Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.25

Lynne Spellman, Substance and Separation in Aristotle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. ix + 131. $49.95. ISBN 0-521-47147-8.

Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto (

In the last few years, there have appeared in English a large number of monographs on Aristotle's Metaphysics including works by Gill, Halper, Lewis, Loux, Scaltsas, and Witt. If one adds to these the recent collections of essays, conference papers, and the steady stream of articles, it would seem as if the study of Aristotle's great work is in the midst of a serious revival or at least that it has reached a new peak of intensity. A curious feature of much of this literature is the predictability of its focus. I mean that to a lesser or greater extent the Metaphysics is reduced to the so-called "central books," Zeta-Eta-Theta, and sometimes just to the first two of these. These books certainly afford the clever scholar much scope for the exercise of ingenuity. They provide a cornucopia of deep philosophical puzzles, especially if they are treated as an independent treatise on the ontology of the sensible world. Once that false step is made, Aristotle can, with enough effort, be made to say almost anything. It is true that the 14 books of the Metaphysics are not, even on the reading of the most fervent "unitarians," a perspicuous whole. And yet there is clarity in Aristotle's scientific project, that is, in the identification of first philosophy with theology and a science of being qua being. So, at the very least, since the study of the being of sensibles is not equivalent to the study of movables insofar as they are movable or physics, it would seem that one is obliged to show that the study of the being of sensibles, the very subject of the central books, can be undertaken in isolation from the study of being qua being or theology. If, on the other hand, one simply ignores the issue, then one threatens to turn Aristotelian scholarship into late 20th century Anglo-American fictionalizing. That is, you can make the Metaphysics say whatever your imagination can concoct, since as far as Aristotle is concerned, there is no distinct science of the being of the sensible world anyway.

Lynne Spellman's book fits nicely within the recent tradition of Aristotle Metaphysics scholarship. Those who have read the books mentioned above will discover discussions of familiar issues, especially the search for the victorious candidate for the crown of substantiality. There is some novelty, and, certainly, some truth in the book's claim that Aristotle's account of substance must be understood in the light of what Aristotle does and does not accept in Platonism. As Spellman puts it, "Aristotle can be seen to offer a defensible version of Platonism (1)." More precisely, substances are like Forms without the separation (suitably understood). Even more precisely, the author argues that for Aristotle a substance is a "specimen of a natural kind, where specimens, as particular forms lacking the accidents introduced by matter, are numerically the same as sensible objects yet not identical with them (2)." The evidence for this conclusion is set forth in roughly the first half of the book. The second half contains a rather hurried and therefore unsatisfactory account of Aristotelian epistemology and teleology, purporting to show that, on the author's reading, substances retain their priority in knowledge, and, on the same reading, substances can be said to retain teleological priority over individual sensibles.

Spellman's new understanding of separation is subtle. She means neither numerical distinctness nor "abstractability" or separation "in thought" but rather "the ontological correlate of definitional separation (86)." That is, the essence of a sensible substance, as distinct from the sensible substance itself, is separate in the way that primary substance is supposed to be separate. So, the essence of Socrates, "to be a man," is substance.

What Spellman is obviously trying to do is carve out ontological space for the putative substance roughly midway between the species and the composite individual, which, everyone, or almost everyone, agrees cannot be primary substances. There is, however, nothing in the text to suggest that the "specimen" of man is in reality none other than Socrates, nothing, that is, unless one supposes then when Aristotle says that in what is primary being and essence are identical he means to refer to sensibles. But this is the sort of thing you do only if you suppose that books 7-9 of the Metaphysics have no connection to the preceding and succeeding books.

Apart from the implausibility of holding that Aristotle means to say that Socrates is the same as his essence although he is not identical with it, one wonders why the putative "specimen" of man is not in potency to the sensible composite. Spellman would no doubt agree that if the specimen were in potency to the sensible composite, then it could not be primary substance. Assuming then that it is not, we have two actualities, the specimen and the sensible composite. That would obviously leave Aristotle open to the same charge he makes against Plato, namely, that he needlessly multiplies entities as a means of solving a problem. So, we arrive at the expedient that the sensible composite and the essence are numerically one but not identical.

If we cast around for another example of numerical oneness without identity, we can easily locate it in a substance and its accidents. The man and the white man are numerically one but the logos of each is different. The problem with this analogy is that a sensible substance is in potency to its accidents and that is precisely why a sensible substance is not primary substance. But Spellman cannot have the essence in potency to the sensible substance or composite if the former is to be primary substance. Nor could she with any semblance of plausibility have it the other way around.

So, we are left with an interpretation which, in my view, is based on a fundamental error. The error is in assuming (never arguing) that we shall find in the central books of the Metaphysics an account of primary substance. Spellman rightly recoils from the textually unsustainable notion that primary substance is to be identified with the sensible composite. But then, failing to question the above assumption, she casts around for another candidate and thinks she finds it in the specimen of a natural kind. Unfortunately, Everyman is even less plausible as a candidate for primary substance than is Socrates.