BMCR 2013.10.33

Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics

, Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xi, 263. ISBN 9781107000643 $99.00.

This fine collection of papers does not aim at presenting a proper survey of contemporary Neo-Aristotelian metaphysics, but rather offers contributions on some crucial metaphysical themes. Four papers (those by Olson, Rosenkrantz, Heil and Hoffman) had been presented at a Buffalo conference on J. Lowe’s philosophy in 2006; the remaining ten papers are published here for the first time. I will concentrate on those likely to be of interest to students of Aristotle.1

The authors are leading contemporary philosophers, whose approaches to what we label ‘Aristotelian philosophy’ might well be of interest to classics scholars and to Aristotle scholars, even though the perspective adopted in this collection is purely philosophical, and not philological or historical.2 It should be made clear that this collection is not designed to shed new light on Aristotle’s own thought, but is rather a collection of contributions to contemporary metaphysics. According to the editor of this volume, Neo-Aristotelian philosophers ‘regard metaphysics as an inquiry distinct from natural science’ (p. 1) and reject the ‘Quinean’ approach, according to which ‘metaphysics is continuous with science in its methods and aims’ (p. 1). These features are taken to be a sufficient explanation of the adoption of the label ‘Aristotelian metaphysics’. Aristotle was perhaps an ‘Aristotelian philosopher’, in the sense above, but it should be noticed that Plato’s metaphysics could have satisfied these features too; the label ‘Platonism’ has, however, acquired a different meaning in contemporary discussion (‘Platonism’ is often referred to in contemporary discussion among philosophers of matemathics). It should be added that many contributors endorse a far ‘thicker’ version of Aristotelianism, making room to the distinction between substance and accidents, or between universals and particulars —and this is certainly a better justification of the common reference to Aristotle.

Kit Fine, for example, in his paper ‘What is metaphysics?’ (pp. 8-25) shares many opinions traditionally attributed to Aristotle. He is careful in underlining that he does not want to relate his own metaphysics to that of Aristotle, or of any other philosopher, even though he conceives his own metaphysics as ‘broadly Aristotelian in character’ (p. 8, n. 1).3 According to Fine, the metaphysical method should be a priori: a priori principles are meant to bridge between what Fine labels as ‘eidictic truths’4—i.e., truths concerning the general and ‘formal’ level of reality—and truths concerning the facts of reality. This thesis sounds rather heterodox for an Aristotelian, and this easily explains Fine’s proviso.

Tuomas Tahko in his nice paper ‘In defence of Aristotelian metaphysics’ (pp. 26-43) wants to defend the possibility of a Neo-Aristotelian metaphysics against the dismissal of ‘neoscholastic metaphysics’ proposed by J. Ladyman and D. Ross in their Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (Oxford: OUP, 2007). Tahko says that if we understand metaphysics and science as continuous disciplines, we can reconcile them. In his opinion, this was Aristotle’s own idea in Met. IV, 1, 1003 a22-28 (cf. p. 33). Lowe’s metaphysics is different from Aristotle’s own inasmuch as it deals with a priori inquiry into possible actual grasping of the physical world; however, both Lowe’s and Aristotle’s metaphysics do not deny the importance of scientific inquiry, and should be understood as compatible with science.

Tim Crane (‘Existence and quantification reconsidered’, pp. 44-65) proposes some new ideas concerning quantification. He thinks that Quine’s dogma, that ‘to be is to be the value of a variable’, needs revision, because it leads to take true propositions like ‘Some Bible characters existed, and some did not exist’ as a contradiction. Crane dwells on Meinong’s and Russell’s distinction between subsistence and existence, and between being and existence respectively, but he takes these solutions to be unsatisfactory. Crane’s proposal is to take as the domain of quantification the objects of thought. This includes non-existing beings; Crane defends this choice, by recalling that many philosophers also think that it is possible to quantify over nonexistent possible worlds. Crane does not even mention Aristotle’s philosophy or Aristotelianism in his paper, and I was wondering how such a nice discussion fits in the frame of this collection. My impression is that Crane’s proposal is Aristotelian, at least ‘in spirit’: Aristotle thought that names have direct references,5 and thus it was difficult for him to make room for non-existent objects (inasmuch as his philosophy admits only the actual world); however, Aristotle also thought that we may think of non-existent objects, like the famous hircocervus. In other words, Aristotle would have also been not at ease with Quine’s dogma, and he would have perhaps looked for a solution analogous to that of Crane. However, I was surprised not to find any attempt at connecting Crane’s proposal with what we take to be Aristotelian philosophy.

Joshua Hoffman (‘Neo-Aristotelianism and substance’, pp. 140-155) asks what a Neo-Aristotelian theory of substance should look like. Hoffman’s paper states that ‘neo-Aristotelianism in metaphysics is an extension of and/or in imitation of Aristotle’s metaphysics’ (p. 140). Hoffman provides his own reconstruction of Aristotle’s ontology, and makes some controversial claims, such as that in Aristotle’s thought, substance should be conceived of as ‘that which can persist through intrinsic change’ (p. 142, with reference to Arist., Cat., 4 a10-11): this claim might be defended on the basis of Aristotle’s account of change in Physics A, 7, but should have been defended with a careful analysis of the relevant texts; such an analsis, however, is absent in Hoffman’s paper. Furthermore, Hoffman states that there are eleven categories in Aristotle’s ontology (Hoffman takes primary and secundary substances to be different kinds). This is clearly against the littera of Aristotle’s text; furthermore, it is highly controversial whether Aristotle consistently endorsed the list of ten categories, which is referred to only a few times in his corpus). I found more interesting the part in which Hoffman does not attempt at interpreting Aristotle’s text, but states what a neoaristotelian metaphysics should look like. In short, such a metaphysics should maintain that substance is irreducible to any other category of being, and is ontologically fundamental. In other words, ‘a Neo-Aristotelian theory of substance is, essentially non skeptical, subjectivist, or relativistic about the category of substance‘ (p. 145). With this framework in mind, Hoffman criticizes Lowe’s metaphysics, because Lowe maintains that substance is at a lower level of generality than kind and property (p. 150).

Louis M. Guenin (‘Developmental potential’, pp. 156-173) tackles the metaphysical issue of development, and argues that in an Aristotelian metaphysics development should be expounded in terms of the capacity to acquire a capacity.

Kathrin Koslicki (‘Essence, necessity, and explanation’, pp. 187-206) maintains that the view proposed by Kit Fine, according to which essence explains the different modal status of properties, should be traced back to Aristotle. In Aristotle essence has also a causal power, which explains why certain properties, although not essential, necessarily belong to certain subjects.

E. J. Lowe (‘A neo-Aristotelian substance ontology: neither relational nor constituent’, pp. 229-248) states that his own ‘four-category ontology’ owes much to Aristotle’s ontology, as it is expanded in the Categories. However, the analysis of substance in terms of matter and form, which Aristotle proposes in his Metaphysics (and, I would add, in his Physics), is in some sense foreign to Lowe’s enterprise. Lowe argues against hylemorphism in this paper.

All in all, this collection is undoubtedly a remarkable addition to scholarship, even though not to the field of classical studies; Tahko has succeeded in providing a stimulating presentation of what metaphysics is, according to contemporary Aristotelian philosophers.6


1. Many of the papers focus on E. J. Lowe’s metaphysics. Eric T. Olson (‘Identity, quantification and number’, pp. 66-82) criticizes Lowe’s (and M. Dummett’s) idea that there is something which is not countable. Olson aims at defending the ‘traditional’ view, according to which for a thing to exist means for it to be countable (this claim echoes Quine’s thesis on existence). Olson’s idea is that the bits of gunk might be individuated, and hence they might be counted. Gary Rosenkranz (‘Ontological categories’, pp. 83-93) is the author of a classification of ontological categories different from Lowe’s ‘neoaristotelian’ attempt at classifying beings into four categories. Rosenkranz states that these different classifications of realities might be said to be alternative systematizations of the same class of beings. Rosenkranz’s paper lists some basic properties which a predicate should have, in order to be taken as an ontological category. Alexander Bird (‘Are any kinds of ontologically fundamental?’, pp. 94-104) suggests that natural kinds are not ontologically fundamental, and defends the idea that the laws of nature might be explainedeven without the reference to natural kinds. John Heil (‘Are four categories too many?’, pp. 105-125) suggests that universals are not needed within Lowe’s metaphysics, or, better, that they are not as fundamental as substances and attributes. Peter Simons (‘Four categories—and more’, pp. 126-139) argues that more than four categories might be taken to be fundamental; Simons’ paper contains intructive observations concerning the difference between an Aristotelian category-scheme and Kant’s scheme, where categories are forms of judgement.

2. It is thus not surprising that the Greek for ‘potentiality’ is carelessly spelled ‘δυναμισ’ or that ‘actuality’ is, in Greek, ‘εντελεχεια’, p. 156, n. 2; however, from Cambridge University Press one would have expected more attention even to these minor details.

3. This paper is preliminary to a monograph in which Fine will present his own metaphysics.

4. ‘Eidictic’ is a neologism created by Fine from the Greek εἶδος.

5. On this issue, I take the liberty to refer to my article ‘I nomi: designatori (diretti) degli oggetti. Aspetti semantici in Aristotele, Metafisica Z, 6, 1031 b28-1032 a11’, in Acta Philosophica, 2011/1, pp. 123-140.

6. Apologies for the delay in reviewing this book.