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Aristotle's account of substance in Metaphysics Z


To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle's account of substance in Metaphysics Z
Date: 29th April 2010 13:57

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 25 April, with your essay for the University of London Greek Philosophy: Aristotle BA module, in response to the question, 'Does Aristotle achieve a coherent account of substance in Metaphysics Z?'

While noting the development of Aristotle's view of substance from the Categories and the Physics to his Metaphysics, your primary aim in your essay appears to be defending Aristotle against the charge of inconsistency. Having admitted that species forms are 'universals' -- in the sense that a plurality of particular instances, e.g. Socrates, Callicles etc. are so described because they are instances of something common or universal which they share, 'human soul' -- Aristotle seems to be involved in a patent contradiction because in Z.13 he refutes Plato's view that the forms are universals.

Your solution, to put it succinctly, is that 'Forms are universals but not all universals are forms'. Universals which are genera are not forms. In order to be a form a universal must be the form of a species. It is the particular species that make the genus what it is. In that respect, the genera are derivative whereas the species are primary. As you state:

'If we interpret Z along these lines then what emerges is that Species forms are substance. Species form passes all the tests to be a 'some this'. It is definite and it is ontologically independent in the sense that if one moves in the direction of particular specimens such as Socrates these are dependent on the species form to be what they are and if we move up the scale of differentia to say mammal or animal, these do not have independent existence for they are dependent on the species which fall under them since in the absence of any definite species there would be no genus.'

This is correct so far as it goes, but I can't help feeling that you have missed the opportunity to engage with Aristotle's mature theory of substance or ousia, as a metaphysical theory whose adequacy or coherence -- by contrast with available alternatives such as Plato's theory of forms, or at the other extreme Democritean atomism -- is in question.

The two big clues that Aristotle provides are his uncompromising rejection of explanation along Platonist lines, in combination with his account of generation which privileges biological forms such as plants and animals above other examples of ousia, indeed as perhaps the only really genuine examples of ousia.

The substantial form that makes Socrates essentially what he is, apart from his individual accidents is also the substantial form which makes Callicles essentially what he is, apart from his individual accidents. Yet this form is not a 'one' over 'many'. Forms, as it were, do not 'act at a distance' as they are required to do in Plato's theory. Generation provides the prime example of how the very same substantial form passes from one physical individual to another.

As you state right at the beginning of your essay, Aristotle's primary assumption or axiom is that of the intelligibility of the world. One can add that this intelligibility, for Aristotle, is accounted for by his own theory as that which is capable of being understood or rendered intelligible by the kind of thing that man (the philosopher, or investigator) is, namely a being essentially endowed with the capacity for perception and rational thought.

As inheritors of the Democritean view of the universe, it requires a massive effort to see the world in Aristotelian terms. His theory, if true, holds in all possible worlds phenomenologically like our actual world -- regardless of how they may be underneath, their amenability to microstructural explanation. If empirical knowledge as Aristotle understood it is indeed possible, then there is no 'underneath'. Substantial forms provide the ultimate principles of explanation.

The wording of the question allows you a considerable degree of discretion in formulating objections and defending Aristotle against those objections. That is why I said that I felt that you had construed the question too narrowly, as concerned merely with the consistency of certain statements that Aristotle makes in Metaphysics Z.

It is true that Aristotle is struggling to unite what seem to be incompatible aspects of his substantial forms -- on the one hand, the fact that they only exist 'in' individual instances, providing the necessary determinacy to the material substrate, while on the other hand, the fact that each substantial form can be considered as itself a kind of 'unity' apart from those instances. Like you, I don't see an incoherence here. However, more needs to be said. What the philosopher says about forms depends on the specific context. Forms are not, as such, 'universals'. However, from a certain perspective they appear so as a consequence of abstraction or focus on particular aspects of the theory. That would be my starting point, in developing an answer to this question.

All the best,