Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.12.03

Dirk Fonfara, Die Ousia-Lehren des Aristoteles. Untersuchungen zur Kategorienschrift und zur Metaphysik.   Berlin/New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2003.  Pp. x, 242.  ISBN 3-11-017078-4.  €68.00.  



Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto (lloyd.gerson@utoronto.ca)
Word count: 1593 words

This monograph springs from a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Cologne in 2002. It is a study of Aristotle's doctrine(s) of ousia ('substance' or 'being') in Categories and Metaphysics, especially books Delta, Zeta, and Lambda. Even those who are not specialists in Aristotle's metaphysics will probably not be surprised to learn that this subject has not exactly been ignored by scholars for the past, say, two hundred years. In 1948, Joseph Owens in his doctoral dissertation, published in 1951 as The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, listed some 600 works on the subject in his bibliography. Probably, at least an equal number of works on ousia have appeared in the half-century since then. So, we might wonder what there is to say that has not been said about this hoary subject, particularly in a book that appears to have gone almost straight from the Ph.D. examining committee to the publisher. The most recent direct competitor, as it were, to this monograph -- both in material covered and in thesis -- is the far more philosophically sophisticated work by Michael Wedin, Aristotle's Theory of Substance. The Categories and Metaphysics Zeta (2000).

After the obligatory and useful status quaestionis chapter (1-15), Fonfara follows with a chapter titled 'Die frühe Ontologie des Aristoteles in der Kategorienschrift' (17-37), arguing that in that work Aristotle is offering an ontology which has sensible composites as its foundation. The relation of Categories to Metaphysics has been a subject of dispute since antiquity. The author signals that he is going to argue that in Metaphysics Aristotle defends and extends this 'ontology'. It is, of course, anachronistic to speak of an ontology in Categories (or even in Metaphysics), if that term is understood -- as it was in the 17th century when the term was invented -- as equivalent to a general science of being but distinct from a special science of theology. In addition, it is at least odd to suppose that the priority of sensible composites in Categories is meant by Aristotle to indicate that all being is founded on these, for the developmentalism presumed by Fonfara supposes that Categories was an early work, perhaps contemporaneous with, and probably not much later than, Aristotle's dialogues, in which he clearly recognizes the existence of supersensible beings. Finally, if sensible composites are foundational in an ontology, it is hard to make sense of the being of secondary substances and of accidental attributes of sensible composites other than according to some sort of pros hen doctrine of being, something that Fonfara seems to suppose belongs only to the later work, Metaphysics.

The discussion of Categories is followed by a chapter on the section of book Delta on ousia (39-58), two lengthy chapters on book Zeta (59-172), and a chapter on book Lambda (173-197). Fonfara concludes with a summary statement of his interpretation and an effort to locate Aristotle's ontology in the tradition (199-204).

The author argues that book Delta retains the ontology of Categories by recognizing the sensible composite as answering to one meaning of ousia. But it also goes further by acknowledging that ousia also applies to 'divine things' and to the 'cause of the being' of composites, that is, to their form, when this form is equivalent to 'essence'. Fonfara claims that the fact that Delta does not mention the secondary ousiai of Categories indicates that it is based on Aristotle's later or more developed ontology. But it is implausible that Categories be taken to reject 'divine things' or that the secondary ousiai treated there as the species and genera of primary ousiai are understood differently in Metaphysics, even if the name 'secondary ousiai' does not appear. It really does seem simpler to suppose that Categories does not contain an 'ontology' and that the 'ontology' of Metaphysics applies to the Categories' sensible composites, their species and genera, the accidental attributes of these composites and their species and genera.

The burden of the chapters on book Zeta is to show that Aristotle has 'modified' his ontology. Specifically, Fonfara argues that now, instead of the sensible composite being primary ousia, the form of the sensible composite is taken to be primary ousia when that form coincides with essence (91, 99, 133). The author takes this conclusion to follow from Aristotle's claim in Zeta 3 that the composite is 'posterior' to the form (1029a31-32). Taking this posteriority as the ontological posteriority of the composite to form would mean that in the Aristotelian conception of being, the latter has 'more' being than the former. But this leads to the following dilemma: when Socrates stands before me, are there two real things -- the composite and his form -- or is there one? If we say that there are two, then we would be forced to admit the disruption of essence and substance that Aristotle rejects in Zeta 6; if we say that there is one, what is this one real thing, Socrates or his form? Fonfara seems committed to saying that it is the form, which is implausible for a variety of reasons, including the fact that Socrates is in potency to his accidents and Socrates is an unqualifiedly separate substance.

Fonfara does not discuss this problem, though he sees another one following from the identification of form or essence of the composite as primary substance. It is the problem that form seems to be universal, though Aristotle argues that the universal cannot be a substance. This is the problem taken up in Zeta 13. After a survey of the literature pertaining to this aporia (149-164), the author argues that the form of a sensible composite insofar as it is that composite's essence is primary substance, but insofar as it is a universal it is not. The distinction is between an ontological and a logical meaning of 'essence' (164-168). In the former case, the essence 'constitutes' the individual, though it is not identical with it; in the latter, the essence is considered apart from its particular reality. It is not clear to me if Fonfara is claiming that the form is both individual and universal or neither individual nor universal, both positions having been thoroughly aired in the literature. But it is the ambiguity of the role of form as 'individualitätskonstituerend' that is the problem. If the form contains within it all the identity of the individual, then form is radically individualized, as some scholars have concluded, in which case it is hard to see how it can be a universal as well, except in a sense clearly rejected by Aristotle. On the other hand, if the form 'constitutes' the individual in the sense that it is a principle of that individual, then all the reality flows from that individual to the form, not the other way around. That is, the priority of the form to individual is notional, not ontological. But Fonfara does not want to say this either (172).

Part of the problem here seems to lie in the ambiguity of the phrase prôtê ousia which is used of the form of the composite (1032b2), but also used of the incomposite unmoved mover (1073a30). In the first use, it seems to have the meaning 'relatively first' (i.e., the primary source of being in the composite); in the second, 'absolutely first' (i.e., the pros hen focus of the meaning of 'being'). That the ousia of a sensible composite is responsible for the reality or actuality of that composite seems beyond doubt. This does not mean, however, that the form of a sensible composite is absolutely what being is. If it were, then it might make sense to posit for Aristotle an 'ontology' which locates sensible form as one unequivocal example of being.

Chapter five shows that only in supersensible reality do form, essence, and reality unqualifiedly coincide. Fonfara concludes that the conception of ousia as form now embraces the unmoved mover (189). And, though book Lambda does insist on a hierarchical ordering of nature with the unmoved mover at the top as final cause, Fonfara interprets this to be compatible with an ontology according to which being as such is equated with form, thereby leaving the being of matter utterly problematic. This ontology is distinguished from 'first philosophy' which is founded on the hierarchy. It would seem, however, that the entire point of the pros hen notion of being developed in book Gamma is to discover the absolutely primary referent of 'being'. If that is so, then presumably the hierarchy in Lambda is an ontological hierarchy. And if this is so, what then becomes of the ontology supposedly developed in Zeta? Fonfara acknowledges that the hierarchy is ontological (194), but that leaves unanswered the question about the priority of sensible form. He seems to want to insist that first philosophy -- distinguishable from ontology -- is not to be identified with theology (196), although, in the famous passage in book Epsilon (1026a29-32), Aristotle seems so to identify them. The only thing Fonfara can say about this passage is that it was taken as important in the Middle Ages.

Although this book represents a perfectly respectable Ph.D. dissertation, it does not advance our understanding of Aristotle's metaphysics. For someone working on the nexus of Categories, and Books Zeta and Lambda of Metaphysics, it might be of some value as a broad survey of current opinion. But as I said at the beginning, Wedin's book is far more philosophically challenging, though it must be added that Fonfara takes book Lambda as more relevant to Aristotle' s account of being than does Wedin.

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