Lesson 2: The Genetic Aristotle

Since it characterized so much of Aristotelian scholarship during this century, mention should be made of the suggestions of Werner Jaeger about the body of Aristotle's writings. In 1912, Jaeger published a book on the evolution of the Metaphysics and in 1923 he published Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development. To say that these books were influential would be understatement. The approach to the text of Aristotle suggested by Jaeger provided the mandatory point of reference for work on Aristotle for more than half a century.

From antiquity, readers of the Metaphysics had seen it as a unified whole. Its fourteen books were taken to trace a connected and coherent development. This is clear from the commentaries which were written on the work by Neoplatonists, by medievals, by men of the Renaissance, and indeed in all scholarly works on the text up to 1912. What Jaeger did, in a nutshell, was to question radically the unity of the work. He felt that he had found internal evidence which showed, he said, that the Metaphysics is a compilation of materials which date from different times in the career of Aristotle. Perhaps they were put together by a later hand, and the Metaphysics as we have it is not a direct product of Aristotle at all. Aristotle spent twenty years in Plato's Academy and this fact, plus the evidence of the Aristotelian dialogues that scholars have reconstructed, ground a clear Platonist phase in Aristotle's thought. Scholars had long recognized this, of course, and contrasted the "platonic" dialogues and the treatises which presented Aristotle's mature and more or less anti-platonist thinking. What Jaeger did was to place this development within the treatises. Thus there are "platonic" as well as "Aristotelian" pages in the Metaphysics. Does this mean that some of the fourteen books are early and others later? Jaeger's hypothesis is that the early and late are jumbled together and only painstaking scholarship will be able to expose the almost geological layers which represent the development of Aristotle's thought.

As indicated, that development can be generally described as from the platonic to the Aristotelian. In the case of the Metaphysics, this progression is seen, Jaeger maintains, in two conflicting notions of what the science Aristotle is seeking is. On the one hand, there is an earlier, platonic conception of the science according to which divine things or separated substances are the subject matter of the science: it is theology. On the other hand, there is a later, more modest and Aristotelian view which exhibits a failure of never as to the range of the intellect and according to which the subject matter of the science is being as being, a search for the characteristics of the things that are, their general notes, without any presumption in favor of the view that the set of physical objects is not coterminous with the set of all beings: the science is thus an ontology.

As between these two views, Jaeger sees Aristotle wavering and never able to decide how, if at all, the two conceptions could be made compatible. On the fact of it, such a reconciliation seems unlikely. A general science, the most sweeping consideration of all, on the one hand, and a science bearing on a special kind of being set apart from all other kinds, divine being, separated substance.

It is not Jaeger's view that Aristotle held the theology view early and the ontology view late: it is not as simple as that. The two views of the science, Jaeger finds, continue to tease the Aristotelian mind and indeed there is one passage in which he seeks explicitly to resolve the problem, namely, chapter one of Book Six of the Metaphysics.

In this passage, Aristotle recalls the threefold division of theoretical knowledge into mathematics, physics and theology. This third science has been introduced by pointing out, after mathematics and physics have been mentioned, that it is not yet clear whether there are immobile and separable things and, if so, how they are to be considered.

But if there is something which is eternal and immoveable and separable, clearly the knowledge of it belongs to a theoretical science -- not, however, to physics (for physics deals with certain movable things) nor to mathematics, but to a science prior to both. For physics deals with things which exist separately but are not immovable, and some parts of mathematics deal with things which are immovable but presumably do not exist separately, but as embodied in matter; while the first science deals with things which both exist separately and are unmovable. [1027a11 ff.]

The passage seems clearly to allot different ranges of being to the various sciences. Physics deals with inseparable and changeable things; mathematics with unchangeable but inseparable things; first philosophy with the separable and changeless. If the divine exists anywhere, it will be here, which is why this science is called theology. Moreover, it will be the most honorable science because it deals with the most honorable objects and thus the most desirable of the theoretical sciences. But there now occurs this passage:

For one might raise the question whether first philosophy is universal, or deals with one genus, i.e. some one kind of being; for not even the mathematical sciences are all alike in this respect -- geometry and astronomy deal with a certain particular kind of being, while universal mathematics applies alike to all. We answer that if there is no substance other than those which are formed by nature, natural science will be the first science; but if there is an immovable substance, the science of this must be prior and must be first philosophy, and universal in this way, because it is first. And it will belong to it to consider being qua being -- both what it is and the attributes which belong to it qua being. [1026a22 ff]

For Jaeger, this passage, which confronts and offers a resolution of the apparent problem, is rather an unsuccessful effort to paper over an insoluble problem. We are invited to see Aristotle caught between thinking of first philosophy, the culminating effort of philosophy, as a general science or as a particular science distinguishable from other particular sciences. If it is simply a general science or ontology, it will be impossible to distinguish it from natural philosophy: it will simply be the consideration at a high level of generality of physical objects. Or, one might say, it would consider as well matter common to physics and mathematics. Aristotle may be tempted by this, as Jaeger portrays him, but he could not succumb to the temptation without a radical abandonment of the platonic project. In the end, he decides to bluff his way through and assert that first philosophy is both! It is a general science -- and then it cannot have a particular subject matter -- but it is also the science of the separable and immobile, that is, the divine. Moreover, Aristotle says it is the one because it is the other --because it is first in the sense of dealing with the first kind of being, separable being, it also deals with being as being and its properties.

Jaeger finds in this passage the noble even tragic failure of the Aristotelian project. The Metaphysics is a monument to Aristotle's irresolution as to what he is doing and thus cannot be read as the unified inquiry it has always been taken to be.

The first thing to be said against Jaeger's central thesis -- and what I have just sketched is the heart of his interpretation of the Metaphysics -- is that the option he sees Aristotle vacillating before could not possibly be an option for Aristotle. In order for Jaeger's dilemma to make sense, it would have to make sense that there could be a science whose subject matter is separate or divine being. But no human science could have such a subject, At the end of the following book, Book Seven, Aristotle reminds those who might have forgotten what the requirements are of something if it is to serve as the subject of a science. "Evidently, then, in the case of simple terms no inquiry or teaching is possible; our attitude towards such things is other than that of inquiry" [1041b10]. In order for any of the four questions Aristotle has elaborated as the relevant ones in the quest of knowledge -- Is it? What is it? Is it the case that...? Why? -- the object must be complex. This rules out simple substances as possible subjects of a science. Once this is remembered, the passage in which Jaeger finds the problem restated as if the restatement were its solution turns out to be very illuminating indeed.

First philosophy has as its subject matter being as being and it is in the pursuit of knowledge of this subject that separate substances will come into the science in the only way in which they could, as causes of the subject.

Whatever problems the Metaphysics of Aristotle presents, the great dilemma of Jaeger's interpretation is not among them. In the wake of Jaeger's books there followed an incredible fleet of alternatives, modifications, rivals, studies in which the notion that Aristotle's development is the key to reading the treatises and that in terms of that putative development one can array the works chronologically, arrays the contents of a given treatise chronologically and so on. Scholars vied with one another in proposing the earlier treatise which might then serve as a touchstone for reading all the others. The more intensely these studies were pursued, the more they diverged from one another. A non-philologist who stumbled onto this battle field would be as bewildered as Pierre in War & Peace and would have been forgiven for thinking there was any point in just picking up Aristotle and reading him.

All this has subsided now, often for bad reasons. Philosophers eventually wearied of such disputes, waved them to one side, and did indeed simply read and interpret Aristotle as had been done from the beginning. But it is important to see that Jaeger's central thesis about the Metaphysics is based on an assumption that Aristotle could not accept. Jaeger's problem is not Aristotle's.

Thus it is not obscurantism that is involved in taking up once again the Metaphysics and seeking to understand it. It is not a questionable loyalty that explains consulting such commentaries as that of Thomas Aquinas for help in understanding the text. Not only did Thomas find the Metaphysics to be a unified work, he traced its order into its finest details. Far more than any other commentator, he sees as his chief role to display the order of the text. This is nowhere more obvious than in the Metaphysics. If Jaeger had been right, commentators, but especially Thomas Aquinas, would have been finding a detailed order and interlocking of texts that was not there. To call this ingenious could not begin to capture the inventiveness it would have required. But it is Jaeger who is manifestly mistaken and we can continue to profit from the great tradition of commentary.

It might be well, to round off our discussion, to see how Thomas Aquinas reads the text which for Jaeger signaled the defeat of every effort to unify the Metaphysics.

1169. -- Tertio movetur quaedam quaestio circa praedeterminata: et primo movet eam, dicens quod aliquis potest dubitare, utrum prima philosophia sit universalis quasi considerans ens universaliter, aut eius consideratio sit circa aliquod genus determinatum et naturam unam. Et hoc non videtur. Non enim est unus modus huius scientiae et mathematicarum; quia geometria et astrologia, quae sunt mathematicae, sunt circam aliquam naturam determinatam, sed philosophia prima est universaliter communis omnium. -- Et tamen e converso videtur, quod sit alicuius determinatae naturae, propter hoc quod est separabilium et immobilium, ut dictum est.

In VI Metaphysic., lect. 1

1169. -- Third, he raises a question about what has been discussed, and does so by saying that someone might doubt whether first philosophy is universal, as considering being universally, or that its concern is some determinate genus and some one nature. The latter does not seem true. This science is not like the mathematical sciences, since geometry and astronomy, mathematical sciences, deal with a determinate nature, but first philosophy is universally common to all. -- Indeed it is the opposite that seems true, namely, that it is concerned with some definite nature, because its concern is with the separable and immobile, as has been said.

Thomas lays out the difficulty as clearly as the text does. Of two things one. Either metaphysics is a general science and is not restricted to one kind or nature of things or it is a special science like the mathematical ones mentioned, and has a restricted range due to the fact that it studies but one kind and nature of things. The resolution of the accusation of unwieldiness -- "being" is simply too broad a term to pick out a given subject matter -- had been dealt with in Book Four, but the resolution there relied on the way "being" is common to things so that substance emerged as the effective subject of the science of being as being. Now the question becomes: substance in general or separated and divine beings?

1170, -- Secundo solvit, dicens quod si non est aliqua alia substantia praeter eas quae consistunt secundum naturam, de quibus est physica, physica erit prima scientia. Sed si est aliqua substantia immobilis, ista erit prior substantia naturali; et per consequens philosophia considerans huiusmodi substantiam erit philosophia prima. Et quia est prima, ideo erit universalis, et erit eius speculari de ente inquantum ens, et de eo quod quid est et de his quae sunt entis inquantum est ens: eadem enim est scientia primi entis et entis communis, ut in principio quarti habitum est.

1170. -- Second, he provides the solution, saying that if there is no substance beyond those which exist in nature, physics would be the first science. But if there is some immobile substance, it will be prior to natural substance. Consequently, the philosophy considering such substance will be first philosophy. And because it is first it will be universal and it will fall to it to consider being as being and the essence of it and those things which pertain to being insofar as it is being. The science of the first being and the science of common being are the same science, as was said at the outset of Book Four.

One caught up in the Jaegerian fever might easily dismiss this comment as a mere repetition of the text and thus participating in the effort to cover up the dilemma Aristotle has created for himself. But only a philologist or one in the grips of a theory would imagine that this text enjoys an autonomous existence and is unrelated with what has been going on in the work in which it occurs. Thomas' reference to Book Four may be taken to mean that Jaeger's misunderstanding might have been forestalled by a careful reading of that earlier discussion. In Thomas's own case, he has masterfully anticipated and resolved the supposed dilemma in his preface to the commentary. Lesson 9 below discusses that preface, but the intervening and subsequent discussion will re-enforce the interpretation of the Metaphysics given here, which relies on Thomas Aquinas.

Suggested Reading Assignment

Read Thomas's Commentary, Book One, lesson 1 to get the full context of the passages quoted in this lesson.

Suggested Writing Assignment 

Write a three-page essay on Thomas's solution to Jaeger's claim that there are two conflicting views of the subject of metaphysics in Aristotle.


In order to move beyond mere hearsay, you will want eventually to read Jaeger's second book mentioned in the lesson.


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