Lesson 9: The Unity of Metaphysics


The Primacy of Substance

Under the first head, I shall simply recall the crucial resolution of the charge that a science of being is simply too intractable to fall to a single science. The charge seems well grounded. One who says that he is embarking on a science that will deal with everything would doubtless be taken to be talking in a Pickwickian manner. The great scholar G. E. L. Owen pointed out that Aristotle leveled a similar charge against Plato's claim to be treating the good. Good like being is as broad as a term gets and Aristotle effectively asked Plato what meaning of the term he had in mind when he offered to speak of good. The suggestion was that one could only speak of a kind of good, not of all good things at once.

Owen found this Aristotelian reaction all the more interesting because the Aristotle who made it already had in hand the means that would enable him to speak intelligibly of a science of being, that is, a science of everything.

Aristotle knew that such a term as "healthy" was shared by many subjects in virtue of a plurality of meanings. It didn't mean the same thing as said of each of them. But neither did it mean wholly different things in its many uses. There was a controlling meaning of the term and once this is isolated, it serves as a unifier of the plurality of meanings, not reducing them to the sameness of a univocal term, but rather to a unity of order. The many meanings form, in Yves Simon's usage, an ordered set.

When Aristotle saw the applicability of this kind of analysis to the word "being" he was able to find a sufficient unity. A thing called being is going to be a substance or, if not, it will bear a meaning which relates it to substance, as a property, as a process toward or away from it, or as the negation of any of these. Thus, the inability to provide a univocal meaning for "being" thanks to which it would apply to everything to which it applies, did not prevent Aristotle from arguing that the primacy of substance lent sufficient unity for the science of metaphysics to get under way.

Defense of First Principles

If we were able to go systematically through the books of the Metaphysics -- something you will want to do, now that you have, as a result of this course, an initial grasp of the science in question -- we would have dwelt on Book Beta, which is called Book Three because Book Two is Little Alpha -- Big Alpha is Book One. Book Three or Beta is called the book of problems. In it Aristotle makes a list of the various things that the science he is seeking is thought to have to deal with. Among the more or less randomly listed problems we find the question as to whether the science should deal with the first principles of reasoning, like the principle of contradiction. The answer is yes and indeed in Book Four or Gamma, after the considerations about the unity of the science we have just recalled, Aristotle undertakes an extensive and complicated discussion of the first principle:

1] It is impossible for a thing to be and not to be at the same time and respect.

This principle is called the axiom of axioms. It is expressed in a number of ways.

2] It is impossible to affirm and deny the same predicate of the same subject simultaneously and in the same sense.

3] Contradictories cannot be simultaneously true.

Call these the ontological, epistemological and semantic versions of the principle. They are related insofar as knowledge is knowledge of being, and propositions are expressive of thought. Thus, 2 and 3 may be said to depend upon 1, but not as conclusions depend upon premisses.

Thus, insofar as the first principle is a principle of logic, it falls to this science because of the affinity of being and being known at this high level of generality. The mind is governed by this principle because everything is.

Ontology and Theology

We spent time in an earlier lesson on the hypothesis of Werner Jaeger regarding the development or evolution of the thought of Aristotle. Our discussion did not deal with this claim in all its amplitude, but only insofar as it bore directly on our subject. If Jaeger were right, the assumptions of this course about the unity of Aristotle's Metaphysics and the guidance we take from Thomas's commentary on that work would be rendered somewhat mad. We would be treating a hodgepodge as a unity, shuffling through confetti for the unifying theme.

Jaeger, we saw, has no case in claiming that Aristotle wavered between two conflicting views of the metaphysics and then papered over his dilemma by simply embracing both views. On the one hand, metaphysics is a special science, dealing with one kind of being, divine being; on the other hand, it is a general science that deals with being as being. Since the idea of a science which would have separated or simple substance as its subject is a non-starter for Aristotle, Jaeger's dilemma dissolves.

When we looked at Thomas's comment on the passage Jaeger took to be a mere papering over of the difficulty, we mentioned that Thomas had anticipated and answered Jaeger's question in Thomas's preface to the commentary. I now propose to look at the liminal discussion.

In the Politics Aristotle puts a premium on the ability to command and order. One who orders unifies a plurality, directing many things to one: thus there is the orderer and the ordered, the ruler and the ruled. This hierarchy can be descried in the union of soul and body, for the mind naturally commands and the body responds. Morally, our lower desires are brought under the sway and command of reason. Ordering in short implies reason. What to make then of the order among the sciences? They all involve knowledge, and thus mind, so it cannot be the presence and absence of mind that explains the hierarchy. No, it is the quality of the mind. The science that orders and commands all the others is called wisdom. Wisdom is concerned with the most intelligible objects. But in virtue of what are things most intelligible?

Thomas suggests they are so in one of three ways: from the point of view of the order of understanding; by a comparison of intellect and sense; from the very knowledge of intellect.

The order of understanding -- That which makes the mind certain seems to be especially intelligible. But the mind acquires certitude by grasping the causes of events and things. Can we not say, then, that the most intelligible objects will be the first causes of things?

Comparison of intellect and sense -- Sense perception gives us knowledge of singulars whereas our intellect grasps the universal. That science, then, would seem to be most intellectual which is most universal.

Quae quidem sunt ens, et ea quae consequuntur ens, ut unum et multa, potentia et actus. Huiusmodi autem non debent omnino indeterminata remanere, cum sine his completa cognitio de his, quae sunt propria alicui generi vel speciei, haberi non possit. Nec iterum in una aliqua particulari scientia tractari debent: quia cum his unumquodque genus entium ad ui cognitionem indigeat, pari ratione in qualibet particulari scientia tractarentur.

But these are being and what follows on being, for example, the one and many, potency and act. Such like things ought not to be left wholly unexplored, since without them complete knowledge of what is proper to any genus or species cannot be had. Nor do they seem such that they ought to be treated in one of the particular sciences; moreover, since any genus of beings needs these for knowledge of it, as good a case could be made that they should be treated by every particular science.

These are what Professor Joseph Bobik has called the "left-over problems" that metaphysics must consider.

From intellect's knowledge itself -- It is removal from matter that makes something intelligible, so it would seem that things farthest removed from matter will be most intelligible. And, Thomas says, sufficient to recall to his reader the familiar doctrine on the division of the theoretical sciences.

The application of these three, seems to give us three rivals for the title of most intelligible. The first causes, the most abstract, the most immaterial.

Haec autem triplex consideratio, non diversis, sed uni scientiae attribui debet. Nam praedictae substantiae separatae sunt universales et primae causae essendi. Eiusdem autem scientiae est considerare causas proprias alicuius generis et genus ipsum: sicut naturalis considerat principia corporis naturalis. Unde oportet quod ad eamdem scientiam pertineat considerare substantias separatas, et ens commune, quod est genus, cuius sunt praedictae substantiae communes et universales causae.

But this threefold consideration ought not to be attributed to different sciences but to the same one. For the aforesaid separated substances are the first and universal causes of being, and it falls to the same science to consider the proper causes of a genus as well as that genus, just as the natural philosopher considers the principles of natural body. Thus the same science considers separated substances and common being, which is the genus of which those substances are the common and universal cause.

In one fell swoop, Thomas relates divine being and being as being: the latter is the subject of the science, the former are its causes. The same science studies a subject and the causes of that subject. But there were three senses of most intelligible.

Ex quo apparet, quod quamvis ista scientia praedicta tria consideret, non tamen considerat quodlibet eorum ut subiectum, sed ipsum solum ens commune. Hoc enim est subiectum in scientia, cuius causas et passiones quaerimus, non enim ipsae causae alicuius generis quaesiti. Nam cognitio causarum alicuius generis, est finis ad quem consideratio scientiae pertingit. Quamvis autem subiectum huius scientiae sit ens commune, dicitur tamen tota de his quae sunt separata a materia secundum esse et rationem. Quia secundum esse et rationem separari dicuntur, non solum illa quae nunquam in materia esse possunt, sicut Deus et intellectuales substantiae, sed etiam illa quae possunt sine materia esse, sicut ens commune. Hoc tamen non contingeret, si a materia secundum esse dependerent.

From which it is clear that although this science considers the three things mentioned, it does not consider each of them as its subject, but only common being. For that is the subject of a science whose causes and properties we seek, but not the causes themselves of the genus studied. The knowledge of the causes of any subject is the end to which the science tends. However, although the subject of this science is common being, the whole of it is said to concern things separate from matter both in being and understanding. Things are said to be such, not only if they can never exist in matter, e.g. God and intellectual substances, but also things that can exist apart from matter, such as common being. But this could not be if it depended on matter in order to be.

It is thanks to the subject matter and reference to it that these various matters can be reduced to one science. Moreover, the science takes different names from the three. It is called divine science, or theology, insofar as it considers the kind of substances mentioned.

It is called metaphysics insofar as it considers being and what follows on it, for this comes after physics. It is called first philosophy insofar as it considers the first causes of things. So it is, Thomas concludes his preface, that it is clear what the subject of this science is, how it compares to other sciences, and how it is named.

Suggested Reading Assignment

Read Thomas's proemium to his commentary on the Metaphysics, Selection 28, pp. 719-721.

Suggested Writing Assignment

Show how the teaching on analogous names enables Aristotle and Thomas to assign a sufficiently unified subject of metaphysics.


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