BMCR 2007.07.60

Aristotle: Metaphysics Book Theta. Translated with an Introduction and Commentary. Clarendon Aristotle Series

, , Metaphysics : book [theta]. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xlii, 289 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780191547652 $35.00.

Stephen Makin has produced an interesting and demanding contribution to the Clarendon Aristotle Series: Metaphysics Theta. The fifteen-page translation of Aristotle’s central text on potentiality and actuality paired with some 285 pages of commentary (including the introduction) strikes a fair balance. Makin charts a path through the text and genuinely engages with its arguments (xx). Generally, his interpretation is conceptual rather than historical. He proceeds by formulating claims from the text and then analyzing their meaning, supporting argumentation, and implications in relation to issues of interest or other Aristotelian claims. Avoiding or “finessing” (e.g., xxii, 66, 227) historical questions in favor of conceptual ones seems to be a deliberate strategy. He tries to appeal to “readers who are not predisposed to be interested in Aristotle and to give those readers a way into Θ” (xxii). It is hard to disagree with his apparent assumption that Aristotle scholars already want to consider this book and that he need motivate only those not already drawn to Aristotle. As Makin has anticipated (166-67), the study of this book could help many bioethicists profitably refine their use of terms like “potential” and “possible.”

I. Translation

Makin renders energeia as “actuality” (“actually” in the adverbial dative). Entelecheia is “fulfilment.” The explanation of Aristotle’s neologisms and their translations (xxvii-xxx) is helpful and clear. Greater complications attach to the translation of the “potential” terms. The verb dunasthai is “to be capable.” The noun dunamis is “potentially” in the adverbial dative. Because this form appears almost exclusively in chapters 6-10, Makin renders other forms of this noun as “potentiality” in those chapters. However, in chapters 1-5, he finds this term “unnecessarily opaque” and, with a few exceptions, uses “capacity” instead, along with its convenient privative form, “incapacity.” Makin finds the resultant near uniformity across large portions of text attractive (xxii-xxiv). He does not say whether he considered “potency” as a translation.

Even greater complexity arises with dunaton. Makin translates this term with reference to a distinction between “possibility” and “capacity” that is essential to both commentary and translation (cf. 22, 46, 69, 72-74, 159, 211-15). “The distinction between possibility and capacity is a distinction between a standard modality (that something is actual entails that it is possible) and a non-standard modality (that I do something does not entail that I have the capacity to do it)” (72). The distinction is drawn within the “very wide range of weak modalities”; “weak” because the fact that something can be done does not entail that it is done (xxiv).1 Each weak modality can be expressed by some sense of the word “can.” ‘I can read,’ ‘Wood can be burned,’ ‘Jones can win the lottery,’ and ‘I can embezzle money.’ Makin classifies weak modalities based on whether they satisfy the principle [T].

[T] A Φ s entails A can Φ.2

I embezzle money, so I “can” embezzle in the sense of physical possibility, but embezzling does not entail that I “can” do so ethically. Thus, [T] holds for physical possibilities, but not for ‘ethical permissions’ (or ‘epistemic licenses’). “Most significantly for present purposes, [T] does not hold of capacities” (xxv). An unskilled person might build a wall that stands or perform a just deed, but this does not entail the presence of a capacity (art or virtue). The modalities for which [T] holds are ‘standard modalities’ and include “logical, physical, and temporal possibilities” (xxv). “So the distinction between ‘capacity’ and ‘possibility’ is best understood by reference to [T]” (xxv). Thus, ” dunaton will sometimes be translated ‘capable’, sometimes ‘possible’. . . . The choice of translation at a particular place will reflect whether the modality is being treated as standard or non-standard in the passage in question” (xxvi). By reference to [T], Makin is able to address in the commentary ambiguities inherent to the Greek and produce definite interpretations of many passages. In many respects, Makin ties the translation to and makes it dependent on the commentary.

Capacities are just one sort of non-standard modality, so it is not clear how [T] provides the “best” understanding of the possibility/capacity distinction. In fact, Makin declares Aristotle’s own way of expressing this distinction (in Metaphysics Delta, ch. 12) “perfectly clear” (xxv). The deployment of Makin’s strategy also raises questions. For example, at 1047a10-11, he translates: “Again, if what is deprived of a capacity is impossible . . .” (4). He defends “impossible” (over “incapable”) as required by his translation policy (69), but does not explain what this phrase means. (See other translations and consider the similar text at 1046a29-30.) These difficulties are noteworthy because at key points Aristotle’s text and argument are interpreted by reference to [T].

Makin almost always translates clearly; the few supplements are normally, but not uniformly, marked by brackets (compare 1048a23-24, 1049a3, and 1051b28-32 with 1051b33-1052a11). The commentary explains some translation decisions, but not all. For example, to thermantikon (1046a27), is rendered with a modal verb as “what can heat,” just as are most terms with that suffix, but not all (see 1046a14-15, 1048a6, and 1048a8; compare 1048b1 and at 1049b14). He translates kai as “and” (1050a16-17) even when he thinks it should be read as “namely” (198). At 1050b2-3, a similar translation of kai yields “the substance and the form are actuality.” Additionally, the introduction (contra 211) offers no comment on the fourteen forms of endechesthai, which he renders “can.” He calls this verb “rare” and “colourless” (72)3 and does not clarify its relation to dunaton, which is unfortunate especially because of 1047a26-27: “if it is possible ( dunaton) for it to sit and it can ( endechetai) sit.”

Finally, in the “Textual Notes” (271-73), Makin indicates discrepancies between Ross’s text and Jaeger’s text and says he has followed Ross, except in twenty-eight passages, conveniently marked by asterisks in the translation. In one unidentified departure from this practice, he adopts an emendation suggested (but not used) by Jaeger and not mentioned by Ross (1046a31). Normally, Makin avoids technical textual criticism. In one exception, he translates the manuscript reading, but interprets it according to an alternative suggestion (94-95). In a more substantive case, his provides a textually and philosophically interesting analysis of 1048b18-35, arguing that it should not be readily taken as decisive for the rest of Theta (141-54).

II. Commentary

Each chapter of the commentary corresponds to one chapter of Theta and begins with an “overview” of the chapter’s contents. Headers on each page identify the chapter under consideration. The commentary is replete with helpful references to various parts of Aristotle’s corpus, especially other books of Metaphysics (most frequently Delta). Unfortunately, not all references appear in the Index Locorum. He refers forward and backward to his own commentary, tying its parts together. He inventively discerns possible meanings and generates supporting arguments. For example, he devises a nice translation of 1046b22-23, preserving it from Ross’s charge of being “rather pointless” (57-58). Generally, he gives interesting and helpful analyses where the text itself may be vague: the specification of the content of capacities (103 ff.); the distinction of normal, interfering, and blocking conditions (42 et passim); the emphatic distinction between capacity and nature; and the treatment of “seeing” as an exercise of a nature not a capacity (xxx-xxxvi, but see 60, 68, 116, 164, 171, 173). Makin refers occasionally to Plato, but does not often connect Aristotle’s text to ancient figures or to the tradition of Aristotelian interpretation and commentary. References to recent secondary literature are common, though he cites just twelve sources published after 1995.

Makin articulates a clear structure of Theta, which reflects the interpretation of Frede (xi-xviii, 18-21, and 128-35).4 Chapters 1-5 introduce potentiality and actuality by considering the exemplary relation between capacities and the changes to which they give rise. This subject determines the content and order of those chapters (21). Chapters 6-9 treat “the potentiality-actuality distinction conceived more generally” (xiv). Chapter 10 treats truth and falsity and is “tangential” (xii).5 “The core of the Frede interpretation is that the discussion of change and capacity in Θ 1-5 is already a discussion of actual and potential being, rather than simply a preparation for that discussion” (133). Chapters 6-9 “extend a notion by analogy” from the exemplary case to new cases of the very same notion (19).

Nevertheless, “It is plain that there is a transition at Θ 6 from the discussion of capacities and change, which were the focus of Θ 1-5 (1048a25-30). Getting clear on the overall structure of Θ is largely a matter of understanding the precise nature of that transition” (132). The transition consists in moving from one familiar relation (change-capacity), not “sideways” to another relation (substance-matter), but “upwards,” to a higher level, to a more general schema common to several relations: actual-potential being (132). The schema is a “common pattern” that can be “identified by drawing attention to the analogies between different cases” (133). Differences among the cases mean there is no single actuality-potentiality relation of which to speak (134). For example, the eternal-perishable instantiation has no teleological component (194) and eternal actualities are not the actualization of underlying potentiality (212).

The general schema relates energeia and dunamis, which is “potentiality” here, but “capacity” at the lower level (151). Thus, in the commentary, “capacity” and “potentiality” mark whether Makin has in mind dunamis in the use coordinated with change or dunamis in the schematic use coordinated with actuality. In this light, the introduction seems to have understated the distinction between the two translations of dunamis.6 In the commentary Makin works out interesting distinctions among many kinds of capacity: active and passive, rational and non-rational, innate capacities and those acquired by learning and by teaching (cf. “relational capacities” or “relational possibilities” on 66-69). These many senses of “capacity” are ordered in a “focal analysis” around the primary type, the “active capacity” (22-29). However, no “focal account” is appropriate at the general, schematic level (133-34). Whether “potentiality” at the schematic level is only an extension of the very same notion encountered at the level of capacity-change may be disputed, but it is helpful to recognize the distinct usage of “capacity” and “potentiality.”

Makin seems not to want to defend any particular relation between Theta and the remaining books of Metaphysics. He does say that this book “has to be understood, at least to some degree, in the light of questions set by a project already under way when the book starts” (xix), but “a commentary on Θ itself is not the place to start the defence of one guiding argument over another” (xx). “Finessing” such intractable questions (xxii), he turns to two sets of problems of “independent philosophical appeal” in order to motivate those not already drawn to Aristotle. One might expect him to appeal to Heidegger’s thesis that “Possibility stands higher than actuality” ( Sein und Zeit 38) or to quantum theory,7 but instead he thinks the problems surrounding sensible and eternal substances will generate interest in Theta. These problems “give a sense of purpose to Θ” (xxxvi). In the commentary, he says that Theta endorses Eta (133), “clarifies” Eta (178-79, cf. 157), and is “relevant to problems” inherited from Zeta and Eta (204). Also, Theta “points forward” to problems discussed in Lambda (181-82, cf. 244) and introduces ideas important for “the sort of project pursued” in Lambda (262). It looks as if he would like to be able to say that philosophical interest in perishable and eternal substances leads one to this book and that this text should be read with its surrounding books even if one cannot satisfactorily defend, in a commentary on Theta, claims about the structure and composition of Metaphysics.

There are, unfortunately, a relatively large number of typographical errors (more than two dozen). Most merely annoy, but some inconsistencies are difficult to interpret. Throughout the text we find formulations such as “what is potentially (φ” but also “what is potentially F.” This variation appears insignificant on xvi and on 185-88. In other formulations, Makin certainly does use parentheses to express parallel assertions in shorthand. For example, he refers to an assumption “that a potentiality is good (bad) only in so far as it is for a good (bad) outcome” (228) and he refers to “the choice between ‘(im)possible’ and ‘(in)capable’ (xxiv). Each of these formulations is clear and unproblematic, but those using “(F)” are more ambiguous. For example, this suggests parallel claims: “A substance which is eternally (F) is not an actuality relative to any potentiality (to be F)” (210). Some clarification of the formulations with “F” would be helpful; the explanation in connection with one-place and two-place uses of “potentially” (156-58) does not adequately resolve this issue.

In any translation, there will be reasons to object, and, in any commentary, there will be large and small points to inspire disagreement. Two such issues that deserve more attention are the question of the possibility of true speech about future matters of choice and chance (83 ff. and 115-16) and the emphasis on substance in the sense of composite rather than form or essence (133, 158, 167-68, and 178). In any case, Professor Makin has produced a great deal of substantive material that deserves consideration, and readers who work through his book will be grateful for his rewarding effort to elucidate this difficult text.


1. Makin says no more than this about the alternative to weak modalities. At one point in the commentary, however, he discusses what he calls the Principle of Plenitude, according to which “if something is possible then it is sometime actual” (84). If, as Makin suggests, Aristotle accepts some form of this, Makin’s commentary should consider whether Aristotle at times speaks of strong modalities.

2. Page xxiv. Makin uses an arrow, not the word “entails.” The commentary, especially in chapter 3, assumes familiarity with various logical symbols (“iff” and the entailment arrow are most common). He usually provides very clear formulations in ordinary English that would help anyone unfamiliar with the symbolization.

3. Compare W. D. Ross, Aristotle’s Metaphysics: Revised Text with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), 245.

4. Michael Frede, “Aristotle’s Notion of Potentiality in Metaphysics Θ,” p. 173-93 in Unity, Identity and Explanation in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, edited by T. Scaltsas, D. Charles, and M. Gill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

5. Neither here nor elsewhere does he mention Heidegger, who claimed that in chapter 10 “the treatise reaches its proper end; indeed the whole of Aristotle’s philosophy attains its ‘highest point'” ( Aristotle’s Metaphysics Theta 1-3, Translated by W. Brogan and P. Warnek (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 8).

6. On xxxv, Makin says the term dunamis is “already overworked, referring both to a capacity and to a potentiality,” which seems to imply two distinct meanings.

7. There is just one (non-technical) reference to probability and atomic theory (108).