Sunday, August 17, 2014


Sten Ebbesen, John Marenbon, Paul Thom (ed.), Aristotle's Categories in the Byzantine, Arabic and Latin Traditions. Scientia Danica: Series H, Humanistica 8, vol. 5. Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab / The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2013. Pp. 339. ISBN 9788773043721. kr 300,00.

Reviewed by Daniel Vecchio, Marquette University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The pleasant fruit of a series of conferences beginning in 2006 is the volume Aristotle's Categories in the Byzantine, Arabic and Latin Traditions, which is comprised of twelve articles. The volume, organized by linguistic and cultural groupings, and by historical development, explores the impact that Aristotle's Categories has had among diverse philosophical, theological, and linguistic debates. The first two articles focus on the Byzantine tradition. The third and fourth articles focus on the Arab tradition, with one article on Avicenna and the other, a French article, on Averroës. The last eight articles progress through the Latin tradition, from the 11th and 12th centuries through to 16th-century Denmark. Although the volume is eclectic, an overarching unity emerges in that each of the contributing authors offers a piece of the history of philosophy that has been previously neglected or underdeveloped. Space does not permit me to review all the articles, so I have selected a sample that provides an overall sense of the volume's high quality.

Chapter One, "Photios on the Non-Synonymy of Substance: Amphilochia, by Börje Bydén, investigates the extent to which early Byzantine philosophical works have influenced the writings of later Byzantine philosophers. As Byzantine authors did not cite sources, Bydén's methodology is to search out an early work "of some originality with which to compare the later ones" (p. 10). Bydén argues that Photios' notes on the Categories, found in the Amphilochia, is an ideal test case, occasioning both a discussion of the original philosophical contributions of an overlooked early commentator and the influence that such an early work had on later traditions. To the first aim, Bydén develops a strong case that Photios, although influenced by John of Damascus and Porphyry's Isagogê, offers an innovative critique of the Aristotelian category of substance, viz. that primary and secondary substance are not within the same genus, as (Photios takes it) only the infimae species comprise the category of substance (p. 23). Bydén's second aim, to see if Photios' work filters into the later Byzantine tradition, is less conclusive. To set the stage, he references the scholia, compendia, and treatises that relate to the Categories within the subsequent Byzantine tradition. Bydén concludes that later works on the Categories "never really [go] beyond this formal and imperfect resemblance" (p. 29). Although other Byzantine commentators offer critical remarks on the nature of substance, it is never clear that they are referencing Photios. Bydén speculates that Photios' commentaries were "buried in a mainly theological miscellany that few if any authors would think of consulting" (pp. 31-2). This raises the question of whether Photios' work is the ideal test case for surveying the influence of early Byzantine philosophy on later Byzantine writing, as Bydén initially suggested.

Ken Parry's "Aristotle and the Icon: The use of the Categories by Byzantine iconophile writers" is the second chapter. Parry offers a concise and compelling history of the First and Second Iconoclasms. Although interest in Aristotle's Categories existed in the eighth century concurrently with the First Iconoclasm (witness e.g. John of Damsacus' Dialectica), it is not until the ninth century and the advent of the Second Iconoclasm that iconophiles begin to use terminology from the Categories to defend the use of icons. Parry focuses on the writings of Theodore the Studite and the Patriarch Nikephoros. In particular, he notes that iconophiles made use of Aristotle's discussion of homonymy as a way to counter the iconoclasts' claim that a true image must be of the same essence, ὁμοούσιος, as the subject. Parry convincingly connects Theodore the Studite and Nikephoros to the sixth-century writings of John Philoponus in conceptualizing the subject-image relationship as an instance of the category of relatives (pp. 48-9). In the case of Nikephoros, resemblance between the archetype, Christ, and the icon is an instance of the relation of homonymy. Parry also notes that Nikephoros constructs an argument for the superiority of the icon over the cross by referencing the Aristotelian notion of efficient causality, noting that Christ's body is prior to the cause of the form of the cross, and that whatever is prior in causality is more worthy of honor (p. 53). This last argument superficially seems only to demonstrate a more general influence of Aristotelian metaphysics on Nikephoros: Parry could strengthen the connection between Nikophoros' argument and the Categories, by noting that Aristotle writes that "what is better and more valued is thought to be prior by nature" (Cat. 14b4-5).1 Nonetheless, Parry ably draws attention to the impact that the Categories had on the pivotal periods of iconoclasm.

"The Categories in Avicenna: Material for developing a developmental account?" by Heidrun Eichner is the third article in this volume. Given the importance of the question of the ontological status of the categories in linking Peripatetic philosophy to Neoplatonic traditions, Eichner seeks to explain the evolution of Avicenna's thoughts on the Categories. Eichner compares two groups of neglected works to the more comprehensive treatment developed in the K. al-Šifā (p. 60). The first group of texts are early works, including The Compendium on the Soul, and the al-Ḥikma al-Arūḍiyya ("HA"), which is partially restored by using the text of K. al-Nağāt. The second grouping comes from al-Muḫtaṣar al-awsaṭ. Eichner's analysis of the first grouping is quite extensive, relying on careful textual analyses. The second part is unbalanced compared to the first as it is almost entirely occupied by two charts: one that compares the structure and treatment of logic in al-Muḫtaṣar al-awsaṭ, ḤA, and K. al-Nağāt, and another comparing al-Muḫtaṣar al-awsaṭ to K. al-Šifā. A concluding remark would have helped to draw out the implications of these two groups as they compare to one another. The heading for Part One contains a typo for the title of "ḤA". Also, the first footnote is missing a notation indicating that the introduction is to the K. al-Šifā.

Chapter Four "La substance première d'Averroès entre logique et ontologie" by Cristina Cerami considers Averroës' response to the vexing question of whether the ontology that Aristotle develops in the Categories can be reconciled with the Metaphysics. The question is how it could be that the primary substance of the Categories is individual substance, while Book Zeta of the Metaphysics indicates that it is the species-form which is most properly said to be substance. The seemingly conflicting accounts caused some ancient commentators to question the authenticity of the Categories, while many contemporary commentators simply think that the tension is irreconcilable. According to Cerami, Averroës' solution is to view the Categories and the Metaphysics as defining primary substance in different ways. The Categories defines "primary substance" according to our viewpoint, as that which is the ultimate subject of predication. In the Metaphysics, "primary substance" is defined by what has primacy according to nature. At times, Cerami's treatment of the aporia of substance is repetitive, as she frames it first in her treatment of Simplicius, whose solution anticipates that of Averroës, and then revisits the puzzle again when specifically delineating Averroës' solution. Nonetheless, Cerami develops a compelling case for why contemporary scholars cannot neglect the Commentator when studying the relationship between Aristotle's logic and metaphysics. She highlights two ways in which Averroës differs from contemporary commentators: "Premièrement parce que, comme on l'a vu, il estime que le sujet n'est pas l'un des quatre sens de substance à examiner, mais la substance communément acceptée dont il faut trouver le principe. Deuxièmement, parce qu'à la différence de la plupart des modernes, Averroès estime que le terme qu'Aristote attribue dans les lignes 1029a2-3 à la forme, à la matière et au composé n'est pas le titre de sujet, mais celui de substance" (p. 126). Cerami's analysis of Averroës opens up some questions for future research into the relationship between Aristotle's other logical texts, like the Prior and Posterior Analytics and the science that is being developed in Book Zeta of the Metaphysics, and will prove insightful in continuing to develop a coherent and faithful interpretation of the Aristotelian logic and metaphysics of substance.

Chapter Six is "Robert Kilwardby on the simultaneity of correlatives" by Paul Thom. Comparing three works of Robert Kilwardby, the Notulae super Librum Praedicamentorum, the De Natura Relationis, and the Sentences commentary, Thom argues that there is both a continuity and development in Kilwardby's analysis of the simultaneity of relatives. To frame the evolution of Kilwardby's theory of simultaneity, Thom develops an inconsistent triad of propositions that apparently arises from Aristotle's Categories, and uses it as a spur that drives Kilwardby's search for a solution. The inconsistent triad is based upon a formalization of the principles of the reciprocity of relations and simultaneity, which Thom draws primarily from ch. 7 of the Categories. Thom enunciates the triad as follows: (1) A and B are correlatives; (2) A and B are not simultaneous by nature; and (3) all correlatives are simultaneous by nature (p. 178). The extent to which Aristotle and Kilwardby viewed the problem of simultaneity as an issue of logical inconsistency is somewhat overstated. As Aristotle says: "Relatives seem to be simultaneous by nature; and in most cases this is true" (Cat. 7b20). Thom argues that Kilwardby's solution in his Notulae divides relatives into those that are secundum dictionem, based on linguistic concerns, and relatives secundum esse, which are both linguistic and ontological. In De Natura Relationis, Thom develops Kilwardby's solution in a matrix that combines the correlatives that are bi-directionally essential or accidental in at least one way, with the correlative that is taken ratione relationis, by reason of the relation, or ratione rei, by reason of things. Thom also mentions the relevant passage of the Sentences commentary, but provides little analysis beyond a cursory final comment that the "treatment of simultaneity . . . appears to be the same as in the De Natura Relationis" (p. 192). Overall, Thom successfully provides a philosophically sophisticated analysis of the evolution of Kilwardby's thoughts on the simultaneity of correlatives.

In the seventh chapter, "The Theories of Relations in Medieval Commentaries on the Categories (mid- 13th to mid-14th Century)" Costantino Marmo observes that while there has been much attention placed on medieval theories discussing the category of relation in recent scholarship, most of it has focused on theological implications. Marmo shifts attention to an overview of the semantic and semiotic aspects of relation in 13th- and 14th-century commentaries on the Categories. He also traces the general questions and debates raised by the realists, especially with regard to the ontological status, simultaneity, symmetry, and ground of relation. In the later part of the 13th and14th centuries, with figures like Brito and Ockham, there is a linguistic turn in the analysis. Marmo concludes that an interesting implication of the theory of relations for semantic theories is to the sign relation—that, with Brito and Ockham, the relation between sign and interpreter evaporates and only the sign and signifier remain. To this, Marmo offers the intriguing remark that "almost no room was left for a pragmatic approach to language" (p.212). As a whole, this volume successfully contributes to filling many of the gaps in our understanding of how Aristotle's Categories influenced various figures in the Byzantine, Arab, and Latin traditions. The articles, though weighted towards a historical treatment of the issues, also provide the reader with a sense of what is philosophically at stake. Generally free of errors, and of the utmost scholarly quality, I expect that this volume will be an invaluable resource for scholars of all three traditions.


1.   Translations of the Categories are by J. L. Ackrill in J. Barnes (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

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