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JONATHAN LEAR ON ARISTOTLE’S METAPHYSICAL INQUIRY

            I should begin by noting that this blog article is anything but a book review. The intention of the blogpost is to explain Jonathan Lear's understanding of Aristotle's metaphysical inquiries and conclusions. I will begin with a survey of Lear's book, followed by an explanation of Lear's understanding, as explained in this book, of Aristotle's metaphysical doctrines. 

            Jonathan Lear wrote this book with the purpose of coming “to a deeper understanding of Aristotle’s claim that all men by their nature desire to know.”[1] Lear proposes that in order to properly understand Aristotle’s metaphysical inquiry, as it is found in the Metaphysics, one must first grasp Aristotle’s understanding of the way the world is.[2] As such, in order to accomplish the purpose of this book Lear, by way of introduction to Aristotle’s understanding of reality, takes the reader through Aristotle’s views on “Nature”, “Change”, “Human Nature” and “Morality”. There are a number of important elements of Aristotelian philosophy that are developed in these preliminary chapters that will influence our understanding of Aristotle’s metaphysical claims. When Lear arrives at Aristotle’s understanding of reality he begins by explaining Aristotle’s understanding of logic and mathematics. Following his explanation of Aristotle’s philosophy of mathematics Lear walks the reader through Aristotle’s metaphysical inquiry into being and substance. He takes the time to elaborate on book 7 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. He concludes by noting the relationship between mind, man & nature. In this section he develops the important subject of Aristotle’s monotheism.

Throughout this book Lear constantly compares the important parts of Aristotle’s thought with some of the great thinkers that followed Aristotle, such as Hume, Kant, and Hegel. His discussion of Aristotle’s principle of sufficient reason,[3] Aristotle’s understanding of causality,[4] and Aristotle’s view of the Principle of Non-Contradiction,[5] are absolutely essential reads for anyone interested in philosophical discussions.

Lear explains, near the beginning of the book, that the purpose of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is to catalogue “the puzzles surrounding the question of what are the basic elements of reality.”[6] Such an inquiry, of course, assumes that one is in contact with reality (somehow), and that one is aware of puzzling questions that concern the basic elements of reality. Indeed, by the time that we arrive at the Metaphysics we have already thought long and hard about what it means to be human, how humans know, etc. As he begins his explanation of Aristotle’s inquiry into being qua being Lear notes that metaphysics, the inquiry into the basic elements of reality, just is an inquiry into substance (which is the traditional translation of Aristotle’s technical term, οὐσία.) This is important as, for Aristotle, the inquiry into substance (as principle or starting point) is not an inquiry into concepts, but an inquiry into that which is. Lear notes that “it may at first seem odd to a modern reader to see Aristotle call substance a ‘starting-point’ or ‘principle.’ Is it not certain premises or thoughts that are starting-points, not bits of reality?  But by this stage of our inquiry there is no longer a significant distinction to be made between the order of our thoughts and the order of reality.[7] Thus a certain portion of reality itself, substance, can be thought of as a starting-point…All reality either is substance or is somehow dependent on or related to substance. Thus the inquiry into reality as such is an inquiry into substance.”[8] Lear thinks that Aristotle’s understanding of substance developed over time, and, therefore, that his views of substance in the Categories will not necessarily be the same as his views on substance as found in the Metaphysics.[9] The primary question of the Metaphysics is “what is Being?”, which, Aristotle claims, just is the question “What is Substance?” Lear notes that, “when one is engaged in a philosophical inquiry into what substance in the primary sense is, one is engaged in trying to answer the questions: what is most real?, what is ontologically basic?, what is that upon which the reality of other things depends?”[10]

Before moving on to a consideration of Aristotle’s inquiry into the principles and causes of reality Lear reminds the reader of what has been seen, “The inquiry into nature revealed the world as meant to be known; the inquiry into man’s soul revealed him as a being who is meant to be a knower. Man and world are, as it were, made for each other.”[11] If such is the case, then it may be possible to gain some knowledge of what the principles and causes of being are.[12] Indeed, because knowledge just is the intellectual union of knower and thing known, “Metaphysical inquiry can thus simultaneously be about man and world, because at this level of inquiry there is an internal coincidence between what is essential to man and what is essential about the world.”[13]

Lear notes that in Aristotle’s earlier work, the Categories, he had associated the notion of substance with individual things. Lear says, “one should see the Categories as trying to answer the question ‘What is ontologically basic?’ by offering particulars as primary substances. His reasoning, in brief outline, is, first, that primary substance is a subject for predicables, but is not itself predicable of anything further; second, that a particular is something which is not by its nature predicable of anything else. Since particulars are themselves subjects of predication, it follows that to be a primary substance is simply to be a particular.”[14] Lear argues that Aristotle had not, at this point, dealt sufficiently with the problem of change, and, therefore, had not yet discovered form and matter.[15] Lear claims that once Aristotle discovered form and matter he was forced to totally rethink the question of substance.[16]

Lear, in his discussion of Metaphysics VII notes that Aristotle poses two criteria for what it means to be a substance: “substance must be both a ‘this something’ and a ‘what-it-is.’”[17] Lear claims that “The idea of something’s being a ‘what-it-is’ is that of its being a thoroughly definable, and thus an intelligible, entity.”[18] The ‘what-it-is’ is Lear’s translation of to ti en einai, which could be read as, “that which it is”. Many translators simply translate this technical phrase as essence. This may not be the best translation as most people understand the essence of x as an abstraction from the thing x, whereas Aristotle’s technical phrase carries with it the idea of “an actual thing” as well as “what the actual thing is”, and, therefore, the composition of the thing and its essence in one. The ‘this something’ is Lear’s translation of tode ti. Lear says that “the idea of something’s being a ‘this something’ is the idea of its being an ontologically basic, definite item.”[19] Thus, for Lear, Aristotle is saying that, in order for x to be a substance, x must be an ontologically basic, definite, thoroughly definable and intelligible entity. If such is the case, then, for Aristotle, neither a particular nor a universal qualify as substances. Lear follows Aristotle’s reasoning in Metaphysics VII and shows how Aristotle arrives at the conclusion that the form of the species just is substance. [20] Lear then goes on to discuss and respond to difficulties that might be raised by this theory,[21] as well as how form can be ontologically independent.[22]

Interestingly enough, Lear’s explanation of Aristotle’s answer to the question “What is Being?” appears to be almost exactly the same as Stanley Rosen’s explanation of Plato’s answer to the question “What is Being?” Lear argues that Aristotle answer the question “What is Being?” by saying that Being is substance and substance just is form.[23] Stanley Rosen seems to imply that Plato’s answer to the question “What is Being?” was, Being is a form.[24] The difference between the two answers is that Aristotle, according to Lear, would have Being simply be the form of the substance, whereas Plato, according to Rosen, would have Being be one of the many forms.



[1]Jonathan Lear, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 10.

[2]Ibid., 10-11.

[3]Ibid., 57-8.

[4]Ibid., 30-5.

[5]Ibid., 249-64.

[6]Ibid., 4. Lear also discusses (Ibid., 248.) where the name “Metaphysics” came from. He adheres to the notion that this book of Aristotle is named the “Metaphysics”, not because of its place in someone’s library (contra Ross et al.), but because it is the natural inquiry that follows the study of nature. That is, the inquiries of the Metaphysics come, naturally, after (“Meta”) the study of physics or nature (“phusis”), and can only come after the study of the natural physical world. Lear also notes, rightly, that the Metaphysics of Aristotle just is the narration of the process of inquiry into the principles and causes of reality (Ibid., 278.). This view requires Lear to view the Metaphysics of Aristotle as being relatively complete and in the appropriate order (contra Ross et al.). His comments concerning the “cramped and impenetrable (Ibid., 272.)” style of Metaphysics VII, as well as not being a “finished work, but unpolished work (Ibid.)” do not imply that the Metaphysics is an out of order compilation that was compiled after the fact. On the contrary, the Metaphysics can be understood to be the relatively complete and appropriately ordered collection of unfinished notes documenting the progression of Aristotle’s metaphysical inquiry. Pay attention to my endnotes, as some of them contain important information for understanding what follows.

[7]For a person who has not followed Lear’s argument through this book, this claim might be alarming. “What, no significant distinction between the order of reality and the order of thought?” However, it should be noted that for Aristotle, as explained by Lear, when a knower knows something, there is absolutely no distinction between the thing known and the knower. What is the thing known? For Aristotle, a material x just is “enmattered x”. But x as enmattered is, according to Lear, only a “first-level actuality (Ibid., 129.)”. That to which “x” refers is the “form” or “essence” x. “But it is the essence or form of a physical object that is intelligible. So the form which is, from one perspective, the actuality of the object is, from another perspective, a potentiality which is actualized in active contemplating. The active contemplating of that form is the form itself at its highest level of actuality. (Ibid., 131)” Lear notes that, “The intelligible form to which mind is receptive is the essence of the thing, which mind is able to think. The intelligible form which mind, in thinking, becomes is a second-level actuality. (Ibid., 130.)” As such, when a knower knows some x, the knower intellectually becomes x. As such, in knowing there is no significant distinction between the knower and the thing known. Therefore, “in active thinking there is no difference between mind and object: mind simply is the form it is thinking. (Ibid., 131.)” It is due to this understanding of understanding that Aristotle, as explained by Lear, is able to claim that “the structure of reality constrains the structure of our thought…It is because the structure of our thought is responsive to – indeed, expressive of – the structure of reality that we thinkers are capable of conducting a very general inquiry into reality. (Ibid., 264.)” There is one more important comment to make here. In Lear’s explanation of Aristotle, the essence of x just is the order (ordering) of x, it is that which makes x to be x and not y, z or a (cf. Ibid., 28-29.). Lear notes that “precisely because the essence does instantiate an order, it is intelligible. Mind can grasp the order manifested in an essence, and thus we can give an account or definition of it. (Ibid., 29.)” If the essence of x is the order of x, then the essence of some real thing, when known, becomes the order of the knowledge of x. As such, there is no distinction between the order of x as real and the order of x as known. There is much more that could be said (this is a very rapid survey), but this should help the reader to understand why Lear is able to say that there is no significant distinction between the order of reality and the order of thought.

[8]Ibid., 248.

[9]Ibid., 265, 269, 272.

[10]Ibid., 269-70.

[11]Ibid., 248-49. This is, interestingly enough, the view of the Christian church throughout the centuries. Christian theologians from theological families as different as the Cappadocian greek fathers and American Reformed theology have taught that God has created man to know him, and has provided man with two books with which to know God (the book of nature, and revealed scripture). Stephen M. Hildebrand, in his recent introduction to the theological work of Basil of Caesarea (one of the great Cappadocian thinkers of the 4th century), notes that Basil understood man to be created as a reader (“for Basil, man is, at the heart of his identity, a reader and an interpreter…man is both reader and book or text, reader in soul and book in body. (Stephen M. Hildebrand, Basil of Caesarea (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 17.)”). Basil also thought that God had provided man with two books to be read and interpreted (“Man’s texts, for Basil, are principally two, the Scriptures and the whole of creation, including the human body. The author of man’s two books is God himself. One important implication here is that both the Scriptures and creation, being texts, are full of meaning and significance. (Ibid.)”) Augustus H. Strong, a well-known and respected Reformed Baptist theologian, in his Systematic Theology, says essentially the same thing as Basil, “God himself, in the last analysis, must be the only source of knowledge with regard to his own being and relations. Theology is therefore a summary and explanation of the content of God’s self-revelations. These are, first, the revelation of God in nature; secondly and supremely, the revelation of God in the scriptures. (A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, 3 volumes in 1 (1907; repr., Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1979), 25.)” He goes on to claim that both scripture and nature have the same author (Ibid., 28.), that they cast light on each other (Ibid., 27-28.), and that they are mutually dependent (Ibid., 29.). Both of these theologians, along with the great majority of Christian theologians, are claiming that man was created to know, and to know God; and that this world was created to be known, and to lead man to knowledge of God (supplemented and perfected by God’s divinely inspired scriptures). In this, Christian theology has always agreed with Aristotle.

[12]It should not be forgotten that Aristotle’s understanding of “principle” and “cause” are not concepts, but things, origins, grounds. Lear notes that “The Greek word which is translated as ‘cause’ does not mean cause in the modern sense: namely, an antecedent event sufficient to produce an effect. Rather, it means the basis or ground of something…the cause gives us ‘the why’. (Lear, 15.)” Charlotte Witt makes the same distinction when she notes that “A principle, as we think of it today, is a rule, a law, or a basic truth. An Aristotelian arche, in contrast, means an ‘origin’ or ‘source’, and bears traces of nonphilosophical usage in which it means a ruler. (Charlotte Witt, Substance and Essence in Aristotle: An Interpretation of Metaphysics VII-IX (1989; repr., Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 16.)”

[13]Lear, 249.

[14]Ibid., 270.

[15]Ibid., 270-71.

[16]Ibid., 272.

[17]Ibid., 273.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Ibid.

[20]When discussing sensible substance Aristotle notes that there are three basic “aspects”: form, matter and the composite of form and matter. Aristotle argues that the substance of the sensible substance is neither its matter, nor the composite of form and matter. Therefore, necessarily, the substance of the form matter composite is the form. In his exposition of Aristotle’s argument which concludes that form just is substance Lear does not seem to consider the possibility that Aristotle is beginning with sensible substance, (composites of form and matter) in order to begin with that which is easiest to know, with the purpose of discovering what is the Being or Substance of sensible Beings, and this so as to move on to a deeper analysis of what Being is.

[21]Ibid., 278-92.

[22]Ibid., 292-3.

[23]Note that Lear does not explicitly refer to the question “What is Being?”, however, it is implied by his discussion of Aristotle’s question “What is substance?”, which, for Aristotle, just is the question “What is Being?”.

[24]Cf. Stanley Rosen, Plato’s Sophist: The Drama of Original & Image (1983; repr., South Bend, IN : St. Augustine’s Press, 1999.), 44, 149, 188, 197, 230, 237-39, 243, 264, 273, et al. Rosen is not quite as clear on this claim in his later book, The Question of Being: A Reversal of Heidegger (1993; repr., South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001).

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