Lesson 10: All the Things That Are

In the panoramic description of philosophy that Aristotle gives at the outset of his Metaphysics he makes us aware of the fact that 'philosophy' is an umbrella term that covers a number of different disciplines or sciences -- logic, mathematics, natural science, ethics, etc. -- yet having an overall telos as well. That is, it is not just a jumble of different inquiries, unrelated to one another, but rather an ordered set of disciplines which aim at a culminating inquiry -- in the divine.

On this basis, we can say that the goal of philosophy is theology. This is an internal goal. The theology based on Sacred Scripture may be thought of as the external goal of philosophy, the mistress to whom philosophy is handmaiden, but there is an intrinsic theology to philosophy and it is the point of the whole enterprise.

Does this mean that we will find among Aristotle's works one devoted exclusively to the divine? Does this mean that theology is a separate discipline like geometry or arithmetic or natural science? Well, why not? Geometry has its subject matter, so does arithmetic, and so does natural philosophy. What is to prevent there being a science whose subject matter is the divine?

What prevents it is the fact that we have no access to the divine of the kind that would be required for it to be the subject of a science. We would have to have a definition of God, for one thing. But all our talk about God is oblique and indirect, dependent on our knowledge and talk of other things, which are more easily accessible by us.

What we find as the wisdom toward which philosophy tends is the unwieldly treatise that later editors dubbed the Metaphysics, fourteen books which have given scholars trouble for two millennia.

Being as Being

The science that is beyond physics, beyond mathematics, is said to have for its subject matter being as being, Natural philosophy has mobile being, being as subject of motion, as its subject matter. Mathematics has quantified being, discrete or continuous quantified being, as its subject matter. By contrast with them, there is said to be a third theoretical science whose subject is being as being.

What can that mean? If natural philosophy is concerned with a kind of being and mathematics with another kind, it sounds as if we now have a science that is concerned with every kind of being, with all the things that are. How can everything function as the subject of a science? Insofar as it is being. This science is also said to consider matters which cannot reasonably be said to fall to any particular science. For example, while any science invokes the principle of contradiction, it seems no more or less appropriate that natural science should analyze and defend it than should mathematics. These left-over and somewhat unwieldy matters are the concern of metaphysics because it is the science of being as being.

The difficulty with this portrayal of metaphysics is that it seems to run counter to some rock bottom Aristotelian convictions. If I know a flowering dogwood only in terms of what it has in common with all other trees, this is more common, general, and less proper knowledge of the dogwood. Success here would be to know dogwood as dogwood, in its specificity. And needless to say to know it only as a plant, or as a substance, would be even more general and inadequate knowledge of the dogwood.

Universal or general knowledge is where we begin, not where we end. We first of all know things vaguely and in general and then move gradually toward specific knowledge of them.

Well, you can see the difficulty created by talk of knowing everything insofar as it is being. Being sounds like the first, more general and vague thing you could say about anything. Metaphysics thus seems to put a premium on the most general knowledge in a way that seems to conflict with the general rule about how the human mind advances in knowledge -- from the more universal.

Being Is not Univocal

Another obstacle to 'being as being' functioning as the subject of a science is that 'being' is not a univocal term, and this is required of the subject of a science lest it fall into the fallacy of equivocation. This is a difficulty that Aristotle moves swiftly to solve.

If we had but two choices with respect to how common terms function, either univocally or equivocally, we would face an impasse. 'Being' is not a univocal term. If it is an equivocal term, we wouldn't know which of its meanings was at issue in any analysis or argument, and this would vitiate discourse.

As it happens there is a third possibility. Some terms are common to many in such a way that, though they have a plurality of meanings as do equivocal terms, their meanings form an ordered set in which one of them is primary and explanatory of the others. 'Man' is a term shared by Socrates, Alcibiades and you and it gets the same account or definition in each use. 'Log' is said of the captain's book and what is floating down the river to the mill, and receives quite different accounts in those two uses, much as 'pick' applied to the iceman's tool and your selection of Fifi LaRue as Miss America receive quite different accounts. We could scarcely think there could be an inquiry into or science of log and pick that could surmount this diversity of meanings. But Aristotle reminds us of such examples as 'healthy.'

Healthy is a term common to many things which receives different accounts in its different uses. We speak of a healthy Labrador, a healthy coat, a healthy diet, and while it is clear that 'healthy' receives different accounts in each of these uses, those accounts are not wholly different. How so?

When I say that your Labrador is healthy I mean something like health is a quality he has.

When I say his coat is healthy I mean something like it is a sign of his having health or being healthy.

When I say his diet is healthy I mean it aims to preserve his health.

Here there is an ordered set of meanings. One is primary -- having health -- because it is invoked to explain the other accounts.

Aristotle's point is to liken 'being' to 'healthy.' We can have a science of healthy because we have a focal meaning of the term, and clarity about that enables us to explain its other meanings.

But 'being' too is said in many ways, just as 'healthy' is. There is a primary meaning of 'being' and it is substance. If I call a quality or quantity or motion being, I must refer to substance since all of these are inherent in it and dependent on it.

Moving right along, Aristotle suggests that there is a science of being as being and, for reasons just given, its will be primarily about substance, the first and controlling meaning of the term.

Like so many of Aristotle's momentous solutions, this one turns on the most obvious facts about our language, about how some common terms behave. Who could fail to grasp the example of 'healthy'? 'Being' is like that, Aristotle notes, and a whole set of obstacles are swept away.

But not all.

Is Substance Univocal?

The answer would seem to be yes, obviously. Substance is a category, a category is a supreme genus, a genus is that which is predicated univocally of its species. It would seem, then, that the obstacle posed by 'being' as a possible subject of the supreme science is removed when we see that 'being' means primarily substance and that the science of being as being can concentrate on substance.

The difficulties arise when we ask what 'substance' is univocally common to. Is it univocally common to bodily substances and separated substances? Is it univocally common to bodily things and God?

Here is the summary difficulty for what Aristotle is apparently trying to do in setting up a science of being as being:

Insofar as it is considered a common science, a consideration of what is true of the physical objects which have been the concern of natural philosophy, it seems either redundant or to put a premium on the general and vague.

Insofar as it is the culminating science of philosophy and is chiefly concerned with the divine, there is a twofold difficulty:

  • the divine cannot be the subject of a science
  • nothing is univocally common to the bodily and the divine

Pierre Aubenque has posed the dilemma of Aristotle's Metaphysics in a not wholly dissimilar way.

  • The subject of metaphysics is being as being.
  • The subject of a science must be a genus.
  • Being is not a genus.

These are not difficulties to be rushed by, as if they were mere bumps on the road. It is a feature of Aristotle's Metaphysics that it seems in search of its subject rather than in possession of it from the outset. Aristotle speaks almost wistfully of 'the science we are seeking.'

Let us put the difficulty in as stark a way as we can:

If metaphysics is a most general science it cannot be be univocally universal enough to include the divine in its subject matter. How then can the philosophical quest achieve its goal, which is knowledge of the divine?

God as Cause of Being as Being

There is a science of being as being and we seek its causes. This suggests that the first causes of being are not considered to fall under that apparently commodious subject. For all that, the task of metaphysics would appear to be to analyze natural substance in search of what might be said of it, not as natural substance, but simply as substance. Why? Not to say more profound things about material substance, but rather to fashion a vocabulary that will be applicable to immaterial substance.

Suggested Reading Assignment

John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor

Suggested Writing Assignment

Write a review of Veritatis Splendor.


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