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The Evidence for Degrees of Being in Aristotle

  • Donald Morrison (a1)


The topic of degrees of being in Aristotle is almost universally ignored. A very few scholars do discuss the topic or make use of it in passing. This situation mightbe explained by a scholarly consensus that (a) Aristotle did have a doctrine ofdegrees of being, but (b) this doctrine is too uninteresting to be worth much discussion. Conversation with a number of scholars from several countries has convinced me, however, that a rather different consensus lies behind the current silence. It turnsout that many experts in the subject deny that Aristotle believed in degrees of being.No one, to my knowledge, has defended this denial in print. But the reason forsilence is not that the topic is dull, but that it is scandalous. Both defenders andopponents of the view that Aristotle had a doctrine of degrees of being tend, in conversation, to find the topic embarrassing. Our contemporary metaphysical prejudices areso opposed to degrees of being that people find themselves unable to make anysense of such a doctrine. As a result, one group of scholars is embarrassed on Aristotle's behalf at the suggestion that he might have held such a senseless doctrine.Another group, less sure of where the philosophical truth lies, finds itself in theinterpretative embarrassment of being unable to explain and motivate the doctrine. So bothgroups avoid the subject.



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1 See Mainberger, G., Die Seinsstufung als methode und Metaphysik (Freiburg, Switzerland, 1959);Gomez-Pin, V., Ordre et substance (Paris, 1976);Owens, Joseph, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics3 (Toronto, 1978).

2 For discussion of these expressions, with references, see Vlastos, G., ‘A Metaphysical Paradox’, and ‘Degrees of Reality in Plato’, both in Platonic Studies2 (Princeton, 1981).

3 Protrepticus 14, De Caelo 282a8, Met. a I,993a31, Z 2,1028bl4, M 1088a30.

4 Met. Z l,1028al4.

5 Met. Z I,1028a30; O l,1045b27.

6 Examples are: Met. H l,1042al4, and Z 3,1029al.

7 Cat. 5, 2bl7. Other places where this is clear: G&C 318bl 1–15, 32–4; Met. B 1002a26; E4,1027b31; Z l,1028al4, 28, 30; Z 16,1040b22–4; M 3,1077bl2. Aristotle uses ‘nearness’ to Ούσία to express degrees of Ούσία at G&C B 10,336b34; De Caelo IV, 3, 310b32; Ph. I 9, 192a6

8 Further examples of the metalinguistic mode include 2a 15, 2b 17, 2b30, 3b35–56. Examples of the object mode include, for ‘primary’, 2a35, 2b5, 6b, 7, 18, 31, and many others. Examples of in the object mode include 2b7, 22, 23, 27, 3b34, 4a9. The expression ‘chiefly’ () drops out of Chapter 5 after the first line.

9 The continuation of the first passage at 2b22–7 repeats the pattern: thesis, linguistic evidence, conclusion.

10 The argument against the metalinguistic interpretation given here is sufficient for the Categories. To dispose of this interpretation of degrees of being in the Metaphysics a stronger argument will be necessary (pp. 397–400 below); this stronger argument applies the Categories as well.

11 The view that particular substantial predicates do not vary in degree may also be expressed at Met. H 3 1044al0–l 1. However, a possible alternative interpretation of the passage would see it as denying that substances qua form vary in their differentiae.

12 The related topic of ‘the superlative degree’ () is used by Aristotle as a test for sameness and difference in Top. VII l,152a5–30 and 152b6–9.

13 This passage is condensed and somewhat obscure. My interpretation relies on Aristotle's explanation at 115a3–5, where it seems that only ‘essential’ accidents are at stake.

14 See Bonitz' Index 94a9 ff.

15 See also in Cat. 111, 20.

16 The precise force of Simplicius' suggestion depends in part on whether what ‘characterizes’ Ούσία is meant to be a constitutive character, such as differentia or essence, or a ‘property’ in Aristotle's technical sense, or a mere per se accident. Simplicius' use of makes it evident that he means something at least as strong as ‘property’. (See the passages cited in the Index Verborum at the end of in Cat., p. 552; and especially 79, 7.) The intensity interpretation of degrees of being works best with the view that’ underlying’ is a constitutive character of Ούσία. If it is a mere property of Ούσία, some further principle is needed to explain why its variation should carry with it variation in Ούσία. (A principle like that at Topics II, 10 114b37 ff. will do the job.) Moreover the precise force of Simplicius’ suggestion will depend on how ‘underlying’ is understood. If the variation in underlying is given the ordering interpretation - one form of underlying is only prior to another, not really ‘more underlying’ - this will carry over to oiiala also.

17 I should note that it is doctrinally possible to interpret in this passage as ‘rather’. However, the grammatical parallel between and (both with genitives) makes this an unnatural reading.

18 I am grateful to Malcolm Schofield for urging the importance of this interpretation of

19 See Phillip, De Lacy, and the antecedents of ancient scepticism’, Phronesis 3 (1958), 5971.

20 See Met. r5,1009blO–ll.

21 At Rhet. A 2,1358al4 he refers to this form of argument as ‘the topos of the more and less’.

22 In a way it serves the purposes better, since it makes explicit the implication of ‘not’ on which the argument turns. is a strengthened form of the which Aristotle uses at Rhet. 1397b 14.

23 One might object; but not all putative beings are beings. Some arguments are strong enough to rule out certain putative beings as beings. The relative is not less a being than say, ‘goat-stag’, but more. So a problem remains. True enough, but the problem can be solved by supposing that the comparison class Aristotle has in mind in this passage is not ‘all putative beings’, but something more restricted, namely the class of things whose status is at issue between him and his opponents. This, I suppose, is roughly the class, in Aristotle's terms, of categorial items.

24 Georgiana Palmer, The Τóποί of Aristotle's Rhetoric as exemplified in the Orators (Diss., Univ. of Chicago, 1934), 18–22.

25 Dem. xl. 31, p. 1017.

26 Dem. xliv. 38, p. 1092; Lys. xxxi. 31, p. 189.

27 Lys. xxxv. 16, p. 172.

28 , Andoc. iv. 15, p. 30.

29 Lys. xiv. 11, p. 140; Isaeus v. 38, p. 54; Isoc. xx. 3, p. 396a; Dem. ii. 24, p. 25.

30 ; Aesch. i, 85, p. 11; Lys. xxiv. 8, p. 168. Seivos: Isoc. xiv. 52; xv. 165, p. 86; Lys. vii. 29, p. 110; x. 13, p. 117; xiv. 17, p. 141; xviii, 12, p. 150; Dem. xx. 12, p. 460. The meaning of Seivos in some of these passages shades off into ‘terrible’, ‘horrible’.

31 See Isaeus iii. 35, p. 41; Dinarchus 1, 45; Aesch. i. 28, p. 4; i. 108, p. 15; Dem. xxvii. 57, p. 831; Lys. hi. 32, p. 99.

32 There is an exemplification of Aristotle's topic of the more and the less in Plato which might seem to employ in this shorthand way, at Phaedo 87b-e. Both at 87c4 and at 87dl might be thought to be implicitly completed by something like ‘is more likely’. But is a fixed idiom in Greek (see LSJ s.v. Πâς III 4). Usually the complement for the in this phrase is taken from the context. Where there is no complement in the context, as here, the usual meaning of the phrase is ‘most of all true’. For at 87dl the complements of are and . (On with a comparative see LSJ s.v. II 3, Kuhner-Gerth I, p. 26 (sect. 349c); Schwyzer II, p. 185.)

33 A similar use of is ascribed to Leucippus at Simplicius in Phys. 28, 8.

34 For further support, see the evidence cited in De Lacy, pp. 59–63. He shows that in Democritus the phrase was used to make statements about the nature of things, not about our knowledge of them. In the Sophists perhaps, and certainly in Plato and Aristotle, arguments are used in order to make points about knowledge. However, the form of argument is reductio, and the premise is a premise about the world. The epistemological consequences are drawn from the fact that we are led to the (paradoxical) conclusion ‘ X than Y’. But ‘ X than Y’ is not itself an epistemological statement.

35 For the B passage, some might be tempted to claim that the of 1001b32 () is implicitly carried forward and understood at 1002a4, 15, and 26. But such a reading strikes me as extremely strained. A full Becker column is too long a distance for such a verb to be carried forward, when there is no grammatical parallelism to serve as a vehicle. Moreover at 1002a7, 18, and 30, Aristotle repeats verbs for ‘seeming’: if were understood throughout, these verbs would be unnecessary. Finally, at 1001b32 Aristotle is reporting a particular widespread opinion concerning earth, air, fire, and water. The other three passages concern body and geometricals, which are a different case.

36 See esp. 1028a21, reading .

37 G'C B 10,336b34, De Caelo IV 3,310b32, Phys. I 9,192a6

38 The English future tense is somewhat more vivid than the Greek, which is optative; but I use it, together with italics, to capture the force of the immediately following .

39 The objection that in the Г 4 passage ‘more true’ means nothing more than closeness to the absolute truth, and hence does not imply ‘degrees’, is wholly misguided. First, a doctrine according to which beings, or truths, have a rank order is a doctrine of degrees of being, although a fairly weak one. But second, there is no question in this passage of Aristotle wanting to reduce degrees of truth to any sort of closeness relation. His conditional ‘if what is more is nearer’ means: ‘if it is a principle of the logic of “more” that wherever there is a “more” there is something to which it is “nearer” (namely a “most”), then…’ This principle enables one to infer from an independently justified ‘more’ to a ‘nearer’, not the other way round.

40 Where the qualification ‘somewhat’ () corresponds to the qualification ‘but not in account’ of the Г 2 passage.

41 The text only says that the species are ‘the same in number’, but the earlier 'sameness of nature’ must imply that the species are the same in nature (if not in account) as well.

42 At this point a possible misunderstanding should be averted. One might raise the following objection. Since coming-in-degrees is a property which can belong to species without belonging to their genera (e.g. there are degrees of straightness and crookedness but perhaps not of shapedness), perhaps continuity, the species, comes in degrees but the genera, being and unity, do not. This objection misunderstands the issue of ‘degrees of being’, which is whether being, in any of its ‘kinds’ or ‘senses’, comes in degrees. Degrees of actuality or truth are degrees of being (and hence of unity) and degrees of continuity are degrees of unity (and hence of being), because actuality, truth, and continuity are all ‘senses’ or ‘species’ of being and unity. Contrast these with animal and figure, which are species of beings and unities, but not of being and unity as such.

43 Other criteria of substance may also imply degrees of being. For degrees of being , including links between degrees of and see G&C 318b 15, 32, 34. For degrees of being a form, see Met. Z 4–5, G&C 335a 18.

44 See Z 3,1029al, 1029a6; M 2,1077bl2.

45 Notably Owen, G. E. L.. See ‘Logic and Metaphysics in Some Earlier Works of Aristotle’, Aristotle and Plato in the Mid-Fourth Century, ed. I. During and Owen, G. E. L. (Goteborg, 1960), 184.

46 Δ 7, 8; Г 2; and E 4 all make this clear.

47 Ibid. My evidence for the influence of his view is mainly oral. In conversations about degrees of being in Aristotle, I have found that scholars frequently treat ‘in a stricter sense’ as an established use of which will account for many, if not all, of its appearances in the Metaphysics.

48 Dϋring, Protrepticus, An Attempt at Reconstruction (Goteborg, 1961), follows Owen's interpretation of this passage in his translation and notes. From Dϋring's preface it seems likely that the interpretation was the subject of discussion between the two men well before it appeared in print. See also Dϋring's later work, Der Protreptikos des Aristoteles (Frankfurt, 1969), 120.

49 Owen cites Phys. 249a3–8; Cat. 11a12–13; and Pol. 1259b36–8.

50 Op. cit. p. 183.

51 Ross, p. 491.19 (see also 1.14); During, fr. 80.

52 In ‘Predicats univoques et predicats analogiques dans les “Protreptiques” d'Aristote’, Revue Philosophique de Louvain 66 (1968), 597–618 (henceforth ‘1968’) with supplementary material in the note ‘Sur un emploi technique de chez Aristote’, Mnemosyne Ser. IV, 22 (1969), 303–4 (1969a). A shorter presentation of the view may be found in his important review of During's 1961 edition in Gnomon 41 (1969), 233–55 (1969b).

53 In French plutot (1968, p. 608); and in German eher (1969b, pp. 240ff.). (For both, see 1969a, p. 303.) De Strycker creates some confusion when he uses par preference and eher for both (1) a general or neutral translation covering both kinds of , and (2) a specific translation of the exclusive . (Compare 1968, p. 608, lines 8 and 18 with p. 609, line 7, and 1969b, p. 241 line 14 and line 39.) In fact both par preference and eher are quite imprecise, and each can bear both meanings of . Eher, for example, means lieber more frequently than it means mehr, but it has both meanings, along with other related ones. ‘Rather’ and plulot convey precisely the sense of the exclusive .

54 1968, p. 608 n. 30; 1969b, p. 240.

55 For the weight de Strycker places on and , see 1968, pp. 604, 608, and 610; 1969a, p. 303; 1969b, p. 240.

56 1968, p. 609.

57 Although de Strycker is wrong to claim that he does so here, Aristotle does sometimes elsewhere use the exclusive sense of when distinguishing between senses of a word. See e.g. Phys. B 1, 193b6–7 (interpreted as in the Hardie-Gaye trans.) and (for ) NE VI 8,1141b29–30.

58 See 1968, p. 609, 610; 1969b, p. 241. I suppose that it is the phrase which de Strycker has in mind when he says ‘comme Aristote le dit expressement…’ in 1968, p. 610, n. 36 (my italics).

59 Moreover it is grammatically possible, and only slightly more difficult, to read the sentence in such a way that precedes the description of the first case rather than forming part of it. Thus:’ For we do not only use "more" for the excess (1) of that having one definition, but also (2) in cases where there is a prior and a posterior.’ If this is the right translation, then part of Aristotle's point is to insist explicitly on the intensity interpretation of for both cases.

60 For de Strycker's philosophical worries, see 1968, p. 610.

61 Moreover it would not do to admit that health is better than a scalpel, but insist that the superior goodness of health consists merely in its causal and definitional superiority. The goodness of health consists in its being preferable to the scalpel. The comparative judgement of greater choiceworthiness is essential to practice and to practical philosophy, as Aristotle's language in NE 1,1–2 shows he was aware. Further evidence that Aristotle cannot have shared de Strycker's view that genuinely comparative judgements across relations of priority and posteriority are nonsense in his use of at NE 1,6 1098al 1. Although it is beyond my scope here, NE 1,6 as a whole deserves detailed comparison with Protrepticus, fr. 14 Ross.

62 So generalized, these remarks provide at least a partial solution to the problem raised in section A, pp. 384–5, above. Pol. 1259b33–8 may seem to present a difficulty for this interpretation of Aristotle, since there the prohibition against comparison is applied to nobility of nature () in men and women, which are related, on Aristotle's view, as the prior to the posterior. But Aristotle's aim in the passage is not to argue against comparison (in fact, he presupposes it), but rather to argue against sameness of species (and hence of definition) for in men and in women. The problem disappears if one sees that by in this passage Aristotle means what differs only or precisely by the more and the less; i.e. what does not differ in species.

63 See the arguments in During's 1961 edition, pp. 33–5.

64 The dating of Physics VII is, however, uncertain. For a summary of the problem see Ross, Aristotle's Physics (Oxford, 1936), 11–18.

65 Part of this paper (along with some other material) was given as a lecture to the Cambridge ‘B’ Club and at Oxford University in May, 1986.1 am indebted to those groups for provocative discussions, and to David Blank, Charlotte Witt and the editors of CQ for their written comments on a later version.


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