Aristotle (384–322 B.C.)
Metaphysics: Books Alpha to Epsilon
Aristotle’s Metaphysics is divided into fourteen books, which are usually named after the first thirteen letters of the Greek alphabet. The books, in order, are Alpha, Alpha the Lesser, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu, and Nu. Though all fourteen books treat certain common themes, many of them are independent of all the others. Scholars believe that the Metaphysics is really a compilation of a number of Aristotle’s writings that later editors grouped together. Some of the material in the Metaphysics repeats that covered in the Physics.
Knowledge consists of particular truths that we learn through experience and the general truths of art and science. Wisdom consists in understanding the most general truths of all, which are the fundamental principles and causes that govern everything. Philosophy provides the deepest understanding of the world and of divinity by pursuing the sense of wonder we feel toward reality.
There are four kinds of cause, or rather kinds of explanation, for how things are: (1) the material cause, which explains what a thing is made of; (2) the formal cause, which explains the form a thing assumes; (3) the efficient cause, which explains the process by which it came into being; and (4) the final cause, which explains the end or purpose it serves. The explanations of earlier philosophers have conformed to these four causes but not as coherently and systematically as Aristotle’s formulation. Aristotle acknowledges that Plato’s Theory of Forms gives a strong account of the formal cause, but it fails to prove that Forms exist and to explain how objects in the physical world participate in Forms.
Book Alpha the Lesser addresses some questions of method. Though we all have a natural aptitude for thinking philosophically, it is very difficult to philosophize well. The particular method of study depends on the subject being studied and the inclinations of the students. The important thing is to have a firm grasp of method before proceeding, whatever the method. The best method is that of mathematics, but this method is not suitable for subjects where the objects of study are prone to change, as in science. Most reasoning involves causal chains, where we investigate a phenomenon by studying its causes, and then the cause of those causes, and so on. This method would be unworkable if there were infinitely long causal chains, but all causal chains are finite, meaning that there must be an uncaused first cause to every chain.
Book Beta consists of a series of fifteen metaphysical puzzles on the nature of first principles, substance, and other fundamental concepts. In each case, Aristotle presents a thesis and a contradicting antithesis, both of which could be taken as answers to the puzzle. Aristotle himself provides no answers to the puzzles but rather takes them as examples of extreme positions between which he will try to mediate throughout the rest of the Metaphysics.
Book Gamma asserts that philosophy, especially metaphysics, is the study of being qua being. That is, while other sciences investigate limited aspects of being, metaphysics investigates being itself. The study of being qua being amounts to the search into first principles and causes. Being itself is primarily identified with the idea of substance, but also with unity, plurality, and a variety of other concepts.
Philosophy is also concerned with logic and the principles of demonstration, which are supremely general, and hence concerned with being itself. The most fundamental principle is the principle of noncontradiction: nothing can both be something and not be that same something. Aristotle defends this principle by arguing that it is impossible to contradict it coherently. Connected to the principle of non-contradiction is the principle of the excluded middle, which states that there is no middle position between two contradictory positions. That is, a thing is either x or not-x, and there is no third possibility. Book Gamma concludes with an attack on several general claims of earlier philosophers: that everything is true, that everything is false, that everything is at rest, and that everything is in motion.
Book Delta consists of the definitions of about forty terms, some of which feature prominently in the rest of the Metaphysics, such as principle, cause, nature, being, and substance. The definitions specify precisely how Aristotle uses these terms and often distinguish between different uses or categories of the terms.
Book Epsilon opens by distinguishing philosophy from the sciences not just on the basis of its generality but also because philosophy, unlike the sciences, takes itself as a subject of inquiry. The sciences can be divided into practical, productive, and theoretical. The theoretical sciences can be divided further into physics, mathematics, and theology, or first philosophy, which studies first principles and causes.
We can look at being in four different ways: accidental being, being as truth, the category of being, and being in actuality and potentiality. Aristotle considers the first two in book Epsilon and examines the category of being, or substance, in books Zeta and Eta, and being in actuality and potentiality in book Theta. Accidental being covers the kinds of properties that are not essential to a thing described. For example, if a man is musical, his musicality is accidental since being musical does not define him as a man and he would still be a man even if he were not musical. Accidental being must have a kind of accidental causation, which we might associate with chance. That is, there is no necessary reason why a musical man is musical, but rather it just so happens by chance that he is musical. Being as truth covers judgments that a given proposition is true. These sorts of judgments involve mental acts, so being as truth is an affection of the mind and not a kind of being in the world. Because accidental being is random and being as truth is only mental, they fall outside the realm of philosophy, which deals with more fundamental kinds of being.
The first five books of the Metaphysics jump around a great deal, and what ultimately emerges is a hodgepodge preparation for the investigation of substance that follows in books Zeta and Eta. Aristotle himself never uses the word metaphysics to describe his enterprise (the word was invented by a later editor and literally signifies nothing more than the books “after the Physics”), and it is not likely that he arranged for the various books of the Metaphysics to be grouped together. We should not be surprised, then, to find, for example, a series of unresolved puzzles in book Beta, only some of which are addressed later in the Metaphysics, or a set of definitions in book Delta, only some of which are used later in the Metaphysics. At some points, Aristotle seems to claim that his primary interest is “first principles,” at others he seems fundamentally interested in logic, and at one point he equates metaphysics with theology. All six books, however, set out to find the best approach to the truly fundamental questions of philosophy. Without these preliminary attempts, the stage would not properly be set for the investigation of substance that follows.
Metaphysics is not unique in that it studies being—after all, almost every field of study is interested in things that exist—but rather that it studies being qua being. The word qua is a Latin term often used by philosophers, and it means something like “in its capacity as.” For example, there are many different ways we could study humans. Biologists study humans in their capacity as living organisms, psychologists study humans in their capacity as beings with minds and consciousness, and anthropologists study humans in their capacity as social beings. A metaphysician, by contrast, would study humans in their capacity as beings that exist. That is, metaphysics is not so much interested in the different facts about existent entities as it is in the fact that these entities exist at all. What is it, metaphysics asks, that characterizes being itself? Aristotle says that this investigation is a search into first principles and causes. That is, metaphysics investigates the reason that there should be being at all, whereas the other sciences study the reasons behind various manifestations of being.
Aristotle often refers to metaphysics as “first philosophy,” and though he doesn’t specify in what sense metaphysics is “first,” we can see that there is a sort of primacy to the investigation of being qua being. We can say all sorts of things about humans—they have consciousness, they have language, they have opposable thumbs—but all of these things can only be true of humans so long as they exist. We might say that metaphysics is a “first philosophy” because it approaches those things that must hold if any further science or philosophy is to have a purpose. We might go so far as to say that we must understand metaphysics before we can properly understand the rest of science and philosophy. Talking about how humans think or behave is only so much talk unless we know what it means for humans to exist in the first place. On the other hand, we cannot start studying metaphysics before we have some grasp of less fundamental topics. Just as it makes no sense to study auto mechanics if one has never seen a car, it also makes no sense to study being itself if one has no experience of the various manifestations of being.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!