Thursday, May 3, 2012


Michail Peramatzis, Priority in Aristotle's Metaphysics. Oxford Aristotle studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 328. ISBN 9780199588350. $99.00.

Reviewed by Luca Gili, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (

Version at BMCR home site


Michail Peramatzis here deals with some of the crucial themes of Aristotle's metaphysics, and considers the notion of 'priority' not only in itself, but also as the Leitmotiv of Aristotle's analysis of form, matter, the compound of matter and form, and in general of substance and accidents.1 The number and the difficulty of the questions addressed by Peramatzis, and his fine analysis of Aristotle's texts,2 make this book an invaluable addition to scholarship, which will be of interest to all scholars and students of Aristotle's metaphysics.

In the first, introductory chapter, Peramatzis says that his method in dealing with Aristotle's texts aims at combining a historical understanding and a philosophical analysis of the passage he comments upon. This approach, though in some sense required by any serious study of Aristotle's writings, does not cease to be challenging, because it requires both an understanding of the philosophical problems and a historical and philological sensitivity that few scholars possess. Peramatzis succeeds in his ambitious aim, and the reader cannot but congratulate him.

In order to combine the two methodologies, Peramatzis first expounds a puzzle, whose solution will be obtained by the analysis he presents in the central chapters of his book. The puzzle concerns priority in definition. Peramatzis expounds it in this way: 'A is prior in definition to B just in case A is [correctly] defined without mentioning B, but B is not correctly defined without mentioning A', p. 6.

Now, on the one hand, natural forms seem to be prior to matter in the above sense (forms are prior in definition to matter), but, on the other hand, it should be added that forms are 'essentially enmattered', namely that they cannot be separated from matter, and that, therefore, they 'must be defined in terms of matter' (p. 6). Are thus forms really prior in definition to matter, if they cannot be defined without mentioning matter?

How is it possible to solve this puzzle? Some scholars have rejected the idea that forms are essentially enmattered (among them we may count M. Frede and G. Patzig, whose influential commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics Z is still today a point of departure for every discussion on this topic). Peramatzis, however, takes another route, and for this reason his proposal should be regarded as original and freshly challenging.

To begin with, he observes that if form is said to be prior to both matter and the compound in terms of priority in definition, then both the compound and matter should have some sort of definition. Peramatzis claims that the compound and matter cannot be taken to be indefinable (as scholars have usually held in the case of matter), because if that were the case they could not be definitionally posterior to form, according to Peramatzis's account of priority in definition;3 on the other hand, he assumes that the ultimate source of definability is form, and thus, in order to be defined, both the material part of the compound and matter itself should be reduced ultimately to enmattered form.

Now, the question is whether Aristotle's philosophy makes room for enmattered forms. Some evidence seems to go in the opposite direction (cf. Met. Z 11, 1037 a21-33).4 Peramatzis patiently dwells on some evidence which supports his reading5 and carefully deals with the passages which seems to be at odds with his interpretation, like the aforementioned text, which shows, according to him, that 'the matter which has no place in a form essence is only token-matter of particular compound substances' (p. 51).

In this way, Peramatzis is able to claim that forms are essentially enmattered (ch. 4-5): he first contrasts Aristotelian forms with both mathematical entities (which are abstract and separate from matter, according to Aristotle) and Platonic forms. Dwelling on the texts in which Aristotle develops his philosophical criticism of his Master's metaphysics, Peramatzis argues that Aristotelian forms of natural substances cannot but be essentially linked to their material parts – they are indeed enmattered.6 This thesis, according to him, rules out any possibility of solving the above puzzle by claiming that, although natural forms have material and formal components, their formal components are prior because the form, taken in itself, is definitionally prior to the embodied form, which possesses its material parts as well. This solution is not available to those who claim that forms are essentially enmattered, because there is no such thing as form taken in itself, apart from its being enmattered.

Nevertheless, ch. 6 is devoted to strengthening the thesis of enmatterment of forms, claiming that material parts and change-related features of the compound are by no means reducible to, or eliminable by means of each other, since both of them constitute what Aristotle thinks a particular sensible substance is.

Chapter 7 presents a first attempt at providing a solution to the above puzzle, and this sketchy proposal is fully explained and defended in the second part of the monograph (chs. 8-14). In ch. 7, Peramatzis tackles Aristotle's notion of definition, as it is expounded in Posterior Analytics B 8-10. Here Aristotle introduces a 'causal- explanatory' model of essence, and suggests that the definition of a given substance may be attained through a syllogism, whose middle term – Peramatzis claims – is the explanatory cause of the definition itself: the definitions are not the conclusions of these syllogisms; they are rather obtained by rearranging the terms of the relevant syllogism. In the classic case of thunder, the syllogism runs as follows (cf. p. 181):

a) Noise belongs to all fire being quenched.
b) Fire being quenched belongs to the clouds.
c) Noise belongs to the clouds.

From the rearrangement of the terms which figure in this syllogism, thunder may be defined as 'noise in the clouds caused by fire being quenched' (p. 181). The fire, which is quenched, is the middle term of the syllogism, and plays the explanatory and causal role in the natural process described. This role grants it a certain priority over the clouds, though in the definition clouds and fire are inextricably linked to one another. Something similar is the case when we want to define sensible substances. At this stage Peramatzis relies on the subtle distinction between token-matter and type-matter (cf. p. 173; pp. 185-7), to find a solution to the puzzle. He says that 'type-matter is not a feature or a mode of being that (partly) constitutes a natural form' (p. 186). This distinction recalls – at least to my mind – Aquinas' distinction between materia signata quantitate (token-matter, in Peramatzis's description) and materia as a constituent part of the essence of a sensible substance – a constituent part which Aquinas claims to be posterior to form, inasmuch as form is the principle of the intelligibility of substance, since matter, taken in itself, cannot be known. It seems to me that this core argument makes Peramatzis's claims near and analogue to that of Aquinas, and it is perhaps a pity that Peramatzis does not even mention the name of the medieval philosopher.7

To go back to Peramatzis's argument, he suggests that type-matter is posterior to form, which should be regarded as explanatory in the above sense; however, token-matter is intrinsically related to form, and thus both material and formal components should be regarded as interdependent, at this level.

In the second part, Peramatzis develops his analysis of priority, by trying to expound its ontological consequences. He says that ontological priority may be regarded as priority in existence (PIE: 'A is ontologically prior to B, if B cannot exist if A does not exist, but not conversely') or as priority in being (PIB: 'A is ontologically prior to B if and only if A can be what it essentially is independently of B being what it is, whilst the converse is not the case' p. 13). Peramatzis undermines the first reading of the ontological priority: forms are said to be prior to the composite, but they cannot exist apart from the composite, thus PIE should be abandoned in favor of PIB, even though Aristotle seems to have formulated independence in being in a way which is open to both readings. PIB is seen as the ground for priority in definition in ch. 12, and is tested for each type of substance.

The book is brilliantly produced, and both paper and binding seem to be of high quality, as one is accustomed to expect from Oxford University Press.

All in all, Peramatzis should be congratulated and thanked for his masterly monograph, which will certainly be a point of reference for future studies on this crucial topic of Aristotle's metaphysics.


1.  I thank Russ Friedman (KULeuven) for his insightful comments on a previous draft of this review.
2.  I should say that sometimes Peramatzis's textual remarks seem to be questionable. For example at p. 60, n. 4 Peramatzis defends the manuscript reading of Physics 193 b25, against Susemihl's emendation (which Peramatzis imprecisely ascribes to Ross, who accepted it in his edition); however, Aristotle's usus scribendi seems to require, at least in my eyes, the emendation: the question at 193 b25-26 cannot be direct, since it depends on the verb θεωρητέον of line 193 b23, and Aristotle frequently (if not always) introduces indirect question of this type with the word εἰ, which could easily have been omitted by the copyist, and which Susemihl rightly restored.
3.  In making the claim that the form is prior in definition over the compound, Peramatzis does not rely on a specific textual evidence. I assume that he is referring to Metaphysics Z 1029 a5-7, which supports his views in the available critical editions. However, as I argued in my paper Aristotle, Metaphysics Z 1029 a6, in CQ 62.1, 2012, pp. 425-26, the text is rather problematic and could eventually be construed as not implying any priority of form over the compound (this is at least the reading of the ms. Florent. Laurentianus 87.12, which represents one of the two branches of the manuscript tradition of Aristotle's Metaphysics).
4.  It is perhaps worth saying (as Peramatzis does) that M. Frede grounds his interpretation largely on this passage in his masterly paper The Definition of Sensible Substance in Metaphysics Z, in D. Devreux, P. Pellegrin eds., Biologie, Logique et Metaphysique chez Aristote, Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1990, pp. 113-29, especially pp. 116-7).
5.  One of the crucial passages is Metaphysics Δ 1023 a35-b2 (cf. pp. 53-4).
6.   Peramatzis relies on Metaphysics Z 1033 b26-1034 a5, where Aristotle presents natural compound particulars and their forms as central cases for substances. Peramatzis's strong argument is philosophical: if Aristotle criticizes Platonic forms, because, by being separate, they cannot be causes of particular perceptible substances, then natural forms of this kind of substance, which Aristotle takes to be causes of the particular substance as a whole, cannot but be not separate, and thus they should be regarded as enmattered. Many other passages are presented and discussed, and Peramatzis's philosophical and textual acumen makes his analysis really pleasurable.
7.  This significant omission is somehow implied by his concentrating on the philosophical problems of the texts: he omits much of the scholarship that has dealt with the texts he considers (scholars like H. Bonitz, W. Jaeger, J. Owens are simply not referred to), and consequently it is not surprising that he skips even the answers that have been provided by the Aristotelian commentators of the Late Antiquity and of the Middle Ages. This does allow Peramatzis's detailed story to remain a readable length. However, a simple mention of the analogies between his approach and Aquinas' would have been, at least for my taste, rather welcome.

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