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Werner Jaeger on Aristotle’s Metaphysical Thought

(This is the third 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 1Post 2and Post 4 It would be best to read parts 1 and 2 prior to reading this post.)

            Werner Jaeger does not begin attempting to explain what he sees as Aristotle’s metaphysical thought until the last chapter of this important book. For Jaeger, “The Metaphysics is his [Aristotle’s] grand attempt to make this Something that transcends the limits of human experience accessible to the critical understanding.”[1] A couple of remarks concerning Jaeger’s portrayal of Aristotle’s metaphysical thought are in order.

First of all, for Jaeger, the legend by which the Metaphysics got its name due to it coming after the Physics in Andronicus’s library is almost certainly false. Rather, the Metaphysics got its name, for Jaeger, due to the very fact that the philosophical considerations found in the treatises that make up the Metaphysics are based upon the prior considerations of the Physics, but go beyond them.[2] Indeed, “Metaphysics is based on physics according to Aristotle in the first place because it is nothing but the conceptually necessary completion of the experimentally revealed system of moving nature.”[3]

Secondly, for Jaeger, the primary concern of the Metaphysics is to discover whether or not a supra-physical science is possible, “We usually overlook the fact that his commonest description of the new discipline is ‘the science that we are seeking’. In contrast to all other sciences it starts not from a given subject-matter but from the question whether its subject matter exists. Thus it has to begin by demonstrating its own possibility as a science, and this ‘introductory’ question really exhausts its whole nature.”[4]

Thirdly, for Jaeger, Aristotle’s philosophy is thoroughly Realistic. “In spite of his critical attitude, therefore, he escapes no more than Plato did from the notion that all real knowing presupposes an object lying outside consciousness…which it somehow touches, represents, or mirrors.”[5] For Jaeger, however, Aristotle is a “critical” realist, whose primary purpose is to discover whether or not the science of being is possible – “is such knowledge possible?”[6] As such, Jaeger sees Aristotle as the precursor of Immanuel Kant, if not in Kant’s Idealism, at least in his critical approach to philosophical knowledge of being.[7]

Fourth, Aristotle’s theory of being begins with the sensible world. Jaeger puts it in the following, somewhat nebulous manner, “The starting-point of his theory of being is the world of perceptible appearances, the individual thing of the naively realistic consciousness.”[8] This is a nebulous description because of the term used by Jaeger, ‘perceptible appearances’, which, for post-Kantian philosophers, is anything but a philosophically neutral term describing what Aristotle meant by sensible being. Indeed, Jaeger’s entire analysis of Aristotle seems to be inspired by, at the very least, Kantian terminology, if not by the philosophy which undergirds these terms. Jaeger goes on to explain that for Aristotle, “the complete determination of reality by the forms of the understanding and by the categorial multiplicity of their conceptual stratification is rooted not in transcendental laws of the knowing consciousness but in the structure of reality itself.”[9] In spite of the Kantian terminology, Jaeger seems to be properly explaining Aristotle’s understanding of the way things are. That is, Jaeger is saying that the forms and categories by which we understand reality, being as it presents itself to us, do not find their source and foundation in the human intellect, but in the very ‘structure of reality itself’. Reality, being, just is such that we glean these forms and categories from it.

Fifth, for Jaeger, Aristotle’s understanding of Being “drives us on towards an ultimate Form [this word is one of the typical English translations of the greek τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι.] that determines everything else and is not itself determined by anything.”[10] In other words, in light of the fact that “in every kind of motion Aristotle’s gaze is fastened on the end”,[11] Aristotle follows the existence of form in matter to a “form” that is not composed with matter, and which is that towards which all reality tends. “In Aristotle’s teleology substance and end are one, and the highest end is the most determinate reality there is. This substantial thought possesses at one and the same time the highest ideality as conceived by Plato and the rich determinateness of the individual, and hence life and everlasting blessedness. God is one with the world not by penetrating it, nor by maintaining the totality of its forms as an intelligible world within himself, but because the world ‘hangs’ (ἤρτηται) on him; he is its unity, although not in it.”[12] For Aristotle, then, the question of Being must necessarily drive the philosopher to God.

[1]Werner Jaeger, Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development, 2nd ed., trans. Richard Robinson (1948; repr., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 378.

[2]Ibid., 378-379.

[3]Ibid., 380. Cf. Ibid., 381.

[4]Ibid., 379.


[6]Ibid., 379-380.


[8]Ibid., 381.

[9]Ibid., 382.


[11]Ibid., 384.

[12]Ibid., 385.

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