Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.02.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.02.26

Riccardo Chiaradonna, Filippo Forcignanò​, Franco Trabattoni (ed.), Ancient Ontologies: Contemporary Debates. Discipline filosofiche, XXVIII:I.   Macerata:  Quodlibet, 2018.  Pp. 256.  ISBN 9788822902214.  €20,00 (pb).  

Reviewed by David Anzalone, University of Italian Switzerland, Lugano (

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The volume is committed, as the title suggests, to relating the insights of ancient philosophy to contemporary debates in ontology and metaphysics. The focus is mainly on the Neo-Aristotelian tradition that nowadays has a prominent position in academia, but it also features two essays on the Platonic tradition. What immediately meets the eye of the reader is the editors’ approach to the history of philosophy. The subject, Chiaradonna, Forcignano and Trabattoni say, is not for the “museum”. Whatever exegetical or philological contribution the history of philosophy might make, it should create new paths for contemporary debate. A lot of the issues of this age have already been discussed in the past, in other contexts and in different ways: the philosopher who knows this can “think outside the box”. However, this important goal should not compromise the historical task of providing an accurate understanding of our texts – something these essays show very clearly.

The volume contains ten essays, which can be divided into two broad sections: the first concerns the Platonic tradition, the second, the Aristotelian tradition.

The first essay, by Fronterotta, makes an interesting parallel between the eikos logos concerning the sensible world presented in Timaeus’ cosmological account, and sequentialism and fuzzy logic. The description of ordinary objects that we find in the Timaeus has echoes of sequentialism in that it depicts these objects as having no stable identity through time, except as a matter of convention, based on our perception of regularities. To this corresponds a fuzzy logic characterized by truth values which are indeterminate due to the nature of empirical reality. Here the problem arises: Does God play dice? What “logic” is there for creation? What reason is there behind the ordering of the world? Fronterotta’s radical conclusion is that the causal action of the forms depends essentially on their nature as objects of intellect, which enable us to ask these teleological questions. Overall a good contribution.

An essay by Chiaradonna and Maraffa outlines the conception on the self in contemporary, empirically informed philosophical considerations, tracing back a lot of insights to Plato and Plotinus. It is nowadays generally agreed that the self is not something unitary, given a priori, but more of a normative ideal which has to be (re)constructed. This is understood today in a naturalistic framework that builds a narrative self out of a bodily form of self-consciousness; Plato sought something similar in his description of the tripartition of the soul. The authors also provide an argument for realism about the self. They argue that the process of the creation of the self does not establish it as an epiphenomenon, but as “a layer of personality that serves as a causal center of gravity in the history of the system” (pp. 58-9). It seems that what they mean is that the integrative synthesis of data has a causal role with respect to the other layers of personality: it is the foundation of psychological well-being and mental health. However, this seems to conflict with their idea of the self as a normative ideal. There is a need, they say, for us to exist solidly as unitary subjects; yet the self serves only as the aim of an individual’s striving to reconstruct his identity. The two accounts, I think, stand in an either-or relationship. In other words, and using Plato’s insights, the harmony of the soul presupposes that the rational part of a soul is a pre-existent entity. Here the distinction between the effect and the cause is not very clear. It seems that the process of making a self, which is the striving to make the self, is itself the cause of harmony, the effect, which cannot be in itself an entity with a causal role. The authors ought, perhaps, to spell out what it means to be realist about the self. Overall, however, a very interesting contribution.

Moving to the Neo-Aristotelian section we start with Galluzzo’s contribution. The paper deals with Koslicki’s Neo-Aristotelian Mereology (NAM),1 and questions its two main assumptions from an Aristotelian perspective: (i) that Aristotle’s form is a proper part of the composite substance; (ii) that there is a univocal notion of part, and a univocal notion of composition, which apply both to matter and form. There is a sense in which form and matter are parts but, Galluzzo argues, it is not the same sense that applies to both, as is implied in NAM. Galluzzo discusses Koslicki’s evidence, which is drawn from Metaph. V.25 and VII.10-11, where Aristotle applies mereological tools to discuss hylomorphic wholes.

Metaph. V is not Aristotle’s ‘dictionary’ – as it is usually understood to be –, according to Galluzzo, but is more like a survey of the different meanings a term can assume in philosophical discussions. With respect to Metaph. VII, he argues as follows. The whole of VII.10 does not confirm Koslicki’s assumptions: the contrast between matter and form is primarily to be read as a contrast between two different and irreconcilable ways of looking at the substance. It can be looked at considering its material parts, or considering its essential aspects, its formal parts. Therefore, formal parts and material parts are incommensurable, in contrast to the claims of NAM. Galluzzo then offers two arguments against the mereological reading: the first concerns Aristotle’s example in Metaph. VII.17: the unifying principle of the syllable “ba” is not another letter; similarly, the unifying principle of a substance is not another element, but rather a principle unifying the elements. The second is based on the ambiguity of “matter”: when using the expressions “the matter of x” – where x is a material substance –, we must distinguish between the totality of a substance’s material parts, and matter as a metaphysical principle, which is in contrast to the form. If one buys the distinction, it is plausible to expect that, when talking about matter and form in the metaphysical sense, part-whole language is appropriate; when one talks about the material parts, however, the part-whole language cannot be applied to the form.

This is an important contribution to debates in Neo-Aristotelian metaphysics. It provides fresh arguments against NAM, especially those from Metaph. V and VII.10-11, philosophically and exegetically speaking. However, one could ask if the distinction between the two senses of “the matter of x” is tenable. What is “matter” as a metaphysical principle if not the material parts structured by a form? In fact, Galluzzo considers matter as the root of potentiality. However, if we think of the potentiality of a substance, we think of the capacities the substance has in virtue of his structured matter. If we think of matter as a metaphysical principle, we are thinking of the substratum that underlies substantial change – but then we are leaving the individual substance and considering fundamental metaphysical principles. This text urges to work on these categories in more depth.

Sirkel’s piece argues that essence has a non-explanatory role. Her argument is that taking essence as explanatory would violate an important standard of explanation: that according to which the explanans is different from the explanandum. Indeed, if essence “makes something what it is”, there is a problem because the answer to the “What is it?” question is precisely the essence – this is circular. This problem, however, does not occur in Aristotle since in his work essence does not explain “what something is”, but rather the propria of the thing explained.

Papandreou’s essay offers a detailed outline of contemporary metaphysics of artifacts and shows the relevance of an Aristotelian account in light of current debates. The author sketches a fairly comprehensive picture of the issues concerning artefacts and provides an Aristotelian solution to each of them. Primarily, she focuses on ready-made objects and malfunctioning objects. The main target here is the “Amorphic Hylomorphist” account, which identifies the form of artifacts with the intention of the maker – an account which makes it too easy to create a new artifact, and cannot account for the difference between a functioning and a malfunctioning of an artefact since both are identical in the intention of the maker. A functional hylomorphic account provides interesting solutions to these problems.

De Anna’s essay also challenges Amorphic Hylomorphism by considering its consequences for modality. With respect to non-organic natural objects, Evnine’s Amorphic Hylomorphism (AH) results in an extensionally incorrect modal account in that it entails fictionalism, and therefore cannot account for intuitive modal truths about non-organic natural objects.2 Adopting realism about forms for these objects results in an extensional modal account which grounds modal statements in the forms. However, this does not entail a complete rejection of AH, since it is compatible with substance gradualism, the idea that thing have different degrees of unity, which the author defends.

Bonelli’s essay on grounding and the Aristotelian tradition, has an interesting thesis about the link between the two research programs: the received view of an Aristotle congenial to grounding is indebted in particular to Alexander of Aphrodisias. According to Bonelli, it is Alexander who emphasized an existential reading of the expression “science of being qua being”, taking it to mean the science of everything that exists and giving ontological priority to substance. Bonelli’s contribution gives important historical background to one of the most important contemporary metaphysical debates.

Postiglione’s essay works on Aristotle’s contribution to the contemporary debate about the distribution of consciousness along the phylogenetic tree. The central focus is Aristotle’s theory of the soul. Postiglione proposes a non-dualist interpretation of the ‘boatman’ analogy at De Anima 2.1, 413a 8-9: the soul is not a boatman, rather it is the ability to act as a boatman, which emerges from the body. This provides an argument for the distribution of consciousness in other species with complex neural systems: different bodies of various species can have the same functional organization, because consciousness is not located in a specific part of the body – such as the thalamo-cortical system – rather it emerges from the body, which is organized in a certain way.

Zucca’s essay focuses especially on Aristotle’s teleological doctrines. Some of them are close to those of the contemporary philosophers of biology who have revived teleology even within an evolutionary framework. Zucca argues that Aristotle’s final cause can be framed in functional terms within emergentist approaches that take account of natural selection. “Teleo-functions are narrow causal roles of organism’s physical constituents, subsets of their broad causal roles (mechano-functions), which nonetheless pass a test of counterfactual efficacy: had they not been there, their physical base would have not been shaped as it is” (p. 229).

Pietropaoli’s essay is on the Heideggerian interpretation of Metaph. IX.10 in his 1930 course The essence of human freedom. An introduction to philosophy. The focus is the interpretation of ousia as constant presence and its link with “being true” as the authentic being that is revealed out of its hiddenness (aletheia, from a-lanthanō ). The issue of truth is, I believe, central for seeing continuity between the Heidegger of Sein und Zeit and subsequently. It would therefore be interesting to consider truth in parallel to ontological difference – another central theme in his work –, which when grasped, through the Ereignis, represents the happening of truth.

Authors and titles

Francesco Fronterotta, “Do the Gods Play Dice?”. Sensible Sequentialism and Fuzzy Logic in Plato’s Timaeus
Riccardo Chiaradonna, Massimo Maraffa, “Ontology and the Self: Ancient and Contemporary Perspectives”
Gabriele Galluzzo, “Are Matter and Form Parts? Aristotle’s and Neo-Aristotelian Hylomorphism”
Riin Sirkel, “Essence and Cause: Making Something Be What It Is”
Mariloù Papandreou, “Aristotle Hylomorphism and The Contemporary Metaphysics of Artefacts”
Gabriele De Anna, “Substance, Form, and Modality” Maddalena Bonelli, “Dipendenza e indipendenza ontological: la modernità della posizione peripatetica
Enrico Postiglione, “Aristotle on the Distribution of Consciousness”
Diego Zucca, “Neo-Aristotelian Biofunctionalism
Matteo Pietropaoli, “L’οὐσία come presenza costante e l’esser vero come autentico essere. Heidegger interprete di Aristotele, Metafisica Θ 10.


1.   See K. Koslicki, The Structure of Objects (Oxford University Press, 2008).
2.   See S. J. Evnine, Making Objects and Events. A Hylomorphic Theory of Artifacts, Actions, and Organisms (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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