Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.47

Charlotte Witt, Ways of Being. Potentiality and Actuality in Aristotle's Metaphysics.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2003.  Pp. 161.  ISBN 0-8014-4032-7.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Friedemann Buddensiek, Center for Hellenic Studies/Universität Erlangen (
Word count: 3359 words

Charlotte Witt's book is the first monograph written in English that focuses on Aristotle's discussion of potentiality (dunamis) and actuality (energeia or entelecheia)1 in Metaphysics IX. Book IX has, she argues, its own independent ontological purpose and it contains its own coherent argument (p. 1, p. 9). This "separatist" approach differs from the more common approach which reads Book IX as a sequel to, or an extension of, the discussion of substance (ousia) in Book VII and VIII of the Metaphysics. Witt argues that the independent purpose of Book IX is to provide an analysis of "ways of being", an analysis that, for Aristotle, serves as a basis for a hierarchical and normative account of reality. Her further aim is to show that this account does not imply a fundamental role for gender in Aristotle's metaphysics.

The general argument of the book proceeds as follows. Witt begins with Aristotle's defense of the existence of inactive dunameis (powers, capacities) against the bold Megarian claim that something exists only when it is active (chapter 1, "Aristotle's Defense of Dunamis").2 Once the existence of inactive powers is thus secured, they can serve, together with their active counterparts, as one of the pairs of examples for the main distinction in Book IX, namely the distinction between potentiality and actuality as two ways of being, a distinction that Aristotle introduces and establishes by means of examples (chapter 2, "Power and Potentiality"). In addition, he makes a further distinction, between rational and nonrational powers. He discusses this distinction in order to be able to safely include both kinds of powers, rational and nonrational, in his account of ways of being and to prepare the ground for the different ways in which actuality can be prior to potentiality (chapter 3, "Rational and Nonrational Powers"). Aristotle then establishes a hierarchy among these ways of being, claiming that actualities, such as active powers, are prior to, and better than, their corresponding potentialities, such as inactive powers. The hierarchy of ways of being thus constitutes also a normative hierarchy (chapter 4, "The Priority of Actuality").3 But this is mere theory. It is not, for instance, intended to serve as justification for hierarchies in society, such as the hierarchy of the "male" over the "female" -- a hierarchy that is usually regarded as reflecting, in Aristotle's view, the metaphysical hierarchy of form (actuality) over matter (potentiality). Neither are the notions of form (actuality) and matter (potentiality) intrinsically gendered (chapter 5, "Ontological Hierarchy, Normativity, and Gender").4

The book deserves attention for the topics it brings to discussion, for its attempt to give an interpretation of Book IX that reads it as a coherent argument, and for its attempt to provide a broader perspective in discussing the question of whether potentiality and actuality provide a basis for a hierarchy of gender that has often been associated with those notions. In general, however, I do not find Witt's case entirely convincing. I single out here three of the more important points.

The first point concerns Witt's main thesis, the "separatist view", according to which Book IX contains a project that is independent from the discussion of ousia in Book VII and VIII. I discuss Witt's motivation that led her to pursue this view as well as four reasons she gives, or seems to have, for holding it.

As for the motivation, Witt observes that Aristotle does introduce the notions of dunamis and energeia already in VIII 6. But he does this, she observes, in a way that suggest that this chapter is to be understood separately from the discussion in IX. In VIII 6, Aristotle discusses the problem of the unity of definition, a problem for which the notions of matter and form, and of dunamis and energeia, are supposed to provide a solution. But, apparently, Aristotle does not anywhere in his discussion of dunamis and entelecheia (or, energeia) in Book IX refer back to this problem of unity again. Thus, the discussion of dunamis and entelecheia (or, energeia) in IX is presumably not intended to serve as a discussion of the solution of VIII 6 (cf. Witt pp. 56, 135 n. 29). Witt rightly takes this observation only as a motivation for trying to see whether Book IX could be understood separately. She does not take it as a proof. Indeed, an alternative view could be that Aristotle uses the distinction of dunamis and entelecheia (or, energeia) without referring to VIII 6 because he simply does not want to discuss the problem of VIII 6 or its solution in Book IX. However, this does not mean that Book IX is not intended to provide further clarification for the topic of ousia.

One of Witt's reasons for holding the separatist view concerns textual evidence. This evidence is provided, as she takes it, in the opening passage of IX 1 (pp. 2, 43-44). Aristotle says here that so far he has discussed that which is being in the first sense and to which all the other kinds of being refer, namely ousia. But, he says, we use "being" not only for the different kinds of being, but also for that which is potentially (kata dunamin), actually (kata entelecheian), and active (kata to ergon). Hence, he now wants to make distinctions about dunamis and entelecheia (cf. IX 1, 1045b27-35). However, on its own this passage does not seem to support either a "unitarian" or a "separatist" reading. Aristotle only says that he has discussed a certain topic and is now going to discuss another topic. He makes no remark as to whether these two discussions should be read together or separately.

A second reason for Witt's separatist view seems to rely on the assumption that Aristotle discusses kinds of being in Book VII and VIII and, having completed this task, proceeds to a new topic in Book IX, namely the discussion of ways of being. However, it is not clear, and is a matter of some controversy, whether this is the contrast we do find if we compare Book IX with Book VII and VIII. One could object, for instance, that what we find in Book VII and VIII is, rather, a discussion of ousia, that is, of one particular kind of being not of the kinds of being. And, so one could claim, it is this discussion of ousia that is either extended or contrasted by the discussion of the ways of being in Book IX. The proponent of this objection could even admit that Books VII and VIII are of great importance for an account of the kinds of non-substantial being (such as quantity, quality etc.) and also that we learn a great deal about ousia if we take account of those kinds of non-substantial being. But he would claim that the explicit focus of Book VII and VIII is on ousia and that the discussion we find there would have to be complemented by some remarks on the several kinds of non-substantial being in order to be a discussion of kinds of being. True, Book VII begins with a distinction between the different kinds of being, but, so the objection could proceed, this is not meant as an indication of the topic of the subsequent discussion: as this discussion shows, the distinction of kinds of being can only be meant as an exposition of the context in which the discussion of ousia takes place. I do not want to claim here that such an objection would be successful. But I do think that some argument against this kind of reasoning would have been required in order to strengthen Witt's case.

Thirdly, Witt argues that the separatist position is supported by the fact that the notions of dunamis and entelecheia (or, energeia) apply also to items such as causal powers that do not belong to the category of ousia. Causal powers (for instance, house-building or heating) rather belong to the category of relation (cf. p. 55, referring to Met. V 15, 1021a14-19). But even if it is the case that the distinction between dunamis and energeia also applies to non-substantial items it is not clear what this, in fact, can prove. For example, the unitarian could still claim that it is necessary to get a complete understanding, or picture, of the distinction between dunamis and energeia before we apply it to the theory of ousia. Thus, even the unitarian could come up with some explanation as to why Book IX takes the broad approach.

A fourth reason for the separatist view consists in the fact that, according to Witt, the aspects of reality that Book IX brings out could not have been expressed in the terminology of Book VII. Only Book IX provides the appropriate conceptual framework for grasping them (cf. p. 8-9). However, the fact that a certain conceptual framework is introduced at a certain point of an argument does not by itself mean that the introduction of this framework would or could not be meant to clarify earlier parts of that argument.

It might have helped her case if Witt had first made a stronger case for the opposite, unitarian view. Indeed, there could be good reasons for holding such a view. For instance, the unitarian can refer to the story we are told in Metaphysics XII. There, too, Aristotle sets out to discuss ousia, but he seems to think that for a proper account of ousia he needs to refer to those ousiai that are mere energeiai. The same reasons he there has for referring to energeia could as well apply to his discussion of ousia in Book VII and VIII. It is, then, only plausible to assume that Book IX serves, at least partly, the purpose of filling this gap. And there is a gap. This may become clear, for instance, if we look for an answer to the question of whether or not, for Aristotle, the child is just as much an ousia as the adult person. For sure, this does not mean that the unitarian would be right. However, it does mean that the case for a separatist view would have to be somewhat stronger. It would also be interesting to hear what led Witt to reject her own earlier position that the doctrine of potentiality and actuality, understood as ways of being, solve "the problem of unity of the composite substance".5

The second main point of disagreement that I would like to discuss concerns the second main point of the book, namely the priority of actuality. Aristotle claims that the actual is prior in many ways. Witt mainly and sensibly focuses on its priority in respect of being. She argues that priority in being is "existential or ontological priority" (pp. 79, 81), not, for instance, explanatory priority (pp. 87-88). "Ontological priority" means that the one (actuality) could exist without the other (potentiality), but not the other way round (p. 81). This definition creates a problem, which she discusses, namely that it is difficult to see how any potential F (for instance, a potential human being, that is, a child) could depend for its existence on an actual F (an adult). Granted, the child does depend for its existence on the existence of adult human beings (its parents). But in this dependence-relation, the parents have what Aristotle calls "priority in time", not "priority in being". So who is the adult human that has priority in being with regard to this particular child? Witt rejects the idea that the child could depend for its existence on its own later adult stage of life. After all, it already enjoys its life. Witt's solution to the problem is that the child depends ontologically not on a particular individual adult, but on "the type or species [it] will realize" (p. 85). But species, Witt argues, "are ontologically dependent on the existence of their individual members" (p. 85). Thus, the child "is ontologically dependent on the existence of human beings" (p. 85). That is, the child can be a potential human being only because there is the species human being which in turn exists only because there are actual human beings. "If being human did not actually exist, then the boy could not be potentially human, or, in other words, he would not exist, where 'exist' means exist as what he is" (p. 85).

However, one would have to ask what kind of impact it could possibly have on the child and its being potentially a human being whether there are other, actual human beings around or not. On this view the actual human beings produce some entity (a species) that makes it possible for the child to be a human being (though only potentially). But what ontological change would occur for or with the child if suddenly all actual human beings ceased to exist? We would expect being human to be an intrinsic property. The loss of such a property could happen only if there is some change in the object itself. But in our case, the child would not change at all. Rather, it could still grow up and become an adult. Would it then be an actual human being without having been a potential human being? That is rather unlikely. A further point concerns the question of a dependence of being potentially F on an instantiation of F. Witt seems to assume such a dependence. But why should we believe that something could be, say, potentially blue only if blue is already instantiated? It is not clear why an instantiation of a certain property should be required if something is to have this property potentially. The same holds if we prefer not to speak of properties but of species-membership. It is true that something could be a member of a certain species only if there is this species. But this does not mean that there already would have to be a certain species if something is to be potentially a member of that species. The species will come into existence soon enough for the individual to be a member of it, namely at the very moment when the individual comes to be actually an F. In our (rather non-Aristotelian) case of the orphan, there would be a potential for both, the boy and the species.

Thus, Witt's approach seems problematic, and we would rather go back to an alternative interpretation of priority in being, namely the interpretation according to which the actual human being (the adult) is prior in being with regard to the child who is, in a way, the same human being. In this case, we would have to give up the reading of priority in being as ontological priority (as Witt understands it). The case for this alternative interpretation has recently been revived by Christos Panayides.6 Against Panayides' account Witt relies exclusively on IX 8, 1050a6 where Aristotle says that the man already (ἤδη has the form, whereas the boy does not have it. And this, Witt claims, must mean that the man who already has the form also already exists (cf. pp. 139-140 n.7). However, Aristotle takes the man as an example for an entity that is later (or posterior) in coming-to-be but prior in form and being in comparison to the boy (1050a4-5). And his following comment on this could easily be understood as saying that, in comparison to the boy, the man already has the form (for this use of ἤδη, cf. Bonitz, Index, s.v. 314a10-17). He does not say that the man already exists when the boy exists.

The third main point of disagreement that I would like to discuss concerns the hierarchy of values and the intrinsic normativity of Aristotle's metaphysics. Witt argues that Aristotle's association of form and matter with the male and the female respectively does not mean that his notions of form and matter are intrinsically gendered. Rather, he associates norms that he finds in his society with his metaphysics but developed the latter independently from those norms. One of Witt's points is that both man and woman are composites of form and matter; they are "metaphysically identical" (p. 102). But, she argues, if form and matter were, indeed, intrinsically linked to male and female, how could a man and a woman have both (cf. pp. 101-102)? Furthermore, while form is supposed to be better than matter, it is impossible to tell from the form or the matter as such which one is to be linked to the male and which to the female (cf. pp. 111-112).

Witt is right to argue that form by itself is not male nor matter female. Taken just by themselves, neither form nor matter could be male or female since only a composite can be male or female. And what makes a composite of form and matter a man or a woman is, in Aristotle's opinion, the relation between form and matter and the degree of formation that has taken place. But this does not yet free Aristotle's theory from the charge of being intrinsically gendered. Rather, it seems very likely that he developed his metaphysical theory starting from what he considered to be observations, with the intention of producing a theory that could in a highly general way account for the results of his empirical investigation. Those observations would concern features such as activity, rationality, structure, strength, or bodily features, as well as the connections that he may have thought exist between them, and, finally, the different degrees of their occurrence. It would be difficult to tell what "male" and "female" meant for Aristotle if not a very specific connection of precisely those features. If these expressions do refer to such connections or bundles of features, we cannot easily take them away from Aristotle's theory. If it were possible at all, taking these bundles away would seem to require a major restructuring of Aristotelian theory. The notions of male and female seem to be more deeply entwined with that theory than Witt suggests. If, on the other side, Witt thinks that, according to Aristotle, "male" and "female" do not refer to such bundles, the reader might have found it helpful to learn what they do refer to instead.

Connected to this third main point of disagreement is a final point. Witt claims that Aristotle did not develop his metaphysics in order to justify the social hierarchies of his time. For this, she claims, he would have had to develop a universal teleology in which everything has its hierarchically determined place, a determination that is based on the form (or, as we might modify it, the degree of formation) and the function connected with it. Witt claims that there "is very little direct evidence to support a universal teleology in Aristotle" (p. 114). However, if, for once, we grant the relation Witt sees between universal teleology and social hierarchies, her claim seems to be undermined by passages such as Pol. I 8, 1256b15-26 or Met. XII 10, 1075a11-25 which do connect the members of all the different kinds in a hierarchical way (the same may hold for members of one and the same species in relation to each other). Admittedly, it is not very likely that these universal teleological relations have been construed in order to serve as a justification of social differences of gender. But had anyone approached Aristotle saying that there shouldn't be any such differences, Aristotle might well have pointed to "facts of nature" (including universal teleological relations) that would make such differences appear to be in agreement with them. An example of this is found in his account of "natural" slaves. He did, presumably, not develop this account in order to justify the classification of some human beings as "natural slaves". But his theory seems to be construed in such a way that, in Aristotle's opinion, it could well serve as a justification.

Witt's case would have to be stronger if it were to be convincing. It would be stronger, if opposing views had been made stronger. Sometimes the argument could be more thorough and closer to the original text. In general, the book presents the reader with interesting views but not with very strong reasons to adopt them.7


1.   According to Witt, the much discussed question of whether to translate "energeia" as "actuality" or "activity" has to be decided according to the context (cf. pp. 13 and 123-124, n. 24). The same holds for the translation of "dunamis" as "power" or "potentiality". Witt does not mention G.A. Blair, Energeia and Entelecheia: "Act" in Aristotle (Ottawa, 1992).
2.   In parts, this chapter derives from Witt's paper "Powers and Possibilities: Aristotle vs. the Megarians", Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 1995 11 (1997) 249-266.
3.   This chapter derives partly from her paper "The Priority of Actuality in Aristotle" in T. Scaltsas, D. Charles, M.L. Gill (eds.), Unity, Identity, and Explanation in Aristotle's Metaphysics (Oxford, 1994), 215-228.
4.   This chapter has its origins in her paper "Form, Normativity, and Gender in Aristotle. A Feminist Perspective" in Cynthia A. Freeland (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle (University Park, 1998), 118-137.
5.   See her Substance and Essence in Aristotle. An Interpretation of Metaphysics VII-IX (Ithaca and London, 1989), p. 127.
6.   Christos Y. Panayides, "Aristotle on the Priority of Actuality in Substance", Ancient Philosophy 19 (1999) 327-344. In this article, Panayides explicitly takes issue with Witt's former published version of chapter 4.
7.   For an excellent study on Metaphysics IX see now Ludger Jansen, Tun und Können. Ein systematischer Kommentar zu Aristoteles' Theorie der Vermögen im neunten Buch der "Metaphysik" (Frankfurt, 2002). -- I am very grateful to Alastair Blanshard for many helpful remarks on this review.

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