Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
John Mouracade (ed.), Aristotle on Life. Kelowna, BC: Academic Printing and Publishing, 2008. Pp. x, 197. ISBN 9780920980972. $28.95 (pb).
Reviewed by R. W. Sharples, University College London (UCL)

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

After centuries of relative neglect, the importance of Aristotle's biological enquiries to our understanding of his philosophy has been increasingly realised in the last thirty years or so. The papers in this special issue of Apeiron, the proceedings of a conference at the University of Alaska Anchorage in August 2007, contribute to that development. They are not primarily concerned with Aristotle's views on the biology or physiology of living things, but with how living things are accounted for in his ontological discussions, and indeed how, as the paradigm cases of sublunary substances (see further below), they influence those discussions.

Paul Studtmann analyses the various ways in which Aristotle speaks of form, or rather, since one of them is as species, of eidos. "Essence" is also, Studtmann argues (23), ambiguous between form (a particular) and species (a universal; Studtmann's "form-m" and "form-c" respectively). Studtmann succeeds in showing that the situation is extremely complex, more so perhaps than has been recognised in most discussions, which have focused on just a few of the senses: "form" is used in over thirty different ways in the Metaphysics (3). He argues that the core notion is that of order, whether taxonomical (form as species) or dynamic (form as final cause). This however leaves the question: if one of these types of order is basic and the other derivative from it, which is derived from the other? "Derivation" here could, moreover, be understood either in terms of how Aristotle arrived at his final position, or in terms of how we should analyse that final position. Certainty may be impossible, but the question is important for our understanding of Aristotelianism.

Margaret Scharle examines the part played by material and efficient causes in Aristotle's teleology, and argues for the radical view that for Aristotle there simply cannot be any meaningful discussion of material or efficient causes that does not depend on formal and final causes; Aristotle would not have recognised the idea that inanimate nature must be, or even can legitimately be, discussed in its own terms, different from those that apply to living things. This fits, it seems to me, with the way in which Aristotle's biological works have come to be recognised as the climax of his discussion of physics;1 it also means that the question how efficient causation and purpose are to be reconciled is misplaced as far as Aristotle is concerned, and that the view that for him teleology applies only to some natural phenomena (viz. living things), and not all, is simply wrong. The question whether Aristotle has anything to contribute to contemporary discussions of the mind-body problem thus becomes a philosophical, rather than a physiological issue. The underlying question here, that of the boundary in our contemporary situation between scientific issues on the one hand and philosophical issues on the other, is one also raised in Mouracade's paper (below).

Devin Henry (with whom I should declare a connection, as one of the examiners for his PhD) argues that the natures of living organisms are for Aristotle derived from underlying causal powers, in a way that avoids the vacuity of Molière's virtus dormitiva, that these natures are to some extent peculiar to individuals rather than to the species of which they are members, and that inherited variations within a species are neither accidental (since they are not by-products of the powers that produce them) nor for a purpose (since if they were they would be characteristic of the whole species: Generation of Animals 5.1 778a32-34). Henry also points to Generation of Animals 4.6 785b27-786a2 as suggesting that a species as a whole can have a propensity for different colours, and, perhaps uniquely, that this is not simply a generalisation over the individuals in the species, but a statement about the nature of the whole species.

Julie K. Ward considers whether "human" is an ambiguous or homonymous term for Aristotle, in the light of his notorious remarks in Politics 1.13 on the limited deliberative capacity of women and slaves. She concludes that for Aristotle women and slaves possess the capacity for deliberation in a way that does not make the capacity itself homonymous; "they actualize it in the sense of making decisions about their future ends and projects in spite of lacking a complete notion of the good that virtuous, male Athenians have" (92). She supports this by arguing (90, cf. 96) that in the Nicomachean Ethics deliberation is "a common albeit distinctively human capacity". More generally, one might also note Aristotle's insistence at Metaphysics 10.9 1058a29-b25 that male and female are not different in species. But the question remains how far one should go in interpreting particular passages of Aristotle in a way that eliminates inconsistencies. (Ward expressly distinguishes between considerations internal to the text and external, cultural ones: 78-79).

Errol G. Katayama considers those living things which he claims are not substances in Aristotle's view -- sterile hybrids such as mules, and the products of spontaneous generation. He distinguishes various senses of unity, and argues that although mules, for example, have "logical unity" in that they fall under a single universal, they are not members of a natural kind where that is understood to involve the ability to generate other individuals like themselves, and so are not themselves properly individuals, let alone substances. From this point of view a species is primarily something that persists over time, as is shown by Aristotle's emphasis on reproduction as a way in which mortal things achieve eternity (On the Soul 415a26-b7); one may compare the point made by Marwan Rashed, that for Aristotle's commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias universality should be thought of not so much in terms of a plurality of concurrent instances, but rather in terms of the existence of a succession of instances over time.2

Christopher Shields considers why artefacts, and also the elements, are not substances at all, rejecting any notion that for Aristotle there are degrees of substantiality and that living things are just the paradigm cases of substances, rather than the only ones. He argues that it is because to be a substance involves some internal end-directed self-governance; the elements can rise or fall, but they cannot stop themselves or go into reverse (Physics 8.4 255a6-11; 138). And the end has to be one that is intrinsic to the thing itself, not arbitrarily imposed by some outside agency (which rules out artificial mechanisms set up by their constructors to be self-governing by means of some feedback principle). The question thus arises (129-130), if artefacts are not substances, into which Aristotelian category do they fall? Shields' answer is (144): into none, for they are not anything determinate at all in the first place, since their identity conditions are not stable in the way that those of living creatures are; artefacts are liable to paradoxes of the Ship of Theseus type, living creatures are not. As Shields puts it, "Aristotle in the Metaphysics is not undertaking to precisify some sort of vague folk ontology; instead, he is conducting first philosophy, a branch of theoretical science whose deliverances may amaze us no less than the claims of the physicists." But the initial question (129-130) why Aristotle regularly uses artefacts as examples of substances in his discussion seems to be left unanswered. Perhaps part of the answer is that artificial production suits Aristotle's purposes because it is easier to distinguish the role of the different causes than it is in natural generation, and that artificial production is more self-evidently guided by a purpose.

When Shields at 131 and n.6 says that the view that artefacts are not substances extends back at least as far as Aquinas, he underestimates by a millennium; it is the view already held by Alexander of Aphrodisias.3 I am not sure why Shields says (143) that living things "have limited and patterned growth in two dimensions" (my emphasis), rather than three.

John Mouracade uses similar notions of internal self-regulation directed towards an end to argue that Aristotelian hylomorphism provides a better solution than some, notably Bernard Williams (162), have supposed to the dilemma: reductive materialism or dualism? -- and also a better answer than other versions of non-reductive materialism which, he argues, are too ready to leave it to biological science to settle issues which properly belong within the competence of philosophy. As Scharle puts it in her paper (43), Aristotle's teleological analysis of living things and the processes by which they generate each other and maintain themselves raises issues which are philosophical rather than biological; "there are philosophically rich a priori issues at stake that cannot simply be settled by contemporary scientists."

This review began with a contrast between the study of Aristotelian biology as such, and the question how living things fit into and affect Aristotle's more general ontological theories. Some of the papers in this volume are inevitably going to be of interest to specialists in Aristotle rather than to the wider philosophical community. But what they collectively show is that the question whether Aristotle's views have anything to contribute to contemporary debates concerning teleology and the nature of life -- two issues which may be more closely linked than is always acknowledged -- is one that is still open.


Paul Studtmann, 'On the Several Senses of "Form" in Aristotle'.
Margaret Scharle, 'The Role of Material and Efficient Causes in Aristotle's Natural Teleology'.
Devin Henry, 'Organismal Natures'.
Julie K. Ward, 'Is "Human" a Homonym for Aristotle?'.
Errol G. Katayama, 'Substantial Unity and Living Things in Aristotle'.
Christopher Shields, 'Substance and Life in Aristotle'.
John Mouracade, 'Aristotelian Hylomorphism and Non-Reductive Materialism'.


1.   J.G. Lennox, 'The Place of Zoology in Aristotle's Natural Philosophy', in R.W. Sharples, ed., Philosophy and the Sciences in Antiquity, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005, 55-71, at 61-62.
2.   M. Rashed, Essentialisme: Alexandre d'Aphrodise entre logique, physique et cosmologie, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007, 259.
3.   e.g. Alexander of Aphrodisias, De anima 5.1-4, De anima libri mantissa, 103.29, cf. 121.17-18. (But he also allows the elements as substances, contrary to Aristotle; cf. Shields 135, 137-138.)

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