Metaphysics (Aristotle)

Metaphysics (Aristotle)

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Metaphysics is one of the principal works of Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 and the first major work of the branch of philosophy
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:...

 with the same name. The principal subject is "being qua being", or being understood as being. It examines what can be asserted about anything that exists just because of its existence
In common usage, existence is the world we are aware of through our senses, and that persists independently without them. In academic philosophy the word has a more specialized meaning, being contrasted with essence, which specifies different forms of existence as well as different identity...

 and not because of any special qualities it has. Also covered are different kinds of causation
Causation may refer to:* Causation , a key component to establish liability in both criminal and civil law* Causation in English law defines the requirement for liability in negligence...

, form
Substantial form
A theory of substantial forms asserts that forms organize matter and make it intelligible. Substantial forms are the source of properties, order, unity, identity, and information about objects....

 and matter
Matter (philosophy)
Matter is the substrate from which physical existence is derived, remaining more or less constant amid changes. anything that occupies space and has mass and weight...

, the existence of mathematical object
Mathematical object
In mathematics and the philosophy of mathematics, a mathematical object is an abstract object arising in mathematics.Commonly encountered mathematical objects include numbers, permutations, partitions, matrices, sets, functions, and relations...

s, and a prime-mover God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....



The Metaphysics is considered to be one of the greatest philosophical works. Its influence on the Greeks
Greek philosophy
Ancient Greek philosophy arose in the 6th century BCE and continued through the Hellenistic period, at which point Ancient Greece was incorporated in the Roman Empire...

, the Arabs, the scholastic
Scholasticism is a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100–1500, and a program of employing that method in articulating and defending orthodoxy in an increasingly pluralistic context...

 philosophers and even writers such as Dante
Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe is a not-for-profit organisation that plans, builds and operates the international networks that interconnect the various national research and education networks in Europe and surrounding regions...

, was immense. It is essentially a reconciliation of Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

’s theory of Forms
Theory of Forms
Plato's theory of Forms or theory of Ideas asserts that non-material abstract forms , and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. When used in this sense, the word form is often capitalized...

 that Aristotle acquired at the Academy
Platonic Academy
The Academy was founded by Plato in ca. 387 BC in Athens. Aristotle studied there for twenty years before founding his own school, the Lyceum. The Academy persisted throughout the Hellenistic period as a skeptical school, until coming to an end after the death of Philo of Larissa in 83 BC...

 in Athens
Athens , is the capital and largest city of Greece. Athens dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, as its recorded history spans around 3,400 years. Classical Athens was a powerful city-state...

, with the view of the world given by common sense and the observations of the natural sciences. According to Plato, the real nature of things is eternal and unchangeable. However, the world we observe around us is constantly and perpetually changing. Aristotle’s genius was to reconcile these two apparently contradictory views of the world. The result is a synthesis of the naturalism of empirical science, and the mysticism of Plato, that informed the Western intellectual tradition for more than a thousand years.

At the heart of the book lie three questions. What is existence, and what sorts of things exist in the world? How can things continue to exist, and yet undergo the change we see about us in the natural world? And how can this world be understood?

By the time Aristotle was writing, the tradition of Greek philosophy was only two hundred years old. It had begun with the efforts of thinkers in the Greek world to theorize about the common structure that underlies the changes we observe in the natural world. Two contrasting theories, those of Heraclitus
Heraclitus of Ephesus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, a native of the Greek city Ephesus, Ionia, on the coast of Asia Minor. He was of distinguished parentage. Little is known about his early life and education, but he regarded himself as self-taught and a pioneer of wisdom...

 and Parmenides
Parmenides of Elea was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Elea, a Greek city on the southern coast of Italy. He was the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy. The single known work of Parmenides is a poem, On Nature, which has survived only in fragmentary form. In this poem, Parmenides...

, were an important influence on both Plato and Aristotle.

Heraclitus argued that things that appear to be permanent are in fact always gradually changing. Therefore, though we believe we are surrounded by a world of things that remain identical through time, this world is really in flux, with no underlying structure or identity. Parmenides, by contrast, argued that we can reach certain conclusions by means of reason alone, making no use of the senses. What we acquire through the process of reason is fixed and unchanging and eternal. The world is thus not made up of a variety of things, in constant flux, but of one single Truth or reality. Plato’s theory of Forms is a synthesis of these two views. Following Heraclitus, he argues that the objects of the world we see – including our own bodies – have no true existence. Following Parmenides, he says that they are merely copies of eternally true realities, an imperfect reflection of the pure form prototype.

Aristotle would have encountered the theory of Forms when he studied at the Academy, which he joined at the age of about 18 in the 360’s B.C. For a time, he must have been a convert to this theory, and may even have written a popular book about it. However, at some point he turned against it, feeling that there must be a connection between the science of nature and the abstraction of existence.

The result is the theory of the Metaphysics. Aristotle believes that in every change there is something which persists through the change (for example, Socrates), and something else which did not exist before, but comes into existence as a result of the change (musical Socrates). To explain how Socrates comes to be born (since he did not exist before he was born) Aristotle says that it is ‘matter’ (hyle
In philosophy, hyle refers to matter or stuff. It can also be the material cause underlying a change in Aristotelian philosophy. The Greeks originally had no word for matter in general, as opposed to raw material suitable for some specific purpose or other, so Aristotle adapted the word for...

) that underlies the change. The matter has the ‘form’ of Socrates imposed on it to become Socrates himself. Thus all the things around us, all substances, are composites of two radically different things: form and matter. This doctrine is sometimes known as Hylomorphism (from the Greek words for matter and form).

Title, date, and the arrangement of the treatises

Subsequent to the arrangement of Aristotle's works by scholars at Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

 in the first century CE, a number of his treatises were referred to as (ta meta ta fysika; literally, "the [writings] after the Physics"). This is the origin of the title for collection of treatises now known as Aristotle's Metaphysics. Some have interpreted the expression "" to imply that the subject of the work goes "beyond" that of Aristotle's Physics
Physics (Aristotle)
The Physics of Aristotle is one of the foundational books of Western science and philosophy...

 or that it is metatheoretical
A metatheory or meta-theory is a theory whose subject matter is some other theory. In other words it is a theory about a theory. Statements made in the metatheory about the theory are called metatheorems....

 in relation to the Physics. But others believe that "" referred simply to the work's place in the canonical arrangement of Aristotle's writings, which is at least as old as Andronicus of Rhodes
Andronicus of Rhodes
Andronicus of Rhodes was a Greek philosopher from Rhodes who was also the eleventh scholarch of the Peripatetic school.He was at the head of the Peripatetic school at Rome, about 58 BC, and was the teacher of Boethus of Sidon, with whom Strabo studied...

 or even Hermippus of Smyrna
Hermippus of Smyrna
Hermippus of Smyrna, a Peripatetic philosopher, surnamed by the ancient writers the Callimachian , from which it may be inferred that he was a disciple of Callimachus about the middle of the 3rd century BC, while the fact of his having written the life of Chrysippus proves that he lived to about...

. Within the Aristotelian corpus itself, the metaphysical treatises are referred to as (literally, "the [writings] concerning first philosophy"); "first philosophy" was what Aristotle called the subjects of metaphysics. (He called the study of nature or natural philosophy
Natural philosophy
Natural philosophy or the philosophy of nature , is a term applied to the study of nature and the physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science...

 "second philosophy" (Metaphysics 1037a15).)

It is notoriously difficult to specify the date at which Aristotle wrote these treatises as a whole or even individually, especially because the Metaphysics is, in Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan Barnes is a British philosopher, translator and historian of ancient philosophy.-Education and career:He was educated at the City of London School and Balliol College, Oxford University....

' words, "a farrago, a hotch-potch", and more generally because the difficulty of dating any of Aristotle's writings.

In the manuscripts, books are referred to by Greek letters. The second book was given the title "little alpha," apparently because it appears to have nothing to do with the other books (and, very early, it was supposed not to have been written by Aristotle) or, although this is less likely, because of its shortness. This, then, disrupts the correspondence of letters to numbers, as book 2 is little alpha, book 3 is beta, and so on. For many scholars, it is customary to refer to the books by their letter names. Thus book 1 is called Alpha (Α); 2, little alpha (α); 3, Beta (Β); 4, Gamma (Γ); 5, Delta (Δ); 6, Epsilon (Ε); 7, Zeta (Ζ); 8, Eta (Η); 9, Theta (Θ); 10, Iota (Ι); 11, Kappa (Κ); 12, Lambda (Λ); 13, Mu (Μ); 14, Nu (Ν).

It is almost certain that Aristotle did not write the books in the order in which they have come down to us; their arrangement is due to later editors, and there is little reason to think that it reflects how Aristotle himself would have arranged them. Based on a careful study of the content of the books and of the cross-references within them, W.D. Ross concluded that books A, B, Γ, E, Z, H, Θ, M, N, and I "form a more or less continuous work", while the remaining books were inserted into their present locations by later editors. However, Ross cautions that books A, B, Γ, E, Z, H, Θ, M, N, and I - with or without the insertion of the others - do not constitute "a complete work".

Books Alpha to Epsilon

Book Alpha Outlines "first philosophy", which is a knowledge of the first principles or causes of things. The wise are able to teach because they know the why of things, unlike those who only know that things are a certain way based on their memory and sensations. Because of their knowledge of first causes and principles they are better fitted to command, rather than to obey. Book Alpha also surveys previous philosophies from Thales to Plato, especially their treatment of causes.

"Little alpha": The purpose of this chapter is to address a possible objection to Aristotle’s account of how we understand first principles and thus acquire wisdom. Aristotle replies that the idea of an infinite causal series is absurd, and thus there must be a first cause which is not itself caused. This idea is developed later in book Lambda, where he develops an argument for the existence of God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....


Beta: A listing of metaphysical puzzles (Gr. ἀπορία, "aporia
Aporia denotes, in philosophy, a philosophical puzzle or state of puzzlement, and, in rhetoric, a rhetorically useful expression of doubt.-Definitions:...


Gamma: Chapters 2 and 3 argue for its status as a subject in its own right. The rest is a defense of (a) what we now call the principle of contradiction, the principle that it is not possible for the same proposition to be (the case) and not to be (the case), and (b) what we now call the principle of excluded middle: tertium non datur - there cannot be an intermediary between contradictory statements.

Delta ("philosophical lexicon"): This is a list of definitions of about fifty key terms such as cause, nature
Nature, in the broadest sense, is equivalent to the natural world, physical world, or material world. "Nature" refers to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general...

, one, and many
Many may refer to:* plural*A quantifier that can be used with count nouns - often preceded by "as" or "too" or "so" or "that"; amounting to a large but indefinite number; "many temptations"; "a good many"; "many directions"; more than a few, more than severalPlace names* Many, Moselle, a commune of...


Epsilon: This has two main concerns. Aristotle is first concerned with a hierarchy of the sciences. As we know, a science can be either productive, practical or theoretical. Because theoretical sciences study being or beings for their own sake -- for example, Physics studies beings that can be moved (1025b27) -- and do not have an end (telos) beyond themselves, they are superior. The study of being qua being is superior out of all the theoretical sciences because it is concerned with that which is separate and immovable. The second concern of Epsilon is proving why accidents cannot be studied as a science. Accidents do not involve art (techne) and do not exist by necessity, and therefore do not deserve to be studied as a science. Aristotle dismisses the study of accidents a science fit for Sophists, a group whose philosophies (or lack thereof) he consistently rejects throughout the Metaphysics.

The Middle Books (Zeta, Eta, Theta)

The Middle Books are generally considered the core of the Metaphysics.


Book Zeta begins with the remark that ‘Being’ has many senses. The purpose of philosophy is to understand being. The primary kind of being is what Aristotle calls substance. What substances are there, and are there any substances besides perceptible ones? Aristotle considers four candidates for substance: (i) the ‘essence’ or ‘what it was to be a thing’ (ii) the Platonic universal, (iii) the genus to which a substance belongs and (iv) the substratum or ‘matter’ which underlies all the properties of a thing. He dismisses the idea that matter can be substance, for if we eliminate everything that is a property from what can have the property, we are left with something that has no properties at all. Such 'ultimate matter' cannot be substance. Separability and 'this-ness' are fundamental to our concept of substance.

Chapters 4-12 are devoted to Aristotle’s own theory that essence is the criterion of substantiality. The essence of something is what is included in a secundum se ('according to itself') account of a thing, i.e. which tells what a thing is by its very nature. You are not musical by your very nature. But you are a human by your very nature. Your essence is what is mentioned in the definition of you.

Chapters 13-15 consider, and dismiss, the idea that substance is the universal or the genus, and are mostly an attack on the Platonic theory of Ideas. Aristotle argues that if genus and species are individual things, then different species of the same genus contain the genus as individual thing, which leads to absurdities. Moreover, individuals are incapable of definition.

Chapter 17 takes an entirely fresh direction, which turns on the idea that substance is really a cause.


Book Eta consists of a summary of what has been said so far (i.e., in Book Zeta) about substance, and adds a few further details regarding difference and unity.


Theta sets out to define potentiality and actuality. Chapters 1-5 discuss potentiality. We learn that this term indicates the potential (dunamis) of something to change: potentiality is "a principle of change in another thing or in the thing itself qua other" (1046a9). In chapter 6 Aristotle turns to actuality. We can only know actuality through observation or "analogy;" thus "as that which builds is to that which is capable of building, so is that which is awake to that which is asleep...or that which is separated from matter to matter itself" (1048b1-4). Actuality is the completed state of something that had the potential to be completed. The relationship between actuality and potentiality can be thought of as the relationship between form and matter, but with the added aspect of time. Actuality and potentiality are diachronic (across time) distinctions, whereas form and matter are synchronic (at one time) distinctions.

Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu and Nu

Iota: Discussion of unity, one and many, sameness and difference.

Kappa: Briefer versions of other chapters and of parts of the Physics.

Lambda: Further remarks on beings in general, first principles, and God or gods. This book includes Aristotle's famous description of the unmoved mover
Unmoved mover
The unmoved mover is a philosophical concept described by Aristotle as a primary cause or "mover" of all the motion in the universe. As is implicit in the name, the "unmoved mover" is not moved by any prior action...

, "the most divine of things observed by us", as "the thinking of thinking".

Mu and Nu: Philosophy of mathematics, in particular how numbers exist.


Many scholars believe that Aristotle's works as we have them today are little more than lecture notes.
Plenty of his works are extremely compressed and baffling to beginners. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Metaphysics - Ibn Sina (Avicenna), who was one of the greatest Islamic philosophers in the Medieval age, said that he had read the Metaphysics of Aristotle forty times, but still did not understand it. Later he read the book of al-Farabi
' known in the West as Alpharabius , was a scientist and philosopher of the Islamic world...

, Purposes of Metaphysics of Aristotle, and understood Aristotle's book.

In the 19th century, with the rise of textual criticism
Textual criticism
Textual criticism is a branch of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts...

, the Metaphysics was examined anew. Critics, noting the wide variety of topics and the seemingly illogical order of the books, concluded that it was actually a collection of shorter works thrown together haphazardly. Werner Jaeger
Werner Jaeger
Werner Wilhelm Jaeger was a classicist of the 20th century.Jaeger was born in Lobberich, Rhenish Prussia. He attended school at Lobberich and at the Gymnasium Thomaeum in Kempen Jaeger studied at the University of Marburg and University of Berlin. He received a Ph.D...

 further maintained that the different books were taken from different periods of Aristotle's life. Everyman's Library
Everyman's Library
Everyman's Library is a series of reprinted classic literature currently published in hardback by Random House. It was originally an imprint of J. M. Dent , who continue to publish Everyman Classics in paperback.J. M. Dent and Company began to publish the series in 1906...

, for their 1000th volume, published the Metaphysics in a rearranged order that was intended to make the work easier for readers.

Translations and influence

Some of the earlier scholars of the Metaphysics were Arabs, who relied on Arabic translations from early Syriac
Syriac language
Syriac is a dialect of Middle Aramaic that was once spoken across much of the Fertile Crescent. Having first appeared as a script in the 1st century AD after being spoken as an unwritten language for five centuries, Classical Syriac became a major literary language throughout the Middle East from...

 translations from the Greek (see Medieval Philosophy
Medieval philosophy
Medieval philosophy is the philosophy in the era now known as medieval or the Middle Ages, the period roughly extending from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD to the Renaissance in the sixteenth century...

). The book was lost in the Latin West from the collapse of Rome until the twelfth century. For a period, scholars relied on Latin translations of the Arabic. These were sometimes inaccurate, having been through so many stages of translation.

In the thirteenth century, following the Fourth crusade
Fourth Crusade
The Fourth Crusade was originally intended to conquer Muslim-controlled Jerusalem by means of an invasion through Egypt. Instead, in April 1204, the Crusaders of Western Europe invaded and conquered the Christian city of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire...

, the original Greek manuscripts became available. One of the first Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 translations was made by William of Moerbeke
William of Moerbeke
Willem van Moerbeke, O.P., known in the English speaking world as William of Moerbeke was a prolific medieval translator of philosophical, medical, and scientific texts from Greek into Latin...

. William's translations are literal, and were intended faithfully to reflect the Greek word order and style. These formed the basis of the commentaries of Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas, O.P. , also Thomas of Aquin or Aquino, was an Italian Dominican priest of the Catholic Church, and an immensely influential philosopher and theologian in the tradition of scholasticism, known as Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Communis, or Doctor Universalis...

 and Duns Scotus
Duns Scotus
Blessed John Duns Scotus, O.F.M. was one of the more important theologians and philosophers of the High Middle Ages. He was nicknamed Doctor Subtilis for his penetrating and subtle manner of thought....

. They were also used by modern scholars for Greek editions, as William had access to Greek manuscripts that are now lost. Werner Jaeger
Werner Jaeger
Werner Wilhelm Jaeger was a classicist of the 20th century.Jaeger was born in Lobberich, Rhenish Prussia. He attended school at Lobberich and at the Gymnasium Thomaeum in Kempen Jaeger studied at the University of Marburg and University of Berlin. He received a Ph.D...

 lists William's translation in his edition of the Greek text in the Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliotheca Oxoniensis (Oxford 1962).

External links