Friday, October 5, 2018


Diana Quarantotto, Aristotle's 'Physics' Book I: A Systematic Exploration. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xviii, 282. ISBN 9781107197787. £75.00.

Reviewed by Jason W. Carter, Exeter College, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

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

Originating from two conferences that took place in September 2013 and June 2015 at Sapienza University of Rome, this outstanding specialist volume aims to systematically illuminate the arguments that Aristotle uses in trying to establish the 'first principles' of his natural philosophy in Physics I. Not only is it successful in achieving this overall goal, but it is also timely, as its publication anticipates the forthcoming proceedings of the July 2014 Symposium Aristotelicum, devoted to the Physics.

The volume contains ten chapters, each written by an established scholar of ancient philosophy, as well as a new translation of Physics I that represents the joint work of all the contributors. Each chapter, with the exception of the first, offers an analytical exposition and exploration of one of the nine chapters of Physics I. Unlike many scholarly collections, each author in the volume is careful to take into account the interpretations of the other contributors. The overall result is that its interpretation of Physics I is not only systematic, but also unified.

Quarantotto's chapter sets the stage for some of the main questions of the volume, such as the relation of the Physics to the Organon, as well its major theme, which is that all the particular 'principles' of nature proposed by earlier thinkers, such as Empedocles' elements, and Plato's 'One' and 'indefinite dyad', cannot be the first principles of nature, but are at best 'tokens of, and approximations to' its first principles (p. 14). Even so, some of her analyses are controversial. For instance, in summarising the main result of Physics I, she claims that Aristotle's first principles — the primary opposites (form and privation) and their underlier (matter) — should be understood as 'analogical and functional entities, which pick out the role played in change by all opposites' (p. 25). Whilst this is an attractive way of understanding Aristotle's first principles, one wishes that more was said about these entities. It is unclear, for instance, if Quarantotto takes them to be conceptual entities, mere ways in which 'we' naturally (upon reflection) must conceptualise natural objects and their changes, or if she takes them to be real entities present in natural things (independently of human minds) that govern their particular principles — or both.

Falcon's chapter tackles the familiar problem of why Aristotle, in Physics I.1, seems to use the term 'universal' (καθόλου) in a non-standard sense to refer to a confounded perceptual mass, rather than its standard logical one, defined in Int. 7, 17a39-b1 as what is 'predicated of many items'. He offers the interesting solution that the καθόλου referred to here is an unanalysed universal that can be divided into certain particulars (τὰ καθ' ἕκαστα) that fall under it. (pp. 50-1). The main shortcoming of his chapter is his decision not to discuss Aristotle's description of the task of the Physics as one that aims to establish a 'science of nature' (ἐπιστήμη περὶ φύσεως). Instead, he (perhaps too modestly) defers to Stephen Menn's article on this issue in the forthcoming proceedings of the Symposium Aristotelicum (p. 42 n. 5).

Clarke's chapter helpfully clarifies the structure of Aristotle's arguments against the Eleatics in Physics I.2. Its main weakness with respect to the volume's aim is that, despite noting that Aristotle says at 185a19-20 that he will 'do a small amount of dialectic' in examining the Eleatic position (p. 63), in his own analysis of these arguments, Clarke ignores this unusual admission, and takes Aristotle's arguments to be metaphysical. This move renders his interpretation of the chapter at least somewhat problematic. For instance, he rightly notes that the refutation of Eleatic 'essence monism' and 'entity monism' at 185a20-32 relies upon a thesis about the co-dependence of substances and non-substances (pp. 70-1). However, he assumes without argument that this thesis is metaphysical, although one might equally take this as a dialectical thesis about the way that categorial predications function, or about what a speaker actually signifies when they state Eleatic claims in a dialectical debate.

Castelli's chapter takes up Aristotle's second series of arguments against the Eleatics in Physics I.3. Of particular note is her nuanced reconstruction of what it means for Aristotle 'to signify' (sēmainein) something. Although Castelli, like Clarke, neglects to make use of Aristotle's claim that he will engage in dialectic in criticising the Eleatics, she does emphasise the logical and non-metaphysical nature of Aristotle's criticisms in Physics I.3. There are also hints that she has worries with Clarke's metaphysical interpretation of the arguments in Physics 1.2, which, however, she defers to another occasion (p. 105).

Cerami's chapter takes up the task of investigating why, in his review of the opinions about the principles held by the Presocratic physicists in Physics I.4, Aristotle chooses to focus almost exclusively on Anaxagoras. She persuasively argues that this is because Aristotle thinks that Anaxagoras rightly takes 'separation' to be a condition for change, but gives a wrong account of what separation involves. Her chapter is noteworthy in taking particular care to point out that Aristotle's analysis of Anaxagoras seems to conform with our B-fragments in Diels and Kranz (pp. 118-19).

Judson's chapter focuses on some complexities related to Aristotle's notion of ἐναντίον in Physics I.5, which he translates as 'opposite' (p. 131), and gives some reasons to doubt whether Quarantotto's question whether Physics I presupposes doctrines from the Organon has a clear answer (p. 132). His chapter offers a valuable analysis of the difficulties in understanding Aristotle's characterisation of form and formlessness as ἐναντία (p. 150), as well as the illuminating (and persuasive) suggestion that we can understand Aristotle's regular insistence that an object of change, X, does not simply come to be F from being 'not-F', as the claim that change does not occur between contradictories (p. 147).

Code's chapter argues for a continuity between Physics I.5's claim that the principles are opposites, and I.6's claim that a 'substratum' might also be a principle. His chapter gives an adroit analysis of Aristotle's arguments for why there should be three primary, highest, or 'first principles' of nature, as distinct from, but compatible with, the particular principles that determine what the natures of lower kinds of natural beings are (p. 175).

Charles' chapter elucidates Aristotle's conception of 'what underlies' as it figures in Physics. I.7. He argues that, however one interprets this conception, it is not the 'theoretically rich' one we find in Metaph. Z (p. 180). His chapter, like Castelli's, brings into the foreground how important Aristotle's appeals to linguistic data are, and also makes some attempt to align the procedure of I.7 with his interpretation of the 'stages' of enquiry that he finds in the Posterior Analytics.1 Of particular interest is Charles' justified worry that Aristotle is 'blind' to the possibility that the same reasons for holding that there is an underlier in all cases of coming-to-be hold also for there being an underlier for all cases of ceasing-to-be (pp. 196-200).

Bodnár's chapter investigates the nature and structure of what Aristotle claims to be the only solution to the Eleatic dilemma he poses in Physics I.8, which is that 'coming to be' must be either from 'what is', or from 'what is not', but seems like it can be from neither. His chapter helps to show how subtle Aristotle's distinctions need to be between form, underlier, and privation in order to make his solution plausible.

Lennox' chapter gives an historically sensitive and careful argument for understanding Aristotle's criticisms in Physics I.9 as being aimed at Plato's late ontology as understood by members of the Academy. He illustrates with admirable clarity Aristotle's reasons for thinking that this ontology, which accounts for coming to be in term of the 'One' (form) and the 'indefinite dyad / the great and the small' (underlier / matter), is theoretically inferior to his own account of matter, form, and privation (pp. 241-2).

The translation of Physics I that ends the volume, whilst not always colloquial, is rigorously faithful to the Greek. It serves as an appendix for a reader who may not have the text of the Physics to hand, or who might wish to re-orient themselves with the primary text before and after delving into the interpretations of each of its chapters. However, it also reflects a few (justified) non-standard manuscript readings that help to clarify the philosophical content of Aristotle's arguments. Cerami, for instance, argues for rejecting Ross's deletion of ὂν at 187a12-13, and for following manuscripts E and J2 (as well as important Arabic translations) in including τὰ ὄντα at 187a21-2 (pp. 108-9). Similarly, Bodnár argues that the dominant manuscript reading of 191b20-3, which translates to, 'suppose a dog to come to be from a horse', should be accepted, against the suggestion of Laas (accepted by Ross in the OCT and by Charlton in his Clarendon edition of the Physics) that the text should read: 'suppose a dog to come <from a dog, or a horse> from a horse' (p. 220).

Although all of the particular contributions are of the highest quality, there are also at least three general contributions that the volume makes to the existing literature that warrant its becoming a reference point for further scholarly work. The first is the correction of a common view that takes Physics I to have the goal of showing that earlier Presocratic and Platonic philosophers believed that 'opposites' (ἐναντία) are the only principles of nature (p. 112), in the sense of being termini of change (p. 134). The authors highlight that Aristotle also suggests that his predecessors accepted that 'what underlies' (τὸ ὑποκείμενον) is a principle of nature, and that some 'opposites', such as Democritus' angular and unangular atomistic shapes, are not termini of change, but principles that serve in 'schemata of fundamental physical explanation' (p. 134). The second is its attempt to consider interpretations of passages given by the ancient commentators, such as Simplicius, Philoponus, and Themistius. This often results in a richer view of the interpretative possibilities available than one might expect.

However, perhaps the most important contribution that it makes is the decision to go against the well-established scholarly assumption that Aristotle's critical engagements with his predecessors, such as the one we find in Physics I, belong to a 'dialectical' stage of inquiry. In contrast, Quarantotto's collection emphasises that, with the exception of its excursus into Eleatic monism, the inquiry of Physics I, including the investigation of earlier doxai,2 is better understood as a 'scientific physical investigation' (p. 1). This investigation, Quarantotto claims, relies upon 'inductive procedure, doxographical inquiry' as well as 'evidence and phainomena of various kinds' (p. 2). This insight opens up a path to a richer, more complex understanding of Aristotle's conception of scientific inquiry, and should give scholars the confidence to explore more boldly the methodological and epistemological assumptions at play in all of Aristotle's natural scientific investigations.

Authors and titles

Diana Quarantotto, The Role, Structure, and Status of Aristotle's Physics I, pp. 1-40
Andrea Falcon, Physics I.1, pp. 41-59
Timothy Clarke, Physics I.2, pp. 60-81
Laura M. Castelli, Physics I.3, pp. 82-105
Cristina Cerami, Physics I.4, pp. 106-129
Lindsay Judson, Physics I.5, pp. 130-153
Alan Code, Physics I.6, pp. 154-177
David Charles, Physics I.7, pp. 178-205
István Bodnár, Physics I.8, pp. 206-225
James Lennox, Physics I.9, pp. 226-245.


1.   David Charles , Aristotle on Meaning and Essence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
2.   Aristotle does not use the Greek terms 'endoxon' or 'endoxa' in the Physics, nor, in fact, in any of his works of natural philosophy except De Caelo 3.4, 303a22. See Dorothea Frede, 'The Endoxon Mystique: What Endoxa Are and What They Are Not', Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 43 (2012),184-215.

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