BMCR 1994.03.02

Porphyry: On Aristotle, Categories

, Porphyry, On Aristotle's categories. Ancient commentators on Aristotle. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. 185 pages. ISBN 9780801428166.

This is the second in a sequence of translations of surviving Neoplatonic commentaries on the Categories in the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series edited by Richard Sorabji (the first, though later chronologically, being that of Dexippus, by the present reviewer). Indeed Strange, who is an acknowledged expert on the subject of later interpretations of the Categories, was of considerable help to me, who am really not, in the preparation of my edition, so it is a pleasure for me to welcome his excellent edition now.

Like that of Dexippus, Porphyry’s short question-and-answer, or ‘catechism’ commentary is incomplete, breaking off in the middle of a discussion of the contents of ch. 9, though we have indications that Porphyry went on to discuss the Postpraedicamenta too. Basically, however, Porphyry covers the whole of Aristotle’s account of the categories proper, whereas the surviving part of Dexippus’ commentary only goes as far as the middle of discussion of Quantity (4b23). Porphyry’s is somewhat more summary than that of Dexippus, but we must remember that Porphyry already had under his belt that monument of erudition, his big commentary To Gedalius, which is lost, but which we can see from Simplicius formed the basis for all later Neoplatonist commentary on the Categories. We await now only the translation of Boethius’ commentary to have the fullest available picture of the complex relationships between the members of this little nest of works (though of course the monstrous task of translating the great commentary of Simplicius would be required to complete the larger picture).

Strange’s translation and notes are of the highest quality. Inevitably, a certain stiffness must be submitted to for the sake of accuracy, as I found myself (one has to keep one’s technical terms straight, or philosophers will fuss), but this does not detract significantly from the readability of the text.

The only mild complaint I have, really, concerns the introduction. Here it seems to me that Strange might have dealt with a greater variety of issues. As it is, he concentrates merely on what are certainly two related topics of central importance, ‘Plotinus and Porphyry on the Categories‘ and ‘Porphyry’s Platonising Interpretation of the Categories‘. On these, however, he has much of importance to say (though he has said it already in his article ‘Plotinus, Porphyry and the Neoplatonic Interpretation of the Categories‘, in ANRW II 36.2, pp. 955-74).

Strange’s first important contribution is to argue that, despite appearances (and indeed despite the assumption to this effect by all later Neoplatonic commentators) Plotinus, in Enneads VI 1-3, is not really launching an attack on Aristotle’s Categories in general, but is primarily concerned to refute the Peripatetic interpolation of them as a basis for the division of Being as a whole. He wishes to confine their relevance to the physical world, and reinstate the greatest genera of Plato’s Sophist as suitable categories for the realm of true Being, the intelligible world. That being the case, Strange further argues, Porphyry and his master are not really that far apart in their approaches to the Categories, although Porphyry certainly accentuates the positive, as against Plotinus’ distinctly polemical approach. The Categories is certainly to all appearances a radically anti-Platonic work (the treatment of ousia in ch. 5 in particular seems to oppose directly Plato’s doctrine that more general substance has a higher degree of reality than more particular), and it is Porphyry’s great achievement to render the Categories‘safe’ and inoffensive as an introduction to Platonism.

In this connexion, the controversy as to whether the Categories is about words or things is of central importance, and Porphyry’s position on this is crucial to his approach. He in fact adopts the view of the Peripatetic Alexander of Aphrodisias that the subject of the work is ‘simple significant expressions, qua significant’, which firmly characterises the Categories as a work of logic, not metaphysics, and thus renders it harmless from a Platonist point of view. Aristotle is not attacking the Theory of Forms after all; in ch. 5 he is simply asserting that the whole class-extension of a universal predicate is prior to the predicate itself, which in turn counts as an abstracted, and thus secondary universal, not as a real universal.

On all these topics, then, Strange is very good, and they are after all the main ones. He might, though, I think, have thrown in a few words of biographical introduction, and perhaps some discussion of the relations between this commentary and those of Dexippus and Boethius, and again between it and the big commentary to Gedalius, and Simplicius’ role in all this. However, these questions are not of great interest, perhaps, to philosophers, and on all important points this stands out as a most useful and authoritative piece of work.