BMCR 2010.07.06

Plotin. Traités 42-44. Sur les genres de l’être I, II et III. GF Flammarion, 1348. Présentés, traduits et annotés par Luc Brisson

, , Plotin. Traités 42-44. Sur les genres de l'être I, II et III. GF Flammarion, 1348. Présentés, traduits et annotés par Luc Brisson. Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 2008. 367. ISBN 9782081211452. €12.30 (pb).

This volume in the famous Flammarion series presents the reader with a very complete entrance to Plotinus’ Enneads VI.1-3 [42-44]. The book contains a list of prudent corrections with respect to the editio maior of Plotinus’ text by Henry & Schwyzer (pp. 7-10), an introduction to the philosophical issues and the argument of the text (pp. 15-69), a practical break-down of the chapters of Plotinus’ treatises and their content (pp. 70-74), a French translation of the treatises (pp. 77-249), brief notes (pp. 252-335), and a bibliography (337-350). A chronology of Plotinus’ life and writings set against some highlights in contemporary cultural and political history is followed by indices of Greek terms and proper names to close the book.

Plotinus’ threefold treatise on the kinds of being is one of the most difficult parts of his oeuvre. In Enn. VI.1 [42] Plotinus critically assesses Peripatetic category theory and the four Stoic ‘categories’ (substance, qualified, mode, relative mode) in order to arrive at the conclusion that his predecessors failed to address both the transcendent realm of real being (for Plotinus: the Forms in Intellect) and the sensible realm in so far as it constitutes the image and effect of productive causes that descend from the intelligible realm.

In Enn. VI.2 [43] Plotinus argues that only the five genera of Being, Rest, Movement, Same and Other as described in Plato’s Sophist constitute an adequate division of the intelligible realm.

In Enn. VI.3 [44] Plotinus explores possible categories for the sensible realm, and often takes up his discussion of his predecessors where he left it in VI.1 [42]. In the end Plotinus accepts five categories: substance, relation, quantity, quality and motion. He rejects the assumption that the lower five kinds are in any way images of the five highest genera of true being. This position is arrived at by way of a long and detailed confrontation with Peripatetic and Stoic theory.

Who are Plotinus’ opponents in this debate? Although the criticism as directed against ‘those who divide being into ten’ invites the conclusion that Plotinus is targeting Aristotle, it is more exact to say that it is directed against a stricter system of ten categories that are believed to exhibit a definite order and derivation. The number and order of the categories had been the subject of fierce debates between earlier commentators, from whom Plotinus borrows a number of his criticisms. As Brisson notes (p. 35), a more likely target may be the famous Peripatetic Alexander of Aphrodisias (whose commentary on the Categories is unfortunately lost). We know Alexander tried to refute all criticisms launched against Aristotle in this regard, and he has left us part of a rather rigid and scholastic interpretation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. As for Aristotle, he never stresses the number of ten categories, and in different contexts he provides shorter lists of relevant categories in different orders.1 Nor does he regard the categories solely as ‘genera of being’: as Brisson notes (p. 251) Aristotle speaks of ‘genera of predication’ ( genê tôn katêgoriôn in Top. I 9, 103b20-21) or ‘names’ ( katêgoriai, Cat., passim). For Aristotle the kinds of simple terms he lists in Cat. 4 successfully pick out different modes of being of primary substances, i.e. form-matter composites, that exist in the only world he accepts: the sensible world we live in. Plotinus’ criticism that the ten categories were not meant to describe the intelligible world amounts to a trivial truth that can only serve to introduce the Platonist’s own enterprise to find proper categories for the intelligible realm. At the same time, this trivial truth as formulated by Plotinus (VI.1.1, 28-29) was to constitute the cornerstone of the Neoplatonic appropriation of the Categories, from Porphyry onwards, as a merely logical (i.e. not at the same time ontological) work aimed at descriptions of the sensible world (cf. p. 17).

For the Stoics it is even more difficult to identify Plotinus’ targets, given the poor state of preservation of Stoic writings. However, in their case, too, it is likely that approaching their division of substance ( ousia), qualified ( poion), mode ( pôs ekhon), and relative mode ( pros ti pôs ekhon) as a rival theory of ‘kinds of being’ does not do justice to their view, nor does it seem fair to reject their overarching notion of ‘something’ ( ti) on the grounds that it cannot be a genus.2 Since the Stoics rejected the notion of universals altogether, no Stoic is likely to have regarded these terms as referring to genera in the technical Academic sense Plotinus applies to them.3 Nor does their strict order of application have anything in common with the equal rank of the highest kinds that characterizes both Aristotle’s kinds of predication and Plato’s highest genera. In other words, Plotinus carefully creates his straw men in order to lead the reader to his own Platonic view.4 His criticisms will have to be read with a little more caution and sensitivity for Plotinus’ own purposive bending of the truth than Brisson finds room to display within the confines of this volume.

The Neoplatonic framework explains why intelligible being and sensible being, its image, cannot be subsumed under a single genus. According to venerable Academic doctrine, a genus cannot embrace things that exhibit an order of prior and posterior, and if anything, intelligible and sensible being exhibit precisely such hierarchical order. ‘Being’ above and ‘being’ below are merely homonymous terms that have nothing in common. Interestingly, Aristotle had already applied the same rule in Metaph. 998b22-28 to argue why ‘being’ ( to on) or ‘one’ ( to hen) cannot be the genus of all beings ( onta): the essential differences of beings and ones as they appear in their division into genera and species create an order of prior and posterior which prohibits the existence of an overarching genus. Here Aristotle appears to foreshadow Plotinus’ argument against the Stoic genus of ‘something’ (cf. p. 51-2).

If we go into some more detail we might wonder why Plotinus did not try to model his five kinds of sensible being as images of the five kinds of intelligible being. It is illuminating how Plotinus argues explicitly against that option in VI.3 [44] 1-3. The example of Plato’s Philebus, where as yet undifferentiated sound was patiently analysed into the articulate sounds that together constitute language, does not apply, or so Plotinus believes. The relation between principle and image renders terms that cross the boundary between the intelligible and sensible realms misleadingly homonymous (as in ousia, which Brisson translates ‘réalité’, the only term that occurs in both domains), indeed so homonymous that what we say only appears to make sense because we apply divisions of time and number. There is no one-to-one correspondence with Forms. Nor is there a more fanciful correspondence between the five highest genera and Aristotelian matter (Being), form (Motion), the remaining of matter during change (Rest), generation (Same), and corruption (Other). The analysis has to start anew from a different perspective, and it is an analysis of sensible qualities that leads Plotinus to a shortlist of substance, relation, quantity, quality, and motion, by means of a reduction of the Peripatetic set of ten categories.

On closer inspection—and Plotinus does not make it easy for his readers in these sections—Plotinus finds that Aristotle collected, under a single katêgoria, things that differ in being, and, indeed, in genus. Here ‘category’ and ‘genus’ part ways: a ‘category’ may collect under a single name things that differ in being, exhibit hierarchical order, or are even contradictory. Such categories, therefore, are never true genera of being, as Plotinus rightly stresses. If it is genera you are after, this is not the way to go. However, in the analysis of the Peripatetic categories Plotinus also reaches conclusions that have a more positive ring, although Brisson hardly ever picks out these conclusions for comment. In the case of substance, for instance, Plotinus emphasizes that the features ‘to be in something else as a substrate’ and ‘to be said of something’ do not elucidate the notion and nature of substance, and do not signify a single genus. But he does not deny that they are proper characteristics by which the category of ‘substance’ is differentiated from the other categories. In short: the categories are names that collect beings under a single heading which has nothing to do with their nature or essence. But such a name signifies that they share a similar set of features or proper characteristics ( idia)—’proper’, that is, to the collection thus differentiated from other such collections.5 We have the intriguing power of collecting, or ‘categorizing’, viz. of bringing together what is not one by nature, but only by applying a name to a number of things that share non-essential characteristics. Against the Peripatetics, Plotinus maintains that such categories do not denote true genera. But that does not abolish the use of ‘categories’, and it is along this line that Porphyry and later philosophers saw room to re-establish all ten of the Peripatetic categories.

On the other hand, Brisson rightly stresses that one has to take into account how the multitude of sensible qualities has come to be: as the expression in time and place of a logos that is itself an immaterial image of a Form, and organizes matter into coherent wholes (pp. 29-35). Here I disagree with Brisson when he seems to suggest that categories target such logoi directly—’les catégories deviennent chez Plotin les principes organisateurs non seulement de la pensée et du discours, mais aussi des corps’ (p. 19). Indeed, logoi organize our thought and speech, as well as bodies, but categories do not name logoi, nor are they identical with them. They are our attempts to collect, by means of language, the manifold expressions of the logoi into wholes that consist of things essentially unrelated and dispersed, but, if we are successful, caused by a single logos.

But these are mere quibbles. On the whole Brisson has provided a brilliant and prudent introduction to a very tough Plotinian text. His translation is clear and sensitive, and in the passages I have checked in detail I have found him to be a perfectly reliable guide to the meaning of Plotinus’ Greek. The notes are succinct, and always helpful. French readers are lucky to have this book on Plotinus in their language.


1. Compare Aristotle, Cat. 4 as opposed to the order in which Aristotle treats the categories in the same work; De anima I 1, 402a23; II 1, 412a6; Cat. 8, 11a38; Eth.Eud. 1217b25-35 (b30: ptôseis in line b30, not b10 as on p. 251).

2. See Brunschwig, J. (1988), ‘La théorie stoïcienne du genre suprême et l’ontologie platonicienne’, in, Barnes, J. and Mignucci, M. (ed.), Matter and Metaphysics, Napoli, pp. 19-127.

3. See Caston, V. (1999), ‘Something or Nothing: The Stoics on Concepts and Universals’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 17, pp. 145-213.

4. See De Haas, F.A.J. “Context and strategy of Plotinus’ treatise on the genera of being ( Enn. VI.1-3 [42-44]).” In Proceedings of the conference Aristotele e i suoi esegeti neoplatonici. Logica e ontologia nelle interpretazioni greche e arabe, edited by Riccardo Chiaradonna and Cristina D’Ancona, Rome, 2004, pp. 39-53.

5. Compare Enn. VI.1.3, 19-23 from which this account is taken, with VI.1.4, 50-55; VI.1.5, 22-26; VI.1.9, 25-29; VI.1.10, 40-42. The same mode of speech is repeated in VI.3 [44], e.g. VI.3.7, 15-16 and passim.