The Metaphysics by Aristotle

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The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  eddie on Tue Oct 25, 2011 5:05 pm

The Metaphysics, by Aristotle

‘You think the way you do because of this man.’



This is the way that I start when I teach Aristotle to classes of lower sixth formers. Founder of the Lyceum, tutor to Alexander the Great, and reputedly the last person to have known all the knowledge available to him at his period of living (just muse on that), it is impossible to exaggerate his impact on our thought, even 24 centuries later. So, should you read him?

The answer is of course No. Not unless you have to. Though the Metaphysics is interesting, it is closer to the ‘challenging’ end of interesting than the ‘amusing’ one. It contains no narrative; it deals in abstracts, and is deep more than diverting. Still, no-one ever read Aristotle for a laugh, and despite not being a page-turner, there is much to value about the Metaphysics.

So – what is it about? The central theme of the Metaphysics is substance – the question of what things are. The best way to explain this is to compare something’s substance with what Aristotle calls its ‘accidents’ – those features it has which are not necessary to it. For example, a man’s accidents may include ‘Greek’, ‘musical’, ‘builder’, and so on, but the question of what ‘man’ is – his substance – remains. Where natural sciences study accidental properties of being, metaphysics asks questions about intrinsic value, thus taking nothing for granted.

Question-asking is the main pursuit of the Metaphysics: Why is man man (and not just a unity of animal and biped)? Does infinity exist? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Aristotle diligently asks these questions, tirelessly hacking out step after reasoned step through thickets of deep metaphysical jungle.

In the jungle are many obstacles. Aristotle’s teacher Plato is a hanging humidity in the tropical air, while the hiss of Speusippus, Plato’s successor at the Academy, flicks a dangerous tongue into the path of the incautious explorer. In the course of investigating substance, Aristotle is forced to address these and other voices of dissent. One confrontation involves a discourse on his theory of actuality and potentiality, which goes like this: since substance is what is intrinsic to a thing, and accidental properties are caused by something else, the accidents are part of a thing’s potentiality, meaning that most things-that-are have both actuality and potentiality at any one time (just not pertaining to the same feature), so we may get to a thing’s substance by isolating its actuality.

Obvious, right? But this leads Aristotle to one of his more famous questions – ‘How is there to be an arrangement of the world at all,’ he asks, ‘in the absence of something eternal, separable and permanent?’ Since actuality always has priority over both potentiality and process (which also answers the chicken/egg debate – it’s the chicken) there must be some being that is pure actuality. This elucidation of a so-called Prime Mover presents Aristotle’s theology, before he rounds off the Metaphysics with more discussion of Plato’s Forms and (bafflingly) whether or not numbers are responsible for the creation of the universe.

Not all the problems of excavating the rich seams of wisdom in Aristotle have to do with its conceptual height. While the passage of time has done much to make these ideas more venerable and impressive, it has also left a larger potential for mistranslation. Aristotle’s style appears rambling and inchoate, with huge numbers of subordinate clauses and phrases-used-as-abstract-nouns. Mining the meaning of the Metaphysics can be a task as daunting syntactically as it is semantically.

Reading Immanuel Kant’s work has been described as like walking into a room full of bright light – it takes a while for the eyes to adjust, but when they do, much is illuminated. The same is true of Aristotle. If you ever do read the Metaphysics, you may find, like I did, that you are forced to read and re-read the same passage of text 7 or 8 times before it begins to make sense, but there is intellectual reward even if you only understand half of it.

Did I say no-one reads Aristotle for a laugh? There was one, near the end, at the extraordinary suggestion that there must be either 47 or 55 ultimate beings. On further reading, though, it seemed that he had a good reason for thinking that, too – something or other about the movements of the planets, which we now know (through advanced astronomic study) to be false.

So that blip is entirely forgivable, and merely serves to highlight how far removed our world of twenty-first century post-postmodernism is from antiquity. But 99% of the Metaphysics’ questions persist, knocking at our brains in fleeting moments of reflective thought, and echoing in our collective cultural consciousness down the millennia. Though the question of whether to read the Metaphysics is a simple enough choice for most to make, we have little choice as to whether we confront the questions within it - we all will, one day.

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  Andy on Fri Oct 28, 2011 8:12 am



I just finished reading the Dutch translation - the library of the university simply didn't have the original german Mad - of Rüdiger Safranski's intellectuel Heidegger-biography.
Yet another chapter in my on-going love/hate relationship with probably the most influential continental-European thinker since Hegel.

The love/hate relationship of mine has to do with the somewhat severe difference I experience between the very interesting fundamental questions that have inspired Martin Heideggers thoughts and his concrete treatment of those matters. Reading Heidegger can be very excruciating.
If you read him in German you will easily get frustrated by his constant use of various meanings of the word 'sein'/'Sein'. Yet if you choose to read a translated text you will usually find that matters become even less comprehensible as most language are a lot less apt to design neologisms - especially compound words - as German. Many of Heideggers centrale terms get easily lost in translation.

But what is so interesting about Heideggers initial concerns. And why do I post this in a thread that is supposed to be dedicated to Aristotle's Metaphysics?
My putting those 2 questions one after the other already suggest the answer to both is somehow related, which is exactly the case.
I haven't read the full text about the Metaphysics above but stopped where the author said that substance is the issue of concern - that implies that some of the things I will write further on might already have been mentioned in this text.
To say that substance is the matter at hand in the Metaphysics is a gross oversimplification. And we all know how fond we are of those over here at ATU. The texts that were assembled as the Metaphysics are so called “acroamatica” – notes that were probably used to prepare lectures in the Lyceum. They were not meant to be read as a single treatise. Furthermore, from the text it seems that Aristotle himself was actually searching for the right formulation of the type of knowledge – “prima philosophia”, his answer to and refutation of Plato’s idealism – he was willing to describe: at various places he seems to be starting anew. And so we get not 1 but 4 definitions of this prime philosophia throughout the work, only one of which concerns ‘substance’.
To summarize very briefly:
- The Metaphysics concerns itself with “first principles” – a definition based upon the hierarchy in the sciences which reflects the hierarchy in the modus operandi of human knowledge: it is only through deep reflection and inquiry into the singular that we may obtain insight in the general principles from which they are deduced. Notice the dramatic turning away from Plato;
- There is a science that studies ‘to on hêi on’: “There is a kind of knowledge that contemplates what is insofar as it is, and what belongs to it in its own right” (1003a21) That is to say: there is a science that studies ‘Being’ (German: ‘Sein’) and what is proper to it;
- In another chapter Aristotle orders the sciences based upon their degree of abstraction, finds that theology is the most abstract and concludes that theology is prima philosophie. If Thomas Aquinas ever was brave enough to come up with the seemingly ridiculous idea to harmonize Christianity and Aristotelianism, here’s part of his motivation;
- And only finally do we get a reflection upon ‘ousia’ – ‘Substance’, which is treated over 3 book that according of most critics do form the nucleus of the Metaphysics;
It would take up quite up a volume of work to point out the deep interdependence between all these definitions – they are not to be understood as mutually exclusive, the conceptual apparatus developed by Aristotle throughout the work allows for all 4 of them to be understood in unison.
And by this Aristotle puts a very profound stamp on the fundamental presumptions that have been dominant in Western thinking for many centuries.
Which is where we can bring back Heidegger on the scene. One of his first remarks against these fundamental a priori’s is that what he call the neglect of the ontologische Differenz: western culture has understood ‘Being’ as a substantive at least since Aristotle whereas Heidegger wants to give attention to a more primal nature of ‘Being’, namely that it is – that it has ‘to be’.
Furthermore Western culture has a rich tradition in what he calls Onto-theologie: the rational inquiry into the nature of ‘Being’ has always been understood as an inquiry to its relation to a supreme being. This is easily illustrated if we look at theistic doctrines which understand man as being created by God and as such directed upon Him. But it is equally true of modern science which sacrifices the nature of the individual to understand him in the context of anonymous, categorical concepts.
For Heidegger ‘to be’ was first and far most ‘ontic’ and not ‘ontologic’: you sitting down and reading this are first and far most a single entity whose primary interest in being now lies in reading this, rather than an anonymous instantiation of abstract principles.
Heideggers lifelong ambition was to design a style of thinking that could do justice to this fundamental notion of ‘being’: that to the particular it presents itself as a task, a having-to-be.
So far so good, yet as soon as you start to actually read Heidegger you are confronted with highly impenetrable, vague language that posses a very serious challenge to come to understand.
Safranski’s book was quite a page turner to me: delivering very vivid and insightful presentation of a myriad of philosophical doctrines either thought out by Heidegger or that have had a deep impact upon him. Anybody who wants to give this seemingly esoteric but deeply profound school of thought a chance, Safranski’s work on it comes highly recommended.

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  Andy on Fri Oct 28, 2011 8:20 pm

Heidegger called the problematic issue of finding an exact definition for (Aristotele's) metaphysics "die Verlegenheit der Philosophie" - the embarrassement of philosophy.

This difficulty is reflected in 2 ways:

- as I've already stated above, Aristotle doesn't give a single definition of exactly what metaphysics are (about), but 4. Throughout the history of philosophy the exact meaning of the term has undergone quite radical changes depending on the school by which it was being used: from the study of the ideas of God, to the study of a priori categories of the mind that order our knowldge;

- the very term 'metaphysics' is actually surrounded by obscurity from its very inception onwards. Aristotle never uses it in the text that are collected under this title - he speaks of (supreme) wisdom, first philosophy, prima scientia - and most likely never actually used the term at all. The texts that are now collected under this title were edited quite some time after Aristotle died and the term 'metaphysics' was given to them by the editor Andronicus of Rhodos. According to some he didn't really know what to make of the texts and thought they were best studied after the physics had been studied - hence "meta ta phusica". The term would thus only reflect nothing more than a random placement of the works in the entire corpus, it could have been called meta-poetica or meta-ethica just as well.

Yet since the mid 20th century it is thought that Andronicus' motivation was more substantial and reflected the nature of progress of inquiry according to Aristotle: metaphysics are a science which occupies itself with the most general abstract principles which we can come to know through are inquire in physical reality. I believe it was Reiner who first came up with this argument, but should check.

This discussion is pretty interesting but serves to show what Heidegger wanted to point out.
Here you have the first work that is explicitally presented to the reader as the prima philosophia, the most supreme occupation of rational thought.
And what is the subject matter of the most supreme occupation of rational thought? Hard to say ...

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  Andy on Fri Oct 28, 2011 8:34 pm

In the first paragraphs of the metaphysics you will find and explicitation of a view on society which is still very dominant in the Western world till this very day.
Aristotle pounders upon on the sort of relation people have with materials in his search to define the character of the highest form of knowledge which he is trying to uncover.
He concludes that craftsmen, people who are actually working with given material object, rank lower than people who occupy themselves with abstract concepts of these materials.
In fairly readable language you will find the basis of the differentation in classes that is still present in our real world spelled out.

Heidegger - though an abstract thinker himself who has fully enjoyed the benefits of the predominant social order I come to speak off - has expressed deep admiration for farmers thoughout his life and spent a very substantial amount of time among them.

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  eddie on Sat Oct 29, 2011 5:45 am

So Andy, the chicken came first, is that right?

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  Andy on Sat Oct 29, 2011 8:29 am

Obviously not.
The phenomenon of laying eggs predates the age of chickes by some 350,000,000 years or so.

pirat

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  eddie on Sat Oct 29, 2011 8:54 pm

Apparently, humanity evolved originally from a kind of aqua ape.

This ape produced an offspring, linked by an umbilical cord to its parent. This offspring, in turn, produced another offspring, linked by another umbilical cord. And so the process continued.

In no time at all, the oceans of the world resembled a vast string vest.

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  Guest on Sat Oct 29, 2011 10:31 pm

Andy wrote:
In the first paragraphs of the metaphysics you will find and explicitation of a view on society which is still very dominant in the Western world till this very day.
Aristotle pounders upon on the sort of relation people have with materials in his search to define the character of the highest form of knowledge which he is trying to uncover.
He concludes that craftsmen, people who are actually working with given material object, rank lower than people who occupy themselves with abstract concepts of these materials.
I think this is contentious. Isn't it a symbiotic relationship?

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  Andy on Mon Oct 31, 2011 2:12 am

Do you want to know what I think or what Aristotle says?

Aside from that: even symbiotic relations don't necessarily imly any form of equality.
Your body is a big symbiotic relation of various parts. Yet you would miss certain small areas inside your brain much more fundamentally than, say, half a leg.

What Aristotle is trying to define is how we come to the most funamental understand of the nature of things.
He concludes we do not achieve this through direct interaction - i.e. the work of the craftsman - but through intellecual abstraction.

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  pinhedz on Wed Nov 02, 2011 3:44 am

Andy wrote:... even symbiotic relations don't necessarily impy any form of equality.
Of the billions of cells in a human body, only about 10% are human cells. Shocked

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  eddie on Wed Nov 02, 2011 6:46 am

Not a single cell in your body was there 7 years ago. You are a different physical being.

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  pinhedz on Wed Nov 02, 2011 7:02 am

Our genes are 96% identical to chimpanzees anyway. monkey

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  Andy on Wed Nov 02, 2011 6:56 pm

eddie wrote:Not a single cell in your body was there 7 years ago. You are a different physical being.

The ontological journey taken on by Heidegger sets out to explicitate the fundamental dimension of your being that maintain the same even in spite of the particularity of every human being or - as you point out - even the particularity of every human being at any given point in his or her existence.

What is characteristic of human "Being" (i.e. the human way of fullfilling the act of being) is that it relates to its own being - a notion Heidegger sought to express through his use of the term 'Dasein': the human condition is that in which the nature of being itself becomes object of interest.

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  eddie on Thu Apr 26, 2012 10:49 pm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slMpJvt6b0I&feature=fvwrel
Mark Steel on Aristotle (1/3)

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  eddie on Thu Apr 26, 2012 10:51 pm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSAsM2ZlylY&feature=relmfu
Mark Steel on Aristotle (2/3)

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Re: The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Post  eddie on Thu Apr 26, 2012 10:52 pm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcqbXWTzIc0&feature=relmfu
Mark Steel on Aristotle (3/3)

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