BMCR 2007.08.18

Aristoteles’ Metaphysik XII

, Aristoteles' "Metaphysik XII". Werkinterpretationen. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006. 183 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 3534155785 €24.90.

This book is a German translation of and commentary on Book 12 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Also included is an “Überblick” or paraphrase of the argument of each chapter of the Book. As the author notes in the Forward, it is not intended for the expert, but for those with a general interest in Aristotle (p. 8). It stretches credulity to believe that anyone other than an expert or specialist in ancient philosophy would be interested in a commentary on Book 12 that explicitly limits itself to the text and argument of this particular Aristotelian logos. In any case, Bordt gives us a very clear and careful but relatively superficial discussion (10-20 pages for each chapter of the work) of the main textual and interpretative issues in Book 12. The general approach is conservative. The author breaks no new ground in his interpretations and, for the most part, comes down on contentious issues with the majority of scholars in the twentieth century. His work is heavily dependent on the volume of essays on the chapters of Book 12 edited by Michael Frede and David Charles in the Symposium Aristotelicum series (Oxford, 2000). He generally either follows the interpretation of the authors therein or takes their setting up of the problem as the starting-point for his own remarks. The bibliography of secondary literature is, perhaps befitting the intended audience, modest, with only 26 items listed apart from the essays in the Frede/Charles volume.

I assume that most people who want to make use of this book will go directly to Bordt’s remarks on the central philosophical problems in Book 12, problems that readers of Aristotle have struggled with since Theophrastus. Among these are: (1) the causality of the primary unmoved mover; (2) the relationship between the primary unmoved mover and the unmoved movers of the other spheres; (3) the identification of the unmoved mover as ‘god’ and a ‘life’; (4) the content, if any, of the primary unmoved mover’s thinking; (5) the place of Book 12 in the construction of a science of being qua being which, according to Aristotle, is also theological science. This is just a basic and obvious list; textual and structural issues regarding the details of the particular arguments and the connection between chapter 1-6 and 6-10 abound. On all of these, the author usually has sensible though predictable things to say.

On the five big problems listed above, Bordt adds little to the debate, though he frequently tends toward conclusions widely maintained in the literature. The professed introductory nature of this work might serve to justify this approach if the author had at least offered a separate account of his view of (5) in the light of the traditional understanding of (1) to (4). In a brief introductory chapter (pp. 9-14), Bordt argues that despite the fact that Book 12 seems to have the internal coherence of a distinct logos, there is some reason to think that it fits into the project of a science of first philosophy proposed by Aristotle elsewhere in the work. It treats of ousia in general, the focus of the science of being, and it treats of immovable ousia in particular, the explicit target of that science. But Bordt thinks that these two facts do not justify treating Book 12 as the culmination of that project. That is, he does not think that the primary ousia described in Book 12 is the primary ousia sought in Books 6 and 7 and elsewhere. As a result, we get mostly an array of conventional interpretations without any discussion of how these together can or cannot solve the problem lurking in (5). Accordingly, the author ignores the many reasons that have been given for rejecting the conventional interpretations, including making Book 12 an early “Platonic” work of Aristotle, thereby clearing the path for the conversion of metaphysics into ontology.

Briefly, regarding (1) Bordt argues (pp. 106ff) that the prime unmoved mover is a final cause. This fact suggests that at least the outermost sphere of the heavens strives to emulate the prime unmoved mover as a goal. But this would seem to require that the outermost sphere is ensouled, something Aristotle never says. So, how does the finality of the prime unmoved mover operate? The eternal circular motion of the outermost sphere is the “clearest expression of the rational activity of the prime unmoved mover (p. 109).” However, the idea that A expresses B does not necessarily indicate a causal connection between A and B, particularly if B stands to A as a concept stands to its extension. Moreover, as Bordt recognizes, Aristotle’s later comparison of the prime unmoved mover to a “general” (10.175a14) hardly encourages us to eschew causality in its operation. Why, after all, try to prove the existence of a prime unmoved mover if its role is to be only notional and not real?

Regarding (2), Bordt opts for the view that the unmoved movers of the spheres other than the prime unmoved mover are not to be identified with the souls of those spheres (pp. 130-8). This has always seemed plausible to Peripatetics because a soul is precisely not an unmoved mover. Yet, in chapter 8, Aristotle distinguishes the prime unmoved mover, which is unmoved both in itself and accidentally (8.1073a24-5), from the other unmoved movers, which are unmoved only in themselves (a33-4). Is this implied accidental motion in the many unmoved movers, the motion of souls within spheres? If it is, the prime unmoved mover and the other unmoved movers are differentiated in the sharpest way possible, namely, by the fact that the former is unqualifiedly without potency whereas the latter are possessed at least of the potency for accidental motion. If not, then the problem of how to differentiate the prime unmoved mover and the other unmoved mover becomes more acute. It is not a problem that Bordt wants to tackle, despite his argument for the separation of the unmoved movers from the souls of the spheres (p. 137). One might suppose, on the basis of Bordt’s argument here that each unmoved mover constitutes a distinct species and is thereby differentiated from every other. But, at least for the prime unmoved mover, this makes nonsense of the composite nature of species (genus plus differentia). Further, it seems to make primary ousia into a genus, one species of which would be the mover of the outermost sphere. This hardly seems promising given that Aristotle has already claimed that being is not a genus.

As for (3), Bordt recognizes Aristotle’s surprising identification of the perfectly actual prime unmoved mover with a life in chapter 7 (pp. 116-17). But because Bordt does not think that Book 12 is addressing the question of the identity of primary ousia posed earlier in the Metaphysics, he has little to say, not about the identification, which after all might rest on nothing more than a stipulation of the meaning of the terms “perfect actuality” and “life,” but about the implication of this identification for a science of being qua being. If the focus of the science of being qua being is a perfect life, which is also identified with thinking, how are we to understand the being of things without any life whatsoever, and the causal relation between that life and those beings? It seems to me that if one does not at least try to answer this question, then a claim for the value of Book 12 as a protreptic to Aristotle’s thought is empty.

As for (4), Bordt argues against those who want to make the “thinking thinking of thinking” of the prime unmoved mover a “Narcissus-like” activity (pp. 147-8). The arguments against this view are clearly laid out, though Bordt by no means presents a comprehensive case. He concludes that the prime unmoved mover thinks the objects of theoretical science, that is, all intelligibles or forms. I happen to agree with this conclusion. But it is far from clear how either the distinction between thinker and object of thought or the distinction among objects of thought do not undermine the perfect simplicity and actuality of the thinker, even assuming, as Aristotle maintains, that there is no distinction between thinker and thinking. Further, if god is thinking forms or intelligibles, how does he differ from Plato’s Demiurge and how can Aristotle maintain his rejection of a Platonic theory of forms? So, we are left with the restatement of a traditional position, without any defense against those who reject it for precisely the reasons given.

There might be somewhere a precocious gymnasium student who will pick up this book and with its guidance fall in love with the mind of the Stagirite. Others will need to look elsewhere either for an introduction to Aristotle or for light on Book 12 of his Metaphysics.