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Metaphysics (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]


"The motive which inspires Aristotle throughout the Metaphysics is the wish to acquire that form of knowledge which is most worthy of the name of wisdom." -- W. D. Ross

Many of the great and perennial problems in philosophy are to be found in Aristotle's Metaphysics. Aristotle thought that wonder at the world around us, and at the "world beyond physics" was the beginning of philosophy. However, in a less romantic vein he also thought that the...
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Metaphysics (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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"The motive which inspires Aristotle throughout the Metaphysics is the wish to acquire that form of knowledge which is most worthy of the name of wisdom." -- W. D. Ross

Many of the great and perennial problems in philosophy are to be found in Aristotle's Metaphysics. Aristotle thought that wonder at the world around us, and at the "world beyond physics" was the beginning of philosophy. However, in a less romantic vein he also thought that the task of philosophy was, in a sense, to extinguish wonder by offering complete explanations of all there was to wonder about. Among the varied topics covered in this work, Aristotle philosophizes on reality, unity, fact and value, truth, and causation.
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Aristotle was born at Stagira in Chalcidice, now part of Northern Greece, in 384 BC. Aristotle supervised the education of Alexander the Great, and later he established a school for philosophy called the Lyceum. His other works include Nicomachean Ethics and Politics.
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Open Aristotle's Metaphysics to any page and find yourself among the philosophers. Many of the great and perennial problems in philosophy are to be found here, and it continues to be one of the most widely discussed philosophy texts ever. As W. D. Ross says, "The motive which inspires Aristotle throughout the Metaphysics is the wish to acquire that form of knowledge which is most worthy of the name of wisdom." Aristotle thought that wonder at the world around us was the beginning of philosophy. However, in a less romantic vein he also thought that the task of philosophy was, in a sense, to extinguish wonder by offering complete explanations of all there was to wonder about.

Whether one is new to philosophy, interested in intellectual history, or curious about the man whom Plato-in reference to his own great Academy-nicknamed "the mind of the school," the Metaphysics can be extraordinarily rewarding. Like the rest of the extant Aristotelian corpus, the Metaphysics constitutes a significant and influential part of the history of philosophy, and intellectual history generally. Remarkably, its influence-both religious and secular-has been virtually continuous over nearly two thousand five hundred years. Greek, Jewish, Arabic, and especially Christian philosophy are all Aristotelian to a degree. The Metaphysics in particular was central to the thought of Aquinas (1224-1274) and medieval philosophy, as well as to Dante. The issues examined include the nature of metaphysics and philosophical method; reality; substance and attribute; form and matter and their relation of opposition; the existence and nature of a Prime Mover or an Unmoved Mover; essence; potentiality and actuality; truth; causation; unity; theology; the nature of numbers; sameness and difference; fact and value; the relationship between mind and matter; and criticism of other schools of thought-including important Pre-Socratics as well as that of Socrates and Plato. Of the approximately one hundred fifty treatises that Aristotle allegedly wrote, only thirty survive and luckily the Metaphysics is among them.

Aristotle was born at Stagira in Chalcidice, now part of Northern Greece, in 384 BC. His father, Nicomachus, was the physician to Amyntas II of Macedonia. The Nichomachean Ethics however are named after Aristotle's son, also named Nicomachus, who edited the Ethics. In 343 BC, Philip of Macedon chose Aristotle to supervise the education of his young son, Alexander (later to be the "Great"), and Aristotle taught Alexander for the next three years. In the school at Mieza, near modern Naousa, which can still be visited, Aristotle taught Alexander physics, meteorology, geography, morals, politics, and theology. They apparently had an amicable relationship and remained in contact, though the fondness Alexander at one time felt for Aristotle may have waned. Just how influential a figure Aristotle was over the ruthless Alexander, and in what ways he was most influential is unclear. Alexander did like to read and learn, but it would be difficult to imagine that Aristotle shaped Alexander's character in ways that he would have much approved of. (Aristotle did endorse slavery as a natural institution in the first book of the Politics.) Alexander wrote one letter to Aristotle in which he complained about his teacher writing his lecture notes down in the form of a treatise. Alexander must have liked the idea of relatively secret or private teachings-wanting to know things others did not. In reply, Aristotle said that most people would understand what he wrote anyway.

Soon after Alexander succeeded to the throne in 336 BC, Aristotle returned to Athens. It had been about twelve years after he left Plato's Academy, and he must have missed philosophizing and aspects of the Academy no matter how much he disagreed with the theories taught there. After being passed over to head the Academy in favor of Xenocrates, Aristotle established the Lyceum-his own school for philosophy. At the Lyceum, in the grove of Apollo Lyceius at the outskirts of Athens, Aristotle had philosophical discussions while walking in its shaded colonnades. It is from these walks and way of conducting philosophy that Peripatetic came to be the term relating to the philosophy or teaching methods of Aristotle. Following Alexander's death and the ensuing violent anti-Macedonian riots, he left Athens in 323 BC to avoid being put on trial for "impiety"-one of the stock charges at the time and one brought earlier against Socrates. He resigned the presidency of the Lyceum and died aged 62 in Chalcis on Euboea (the largest island of the Grecian archipelago) in 322 BC. Aristotle was alleged to be good natured, good humoured, witty, "handsome, but with small eyes," bald, and he liked to dress "distinctively." Virtually all of Aristotle's treatises are versions of lecture notes he delivered to his students at the Lyceum. Thus Aristotle was among the first to start the popular practice of turning lecture notes into books that remains common with university lecturers to this day.

After Aristotle's death, his manuscripts were arranged and ordered by others. Metaphysics means "after the Physics," and it received its name simply because it was the group of manuscripts placed directly after the Physics. The term then became known as the branch of philosophy in which the kinds of topics Aristotle discusses in those treatises are examined--for example: substance, form, cause, and God. Metaphysics is sometimes called first philosophy. It is fundamentally concerned with the foundations and basic principles of philosophy as well as of other disciplines. Basic principles are those that cannot be inferred from or supported by anything more basic. They are supported by methods-usually not empirical-suitable to the subjects being investigated. In the Metaphysics, basic principles are often argued for by showing the paradoxical consequences of their denial. Metaphysics also refers to the theoretical and the a priori (non-empirical) investigation of questions regarded outside the scope of ordinary empirical science. The traditional ordering of the treatises or books that make up the Metaphysics may not be random but it makes little sense, rendering the work as whole and the connections between its parts unclear and difficult to follow. (Different lists and translations of Aristotle's writings, and different arrangements of the work itself, vary as to the number of books they assign to the Metaphysics. The number, in line with the last of the ancient lists, is thirteen.) A number of scholars however, most notably Wilhelm Jaeger in 1912, and later W. D. Ross, sorted out a more logical sequence. Those manuscripts revised and delivered by Aristotle, in the order he gave them, have been distinguished from student notes and editors' insertions. Additionally, sections of chapters that follow discussions of problems in earlier chapters in different books have been grouped together in later translations. One of the treatises is actually more of a lexicon that can be treated as either an appendix or a preliminary.

The significance of language and the importance of defining key terms for philosophy is also something that, while not new to Western philosophy since such concerns are clearly present in Socrates and Plato, nevertheless becomes even more crucial in Aristotle's writing. The fact that he includes a lexicon of key terms and concepts in the Metaphysics, along with the time he devotes to further explaining terms throughout the work, is evidence of the importance he attributed to this kind of linguistic analysis. Without these concerns about language and meaning, philosophy as Aristotle conceived it would not have been possible. Here too, his influence has been constant and never more so than in the twentieth century.

As with the Physics and De Anima, Aristotle began the Metaphysics with a historical survey-a style of philosophizing that remains prevalent in which one's own philosophical views are contextualized and compared with those of others. Although Aristotle became dissatisfied with aspects of Plato's philosophy in the Academy well before he left it to start his own, just how indebted he is to what he learned from Plato is apparent in his own writing. Without Plato it is difficult to imagine Aristotle. Nevertheless, in several places in the Metaphysics he critiques a centerpiece of Plato's best known philosophy-his theory of the Ideal (also known as the theory of the Forms or of Ideas).

Plato's theory of Ideas maintains that a Universal-a Universal (like "roundness") being anything that can be predicated of a particular (a ball, or planet)-exists independently of particular things that instantiate them. This view concerning the relation between Universals and particulars became known as Platonism or Realism. For example, there is a Form of the Good that exists independently of any good thing, and an ideal Form of "chair" (and all other things) that exists independently of all actual particular chairs, but that all such chairs instantiate. Particulars participate in or partake of the ideal Form "chair" that exists as a Universal in the realm of the Forms. It is a kind of abstraction from, or archetype of, all instances of all kinds of chairs-but an archetype that any particular chair has to partake of or participate in if it is to be a chair. Furthermore, it is the Forms rather than the Particulars that are, in a sense, most real. Thus, Plato's idealism, as illustrated most famously in his allegory of the cave in The Republic, maintains that the reality of the things we perceive is only a rather pale reflection of a higher realm of reality and truth-that of the Forms. That is the simplest explanation of what is arguably a more complex theory.

Nominalism (of or pertaining to names) is the view that denies objectivity to Universals or the Platonic Forms. It denies Platonism, or Realism as it is sometime called, which maintains that the Forms objectively exist even apart form being instantiated in any particular things. (Roundness, for example, exists apart from any round things.) Nominalists believe that words and concepts are Universal, but only concrete, individual things exist objectively. It is called nominalism because it maintains that Universals are merely names for abstractions like house, tree, or circle. They do not have real existence. Nothing with a separate essence of any of these Universals exists. Nominalism claims that there is no universality or objective existence to mental concepts or ideas existing in the mind. Nor is there any objective existence to these concepts and ideas as they exist in particular things that are similar in terms of class or species. Redness and roundness do not exist apart from red and round things. Thus, the philosophy of William of Ockham (1285?-1349?), George Berkeley (1685-1753), David Hume (1711-1776), and most contemporary philosophy influenced by linguistic analysis is nominalistic. Modern nominalistic theories include logical positivism, pragmatism, instrumentalism, and semantic accounts.

As expected, there are important variants-moderate to extreme-on nominalist and Platonist (Realist) positions. Some versions of nominalism are seen as opposed to Aristotle's and Aquinas' views as well as Plato's, even though nominalism is a position grounded in Aristotle's objection in the Metaphysics to Plato's Ideal theory. In contemporary terms, Aristotle and Aquinas are seen as moderate Realists. Moderate realism takes Universals to be located in the mind, but regards them as having a real and objective basis in particular things.

Plato's Ideal theory was itself developed in reaction to Pythagorean mysticism, the Heraclitean doctrine of continuous change, Socrates' views, and undoubtedly other sources as well. Aristotle's discussion of form and matter was an extension of Plato's more diffuse discussion of what he termed the principles of Unity and Dyad, and also of the Pythagorean principles of Limited and Unlimited. Matter, for Aristotle, is not necessarily something that we could know by means of our senses-the way it is thought of today. It was not necessarily "sensible." It could also be that which we come to know through our understanding instead of our senses. Matter could be "intelligible" through understanding without being "sensible." He also thought that there were different kinds or grades of sensible matter. Some, but not all matter, for example, could be generated (brought into existence) and destroyed (made to pass out of existence).

For Aristotle, the explanation of why something exists must refer not only to its matter and form, but also to the four kinds of causes that bring it about. Aristotle's four kinds of cause are very different from, and cannot be subsumed under, the contemporary ordinary concept of a cause as an event temporally antecedent to its effect-an event that (somehow) brings about its effect. This ordinary concept is philosophically problematic and highly contested in contemporary philosophical thought. According to Aristotle, there are Material, Formal, Efficient and Final causes. The Material Cause is the matter that is changing. Aristotle says, "In one sense, what is described as a cause is that material out of which a thing comes into being and which remains present in it. Such, for instance, is bronze in the case of a statue, or silver in the case of a cup . . ." (Physics II.3). Since bronze and silver are both types of metal, metal is also seen as the Material Cause of the statue or cup. The Formal Cause is the form taken by the matter. The form that a statue or a cup will take is itself a cause of these things. The Efficient Cause is the primary source of change-the "maker" or "doer"--that which brings about the change in introducing form to matter. The sculptor would be the efficient cause of the statue. The Final Cause is the goal or purpose of the change. Aquinas employs this Aristotelian schema of causes in his various proofs for the existence of God. In Aristotelian terms, only the Material Cause can be said to be antecedent. Even the Final Cause operates during the change. Originally Aristotle thought that all of the kinds of causes were necessary and operative in all cases, but he probably changed his view on this.

In commenting on his philosophical predecessors, and using them as the foil for his own ideas, Aristotle was among the first-in Western Philosophy at any rate--to institute a method of philosophizing that lasted through the Middle Ages and is almost universally employed today. There is no completely original philosophy if that means a philosophy with no historical predecessors or intellectual influences and stimuli. For all its originality, Aristotle's writing is a continuation of the problems and philosophical and quasi-scientific investigations of his predecessors-beginning with the Milesian (from the city of Miletus) Pre-Socratics in the sixth century BC-Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. These are the most prominent of the early thinkers Aristotle calls the Physicists since they were concerned with explaining the natural world.

Medieval Scholasticism resulted from the blending of Christian doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy-metaphysics in particular. It became the official philosophy of Roman Catholicism. Aristotle's most significant objection to Plato's Ideal theory is one that had repercussions throughout Scholastic philosophy when the so-called nominalist and realist (the Aristotelian and Platonic positions respectively) controversy became prominent in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. The dispute had theological as well as philosophical implications. The Church was opposed to nominalism (the view that denies objectivity to universals) because it took it to be incompatible with the triune nature of God-three distinct persons but essentially one divine person. (The Church maintained that each distinct aspect or person of the trinity partook of the universal or essence of the one God.) Nominalism also had implications for the doctrine of natural law. It was thought that if there was no common human nature there could be no natural law. Apart from alleged theological consequences, it continues to be a significant source of philosophical dispute today. Aristotle rejected Plato's account of the relation between Universals and Particulars-a disagreement that also extended to, among other things, metaphysical conceptions of substance, accident, essence, and categories. But the significance of the objection, in the first instance, was that it struck at the core of Plato's view of reality-denying in fact that the realm of ideal Forms (kinds of archetypes) as conceived by Plato existed at all.

It took the fluid imagination and wishful thinking of the early church, medieval Scholastic, and other philosophers-mostly Christian but also Arabic and Jewish-to see a theistic God in Aristotle's theology of the Unmoved or Prime Mover; and then to develop it in line with his views on potentiality, actuality, substance, form, and causation. Aristotle, after all, believed the universe to be eternal. God is not the creator of the universe, as in scripture, but is its final cause-the reason behind its existence-and the physical universe depends upon God for its existence and motion at every moment. In his Summa Theologiae (1267-73), Aquinas develops these aspects of Aristotle's thought into a more complete theology. However, it is not easily apparent how or why Aquinas and others could use Aristotle's Metaphysics as a basis for developing a theistic account of God compatible with their respective scriptures. A novice can see that the God of the philosophers (based on Aristotle's Metaphysics) is not merely different, but significantly at odds with God as depicted in scripture. Athens is not Jerusalem. This adaptation of Aristotle's theology for their own religious ends and purposes is arguably not merely unsuccessful, but also one of the oddest developments in the history of philosophy. It is an extended and grand legacy that although dominant in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion-most of which is Christian and scholastically influenced or closely connected-some would see as both religiously and philosophically undesirable.

There is an enduring view, a received position, that interprets and regards metaphysics as primary not only in the sense of it being concerned with first principles and basic notions of substance or being, essence, and reality as such; but also as the most significant of all the various fields of philosophy. This view is often attributed to Aristotle and no doubt there is some textual support for it in the Metaphysics. Furthermore, contemporary philosophy has seen a grafting of many of Aristotle's traditional metaphysical issues onto philosophy of language and logic, so that the primacy and importance once attributed only to metaphysics-the idea that it is the ultimate or supreme branch of philosophy, the one more concerned with truth and wisdom than any other-is now sometimes applied to both-especially of course by some contemporary metaphysicians and philosophers of language.

While not disputing the significance Aristotle attributes to metaphysics, it is probably a mistake to regard him as considering it as unsurpassed in importance. If anything, Aristotle was clear that various branches of philosophy and the natural sciences were concerned with investigating different aspects of reality. To attribute supremacy-whether epistemic or evaluative in some other way-to one branch as opposed to another would be to draw faulty comparisons-not unlike perhaps trying to measure the value of one kind of virtue against another. It was Aristotle who said that one should not expect to find all virtues in a single individual, and it is implausible to suppose that he would have thought that the value and utility of one branch of philosophy could intelligibly be measured against some other. In practical or utilitarian terms, however, it is more likely Aristotle would have regarded, or have been committed to regarding, ethics as the most significant-concerned as it is with individuals' well-being and happiness.

One thing that, although not absent in the Metaphysics, is less evident than in some of his other works, is Aristotle's greatness as a humanist and as a moral philosopher with a practical and this-worldly focus-one that however realistic remains, in many ways, idealistic. This side of Aristotle is most obvious in the Nichomachean Ethics and his two other ethical treatises, but it is also evident in parts of the Poetics, Rhetoric, Politics and elsewhere. He not only cared deeply about questions like character and virtue in relation to human happiness, friendship, and love-he also had insightful things to say about them. For all of his technical ability, colossal intelligence, and interest in science, Aristotle was among the very first of the practical or applied philosophers-one who saw the significance of philosophy and philosophers as lying in their service to humankind. As a great moral psychologist; one who studied the nature of the virtues and vices; who was interested and dissected how and why people succeeded and failed to succeed morally and as human beings (to succeed morally is to succeed as a human being for Aristotle); and as an enemy of superstition, religious fanaticism, and moral turpitude, Aristotle might well have wished he could have been more influential, in real terms, than seems to be the case.

The Metaphysics is an original and standard work in philosophy. Although it is often difficult and does not read as easily as Plato's Dialogues, it is an indispensable and influential part of Western philosophy and intellectual history, and a work whose ideas are still much discussed in contemporary metaphysics.
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  • Posted October 15, 2010

    Begin with a different translation

    I begin with two disclaimers: (1) I do not presume to "review" Aristotle, and (2) I do not know Greek.

    This is a 1912 translation by a gentleman named John H. McMahon. To discover that fact you have to read the copyright page, which seems rather unfair to Mr. McMahon.

    I found this translation extremely difficult to understand, and the "Metaphysics" is famously difficult in any case. That does not necessarily mean it is a bad translation. I suspect (suspect is all I can do) that it is a very literal translation, and thus may be very useful for some purposes. In any case, however, it was not the right translation for me, as a first-time English reader of "Metaphysics". The 1998 translation by High Tancred-Lawson (Penguin Classics) is much better for a first-time English reader, while that of W. D. Ross (1924) is the one that I recommend more than either this one or the Tancred-Lawson.

    Michael P. Levine's introductory essay is worth reading, but I would not buy the book just for that.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2010

    An inexpensive basic text of the Metaphysics

    This is a basic translation of the text of the Metaphysics with a short introduction and few notes. The translation is in a somewhat dated style of formal english, but is clear and as true to the original as any translation can be--and far less expensive than most.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2014


    Walks in and kisses aqua

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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