Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.15

Giancarlo Movia (ed.), Alessandro di Afrodisia e la "Metafisica" di Aristotele. Temi metafisici e problemi del pensiero antico. Studi e testi, 94.   Milano:  Vita e Pensiero, 2003.  Pp. 314.  ISBN 88-343-1039-X.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto (
Word count: 2170 words

This volume contains nine papers originally delivered at a conference at the University of Cagliari in 1999 titled "Metafisica e antimetafisica negli antichi e nei moderni" plus a tenth by Emidio Spinelli. This volume collects the papers devoted to the ancient side; another volume yet to appear will focus on the modern. The authors and titles are: Pierluigi Donini, "Unità e oggetto della metafisica secondo Alessandro di Afrodisia"; Rafaella Santi, "Dialettica e metafisica in Platone secondo la testimonianza di Alessandro di Afrodisia (In Metaph. A, 6 e 9)"; Giancarlo Movia, "I problemi della metafisica. Sul commento di Alessandro di Afrodisia al libro B della Metafisica di Aristotele"; Mario Mignucci, "Alessandro interprete di Aristotele: luci e ombre del commento a Metaph. G"; Kevin L. Flannery, "Logic and Ontology in Alexander of Aphrodisias's Commentary on Metaphysics IV" (with an Italian translation); Carlo Natali, "Causa formale e causa motrice in Alessandro di Afrodisia"; Paolo Accattino, "Processi naturali e comparsa dell' eidos in Alessandro di Afrodisia"; Robert W. Sharples, "Pseudo-Alexander or Aristotle, Metaphysics L (with an Italian translation); Elisabetta Cattanei, "Gli enti matematici 'per astrazione' secondo Alessandro di Afrodisia e lo Pseudo-Alessandra"; Emidio Spinelli, "Istanze anti-metafisiche nel pirronismo antico: Enesidemo, Sesto Empirico e il concetto di causa".

If the collection of studies by Aristotle today known as Metaphysics had been "published" during his lifetime we might say that, like Hume's Treatise, it fell stillborn from the press. For perhaps five hundred years Peripatetics of different stripe and anti-Peripatetics paid hardly any attention at all to this extraordinary work. It is not that there is no record of later philosophers rooting through the Aristotelian corpus for pearls of wisdom. On the contrary, Fritz Wehrli's nine volumes of Peripatetic material contains frequent and diverse references. However, not until Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd - early 3rd c. CE) do we find anything like what we today would recognize as a philosophical engagement with that work. In all probability, Alexander did not originate the commentary tradition on Metaphysics. Aspasius (ca. 125 CE) apparently wrote some sort of commentary, though it is not extant. We know so little about Alexander's supposed teacher, Aristocles of Messene, that it is impossible to say what, if anything Alexander got from him. It seems, though, that Alexander did write in an established tradition. Unfortunately, the only part of his commentary extant is that on Books 1-5 of Metaphysics. The remainder is only known through some references to it made by Averroes. The preserved commentary on Books 6-14 are not by Aristotle. The authorship of this work -- by convention attributed to "pseudo-Alexander" -- is so obscure to us that it has been dated variously from the middle of the 3rd to the middle of the 12th centuries. The present volume attempts to assess various aspects of the works of both Alexander and pseudo-Alexander.

P. Donini discusses Alexander's attempt to grapple with what is perhaps the fundamental interpretive problem facing any reader of Aristotle Metaphysics, which is how to reconcile the conceptions of first philosophy as a theological science and as a universal science of being qua being. Donini argues that Alexander, as a faithful Peripatetic commentator, vacillates between attributing to Aristotle four different accounts of first philosophy: (1) it is identified with the science of supersensible substance; (2) it is identified with a generic science of being qua being which includes as its species the practical as well as the theoretical sciences; (3) it is identified with a generic theoretical science of substance, and (4) it is identified with an "empty" genus whose contentful species are just the theoretical sciences. Donini shows that Alexander generally opts for (1), though in a long commentary on Book 2, chapter 1 (245-246 Hayduck) Alexander explores the other alternatives. Donini concludes that Alexander's achievement is not in resolving the conflicts in Aristotle's account, but in establishing with sufficient clarity, and perhaps for the first time, the interpretive choices still available.

Santi addresses Alexander's commentary on Metaphysics Book 1, chapter 6, where Aristotle gives an account of Platonic principles and the evolution of a mathematized theory of Forms. Santi shows how Alexander, cognizant of the many obscurities in this account, has recourse to Aristotle's On the Good, On Ideas, and On Philosophy in order to explain Plato's position. Here Alexander shows his resourcefulness as a commentator and, incidentally, his indispensability for reconstructing Plato's thought as well as Aristotle's. Santi argues that Alexander understands Aristotle to distinguish two types of dialectic in Plato: one based on division or diairesis, evident in Sophist and Statesman, and one analytic, found principally in Aristotle's testimony on Plato's unwritten teachings. In the latter, sensibles are analyzed into the principles of indefiniteness and definiteness and, ultimately, into the One and the Indefinite Dyad, the primary principles of all. Santi finds in Alexander's use of the now lost Aristotelian material confirmation of Aristotle's reliability as an expositor of Plato's mathematized theory of Forms.

Movia examines Alexander's very competent treatment of the aporiai in Book 3 of Metaphysics. Of particular interest here is Alexander's hesitation to accept Aristotle's reduction argument against Parmenides as applying to Plato. Aristotle argues that if Being is a substance, then it is the substance of everything, and then the One cannot be a separate principle. Alexander denies that Plato, by positing the One and Being as principles, is led to this absurdity, though it is not so clear that Alexander here is denying something that Aristotle is asserting. Movia argues, along the lines of Alexander, that Aristotle is wrong to attribute to Plato a universal science of first principles of Being and One since for Plato these are never said to be univocally predicable of things.

Mignucci analyzes Alexander's treatment of the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC) in Metaphysics Book 4. Mignucci argues that this treatment is a stellar example both of Alexander's acuity and of his desire to present Aristotle's philosophy as a coherent world-view. In this regard, Alexander claims that Aristotle's position is that from the negation of some postulated principle of science follows the negation of the PNC. So, by contraposition, from the affirmation of the Principle one derives the postulated scientific principle. But if that were so, then the autonomy of the sciences from first philosophy would not be preserved. Mignucci argues that Alexander is not committed to this position, though he is tempted by it. Alexander seems puzzled by Aristotle's apparent claim that the PNC is universally valid because his arguments seem to show only that it is not universally invalid. He tries to construct an interpretation which has Aristotle argue against a "radical" denial of the Principle. In this, Alexander shows himself to be not merely a commentator but a committed Peripatetic philosopher.

Flannery, in a companion piece, explores further Alexander's understanding of the arguments for the PNC. Flannery argues that Alexander shifts the focus of Aristotle's argument from the significance of names to the truth or falsity of propositions. He does this by understanding Aristotle's use of "definition" in the arguments as indicating propositions and not signs. The reason for this is that, while writing his commentary, Alexander was very much under the influence of Posterior Analytics. Consequently, he wanted to understand the arguments for the PNC in a straightforwardly logical manner rather than as based on a theory of meaning. Like Mignucci, Flannery thinks that Alexander does this in an effort to defend the Aristotelian position despite the strict requirements of commentary.

Natali examines Alexander's account of the relationship between efficient and formal causality in Aristotle. He attempts to situate Alexander's account within two contemporary models of Aristotelian causality: (1) understood as explanation and (2) understood as aspects of efficient causality (the only real type of causality, according to a modern understanding). Natali discovers -- especially in Alexander's De Anima and in Simplicius's references to Alexander's doctrines in his own commentary on Aristotle's Physics -- that Alexander regards formal causality, insofar as it is equivalent to nature, as having its own efficiency. In effect, Alexander generalizes from Aristotle's example of soul, which is the form of a body but also the source of motion in the animal. In this, Natali finds Alexander influenced by Stoic doctrine.

Accatino examines Alexander's commentary on Metaphysics Book 1, chapter 9, where Aristotle criticizes the claim that Forms are paradigms. Alexander provides an argument to the effect that no case of generation in nature ever occurs "according to a paradigm." His argument is that natural regularity is not equivalent to having recourse to a paradigm, something that requires reason. The problem, though, as Accatino recognizes, is not that the Platonist is maintaining that nature thinks but rather that nature is the product of the thinking Demiurge. It is the latter's use of a paradigm that is at issue. Alexander himself does not wish to deny the connection between the order of nature and a divine cause. This divine cause, however, is not the Demiurge but rather the celestial bodies whose own motions guarantee the regularities of nature. Accatino suggests, against at least one recent account, that the focus of Alexander's attack here is not Galen but rather a near contemporary Platonist such as Alcinous. Accatino goes on to explore Alexander's understanding of the sense in which the form of a natural composite can itself be said to be a paradigm. Accatino argues that Alexander interprets Aristotle as holding that the form is a paradigm in the sense of a goal towards which generation tends. Against Paul Moraux, Accatino argues that Alexander is not here conceding to Platonists that the forms of sensible composites are generated according to an eternal paradigm, but that the souls of living things are forms in potency such that their generation is not like the generation of the composite but the generation that is only the actualization of a potency.

Sharples attempts to assess pseudo-Alexander's skills as a commentator by closely examining his commentary on Book 12 of Aristotle's Metaphysics. One of the more vexing problems in regard to pseudo-Alexander is that, having no clue to his identity, we have no basis for dating his work. If we did know the date, we might be able to make a better assessment of the contemporary currents within which he was operating. Sharples examines the evidence and the studies of Praechter, Freudenthal, and Tarán and concludes that pseudo-Alexander postdates Simplicius (ca. 490-560), but probably not by much. In addition, Sharples argues that the pseudo-Alexander commentary on Books 6-14 makes no use of Alexander's commentary on Metaphysics, thereby making it perhaps one of the latest independent Peripatetic works of antiquity. This would be the case if, as Sharples maintains, pseudo-Alexander was influenced by Platonism but did not regard himself as Platonist. Sharples, like most other scholars, draws a fairly negative conclusion regarding pseudo-Alexander's skills as a commentator.

Cattanei studies the Aristotelian account of mathematical abstraction and traces the history of interpretation -- through Alexander -- which seeks to understand the ontological basis for the objectivity of mathematics. Cattanei argues that Alexander vacillates in his commentaries and personal writings between a conception of mathematical abstraction according to which mathematical objects coincide with properties of bodies and a conception according to which these objects have an ontological "weight" of their own. By contrast, pseudo-Alexander in his commentary on Books 13-14 of Metaphysics, is firm in holding that mathematical objects have their own actuality when abstracted from sensibles. Mental operations constitute or generate these objects. Such generation is equivalent to their actualization from a potential or material state. In so doing, pseudo-Alexander interprets Aristotelian abstractionism as being more in line with the Platonic (or Neoplatonic) position according to which mathematical objects have an immaterial existence. Thus, actualization is conflated with immateriality. Cattanei speculates that the apparent Neoplatonic influence on pseudo-Alexander may come through Syrianus (d. ca. 437 CE), the teacher of Proclus. Most important, pseudo-Alexander takes his Neoplatonic position as authentically Aristotelian.

Spinelli offers a survey of late Academic ("Neo-Pyrrhonic") skeptical arguments -- drawn mainly from Sextus Empiricus -- regarding various "dogmatic" accounts of causality, including those of Stoics, Peripatetics, and Platonists. The relevance of this paper to the theme of the conference on which this book is based is clear enough, though its connection with the other papers escapes me.

If one eliminates the last paper and the pointless English versions of the papers of Flannery and Sharples, we are left with a somewhat thin and uneven set of offerings. The problem here is owing more to an indifferent editorial job than to the quality of the papers, each of which contains at least a few penetrating observations. It would have been helpful if there had been an introduction locating Alexander's commentary within the context of his other works or within the context of the entire commentary tradition.

This is a book primarily for the specialist. Its main achievement is in opening up several lines of investigation regarding the relationship between late Peripatetic philosophy and late Platonism.

[[For a response to this review by R.W. Sharples, please see BMCR 2004.07.29.]]

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