Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 19, 2018, from

11. Metaphysics

Some of the basic concepts of the Categories and Physics – including substance, particular, universal, form, matter, cause and potentiality – are discussed more fully in the Metaphysics. This is a collection of fourteen books, some of them loosely connected. Aristotle probably did not deliver a course of lectures in the order of the present treatise. Parts of book I are almost repeated in book XIII. Book V is a ‘philosophical dictionary’ that seems to interrupt the argument of books IV and VI. Book XI summarizes parts of book IV. Books II and XI were probably not written entirely by Aristotle.

Still, whatever their literary origins, all these books have a common subject matter, since they all contribute to the universal science that studies the common presuppositions of the other sciences. This universal science has four names. (1) ‘First philosophy’: it studies the ‘first principles’ and ‘highest causes’ (including the four causes of the Physics) presupposed by the other sciences. (2) ‘The science of being’: every science presupposes that it studies some sort of being, and the science of being examines and defends this presupposition. (3) ‘Theology’: first philosophy is not only first in so far it is most universal, but also in so far as it deals with the primary sort of being, the sort on which all other beings depend. The primary sort of being is substance, and the primary sort of substance is divine substance; hence the science of being must study divine substance. (4) ‘Metaphysics’ (ta meta ta physika; ‘the things after the natural things’): it is ‘after’ or ‘beyond’ the study of nature because (a) as theology, it studies entities outside the natural order, and (b) as first philosophy, it starts from the study of nature (which is prior and better known ‘to us’) and goes beyond it to its foundations and presuppositions (which are prior and better known ‘by nature’; see §3).

The first three of these names are used by Aristotle himself (Metaphysics IV 1–3, VI 1). The fourth was given to the treatise in antiquity (at an uncertain date); its use of ‘after’ captures Aristotle’s different claims about the relation of the universal science to other sciences.

The universal science is the science of being qua being – that is, being in so far as it is being – just as mathematics is the science of some beings qua mathematical objects (see §16) and physics is the science of some beings qua changeable. The science of being studies the beings that are also studied by other sciences, but it isolates the relevant properties of beings by a different level of abstraction; it does not rely on the fact that they have the properties of mathematical or natural objects, but simply on the fact that they are beings studied by a science (Metaphysics IV 1–2).

A special science assumes that it begins with a subject that has properties. The universal science is the science of being because it studies the sort of subject that is presupposed by the other sciences; and it is primarily the science of substance because substance is the primary sort of being. Aristotle’s analysis of change in Physics I introduces substances as subjects; the Metaphysics asks what sorts of subjects and substances must be recognized by special sciences.

Aristotle argues that if we are to signify a subject, it is impossible for each of its properties both to belong and not to belong to it. This principle is often called the ‘Principle of Non-Contradiction’ (Metaphysics IV 3–4). To defend the principle, Aristotle considers an opponent who is willing to assert that a single subject, man, is both a bipedal animal and not a biped animal. If the opponent really says this about a single subject, then, when he uses ‘man’, he must signify one and the same subject, man. If he agrees that in using ‘man’ he signifies a biped animal, then he cannot also deny that man is a biped animal; for if he denies this, he can no longer say what ‘man’ signifies, and hence he cannot say what subject it is that he takes to be both a biped animal and not a biped animal. This property (which one cannot also deny of a subject) is an essential property. Hence, the attempt to reject subjects with essential properties is self-undermining.

Subjects of change must also, according to Aristotle, have objective properties (that is, properties that they have whether or not they appear to have them). An argument against Protagoras seeks to show that any attempt to reject objective properties undermines itself (Metaphysics IV 5). Protagoras denies that there are any objective properties, because he claims that how things appear to someone is how they are. If he is to maintain the infallibility of appearances against any possibility of correction, then, Aristotle argues, he must claim that it is possible for the same subject to change in every respect at every time (to match different appearances). This is possible, however, only if the same subject can remain in being, but change in all respects. Aristotle replies that if the same subject persists, it must keep the same essential property (the ‘form’); hence it cannot change in every respect (IV 5).

Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Metaphysics. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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