Tag Archives: philosophy

The Basic Conflict Between Phenomenology and Empiricism and Why it Matters


Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

Perhaps someone can explain exactly how phenomenology is actually different from phenomenalism when it comes to the question of objectivity. I think that the only difference might be Huserl’s idea about intersubjectivity-but that is consistent with phenomenalism. At the core of each is the idea that perception is the only foundation for objectivity. The move that empiricists would want to make is to say that there must be some grounding for our subjectivity that must ground our perception of the world whether we perceive it or not.
The existence of things in the world, in other words, can’t just depend on our perception of them. Is this a trap that phenomenalism and phenomenology fall into? It does seem that intersubjectivity involves the presumption that someone must perceive an object in order for it to be considered a reality. I don’t think it manages to avoid Hume’s more objectionable skepticism about unperceived objects, in other words.
Intersubjectivity seems about as good as it gets if you want to take phenomena as the basis for reality, however, since it is basically consistent with science. And yet it does seem to fall into the trap of Cartesian skepticism that perception makes the world rather than the other way around, or that it is our perception that validates the existence of things rather than that it is the existence of things that validates our perception. The trap being simply that no actual world apart from my perception needs to exist at all for the phenomenological viewpoint to follow. In other words my reality is consistent with a dream if the phenomenologist is right.

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Filed under Continental philosophy, Early modern philosophy corner

Some Striking Similarities between the Political Philosophy of Ancient Cultures


Confucius (wikimedia.org)


From time to time I notice some striking similarities between ancient cultures. I was reading about Mencius’ theory of social division into “mind-workers” and“hand workers.” Interestingly, Aristotle uses the exact term “xeirotechnes” (hand-worker/hand artisan) to refer to those who work with their hands and are at the bottom of the social ladder. In each case, their function is to supply food for the mind workers. The role of the mind workers is to guard the true way of kingship which was founded by the ancient kings. An interesting addition to the Chinese tradition is that there is either one or very few persons who qualify as a top mind worker, who are called sages and given the title “Hsien.” A Hsien (lit. “better”) is someone who is fit to guide the king in the way of true kingship.


Some further reading gives the historical background for the emphasis on guarding the way of the true kings. The last true kings were considered to be the first three emperors of China. A series of tyrants followed them who basically led to what seems to have amounted to a de-civilization of Chinese civilization. It was at the end of this period (the 4th century BC) that Confucius and later Mencius began writing of the first emperors as the true kings and of their way of rulership as the way of true kingship. Their traditionalism may be viewed as way of getting back to a civilized, orderly society. This may explain the emphasis upon observing familial relations and respect for status in the social order. It may have been an attempt to imitate the old order as the true “way,” rather than an attempt to re-grow a civilization organically.

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A Few Simple Questions for Phenomenologists, Husserlians, and Heideggarians or those Who Otherwise Claim to Be “In the know” Regarding their Views:

Kutal-giving-away-the-metaphor Giving away the metaphor by Firuz Kutal

“Giving Away the Metaphor,” by Firuz Kutal

Phenomenology is often credited with broadening the range of discussion of what is involved in perception. But what philosophical issues does it really resolve?  One major aim of the phenomenological movement is its attempt to resolve philosophical issues about subjectivity as a way to find a sure footing for knowledge.  Husserl attempted to find a way to ground our experience in the surest possible way.  The simple answer was to embrace our subjective experience as that ground and as the only possible ground for evaluating our experiences. But certainly not everyone has felt that subjetivity was sufficient : certainly Descartes, for example, wanted to get beyond subjectivity as the ground of experience.  Later, Husserl discussed expanding the range of subjedtive experience into the realm of intersubjectivity. Are there any compelling reasons for discontent with subjectivity?

Descartes, again, provides a foil.  Descartes famously attempted to find an objective basis for his subjective experiences in his faith in a benevolent God (one who would not decieve him).  To many, such an approach might appear extravagant, but it should be remembered that a) Descartes most likely did believe in God and b)his whole project was about finding a once-and-for-all  objective basis for knowledge.  At worst, his appraoch makes objectivity possible for those who believe in God.  But that doesn’t seem to satisfy philosophical minds who don’t buy his proofs for the existence of God.  But why was objectivity important for Descartes in the first place?

What he was after was a special kind of knowledge-a knowledge the truth of which could not possibly be doubted.  Such a knowledge would be based upon inbuditable first principles.  Its value? We could KNOW things.  But what on earth does such KNOWING amount to when it comes to our sensory experiences?  Apparently, that when I see a tree, I not only know a) that I am seeing a tree (uncontroversial) and b) (more exciting) that THERE REALLY IS A TREE THERE.  It seems odd to think that our subjective experiences couldn’t take us to that knowledge (can’t I just feel it, taste it, smell it, etc. to confirm its existence?).  Answer: not if you are Renee Descartes, who has found ways to doubt the truth of such experiences.  But if you are Descartes, presumably you can also reflect that God wouldn’t decieve you and that, therefore, there IS a tree there.


Is there anyone who does not find this silly?  It is, nevertheless, a problem that those who followed Descartes had to deal with and is, arguably, the setting for the split between continental and analytic philosophers.  Continental philosophers who follow Husserl bracket the question of the existence of their perceptions, putting it outside the parameters of what we can know.  Analytic philosophers often assume (e.g. Russell) that everyday objects do generally exist unless everyday perception can falsify that fact.  One can go further back: John Locke assumes that everyday objects must generally exist since something must have caused our perceptions.  Russell agreed that the problem was insoluble.  What, then does this dispute amount to?

Both sides agree that the problem of whether objects exist outside our perception is insoluble, but one side decides to assume that everyday objects exist whereas the other refuses to do so.  The Husserlians might claim to be more firmly grounded since they do not make an unwarranted assumption, but do so at the cost of maintaining a worldview that doesn’t even embrace the real existence of the phenomena they find present in it.

Husserl attempted to bridge the gap between subjectivity and objectivity through the idea of intersubjective analogical experience, with special implications for the realm of aesthetics.  A difficultly for this view is that it doesn’t take into account that there are certain things that we can never fully grasp even by analogy. Qualia are an example: no matter how empathetic one might feel, one may never really know what it is like to feel another person’s depression (or itch, or pain, etc.).  There remain gaps in our experience that leave us bereft (if it does matter to us) of any possibility of knowing certain things as they are in themselves that limit the boundaries of intersubjectivity that only add to the question of existence that must, at the end of the day, also be bracketed.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Many people who study Phenomenolgy, however, do seem to think that it has put the question to rest by focusing our attention on the phenomena as they exist (in the mode of their presentation to us as existing phenomena (as it were)).  But Husserl explicitly brackets the question of existence and thus, in fairness to Husserl himself, it should be said that Phenomenology does not claim to solve the problem.  A preliminary question then is, if Phenomenology does not claim to solve this problem, does it make any progress toward solving it by bracketing it?  The answer should be straightforard.  If it does not, and it merely takes objects “as if” they really exsited, is it not making the same assumption as analytic philosophers do?  Analytic philosophers (Russell et al.) do not attempt to answer the question and thus bracket it in their own way.  They assume that objects exist.  Don’t their views on the problem of perception and existence really amount to the same thing in that case?  Lastly, if that is so, what greater claim to knoweldge, based upon its method, can phenomenology claim to make, besides the many caveats it enters against “objectivity” on the side of our subjetive experience?  While such caveats as the need for an awareness of the way that the past experience of an individual shapes his/her present experience are enlightening in some ways, do such caveats take us closer to the firmly grounded basis for knowledge that Phenomenolgy aspires to?





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Filed under Aesthetics, Continental philosophy, Early modern philosophy corner, Philosophy of mind/Consciousness

An Application of the Taoist/Confucian Idea of “The Process.”

Pound’s translation of The Unwobbling Pivot, No. 5 reads as follows: “The Philosopher said: they do not proceed according to the process. No, people do not use the main open road.”
Some have written that Chinese philosophy and culture is very practical. Others have noticed that works like the Tao Te Ching seem anything but practical. This particular quote and illustration shows how the two fit together.   Many people, and especially young people today feel alienated from American capitalism.  The following is meant as an exposition of a Confucian viewpoint that might be taken of things.
First, “The Process” 
What is mean by “the process”? Its simply the way of things, the way things are, and the way things come to be. Talking about it seems to have such an air of generality that it appears to lack much practical application. However, there is a way in which it can usefully be applied to some of today’s cultural problems.
Use the Open Road! What open road?
Our society is a capitalistic one. This means that if you want a decent living you are going to have to sell things or compete with others for employment. This is the way of things in our society. Going against that way would make things difficult. Not necessarily impossible and not necessarily not to one’s benefit, but certainly difficult.
The practical thing for most people to do, with the exception of all but a very small few (we’re being practical about this), is to embrace the way of things to whatever extent works to your benefit and to the benefit of your society. Embracing competition, or simply an ethos of bettering oneself in a way that is economically advantageous, is a turn of mind that can make your life go more smoothly. It is a very, very strong tide that would be very difficult to go against. This dynamic is at the core of our society.
It is not suggested that adhering to this process or way should become the core or center of one’s being-that is not the center but what whirls about the center. It is change, not stillness, not rest. And yet we need change as individuals just as nature does. It should also be emphasized that embracing the way of things need not involve doing so without a sense of how to make things better.
How does this help solve cultural problems?
This answer is: by helping people to better come to terms with the society they live in and to help them see what is advantageous for them while they are living in it. It hopefully shows how it might be possible to do what is advantageous, work for whatever changes might be needed, and find their place in the process-and even shape it and guiding it. One should not simply live for oneself without compromise; one must also live for and even make sacrifices for the betterment of one’s society.
Of course, there may be those who reject this process altogether. In that case, it seems that there are two options: reject capitalism and leave this society or reject capitalism and remain in society. But on a practical level, be advised that this won’t be easy. The worst option of all would seem to be to go against the process, remain in society, and do nothing to change it. Practically speaking, that would be to no one’s benefit.
This is a very practical way of looking at things. It is also tied to seemingly airy metaphysical way of looking at things at a high level of generality. It illustrates how the two fit together to guide decision making.
I welcome your comments.

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A Dialogue on Lockean Substratum

The following link is to a dialogue I wrote up on Lockean substratum.  You have to click on the link to see the PdF file.  I wrote it out long hand in a cafe since I have been experiencing technical difficulties with my laptop.

Dialogue on Lockean Substratum


Opinion on the notion of Substratum

Opinion: better alternatives than Aristotelian substratum may be found to ground the existence of the attributes of substances. One such is presented here, which is put forward as logically consistent and one that satisfies both the demands of Aristotelians and their Empiricist opponents.

The Issue~

Before Tina Turner sang, “We don’t need another Hero” Locke wrote in a similar way about the non-necessity of Aristotelian substratum. Why did people think that everyday objects needed a substratum to be sufficiently groundedontologically? Well, the reasoning can be taken as proceeding like this:

When we look at everyday objects, we can see that they have certain attributes, such as a certain height or color or weight.
These attributes can be said to have a certain order of dependence one upon another: for example, an object has a color only if it first has extension in space. Only if an object is extended in space, having at least two dimensions, it might be said, can it thereby have a color. This is true even in one’s imagination. Necessarily, if an object has a color it has a height and width, if not a depth and weight at a certain time.
But, the advocate of substrata would claim, extension is not enough to establish an object as a real entity by itself. Being a mere attribute of an object it cannot exist on its own.
The justification for #3 is related to #2 in the sense that it involves ontological dependence. This time the dependence is spoken of in terms of “inherence”. The argument goes as follows: (a) the qualities of an object such as its colors, which are a type of accident (see #1) cannot exist on their own without belonging to or inhering in a substance; (b) in the same way, the quantitative accidental attributes of a substance, such as its height or weight or length cannot exist apart from an object. Moreover, (c) the qualities and quantitative attributes of an object make up the sum total of an object’s internal attributes (i.e. those that are not relative and depend upon its internal attributes). But (d) all such attributes must inhere in something since they cannot exist on their own (see a-c). Hence (e) all such attributes must depend upon a further something that might ground their existence. That further something is what the Aristotelian would call a substratum.
The claim that this argument can be taken as a synopsis of the Aristotelian view on “Substance” perhaps needs some defense. This can be presented briefly, but I think conclusively, as follows.

The word Aristotle uses that is usually translated as “substrate” in the Categories is to hypokeimenon, or literally, “the underlying (something)”, which is often translated as “subject” (as in the grammatical subject of predicates). It should be seen at the outset that the term does double duty in the Categories as a term for a grammatical subject (as a subject for predicates) and for a subject in the sense of substance: e.g. Aristotle writes in Chapter 2 of the Categories, “By being ‘present in a subject’ I do not mean present as parts are present in a whole, but being incapable of existence apart from the said subject.” By introducing the notion of accidents as existing in a substance (the Greek word here is hypokeimenon as above) Aristotle is in effect shifting the ontological ground of his discussion from the consideration of the role of a subject as a bit of grammar to subject as a countable entity.

The effect is such that the discussion of the hypokeimenon-subject of the second chapter of the Categories naturally bridges over into Aristotle’s further discussion of ousia-subject in the fifth chapter. It is significant that Aristotle has an entitative sense of “subject” in mind in the second chapter because it lays the foundation for a dualism between substance and accident that follows from his claim (quoted above) that accidents cannot exist on their own (chapter 2), although a substance can (implicit in chapter 2 where he identifies subjects as unitary things such as individual horses and men in contrast to things that are present in a subject, and explicit in chapter 5 where Aristotle says that the ability to subsist is one of the primary differentiating characteristics of a substance).

The non-reducibility of accident to substance follows from this duality: one subsists while the other merely “exists in” (see 4 a and b above). But this in turn yields the further result that no collection of accidents can yield a substance. This reasoning is, quite arguably, implicit in Aristotle’s distinction between accidental and substantial change in the first Chapter of his lectures on Physics. It is this non-reducibility that provides the basis for the Lockean critique of Aristotle’s notion of substance.

It is, of course, fairly well established that Locke, in the end, decides to keep substrata in his inventory of “the things that are”. But he does so only after presenting a very compelling empiricist counterargument that has left many wondering whether he could actually be serious about maintaining that there are such things as substrata in the universe. His counterargument can be related to the dualism between substance and accident mentioned above.

Essentially, Locke’s argument works on the irreducibility of accident to substance that underlies that dualism. In Book II, ch. xxiii of his “Essay” Locke points out that if it were asked wherein qualities (secondary qualities) inhere in a substance one could answer that they inhere in the quantitative features of an object (in Locke’s terminology, their primary qualities). But if one were to press further and ask wherein the primary qualities of an object inhere, one could only answer that it must be an unknown something-something the senses do not perceive. It can be seen here that Locke is attempting to be a consistent empiricist in claiming that the notion of substratum is unfounded: since it cannot be sensed, it violates the basic criterion for what any good empiricist would accept into his or her ontology.  This type of argument might be called the “Indian argument” for short, since it has been referred to as such in the secondary literature.

Thus, the issue substratum theory poses comes to this: one can either say with Aristotle that a substratum is necessary as a ground or support for things that cannot exist on their own, or one can side with Locke’s empiricist argument against substrata (the indian argument) in saying that no such entity can be admitted into one’s ontology on empiricist grounds. Moreover, to admit substrata into one’s ontology is implicitly to move from a monistic position (materialism or phenomenalism) to a dualistic one (materialism plus an immaterial entity): since only “qualities” in Locke’s terminology, or “accidents” in Aristotle’s can by their very nature, be perceived, substrata, or substances without attributes must be taken to be imperceptible by their very nature. Hence it follows that for the substratum theorist, there must be at least two basic kinds of things: those that are perceptible and those that are imperceptible by their very nature. In admitting substrata into his ontology, Locke basically affirmed his commitment to a kind of dualism that in many respects mirrored Cartesian dualism, and for similar reasons (e.g. non-reducibility), has engendered dissatisfaction ever since.


The argument I would like to advance in response to this issue is that it is unnecessary to suppose substrata as a ground for accidents/qualities. This position prompts two lines of inquiry: firstly, can the quantitative features of an object exist on their own or do they require something wherein they may exist? I.e., how does one overcome the common sense view that says things like a particular height or weight must inhere in an object in order to have any reality? Does this not inescapably prompt the need to suppose the existence of a substrate wherein their existence may be grounded? Secondly, if the quantitative features of an object can somehow be taken to be the fundamental ground of being of an object and this in turn implies either a materialistic or phenomenalistic monism, can such a monism do all the metaphysical work the alternative dualism with its supposed substratum was able to do? An affirmative answer to the latter question can be justified through resolving the problems posed by the first line of inquiry: basically, a satisfactory monism will be able to do all the metaphysical work that the alternative dualism was able to do without supposing a fundamentally imperceptible substratum. Since substrata have this characteristic, they would seem to deserve the title of “occult entity” as much as any others of the same ilk and their elimination would seem to be desirable from both an epistemic and an empirical point of view if one happens to be committed to empirical principles in drawing up the inventory of one’s ontology. Let’s proceed then to see what can be done to eliminate substrata.

Supporting arguments~

Simply put, the key to eliminating substrata is to let the term “substance” indicate an entity that essentially includes all its attributes (or qualities or accidents) in its concept. This might be taken to be a Leibnizian view of substance. The next move is to see that, taking on the idea of the attributes of a substance as fundamentally dependent beings, they imply a substance. Thus, we are left with the following set of logical relationships between substances and their attributes: necessarily, if there is an attribute, then there is a substance; but, moreover, only if there is a substance can there be an attribute. If one wants to know wherein an attribute exists, it may be answered that it exists in or belongs to a substance; but only if there is a substance may there be an attribute at all. The latter justifies the idea that substance can function as the ground of existence for attributes, while the former affirms the basic desire to say that attributes must exist in something other than themselves.

This view of things fits perfectly well with any empiricist/phenomenalist view of perception that begins with particular percepts as a basic epistemic starting point. Consider an object; let’s say, a book, for example: the book may be considered a substance, while its color or height may be considered as belonging to it as a substance. The substance in this case is an independent entity but not one that is devoid of attributes. Indeed, as above, the existence of substance can be taken to pre-suppose the existence of attributes in a non-circular manner. Here again, the perceptible phenomenal attributes belong to the book as to a substance that grounds their existence; but that substance in turn sufficiently implies the existence of at least one attribute.

This may seem rough and ready given the long standing persistence of this metaphysical issue. But it should be enough merely to ask the reader to consider the logic that prompts the series of moves presented above. Consider that in posing the definition of substance presented here (seemingly out of thin air?) as an alternative to substratum theory, what has been shown is the non-necessity of substratum theory, provided that the version of the relationship between substances and their attributes is not self contradictory and can be said to be basically sound. The two paragraphs immediately above can be taken as answering to both of those requirements.

The desire to reify substance, to make it into a separate entity apart from its attributes, seems to follow from a mistake in thinking that whatever substance is, it must be something independent not only from other substances but also from its own attributes. It might be thought, for example, that since a substance may undergo a change in its attributes (for example changing from short to tall) it must be independent from its attributes. But this assumption is non-necessary from a logical standpoint: it may be said, alternatively, that substance sufficiently implies the existence of at least one attribute while the existence of an attribute necessarily implies a substance. Moreover, the irreducibility arguments above for an independent substance need only lead to the conclusion that a substance should be distinguished from its attributes from a conceptual standpoint: clearly, attributes must be fundamentally different from substances in some way, but that need not imply a total independence in re from one another. The above way of construing their inter-relationship allows for conceptual dependence on a logical basis with greater fidelity to the epistemological basis for that dependence than substratum theory offers.

In conclusion, the definition of substance presented above allows for a way to conceive of substance that satisfies the demand for both irreducibility required by Aristotelians and other substance dualists and the epistemological grounding in perception sought by phenomenalists or materialists. It makes the two compatible by simply distinguishing conceptual independence from interdependence in re in a way that is logically valid and, arguably, sound. As a viable alternative, it argues against the need to construe substances as substrata.

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Art and its critics: an opinion on the role of the critic


What is the role of the critic?  How should criticism interact with an art form?  These are questions that have been asked and answered in various ways before.  In what follows, I would like to draw from my own personal experience as someone who has been writing on jazz for a little over a year.  I do not wish to claim absolute originality for any of my thoughts, but only the originality of them as my own personal observations, based upon the particular context of my experiences.  I invite comments and criticism from readers that may further the discussion.  In the course of these thoughts about the role of the critic I have also been led to say a few things about the relationship between art and philosophy, and moreover, about the relationship between science and philosophy.  My belief about the relationship between the artist and the critic is that when they work together best, the one acts to push forward the thought of the other.  The particular way in which that positive interaction comes about will be the subject of what follows.

In the case of non-linguistic arts (such as music or painting) when the critic puts into words a description of a non-linguistic art form, the result is a kind of translation that involves a jump from something communicated at a sensual level to one that engages the understanding in a rational reconstruction of the “sense” of that sensuality.  Embedded in this description is a more general assumption about what critics ought to be doing.  It may be spelled out clearly as the assumption that critics ought, at some point, to make an effort to interpret art, and not merely evaluate it in terms of whether it is agreeable to their personal tastes.  From a long-term perspective, tastes may vary, and while it may be interesting to read about the tastes of different critics, or of different critics over time, the more enduring and more valuable critical work is the work that shows us how a way of seeing or feeling can perhaps be linked to a way of  thinking or understanding.  Critical work that takes on that kind of task is critical work that engages in the project of interpretation.  An interpretation, despite the seemingly arbitrary nature of art, can be refined over time to the point where a world view begins to be articulated through reflection upon art.  It may also be the work of multiple hands.

This point seems to call for an explication of the role of the artist in relation to the critic.  The view I would like to propose is that the artist presents in art a way of seeing that can introduce listeners or viewers to new ways of seeing.  New ways of seeing, in turn, push interpreters toward ever new ways of thinking and understanding.  Thus, art can be seen as an embryonic stage in the march toward the development of systematic philosophies.  All art seems to have a way of seeing embedded in its creation.  That way of seeing is typically not rigorously drawn out in terms of a systematically ordered set of concepts.  That wouldn’t be “art”, but something else, like a mature form of criticism or a philosophy perhaps.

But to anticipate a possible objection, does philosophy always begin with art?  In one sense the answer will be “No”, but with a way of seeing, and with the project of articulating that way of seeing.  This, it seems to me, is the point at which philosophy divides itself from science (to the extent that a division based upon modern practices in the universities must be rationalized): whereas science takes the elements of the empirical world as its starting point, philosophy takes a way of seeing involving an act of interpretation as its starting point.  But there was also a “yes” answer.  What, then, is the way in which philosophy always begins with art?

The “yes” answer to this question involves embracing the thesis that what makes art “art” is simply the intentional act of seeing it as art.  For example, I am sitting in a café at this moment and there is a coffee cup on the table.  I may decided to look upon it as a scientific object, in which case I will be interested in its empirical properties with a mind toward some sort of classification or seeking answers to questions like “Why does it appear white?” or “What might be the best material for a coffee cup?”.  But, if my interest is an artistic one, I will look upon it in a different way, with a different set of intentions.  I might decide that it is a beautiful object, or I might decide that a different sort of lighting could help its appearance.

The point is that any object can be considered as art inasmuch as any object can be looked upon from an artistic point of view or with the intention of evaluating it from an artistic perspective.  Seeing an object as art, furthermore involves the possibility of seeing it as representing a way of seeing.  To return to the coffee cup, it might seem far fetched that a coffee cup could represent a way of seeing; but if one considers centuries of work that has been done on ancient artifacts, whether Greek, Etruscan, or Egyptian, one cannot help but admit the possibility of seeing a worldview in such creations.  That critics would like to articulate the sense of that worldview might be considered the starting point toward a philosophical viewpoint.  Here, it may be realized, the progression does not go from one medium or subject matter to another.  The progression is rather from the presentation of a viewpoint toward a systematic articulation of that viewpoint.

Finally, I would like to introduce the thought that the relationship between the artist and critic is a macrocosm of what occurs in each one of us when we attempt to understand the world on the basis of the information that the senses deliver to our intelligence.  We work toward an understanding of the world, and of ourselves in relation to the world, seemingly as an extension of our innate drive toward survival.  Those poles seem to interact as follows: we begin with a sensuous kind of understanding that later reaches a fuller articulation once it has been subject to the task of adhering to logical consistency.  Once the latter is achieved, a kind of philosophy may be said to have come into bloom.

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Aristotle’s four modes of perseity (Posterior Analytics I.4): Introduction (parts 3 and 4)

Perseity and Identification

{The texts in Aristotle’s corpus relevant to the following discussion have been placed at the end of the essay for ease of reference}

The general way in which the notion of persiety can be characterized has been explained above  (See Introduction I and II ).  Part 1 in the present series emphasized the difference between necessary and accidental connections, while Aristotle’s “said of all” was explored in part 2 as a criterion for necessity.  What remains to be seen is the way in which each of these two discussions help to situate the notion of an essential attribute, and prepare the way for a deeper understanding of the role that kath’hauto (per se) predicates play in Aristotle’s larger schema for organizing knowledge.


What I would like to argue, as a preliminary matter, is that kath’hauto predicates indicate that one term is related to another in such a way that it may be said to be entailed by the very possibility of the existence (or being) of another thing.  Thus, in the example given above, “point” bears a kath’hauto or per se relationship to “line” because it is one of the conditions necessary for there to be a line.  (See Note* below)  But the true importance of the role such predicates play, is that they serve to anchor one term to another, thus enabling a schema for identifying a certain subject/substance as one thing or another.  As will be seen, this has the further consequence that kath’hauto predicates help to give “atomic” subjects their atomicity.

In keeping with Aristotle’s recommended procedure for exploring a subject, we will proceed from what is better known to us toward a formulation that will be more intelligible in itself.  I will proceed to show how the identification of smallpox sorts with Aristotle’s overall scheme for identifying a thing as something or other, and in the process, make clear the role that kath’hauto predicates play within this framework.  In brief, my contention will be that they can be viewed as a necessary term or as a conjuction of necessary terms that are sufficient to identify a particular subject.  The precise way in which they are sufficient will have to be worked out as we proceed.  If all that I am about to say is correct, it will show the way in which Aristotle’s theories of research and syllogistic proof are actually quite compatible with modern scientific methods.  As will become clear, it is by emphasizing the role of identification in having an account of a thing that the theory of demonstration can come to be seen as useful for the purposes of scientific research.

The smallpox example

Suppose that you are a nurse working in a hospital.  One day someone comes into the hospital with the following symptoms: flu-like symptoms, including a headache, vomiting, and high fever.  Moreover, there are the beginnings of a kind of rash in the patient’s mouth, and the patients complains of a backache and overall fatigue.  What can be concluded from these symptoms?  Not much in the way of identifying their precise cause, since they could apply to many causes.  It is always possible that even all the syptoms together, which are the symptoms of smallpox, might not be enough to conclude that the patient has smallpox.  It could be the case, for example, that the rash in the patient’s mouth is due to an infection of some kind that is totally unrelated to the other symptoms.

These symptoms could be said to be the necessary conditions for having smallpox.  Note that these conditions/symptoms are not even sufficient when taken together or conjunctively to make an identification.  What is lacking are the truly characteristic markers that will yield such an identification according to which one can make a determination that what is before us is smallpox and not something else.

There are two ways that such an identification might be made.  One way would be to wait until further symptoms present themselves, such as the characteristic pustules that can yield a positive diagnosis.  Another way might be to give the patient a blood test whereby the virus that causes smallpox, variola major, can be identified.  In the case of the former method, the patient will become highly contagious and in 30% of cases death occurs.  Moreover, in the initial stages of the formation the characteristic pustules the disease may be mistaken for chickenpox.  These potential problems make it a much better idea to take a blood test.  The identification of variola major requires another set of conditions and chararcteristic markers, and the fact of identification will suffice for our purposes.

The Variola Major virusVariola Major

Now let’s apply this story about the identification of a virus to Aristotle’s tools for identification.  Aristotle’s tool kit includes such items as properties, predicates that are “said of all” or “in every case” of their subject, essential predicates (kath’hauto/per se predicates), generic predicates, and accidents.  Let’s consider these in order from least to best in terms of their capacity for identifying a subject.

Aristotle’s tool box

Accidents In terms of identification, true accidents serve very little purpose if any at all.  They are the attributes of a thing that may or may not belong to a subject.  They may be said to have various grades, from those that appear in many instances but not all to those that are purely fortuitous, such as being “next to a pillar” when said of a man (an example that appears in Renaissance texts).  Here I mean to speak of accidents in the strict sense, as those that may belong to a thing but by themselves indicate very little or nothing about what a thing is.  (I)  These would apply to the purely accidental features that a patient would present.  Perhaps the patient has a broken leg: in this case, since having a broken leg is unrelated to having smallpox, it is purely accidental.  It cannot be considered a symptom, and nothing can be inferred from it.

Properties Properties, again, come in various grades.  In the strict sense, a property is an attribute that belongs to one kind of thing and not another in every case.  Thus, properties play a comparatively important role in the identification of a thing although he says that they do not indicate the essence of a thing.  But Aristotle goes further and provides a criterion for property-hood.  The ability to learn grammar is a property of man (i.e. it applies to “man” alone and in every case) if and only if the following two propositions are both true:

(1) If x is a man, then x is able to learn grammar.

(2) If x is able to learn grammar, then x is a man.

(2) is more likely to be acceptable to readers than (1).  Sometimes, an attempt is made to resolve skepticism about (1) by appealing to the notion of the nature of a thing: that cases that do not fit are merely unnatural accidents.  I propose to clarify this somewhat by adding that one might think of a predicate such as “able to learn grammar” along the same lines as one can think of the predicate “living being”: not all things that are “man” are actually living beings, although it is a class of things that “man” may be said to belong to by nature. (II)  If one were to think of a typical member of the species homo sapiens and to try to find an attribute of that species that distinguishes it from any other, the ability to learn grammar, might (in the 4th Century BC at least) count as such a distinguishing mark. In the story above, the rash that appears in the mouth is a characteristic mark of smallpox. Chickenpox, by contrast, breaks out over the skin.  Hence, since smallpox breaks out first in the throat and mouth while chickenpox never does, the initial rash in the mouth may be thought of as a property of smallpox relative to chickenpox.  This is not quite the essence of smallpox, for which the virus, variola major seems a better candidate due to its priority.

Predicates that aresaid of all” were discussed above (III).  The main point to be remembered for our purposes here is that they are necessary conditions.  The fact that one predicate is said of another in every case means that one term is implied by another.  For example, since “point” may be said to belong to “line” in every case, “point” is implied by “line”.  It is important to note that such predicates are not essential predicates but only necessary ones.  Thus, although they directly precede Aristotle’s discussion of perseity in I.4, they are not the same as per se predicates.  They correspond to all the symptoms of smallpox in the smallpox example, since they signify the presence of smallpox in every case, although they are not sufficient by themselves to do so.

Generic predicates are those that are predicated as answering to the question, “what (sort of thing) is it?”, and thus characterize the ousia (or substance) of a subject.  They may be thought of as predicates that are said of a species in such a way that they fall in the same category as the species and are not accidents.  In terms of identification, they again mark necessary but not sufficient conditions.  For example, if there is a man there is necessarily an animal (or mobile being, or substance); but if there is an animal, there is not necessarily a man.

Finally, we come to kath’hauto-1 predicates.  Kath’hauto-1 predicates are essential attributes and hence indicate the presence of a certain subject in every case.  Unlike properties, Aristotle does not go as far as saying that they are convertible with their subject.  For this reason, they seem far more sound in terms of their logic than properties.  In this case, these would seem to correspond either to the characteristic pustules that smallpox produces, or to the variola major virus that causes smallpox.  Each can be construed as fitting the constraints Aristotle’s “line and point” example in I.4 provides, since in every instance where there is an instance of smallpox there is either the variola major virus or else the characteristic pustules.  Moreover, they fulfill the requirement that the implication “where there is smallpox there is variola major” must hold, although the converse might not hold in every case (this is also true of the line and point example).  Finally, it may be seen that variola major is related to smallpox in such a way that it could be said to be part of its definition.  Some kath’hauto attributes may be said to be kath’hauto in such a way that they are also part of the explicit definition of a thing although this need not actually be the case.  They may, in particular belong to the genus-differentia paradigm for definitions that Aristotle uses quite frequently in the corpus.

A final comment on this particular case should probably be made before moving on.  There is an order of priority among these elements that begins with kath’hauto attributes and extends to all the necessary conditions/symptoms.  Aristotle makes use of the notion of ontological dependency to establish this priority as a causal priority.  In this case, since, apparently, the presence of the variola major virus is the underlying cause of all the symptoms, the virus must first be present if they are to arise as symptoms of smallpox.  Moreover, the presence of variola major gives the symptoms a unity; it unites them to some underlying entity that makes them attributes of some particular kind of thing and not simply a collection of accidents. (III)  Hence, although one could perhaps make do with simply mentioning variola major to convey the idea of what kind of condition the patient is in, a full account would have to include the symptoms and could not omit them.

All these components may be arranged together on the following chart for ease of reference:


As the chart suggests, the search for a proper diagnosis/identification of a thing can be thought of as reducible to the project of apprehending an attribute that will serve to distinguish the thing in question from all other things. Let’s take a closer look at how this works:

There is a sense in which one must already know what one is looking for when one is attempting to identify a thing as something else (IV).  This is because identification fundamentally involves relating some present experience to pre-existing knowledge.  It means, in other words, being able to identify some particular before us as one that ought to fall under some concept (Aristotle gives an extended discussion of this aspect of what it means to know in the introductory chapter to the Posterior Analytics (I.1)).  In yet other words, it means, in an ideal case, that one has the tools to identify something in a “scientific” manner, which means being able to distinguish it from everything else.  This means having a knowledge of its essence.

Understanding the books of the Analytics as being basically about identification and creating patterns for identification bears on the question of what Aristotle’s intention was for them.  This has been debated somewhat recently, especially with regard to book I of the Posterior Analytics.  It has been said by some that demonstration is a tool for discovery.  I do not think this is correct.  The countervailing view propounded by Jonathan Barnes is that it is rather a didactic tool to be used in a school setting.  The view I am arguing for, that it is basically a pattern for identification, is compatible with this view, but gives its range of application a broader scope and shows how it may be of service to scientists working in the field.

Before moving on to the next section, which will continue the present synthesis, let’s take stock now of what has yet to be shown.  It remains to be seen whether Aristotle himself actually used the sort of schema for identification presented above.  This will be shown by taking account of what Aristotle says in Posterior Analytics II.13.  Furthermore, having shown Aristotle’s own process of identifying an object to be consonant with the method of the chart, it will become a much simpler to show that Aristotle’s whole theory of syllogism and demonstration may be related to the project of identifying an object.  Lastly, the overall objective of characterizing kath’hauto attributes will finally be fully realized when both these objectives have been achieved.


Note*: I would like to suggest that the logic for conditions for being or existing in cases involving things that mathematical objects can be understood in terms of conditional statements.  Thus, in a statement like “if there is a line, then there is a point” the conditional should be read as saying “if there were a point, there would be a line”.  Thus, we can talk intelligibly about the conditions for existence in a hypothetical sense.  At present I dont have any other textual support for this reading than the text itself, which seems to require such an interpretation in order to account for this way of speaking about such objects.

(I) See the discussion of essence vs. accident in the first article in this series here.

(II) I think there are genuine problems for Aristotle when it comes to his example and to his formulation of properties in general.  It is sometimes said in defence that Aristotle’s notion of a species is not that of a set, but this too will not square with his criterion or with other criteria that appear in his corpus.  Aristotle is serious when he means “said of all” or “true in every instance“.  It seems that he could have made do with (2) alone and treated the fact that the ability to learn grammar applies only to man as an empirical fact.

(III) On the points of both priority and unity the reader may wish to see Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book Z, chapter 17.

(IV) Consider this in relation to “the problem of the Meno”.


Posterior Analytics I.4 on kath’hauto attributes in the first and second senses of perseity:

Since the object of pure scientific knowledge cannot be other than it is, the truth obtained by demonstrative knowledge will be necessary. And since demonstrative knowledge is only present when we have a demonstration, it follows that demonstration is an inference from necessary premisses. So we must consider what are the premisses of demonstration-i.e. what is their character: and as a preliminary, let us define what we mean by an attribute ‘true in every instance of its subject’, an ‘essential’ attribute, and a ‘commensurate and universal’ attribute. I call ‘true in every instance’ what is truly predicable of all instances-not of one to the exclusion of others-and at all times, not at this or that time only; e.g. if animal is truly predicable of every instance of man, then if it be true to say ‘this is a man’, ‘this is an animal’ is also true, and if the one be true now the other is true now. A corresponding account holds if point is in every instance predicable as contained in line. There is evidence for this in the fact that the objection we raise against a proposition put to us as true in every instance is either an instance in which, or an occasion on which, it is not true. Essential attributes are (1) such as belong to their subject as elements in its essential nature (e.g. line thus belongs to triangle, point to line; for the very being or ‘substance’ of triangle and line is composed of these elements, which are contained in the formulae defining triangle and line): (2) such that, while they belong to certain subjects, the subjects to which they belong are contained in the attribute’s own defining formula. Thus straight and curved belong to line, odd and even, prime and compound, square and oblong, to number; and also the formula defining any one of these attributes contains its subject-e.g. line or number as the case may be.

Text on demonstration as relevant to identification (recognition of the particular as falling under some concept): (Posterior Analytics, I.1)

All instruction given or received by way of argument proceeds from pre-existent knowledge. This becomes evident upon a survey of all the species of such instruction. The mathematical sciences and all other speculative disciplines are acquired in this way, and so are the two forms of dialectical reasoning, syllogistic and inductive; for each of these latter make use of old knowledge to impart new, the syllogism assuming an audience that accepts its premisses, induction exhibiting the universal as implicit in the clearly known particular. Again, the persuasion exerted by rhetorical arguments is in principle the same, since they use either example, a kind of induction, or enthymeme, a form of syllogism. 


If he did not in an unqualified sense of the term know the existence of this triangle, how could he know without qualification that its angles were equal to two right angles? No: clearly he knows not without qualification but only in the sense that he knows universally. If this distinction is not drawn, we are faced with the dilemma in the Meno: either a man will learn nothing or what he already knows; for we cannot accept the solution which some people offer. A man is asked, ‘Do you, or do you not, know that every pair is even?’ He says he does know it. The questioner then produces a particular pair, of the existence, and so a fortiori of the evenness, of which he was unaware. The solution which some people offer is to assert that they do not know that every pair is even, but only that everything which they know to be a pair is even: yet what they know to be even is that of which they have demonstrated evenness, i.e. what they made the subject of their premiss, viz. not merely every triangle or number which they know to be such, but any and every number or triangle without reservation. For no premiss is ever couched in the form ‘every number which you know to be such’, or ‘every rectilinear figure which you know to be such’: the predicate is always construed as applicable to any and every instance of the thing. On the other hand, I imagine there is nothing to prevent a man in one sense knowing what he is learning, in another not knowing it. The strange thing would be, not if in some sense he knew what he was learning, but if he were to know it in that precise sense and manner in which he was learning it.

Topics, I .5 where Aristotle presents the elements of his ontological “tool box”:

We must now say what are ‘definition’, ‘property’, ‘genus’, and ‘accident’. A ‘definition’ is a phrase signifying a thing’s essence. It is rendered in the form either of a phrase in lieu of a term, or of a phrase in lieu of another phrase; for it is sometimes possible to define the meaning of a phrase as well. People whose rendering consists of a term only, try it as they may, clearly do not render the definition of the thing in question,because a definition is always a phrase of a certain kind. One may, however, use the word ‘definitory’ also of such a remark as ‘The “becoming” is “beautiful”‘, and likewise also of the question, ‘Are sensation and knowledge the same or different?’, for argument about definitions is mostly concerned with questions of sameness and difference. In a word we may call ‘definitory’ everything that falls under the same branch of inquiry as definitions; and that all the above-mentioned examples are of this character is clear on the face of them. For if we are able to argue that two things are the same or are different, we shall be well supplied by the same turn of argument with lines of attack upon their definitions as well: for when we have shown that they are not the same we shall have demolished the definition. Observe, please, that the converse of this last statement does not hold: for to show that they are the same is not enough to establish a definition. To show, however, that they are not the same is enough of itself to overthrow it. 

A ‘property’ is a predicate which does not indicate the essence of a thing, but yet belongs to that thing alone, and is predicated convertibly of it. Thus it is a property of man to-be-capable of learning grammar: for if A be a man, then he is capable of learning grammar, and if he be capable of learning grammar, he is a man. For no one calls anything a ‘property’ which may possibly belong to something else, e.g. ‘sleep’ in the case ofman, even though at a certain time it may happen to belong to him alone. That is to say, if any such thing were actually to be called a property, it will be called not a ‘property’ absolutely, but a ‘temporary’ or a ‘relative’property: for ‘being on the right hand side’ is a temporary property, while ‘two-footed’ is in point of fact ascribed as a property in certain relations; e.g. it is a property of man relatively to a horse and a dog. That nothingwhich may belong to anything else than A is a convertible predicate of A is clear: for it does not necessarily follow that if something is asleep it is a man. 

A ‘genus’ is what is predicated in the category of essence of a number of things exhibiting differences in kind. We should treat as predicates in the category of essence all such things as it would be appropriate tomention in reply to the question, ‘What is the object before you?’; as, for example, in the case of man, if asked that question, it is appropriate to say ‘He is an animal’. The question, ‘Is one thing in the same genus as another or in a different one?’ is also a ‘generic’ question; for a question of that kind as well falls under the same branch of inquiry as the genus: for having argued that ‘animal’ is the genus of man, and likewise also of ox, we shall have argued that they are in the same genus; whereas if we show that it is the genus of the one but not of the other, we shall have argued that these things are not in the same genus. 

An ‘accident’ is (i) something which, though it is none of the foregoing-i.e. neither a definition nor a property nor a genus yet belongs to the thing: (something which may possibly either belong or not belong to any one and the self-same thing, as (e.g.) the ‘sitting posture’ may belong or not belong to some self-same thing. Likewise also ‘whiteness’, for there is nothing to prevent the same thing being at one time white, and at another not white. Of the definitions of accident the second is the better: for if he adopts the first, any one is bound, if he is to understand it, to know already what ‘definition’ and ‘genus’ and ‘property’ are, whereas the second is sufficient of itself to tell us the essential meaning of the term in question. To Accident are to be attached also all comparisons of things together, when expressed in language that is drawn in any kind of way from what happens (accidit) to be true of them; such as, for example, the question, ‘Is the honourable or the expedient preferable?’ and ‘Is the life of virtue or the life of self-indulgence the pleasanter?’, and any other problem which may happen to be phrased in terms like these. For in all such cases the question is ‘to which of the two does the predicate in question happen (accidit) to belong more closely?’ It is clear on the face of it that there is nothing to prevent an accident from becoming a temporary or relative property. Thus the sitting posture is an accident, but will be a temporary property, whenever a man is the only person sitting, while if he be not the only one sitting, it is still a property relatively to those who are not sitting. So then, there is nothing to prevent an accident from becoming both a relative and a temporary property; but a propertyabsolutely it will never be

Metaphysics VII.17:

“Let us state what, i.e. what kind of thing, substance should be said to be, taking once more another starting-point; for perhaps from this we shall get a clear view also of that substance which exists apart from sensible substances. Since, then, substance is a principle and a cause, let us pursue it from this starting-point. The ‘why’ is always sought in this form–‘why does one thing attach to some other?’ For to inquire why the musical man is a musical man, is either to inquire–as we have said why the man is musical, or it is something else. Now ‘why a thing is itself’ is a meaningless inquiry (for (to give meaning to the question ‘why’) the fact or the existence of the thing must already be evident-e.g. that the moon is eclipsed-but the fact that a thing is itself is the single reason and the single cause to be given in answer to all such questions as why the man is man, or the musician musical’, unless one were to answer ‘because each thing is inseparable from itself, and its being one just meant this’; this, however, is common to all things and is a short and easy way with the question). But we can inquire why man is an animal of such and such a nature. This, then, is plain, that we are not inquiring why he who is a man is a man. We are inquiring, then, why something is predicable ofsomething (that it is predicable must be clear; for if not, the inquiry is an inquiry into nothing). E.g. why does it thunder? This is the same as ‘why is sound produced in the clouds?’ Thus the inquiry is about thepredication of one thing of another. And why are these things, i.e. bricks and stones, a house? Plainly we are seeking the cause. And this is the essence (to speak abstractly), which in some cases is the end, e.g. perhaps in the case of a house or a bed, and in some cases is the first mover; for this also is a cause. But while the efficient cause is sought in the case of genesis and destruction, the final cause is sought in the case of being also. 

“The object of the inquiry is most easily overlooked where one term is not expressly predicated of another (e.g. when we inquire ‘what man is’), because we do not distinguish and do not say definitely that certain elements make up a certain whole. But we must articulate our meaning before we begin to inquire; if not, the inquiry is on the border-line between being a search for something and a search for nothing. Since we must have the existence of the thing as something given, clearly the question is why the matter is some definite thing; e.g. why are these materials a house? Because that which was the essence of a house is present. Andwhy is this individual thing, or this body having this form, a man? Therefore what we seek is the cause, i.e. the form, by reason of which the matter is some definite thing; and this is the substance of the thing. Evidently, then, in the case of simple terms no inquiry nor teaching is possible; our attitude towards such things is other than that of inquiry. 

“Since that which is compounded out of something so that the whole is one, not like a heap but like a syllable-now the syllable is not its elements, ba is not the same as b and a, nor is flesh fire and earth (for when these are separated the wholes, i.e. the flesh and the syllable, no l

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A reader’s guide to Plato’s Republic, Books II-IV: Introduction

Plato’s Republic is well known for its presentation of the divided line and the analogy of the cave, which appear in books V-VII.  Less well known or well explored are the books of the Republic (Books II-IV) that lead up to them.  To give a brief overview of the subject matter, the themes in Books II-IV can be set out as follows: 

  • Book I sets the stage for a exploration of Justice by asking whether it can be considered as good for its own sake,which is a position Socrates defends.  
  • Then, in books II-IV, Plato approaches the question, “What is justice” by a somewhat circuitous route, by first creating an ideal Republic.  His reason for the detour (R 368D) is explained by a visual analogy: since justice can be more easily seen and contemplated on the large scale of a city state, he creates this image first before turning to the  smaller version of justice that appears in an individual. 
  • The project of first creating an ideal Republic and then using it to find justice in an individual provides a broad initial scope and methodological framework for the rest of the Republic.  The content of books II-IV, should be understood within that framework.

Plato’s first steps in creating an ideal Republic in books II-IV, may appear somewhat paradoxical at first: he has just said that he wishes to create an image of justice on the large scale of an ideal Republic; but what he proceeds to do is to imagine truly just individuals within that ideal republic first of all, and does this by discussing the education of the rulers of his Republic, called the “guardians”.  This move back to individuals may be seen as Plato’s attempt to construct a Republic by starting with its essential elements.  Most essential of all elements for the creation of an ideal republic would seem to be the  guardians and their character, and so the education of the guardians falls into place as the first order of business in books II-IV, which is an extended treatment of that education.

This theme, the education of the guardians, will be main thematic motif of the following guide to books II-IV.  The guide will present what I believe to be the best way to structure the questions surrounding the discussion of the education of the guardians so as to bring out most clearly their ultimate significance.  Those guiding questions are as follows:

  1. In book II, Socrates creates an ideal city that Glaucon (R 372D) later calls a “city of pigs” because of the simple rusticity of its inhabitants.  Glaucon then proceeds to imagine a more urbane, sophisticated city, that Socrates objects to as a “luxurious city”, and a “feverish city”.  How does the rest of the dialogue in books II-IV respond to this dialectic?
  2. The earliest education the guardians receive involves what Plato refers to as musikeMusike is a very broad term that refers to all the arts (such as poetry, philosophy, and music itself) whose mastery might be said to betoken a cultivation of soul, whether in an individual or in a civilization.  The early stages of training in musike the young guardians undergo involve not only hearing stories of virtuous gods and heroes, but also an education of the senses through (actual) music.  That the young guardians should have their character shaped through listening to stories might have been expected; but Plato’s particular attention to the music the guardians listen to might be somewhat unexpected.  Therefore it seems that something perhaps characteristic of Plato’s overall philosophy might be making an intrusion here.  What, then, one might ask, is the ultimate significance of this education of the senses for the guardians and the republic, and what is its ultimate importance?
  3. The discussion of musike coheres nicely with an image of the guardian as a kind of tuner of his soul and of the city.  As “tuner” the guardian must be able to adjust its strings properly so as to bring about a harmony that corresponds to an ideal of musical sound. (See R 430a et seq.)  What then, does this image suggest about rulership, and how does it relate to the prior two questions?

Readers of Plato’s dialogues may already be able to anticipate the ways in which the themes that appear in the questions connect to more familiar themes in the Republic and elsewhere.  For example, Plato’s conception of virtue is very much allied to the traditional conception of the philosopher as someone who seeks knowledge and does not care for worldly possessions or honors.  Hence, the discussion of the education of the guardians may serve as a basis for thinking about Plato’s notion of virtue.  Moreover, the education of the senses, introduced as a theme in the second question, recalls the upward path of the divided line and cave that appear in books VI and VII of the Republic.  In each case, one must begin, with the everyday phenomenal reality of things at hand, with things present to our senses, as a preliminary to working with higher abstractions.  The education of the senses the Guardians undergo would seem to be a piece in the overall puzzle of understanding this sort of progression, and indeed I believe it will assist in bringing different aspects of this “upward path” into a basic unity.  Finally, the image of the fully educated guardian as a tuner of soul and state in turn suggests the notion of someone who has mastered musike more broadly; of someone who has become an artist of such subjects by taking an upward path through various specific kinds of musike in order to arrive at a more comprehensive vision of states and souls.  This type of process, as well as the very metaphor of tuning itself suggests the notion of final causality, which I believe is a guiding theme throughout the dialogues, especially where the notions of mastery, or knowledge, or the divine are invoked.  The arrival at a clearer vision of these connections will be one of the motivating factors in the following guide, so that its place in the overall mosaic of Plato’s texts can be more clearly perceived.

Recommended texts (images are links to Amazon):


From left to right:

(1) The latest edition of the Greek text of the Republic edited by S.R. Slings; (2) A classic commentary on the Greek text by James Adam; (3) The latest translation by C.D.C. Reeve, based upon Sling’s text; (4) Four texts on Socrates: a very literal translation and a good source book for those interested in Socrates; Paul Shorey’s excellent translation and commentary on the Republic (includes Greek text).

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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, which runs, “the what it was to be,” or as some have rendered it, “the what it was being”.


Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

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.  Thus ên (“was” above) would be read as connoting an action taking place in a “timeless present” (“was” in its imperfetive sense 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”; but Owens’ translation serves as an attempt to work 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 point out that there are ways in which his view complements the one being the literal rendering offered here, but also that there are important ways in which it may lead a reader to conclusions that are unlikely to have been accurate.



Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

To take up the complementarity between the “was” and “IS” translations first, 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 not as present 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.



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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).


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