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Monday, 23 October 2017

Substance as Form in Aristotle

It is an easy mistake to inadvertently misconceive Aristotle's Categories as a metaphysical work - that is, that it is a work about things, forgetting that in fact it is not about things per se, but about thought. In my experience, this misconception leads to a peculiar understanding of what is real, i.e. the notion of substance, that is set in explicit opposition to the notion of real that was once put forward by Plato: whereas, for Plato, the real or the substantial was primarily form, for Aristotle it is the composite individual that is primarily real or the substantial, according to the Categories. 

What many students of Aristotle forget, when they read the Categories, is that Aristotle is there speaking in a mode that is according to logical intentions, and not according to the ontological order of things in themselves. According to the mode of intentions, which is the same as the mode of predication, the individual as conceived and signified is that which stands most independently, on its own, in relation to that which is attributed to it (its genera and species, as well as its accidents): it is the subject of a proposition that is expressed as standing on its own, independently, whereas the predicate is expressed precisely as being dependent upon the subject. And it is the individual in the genus of substance that is most of all a subject, in propositions. It is not predicated of anything, but all genera and species, and all other categories, are predicated of it. 

This conception of substance is expressed in the Categories, chapter 5: 
Substance, in the truest and primary and most definite sense of the word, is that which is neither predicable of a subject nor present in a subject; for instance, the individual man or horse. But in a secondary sense those things are called substances within which, as species, the primary substances are included; also those which, as genera, include the species. For instance, the individual man is included in the species 'man', and the genus to which the species belongs is 'animal'; these, therefore-that is to say, the species 'man' and the genus 'animal,-are termed secondary substances. 
Witness the apparent contrast with these couple of excerpts from Aristotle's Metaphysics, book Z (or book 7), chapter 3:
The term substance is used chiefly of four things, if not of more; for the essence (or quiddity) and the universal and the genus seem to be the substance of each thing, and fourthly the subject. Now the subject is that of which the others are predicated, while it itself is not predicated of anything else. And for this reason it is first necessary to establish the truth about this, because this first subject seems in the truest sense to be substance. 
Now in one sense matter is said to be the subject, and in another, the form, and in still another, the thing composed of these. By matter I mean the bronze, and by form the specifying figure, and by the thing composed of these the whole statue. 
If, then, the specifying principle is prior to the matter and is being to a greater degree, for the same reason it will also be prior to the thing composed of these... (1028b33-1029a8)
For to exist separately and to be a particular thing seem to belong chiefly to substance; and for this reason it would seem that the specifying principle and the thing composed of both the specifying principle and matter are substance to a greater degree than matter. 
Yet that substance which is now composed of both (I mean of form and matter) must be dismissed; for it is subsequent and open to view. And matter too is in a sense evident. But it is necessary to investigate the third kind of substance, for this is the most perplexing. (1029a29-1029b1)
Here, in contrast to the Categories, Aristotle seems to be asserting that substance is primarily form, rather than the individual that is composed of form and matter. This is potentially confusing to the young student of Aristotelian philosophy. Moreover, many modern interpreters have taken this as a sign that Aristotle rejected the view which he originally proposed in the Categories, and thus the whole philosophical system of Aristotle loses its inner coherence and unity. But I think the key to maintaining the coherence of Aristotle's philosophy is to recognize the difference, though there is a close connection, between logic and metaphysics. Logic treats the intentional order, the order of the mind, the modes of conceptualization and signification, whereas metaphysics treats the real order, the modes of being, unconditioned by mental modes and categories. 

In the real order, as contrasted with the logical order, that which is in fact the most real is the form of a thing, its inner actuality, because it simply is the reality of the thing. The composite only has the notion of substance, of something real, because this notion is communicated to it by the form. Thus, the form has the notion of substance or reality in a way that is prior to the composite itself. The form itself just is the reality of the composite. Act is prior to potency; and it is prior to its own dilution by the admixture of potency - i.e. composition. Substance, inasmuch as it is that which is most independently actual, is therefore primarily the form, since form is to matter as act to potency. Thus, the initial temptation to unqualifiedly oppose Aristotle to Plato is unfounded, since both of them give priority of being to the form, and not to the composite individual.

But there is still confusion. Is it not the case that Plato, in attributing primary reality not to sensible individuals but to their forms, intended to separate form from matter, such that Forms have an existence on their own, as subsistent entities? Is this not exactly what Aristotle denies? Is this not the definitive point of difference between these two great philosophers? 

Thus, the question remains how Aristotle compares to Plato in respect to the precise notion of the separation of form from matter. What did Plato mean by separation? Is there anything in Aristotle that is analogous to the separate Forms of Plato? What are we to make of Aristotle's heavy criticisms of the Platonic Forms? What does all of this entail for the universals? Are Plato's Forms not just hypostasized or reified universals? Are Aristotle's separate substances - and what, indeed, are these? - universals in any sense?

So far, my research has revealed to me that these questions are answered, perhaps in an inchoate way, and in various ways, by the Neoplatonists, whether in their own separate treatises or in commentaries which they made on the texts of Aristotle himself. One of the hallmarks of the various Neoplatonic strands of thought is the attempt to reconcile, to some degree or another, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, both of whom they viewed and respected as masters of philosophy. Certainly, the Neoplatonic commentaries were not without heavy criticisms of Aristotle. But on the whole, what the attitude of the Neoplatonists reveal is the possibility of integrating Aristotle's project within the project of Platonism as a whole: the voyage of discovery that begins with sensible reality and proceeds to the sublime heights of the supersensible, the purely intelligible - an essentially theological project (in the sense of natural, not revealed, theology).

This year, and probably next year too, in some form, I will be working on a research project that focuses on the Neoplatonic gradual integration of Aristotle's Metaphysics into the Platonic program, which prefigures what I take to be the great synthesis that occurs in the Middle Ages, with Thomas Aquinas. Today's thoughts on substance as form were a first step, still to be developed, in building up my own understanding of that project in detail, informed by a closer reading of the original texts. I will, of course, be posting more of my thoughts in the upcoming weeks and months. In my next few posts, hopefully, I will attempt to address some of the questions listed above.

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