Sunday, July 28, 2013


Carlos Steel (ed.), Aristotle's Metaphysics Alpha (with an edition of the Greek text by Oliver Primavesi). Symposium Aristotelicum. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. ix, 541. ISBN 9780199639984. $99.00.

Reviewed by Leone Gazziero, Université de Genève (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

With a corpus in progress of well over 6,000 pages, compiled by three generations of hand-picked experts, the Symposia Aristotelica rank among contemporary scholarship's great achievements. As a result, each new addition is greeted by Aristotelian aficionados as a major event. C. Steel's proceedings deserve to be welcomed as much as their predecessors and, on account of O. Primavesi's edition, even more so.

Since it is the most distinctive feature of the book, let us start with O. Primavesi's erudite appendix. As B. Bydén put it a few years ago,1 in recent times improvements to Aristotle's text are to be expected from a careful re- evaluation of extant sources rather than from the unlikely discovery of neglected witnesses. As far as Metaphysics A goes, O. Primavesi has made Bydén's wish come true, since he has turned his attention precisely to the problem of assessing to what extent manuscripts of the α- and the β-branches diverge and how they stand in relation both to the text Alexander of Aphrodisias is likely to have known and to medieval Arab and Latin translations of Aristotle's work. To begin with, O. Primavesi puts a great deal of trust in the Commentator: whenever we can rely upon him, O. Primavesi reckons the evidence his commentary supplies is 'priceless', given that – for one thing – it reflects a form of the text which is older than and not dependent on either family of the manuscript tradition and – for another – it discloses and discusses ancient variants which are no longer available as such. O. Primavesi also proves that, more than once, the β-text is emended following Alexander's commentary and that the α-text is closer to Aristotle's original wording but happens to enliven it with explicative clauses. Accordingly, O. Primavesi sets a rule of thumb for future editors and informed readers of Aristotle's Metaphysics, whom he strongly advises to prefer the readings of α over β, while being cautious about passages handed down only in manuscripts of the former family.

All contributors have obviously benefited a lot from O. Primavesi's brand-new edition (and introduction). They follow him most of the time and, on the rare occasions when they do not, differences of views are interestingly discussed. Since there are about a dozen of them and they dwell without exception on intricacies and exegetical puzzles, it would be impossible to be fair (or even credibly unfair) to all within the scope of this review. So, after giving a succinct overview of the book's highlights, my focus will be on two individual contributions, which I take to reflect what the Symposium has to offer at its best and not-so-best.

The eleven essays that make up the main body of the book lack a proper introduction, something previous editors had accustomed Symposia's readers to. Because tradition allows for both formulas (with and without an introduction worthy of the name),2 the fact is to be noted as a simple matter of record. At most, one might wonder whether a preliminary assessment of the very peculiar nature and history of Metaphysics A would have been a better place to start with, all the more so since – with a few exceptions (J. M. Cooper's retrospect most notably) – authors in charge of their own section of the book did not feel especially inclined to address issues not enclosed within the textual envelope assigned to them. A number of interesting questions might otherwise have been addressed, some of them definitely worth asking beforehand.3 Exclusive reading clubs fix their own bibliographical cocktails the way they like it, and it makes little sense to argue in matters of educated taste; however, one would like to throw into the mix a handful of basic ingredients both for the sake of old days and for present and future reference.4 Because of their exceptional ingenuity, one simply cannot pass a few insights over in silence: C. Steel on Forms, Numbers, the Great and the Small is a fair example; S. Menn on ἀρχαί is another, as is O. Primavesi's account of Aristotle's criticism of supposed shortcomings in the Pythagoreans, and Crubellier's reminder of Aristotle's different uses of ἔκθεσις.

Despite having an unpleasant ring to it, micrology – which describes pretty well the Symposium's general method and style – is very good sport. True, it may lack the depth of more comprehensive approaches or even the ambition of earlier symposiastic endeavours, which concentrated on very broad issues, preferably neglected ones (Symposia I-V, VII, X, XII). One should not complain though, at least as long as micro-analysts are thorough enough at going into details. In the end, there is not much to fuss about and a great deal to marvel at.

The one chapter that deserves nothing but praise is G. Cambiano's opening study. It starts with an outstanding discussion of the celebrated incipit: πάντες ἄνθρωποι τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται. Through an impressive stylistic examination of vocabulary and syntax, unfolding each word and matching it with alternate possible choices, G. Cambiano shows that 'all men by nature desire to know' is the conclusion of an indicial argument (σημεῖον δέ κ.τ.λ.) rather than a widely shared opinion (an ἔνδοξον) or something apparent (a φαινόμενον). Then follows a painstaking reconstruction of Aristotle's developmental account of how wisdom ultimately arises from perception and memory. From the distinction between human and animal cognitive powers to the articulation of individual experience and universal techniques and sciences, every aspect of the epistemological scheme in A.1 is meticulously expounded and accurately placed back in its intellectual context, both Aristotelian and pre-Aristotelian.

At the other end of the spectrum there is D. Frede's essay on the first half of A.9, arguably the most conservative piece in the entire collection, and the least informative and thought-provoking.5 After careful reading, one is compelled to conclude that, when it matters, the problem is not so much whether D. Frede has a strong case or not but whether she has a case at all. Since she neatly avoids dicey issues and fails to deal with sensitive subjects, it does not come as a surprise that she is left with little to be right or wrong about. In this respect, section two ('Special Problems with the Existence of the Forms') is quite revealing: a number of important issues and none of the most controversial points are taken up for discussion. To start with, exactly how many groups of arguments aiming to prove that Ideas exist are involved in Aristotle's discussion? How do they fit into the preliminary distinction between those whose conclusion does not necessarily follow and those whose conclusion follows but is not always welcome? Are arguments from the sciences, from the one-over-many, and from the thought of things which are no more, at fault on both accounts or on one account only? What does the expression οἱ ἀκριβέστατοι τῶν λόγων mean exactly? 6 How many of these 'most precise arguments' are there? If they are not the same – as D. Frede seems to believe – 7 how is one supposed to sort out less precise arguments and most precise ones or, for that matter, how do you tell one ἀκριβέστατος τῶν λόγων from another? As simply put as possible: on the one hand, do less precise arguments not also bring about Ideas of relative entities and do they not also fall into the predicament of the Third Man? May more precise arguments which give rise to Ideas of relatives also be knocked down by the Third Man, or is it the other way around and the two drawbacks are mutually exclusive? Alas, the list may go on and on, but – bottom line – one will reach the same conclusion over and over again: D. Frede offers no hint of an answer to such questions and seems little aware of their existence.

As in all matters of exegetical wisdom, no commentary will make everybody happy; that being said, one may safely surmise that C. Steel's proceedings of the XVIIIth Symposium Aristotelicum will please philologists no less than historians of philosophy and will more than delight those who are a bit of both. All things considered, the little they lack is as much a blessing as the plenty they provide: with any luck, there is still room on the same shelf this book belongs to, the shelf where essential reading is picked up often enough not to gather dust.


1.   B. Bydén, 'Some Remarks on the Text of Aristotle's Metaphysics', Classical Quarterly, 55, 2005, 105-20 at 105.
2.   M. Frede (Symposium XIV), F. de Haas, J. Mansfeld and M. Burnyeat (Symposium XV), M. Crubellier and A. Laks (Symposium XVI) and C. Natali (Symposium XVII) thought it is the editor's task to make sure that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Contrariwise, G. E. L Owen (Symposium I, III, VII), S. Mansion (Symposium II), P. Moraux (Symposium V, IX), P. Aubenue (Symposium VI), E. Berti (Symposium VIII), A. Graeser (Symposium X), G. Patzig (Symposium XI), and D. J. Furley and A. Nehamas (Symposium XII) thought it is the reader's job to get the big picture from several different takes. I. Düring had to be of a mixed mind, for he went both ways, with (Symposium IV) and without (Symposium I).
3.   Considering that the two Symposia are almost consecutive, one question springs to mind: how is Metaphysics A related to the other books? In particular, what is the relationship between its doxography and Beta's aporetics?
4.   A pair of ghosts from past Symposia would certainly make for some interesting night reading: C. J. de Vogel, 'La méthode d'Aristote en métaphysique d'après Métaphysique A 1-2', in S. Mansion (ed.), Aristote et les problèmes de méthode. Actes du IIe Symposium Aristotelicum. Louvain, Publications universitaires, 1961, 147-70; and E. Berti, 'Note sulla tradizione dei primi due libri della Metafisica di Aristotele', Elenchos 3, 1982, 5-54. Since there is no harm in keeping an eye out for new books while revising a paper for publication, at least a couple of works should have elicited some interest: M. Hecquet-Devienne, 'L'authenticité de Métaphysique "Alpha" (meizon ou elatton) d'Aristote, un faux problème? Une confirmation codicologique', Phronesis 50, 2005, 129-49; and L. Cardullo (ed.), Il libro Alpha della Metafisica di Aristotele tra storiografia a teoria, Catania, Cuecm, 2009.
5.   Some of D. Frede's lines of argument are utterly wrong, as the blatant non sequitur at p. 272 where she asks: 'If the arguments are invalid anyway, why take their consequences seriously?' and answers immediately: 'It is preferable therefore to focus on the different types of the "unwelcome Forms".' Considering that 'unwelcome Forms' qualify as undesirable consequences rather than logical blunders, how is it that it is better to insist on the former, as Aristotle himself actually does, instead of redressing the latter? Only she knows. Sad to say, even D. Frede's jokes are not too good. What is funny about 'Aristotle's razor' (presumably, in relation to Plato's beard) at 267-9? The pun has long lost its edge, which is bad enough. Moreover, D. Frede's tells the story in such an awkward fashion that readers in their right mind, notably historians of medieval philosophy, will rather wince than smile at the insipid claptrap she delivers as its punch line: 'Aristotle anticipates a maxim that was to acquire canonical status in later history: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem' (269).
6.   D. Frede maintains (273) that the ἀκριβέστατοι τῶν λόγων are so called because they are based on the 'first principles of the theory of Ideas', which is as good a guess as any but does not get us very far as long as D. Frede does not tell us exactly which principles these arguments – but not the others – rely on.
7.   Every story has its unsung heroes and the ἀκριβέστατοι τῶν λόγων saga is no exception. As far as D. Frede's account goes, it has far more than its share. The one she should have listened to on this particular issue is W. E. Wehrle, The Myth of Aristotle's Development and the Betrayal of Metaphysics, Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001, pp. 84-7.

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