BMCR 2005.09.18

Aristotle: On Generation and Corruption, Book I. Symposium Aristotelicum

, , Aristotle On generation and corruption, book 1 : Symposium Aristotelicum. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004. 1 online resource (viii, 347 pages). ISBN 1423786637 $74.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The papers collected here represent the revised proceedings of the fifteenth triennial Symposium Aristotelicum, held in Deurne, the Netherlands, in August 1999. In keeping with the approach of recent symposia, the meeting focused on a single text. With the exception of the introductory essay and two thematic studies, each of the remaining papers is devoted, in turn, to one of the ten chapters into which Book I of Aristotle’s De generatione et corruptione has traditionally been divided. The symposiasts have not set out to produce a commentary on the book [Preface, p. v], but in fact these essays are often at their best when closely considering textual questions from the duplicate perspective of philological plausibility and philosophical reconstruction of Aristotle’s arguments. Taken together, they provide the most sustained re-examination of the text since Harold Joachim’s superlative edition of 1922. All future studies of the treatise will need to grapple with these detailed criticisms.1

One drawback of the chapter-by-chapter approach, magnified by the restriction of the symposium to the first of the treatise’s two books, is the loss of a sense of the place and importance of the De generatione in Aristotle’s work as a whole. In his introductory essay, Myles Burnyeat seeks to make-up for this difficulty by discussing the foundational role of the treatise in Aristotle’s natural philosophy. In a recent review of the collection, Ian Mueller sought to supplement this account with a survey of the De generatione’s importance to the canonical, presumably pedagogical, unfolding of Aristotle’s studies of the natural world.2 What may still not be obvious to the general reader, however, is the historical context out of which the Aristotle’s thought arises. Turning here first to recount that context will lead us to consider the two thematic studies included in the present volume — concerning “prime matter” and “mixis” — in addition to the ten chapter-specific papers, and, more generally, to some consideration of the current state of research on this work.

Just 24 pages in Bekker’s edition, Aristotle’s De generatione et corruptione was the subject of hundreds of commentaries in antiquity and the Middle Ages, including studies by Alexander of Aphrodisias, John Philoponus, Averroes, Thomas Aquinas, and Giacomo Zabarella, among many, many others.3 Its place in the canon is well accepted, after the Physics and De caelo and before the Meteorology. Locomotion having been treated separately by Aristotle, its announced topic is the changes suffered by sub-lunar bodies, namely coming-to-be and passing-away, augmentation (or growth) and diminution, and “alloiosis” (i.e., qualitative change). In the Phaedo, Plato had already signaled the need for a “thorough investigation of generation and corruption.”4 As is well known, under the influence of Parmenides [DK28B8], the pre-Socratic natural historians had sought to account for the dynamic diversity of the world without admitting the changeability of what is real. Their explanatory model of choice in these attempts was mixture or aggregation, in the coming together of “roots” (Empedocles), atomic bodies (Leucippus and Democritus), or existing things (Anaxagoras). Empedocles, e.g., says “there is no phusis … but only ‘mixis’ and exchange of what has been mixed” [DK31B8]; Anaxagoras, that “the Greeks have an incorrect understanding of genesis and dissolution, for nothing comes to be or is dissolved, but rather is mixed together or separated from existing things.” [DK59B17] In short, these thinkers maintain their belief in unchanging reality by taking the observed diversity of the world to be only epiphenomena arising from mixtures of what is real. For his own part, Aristotle is committed to the reality of genesis and of qualitative and quantitative change, and, armed with the metaphysical advances of Platonism and his own further theorizing, he thus sets out in De generatione, in his typical method, to identify the causes, principles, and elements necessary to account for these as real changes and to distinguish them from the mere appearance of variation.

In view of this background, Friedrich Solmsen declared, “it was almost inevitable that a treatise on coming to be should include a discussion of mixture.”5 When he came to assess Aristotle’s doctrine of “mixis”, however, even this historical awareness could not prevent him from adopting Joachim’s interpretation of its importance. In his commentary on De generatione and in his earlier article “Aristotle’s Conception of Chemical Combination,” Joachim maintains that Aristotle is engaged in a kind of chemistry, in which “mixis” plays the role of chemical combination, and the simple bodies earth, air, fire, and water, “correspond in Aristotle’s conception to the Hydrogen, Oxygen, Carbon, Nitrogen, etc., of modern chemistry.”6 We may well wish to understand Aristotle as sharing some problems with modern chemistry or as having had an influence on its development.7 Nevertheless, it should be evident that the understanding of “mixis” as “chemical combination” is entirely anachronistic.8 Under its influence, however, modern commentators have been prevented from getting a clear view of the central importance of “mixis” to the treatise and of Aristotle’s innovative treatment of it, and, indeed, from appreciating his motivation in regard to his predecessors, namely to tame this important pre-Socratic notion by assimilating it to his own conception of genesis and account of change.

This problem haunts the otherwise excellent contributions of Jacques Brunschwig and David Sedley. The former sets out to consider the status of Book I, chapter 1, with its long discussion of Empedocles, and he suggests (even if he himself — v. p. 63 — is not entirely convinced by his own, provocative suggestion) that this chapter represents a kind of false start for Aristotle, and that chapter 2 is meant to supersede it as the beginning of the treatise. In the absence of a discussion about how and why Aristotle has taken up his investigation, it would seem impossible to decide this question; nor can we appreciate the discussion in De generation, I, 1, as a prelude to the later criticisms of Empedocles especially in Book II. Similarly, Sedley’s detailed reconstruction of Aristotle’s denial of atomism in Book I, chapter 2, ends without considering the importance of this extended refutation to the treatise as a whole (though this is no criticism of Sedley, as his task here is delimited by the chapter-by-chapter program of the symposium). In both cases, reading the treatise from the perspective of Aristotle’s usual concern to understand his predecessors as incomplete anticipations of his own thought would go a very great distance to explaining his project in these opening chapters as a part of his overall plan for the treatise. These chapters could then serve to illuminate the idiosyncratic concerns that determine the manner in which Aristotle will ultimately subordinate “mixis” to genesis.

Chapters 3-5, by Keimpe Algra, Sarah Broadie, and David Charles, respectively, form something of a unit. Algra, on Book I, chapter 3 (on genesis), and Broadie, on Book I, chapter 4 (in which Aristotle articulates his account of qualitative change), are both concerned to show the harmony of their respective chapters with the account of change in Physics I. In doing so, each takes up the traditional question of whether Aristotle believes in “prime matter,” which Algra thinks can be avoided, and Broadie believes an unnecessary commitment. Charles’ paper then interrupts the chapter-wise treatment of the treatise with an excursus on this topic.

“Prime matter” is supposed to be a wholly potential and uninformed basis of bodies, and the most important (alleged) discussion of it is found in De generatione, Book II, chapter 1. The interpretation which finds Aristotle committed to prime matter dates from antiquity, and it depends, importantly, on a Neoplatonic view that seeks to harmonize Aristotle with Plato, rather than to emphasize the disjunction between Aristotle’s use of the term in that chapter (329a23) and his (sharply critical) discussion there of the so-called receptacle in the Timaeus (48e ff.). Joachim’s commentary on the treatise makes the most influential modern case for this commitment, though, since the mid-20th century, there has been an extensive debate on whether it is, in fact, to be found in Aristotle.9 Charles attempts a compromise position, understanding prime matter as a “logical object.”10 The particular limitation of Charles’ approach, is, again, the absence of an account of the coherence of the treatise as a whole, as well as a critical review of Aristotle’s relation to Plato; but even in the absence of further study of Book II, the consensus among the symposiasts appears to be to reject such an understanding of Aristotle. Support for this growing consensus has been due, in part, to recent research on the reception and interpretation of Aristotle in antiquity.11 Algra also gives notice of new research on prime matter in Aristotle by Richard Bemelmans.12

In the plan of the treatise, Book I, chapter 5 of De generatione is of a piece with the preceding two chapters, for chapter 3 considers genesis simpliciter, i.e., change in the category of substance; chapter 4, “alloiosis”, i.e., change in the category of quality; and chapter 5, augmentation, i.e., change in the category of quantity. In the present treatment, with the discussion of prime matter having intervened, Alan Code’s contribution on De generatione, I, 5, is thus isolated from its context. This need not be disadvantageous: The topic of augmentation must be understood as a part of Aristotle’s larger metaphysical and biological concerns. A complete understanding would need also to catalogue his often-colloquial use of words otherwise sharply distinguished as technical terms, as well as his illustrative examples, which will seem less obscure on such a reconsideration. Code attempts to reconstruct Aristotle’s thought here and revisits those examples which have traditionally vexed commentators, even as he works both to relate the discussion in this chapter to those that have preceded it in the treatise and to Aristotle’s biological works.

Chapters 6-9 of the treatise form an extended treatment of contact and of action and passion. Aristotle, in habitual style, analyzes the problems associated with them, considers the topics in relation to pre-Socratic thought, and then proposes solutions in terms of his own. This discussion is preliminary to the treatment of “mixis” in chapter 10, and, more particularly, to the account of the elemental foundations of genesis and corruption, to which Aristotle then immediately turns in the treatise’s second book. The importance of the extended discussion across Book I, chapters 6-9 has not been fully explored; thus the careful treatment each receives here is very welcome. It is also here that the underlying tension in the chapter-wise approach is most in evidence. Both Carlo Natali, in his contribution on Book I, chapter 6, and Christian Wildberg, on Book I, chapter 7, quickly find themselves concerned to discuss their subjects in the wider context of the treatise; and Edward Hussey and Michel Crubellier on Book I, chapters 8 and 9, respectively, feel this need as well. In addition to the detailed reconstructions of Aristotle’s arguments in each of these four papers, Hussey’s contribution is also especially notable for its close concern for textual problems in Book I, chapter 8.

The collection culminates in Dorothea Frede’s paper on the treatment of “mixis” in De generatione, I, 10, supplemented by an additional note on “mixis” by John Cooper. These are thoughtful and thorough attempts to understand Aristotle’s arguments in this chapter and to come to terms with the philosophical problems which arise in trying to give an account of “mixis” and the miscible.13 They are also notable for the care both give to the treatment of the term “stoicheion” (element), by which Aristotle must be understood to mean the elemental qualities hot, cold, moist, and dry, which usage must be distinguished from his talk about “the so-called elements,” that is, what he himself calls the “simple bodies” — earth, air, fire, and water — which play the role of elements in other thinkers’ work.14

As discussed above, the treatment of “mixis” throughout the present collection is informed by Joachim’s understanding of this agency as chemical combination. This tradition has typically underestimated the need to assess Aristotle’s project in terms of its historical context; and, taking the need for such a putative proto-chemistry as a given, it inevitably finds Aristotle’s theory wanting in comparison to modern science and frequently obscure. Even when scholars begin to attend to Aristotle’s usage more carefully — as do Frede and Cooper — still the tradition prevents the full import of such insight from becoming evident. One very promising development has been to approach Aristotle’s account of “mixis” not as Joachim does but rather in terms of mereology, that is, from the perspective of an analytic ontology of part-whole relations. This approach finds its impetus in Paul Bogaard’s work, and it has been pursued very profitably by Kit Fine. It provides the resources for a reassessment of Aristotle’s doctrine that makes good sense of his presentation and which accounts both for his approach to his predecessors and the connection of the concern for “mixis” with his interest in the parts of animals.

A second important development has been the reexamination of the etymologies of “mixis” and, more importantly, the related term “krasis” in a 1979 study by Elio Montanari. Montanari shows that they are not as close as has been supposed, and, he traces the shifting understanding of these terms in the Greek-English lexicons of Liddell and Scott under the influence of Joachim’s interpretation.15 Joachim had held that Aristotle used these terms synonymously.16 From Montanari’s insight, we are in a position to understand Aristotle’s purpose as rather to assimilate “mixis” to krasis — in mereological terms, trading sums for fusions — and to exploit this shift as the means of his solution to the philosophical problems arising from “mixis”. This result, in turn, allows Aristotle to establish the material basis for the continued possibility of generation by allowing him to cycle from the parts of which substances are composed (the elementary qualities) to those into which they may be dissolved (the simple bodies). Regardless of whether we believe Aristotle’s proposed solution to be licit, taken together these developments make it newly possible to appreciate Aristotle’s motive in De generatione as a whole not as a project akin to modern chemistry but instead as an attempt to provide an ontological foundation that saves our empirical experience of change as real.17

The volume is well produced, and the editors and the press are to be thanked particularly for the inclusion of a unified list of references, an index locorum, and an index nominum et rerum — valuable aids that are lately all too rare in collections of this sort.18

These papers are of remarkable value for their careful concern to clarify the structure of Aristotle’s arguments and for their close reconsideration of the text. This will be a necessary addition to any serious reference library and of continuing interest to those working especially on the De generatione et corruptione.

List of Authors and Titles

Introduction: M. F. Burnyeat, Aristotle on the Foundations of Sublunary Physics

1. Jacques Brunschwig, On Generation and Corruption I. 1: A False Start?

2. David Sedley, On Generation and Corruption I. 2

3. Keimpe Algra, On Generation and Corruption I. 3: Substantial Change and the Problem of Not-Being

4. Sarah Broadie, On Generation and Corruption I. 4: Distinguishing Alteration

5. David Charles, Simple Genesis and Prime Matter

6. Alan Code, On Generation and Corruption I. 5

7. Carlo Natali, On Generation and Corruption I. 6

8. Christian Wildberg, On Generation and Corruption I. 7: Aristotle on poiein and paschein

9. Edward Hussey, On Generation and Corruption I. 8

10. Michael Crubellier, On Generation and Corruption I. 9

11. Dorothea Frede, On Generation and Corruption I. 10: On Mixture and Mixables

12. John M. Cooper, A Note on Aristotle and Mixture

Works Cited

Aristotle. Physics, Books I & II, Translated with Introduction, Commentary, Note on Recent Work, and Revised Bibliography by William Charlton. [Revised edition.] Clarendon Aristotle Series. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

— — — — . On Coming-to-be and Passing-Away: A revised text with introduction and commentary by Harold H. Joachim. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922. Reprinted at New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1982.

Bemelmans, Richard. Materia prima in Aristotles: een hardnekkig misverstand, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Leiden, 1995. [For an English abstract, see Mnemosyne 49, 5 (1996): 621.]

Bogaard, Paul. “The Philosophical Implications of Chemical Combination.” Ph.D. dissertation, Emory University, 1972.

— — — — . “Heaps or Wholes: Aristotle’s Explanation of Compound Bodies.” Isis 70 (1979): 11-29.

The Commentary Tradition on De generatione et corruptione: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. J. M. M. H. Thijssen and H. A. G. Braakhuis, edd. Studia Artistarum 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999.

Cook, Kathleen C. “Aristotle on Matter and Coming to be.” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1977.

Diels, Hermann. Elementum: eine Vorarbeit zum griechischen und lateinischen Theasaurus. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1899.

Dulk, Willem Johannes den. KRASIS: Bijdrage tot de Grieksche Lexicographie. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1934.

Fine, Kit. “Compounds and Aggregates.” Nous 28, 2 (1994): 137-158.

— — — — . “The Problem of Mixture,” in Form, Matter, and Mixture in Aristotle, pp. 82-182.

Form, Matter, and Mixture in Aristotle. Frank A. Lewis and Robert Bolton, edd. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996. [Corrected reprint of Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 76, 3/4 (1995).]

Gannagé, Emma. “Le commentaire d’Alexandre d’Aphrodise ‘In de generatione et corruptione’ perdu en grec retrouvé en Arabe dans Gabir ibn Hayyan Kitab al-Tasrif, édition, traduction annotée et commentaire.” Doctoral thesis: Université Paris I, 1998.

Haas, Frans A. J. de. John Philoponus’ New Definition of Prime Matter: Aspects of Its Background in Neoplatonism and the Ancient Commentary Tradition. Philosophia Antiqua 69. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997.

Heidel, W. A. “Qualitative Change in Pre-Socratic Philosophy.” Archiv fuer Geschichte der Philosophie 19 (1906): 333-379.

Joachim, Harold. “Aristotle’s Conception of Chemical Combination.” Journal of Philology 29 (1904): 72-86.

King, Hugh R. “Aristotle without prima materia.” Journal of the History of Ideas 17 (1956): 370-389.

Lacey, A. R. “The Eleatics and Aristotle on Some Problems of Change.” Journal of the History of Ideas 26 (1965): 451-468.

Lewis, Eric. “Body Matter, and Mixture: The Metaphysical Foundations of Ancient Chemistry.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1989.

Montanari, Elio. KRASIS e MIXIS: Un itinerario semantico e filosofico: Parte Prima, dalle origini ad Eraclito. Quaderni dell’Istituto di Filologia Classica “Giorgio Pasquali” dell’Universita’ degli Studi di Firenze. Florence: Cooperativa Editrice Universitaria, 1979.

Mueller, Ian. Review of Aristotle: On Generation and Corruption, Book I, Symposium Aristotelicum, Frans de Haas and Jaap Mansfeld, edd. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004). Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews, 2005.06.17.

Naturphilosophie bei Aristoteles und Theophrast: Verhandlungen des 4. Symposium Aristotelicum veranstaltet in Goeteborg, August, 1966. Ingemar Duering, ed. Heidelberg: Lothar Stiehm, 1969.

Owens, Joseph. “The Aristotelian Argument for the Material Principle of Bodies.” In Naturphilosophie bei Aristoteles und Theophrast, pp. 193-209.

Polis, Dennis F. “A New Reading of Aristotle’s HYLE,” The Modern Schoolman 68 (March, 1991): 225-244.

Rashed, Marwan. Die Ueberlieferungsgeschichte der aristotelischen Schrift De generatione et corruptione. Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2001.

Renzi, Vincent. “Parts, Elements, and the Concept of Mixis in Aristotle’s De generatione et corruptione.” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1997.

Schwabe, Wilhelm. “Mischung” und “Element” im Griechischen bis Platon: Wort- und begriffsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen, insbesondere zur Bedeutungsentwicklung von STOICHEION. Supplementheft 3 in Archiv fuer Begriffsgeschichte. Bonn: Bouvier, 1980.

Shorey, Paul. “Aristotle on ‘Coming-to-be’ and ‘Passing-Away.'” Classical Philology 17 (October, 1922): 334-352. [This same number also includes his review of Joachim’s 1922 edition (pp. 368-370).]

Sokolowski, Robert. “Matter, Elements, and Substance in Aristotle.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 8 (1970): 263-288.

Solmsen, Friedrich. “Aristotle and Prime Matter: A Reply to Hugh R. King.” Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (1958): 243-252.

— — — — . Aristotle’s System of the Physical World: A Comparison with his Predecessors. Cornell Studies in Classical Philology XXXIII. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960.

Thijssen, Johannes M. M. H. “The Commentary Tradition on Aristotle’s De generatione et corruptione. An Introductory Survey.” In The Commentary Tradition on De generatione et corruptione, pp. 9-20.


1. See the Preface, p. v, for a list of symposiasts who did not read papers. Among them was Marwan Rashed; and two of the contributors (Crubellier, p. 278, n. 5; and Hussey, pp. 263 ff.) acknowledge the particular benefit of his work. Rashed’s re-examination of the treatise’s manuscript tradition has since appeared in print. I regret that I have not yet had an opportunity to examine it, but I am glad to be able to include it in the list of works cited above, as its publication was too recent for it to be found in the conference volume’s reference list.

2. Information on this and other recent work discussed herein is collected in the bibliography, above.

3. While the Greek text of Alexander’s commentary remains lost, we do possess his study “On Krasis and Augmentation”; but see also the doctoral dissertation of Emma Grannagé for her recovery of the commentary from an Arabic source.

4. See Phaedo, 95e9. Paul Shorey (p. 337) notes that the opening words of Aristotle’s treatise, from which its title has been drawn, seem to be meant to echo Plato’s text. See his article “Aristotle on ‘Coming-to-be’ and ‘Passing-Away,'” intended to supplement Joachim’s commentary with a fuller consideration of the Platonic background of the De generatione. Heidel’s seminal work, “Qualitative Change in Pre-Socratic Philosophy” must also necessarily be consulted here for it unified treatment of “alloiosis” and “mixis”.

5. Solmsen, Aristotle’s System of the Physical World, p. 368.

6. Joachim, p. 76, n. 4.

7. The wish expressed by Frede in her contribution to the present collection (p. 314) for an account of Aristotle’s influence from the perspective of this history of science, has already been filled in part by the doctoral dissertations of Eric Lewis and Paul Bogaard.

8. It should also be kept in mind that, for all of Joachim’s wish (ibid.) to understand the “logos tes mixeos” in Aristotle as the equivalent of modern chemical formulae, Aristotle himself (Metaphysics, 1029b26-30), following Plato (Timaeus, 68b6-8), specifically denies the causal importance of such ratios. In this regard, compare also De anima, 407b27 ff., as well as the Phaedo’s extended concern for whether the soul can be understood as a harmony, which is the immediate context for the declaration of the need for the thorough investigation of generation and corruption. This perspective also helps to clarify the motive for the extended consideration of Empedocles in the De generatione, for Aristotle (Metaphysics, 993a17) understands Empedocles as positing such a causal role for the logos of a “mixis”. (See also DK31A78.)

9. This debate began with Hugh R. King’s 1956 article. In his Clarendon Aristotle Series translation of Aristotle’s Physics I & II, William Charlton includes both an appendix “Did Aristotle Believe in Prime Matter?” and an extensive bibliography of relevant literature (see his “Note on Recent Work” and revised bibliography). In the bibliography, above, I include references to some other literature not included by Charlton that may be of interest on this topic. See the works by Cook, Lacey, Owens, Sokolowski, and Solmsen (1958). See also notes 10, 11, and 12, below.

10. Pages 162 ff. Charles is anticipated in some ways in a frequently over-looked 1991 article by Dennis F. Polis.

11. See, e.g., the study of prime matter in Philoponus by Frans de Haas.

12. Algra (p. 121, n. 62) remarks on his indebtedness to this “excellent” study by Bemelmans, which he regrets has not yet received wider notice.

13. It would be the work of a different study to consider in detail Aristotle’s many examples especially of augmentation and “mixis” and the extent to which the various contributors advance our understanding of them. The topic is an important one because Aristotle is at pains to distinguish qualitative and quantitative change despite the common-sense view that mixing of two unequal ingredients results in the growth of the dominant. It may be helpful here, however, to note one fact relevant to his example of the mixture of tin and copper, at De generatione, I, 10, 328b8. Frede (p. 295) seems unsure of the example, commenting that “the tin supposedly disappears into the mixture.” This is, indeed, a well known phenomenon in the making of bronze, namely that it is more dense than the unalloyed tin and copper separately. (I am grateful to Dr. Trace Jordan and Mr. Clay Mallow for discussions on the contemporary scientific account of this phenomenon.) In other words, the tin does seem to disappear, in the sense that the volume of the alloy is less that the sum of the volumes of the ingredients, although the color, for example, is changed.

14. The use of “stoicheion” in reference to the composition of bodies seems to originate with Plato. See Timaeus, 48b-c; Diels, p. 17; Schwabe, p. 113. Joachim is unfortunately led, by what we might call his chemical interpretation of “mixis”, to hold that Aristotle uses “stoicheion” to refer to the simple bodies in their alleged role as elements in his supposed proto-chemical theory. Similarly, we must abjure on mereological considerations the traditional conflation of “homoiomerous” and “homogeneous.” As with their treatment of “stoicheion,” Frede and Cooper, at least, manage to avoid this confusion by careful attention to Aristotle’s words.

15. This influence was first recognized by Dulk, p. 35, n. 2.

16. See, e.g., Joachim, p. 73.

17. Such an interpretation has been sketched by Renzi.

18. In perusing the volume, I have found only the most minor typographical errors: p. 72 n. 15: for “CG” read “GC”; — p. 116, n. 49: for “proposition” read “preposition”; — p. 133, n. 41: a left parenthesis mark is missing; — p. 141, n. 59: for “DC” read “GC”; — p. 142, n. 65: a right parenthesis mark is missing; — p. 263: for “Marvan” read “Marwan”.