Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.17

Arthur Madigan, Aristotle, Metaphysics: Books B and K 1-2.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2000.  Pp. xl + 185.  ISBN 0-19-875105-2.  $60.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-19-875106-0.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ian Bell, Philosophy, University of Richmond
Word count: 2080 words

This latest installment in the Clarendon Aristotle Series fills a significantgap: up to now there has been no English-language translation and commentary devoted to the texts containing the aporias of Aristotelian metaphysics, Metaphysics B and K 1-2. The absence of such a commentary reflects the fact that the explosion of Aristotelian scholarship in the last half-century has left these texts largely neglected. Many scholars, including those who followed Jaeger's developmental approach, regarded the aporias as representative of the early "Platonic" Aristotle; others seem to have passed them by on the assumption that the meat of the Metaphysics was elsewhere and could be understood without the help of the admittedly difficult and inconclusive stretches of argumentation that make up B and K 1-2.

With the appearance of Madigan's edition, scholars wishing to explore the aporias have been provided with an excellent translation and a helpful commentary on these texts. Madigan translates both the version of the aporias in Metaphysics B and the alternative version in K 1-2; the bulk of the commentary is on the much fuller and more complex exposition in B. Additionally, Madigan provides an overview of the issues surrounding the aporias in his Introduction to the translation and a separate set of notes on philological issues. The main commentary is thus wholly accessible to the Greekless reader. The back of the book contains the usual scholarly apparatus, including a glossary, a bibliography, and indexes.

In addition to providing a brief summary of book B, Madigan's Introduction raises certain key questions that one will want to ask about the aporias as a whole. In what sense are these texts dialectical and aporetic? How do they relate to the rest of the Metaphysics both from the point of view of chronology and that of subject matter? How does the treatment of the aporias in B relate to that in K?

We shall have something to say about Madigan's views on these matters after considering the details of his translation and commentary. A sense of the character of Madigan's translation can be had from his rendering of one of the most famous and philosophically interesting passages in Beta, Aristotle's argument that being is not a genus:

If universals are always principles to a higher degree, it is evident that the highest kinds [are principles in the highest degree], for they are said of all things. Then there will be as many principles of beings as there are primary kinds [γένη], and so being and one will be principles and substances, for they, most of all, are said of all beings. But it is not possible for either one or being to be a single kind of beings. For it is necessary both for the differences of each kind to be and for each of them to be one, but it is impossible either for the species of the kind to be predicated of their own differences [ἐπὶ τῶν οἰκείων διαφορῶν] or for the kind to be predicated apart from its species [ἄνευ τῶν αὐτοῦ εἰδῶν]. So, if one or being is a kind, no difference will be either a being or a one.

The translation renders the sense of Aristotle's difficult and technical Greek with all the required technical precision, while at the same time firmly resisting the temptation to create something resembling a mere word-for-word substitution of English for Greek. The translation is thus more polished and less idiosycratic than Apostle while achieving a higher degree of precision than the Ross/Barnes translation in the Revised Oxford Translation. Looking at this passage microscopically one might quibble about certain details (for instance, whether "own" is in principle strong enough to convey the meaning of οἰκείων), but Aristotle's meaning is consistently rendered clearly and without distortion.

Several more important decisions concerning word choice elsewhere seem odd. Although Madigan generally translates οὐσία as "substance", he occasionally decides to render it instead as "essence". Thus in Meta. B4, for instance, Madigan translates οὐσία as "essence" at 999b14 and then immediately following at b20-22 as "substance". Likewise, Madigan translates γένος contextually as either "genus" or (more usually) "kind". It seems to me that both are instances of technical terminology requiring consistent translations, even if they do take on different connotations in different contexts. Along the same lines, I was unable to discern the rationale for Madigan's variations between "species" and "form" as translations of εἶδος. Where εἶδος is clearly being used in contradistinction to γένος, εἶδος is rendered as "species", but in other instances where the "species" rendering seems equally appropriate it is rendered as "form" (see 996a1, 999b25-6, etc.). In the commentary Madigan seems to be treating "form" and "species" as equivalent translations for εἶδος (e.g., 77, 92), which seems to gloss over the problem of whether εἶδος as distinguished from γένος (traditionally, "species") has the same referent as εἶδος as distinguished from ὕλη (traditionally, "form").

The commentary is a close paragraph-by-paragraph study of the text of B, and a briefer outline of K focusing primarily on its relations to B. As before, a sense of the whole can be got from one of the parts, the commentary on the passage quoted above. After explaining the point of Aristotle's argument (i.e., to show that the Platonic one and being cannot be γένη), Madigan turns to the Topics to illuminate the two arguments that Aristotle makes all too briefly at 998b23-6. He then addresses a question raised in the first instance by Alexander of Aphrodisias: ought Aristotle to have relied on primarily logical considerations to address a fundamental metaphysical problem? Madigan's response to this is to point out, surely rightly, that on Aristotle's view rules for predication are meant to "mirror the structures of being" and that "certain improper patterns of predication ... fail to mirror the structures of being, or even distort them" (74). Thus, for instance, the invalidity of the predication "the white is musical" reflects the metaphysical truth that accidents inhere only in substances. Likewise, if "being" were allowed to be predicated of differentiae, it would seem to require that "being" enter twice into the account of what a thing is, thereby giving a "distorted view of a thing by suggesting that the same item enters more than once into the constitution of the thing" (75). Madigan raises as an additional consideration the fact that being cannot be given conceptual content by distinguishing it from something else. One might have wished that Madigan had drawn attention to the Parmenidean implications of not allowing differentia to be: Aristotle himself explicitly raises the spectre of Parmenidean monism in a somewhat similar argument in the eleventh aporia meant to refute the view that being and unity are ουσίαι of things (1001a30-1001b1). In general, if the commentary has a fault, it is that one occasionally wishes that Madigan would comment in a more global way on passages of particular philosophical interest.

On the other hand, the first task of a commentary is to provide the raw materials for further work of this sort, and this is a task that Madigan has accomplished with distinction. The commentary is particularly helpful for tracking down sources of the views and arguments mentioned in Beta, and for identifying passages elsewhere in the Metaphysics that appear to be addressing issues raised there. Madigan offers an analysis of each individual argument, commenting at some length on the arguments that Aristotle himself expounds at some length and doing what he can in cases where Aristotle's "argument" is little more than a cryptic remark or reference to a contemporary position no longer available to us. Another potentially helpful feature is Madigan's listings of the endoxic views that form the basis for each of the aporias, as well as Aristotle's probable attitude toward each of them.

As we have mentioned, it is in the Introduction that Madigan attempts to give us a sense of Beta as a whole. There is a great deal of useful material here: Madigan compares and contrasts the use of dialectic in B to Aristotle's description of dialectical procedure in the Topics and examines the use of ἀπορία and its cognates with the aim of clarifying the sense in which B is aporetic. At the same time, it seems to me that Madigan has overlooked some issues and some features of Beta that are helpful for understanding its role in the Metaphysics. Madigan implies that there is no fundamental difference in dialectical methodology between Meta. B and the more famous Meta. Z, but that the latter is a later and more complex treatment of similar material (xxxvi-xxxviii, 146). Although Aristotle clearly believes that dialectic is a useful tool for philosophical inquiry, he states and implies in various places throughout the corpus (e.g., Meta. Γ 2, 1004b22-6) that dialectic and philosophy are distinct and that dialectic does not have the capacity for establishing philosophical truths.1 The limitations that Aristotle attributes to dialectic should give one pause to consider whether there may really be significant methodological differences between a treatment that Aristotle explicitly regards as preliminary (B) and one that appears to be attempting to draw certain conclusions (ZH).

One way in which B differs noticeably from Z is in its structure as a series of dialectical problems (προβλήματα), that is, as a series of questions that demand a choice between two alternatives (either by being yes-no questions or by setting up some other dichotomy).2 A characteristic noticeable throughout B is Aristotle's apparently deliberate limitation of the discussion to considering the strengths and (mainly) weaknesses of each side of the dichotomy, but never in a way that attempts to solve the aporia by establishing either side of the dichotomy. This may well explain a characteristic of B thought by Madigan and others to support an early date for this book, namely, a strong tendency to phrase problems in un-Aristotelian terms and corresponding paucity of references to familiar Aristotelian concepts. The aporia concerning the existence of immaterial substances (aporia 5 in Madigan's numbering) appears to assume that immaterial substances would be Platonic forms, and the sixth, seventh, and eleventh aporias seem to be stating their problems as requiring choices between Platonic or Pythagorean and materialist (e.g., Empedoclean) solutions. Correspondingly, there is no mention of Aristotle's god in the aporias, and only one substantive mention of what might be Aristotelian immanent form at the end of the eighth aporia.

Otherwise put, although there is no reason in principle to rule out a chronological approach to Aristotelian texts where the evidence warrants, it seems to me that evidence in this instance tends to point to a methodological rather than a chronological priority of B to the rest of the Metaphysics.3 If so, then we should read B not as containing early puzzlingly unsatisfactory Aristotelian attempts to address Aristotelian problems, but rather as pointing to the dilemmas Aristotle saw facing philosophical speculation at the time he was engaged in his own metaphysical project and to the unsatisfactory character of contemporary attempts to resolve them. The aporias serve to motivate a new and different approach to these problems and thus to motivate the science of being introduced in G and carried out in (e.g.) ZH. The science of being is not structured around the aporias discussed in B: rather, it takes its structure from its character as a study of the nature and properties of being and so of οὐσία. In order for this new science to be a success, however, it must be able to address in one way or another the dilemmas discussed in the aporias, even if in some cases the dilemma is addressed by developing a metaphysical theory that dispenses with the assumption that created the dilemma in the first place (this would seem to be the case for the sixth and seventh aporias). A large part of the value of book B is its character as evidence for the problems Aristotle may have in mind in the process of writing the books that follow, something that is often by no means clear from these texts themselves. Without meaning to suggest that Madigan would dissent from this last statement, his emphasis on a chronological as opposed to a methodological priority of Beta to the rest of the Metaphysics tends to obscure its value for interpreting the Metaphysics as a whole.

It should be clear from the foregoing that, disagreements aside, Madigan has provided scholars of the Metaphysics with an extremely valuable resource. This book will be an essential acquisition for every scholar of the Metaphysics.


1.   For texts on the distinction between dialectic and philosophy, see T.H. Irwin, Aristotle's First Principles (Oxford, 1988), 528 n. 2; for discussion, see Robert Bolton, "Definition and Scientific Method in Aristotle's Posterior Analytics and Generation of Animals," in Gotthelf and Lennox, Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology (Cambridge, 1987), and Robin Smith, "Aristotle on the Uses of Dialectic," Synthese 96 (1993): 335-58.
2.   On the Aristotelian "problem" see James Lennox, "Aristotelian Problems", Ancient Philosophy 14 (1994): 53-77.
3.   This ties in with a larger issue, that of the extent to which the Metaphysics should be read as a systematic whole. The view that there is a methodological sequence to the books of the Metaphysics is defended, e.g., in Joseph Owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, 3rd ed. (Toronto, 1978); though the considerations I raise here in support of this view arise mainly out of more recent work on Aristotelian dialectic (see the previous notes).

Read Latest
Index for 2000
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:27:02, Friday, 03 April 2009