(This is the first post in a series of studies on Werner Jaeger's work on Aristotle's philosophical development. Follow these links to find the other parts: Post 2Post 3, and Post 4.)

Introduction to, and difficulties with, Jaeger’s Method

            In his renowned work on Aristotle, Werner Jaeger, using the methods of form criticism and the evolutionary view of the development of thought[1], presents his theory concerning the development of Aristotle’s philosophical thought (see part 2 of this study here). He introduces his project by explaining that his main purpose will be to show that there is a process of development in Aristotle’s work. He seeks to maintain this theory over against Aristotelian tradition before him, who, so he claims, views Aristotle’s works as static, “The main reason why no attempt has yet been made to describe Aristotle’s development is, briefly, the scholastic notion of his philosophy as a static system of conceptions.”[2] Throughout his study of Aristotle Jaeger will consistently attempt to study Aristotle’s thought in light of the following phenomena, “In the treatment of intellectual progress, if we are to give full weight to the creative and underived element in great individuals, we must supplement the general tendency of times with the organic development of the personality concerned.”[3]

            Jaeger’s work is divided into three main sections, roughly following the three main stages of Aristotle’s life and philosophical development, in which he studies those works which he places according to three main periods of Aristotle’s philosophical career: Aristotle’s time at the academy, Aristotle’s travels, and the work of Aristotle’s mature years. The guiding principle of Jaeger’s historical construction is the evolutionary theory of theoretical development. Accordingly, his theory, concerning the order of redaction for Aristotle’s writings, places any writings that seem to favour Platonism in the earlier periods, and any writings that seek to disprove Platonism  in the later periods. This same theory is even used to divide up works such as the Metaphysics, such that any sections that seem to have a Platonic ring to them are seen as unedited earlier writings, and any sections that are clearly anti-Platonic are seen to be later writings. Using this theory Jaeger proposes that the Metaphysics is an unfinished and unedited compilation (most likely originally compiled by Aristotle himself), in some sort of fabricated order, of various writings which all touch upon a similar subject. Before we consider how Jaeger’s theory plays out in this important work it should be noted that Jaeger’s guiding principle, which remains unsupported by any sort of argument, is used to fabricate an equally unsupported ordering of Aristotle’s works. The principle is mechanically applied, not only to the ordering of the individual books, but also to the books themselves, which ends up destroying the relative unity of Aristotle’s books which, if Jaeger’s principle is rejected, seem to emanate a deep unity of thought. There is certainly some form of progression in Aristotle’s thought, this much cannot be denied; however, it is not the mechanical application of a questionable and unsupported principle to Aristotle’s thought that will help to determine just how Aristotle’s thought developed through the years.

C. S. Lewis, discussing the very same method, used by Jaeger on Aristotle, in its application to the Gospels, states that “The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance.”[4] After noting that, in his own personal experience, critics of Lewis’s works, his contemporaries, where wrong 100% of the time (and this in spite of living at the same time and in the same culture as Lewis, and speaking the same language),[5] Lewis goes on to note that “The reconstruction of the history of a text, when the text is ancient, sounds very convincing. But one is after all sailing by dead reckoning; the results cannot be checked by fact. In order to decide how reliable the method is, what more could you ask for than to be shown an instance where the same method is at work and we have facts to check it by? Well, that is what I have done. And we find, that when this check is available, the results are either always, or else nearly always, wrong. The ‘assured results of modern scholarship’, as to the way in which an old book was written, are ‘assured’, we may conclude, only because the men who knew the facts are dead and can’t blow the gaff.”[6] Indeed, to summarize the claims of C. S. Lewis, if those critics who seek to explain the history of the development of the thought and works of their contemporaries are unable, using the very methods that Jaeger proposes to use on Aristotle, to attain to any useful degree of success, then we cannot expect those critics who seek to explain the history of the development of the thought and works of authors who lived long before them, using the very methods that Jaeger proposes to use on Aristotle, to attain to any useful degree of success. Indeed, this fact seems to demonstrate the impossibility that Jaeger will, with any success, be able to reconstruct Aristotle’s philosophical development. We should, therefore, hold Jaeger’s theory as suspect.

On the Chronological Order of Aristotle’s Works

The question remains, for the philosopher who sincerely want to understand Aristotle: since we may assume some development in Aristotle’s thought, how, if it is even possible, can we determine in what order he wrote the works that attributed to him? The traditional ordering of Aristotle’s books does not help us, as it is not based upon the time of redaction, but upon the order of knowing. I would suggest that many of the proposed manners for determining the order in which Aristotle wrote his books are entirely untrustworthy as they depend upon unsupported assumptions. For example, there is no guarantee that, with time, Aristotle moved away from basic Platonism. It is entirely possible that Aristotle, even while at the Academy with Plato, opposed basic Platonism, but, with time, came to see its basic truth. I would propose that the only trustworthy way of determining a basic ordering of the works of Aristotle is to begin by assuming the basic unity of each individual book, and then to consider his mentioning, within the works themselves, of previous or future works. Applied to Aristotle’s works this proposal will not give us a perfect overview of the redaction of the different works, however, it can give us a general idea of the order of his most important works.

There are two enormous difficulties in attempting to establish some sort of timeline for the redaction of Aristotle’s works through the method that I have proposed. First of all, it is entirely possible that Aristotle went back and edited some of his works. If he edited them, including references to other works where he touches on the subjects in question, then it will be difficult to know which books came first, temporally. There are, however, quite a bit of mentions where Aristotle says something along the lines of, either, “as we have already discussed in…”, or, “we will discuss… in…” Variations on these two temporal indicators help to situate the books on a basic timeline. The second difficulty is that we do not possess all of Aristotle’s works. Indeed, that which was probably one of his most important works, On Philosophy, is only known through the occasional references to it either in Aristotle’s writings themselves, or in the writings of his commentaries. These references give us enough information about On Philosophy that we are able to know that it was a preliminary work in what he later came to call First philosophy, as well as a number of other important subjects. This is just one of the many lost works of Aristotle. This means that when Aristotle refers to a work on some subject, unless he explicitly names the work in question, it will be difficult to state with any type of certainty to which work he is referring. That being said, there are enough clear indices in his works that we are able to come up with a general idea of the temporal order of his writings.

The application of this proposal, starting with the Metaphysics, would look something like this. First of all, in the Metaphysics 993a13 Aristotle mentions his work the Physics.[7] From this, and the fact that a whole section of the Metaphysics is quoted directly from the Physics, we can safely assume that the Physics was written prior to the Metaphysics. The Metaphysics also mentions other books such as the Analytics (In works that follow the Analytics, and refer to the Analytics as “Analytics” we will assume that they are referring to both the Prior and the Posterior analytics as a complete work or 2 volume series.) in 1037b10, and a book on Ethics (we are not told which one) in 981b25. The Eudemian Ethics, which may be the work on Ethics that is being referred to in the Metaphysics, also refers to the Analytics as a prior work in 1217a17. Having shown that the Physics was written prior to the Metaphysics,[8] we are then able to understand Aristotle’s mention of previous in-depth discussions of potentiality and actuality (Physics 191b29) as referring, respectively, to the Topics (in which, book 5, Aristotle develops the notion of potentiality) and to De Interpretatione (in which Aristotle develops the notion of actuality).[9] We can conclude, therefore, that both the Topics and De Interpretatione where written prior to the Physics, and, therefore, prior to the Metaphysics. Now, De Interpretatione clearly refers to three works that where written prior to De Interpretatione: the Analytics (19b3), the Topics (20b26), and On the Soul (16a9). Though De Interpretatione does not refer to the treatise Sense and Sensibilia, this latter treatise does refer to a number of already written treatises: On the Soul,[10] a treatise on mixture,[11] a treatise on the elements,[12] and a treatise on the movements of atoms.[13] Sense and Sensibilia also refers to a treatise yet to be written on Generation,[14] but is not clear as to whether it is referring to On Generation and Corruption or to the Generation of Animals.[15] Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul is one of his earlier works, and seems to refer to his lost On Philosophy,[16] as well as to an already written treatise on the elements.[17] Though no treatise explicitly refers to the Sophistical Refutations, this work refers explicitly to the already written Analytics,[18] and seems to allude to the already written Topics.[19] There can be no doubt about the order of the Topics, or the two Analytics, all three of which are mentioned by most of Aristotle’s works as being already in existence, but which mention no other works explicitly but themselves. Topics is explicitly mentioned, by the Prior Analytics, as an already finished work,[20] and the Posterior Analytics mentions the already finished Prior Analytics[21] (which mentions the future Posterior Analytics).[22]

There are a number of works which seem to have been part of a series of studies concerning animals. These works, which are easily organized amongst themselves (except for a couple short treatises), are difficult to situate on the general timeline. We can discern, using the principle mentioned above, some order in an enormous series of works on biological research. Moving backwards in time On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration refers to the already written On the Soul,[23] the Parts of Animals,[24] and the History of Animals.[25] The Generation of Animals refers to the already written On the Soul,[26] Sense and Sensibilia,[27] the Parts of Animals,[28] and the History of Animals.[29] There is an allusion to some unnamed work which treats of Growth and Nutrition.[30] The Parts of Animals refers to a number of already written treatises: On Sleep,[31] Sense and Sensibilia,[32] and unnamed treatise which discusses necessity in relation to Generation,[33] the Progression of Animals,[34] the Movement of Animals,[35] On Breathe,[36] the History of Animals,[37] and a treatise on Anatomies.[38] The Parts of Animals refers to the yet to be written Generation of Animals.[39] The History of Animals looks forward to a treatise that will discuss the generation of animals,[40] and backwards to an already written treatise On Plants.[41] The Movement of Animals looks back to an already written work which discusses movement in relation to a first mover.[42] It is impossible to know to which treatise Aristotle is referring as, based upon the description and context of the mention, it may be the Physics, the Metaphysics, or, perhaps, even the On Philosophy. If I were to speculate about which treatise he is referring to, I would propose On Philosophy, though I recognize that the Physics is equally probable. In so much as the Metaphysics presupposes much of Aristotle’s work in the natural sciences, it seems a far stretch to say that he is referring to the Metaphysics. The Movement of Animals mentions the already written, On the Soul.[43] The Progression of Animals, though mentioned by most of the preceding treatises, mentions none of them. Though some of the smaller physical treatises are difficult to fit into the timeline of Aristotle’s biological treatises we are able to put the biological treatises of Aristotle in the following, approximate, order (from earliest to latest): On the Soul, Sense and Sensibilia, On Memory,[44] On Breathe, Optics,[45] Problems,[46] On Sleep,[47] On Dreams,[48] on the Progression of Animals, on the Movement of Animals, the History of Animals, the Parts of Animals, the Generation of Animals, On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration. Though none of these works refer explicitly either to the Metaphysics or the Physics, we can probably situate them roughly between the Posterior Analytics and the Ethics. There is probably some overlap between these works and the works of what is known as the Organon.

There are also some works of Aristotle which are difficult to place as they either do not refer explicitly to the other major works, or the sparse references do not permit us to place them with any measure of certainty. These include: the Poetics,[49] the Rhetoric,[50] The Eudemian Ethics,[51] the Nicomachean Ethics, the Magna Moralia, the Politics,[52] and a number of smaller treatises. The Metaphysics mentions an already written ethics, but does not mention which one it is referring to.[53] Due to the fact that these works do not explicitly mention enough works to allow us to situate them on the timeline, it is, perhaps, better to not be overly dogmatic in our speculations.

In light of the above explicit observations I would propose the following chronological order of the main works of Aristotle (earliest to latest):

On Philosophy
Prior Analytics
Posterior Analytics
Sophistical Refutations
On the Soul
Sense and Sensibilia
De Interpretatione
On Generation and Corruption
On the Heavens
On Memory
On Breathe
On Sleep
On Dreams
The Progression of Animals
The Movement of Animals
The History of Animals
The Parts of Animals
The Generation of Animals
On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration
            Eudemian Ethics
            Magna Moralia

            I have not attempted to include, in this list, the Nicomachean Ethics, the Politics, and a number of smaller works, as there is not enough explicit evidence to be able to speculate meaningfully about where they fit in the order. If I had to guess I would put the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics between Magna Moralia and Metaphysics, but, that would be pure speculation based upon vague references. It should be noted that by placing the works of Aristotle in this chronological order I am in no way implying that Aristotle didn’t start thinking about Ethics until after he had completed his studies of nature, of that he did not begin thinking about the problem of Being until he had finished he work on Metaphysics. On the contrary, as I noted above, in my discussion of the lost work On Philosophy, I think that it is quite likely that a great majority of Aristotle’s ethical and metaphysical views were already present, explicitly or implicitly, in his On Philosophy, and that the finished books, in the forms that they currently have, include thoughts and reflections that may date from Aristotle’s time with Plato. It is a simple fact that scholars reuse, at a later date, material that they may have developed years earlier. They may, of course, rework the early material a bit, rearrange arguments, add or remove some thoughts, and change some earlier thoughts to reflect the development of their understanding. We can see this, most evidently, in the Metaphysics, which, though it betrays an overall unity and depth, shows signs of having been formed from a number of different sources, and patched together into a rough outline of Aristotle’s thoughts on being and the cause of being.

            In the chronological ordering of Aristotle’s works I have not assumed any overarching framework into which I tried to fit Aristotle’s works, I simply noted his explicit references to other works (past or future depending on the work in question) and ordered the works accordingly. This method provides a much more reliable order than that used by Jaeger, and also, interestingly enough, corresponds, with some minor modifications, to the traditional ordering of Aristotle’s works (The biggest difference is that I put the ethical works prior to the Metaphysics, but I also noted that this was only speculation, as there is only one explicit mention in the Metaphysics of an already written work on Ethics, and, aside from that, no other evidence that would help to decide either way.)

[1]Werner Jaeger, Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development, 2nd ed., trans. Richard Robinson (1948; repr., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 4.

[2]Ibid. This is an unsupported claim, which is uncritically accepted as true by a great majority of Jaeger’s readers.

[3]Ibid., 3.

[4]C. S. Lewis, “Fern-Seed and Elephants,” in Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 247.

[5]Ibid., 248-249.

[6]Ibid., 249-250. Following this statement Lewis goes on to give a number of examples. He then notes the great advantages that a critic who is contemporary with an author has, in comparison to a critic of a work of a now dead author (especially an author such as Aristotle who live 300 years before Christ). He notes that in spite of these great advantages the contemporary critic is still quite unable to get anything right.

[7]Aristotle also refers explicitly to the already written Physics in Metaphysics 1076a9, and alludes to the Physics in Metaphysics 983b1, 985a13, 986b30, and 988a22. There is also mention of a treatise on Movement (Metaphysics 1049b36-1050a1), this could refer to the Physics, but it could also refer to an earlier work on movement either bearing that name (or a similar name such as his extant treatise, On the Movement of Animals), or under another name, thus it is best to remain agnostic on the identification of the work.

[8]One fact that has frequently caused grief for interpreters is that the Physics frequently discusses “first philosophy” (cf. 192a35, 194b15, 277b10, etc.). This reference, however, might very well refer to work that Aristotle did on what he came to call “first philosophy” in his lost work On Philosophy. Unless we assume the evolutionary theory of the development of thought, which would force us to conclude that the notion of first philosophy, as an important term in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, could not have been used by a young Aristotle, we are certainly warranted to presume, in light of the overwhelming evidence that the Physics was written after the Metaphysics, that the notion of first philosophy was discovered quite early by Aristotle, and, perhaps, used in his On Philosophy. This term is also found in his work called Movement of Animals, and his work On the Heavens (Movement of Animals 700b10, On the Heavens 277b10), however the same principle may apply, and there is, therefore, no need to place them after the Metaphysics.

[9]Again, as no treatise is explicitly named, he could also be referring to some lost work on these topics. There is, however, no reason to think that he is referring to the Metaphysics, which we have already proved must come later.

[10]436b10, 14, 440b27. It should also be noted that Aristotle’s work on the Generation of Animals explicitly states that the work on the Senses (Sense and Sensibilia) was written after On the Soul (779b22).





[15]In light of arguments yet to come it is relatively probable that he is referring to On the Generation of Animals which was part of the series of studies on animals (cf. On Length and Shortness of Life 467b9).

[16]404b19, 406a3.




[20]24b11, 46a31.

[21]73a7, 15.





[26]786b25-26, 779b23, 779b22.

[27]786b25, 779b22. At 779b22 Aristotle mentions that On the Soul was written prior to Sense and Sensibilia.

[28]715a7, 720b20.









[37]696b15-16, 689a19.


[39]650b10, 653b15-18, 689a20, 692a15, 695a27.





[44]This book refers to the already written On the Soul at 449b31.

[45]This book is referred to, as already written, by the Problems at 913a23.

[46]This book is referred to, as already written, by the On Sleep at 456a29.

[47]This book is referred to, as already written, by the Parts of Animals at 653a20; and refers to the already written On the Soul (455a7), and Problems (456a29).

[48]This book refers to the already written On the Soul at 459a15.

[49]The Poetics was clearly written prior to the Rhetoric, as the Rhetoric mentions it frequently (cf. 1419b5, 1372a1, 1404a39, 1404b7, 1405a4).

[50]The Rhetoric mentions the already written Poetics (see the previous footnote) and Topics (1355a29).

[51]The Eudemian Ethics mentions the already written Analytics (1217a17).

[52]It is generally conceded that the Politics presupposes the Nicomachean Ethics.

[53]981b25. It is generally conceded that the Eudemian Ethics constitute an earlier version of the Nicomachean ethics, and perhaps Aristotle is referring to this earlier Ethics.

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