Friday, February 7, 2014

An Analysis of SUBSTANCE AND ESSENCE IN ARISTOTLE By Charlotte Witt

            This appears to be the first published book by Charlotte Witt (she has, since 1989, written a number of other works), whose main work seems to be in feminist philosophy, who is currently Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of New Hampshire. The purpose of this book is primarily to explain and defend Witt’s understanding of Aristotle’s Essentialism,[1] as compared with Kripke’s modernist Essentialism.[2] Witt holds, in contradistinction to the traditional view (in which “a universal essence [is] shared by all members of the same species”),[3] to a variation of the individual essence interpretation of Aristotle.[4] A secondary purpose that Witt seeks to fulfill is to introduce the Metaphysics of Aristotle to those who are unfamiliar with Aristotle.[5] As the reader will discover, she does not, however, sacrifice clarity and accuracy to the purpose of providing an easily understandable introduction. Witt has certainly succeeded in providing the reader with an easy to understand introduction to Aristotle’s Metaphysical thought. She covers a wide variety of subjects including Aristotle’s doctrines of Being, Substance, Knowledge, and Hylomorphism. The intended audience of the book is the reader who wish to pursue an understanding of Aristotle’s Metaphysical thought.[6]

This book is well organized, and easy to follow. The author explains, at the beginning of each chapter, what she wishes to do, and summarizes, at the end of each chapter what she has attempted to do, as well as what she will attempt to do in the next chapter. The author’s explanations are easy to follow, and her arguments are well-explained. In order to prepare the reader to fully understand her position on Aristotelian Essentialism she provides three introductory chapters that introduce the essential concepts of Aristotelian Metaphysics and Physics. She wastes no time in presenting her argument, as her explanations of Aristotle in chapters 1-3 are essential for the argument that she presents in chapters 4-5.

The purpose of Chapter 1 is to introduce the reader to Aristotle’s Doctrine of Being, and to argue that Aristotle’s questions about Being are ultimately about Substance. The reader will be introduced to the ways in which Aristotle uses important terminology such as principle, cause, knowledge and definition (the way in which Aristotle understands these terms is quite different from the ways in which they are understood in modern and contemporary philosophy). Chapter 2 seeks to explain how Aristotle attempts “to unify the study of being around the study of substance.”[7] Witt accomplishes this task by answering three questions: “What does Aristotle mean when he says, ‘Being is said in many ways’? Why and how are substances prior? And…does it follow that an understanding of being is constituted by an understanding of substance?”[8] Chapter 3 seeks to follow what Witt describes as Aristotle’s method for understanding the question of Being, that is, to begin with things that are generally understood to be substances—sensible substances. In doing so, she explains that Aristotle’s primary concern is to understand what are the principles and causes of substance.[9]

Having taken the time to understand Aristotle’s purpose, terminology, and method Witt moves on to explain and defend here interpretation of Aristotle’s Essentialism. In chapter 4 Witt presents the reasons why the traditional understanding of Aristotle’s Essentialism should be rejected, arguing that essence is neither a property of substance,[10] nor a property of matter.[11] She then, in chapter 5, presents, and seeks to defend, her interpretation by which the essence is individual and is the primary cause or principle of sensible substances.[12] In order to help the reader to understand the major difference between Aristotelian Essentialism and Modern and Contemporary Essentialisms Witt provides a final chapter (chapter 6) in which she presents Kripke’s version of Essentialism and compares it with Aristotle’s version. She shows that not only are they not asking the same basic questions, they are not even worried about the same things, and do not use the same methods for discovering the essence of existing things.

Witt’s argument seems to take the form of a tri-lemma: Is Essence a property of Substances, OR is Essence a property of Matter, OR are Essences Individual. She argues against the first two options (chapter 4), which would imply that the third option is the only available position. She then goes on to defend the third position, her view, from various counter-arguments (chapter 5).

Of primary interest to this reader is the author’s understanding of Aristotle’s doctrine of Being, which is primarily found in the first two chapters. In the first chapter, Witt begins by explaining how Aristotle begins his investigation of Being—by considering how thinkers before him had asked the question of Being. In order to understand the question of being Witt explains that there are two types of questions concerning being: (1) the population question, and (2) the definition question.[13] The population question asks “what are beings?”,[14] and the definition question asks “what is being?” (or, “what is it to be?”).[15] Witt notes that Aristotle does not think that his predecessors are worried about the population question, but are seeking to answer the definition question.[16] Witt explains that Aristotle does not think that the population question can be answered until one has first answered the definition question.[17] A definition, for Aristotle, “is of a nonlinguistic item,”[18] and “causal; for Aristotle, one knows what [a] thing is (i.e., its definition) when one knows its cause.”[19] As Witt notes, “a definition is the appropriate answer to a question of the form ‘What is F?’”[20]

Witt immediately points out the apparent shift of focus by which Aristotle claims that the question “What is Being?”, just is the question “What is substance?”.[21] With this apparent shift Aristotle is then able to begin answering the definitional question by inquiring, of things that are generally recognized to be substances (sensible substances), “what is a substance?”[22] Understanding Aristotle’s notion of definition is primordial to understanding Aristotle’s question “What is Substance?” Aristotle is not asking for a nominal definition (the meaning of the word), but for “the principle or cause of a things’s being a substance…he is asking what it is in or about an entity that causes it to be a substance.”[23] She goes on to describe how Aristotle goes about answering the question of Being, and in the process explains a number of important elements of Aristotle’s understanding of reasoning, knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge.

Following this important discussion she asks the question, what does the science of being study? The Aristotelian answer to the question, as Witt notes, is “being qua being, or beings insofar as they are beings”.[24] That is, the science of being seeks to understand the principles and causes of Being.[25] Being, for Aristotle, is not a genus, therefore “there is no universal science of being because, for entities in different categories, what it is to be differs.”[26]

There is one major question that we need to ask at this point. How does Witt understand substance? In the section on the priority of Substance Witt notes, first of all, that “substances can be described as the ontologically basic beings.”[27] The idea being that a substance does not depend upon another for it to be.[28] Witt goes on to note that Aristotle often “refers to the category of substance as the ‘what is it’.”[29] The third priority of substance is in knowledge.[30] In explaining this third priority Witt turns to sensible substances and notes that one cannot truly know the attributes or properties of a sensible substance unless one already, at least implicitly, knows the substance.[31] Knowledge of what the substance is must come prior to knowledge of anything else about the substance. At the beginning of chapter three Witt distinguishes between primary and secondary substances.[32] As she is rounding up her final chapter she asks two questions that clarifies some issues in her explanation, “Why can we not separate the question of substance (comprising both the population and the definitional question) from the issue of essence? Why can we not consider individuals (e.g., lecterns and animals) and determine their essences, without addressing any ontological issues?”[33] From this question, and the final discussion of the book, it would appear that Witt distinguishes substance and essence such that, the essence of X is given in the answer to the question “what is X?”, and to say that X is a substance is to say that it is a properly basic being.

These are interesting answers, however, the question that this reader is left with, is “What is Being?” In other words, “What is it to be?” It would appear that, either Aristotle does not answer this question, or Charlotte Witt has misinterpreted Aristotle somewhere (or, and I am entirely ready to allow for this possibility, that I have totally misunderstood Charlotte Witt).



[1]Charlotte Witt, Substance and Essence in Aristotle: An Interpretation of Metaphysics VII-IX (1989; repr., Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 2.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid., 2-3.

[4]Ibid., 3-5, 143-179.

[5]Ibid., 5.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid., 38.

[8]Ibid., 39.

[9]Ibid., 64-65.

[10]Ibid., 104, 120-126, 141-142.

[11]Ibid., 126-141.

[12]Ibid., 143-179.

[13]Ibid., 7-8, 35, 194-195.

[14]This question is essentially asking “What are the things that are beings?” An answer to this question will be a list of things that are beings. One could even answer this question by pointing at beings. For example, if I take my child to a farm and, looking into a field filled with animals, ask “Which ones are horses?”, the answer will be given either by pointing out the horses, or by listing which ones are horses (with a description so that I can single them out). It is important to note that unless one already knows what a horse is (its definition, essence or nature –  which would be the answer to the definition question “What is a horse?”), one will be unable to answer the population question.

[15]Ibid. Witt explains the definition question as: “‘What is the nature of being?’ Or, ‘What is being like?’ (Ibid.)” It should be noted that by asking the question in this manner one is immediately implying that Being has a nature or essence. Witt notes this implication near the end of the first chapter, “what is it to ask for a definition, to ask about the nature or essence of being? (Ibid., 35.)” This is, of course, a controversial implication.

[16]Ibid., 7.

[17]Ibid., 8-9. Cf. Ibid., 111, 194, 195.

[18]Ibid., 35. Cf. Ibid., 57.

[19]Ibid. Cf. Ibid., 57.

[20]Ibid. Cf. Ibid., 54. Witt connects the Aristotelian notion of definition with Plato’s Euthyphro, where Socrates asks the young Euthyphro for a definition of Virtue (Ibid., 35-36.).

[21]Ibid., 8. Cf. Ibid., 39. Witt seems to accept, uncritically, the standard translation and understanding of ousia by which ousia means substance, and not, as many interpreters of Aristotle have argued, being-ness, or en-tity  (cf. Joseph Owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, 2nd ed. (Toronto, ON: PIMS, 1963), 138-154.) This understanding of ousia certainly affects her exposition of Aristotle’s understanding of Being, “substance”, etc. She later seeks to determine why Aristotle would have substituted “Substance” for “Being” in the “What is X?” question. She interprets Aristotle as using this substitution because substance is prior as far as being is concerned, when compared with the other ways of saying being (Ibid., 39.).

[22]Ibid. Cf. Ibid., 194.

[23]Ibid., 36-37. Cf. Ibid., 114.

[24]Ibid., 26. Cf. Ibid., 35, 61.

[25]Ibid. 26, 31.

[26]Ibid., 27.

[27]Ibid., 51.

[28]Ibid.

[29]Ibid., 54. This is a translation of the Greek words, to ti en einai, which is frequently translated as “essence”.

[30]Ibid., 57-58.

[31]Ibid., 58-59.

[32]Ibid., 63fn.1.

[33]Ibid., 195.