Continuing my project of translating and interpreting Aristotle's Metaphysics Z, chapter 1, we move on to an interesting subject which seems to speak to current debates in metaphysics and epistemology concerning both the knowledge of something (knowing what it is), and the actual composition of something (what-it-is). Aristotle, continuing his discussion of why οὐσία is primary, argues that it is also primary in knowledge. See the footnote for discussion of this important section. For the previous parts of this project see: Part 1, Part 2 - a discussion on the meaning and translation of οὐσία, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.
(1028a37-1028b1) καὶ εἰδέναι δὲ τότ᾽ οἰόμεθα ἕκαστον μάλιστα, ὅταν τί ἐστιν ὁ ἄνθρωπος γνῶμεν ἢ τὸ πῦρ, μᾶλλον ἢ τὸ ποιὸν ἢ τὸ ποσὸν ἢ τὸ πού, ἐπεὶ καὶ αὐτῶν τούτων τότε ἕκαστον ἴσμεν, ὅταν τί ἐστι τὸ ποσὸν ἢ τὸ ποιὸν γνῶμεν.
My Translation – And, therefore, we suppose (think) each one to be known especially whenever the mind judges what [it] is, the human or the fire, rather than the type (quality) or the quantity or the place ; since, thereupon, the mind also judges the quantity or the type (quality) when we see (know, grasp) what-is each one.
Ross – “And (2) we think we know each thing most fully, when we know what it is, e.g. what man is or what fire is, rather than when we know its quality, its quantity, or its place; since we know each of these predicates also, only when we know what the quantity or the quality is.”
Tredennick – “and we assume that we know each particular thing most truly when we know what ‘man’ or ‘fire’ is – rather than its quality or quantity or position; because we know each of these points too when we know what the quantity or quality is.”
Apostle – “And we think we understand each thing to the highest degree when we know, for example, what a man is or what fire is, rather than their quality or their quantity or their whereness, and even of these latter, we understand each when we know what a quantity is or what a quality is.”
Tricot – “Enfin, nous croyons connaître le plus parfaitement chaque chose quand nous connaissons ce qu’elle est, par exemple ce qu’est l’homme ou le feu, bien plutôt que lorsque nous connaissons sa qualité, sa quantité ou son lieu, puisque chacun de ces prédicats eux-mêmes, nous les connaissons seulement quand nous connaissons ce qu’ils sont, ce qu’est la quantité ou la qualité.”
In this section Aristotle points out that, on the level of knowledge, we claim to have knowledge of something only when we know what [it] is. This phrase, τί ἐστι, which could also be translate “that-which-is”, seems to point primarily to the whatness of a “what-is”. However, it is important to remember that Aristotle consistently keeps whatness anchored in Be-ing. To make his claim more explicit he uses examples, human or fire. We say that we have knowledge of what a human-being is, not when we know it’s qualities, or how many there are (or how big or small they are), or even where they are, but, rather, when we grasp the whatness of a human-being, that which it is. Many philosophers have argued that be-ings do not have whatness, they are only piles of qualities, quantities, etc.; such that a human would be anything that has a certain pile of characteristics. This theory has been the source of innumerable debates as it has become evident that it is impossible to give an exhaustive list of all of the properties of something that is accepted, even in its most fundamental properties, by all those who are actively engaged in the discussion. Furthermore, it seems that unless one knows the whatness of a thing, one is incapable of knowing, with any type of certainty, that the combination of certain properties will necessarily result in a certain be-ing. In fact, it is almost impossible to talk about anything whatsoever without presupposing, as was noted in 1028a35-37, the be-ing-ness or οὐσία of the thing in question.
Aristotle seems to take the opposite position that: knowing the characteristics of a be-ing does not tell us what it is. In fact, he claims, in the second part of this section, that even when it comes to quality and quantity, we only recognize these in be-ings when we know what quality is, and what quantity is. That is, we could not even know that we have picked out a quality or a quantity unless we already know what it means to be a quality, or to be a quantity – that is, what the formula (definition, whatness, essence, substance or οὐσία) of quality is, and what the formula (definition, whatness, essence, substance or οὐσία) of quantity is. As such, even the theory mentioned above, that things just are the totality of their predicaments (properties), must either presuppose knowledge of the οὐσία of each type of property, and of each property, or provide piles of properties for each of the types of properties and of each property, and then provide piles of properties for each of the types of the types of properties and for each of the properties of the properties, and so on; which is to say that such a theory entails an infinite regress of piles of properties. Aristotle seems to be saying that even in describing the properties of a be-ing we presuppose a foundational principle, and that principle is what he calls the οὐσία. The only way to avoid an infinite regress is to posit some foundational principle, which is, implicitly, to agree with Aristotle.