could also study a living creature, such as a raven,qualiterarybeing; for example its symbolism when used in Poe’s poem “The Raven”. Every science has a certain type or character of things that it focuses on. For each of these sciences, the essence of what they study is assumed as part of a “scientific paradigm”. Living things, numbers, and poemsare alltypesof beings. However, the science of numbers can be used to study anything quaquantifiablebeing; in so far as it has quantity or magnitude. Likewise, the study of poetry can study anything qua poetic being, in so far as it relates to whatever it is that poetry does.

So biology studies anything in so far as it relates to living beings, and it studies living beings qualiving beings, insofar as they are alive and in no other respect, unless that respect is interesting from a biological perspective. For example, the fact that Samson killed a lion in the Bible is not interesting to a biologist because of its theological import, but only in so far as it gives witness of the former range of this creature and perhaps shows that it has been slowly going extinct for thousands of years. Since species, range, fitness and extinction are distinctly and essentially biological traits they are part of the science of life qualife. But the fact that the Lord was with Sampson on that day is not biological per se.

So biology can study anything, but only insofar as it relates to life. A planet and its orbit are only of interest insofar to biology as it relates to the life that may live on that planet. Words, logic and mathematics are only of interest insofar as they relate to life or are done by life; for example, “How does logical reasoningcontribute to a species’ fitness?” In this case we are not worried about logic qualogic, but only qualiving, as an adaptive behavior.

So what does it mean to study “being quabeing”? This is what the rest of the BookIV is about.

IV.2 “Substance” and the Different Senses of ‘Being’

Q: What are the sorts of “being”?

A: Just as a biologist would want to do in their study of living things qua living, the ontologist will study being qua being. Biologists will start by compiling various lists concerning their subject:

  1. Things that they believe are done onlyby living creatures. For example, metabolism, reproduction, movement, sensation, death, et cetera.
  2. Things that pertain to allliving things.
  3. The next higher genus of things of which the living are a species. For example, living things are a subset (species) of physical or chemical beings.
  4. The next lower species of things of which the living are a superset(what Aristotle called “genus”): for example, the largestspecies/subgroup of living things are the “domains”:archaebacteria, eubacteria, and eukaryotes.

These are all the foundational questions for the science of living things qua living things.

Now in respect of questions one and two, we can say very little except that every being can be said to ‘be’insomeway. For example, the word “nothing” refers to nothing…or does it? I mean it has a meaning, and we know whatis meant when it is said. So in a sense it does refer to something, just not a normalsort of “thing”. In fact this “thing” not even a thing in the normal sense of the word, and most people would agree that it is pretty much nothing. I mean if I make up a fake word and do not assign a meaning to it, then that word refers to nothing. However, the word “nothing”doeshave a meaning because it refers to nothing. This paradox is called “Plato’s Beard”, and as Quine said, it is tough enough to dull “Ockahm’s Razor”, and is a proper subject for ontology, the study of being quabeing. The referents of a fake word and the word “nothing” are not the same sort of nothing at all, but rather different sorts, and even though we use the same word to refer to them, nobody would confuse them. After the study of ontology, you will be even less confused rather than more. Or at least this is what you will expect IF ontology is a real science. If it is a real science, then it must have a specific thing that is its per seobject, in the same way that organisms are the per se object of biology and propositions are of logic and numbers are for math.

What about question three? Well, one of the special things about ontology is that there is no wider super set or “genus” of which being is a subset or “species”. Being includes everything, even nothingis a being in a sense (not so much the word “nothing”, but the referent of that word).

And here we come to question four, where the real action is. If “Being” is a genus, then what are the widest species of that genus? Now you will really have to think hard, because there are so many types of beings, but for this you need to list the highesttypes. When I listed the highest “species” of living things, I had to list some pretty exotic taxa: forget about moths, starfish and humans, we had to go to the very top of the tree of life: archaebacteria, eubacteria, and eukaryotes. What are those? Well just as it takes some knowledge of biology to even know what these creatures are, it takes a bit of work to even understand what the highest kinds of “being” are. Those are the “categories”.

Q:What is the primarysort of “being”?

A: By “primary” we mean the most substantial and essential sense of “being” that ontology focuses on. To see what is meant by this, let us return to the example of biology above. We said that biology focuses on living things, by which we mean organisms. It also studies soil, mountains, the weather, entire planets and solar systems, etc.So any of these things can be “biological”, but our use of this word has a different meaning than when we call an organism “biological”. For biologists only study planets insofar as they might have organisms living on them. They only study soil or the weather insofar as they are relate to organisms. They only study game theory or chaos theory insofar as they relate to organisms. This is ultimately the same as with Aristotle’s example of “healthy”; “healthy people” are “healthy” in a different sense from “healthy food” or “healthy activities” or “healthy lifestyles”. Just as organisms are the primary object of biology, “healthy people” are the primary object of medicine. All the sciences also have focus on some sort of thing which is their primary object; math has numbers, music has music, chemistry has atoms, geology has the Earth, astronomy has stars, linguistics has language, psychology has the mind, et cetera. So if ontology is actually a science, then it too must have a primary object which is the primary sense of “being”, and the other senses of “being” will be seen as secondary to it.

In this chapter, he introduces the word “substance” in this context refers to the primary focus of a thisscience. Later on in Aristotle’s work, this word will acquire a different meaning based on its use in ontology. But since we do not yetknow what the primary sense of “being” is, he is not using it to refer to the primary focus of any science. Health, numbers, articulate sounds, melodies, and logical arguments, (for example) are not really substances in the full sense that we shall learn about later on, but since each of these sorts of beings are the focus of their own science (medicine, math, grammar, music, and logic), they are substances in thatsense which he uses here. Other sciences study beings which are substances in the fullsense: physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and metaphysics all study “substances” in the full sense, which we shall learn about later.

The study of substance and its relation to other more superficial categories will be completed in Book VII (Zeta), where he shows why substances must have form (they must have matter) but cannot be mere forms without matter.

IV.3 The First Axiom


In addition to its “substance” (whatever that might be) there are also proper to each science some axioms which define the essence of how one ought to think about that substance. In the case of ontology, are these axioms part of it or do they instead belong to logic or some other science?

These axioms are true of all beings, not merely physical beings or ideal beings. Do they apply to all beings qua being or only as objects of speech or thought? If the former, then perhaps they are part of the study of ontology, if the latter, then they belong to logic.

Aristotle claims that the supreme axioms are assumed by logic. You cannot even begin to study logic without assuming them. No natural scientist, not mathematician nor geometer ever doubts or tries to prove them, since they are assumed by all. Only in ontology or “firstphilosophy” can we even raise the question of what the First Principles or Axioms are that apply to all beings qua being.

The axioms of ontology are those which:

  1. Are assumed by any other study, even logic.
  2. Are more certain than the axioms of any other subject.
  3. Are more general than other axioms.



The “First Axiom” is this: “The same attribute cannot belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect.” (1005b20)

This axiom is assumed by any belief, statements, reasoning, or thought about anything at all of any sort, be they numbers, atoms, fictional characters, colors, Gods, et certera. Even if you say that you doubt it, and even if you actually doubt it, it is still impossible to actually think or believe opposite things at the same time according to Aristotle.


Why the First Axiom cannot and does not need to be proven.

That this axiom is first among all possible axioms can be seen from the fact that if one were to try an prove it, one first needs to assume it. Is is already proven or not? It’s either one of the other right? Why can’t it be BOTH? Oh yeah, the First Axiom tells us it can’t be both. For anything that is A, it has to not be not-A. You cannot begin to “prove” anything at all unless you already assume the First Axiom. Not only does proof depend on the First Axiom, even statments depend on the First Axiom to have meaning. If I say that “x is blue”, does this necesssarily mean it is false that “x is not blue”? If it does not, then what is the point of saying “x is blue” in the first place? If not, are you really “saying” anything? If not, you are just making noises without any propositional meaning. So in a sense, the First Axiom is simply a definition of what it means to engage in a certain form of communication, where meaning is encoded in symbols grouped into “propositions” with “truth value”. Many other facts follow from this truth, such as the following:

  1. Each proposition is not necessarily a full sentence, and each sentence may express multiple propositions.
  2. There are others sorts of speech acts that are non-propostional, such as questions, exclamations and emotive noises or calls.
  3. As for propositions that may have some truth value, they must each be either true or not and can never be both.
  4. If their meaning is ambiguous, then of course they may be neither, but in that case they are not really a ‘proposition’ in the full sense of the word.

First philosophy must imply many things like the above in explaining the meaning of the First Axiom, and we could go on forever saying new things like this. However, the important thing to see here is that all of this follows from the First Axiom, which cannot be proven and need not be proven, since all proof assumes the First Axiom before it can even begin.

After this, you might be ready to read Metaphysics Book VII.

The Metaphysics of ‘Natural Goodness’, Pt. III

This is part of a series where we outline a way that we might base some sort of Aristotelean philosophy on modern science, especially biology. In this post, we look at modern biology a la “Selfish Gene” for some conception of the “Summum Bonum” or “Supreme Good”.

Modern views on life’s “top-level function”.

Modern biology has an ambiguous relationship with teleology. One famous quip (whose source I cannot recall) says that “evolutionary biology believes in teleology during the week but not on Sundays.” I take this to mean that teleology is necessary in everyday biological work, but in biological theoryteleology seems out of place. Why is this so? For these reasons:

  1. Biology supervenes on physics.
  2. Physics lacks teleology.
  3. Darwinian theory is utterly a-teleological.

In the following, I hope to show that even though points 1) and 2) are correct, point 3) does not follow.1Even if we did assume all three points, biologists are forced to admit that something like “purpose” is part of their field. The very concept of “adaptation” implies being adapted for some sort of purpose, and this sense of purpose clearly supervenes on physics. Julian Huxley and Niko Tinbergen both listed “function” as one of the major questions answerable by evolutionary science, in addition to phylogenetic, ontogenetic, and mechanistic questions. (Hladaky andHavlíček1998) But when theoretical biologists thematize the teleology inherent (as I believe) in their field of study, they do so in a way that betrays how weird Darwinian teleology truly is. Take for example the opening of “The Selfish Gene”:

This book should be read almost as though it were science fiction. It is designed to appeal to the imagination. But it is not science fiction: it is science. Cliche or not, ‘stranger than fiction’ expresses exactly how I feel about the truth. We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have known it for years, I never seem to get fully used to it. One of my hopes is that I may have some success in astonishing others. (Dawkins pp. vii)

Notice how in this statement, he states what natural living thingsqualiving are for, according to evolutionary theory. Later on Dawkins characterizes his ‘Selfish Gene’ thesisagainst a background of competing evolutionary teleologies:

The trouble with these [other]books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).(Dawkins pp. 2)

The “Selfish Gene” theory is a teleological theory that prescribes what we should expect to find in the structure and behavior of living creatures:

If we were told that a man had lived a long and prosperous life in the world of Chicago gangsters, we would be entitled to make some guesses as to the sort of man he was. We might expect that he would have qualities such as toughness, a quick trigger finger, and the ability to attract loyal friends. These would not be infallible deductions, but you can make some inferences about a man’s character if you know something about the conditions in which he has survived and prospered. The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. ‘Special’ and ‘limited’ are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. (Dawkins pp. 2)

So we can clearly see that the entire Selfish Gene theory is about natural teleology. Clearly we have come a long way from Athens to Oxford, butteleologicalconcepts arestill just as essential for Darwin as they are for Aristotle.

Conclusion: Ethics As Physics

Now we are in a position to ask some rather weird questions about morality. For example, what is the purpose of morality? There are two trends to be noticed in most modern authors: one is that morality is an inherent good; I am now thinking of Kant’s statement ‘There is nothing in heaven or earth that is good in itself except a good will.’ (Citation?)Others think that morality is some instrumental good; most consequentialism or contractualism would say that moral behavior serves to maximize the payoff of the felicific calculus. In the light of our previous discussion, we are not in a position to develop a new approach to this, that of biology. We shall strive to place ourselves in the epistemic position of some alien anthropologists who step off their flying saucer and observe various behaviors of the species Homo sapiens. How would they explain moral behavior within the limits of science alone? This is not an idle question; every day biologists in the field are faced with unexplained behaviors of a wide variety of organisms. An instructive example is a recent decade-long effort to explain the reproductive behavior of a certain slime-mold. This slime mold is a ‘colonial’ organism; meaning that while it does exhibit extensive cooperation, it is made up of separate cells with their own genotypes.


Among the many implications of this view are the following:

Morality is for a purpose, this purpose is the purpose for which we are alive, it is natural, morality is not a “by product” of the structure of our brains which evolved for some other purpose:

It may be objected that if some aspects of our capacity to reason conferred an evolutionary advantage, while other aspects were disadvantageous in that respect (perhaps because they lead us to act more altruistically that we would otherwise have done), then those other aspects would have been selected against and would have disappeared. … It appears to be the case, however, that we have retained capacities to reason that do not confer any evolutionary advantage and may even be disadvantageous. How can that be? A plausible explanation of the existence of these capacities is that the ability to reason comes as a package that could not be economically divided by evolutionary pressures. Either we have a capacity to reason that includes the capacity to do advance phyics and mathematics and grasp objective moral truths, or we would have a much more limited capacity to reason that lacks not only these abilities but other that confer an overriding evolutionary advantage. If reason is a unity of this kind, having the package would have been more conducive to survival than not having it. (de Lazari and Singer pp. 17)







Aristotle, & McKeon, R. (1941). The basic works of Aristotle.NY:Random House.

Boulter, Stephen. Metaphysics from a biological point of view. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dawkins, Richard. Theselfish gene. Oxford Univ Press, 2016.

De Cruz, Helen. Innate ideas as a naturalistic source of of mathematical knowledge; towards a Darwinian approach to mathematics. (PhD. dissertation) Brussel: Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 2007

De Lazari-Radek, Singer, P. “The objectivity of ethics and the unity of practical reason.” Ethicsvol. 123, no. 1 (October 2012), pp. 9-21.

Feser, Edward. “From Aristotle to John Searle and Back Again: Formal Causes, Teleology, and Computation in Nature.” Nova et vetera, vol. 14, no. 2, 2016, pp. 459–494., doi:10.1353/nov.2016.0039.

Haidt, Jonathan. Therighteousmind:whygoodpeoplearedivided by politics and religion.New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Hladky,V., Havlíček, J. “Was Tinbergen an Aristotelean? Comparison Of Tinbergen’s Four Whys And Aristotle’s Four Causes” Human Ethology Bulletinvol. 28, no 4, 2013: pp. 3-11

Hull, David L. and Michael Ruse, (eds.), 1998, The Philosophy of Biology, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lowe, Ernest Jonathan. The possibility of metaphysics: substance, identity, and time. Clarendon Press, 2004.

O’Rourke, F. “Aristotle and the Metaphysics of Evolution” The Review of Metaphysics vol. 56, September 2004, pp. 3-59.

1. In short, I will argue that adaptive purpose is an emergent quality of physics, and thus does not derive its telosfrom physics in the same way we find in Aristotle. So long as adaptive functions can be implemented in known physical interactions, then we have all we need for our concept of ‘purpose’, which we hope to show is substantially the same as the of Aristotle.


The Metaphysics of ‘Natural Goodness’, Part I


by Adam Voight.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

The main difficulty, however, is this: What do the Forms contribute either to eternal or transient sensibles? For if they are not in them they are not their substance, and therefore contribute nothing either to the knowledge of them or to their being. If the Forms were immanent they might be said to be the causes of sensible things, in the sense that white is the cause of whiteness to the whole thing by being mixed in it.It is manifestly impossible for that which is the substance of a thing to exist apart from it. How then, can the Ideas, which are supposed to be the substances of things, exist apart from them?(Aristotle, Metaphysics Book I.9)
According to the above, in a certain sense metaphysics is beholden to physics. The well-known and justified supremacy of first philosophy notwithstanding, it is in this sense subservient to natural science. This view undermines various forms of idealism in favor of a metaphysics where essences and formal causality are immanent to natural beings. In the following, I would like to elaborate on this approach in connection to biology. From an evolutionary perspective, the “main difficulty” above casts new light on many issues where modern people find some form of idealism compelling. In the final analysis, I shall argue that this applies not only to classical “idealism” but also to much modern analytic philosophy.

Plato and Aristotle on biological essences.

According to the above, in a certain sense metaphysics is beholden to physics. The well-known and justified supremacy of first philosophy notwithstanding, it is in this way subservient to natural science. This view undermines various forms of idealism in favor of a metaphysics where essences and formal causality are immanent to natural beings. By “idealism” we can mean a view where

  1. In “physics” – where formal causes are privileged over material, efficient and final causes. Aristotle’sMetaphysicsBook Alpha makes the claim that all four causes must be used: formal, final, material and efficient.
  2. In metaphysics – where “substances” (that which is ultimately real) are universals, numbers, or other abstract objects.Aristotle’s MetaphysicsBook Zeta makes the claim that true substances are natural “hylophorphs” -compounds of matter and form.

Ithe following, I would like to elaborate on this approach in connection to biology. From an evolutionary perspective, the “main difficulty” above casts new light on many issues where modern people find some form of idealism compelling. In the final analysis, I shall argue that this applies not only to classical “idealism” but also to much modern analytic philosophy.

Plato and Aristotle on biological essences.

Let us begin with a paradigmatic case of an Aristotelean substance: an organism that is a member of a biological species. For the purposes of this discussion, we shall assume that these species essences exist. My example will be the biological species “Northern Cardinal “(Cardinalis cardinalis). All essentialists (idealistic or hylomorphic,) must agree that there is some essence that sets the members of this species apart from all other songbirds. Idealist essentialism must hold that:

  1. This essence “ε” is a substantial universal .
  2. ε somehow (magically?) causes cardinals to be.
  3. εis absolutely normative for anything which may be called a “cardinal”.

Aristotelians, on the other hand, must hold that

  1. ε is immanent – does not exist outside of the actual physical cardinals, but is in them.
  2. εis a hylomorphic form – a form taken by certain matter),
  3. εis “natural” – it is both the formal and the efficient cause for the coming-to-be of cardinals.
  4. εis normative, but not absolutely so. For Aristotle, “form follows function”, form is thus not the absolutely highest cause (as with Idealism), but rather the final cause is the cause of the Form.

Plato, Aristotle and Darwin

So let us say that these two views must make some response to the discovery of DNA and Darwinian evolution. Clearly Aristotle has the upper hand in this context, since he has already granted

  1. The immanence of ε
  2. ε is hylomorphic – essence is a form taken by matter, in this case a series of amino acids in DNA.
  3. ε qua natural form efficiently causes the individuals.
  4. Form follows function” – the form of the cardinal is fora purpose: in the light of Darwin, we might say this function is to follow a certain adaptive strategy in a certain ecological niche.

How would an Aristotelian and an Idealist describe the evolution of a cardinal? The idealist would admit that while evolutionary forces might alter the nature of birds over millions of years, it was only recently that some of these birds came to participate or imitate the Idea of “Cardinal”. The science of Cardinals should study the Idea of Cardinals according to idealism. The Aristotelian would say that every type of organism (including the cardinal) is created by the agency of their own essence which is in the parents. This “Form” is as it is because it serves the function of what that creature is for. From a strictly Aristotelian view the science of cardinals must include all four causes:

  1. Material – The matter cardinals made of.
  2. Formal – The Form of cardinals.
  3. Efficient – The developmental process that creates each individual cardinal.
  4. Final- What are cardinals for, and how does the form of cardinals serve this function?

TheCardinal’sEightCauses – Shallow and Deep

In my view this can be answered in two ways: the “shallow” way and the “deep” way. The above list of the Four Causes of cardinals are the shallow ones. Perhaps the reason that no one has tried an evolutionary analysis of Aristotle’s Four Causes is that it seemed that such an analysis would either leave out the deeper senses or conflate them with the shallow. My view is that evolutionary explanation is not completely un-Aristotelian. Rather, we must expand the original analysis in order to make it fit.

Formal Causes

There are two senses of formal cause in modern biology: the shallow sense of “form” refers to the outward aspect of the creature (this is the original sense of “form” or the Greek “eidos”). The outward aspect is whatever about the creature that might be publicly observable. The most common sense of this is it physical form, but behavior is also part of the shallow form as well. Plato and Aristotle both applied formal cause explanations to human behavior, both in techne and praxis. Both of these are part of the creature’s “shallow form” or “outward aspect”. But this the outward form is. in a deeper sense, not really the essence of a creature, for the following reasons:

  1. Shallow form is not responsible for the existence of the creature,
  2. Shallow form is not the creature’s substance or essence (as those terms are used in “Metaphysics” Book Zeta, where we read about the substance of a substance).
  3. Shallow form is not the core or most fundamental content of the science of that creature.
  4. The form as outward aspect is that which is imitated in art, which gives it some claim to be called a “Form” in the Greek sense. But as we know from Plato, the mimetic Form used in art is not the ultimate Form in the mind of God or the scientist.

On the contrary, the outward aspect as seen with the physical eye is a mere shadow in a cave, whereas the true essence can (strictly speaking) only be seen by the mind. What is more, the essential form of the being is that which is the cause of its being, whereas the outward form is abstracted from the already existing being.

Of course, shallow form is in a sense part of scientific knowledge. In other words, there is a scientific way to look at organisms in their outward aspect. For example, birdwatchers and other naturalists know that a proper fields guide will not have photographs because photos are not good foshowing the distinctive “field marks” of each species. To show field marks, it is necessary for a field guide to be drawn by an artist who is also an expert in the relevant science. These “fields marks” are “essential” to a species in a limited or shallow sense, but not in the full and unqualified sense. The deepest sense of “form” which answers to the modern Aristotelian essence is the organism’s genome and its attendant cellular replication apparatus. This satisfies the qualifications for essence given above:

  1. DNA and its replicating machinery are immanent.
  2. DNA and its replicating machinery are a form taken by matter.
  3. DNA and its replicating machinery is also an efficient cause; it gets causes the formation of the zygote, the blastula, and each stage of development up to adulthood. (Boulter Citation)
  4. DNA and its replicating machinery are also normative; they exist to form beings that can continue the life cycle of the organism. In both Aristotle and modern biology, the continuation of the life cycle is the telos of all organisms qua organisms. (This is what “vegetable souls” do, and all creatures qua living have vegetable souls.)

So while “form” in its shallow sense is clearly something which deserves to be said of a piece of matter qua organism, deep form is clearly the essence in many other senses: the content of science, and the cause and principle of the coming-to-be and remaining-in-being of living thing qua living.

So on this view, we have two sense of “form”: shallow “form” as outward aspect and deep “form” as natural essence. It is this latter form which has the right to be called a “natural kind” – that thing which is most like a universal and yet pre-exists the human mind and is the cause and substance of natural beings rather than merely a conventional designation or description.

On the modern view, it is the essence of a cardinal that it must be naturally descended from a certain lineage, not that it has a certain outward appearance. For example, there are occasional cardinals that are yellow, or are otherwise deformed, but these cardinals are still just as much cardinals as the norm, since they have the essence of cardinal in them. As Aristotle said “the category of substance does not admit of more or less” (Citation?).In the case of an abnormal individual, this essence has been frustrated in its expression, but is still present as the cause of being of all cardinals, normal and otherwise.

Material Causes – Shallow and Deep

As with the above, the shallow sense of material cause is the sense most often used in hylomorphic descriptions of organisms: we think of the “matter” of the organism as being organs, and the matter of the organs are cells, whose matter are in turn molecules and atoms. Of course, this is only strictly true of the formation of the individual organism (“ontogeny” – the generation of the [individual] thing). However, in a deep sense, organisms have their origin in a process of evolution, where we find the deeper sense of “matter”. And it is this coming-to-be of biological essences that is most often said to be the downfall of hylomorphism. In this deeper sense, we are looking at the elements of the organism’s essence. In modern terms, this means that if the essence of an organism is its genome, then those parts of its genome that are the units of natural selection should be its “deep matter”. After all, if the essence is the product of evolution, and natural selection the efficient cause, then the genes or other units of selection are the matter.

One avenue from static to dynamic Aristotelianism is the concept of “intelligible matter” (1045a34). This is not the matter of modern chemistry and physics, but ‘matter’ as the elements from which an abstract is made. Such as the letters or syllables of a word, or the words of a sentence, or the sentences of a paragraph. None of these are ‘material’ in the normal sense of ‘matter’, but they are ‘elements’ as defined inBook Delta’s definition of ‘elements’:

“ ‘Elementmeans (1) the primary component immanent in a thing, and is indivisible into other kinds; for example the parts of speech are the parts of which speech consists and into which it is ultimately divided, while they are no longer divided into other forms of speech different in kind from them. … The so-called elements of geometrical proofs, and in general the elements of demonstrations, have a similar character… ” (1014b)

Elementsin this passage are clearly not only material matter.Theymay be merely physical matter (as in the examplein lines 31-34), but in the first and third examples, the examples givenare linguistic and geometrical elements. Thus in addition to sensible matter orperhaps“material matter”, there must also be “formal matter”, and in my view, this is what Aristotle is referring to as “intelligible matter”.In any case, I will proceed with my argument under the assumption that some sorts of ‘elements’ – syllables, lines, musical notes, and the like qualify as ‘intelligible matter’.
The result of this is that we can now explain certain forms of change which undoubtedly happen and which are otherwise inconceivable.
For example, the design of a building by an achitect. For this, geometrical elements can be manipulated by the architect’s agencyto create a new form. Clearly the use of speech also exemplifies the application of form to intelligible matter.Linguistic elements such as letters,syllables, words, et ceteraare the elements or matter for the speaker or author.The same example is given in the finalsection of Book Zeta (1041b12-33),where syllables are used to illustrate the relation of “form” and “matter”.

It may be noticed that for Aristotle neither linguistic utterance nor geometrical form are propersubstances in the strict sense, so we cannot say that these are “material” in the same sense as normal physical matter. However, it seems to me that there is another sort of “material” that so qualifies: “genetic material”, for the following reasons:

  1. Biological species are paradigmatic Aristotelian substances.
  2. The essence is that form taken by matter which is the cause of the coming-to-be of the natural species.
  3. The essence of the biological species are their genome, plus its associated cellualr machinery that transcribes the code into proteins. (For brevity, I will just say that the essence is the “genome”.)
  4. The genome is a form taken by matter, in both senses:
    1. It is a molecule that is a particular arrangement of base pairs or codons.
    2. It is the form made by the arrangement of genes, the units (“elements”) of inheritance.
    3. Thus, the genome is formed of both senses of “matter”, but the second sense is most germane to the process of phylogenetic evolution.
  5. The essence is the substance of a substance.

The individual organism does not make sense apart from its evolutionary origin (“arkhe” in Greek), and evolution did not work with nonliving atoms and molecules to create living creatures. So in this deeper sense, the matter of the organism cannot be merely physical “matter”. The “matter” that natural selection worked with are the units of selection: genes, since gene sare the “elements” that were rearranged to create new species.“Genes” in this sense are blocks of DNA that code for the proteins needed to construct an adult organism. Evolution is the process of selecting those combinations of genes which are best able to survive and reproduce. So in this deeper sense the material cause of the organism are the elements from which its essence are formed.

In summary, organisms are formed in two different but related senses:

  1. Shallow form – The female reproductive system takes matter from food and applies the form to it that results from combining elements from her own genes and those of her mate.
  2. Deep form – The processes of selection (primarily natural selection), manipulate the genes (the elements or matter of inheritance)to create the form of the biological species. Note that the “agency” of selection forms the DNA, but DNA qua genetic material rather than qua organic molecule.

The next post will carry on with the analysis to include evolutionary treatments of the shallow and deep senses of Aristotle’s material, efficient, and final causes.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

Response to “A Critique of Foot’s Natural Goodness ” by Michael DeBellis

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

The following is my response to an essay by Michael DeBellis criticizing Phillipa Foot’s thesis that virtue ethics can be based on a neo-Aristotlelian analysis of human behavior as a biological process. Below I will only respond to the first major section of the essay and hope that the reader will be able to see how I may approach the rest. As for Foot’s work, I have not read it but from what I have heard second-hand it seems to resemble mine in many respects, insofar as it takes interest in the sense that Aristotle treated ethics to be a subfield of natural science. Indeed any modern person is compelled to believe something like this upon the reading the “Physics” followed by the “Nicomachean Ethics”. So what I say below should not be taken as saying anything about Foot’s presentation of these ideas. Rather it is only concerning the issue she, Michael and I deal with in our work: the deeply Aristotelian idea that moral criticism of behavior might somehow be based on the same implicit biological teleology. In my view, the “implicit teleology” of biology is not that of form but of telos. What does this mean in normal non-philosophical English? When you hear people claim that “evolution has no telos”, this is correct if they are saying this in one of three ways:

  1. Evolution does not have intentions in the same way that an animal or human might; i.e. some subjective sense of purpose for action.
  2. Evolution does not aim at a particular form as its end point. It does not inevitably create humans or any other lifeform.
  3. Evolution does not arrange things to benefit any particular living creature or species. Nature is not ultimately “for” human benefit or welfare.

I do not deny any of these theses, but they do not exhaust the senses of natural purpose or function that are accepted among biologists. To see how this is so, I suggest you read the latter section “Different Sense of Ought” of my “The Theory of Ethical Selection”, where I have a taxonomy of goal oriented behaviors from Aristotle and show how phylogenetic evolution (teleology that is not oriented toward a particular form or beneficiary) is purposeful in a way that fits comfortably within an Aristotelian view. I think that the only reason that this is not common knowledge among philosophers is due to the contingent fact that the readership of Aristotle and evolutionary theory are somehow distinct. This need not be so, and this contingent fact makes much mischief with moral theory’s inability to deal with natural teleology and natural axiology.

DeBellis: “Aristotle or Evolution?”

From DeBellis: “In Natural Goodness (Foot 2001) Philippa Foot bases part of her argument on her interpretation of biology and what biology defines as a good non-human animal. I think her understanding of biology is flawed and her concept of a good or defective animal is incoherent. Early in the book, Foot declares that a wolf who is a free rider is defective. This is not accurate from a biological sense. Free riding is an example of a game theoretic strategy. It is usually the case that within a species different organisms adopt different strategies depending on the genes of the individual and/or the characteristics of the environment. Free riding is no more an a-priori defective strategy than sharing. They both emerge at various points in most social populations. Biologists analyze how often and when free riding occurs in social animals such as wolves and primates and the consequences that may apply to them by others in the pack when they do. However, these free rider animals are not considered defective, indeed in some species virtually all the conspecifics are free riders at some point in their lives.”

My Reply:

The main problem with this paragraph is that when discussing “ethics” DeBellis implicitly assumes that ethics is from a “God’s -eye view”. Indeed, he is correct in the sense that from a God’s eye view, parasites are just fine and in no way defective.  But no living creature exhibits cognition from God’s persepctive, they all seem to take on their own perspectives, and their perspectives always seems to be oriented towards increasing their inclusive fitness.

So parasitic species such as cuckoos and ticks do exist, and from a God’s eye view they are just as “fit” as other species, but this does not mean that we do not try to deny parasites the opportunity to free ride on our resources or bodies. But we do not ascribe moral vice to them; they are merely “bad” creatures, creatures whose badness is inherent in the entire species. Note that this “badness” is not from God’s eye, but from the “gene’s eye view”. From the view of our gene pool (the “gene’s-eye view”), parasites are indeed very bad and we should expect that any creature with any feelings or thoughts would dislike parasites. In fact, we can go further than this and say that any sentient creature ought to hate parasites. And more than that, all non-sentient creatures ought to behave as if they hate parasites. Why? From a gene’s eye view, it is obvious why, and this is the same reason why real actual creatures who actually believe in God (as in traditional peoples and modern conservatives) tend to believe in a God who hates parasites. (Surprise, surprise!) Why? Because they, just like everything else in the natural world, evolved. This fact alone, according to evolutionary theory, is enough to imply an objective and essential telos. In natural teleology, according to Richard Dawkins:

We are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. (“The Selfish Gene”, preface to the 1976 edition, pp. 1)

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. (“The Selfish Gene” pp. 2)

This is nothing other than a teleological argument, which claims that the axiom of modern biology is that all living creatures qua living creatures are for something. The “something” is none other than reproductive fitness over the long term (i.e. evolutionary or geological timescales), and this goal is what I will call “The Final Cause” (with capitals). It follows that everything about any living creature is either for The Final Cause, or is a by-product of some other trait which is for The Final Cause. Now you can doubt Dawkins on this point and claim that he is merely going with his religious instincts, but I will assume that he and Aristotle both know what they are talking about.

So now we turn back to morals: morality is not some imagined “God’s-eye” cognition, but rather evolved for The Final Cause. How would it benefit The Final Cause for a pack of wolves to accept a free rider or other parasite? It would not; on the contrary, it would cripple “their” Final Cause very much. In other words they ought not to allow parasites and free riders. By this use of “ought” I am not making a claim about what biologists should feel or think about the wolves, but only what wolves should feel or think about the creatures they meet and deal with.

Morality is itself an evolved behavior; its imperatives and principles are derived from those of life itself. At least that is my hypothesis, and it is falsifiable in the same way as any other hypothesis of ethology (the biology of animal behavior) is. Before you decide that it is wrong, perhaps you should ask your self if you actually have another explanation for moral behavior. As far as I can see, there have only been two other sorts of explanations given for morality: theism and dialectical materialism. Both of these share with my own Darwinian materialism the axiom that the cause for being of a thing is the essence of the thing. The parallels of Darwinian materialism and theism are explaored in the the section “God vs. the Fact/Value Distinction” of “The Theory of Ethical Selection”. (Someday I may explore the parallels with dialectical materialism. )

The key thing is that morality (qua animal behavior) originates from within the process of evolution and its imperatives are only meaningful from within that context, not from the deist God’s eye view standing outside the world. But this does not mean that these imperatives lose their force, on the contrary they gain their force from our status as living creatures of a certain type. So just as most standard non-Darwinain moral theories assume that moral laws only apply to humans and are based on human nature, so also do Darwinian materialists. The main difference is the we moral materialists have a defensible explanation for why all creatures could have different moral codes that are binding on each of us differently. All moral laws, for wolves or humans, only apply to the beings for whom they evolved. This does not deprive them of their imperative force, but is its “originative source” (Greek- “arkhe” a.k.a. “principle” or “foundation”).  In that sense they are all different, being specific in the original sense of “specific” – referring to a species of some genus (e.g. rational animal), but not to all the members of that genus (in my example, the genus “animal”).  On the other hand, all the specific animal moralities are not merely synonymous by chance (as where two unrelated things are called by the same word), but all refer to a common telos, sincethey all are based on the pursuit of the same thing: The (biological) Final Cause. In this sense,  darwinian materialism is closer to traditional human beliefs than the modern secular ethical theories of recent times. In fact, it never fails to astonish me just how effective religious practice is from a Darwinian perspective. And how could it be otherwise, given that the principles and causes underlying the behavior of living creatures be they religious or otherwise? The laws of nature are not up for ratification by anyone regardless of creed, we can only choose how we follow them. If you want to be moral, you will behave in such a way as to increase the fitness of your gene pool, if you behave the opposite, then you will be “immoral”.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

Could a Naturally-Evolved Creature do Metaphysics as a Rigorous Science?

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

Q: What does the evolutionary origin of the mind entail for metaphysics? Does this mean it is hopeless? (Let us leave aside the challenge of how we could know the truth of evolution without metaphysics.) Assuming evolutionary origins of our cognitive structures, does this leave us a basis for metaphyics and fundamental ontology?

A: I say yes; evolution does not make metaphysical science impossible. In my view, we have to accept the evolutionary origin of the science of being qua being before we can have any hope of doing it properly. Without the evolutionary context, we cannot know what we are doing. Imagine trying to reverse engineer a complex device without knowing its function; that is what metaphysics has been doing for most of its history. At least, that is what the following seeks to establish.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that:

  1. From an evolutionary perspective, “all that matters” is adaptive fitness.
  2. Thus a naturally evolved creature will not necessarily evolve to know the truth, but merely encode useful rules for behavior.

The best example for number 2 above (creatures who do not care for nor need the truth). are plants. Plants have no “behavior” at all in the sense that we animals normally use that term. They have no cognitive functions as we animals normally use that term. Thus they have no cognitive structures with any relationship to truth at all. However, they are very successful. So obviously realism is optional for evolution.

There are numerous downsides to human-level cognition, for example 20% of our calories go to our brain, and it makes our childhood rather long.

So just as there is no necessary reason for evolution to favor the truth, there is also no necessary reason for evolution to favor any sort of mental faculties at all.

But the lack of necessary reasons for x does not entail lack of contingent reasons for x. For example, evolution does not necessarily favor flight or walking or photosynthesis or slithering or any number of survival strategies; all of these are merely contingent features of life. However, each of them has a place because increasing fitness entails a diversity of adaptive strategies. Mammals are more successful than birds or dinosaurs because our underlying “bauplan” is much more flexible w.r.t. a wide variety of adaptations: digging, swimming, flying, etc. And the use of intelligence also makes humans more flexible to adapt to or even create a wide variety of ecological niches, including perhaps even outer space. But even if we restrict ourselves to pre-modern technology, humans are the most widely adapted mammal in the world. No other primate even comes close, although primates are not all that successful compared to rodents. But still, we are the only large animal who has a chance of surviving the destruction of our planet in 5 billion years. Not bad, from an adaptive standpoint.

Of course, this only speaks to the evolution of “mind”, and not of metaphysical realism. But if mind is contingent, then realism is doubly so, for the same reason.

In my view, scientific realism is only a refinement of everyday naive realism. The fact that we believe in the realism of common everyday objects is not necessary either; we could evolve to treat our daily phenomenology as a mere game. But this latter attitude would also be just as contingent a possibility as the realist attitude.

In my view, the temptation to be non realist about life in general is a symptom of reading only modern thinkers to the exclusion of Aristotle. Surely Aristotle was mistaken on a great many counts, but his basic methodology is still useful to avoid the many pitfalls of modern thought.

I say all of this in the context of believing that the content of first philosophy is simply the reverse-engineering of our human operating system as distinct from the surface grammar of our language. But just because there is an empirical / a posteriori aspect to metaphysics does not mean it is not possible as a science of being qua being.

Assuming that our mind does process information successfully, there is no reason to suspect that it cannot be reverse-engineered. By “successfully”, I mean that is reaches a decision based on input that achieves the relevant function and outcompetes other ways of avoiding extinction. ‘Reverse engineering’ means to figure out what the purpose of the mind is and how it achieves this purpose. Because mind is a feature of a living creature, understanding it means that we look at it as either an adaptation or a by-product of an adaptation. (I assume the former.) People are free to refuse this assumption, by by doing so they are also compelled to either give up or find another research program.  Since there are none, you are giving up on doing actual research and choosing to criticize actual research. This makes talking to you less useful than it could be otherwise. For any empirical field, it is possible to find flaws in its accepted theory, but researchers in this fields will continue to follow it until a better theory is proposed, and this is the problem I present to people who think that there is some other way to do philosophy, metaphysics or cognitive science besides the “gene’s-eye view”.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

Notes on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” Book VII


If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

NOTE: [These are my notes on the seventh book of Aristotle’sMetaphysics, also called book “Z” or “Zeta”. It concerns the concept of “substance” (ousia), or in other words “the ‘most real’ sort of thing that is”. It shows how Aristotle defends his views against both idealism and materialism. In my view, this can be well adapted to modern debates e.g. concerning reductionism and physicalism and I hope that it is clear how I think this is so.


Something to think about while you read this.


One item that puzzled me at first and that paid off my inquiry was the variety of things that were claimed by Aristotle as being “substance”. From a modern perspective, it seems that atoms and molecules are substantial, and an organism is also substantial, but the are not “substantial” in the same way. How can some thing be equally substantial as something from which it is made? Why can some substances include other substances as their material constituents, even though substances are not merely matter in their own right? In the end, I think that there is an explanation for this that includes both Kantian and evolutionary ideas, but this will have to wait for another blog post. I hope I address many of the concerns raised by the fact that the creatures who implement the highest categories of reason evolved through a contingent process in time and space. If you really pay attention to my description of the relation of elemental and biological substances but below and in a previous post on the “Physics”, you will see it.}

VII.1 What is “substance”?

“Substances”, in the sense used by philosophers, are objects which are “really real”. In Book Zeta, Aristotle claims that the question “What is ‘substance’?” is the most important question of philosophy, the one that is implicit in all previous thought without being openly stated. In Book IV (Gamma), Aristotle claims that prior to him, all other thinkers differed primarily on this one issue, and broadly speaking they had one of two positions on the subject:

  1. Materialism – These were the those who thought that “The Arkhe” or “Substance” was some type of matter, either fire, water or possibly atoms. Since this material underlay all real things and persisted through their birth and decay, it was more realin their view. In their view, matter was substance. Matter has the following advantages:
    1. It is the bearer of attributes, but nothing else bears it as an attribute.
    2. Before anything can come to be, its matter must first already be.
    3. Matter is immediately and obviously sensible whether or not it is known or perceived.

    The disadvantage of matter is that it lacks “what-it-is-ness” it is an atom or molecule are substances, but an aggregate of H2O molecules is not a substance in this same way.

  2. Idealism – Idealists believed that there were non-material things which were both eternal and more knowable than matter, which in their view made them more real. Idealists include Plato and Pythagoras. In their view, abstract beings (ideas or numbers) were substance. This view has the following advantages:
    1. Ideas are eternal.
    2. Ideas are necessary; the cannot not be as they are.
    3. Ideas are unchanging.
    4. Ideas are the “whatness”, the essence that make each thing the sort of thing it is. Once a thing loses this essence, it ceases to exist. Thus even the being of sensible things depends of ideas.

So for each of these opposing schools, we see that they both have reasons to define a certain sorts of things as “more real” than other sorts of things. Everyone sees that most things have some sort of reality, but some things are more realthan others. Aristotle proposes to focus on this issue of being “more real” by comparing all the possible candidates for “most real” things. In his philosophy the most real category of being is called “substance” (in Greek – “ousia”, meaning “land”). His method includes the following:

  1. First he looks at the major philosophical theories of substance, dividing them up as we did above.
  2. Then he lists those things which are commonly thought of as being substantially real, such as fire, air, organs, organisms, etc.
  3. Then he looks at those qualities that seem to make up the “substantiality” of the various types of substances people seem to believe in. These include:
    1. Matter
    2. Essence or Form
    3. The Composite of matter and form
  4. Warning: Aristotle uses the word “substance” in two related ways that might be confusing, First of all, there are:
    1. Substance1– “substances” as the “really real things” we have been talking about and then there is
    2. Substance2 – the “substance OF the substances”; that aspect of substances which is what makes it a substance and not merely an aggregate of smaller substances.
    3. In other words, every substance1is a substance1because it hassubstance2.  {In the case of humans, each human is a human because its matter has the form of a human; this can mean the outward form, but if can also mean the inner essence that causes the outward form to be – i.e. one’s genome and the cellular machinery that uses the DNA to make proteins into a human.}

Ch. 1 – Being as Substance

  • ” ‘Being’ has many senses. (See Metaphysics Book V.vii and the Categories)
    • But “being” denotes first “what a thing is” (its individuality and nature) and only secndarily the other categories.
    • All that is is either substance or “a determination of a substance” (some other category).
    • Non-substances (other categories) cannot exist independently or separated from substance.
  • How is substance primary?
    • “In definition”
      • “If we say something is ‘good’, that is not really meaningful unless we know the substance of which is is said.
        • An organism is “good” if it has high fitness or health, whereas
        • a logical proof is good, if it is valid and interesting.
        • A poem is good in a whole different way.
        • In this sense, substance is prior in defintion.
    • “In knowledge”
      • We cannot know if something is “big”, “yellow” or any other predicate unless we know what sort of substance it is.
    • “In time”
      • Because actual substance is always temporally prior to all its other categories.
      • Before a thing a be good, or red or, tall, it must first be a human or a dog or some other sort of substance. If we are only speaking of a possible tall human, then the goodness is likewise merely possible as well.

Ch. 2 – Opinions on substance.

  1. Many things are commonly accepted as substance.
    • Organisms
    • Parts of Organisms
    • Elements
    • ‘And their different species’
    • “and their parts and what is compounded of them, e.g. the physical universe and its parts (the stars, the Moon, and the Sun).”
  2.  Are all of these substances? Are there any other substances?
  3. Pythagoras says that numbers and geometrical forms are more substantialthan matter.
  4. The physiologoireject nonsensible substances.
  5. Plato
    • accepts geometry and adds Forms;
    • rejects material substances.

Ch. 3 – Substance as Substratum

  • There are four strong candidates for substance:
    • Substratum – the underlying concrete being
    • Essence – the Form of the thing
    • Universal – the definition of the essence, for example the data from sequencing a genome or the design of an artifact.
    • Genus – higher level universals, since they are more general, and on one view are thus more substantial.
  • Possible substrata:
    • Matter
    • Sensible Form of the individual being
    • Hylomorph – the matter/form compound – both of the above in concert.
  • Any of these could be “that which has predicates but is not predicated of another.”
  • If we define it over-simply thus, it seems that matter is the most likely substance the substance.

Ch. 4 – What has essence?

  1. “Essence” is :
    • What a thing is of itself
    • What a thing is in virtue of itself.
  2. Essence is NOT:
    • “A musical person” – accidental quality of substance.
    • “A white surface” – accidental quality of form.
    • “A white man” – accidental quality of substance.
    • “A cloak”
      • artificial product.
      • compound
        • of material elements
        • of matter and form by skill, not nature. This is because the form of the artifact is only partially in the artifact; in another sense it is in the workman. However, it serves well in many of Aristotle’ examples to illustrate “matter”, “form” and other concepts.
  3. Essence belongs to:
    • Substance “primarily and simply”
    • secondarily to all other Categories, which are said to “be”
      • By equivocation
      • In a qualified sense
        • We know that something is unknown
        • In the sense that nothing “is”.
      • Analogically as in:
        • “Surgical” (tools, practitioners, patients, supplies, rooms, schools, books, techniques, data, terminology)

Ch. 5 – Have coupled terms essence of definition?

This chapter deals with the essences of coupled terms like “white man”, white surface”, “musical man”, or “female human”. It is clear that the separated terms have essences in some sense; what about the compound terms taken jointly?

Essential attributes.

  • Noses are either concave or snub(per se attributes).
  • Animals are either male or female.
  • Quantities are either equal or not.

But whiteness is a NONessential attribute of man.

“Essence” is said analogously or in a different sense in both substance and other categories.

“Thus in one sense there will be no definition or essence of of anything except substances, while in another sense the remaining categories also have them. And so it is manifest that definition is the formula of the essence, and that essence belongs only to substances or to them alone in the proper, primary, and unqualified sense.”

[It seems that nonsubstantial essences are merely classificatory, while substantial essences have other senses:

  • Living essences have their form as their essence.
    • The genotype is the essence, in the following sense:
      • the genotype is nonsensible
      • the genotype is the cause of being is and temporally prior to the phenotype.
  • Molecular essences are the the molecules interface with other molecules; in other words, those aspects of the molecule that make it a suitable substratum for biology.
  • Atomic essences are the properties of the atom (atomic weight, outer electron shell configuration) that determine its chemical behavior.

Notes about these essences:

  • Lower-level substances (e.g. atoms )are “subsumed” into the essences higher level substances. (e.g. molecules).
  • The essence of the living substances is their encoded genotype (informed matter).
  • The essence of non-living substances is their interface with living creatures.]


Ch. 6 – Is a thing the same as its essence?

Two questions:

  • Does “The being” = “The being’s substance”?
  • Does “the being’s substance” = “the being’s essence”?
  1. Q: Why would the essence of the subjects of accidental predication be identical on the view that “a thing = its essence”? After all, it is its essence.
    • A: In one sense, the essence of “white man” and “black man” are the same, since both are “men” and the color is non-essential.
  2. What about per seexpressions?
    • Assuming the (Platonic)? Forms:
      • IF – Essence = Form
      • AND – Form = “ontos on” (thing in itself ?).
      • THEN – Essence is the things themselves. [substance?]
    • “That each individual thing is one and the same as its essence. … is clear … from the fact that to know the individual thing is to know its essence.”


Ch. 7 – Analysis of the Generation of Substance.

  1. Things Belonging to any of the categories may come into being in many ways.
    1. From many types of causes
      1. nature
      2. art
      3. spontanaeity
    2. Genesis is effected:
      1. BY something (efficient cause)
      2. FROM something (material cause)
      3. FOR something (final cause)
  2. “Some artificial, like some natural, products are also produced spontaneously and by chance; for sometimes, even in the natural sphere, the same things are generated both from seed and without it.” (from History of Animals (eels, fish, testaceans, insects) as well as(Physics?)”2.9″”
    1. Processes of production are analyzed in this section in two ways:
      1. By process:
        1. First the thought
        2. Then productive action
      2. Modes of speech
        1. “From sickness to health” – (not a health from sickness)
        2. “Statue made from stone” – (not from stone to statue)

Ch. 8 – What is generated? The “Hylomorph”

Q: When a substance comes into being, what is it that does so? Form, matter or both?

A: The “hylomorph” (compound of form and matter) comes into being.

“… We do however, cause a bronze sphere to ‘be’ inasmuch as we produce it from bronze andsphere; we put the form into a given lump of matter and the result is a bronze sphere. But if the essence of sphere were produced, it would have to be produced out of something; for what is produced must always be divisible and be partly one thing and partly another – partly matter and partly form.” … “Clearly, then the Forms (if there are such things) do nothing to explain generation or substances, and therefore cannot be considered self-subsistent substances.” Because substances cannot be predicated of another substance.

“Living creatures indeed are more truly substances than anything else, and in their case, if in any, we might expect to discover forms. But no, the begetter is adequate to generating the product, i.e. to putting the form into the matter. The completed whole, a certain form in a certain flesh and bones, is Callias or Socrates; but they are different by virtue of their matter, but the same in form, which is indivisible.” [Note the contradiction with Charlotte Witt’s thesis of individual essences.]

“If then we make the spherical form itself, clearly we should have to make it from some thing, and the process will go on like thatad infinitum.” [But given that the form is ‘made’ (by phylogeny or stellar nuclear synthesis) is it not made from existing “relative form” or ‘intelligible form’?]

Ch. 9 – Production: Autotmatonand non-substances.

“And here is a peculiarity of substance: there must pre-exist in actuality some other substance which produces it, e.g. an animal in the case of animal generation, but a quality or quatity need not necessarily pre-exist otherwise than potentially.” [On the modern view of cosmic and biological evolution, this is not true; nuclear synthesis and phylogeny both generate substances without actual pre-existence.]

Ch. 10 – Parts and Whole

Q: Does the definition of a whole contain that of its parts? What parts are prior to the whole?

n this section, Aristotle is resolving a paradox that comes from speaking of “part” in two different senses: the physical parts (e.g. atoms, molecules, organs, etc.) and the parts of the definition (e.g. the genus and the differentia), and the parts of the compound of these two. His example is a circle of which there are two halves that form semicircles. Now if we look at a concrete circle, the obviously in one sense the two halves are part of this, since they are each half the matter of the original. So in this sense, the semicircles are part of the circle. But if we look at the essence of the circle (or more specifically, the definition (horismos or logos) of the essence), then we see that semicircles are not part of the essence, although they can be deduced from the essence. The parts of essences are the genus and differentia. For circles, the genus is “bounded two-dimensional space” and the species or difference is “boundary = all points equidistant from the center”. In neither of these are “semicircles” mentioned. Since semicircles are not part of the essence of circle, the in this sense semicircles are not part of the circle. You can only define a semicircle by taking an existing circle and divining it in halfThe circles are essentially prior to the semicircles, and are only in each circle as potentials to be created, not as an essential part. In the previous example, the semicircles that made up the actual circle were meant in the sense of “the matter of the semicircle”, and in this case as well only the matter was actual. That two parts qua parts were only there in potentiality.

But when we come to the concrete thing, e.g., this circle, i.e. one of the individual circles, whether perceptible or intelligible (I mean by intelligible circles, the mathematical, and by perceptible circles those of bronze and wood) – of these there is no definition, but they are known by the aid of intuitive thinking or of perception; and when they pass out of this complete realization it is not clear whether they exist of not; but they are always stated and recognized by means of the universal formula. But matter is unknowable in itself. (1036a5)

So the matter in the semicircles are not knowable qua matter but only by virtue of being shaped like a semicircle and of being part of a full circle. In it interesting here that when he says “individual circles”, this could mean either perceptible material circles or intelligible mathematical circles. It may seems weird to call an ‘intelligible”mathematical” circle a “particular”, but perhaps he is referring to the particular intellect of the one who is thinking of the circle. Since the thinker is one, then in this sense the mental idea of the circle is also one particular circle. And immediately following this, he says something rather weird:

And some matter is perceptible and some intelligible, perceptible matter being for instance bronze and wood and all matter that is changeable, and intelligible matter being that which is present in perceptible things but not qua perceptible, i.e. the objects of mathematics. (1036a12)

It is one thing to (foreshadowing Occam) speak of abstracta having a sort of existence in the particular intellect, but “intelligible matter” sounds doubly weird.

Regarding the objects of mathematics, why are the formulae of the parts no parts of the wholes; e.g. why are not the semicircles included in the formula of the circle? It cannot be said, “because these parts are perceptible things”; for they are not. But perhaps this makes no difference; for even some things which are not perceptible must have matter; indeed there is some matter in everything which is not an essence and a bare form but a ‘this’. The semicircles, then, will not be parts of the universal circle, but will be parts of the individual circles, as has been said before [cf. 1035a30-b3]; for while one kind of matter is perceptible, there is another which is intelligible. (1037a)

Ch. 11 – Parts of the Form / Concrete Whole

Q: Essence seems to be mostly about form. Are there essences which “include” matter? Circles clearly are the former, but “animal” clearly includes matter in the definition.

A: Living creatures are essentially animate. meaning the are defined by movement of matter in space and time. A dead hand is only a ‘hand” equivocally,for it lacks the essentiall principles of change needed for a complete substantial hand.

“With regard to mathematical objects, why are they not the definitions of the parts included in those of the whole; e.g. why is not the definition of the semicircle contained in that of the circle? Not because they are sensible objects, for they are not … semicircles, then, are not part of the universal Circle, but of particular circles,”…

We have stated generally:

  1. What essence is and how it is self-subsistent. (ch. iv)
  2. What sorts of definitions include parts of do not. (ch. v, x, xi)
  3. That material parts have no part in the definition. (ch. v, x, xi)
  4. “Thatprimary substances (ch. vi) e.g., crookedness, (??????????) are the same as their essences, while concrete things involving matter are the same as their essences.”
    1. Concrete things cannot be defined, and all parts of the thing are parts of the thing
    2. But the definition or essence can be defined, and the parts of the concrete thing are not the parts of the essence.


Ch. 12 – [Nothing here folks, move along.]

Ch. 13 – Universal is not substance.

  1. a) A thing’s substance is peculiar only to it and nothing else. b) Substance is not predicated of a thing; whereas universals are always predicated of another.
  2. Perhaps universal is merely included in the essence as “animal” in “man” or “horse”. In that case either:
    1. It must be definable. [And thus contain another universal as defining element.] OR
    2. If not all elements are definable, then some are and thus a) above must be true
    3. It is impossible that individual of substance, if composite, should be composed not of substance or individuals but of qualities. [The qualities are not prior to substance in definition or time.]
    4. If “animal” were substance, then the substance Socrates would contain another substance “animal”.
  3. No common predicate denotes a “so-and-so”, rather “such-and-such”.
  4. A substance cannot contain “other substances existing actually”. [But does not a living substance consist of elemental substances?]

“Substance is definable in one sense and not in another.”

Ch. 14 – Forms are not substances.

This chapter looks at further problems with Platonism:

  • Making Forms substances.
  • Making Forms separate from concrete individuals.\
  • Resolving species into genera and differentia.

Ch. 15 – Forms are not substances, continued.

“Substance” is twofold:

  1. The “concrete thing” – the “hylomorph” (form and matter compound)
    • capable of destruction.
    • NOT demonstratable by reason.
  2. The Form – The substance of the concrete thing.
    • NOT capable of destruction.
    • Demonstratable by reason.
  3. Can the Form be defined?
    • Each Form is singular.
    • Which is the overlap of other universals.
    • But universals apply to many, as do any set of universals.
    • Even collections of universals that happen to have only one existing examplar COULD have more. (For example, if you created a copy of the Sun, it could still never be theSun).
    • [So if the Form is substance, then how could it be many? Since substance has predicates but never is a predicate.]

Ch. 16 –

  1. Of the substances, most exist only “potentially”.
    1. Parts of animals.
      1. Do not exist separately.
      2. When separated are merely matter, losing their form.
    2. Earth, fire, air – “None are one, but they are like a heap.”
    3. One might suppose that parts of animals exist “in act” (i.e. are substances?), YET:
      1. Parts exist only potentially.
      2. For parts are connected “by nature”, not “by violence” (biai) or by growing together.
  2.  Universal not substance of a concrete thing.
    1. On ‘x’ = an ‘x’ thing/itself.
    2. The substance of one ‘x’ is one.
    3. No universal can be a substance or the substance of a thing.

Ch. 17 – “The True View of Substance”

There are two ways of asking “Why is ‘x’ a ‘y’?”:

  1. “Why is man an animal?” – Because the from of  animal is in the form of man.
  2. “Why is this matter a man?” – Because the matter has taken the form of man.

A compound which forms a unity (“hylomorph”, meaning “matter-form”):

  1. is not merely an aggregate of material elements. (Gk. “hyle“)
  2. but also includes something destroyed by dissolution. (The Form, “morphe” or “eidos“, not the form itself, but the particular instance of the form that was in the particular bit of matter.)

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

Philosophy East and West: Pt.1 -Introduction

Introduction – The Four Noble Truths of Philosophy.

A lot is said about the differences between Eastern and Western philosophy. A great many people are of the opinion that if we gave equal time to Eastern thought in our education, it would revolutionize our science and/or culture. Of course, such a statement is hard to confirm or deny without waiting for time to pass, but I find that most people who make this claim have no special expertise in any sort of philosophy at all. There is a commonly expressed idealistic preconception of Eastern thought that sees it as being the next level up from Western ideas, such that it seems like foolishness to us Westerners, much like the way that philosophy or science seems like foolishness to the layman. In many cases, this is true, for example Descartes’ famous cogito is quite vulnerable to many Eastern criticisms. However, Descartes is not the last word from the West. Although Buddhism may have been the best challenge to Descartes in his time, there are now better approaches, although Buddhism is still worth a place in the conversation even today.

My approach is heavily influenced by both Eastern and Western thought, and I am not completely sure that I would have reached my current views without heavy exposure to Eastern theory and practice. However, I do think that Eastern thought is for sure not so very far ahead of Western. I do not want to bother with claiming one or the other is better in any unqualified sense, or that one of the two is optional for further progress on our most important questions.

I think that what they share is more fundamental than how they differ. In my view they all share the following four features:

  1. That there are “Many Things“, that we find in this world.
    1. Objects
    2. People
    3. Organisms
    4. Facts
    5. Data
    6. Occurrences
  2. The Many Things are Problematic in some way.
    1. They do not quite make sense.
    2. They are hard to predict.
    3. They suffer or cause suffering.
  3. There is a “One Special Thing
    1. behind,
    2. under or
    3. above all the Many Things.
    4. This One Thing is somehow intrinsically related to all the Many Things, much like God or Natural Law.
  4. The One Special Thing from step three might be the Solution to the Problem of step two.

As I was writing, the above, I noticed how similar the four points were to the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths”. However, the steps could be filled out with values from numerous schools of thought from all over the world. In the following, we will look at the starting points of the three major sources of philosophy that the world has had in the past.

The Plan of the Treatise.

We shall start with the tradition of China and proceed to Greece and India and see how each of them compare. We shall choose for our examples three ckassic books and under each we list the four headings that we gave above: Many Things, The Problem, The One Special Thing, and the resulting Solution to the Problem:

  1.  The Tao Teh Ching. of China.
    1. The Ten Thousand Things; Heaven and Earth
    2. Life out of Balance/Ignorance of the Way
    3. The Way (Tao)
    4. True Power (Teh)
  2. The Bhagavad Gita of India.
    1. The nature of Maya.
      1. Complete Illusions
      2. Relative Delusion
    2. The Root of Ignorance – Confusion about your self.
    3. The Immortal Atman. – Your True Self
    4. The Science of Raja Yoga – Connecting with the True Self
      1. Study – Jnana Yoga
      2. Worship – Bhakti Yoga
      3. Morality – Panca Sila
      4. Yogic observances
      5. Meditation – Dhyana Yoga
      6. Service – Karma Yoga
  3. The Metaphysics by Aristotle.
    1. What are there? – Nature, Good, Forms
    2. What problems are there?
      1. Cosmological Decay
      2. “Frustration” of Nature
      3. Moral Vice
      4. Ignorance
    3. The Arche and the Four Causes.
    4. The Solution:
      1. Skill
      2. Virtue
        1. Moral Virtue
        2. Intellectual Virtue

There could be many other choices for these: in each of these traditions, there is a great variety of schools of thought that radically disagree with each other. I do not want to efface the differences with or between Greece, India and China, but I think that what is shared among all of them is something that is very useful to know no matter which tradition you call home.

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.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.


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.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

Notes on Aristotle’s “On the Soul”.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.

Book I

Ch. 1 (402.0)

What is the “Soul”?

  • By genus
    • nature – Is it physical , illusory, or supernatural?
    • form – is the soul a form?
    • matter – is it material?
  • By category
    • substance – Is it a separately existing being?
    • quality – Is it a property of a body?
    • quantity – Are there many souls, or is there ultimately just one “Oversoul”?
    • Is it an “affection” of the body? (Epiphenomenalism)
    • etc.
  • By potentiality/actuality (See Metaphysics Book IX)
  • Divisible or not?
    • Are souls discrete units, one per organism,
    • Or is it a subtle form of matter  that is fungible or not localized?

Questions for the study of the soul to answer.

  • Are all souls “the same”?
    • If not the same do they differ by species or by genus?
    • Most people tend to study the human soul only.
      • Are all animals a species of “animal soul”?
      • Or are each type of soul different in definition? “horse, dog, man, god”. (402.6-7
    • Are all souls separate of are they parts of one soul? (402.9)
  • The middle path between materialism and dualism.
    • “There is also the problem whether the properties of the soul are all common also to that which has it or whether they are peculiar to the soul itself; for it is necessary to deal with this, but not easy. It appears in most cases that the soul is not affected nor does it act apart from its body, e.g. in being away, being confident, wanting, and perceiving in general; although thinking looks most like being peculiar to the soul. But if this too is a form of imagination or does not exist apart from imagination, it would not be possible for even this to exist apart from the body.” (403.10)
    • For Aristotle, the separation of the soul and body is not like supernaturalistic dualism, but rather more like an abstract “software” for the hardware of the body.
      • For this reason, the Aristotelian “soul” is physically causal.
    • “It seems that all the affections of the soul involve the body – passion, gentleness, fear …for at the same time as these the body is affected in a certain way.  …  If this is so, it is clear that the affection of the soul are principles involving matter. Hence their definitions are such as ‘Being angry is a particular movement of a body of such and such a kind, or a part of potentiality of it, as a result of this thing and for the sake of that.’ And for this reason inquiry concerning the soul either every soul of this kind of soul, is at once the province of the student of nature.” (403d25-28)
    • “But the student of nature and the dialectician would define each of these differently, e.g. what anger is. For the latter would define it as a desire for retaliation or something of the sort, the former as the boiling of the blood and hot stuff around the heart. Of these, the one gives the matter, the other the form and principle.” (403d28ff)
      • Similarly, for the explanation of a computer system:
        • Physicist – As an electrical device
        • System analyst (“Dialectician”)-
          • Serves a function
          • Has form (software’s logical structure).
      • How similar is Aristotle’s soul theory to software?

According to G.M.A Grube (“Aristotle” page 97) the final cause of every organism is reproduction “after their own kind.” (415b26ff)

Question: Is this true? How similar is this to the modern evolutionary concept of adaptation? In the modern view, each organism is optimized to pursue a certain strategy of perpetuating its genotype.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.