Home > philosophy > Aristotle Contra Plato (Metaphysics Zeta 10-12, 14-16)

Aristotle Contra Plato (Metaphysics Zeta 10-12, 14-16)

Rivalry is sometimes a good thing, it can drive both sides to greater ingenuity or creativity, but there comes a point when it goes too far. The story of Ludwig Wittgenstein shaking a fire poker at Karl Popper (both now titled “Sir”), is probably no more than an actual story (although a hell of a good book titled “Wittgenstein’s Poker”) and the rivalry between Voltaire and Rousseau is one of the most vitriolic in the last several hundred years, yet the history of Philosophy begins with such a rivalry as this. Plato, upon retiring from being the head of the Academy, the first true professional school, needed to appoint a person to his place. The odds on favorite was his best student, and one of the sharpest minds of the age–our friend Aristotle. Yet for reasons unknown, Aristotle didn’t get the job, Plato’s nephew did. Aristotle never forgot that, which is probably why we see in Aristotle’s numerous writings an initial acceptance of Plato’s idea of the Form, to an outright rejection and plethora of attempts at showing how it is either absurd or contradictory. History vindicates Aristotle though, as very few people can remember who Plato’s successor was without looking it up.

In this week’s section we deal with Plato’s Forms, why they can’t be substances and how absurd it is to believe that these things actually exist independently. I will note that the format of this is a little different because this is a draft of a presentation I am giving on Tuesday.

14: Concerning Yet another Attack on the Platonic View (one begins to think that this might be personal)

            Not willing to let a dead horse not be whipped, Aristotle begins to attack the aspect of the Forms being the Prime Substance using a Reductio Ad Absurdum argument. Aristotle is trying to show that the Platonic Forms cannot be “this,” as in: “this is a form.”

We begin by assuming that the Platonic idea is correct, but to do so we must make one of two assumptions and then treat each assumption for their logical consequence, hoping as we do, for a contradiction or a ridiculous absurdity that only a drunken wrestler could accept.

            Our first assumption is to look at the established and, at this point, accepted definitions of “man” and “horse” each being of the genera “animal.” Accepting this definition we see that “animal” is in both “man” and “horse.” This leads us to a bit of trouble, for if “man” and “horse” are both “animal” how can “animal” be one and yet exist apart from itself. Are we assenting to the contradictory idea that “animal” is thus located in two places at the same time?

            Furthermore if “animal” is also to share in both “two-footed” and “many-footed,” as “man” is a “two-footed animal” and “horse” is a “many footed animal” we come to an impossible conclusion: that contrary attributes will belong at the same time to “animal” even though it is one. It could be responded by saying that the two “two-footed” and “many-footed” are put-together, in contact, or mixed; yet this is an absurdity for how could a one or a “this” be any of those things and still maintain the essence of being one? (1039a35-1039b6)

            The second assumption is that to say that the form is different in each species. So that “man” is possessed of a different form than “horse.” The problem with this is that there will now be practically an infinite number of things with the substance of “animal.” Not so much of a logical problem but merely a practical one for the philosopher trying to discern substance. If this were all that there was we could say that Aristotle was lacking in a definitive objection but he presses on with three derivatives of this second assumption:

a)      The ‘animal’ in each species will be the substance of the species. The species, no matter which one we are talking about, is always finally referenced as “animal.” If it were referenced as anything else, that anything else would be the genus of that species. i.e. “man” would not be “two-footed animal” but “two-footed animal [citation needed]”

b)      The composition of “man” will be that of ideas. These ideas, cannot be of one thing and yet make up the substance of another. Since animal cannot exist apart from its essence of ‘animality,’ the idea of animal cannot be independent as it would have to be in order to be part of the composition of any particular animal. (1039b8-16)

c)      When considering sensible things alone, we see that the consequences are even more absurd. In the case of things which are purely intelligent (geometric shapes for example), this idea composition makes some sense. Physical things, temporal objects, are difficult because the Forms are dependant on them for their existence, thus they cannot exist separately from the objects themselves. (1039b16-19)


15: Concerning that Which Is Impossible To Define

            Continuing further Aristotle moves on to describe why exactly the Forms cannot be things. First off, we must continue with substance, but only lightly: Substance is of two kinds: the concrete and the formula.

            The concrete, is the thing itself. i.e. if we are talking about a house or a platypus, we mean a spatio-temporal object, a particular house or platypus. These things can be killed or destroyed, created or borne. While the formula is the definition, the definition of the thing can never be destroyed or created. Formula never come to be or go out of being. (1039b20-25)

            Concrete particulars have no formula as being made of matter they can come into being or perish from being, all individual substances of them are destructible. This implies that all demonstration is of necessary truths while definition (the act of forming a definition, since we do not create them) is a scientific process. Using the method of defining laid out in section 12, is how we come to know a definition. Our definitions must always be knowledge, and not of opinion which deals with that other than what is. Opinion, it is noted, can be considered that which applies to specific particulars only. We cannot create a formula/definition for a specific particular with no reference to a universal because as the particulars perish the definition then no longer applies to any thing and is thus overthrown, something that the “definition-mongers” are oblivious too.(1039b27-1040a7)

            “Nor is it possible to define any Idea.”—1040a8

            The Platonics maintain that Idea is individual, and thus can exist apart from a substance, thus Idea must be definable. Here we enter into another Reduction Ad Absurdum. If we are to define an Idea, that idea must consist of words. These words must be common, and not new or unique specific to that definition or else we would run into a familiar regression problem that in order to make the definition intelligible we would have to further define the specific words, etc. The common words must also apply to a thing other than the Idea or else our definition would be either circular or unintelligible. (1040a12-15)

            The Attributes of the definition taken apart may belong to many subjects, but together must only belong to the definition of the thing, in this case the Idea, being defined  or else we would have an ambiguous definition which would therefore be unscientific. (1040a16-17)

            The elements of the definition, existing both prior to and being parts of the compound, must also exist apart from the formula. In defining “man” as “two-footed animal” we can apply the terms “two-footed” and “animal” to things other than man. They must also exist prior so that if there were no more “man” the terms still exist. (1040a20-24)

            Ideas must consist of ideas, as the compound must be made up of simpler things, and what could be simpler than an idea? The elements of an Idea must then be predicated of many other things else how could such ideas be known? In order to avoid yet another regression problem we must have positive answers to these questions for if the composition of an idea is that which only applies to one specific idea we are left not with a definition but a synonym. (1040a25-27)

            We also cannot define things by their accidental attributes, for if we were to define a thing like the Sun, by it’s accidents we would then be caught in our own web as anything else which shared the same attributes would be, by definition, the same thing. Of course the main problem with this is that some people, Trope theorists, believe that it is the case that things are bundles of accidental attributes and they will split the hairs of those attributes down to the quark in order to avoid this trap. Yet what are any attributes of an Idea, either accidental or essential? Defining Ideas must therefore be impossible. Further proof of this is that no Platonist has ever tried to define an Idea, even though it is so essential to their theory. (1040a29-1040b4)

16: One

            We can agree that the concepts “being” and “unity” are more substantial than “principle,” “element,” or “cause.” Yet being more substantial does not mean that they are substances. First off nothing that can be considered common can be considered substance (although common things have substance). Nothing can be considered to “own” or “possess” substance unless that thing is substance itself (for it can own itself) and to that which has it (i.e. the thing of which substance is of). (1040b22-25)

            If substance were one, it could not be in more than one place at the same time. Yet if substance were common it would have to be, for the common is in many places. Universals, existing in many places at the same time within the individuals cannot be substance. (1040b26-27)

            The Platonists assert that the Forms are Substances, yet think, incorrectly, that the one over the many is itself a Form, which would gives us the Form as a universal. This cannot be the case as it is a contradictory, as a substance the Forms would have to be separate, as has been shown. Yet as a universal, the Form would have to be one. Saying that both are the case means that we are placing incompatible terms on the Form.

            As substance the forms are not able to be described by the Platonists. Instead they simply make the same description as the sensible thing it is the form of, while adding the meaningless phrase “-itself” to it. If we were to ask what sort of substance the Form “Platypus” is made of, the Platonists describe “Platypus” (or some other ridiculous creature) and then say that the Form is the “Platypus-itself.” This of course tells us nothing new and is mere wordplay sounding like a definition but not doing so.

            Finally, substance must be the end of inquiry. It cannot be made of universals, it must have unity—being indivisible it cannot be composed of other substances or of substance itself, for it is substance not a collection or pile of substance.

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