Joseph Owens and Aristotle’s “to ti en einai”

On Aristotle’s to ti ên einai and its translation

Aristotle’s phrase to ti ên einai is generally understood as a formula for expressing the notion of “essence”.  A problem that has arisen for translators, interpreters, and readers is how to understand the original Greek words in a way that makes sense to us today.  The difficulty arises simply from what many have thought to be the disjointedness of the literal translation of the phrase to ti ên einai, which runs, “the what was being.”  

One prominent suggestion for how to deal with the phrase comes from the Aristotelian scholar, Joseph Owens.  Owens argued that the “was” in the phrase should be understood not literally, but in terms of its imperfective aspect.  Imperfective aspect connotes, as its Latin root suggests, the idea of an action taking place without terminating. Thus ên (“was” above) would be read as connoting an action taking place in a “timeless present” (“was” carries the idea of an action without a start or an end).  Thus, the translation Owens recommends emerges as “the what-IS-being” (here the ‘was’ becomes a timeless ‘is’).  Moreover, as might be expected in the context of his book “The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics,” Owens builds metaphysical implications into the timelessness of the IS in the expression, saying that it points us to what “essentially, necessarily is” in a thing, apart from the “unintelligible matter…which is the principle of contingency and change” in a thing.  Many translators choose to simply gloss the phrase as “essence”; Owens’ translation might be taken to serve as working through the language to uncover the thinking behind the literal meaning of the phrase.

Owens’ treatment is indeed useful in developing Aristotelian concepts that are latent in the language.  Nevertheless, I believe that an older tradition which translates the phrase more in terms of its literal meaning, which leaves the “was” intact, also reveals a great deal about the notion of essence that should not be cast aside.  In what follows, I would like to provide reasons to resist the taking up Owens’ rendering without due consideration.  I believe that, despite the fact that some have taken it to be inarticulate as an expression, there are good reasons to let the literal sense of the phrase stand as the best way to access what Aristotle might have had in mind in the greater part of the contexts in which it appears.


Owens’ argument develops from the standpoint that, surely, the expression, “the what-was-Being” as a literal translation cannot stand (1 (See footnotes)).  From Owens’ standpoint, this phrase is unnecessarily disjointed. But if another, equally literal translation, is adopted, “the what it was to be,” the meaning of the text begins to open up in many passages.

For example, one suddenly finds oneself at home among the way the ancient greek commentators read the expression.  One of Owens’ implicit assumptions is that the phrase must directly concern the being of a thing, as his translation indicates.  However, an alternative is to understand the phrase in terms of the “coming-to-be” or “coming-into-being” and as part of the entelectic (or “goal oriented”) development of a thing: ‘what-it-was-to be” invokes the idea of what is ultimately prior in the “coming-into-being” of a thing: the actuality of a thing’s form. This understanding is consistent with Philoponus’ reading of De Anima II.1, 412b9, he writes that the phrase to ti ên einai indicates that in respect of which a thing has being (its einai) and that according to which a thing is said to be (its definition or logos) (2).  

In 412b, Aristotle has been discussing the particular sense in which the “soul” is the ousia and actuality of a thing.  First he distinguishes three types of ousiaentelecheia (literally, being-at-its-goal, or actuality); dunamis, (or potential or potency, which he associates with matter (hulê))(3);  and the composite things said to be composed of the former two, the things that are the “furniture” of the universe. Next, using the analogy of an axe Aristotle writes that if it were a natural body, that whereby it is an axe, its blade, would be its ousia and that soul bears the same relation to a living body.  The soul, in other words, is that whereby or without which a living body could not be what it is.  In relation to the three types of ousia, soul turns out to play the part of that which brings into being the particular being of a thing (the entelecheia) of a thing.  In contrast to non-living things, it is what makes living things the distinct sort of being they are in relation to a body which has the potential to live.

To apply this reasoning to Philoponus’ remark, one can see that a similar train of thought is underway.  It was said that according to his reading, to ti ên einai indicates that in respect of which a thing has its being, or is what it is.  As was said above, this corresponds to the “entelectic” ousia of a thing.  What should be noticed is the way in which these ingredients correlate with the notion of to ti ên einai as signifying something that comes into being, but is also, nevertheless, logically and ontologically prior, as what as what a thing was (meant) to be.   Finally, one can understand Philoponus’ reading sketched above as interpreting to ti ên einai in terms of ousia; an ousia, whose entelectic aspect has both ontological and logical priority inasmuch as, for Aristotle, the actual in being is ultimately prior to potential being (as Metaphysics book Theta argues) and is last to be realized in the order of becoming.

One can see the sense in which translating to ti ên einai as ‘the what-it-was-to-be’ begins to bring to light Aristotle’s intention in this context. As was indicated above, the imperfect tense in the phrase indicates something that must be present if something else is to be just as a recipie indicates what will be as an end that has not yet been fulfilled.  In this case, what must be brought into being is the ousia of a thing, which is that without which a thing could not be what it is.  This conclusion coincides quite naturally with Aristotle’s intention in this section of the De Anima: to explain the sense in which the “soul” is the first actuality (entelecheia) of an organic body.


It has been argued against Owens that there are grounds for retaining the past tense of ên in the translation of to ti ên einai.  It remains to be seen what Owens’ response to this argument would be.  There is in fact a sense in which his view complements the one being offered here, and another in which it leads to different conclusions.

To take up the complementary sense first, it is possible to relate Owens’ sense of to ti ên einai as indicating a timeless present being to the notion of ousia and primary entelecheia invoked above.  It is important to see that Owens’ ‘the what-IS-being’ emphasizes an aspect of form that places it outside of time in a way that contrasts with “the contingency of matter and change, upon which time follows” (4).  In this precise sense of form, it coincides with an understanding of form as not in things but as ideally separate in a way that coincides with a more Platonic sense of “form”.  Needless to say, this is, as was hinted at in the opening a highly metaphysical sense of form.  There is, of course, a sense in which one can consider “form” as abstracted in thought from all matter in which case it becomes literally an idea or else a celestial object in Aristotle’s cosmos.  Such a conception would lead one to consider form as manifested in matter apart from matter, and in this sense it coincides with one of the principles of the natural world, as one of the senses of ousia (the one that coincides with entelecheia) outlined above.

What is lacking in this reading is that it seems to forget that the entelechy in view is equally an aspect of ousia as it is experienced in the world around us.  Several of Aristotle’s pronouncements on the proper methodological approach to the natural sciences point in this direction, and it is perhaps as clear in De Anima II.2 as anywhere.  At the beginning of II.2, at 413a9-16, Aristotle is concerned to go beyond the the facts gathered together in the initial, general treatment of the soul in De Anima II.1 to access the core, so to speak, of what makes it what it is.  In doing so, he will proceed from what is more evident to the senses (phaneroteron) to an explanation that is more intelligible and clear as a reasoned account (kata ton logon)(5).   What should be noticed is that in doing so, Aristotle is in search of a cause that will explain the presence of the phenomenal facts gathered in the first section.  That cause or reason will have two aspects: one mentioned immediately above that is purely intelligible and can be grasped in terms of its logos or account, and another that is present in the thing: an aspect emphasized in the present context where he says that the cause sought after must be phenomenally present in the subject under discussion (alla kai ten aitian enhuparchein kai emphainesthai).  These are the two familiar poles of Aristotle’s notion of understanding, his fundamental starting points of knowledge (logos and sense experience) which must be connected if any truly explanatory demonstration is to be possible.

Any account of “essence” for Aristotle must be consistent with these two aspects of the cause or reason that explains what a thing is.  Moreover, as one might have glimpsed, these two aspects can and should be related to the three-fold division of ousia Aristotle draws out explained above as entelecheia (actuality), dunamis (potentiality), and the composite of the two.  In searching for the cause of the observable phenomena associated with a thing, one is likewise in search of its underlying actuality, or, again, that which makes a thing what it is.  Owens’ account would have our understanding of essence limited to actuality apart from all potentiality or coming to be not only in terms of its logical, rational formula (cf. kata ton logon above)  but also in terms of its existence in a composite thing.  That this is in fact what Owens is up to can be seen most clearly where he writes that “The notion back of the imperfect therefore should be that of necessary Being….” and again where he says his treatment of to ti ên einai “implies that the form is the fundamental Being of the thing”. However, most decisively, Owens writes that due to timelessness of this “Being”, “the Greek imperfect cannot be taken here as denoting past time” since “It refers in this phrase to something still present, and applies equally well to the timeless separate Forms” (6).

Now, interestingly, Owens arrives at a sense of the role of to ti ên einai in Aristotle’s researches into the natural world that is perfectly compatible with the three-fold analysis of ousia given above.  This can be seen where Owens presents matter, form, and the composite as possible answers to the socratic “what-is-it”  question and then relates to ti ên einai exclusively to the formal aspect of what a thing is (pp. 186-7).  Owens relates this type of “Being” not merely to the form of a thing but also attempts depict it to the formal cause of a thing in a way consistent with his earlier characterization saying that, “The form appears to be ’cause’ in the highest sense, and as such is the ‘Entity’ of the what-IS-Being of the thing to which it is the cause”(7).   It does not seem to occur to Owens that there is a discrepancy between (a) his fully separate “Being” and (b) the role to ti ên einai plays in relation to ousia as analyzed in terms of the natural world: such an ousia is not, as the example of his treatment of the soul makes clear, to be understood as an abstraction from things, but the being of things.  The formal causality that such a being brings to composite being is more in tune with being in time rather than “Being” construed as separate and timeless.  This is brought out explicitly where Aristotle, at 412a27 writes that the soul is the first entelechy (lit. being-at-its-goal) of a physical body potentially having life, supporting among other things, waking and sleep.  Such beings can come into and go out of being in the natural world; only as mental abstractions or when considered as necessary within a logically based ontological reconstruction of the cosmos do they have a necessary being.  Thus, it seems it must be concluded that however strange Aristotle’s formulation may initially seem, it would be misleading to characterize to ti ên einai as indicating a purely timeless, abstract Being in all contexts.


The question presents itself, then, whether Owens’ understanding of to ti ên einai in the Metaphysics ought to be taken as peculiar to that context or whether it might be construed as a more architectonic way of treating the phrase than the more temporal interpretation of essence given by the traditional translation.  It follows from what has been argued above that, precisely as it has been formulated, Owens’ translation will not stand as a more architectonic way of understanding of the role of to ti ên einai.  This should be evident from the fact that it is not applicable without qualification to the context of natural science (the method announced in the De Anima being applicable to the natural sciences generally).  On the other hand, as alluded to above, there is a sense in which the metaphysical reading of to ti ên einai is compatible with a more everyday physical way of considering being.  What, then, is the proper way of conceiving the relation between entelectic being and Owens’ Being?

If there is a priority that may be given to the metaphysical sense, it will not be one that connotes a platonic sense of essential Being.  That sense does not apply generally, if at all to Aristotle’s researches in natural science.  It may apply to the immaterial heavenly bodies of an Aristotelian cosmos; but even in such a context, may we be said to be contemplating a kind of Being that is truly timeless?  Such beings would seem to require a separate realm if  taken to be entities in Aristotle’s sense.  Recall that the planets do have motion-in their revolutions (8).   I propose that the proper sense that belongs to the metaphysical formulation should be construed as compatible with what is for Aristotle kata ton logon (cf section 2 above), which amounts to a way of seeing or considering reality mentally that is purely intelligible and that allows for contemplation.  This mode of apprehending the world contrasts with a phenomenologically based one that forms the ultimate starting point of investigation.

Thus, I believe the type of priority Owens’ formulation will bear is one that is compatible with the order of explanation or of demonstration when full understanding has been attained: that is, when experience is explained with consistency by a governing principle, reason, or cause; or, again, when the logical account we give of things has attained both internal coherence and external coherence with the phenomena it explains.  This is obviously a sense in which the form of a thing, considered as an arche of understanding may have a logical priority over the observable phenomena associated with it it is meant to explain.  But this priority is of an entirely different order than a more ontological one that considers ousia as a component of things in the natural world.  Nevertheless, despite the apparent incompatibility, there is a place within Aristotle’s metaphysics where the two orders merge: where ousia is identified in Metaphysics Book Z as the foundation of everyday being, and more especially, associated with the formal reality that is in things.

This is in fact, what I believe should provide the locus for a more architectonic understanding of to ti ên einai.  It is in the context of Z that to ti ên einai is identified with the formal nature that is in things as a metaphysical principle.  This is a metaphysical sense that is compatible with being in time as considered in the physical world.  It may be applied to Aristotle’s analogy involving an axe: things come to have particular being, to be individual substances of a certain type when they can also be said to have a certain entelechy that is compatible with the way such things are ordinarily described.  In the case of an axe, this ordinary description will involve its having a blade, and in a very everyday sense, just as a lump of iron will not be an axe until it has a blade, so a particular sort of body will not be living unless it has a soul, and so on for other cases in the natural world.  When things become what is compatible with the way we ordinarily describe them they are what we say they are; an account of their essence clarifies just what it is that unifies such descriptions and explains the natural phenomena before us.  Such an account is precisely what Aristotle intends by the phrase to ti ên einai which indicates what sort of attribute or attributes a thing must possess if it is to be a certain kind of thing.  This being stands as the fulfillment of what a thing was-to-be.


(1) See The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, p. 181.

(2) See Philoponus’ Commentary on the De Anima, under the pages marked with the Bekker number corresponding to the text.

(3) Cf. the text of Aristotle’s de Anima, II.1, ll. 412a6ff.

(4) Owens esp. pp. 183-184.

(5) 413a12 of DA II.2.

(6) Owens, pp.184-185

(7) Owens, p. 188.

See Aristotle’s Metaphysics, V.13, 1020a29-33, where Aristotle relates time to space and movement


Owens, Joseph.  The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics (3rd ed.).  (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1978). 

Ioannis Philoponi in Aristotelis De anima libros commentaria / consilio et auctoritate Academiae Litterarum Regiae Borussicae ; edidit Michael Hayduck.  (Berolini: Typis et Impensis G. Reimeri, 1897).

Aristotle. de Anima (ed. W.D. Ross).  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961).

One response to “Joseph Owens and Aristotle’s “to ti en einai”

  1. Thank you for this paper. Very constructive thoughts, especially the architectonic aspect of the translation.

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