METAPHYSICS BOOK Z, CH. 1 (1028b3-4): Comparing translations - Part 8

       This is the continuation of my project of translating and interpreting Aristotle's Metaphysics Z, chapter 1. (see the preceding parts of the project here: Part 1, Part 2 - a discussion of the proper translation and meaning of οὐσία, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.) In this section of chapter 1 Aristotle discusses the question of Be-ing, "What is Be-ing?", and explains what the question of Be-ing is really asking. As with the previous sections, see the footnotes for my comments on this section.

(1028b3-4) καὶ δὴ καὶ τὸ πάλαι τε καὶ νῦν καὶ ἀεὶ ζητούμενον καὶ ἀεὶ ἀπορούμενον, τί τὸ ὄν, τοῦτό ἐστι τίς οὐσία.[1]

My Translation – And indeed, both long ago and now and always [the object of] inquiry and forever [causing] perplexity, [is the question] “what the Being?”, that is, “what the οὐσία?”[2]

Ross – “And indeed the question which was raised of old and is raised now and always, and is always the subject of doubt, viz. what being is, is just the question, what is substance?”

Tredennick – “Indeed, the question which was raised long ago, is still and always will be, and which always baffles us – ‘What is Being?’ – is in other words ‘What is Substance?’”

Apostle – “And indeed the inquiry or perplexity concerning what being is, in early times and now and always, is just this: what is a substance?”

Tricot – “Et, en vérité, l’objet éternel de toutes les recherches, présentes et passées, le problème toujours en suspens : qu’est-ce que l’Être? revient à demander : qu’est-ce que la Substance?

[1]This is the question, not "To be or not to be?" Aristotle is right, the question: “what is Being?” is not only the most important philosophical question, but it is also the most confusing, and difficult to answer. It is the most important question, because, first of all, if Aristotle's claims concerning the priority of οὐσία as concerns λόγῳ, knowledge, and in temporal sequence, are true, then we must answer the question, what is Being? (which is to say, as Aristotle notes in this section, what is οὐσία ?) prior to answering any questions about λόγῳ (see here for a discussion concerning the meaning of λόγῳ) or knowledge. Furthermore, as many philosophers have noted, we must answer the question of Be-ing (οὐσία) in order to speak meaningfully about what it means to BE human, to BE moral, to Be rational (intellectual), to Be social, to Be historical, etc. In fact, all discussions concerning created or uncreated Be-ing, contingent or necessary Being, Actual or Potential Be-ing, etc., all depend on the answer to the question "What is Being?" 

However, as the history of philosophy demonstrates, this question is also one of the most difficult questions to answer, and has been the source of more confusion and useless debate than any other question. Does this mean that we cannot answer this question? Should we not attempt to answer this question because we might make mistakes? Those who would think like this will never start any project. Rather, it is, perhaps, a good idea to return to Aristotle and start over, in a sense. Many philosophers have noted that in order for us to be able to truly answer the question of Be-ing we must return to the origins of the question, and ask it again. (Heidegger is a prime example of a philosopher who claimed that we can no longer go forward with this question, therefore, we need to return to its origin and start over (Cf. Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).). Another philosopher who made a similar claim is Étienne Gilson (cf. Étienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937; repr., San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), and Being and Some Philosophers, 2nd ed. (1952; repr., Toronto: PIMS, 2005).). Pierre Aubenque, in his Étienne Gilson lecture, presents us with an interesting comparison of the claims of Gilson and Heidegger concerning the history of the philosophy of Be-ing, and their recommended solutions to the problem. (cf. Pierre Aubenque, Faut-il déconstruire la métaphysique? (Paris: PUF, 2009).) Andrew J. Reck, in his presidential address at the Metaphysical Society of America says, "In view of this predicament, it is better to go back to Aristotle to illuminate the path of our inquiry. Our return to Aristotle should not be merely as scholars devoted to finding out only what he meant, but mainly as thinkers seeking to know and elucidate Being and finding the lessons of fundamental ontology in his writings. (Andrew J. Reck, "Being and Substance", The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 31, no. 4 (June, 1978), 540.)

In this section, it should be noted, Aristotle again equates Being (ὄν) with οὐσία. According to Aristotle, to ask the question “what is Be-ing?” is to ask the question “what is οὐσία (be-ingness)?” This, of course, does not tell us what Be-ing is, it seems to just give it a new name. Depending on how we translate οὐσία this section will make more or less sense. If οὐσία means, as some have argued, substance, then we seem to be replacing Be-ing with another word, unless substance is understood in what is arguably its primary meaning (in english at least), as the foundational principle of that which is. 

Looking at another possible translation, if, in this section, οὐσία means “be-ing-ness”, then one could claim that Aristotle is saying that the question “what is Be-ing?” simply is, “what does it mean to Be?” or “What is the essence of Be-ing?” or “What is it to Be?”. The meaning of this question, when worded in this way, can be illustrated by the following analogy: Asking “what is a horse?” just is to ask “what is horse-ness?”, or “what is the essence of Horse?” or “What is it to be a horse?”  

The point of this discussion about the appropriate translation of οὐσία in this section, is that, regardless of how you translate οὐσία (essence, be-ing-ness, substance, etc.), in so much as your translation grasps a-hold of the notion “that which is foundational to that which is” or “that which makes a Be-ing to be and to be what it is”, then you are accurately translating οὐσία, and Aristotle is then found to be saying that the question “what is being?” just is the question, “what is it that makes Be-ing to Be Be-ing?” or “what is it to Be?” This is the fundamental question of Metaphysics, and the primary question of all philosophy. As Heidegger said, in his Introduction to Metaphysics, after noting in the opening pages that the fundamental question of metaphysics is ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ (Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 1-8 [1-6]), “So it turns out that the question ‘Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?’ forces us to the prior question: ‘How does it stand with Being?’ (Ibid., 35 [25].)” In other words, the primordial question is “What is Being?”

[2]Note that I included in square brackets a lot of words that are simply not in the text in order to make this sentence readable. If you remove the words in square brackets you get the word for word translation.

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