What Knowledge Does Metaphysics Seek? - Book I of Aristotle's Metaphysics

Metaphysics Book I

In this first book of the Metaphysics we see over and over Aristotle critiquing Pre-Socratic thinkers. This is because to explain the ultimate causes of the universe we must explain the fundamental element from which everything is, how such an element becomes complex and designed forms, why and how these complex things break down and are regenerated, and the sources of this change process. There are the materialists who posit the indivisible elements and the void which have always been in flux, but they cannot explain where complex formal realities come from. In other words, how do atoms create animals? There are also the materialists who posit that all is unchanging extended matter, but this is only to relegate change to an illusion. It also doesn't explain the complexity of forms. Then there are those who added in divine sources to design and stir up the elements, which makes sense, but isn't philosophical. Nor does it mention where such forces like, "friendship and strife," come from. Finally, there are those like the Pythagoreans and Plato who correctly explain the notion of formal existence, but their accounting for change, and the forms relation to material things, is lacking. 

Aristotle hints at a solution towards the end of Book 1 when he notes that it is not possible to explain these questions without explaining the source of identity, change, and the interaction between form and the matter of things. Aristotle does mention many other philosophers in this first book, so it may be helpful to brush up on Pre-Socratic thought. See my post here for help with that. 

Chapter 1 (980a - 982a) - Metaphysics as the Search for First Principles of all Things

Aristotle begins Book I with a hierarchical look at the process of knowing. His first sentence is the claim that all human beings desire to know things. This of course begins with the senses. We desire to perceive, especially through the eyes, even if it's not for a particular action. So do animals with such perceptions. Now, to those creatures which have been endowed memory also, there begins to be "experience." It is a memory of those perceptions over time. And for human beings, endowed with reason, experience can become "art," wherein one knows how to choose in such a way as to act in accordance with the commonality between individual experiences. "And are comes into being whenever, out of many conceptions from experience, one universal judgment arises about those that are similar." 1 Even within this art, there is a distinction between the one who knows the principles of unity through individual experience, and one who knows them purely rationally. While the one with experience may know how to apply the universal in a more successful way, it is said that the one with the rational knowledge of things knows them in a higher manner because he understands their causes. 

"... and this is cause the ones know the cause while the others do not. For people with experience know the what, but do not know the why, but the others are acquainted with the why and the cause. For this reason we also think the master craftsmen in each kind of work are more honorable and know more than the manual laborers, and are also wiser, because they know the causes of the things they do, as though people are wiser not as a result of being skilled at action, but as a result of themselves having the reasoned account and knowing the causes." 

The one with rational understanding is also able to formulate those principles to others, to teach, while the one with only practical art cannot in the same way. [As an example one could think here of a phone repair technician versus an Apple designer. The phone tech may know how to replace parts and fix phones, but does not theoretically understand how the parts function like the engineer does.] This is to explain the "why" of things. 2 Now this pursuit of the why becomes more abstract as there is more leisure time not dedicated toward practical survival. Wisdom, then, is an understanding of the highest and most abstract causes of things. "...all people assume that what is called wisdom is concerned with first causes and origins." And so there is a hierarchy of knowledge/wisdom - the one with perception, the one with experience, the one with practical artistry, and the one with contemplative understanding. 

Chapter 2 (982a - 983a) - Defining Metaphysics as the Search for the Highest Knowledge, "Wisdom"

In chapter two, Aristotle begins by describing the "wise man." Someone is usually called wise when he knows about all types of things, he knows things that are difficult, he knows them with precision enough to teach them to others, he knows knowledge what is valuable in itself not just for what it produces, and that he leads others with his knowledge. 3 "Now of these, the knowing of all things must belong to the one who has most of all the universal knowledge, since he knows in a certain way all the things that come under it; and these are just about the most difficult things for human beings to know, those that are most universal, since they are farthest away from the senses." As far as having the most precise knowledge, Aristotle points out that knowing first principles of a discipline allows one to properly apply them precisely, rather than starting from ancillary ones. Likewise, the one who understands the highest causes of things is the one able to teach others. All in all, wisdom is that which is that which is most knowable through itself. "... what are most knowable are the first things and the causes, for through these and from these the other things are known, but these are not known through what comes under them." Finally, the highest forms of knowledge are the ruling ones because they know the correct purpose, placement, and good of each thing in the larger picture. 

It was through wondering and ignorance about things for their own sake, just simply to know, that philosophy was born. Beginning from things more easily known then proceeding to a desire for the highest of knowledge, the origin of everything. But this only happened once man's physical needs were taken care of, and his mind could wander to such things. 4 This knowledge is honorable and divine "... for the divine seems to be among the causes for all things, and to be a certain source, and such knowledge a god alone, or most of all, would have. All kinds of knowledge, then, are more necessary than this one, but none is better." 5

Chapter 3 (983a - 984b) - Opinions on the Fundamental Material Substance(s)

Chapter three begins with Aristotle leading us back to his fore thinkers. If we are seeking the highest knowledge of things, then we are seeking the first cause of things, and the four causes which make up each thing. Therefore, it would be fruitful to look at the opinions and thoughts of those who came before to sharpen our minds. Aristotle is going to look at the idea of the Pre-Socratics, beginning with those who posited the ultimate cause of things to be material substances. "Of those who first engaged in philosophy, most thought that the only sources of all things were of the species of material; that of which all things are made, out of which they first come into being and into which they are at last destroyed, its thinghood abiding but changing in its attributes, this they claim is the element and origin of things, for which reason nothing ever comes into being or perishes, since this sort of nature is always preserved ..." The different things that come about from these material substances are only ancillary, they may come or go, while the material itself is eternal. 6 

For example, Thales held that water was the fundamental element from which all the other building blocks of things came, as water appears to be the source and nourishment for all the elements in a certain sense. Anaximenes held the simple material to be air, Heraclitus that of fire, Empedocles that of earth, air, fire and water, and Anaxagoras an infinite substance beyond the material, the boundless, from which matter is sectioned off to form things. 7 Aristotle points out, though, that regardless of which simple element you choose, there is still another question to be answered. What makes the element to become everything that it becomes, what set this whole process of generation and decay into motion? For example, what puts the form of statue into a bronze hunk? In other words, what gives an element its formal cause to be the kind of thing that it is? "For no matter how much every coming-into-being and destruction is out of some one or more kinds of material, why does this happen and what is its cause? ... But to inquire after this is to seek that other kind of source, which we would call that from which the origin of motion is." 

And then there is Parmenides ... who pointed out against those that said everything is one substance, that if everything is one, then there is no impetus for change and diversity. Especially when it comes to looking at things through the lens of beauty or goodness, the cause of such realities is even more difficult. It makes no sense, Aristotle says, to leave such things to chance. 8 And so some, like Anaxagoras, posited that along with the fundamental substance there was also mind. An intelligent mind who ordered all things into their identities. "Those, then, who took things up in this way set down a source which is at the same time the cause of the beautiful among things and the sort of cause from which motion belongs to things." 

Chapter 4 (984b - 985b) - Attempts at Explaining the Source of Motion 

Aristotle, in continuing his history of ideas, then brings in the proto-thinkers who speculated at the necessary cause of formal change. If there are simple substances from which everything is made, then there also must be some force by which these substances are put into motion to change, create meaningful formations of things, and also decay. "... the material and that from which the motion is..." These early speculators often appealed to the literary tradition as an aid in this. Hesiod, for example, brought in the idea of "love" as a source of desire bringing things together in the universe from original chaos. "Love, who shines out from among the immortals, as though there needed to be present among beings some sort of cause that would move things and draw them together." But this may seem incomplete, as there are many bad things in the universe besides good ones, destruction, disorder, etc. And so there must need to be some other force at work besides love. Empedocles introduced the idea of "friendship and strife" to represent these two forces. Friendship draws all the elements together, while strife pulls them apart. 9 

Aristotle then comes to the "Atomists," or those who reject the idea of a formal cause to things, and would rather stick to material cause combined with chance. Leucippus and Democritus held that the "one" fundamental substance [You will often see the term, "The One" throughout Greek philosophy. They are all claims at that which is most fundamental to the universe] was "the Full" which exists in "the Void." The full is matter while the void is emptiness. Everything unique comes about through the random changing of the full. "They, however, say these differences are three: shape, order, and position. For they say that what is differs only by means of 'design, grouping, and twist,' but of these, design is shape, grouping is order, and twist is position. For A differs from N in shape, AN from NA in order, and Z from N in position. As for motion, from what source or in what way it belongs to things, these people, much like the others, lazily let it go." 10

Chapter 5 (985b - 987a) Pythagorean Numbers as a Solution

Next Aristotle turns to the Pythagoreans. They claimed that numbers were the fundamental source of reality. "... they thought they saw many similarities to the things that are and come to be, more so than in fire or earth or water - that such-and-such an attribute of numbers was justice, so-and-so is soul or intellect, another one due measure, and likewise with, one might say, everything ... the numbers seemed to be the primary things in all nature, they assumed that the elements of numbers were the elements of all things, and that the whole heaven was a harmony and a number. And as many things among numbers and harmonies as had analogies to the attributes and parts of the heavens and to the whole cosmic array, they collected and fit together." And so the Pythagoreans made all types of examples and analogies of numbers running the universe, even positing a "dark-earth" which rotated with the planets but was always hidden behind the sun, in order to make a perfect 10 celestial bodies of heaven. 

Getting more specific, Aristotle says that they use the "odd" and "even" as the basic elements of all numbers, as the others posited material elements as the fundamental building block. The formal states of matter from there were determined by the combination thereof. 11 From there, number one is fundamental as it is both odd and even. The other numbers arise from the one as odds and evens, and from those combinations everything else. Others among them expand the idea of the odd/even to include other opposites. "Limit - unlimited, odd - even, one - many, right - left, male - female, still - moving, straight - crooked, light - dark, good - bad, square - oblong." Aristotle mentions Alcmaeon of Croton as falling in the Pythagorean camp, roughly speaking. All in all, the basic distinction is that instead of the others positing an element as "the One" from which all others come, these people posit that it is contrariness which is at the root of being, generating all different realities. "From both Alcmaeon and the Pythagoreans there is this much that one may gather, that the sources of things are contraries, and from the latter, how many and what these are." 12 

Then Aristotle returns back to those thinkers who posited only the existence of The One, while denying the reality of the impetus of change. Parmenides, he says, denied the reality of change to the sense perceptions. This is because to man's reason, all that exists, exists, and all that doesn't exist, doesn't exist. Therefore, change is sensory illusion, though this is difficult to reconcile. "... but in being forced to follow appearances, and assuming that what is one from the standpoint of reason is more than one from the standpoint of perception, he set down in turn two causes and two sources, a hot one and a cold one, as though speaking of something like fire and earth, and of these he ranks the hot one under being and the other under nonbeing." Melissus held the unchanging unity being in matter itself, while Xenophanes saw the unchanging One in the divinities. 

Aristotle then takes a second to recap chapter five so far. He summarizes the different positions: Some held that the origin of the universe is material, either with one substance or several. Others, that there must be a second principle(s) (One or Many) of change along with the material which puts it in the motion. 13 Finally, the Pythagoreans took a different perspective, having the source of all things be numbers, changed by their dualities of limited/unlimited or odd/even. Aristotle does note that the Pythagoreans were the first to get closer to a formal cause in things, though imprecisely. "... they were the first to speak about and define the what-it-is of things..." 

Chapter 6 (987a - 988a) - Plato Introduces the Forms as a Solution 

Plato, following Heraclitus and Cratylus' idea that the physical isn't able to be known, as such, because it is always changing, recognizes the need to posit non-physical "forms" which allow reality to be known and defined. 14 "...it was impossible that there be any common definition of any of the perceptible things since they were always changing. So he called this other sort of beings forms, and said the perceptible were apart from these and all spoken of derivatively from these, for the many things with the same names as the forms were results of participation." But how does this participation work? How does the physical thing get to reflect the eternal form? 

Well in between the physical thing and the universal form stood numbers. Mathematical entities are unique in that they are not physical, as they are everlasting and without change. yet they are not one or unified like the forms as a type of thing, rather there is an unending multitude of numbers. So they are a type of in-between entity which bridges the gap between the eternal forms and the participation of physical entities. The oneness of the form combined with the numbers (most basically "the great and the small") results in material participation in the one form. "As material, then, the great and the small were the sources, and as thinghood, the one, for out of the former, by participation in the one, the forms are composed as numbers." Here Plato creates a "dyad" (duality, or relation of two things) which make up things. There is both the oneness of the universal form and the multitude of the numerical joined together to make up the material entity. 15

"... it is clear from what has been said that he used only two causes, the one that is responsible for the what-it-is and the other that results from material (for the forms are causes for other things of what they are, and the one is such a cause for the forms.)" It it is likewise from the duality of the multitude, the great and the small, that the material (numerical, or more than one) is then united to the form into perceptible entities. 

Chapter 7 (988a - 988b) Failure to Account for Both Identity and Change 

Aristotle then says that though his predecessors have been positing a fundamental "material," and a principle of change acting on the material, they have not properly conceived of "...what it is for something to be, and thinghood..." 

He summarizes what has gone before into a into a paragraph. "For example, Plato speaks of the great and the small, the Italians of the unlimited, Empedocles of fire, earth, water, and air, and Anaxagoras of the infinity of homogeneous things; now all of these have gotten hold of this sort of cause, as also have all those who speak of air or fire or water or something denser than fire but less dense than air, since some people have said that the primary element is of this sort." 16 

The person who got closest to describing nature was Plato, with his idea of the definitional form providing the "what-it-is" for perceptible things. This formal thinghood, though, is the cause of identity and stability in things, with the One causing it in the forms [as the One is most unified being from which all the forms come]. The impetus for change is still unclear, though, with some positing friendship, intellect, or goodness as means by which things are drawn into change, but no reason why these forces exist or why things would be essentially united to them. On the other hand, those who don't posit any force of change, have no way to explain why things change and end up in their final form that they do. 

Both realities of thing-hood, identity, and change need to be explained in a necessary or essential way if one is going to proceed in the metaphysical quest. Those who emphasize identity, lack a principle of change, and those who emphasize change, lack a principle of identity. 

Chapter 8 (988b - 990a) - Failure to Account for Both Identity and Change cont..

This conversation in continued in chapter 8, beginning with again critiquing the materialists of the time who posited a the identity of nature as simply and wholly material bodies. 18 Secondly he will critique the inadequacies of the Pythagoreans and Plato. Then finally in chapter 9 Aristotle will seek to solve some of these puzzles.  

So, again, back to the materialists ... Aristotle says that they have no explanation for the formal thing-hood (what-it-is) of things, nor an adequate explanation for the coming into existence and the decay of things. Why do some elements form out of others, what's the source of this change? "And when they turn their hands to giving an account of the causes of coming-into-being and destruction, in fact when they give accounts of the natures of all things, they abolish the cause of motion. What's more, they err by not setting down thinghood as a cause of all, nor the what-it-is of things, and on top of this by causally calling anyone whatever of the simple bodies, except earth, a source, without examining the way they are made by coming into being out of one another..." 18 Nor does this lack of thinghood and change explain the existence of the opposites of the fundamental elements. If something hot also becomes cold, then there needs to be something more fundamental than heat, yet fire is said to be the most fundamental element. 

Aristotle makes a side note about Anaxagoras, who though not fully meaning too, actually spoke reasonably. He takes the idea of a unified material blog of the elements, none of them having been separated out at all. But such an entity is motionless unless there is another principle to act upon it. Here he introduces mind as that other principle which gives form to the elemental unity. Anaxagoras here is more sensible than those who just remain with incidental causes without explanation. "For when nothing was separated, it is clear that there was nothing true to say about the thinghood of that mixture; I mean, for example, that it was neither white nor black nor gray nor any other color, but necessarily colorless, since it would otherwise have had a certain one of these colors. Likewise, by this same argument, it was without flavor or any other similar attribute, for it would not be possible for it to be of any sort or of any amount. For then some one in particular of the forms spoken of would have belonged to it, but this is impossible since all are mixed together; for it would already have been separated out, while he says that all things are mixed together except the intellect, which is the only thing unmixed and pure." 19

Moving to the Pythagoreans, Aristotle praises them in seeking higher causes to the source of nature, i.e. the mathematical, but he also says that their explanations for the mathematical generating the individuality of perceptible things. Of course, they would argue that this is because of the duality of the "limit and unlimited" and the "odd and even," but Aristotle considers this an incomplete explanation as they do not even clearly define the different ways in which the word "number" can be used to describe the thinghood of the universe and its entities. 20

Chapter 9 (990b - 993a) - Aristotle's Middle Way on Identity and Change 

Aristotle's critique spills over a little bit into chapter nine before he gets to his own thoughts. This last part is his critique of Plato. His first point is that Plato multiplied the Pythagorean notion of immaterial forms, expanding them from just the mathematical. The problem is that while forms are explanatory, as they include many individuals in one group, or species, as one begins to get into more and more specific details, the number of more and more unique forms then multiplies, complicating its explanatory power. Is there a form of triangle? Or is there also a of red, equilateral, chalk triangle? 21 Is it also of things that no longer exist? 

Plato's idea of the dyad being fundamental (form and material examples) cannot work. The form must be more fundamental and unified, otherwise there would be forms of every single thing. How does Aristotle solve this problem? Well, "... if the forms are shared in, there must be forms only of independent things. For things do not share in them incidentally, but must share in each by virtue of that by which it is not attributed to an underlying subject." In other words, the idea of universal form only applies to the universal what-ness that underlies the many accidental features of things. "Therefore, the forms will be the thinghood of things, and the same things will signify thinghood there as here." 22 If this was not the case, then what does form really mean? It has to be that which unites the "one-over-many." It has to be the one common denominator in the many. 

Next, Aristotle critiques the transcendence of the forms in Plato's conception. If the forms are not in individual things, but are transcendent in their own realm, how then do they influence the material world? What is the means by which something embodies the reflection of a form? "For what is the thing that is at work, looking off toward the forms?" 23 Also separating out the forms as Plato does, it makes it hard to understand how something is what it is because how many forms go into making up the all the aspects of an individual thing. "Further, one would think it was impossible for the thinghood and that of which it is the thinghood to be separate: so how could the forms be the thinghood of things if they are separate?" Likewise, in Plato's system, what is the principle of change and becoming? If the forms are the stable identity in things, how do things change? 

He continues saying that how is it that forms are derived from numbers, are a multitude of things all generated from the number one and the odd and even? In fact, if a form was a number, or a fraction of the number 1, then it would not be the form because there would have to be something more fundamental than the fraction from which the fraction took its being. The point is that the ultimate source of identity in things must be simple, not consisting of many parts, for then it could be broken down into something more fundamental than itself. "What's more, from many numbers comes one number, but in what way is one form made of forms? But if it is not made of them but of the things that are in a number, as in ten thousand, how does it stand with the units?" 24 And finally, Aristotle makes the point about the different identities in things all coming from the number one. How would this be possible if everything is from the homogeneous one? 25

Finally Aristotle just says it outright. For Plato there is no clear principle of change, nor a clear connection between the eternal forms and the perceptible things in front of us. The use of the word, "participation," Aristotle says, is not helpful. Summarizing, he says: "But on that which we see to be a cause in the various kinds of knowledge, for the sake of which every intellect and every nature produces things, and on that sort of cause which we say is one of the sources of things, the forms do not even touch, but philosophy has turned into mathematical things for people now, though they claim that it is for the sake of others things that one ought to study them. But still, one might assume that the underlying being which serves as material is too mathematical, and is something to be attributed to or by a distinction within the being or material, rather than being material; for instance, the great and the small are just the same as what the writers on nature call the rare and the sense, claiming that these are the first distinctions within the underlying material, since they are a certain kind of the more and less. And as for motion, if these are a process of moving, it is clear that the forms would be moved; but if they are not, where does it come from? For then the whole investigation about nature would be abolished." 26

Aristotle concludes by pointing out that gaining access to the identity that's at the core of thing's being without being able to distinguish the many accidental forms and changes in which a real thing exists, is not possible because both of these realities make up the things around us. 27

Chapter 10 (993a) - Conclusion

Aristotle concludes Book I by saying that, in a way, all these ancestors hit on valid points about nature and its causes, but also, in a way, none of them put together a full or correct explanation. And so what has been eluded to dimly is going to be illumined in this work. 28

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