26 April 2006

A Philosophical Fizzle

I pointed out in an earlier post that the attention that Aristotle gives to perceptible substances in the central books of the Metaphysics, and in Lambda 1-5, raises a difficulty: How does this investigation differ from physics?--since, for Aristotle, physics is distinguished from purely formal disciplines on account of its considering matter together with form. Burnyeat's answer was that Aristotle was 'doing second philosophy conceived as first philosophy', yet it was unclear what this might be.

Here I wish to draw attention to an additional difficulty that arises even if we grant that it makes sense to say that, in those texts, Aristotle is 'doing second philosophy conceived as first philosophy.'

The difficulty is that there still must be some way in which 'second philosophy conceived as first philosophy' is useful for first philosophy proper. After all, why doesn't Aristotle simply launch into a discussion, from the start, of the existence and number of imperceptible substances? Why exactly do we need any preparation for this? Aristotle's own answer is that it helps for us to begin first with things 'more knowable to us', before we move on to a discussion of things 'more knowable in themselves', and (he says) perceptible substances, which have matter, are more knowable to us. Good--but what precisely is the help that we get from them? What are the big lessons, ideas, or principles that we take away from this study and then use when we are doing first philosophy proper?

Let me put the question more concretely: Can you point to a single argument in Lambda, and some argument in Z, such that, in your view, Aristotle regards that argument in Lambda as receiving confirmation or support, which derives from that argument in Z? Or, again: What in Lambda is such that, as Aristotle sees it, a reasonable person should be more disposed to accept it, precisely because of something previously examined in Z? (Or say, if you wish, "because of something like what is examined in Z", to allow for a sometime independent composition of the treatises.)

Burnyeat's Map, despite its consideration of "The place of Z in Aristotle's Metaphysics" (ch. 6), gives almost no insight to this question. The following seems the only relevant remark:

H reworked the concepts of matter and form in terms of potentiality and actuality, these being the concepts we need to make the transition to the non-sensible realm where neither matter nor form apply. Q then undertakes a careful analysis of potentiality and actuality as such. (121)
That is, according to Burnyeat, the entire 'yield' of the central books of the Metaphysics, for the purposes of first philosophy, is the analysis of potentiality and actuality carried out in Q. (One would think that, on the terms of his interpretation, it would be an important result, somewhere, in the central books, that form need not depend on matter for its existence. But I do not see that Burnyeat emphasizes this.) Presumably, then, the consideration of form and matter in Z is 'second philosophy conceived as first philosophy' only to the extent that it prepares the way for the discussion of potentiality and actuality in Q.

We may waive the difficulty of how a 'reworking of the concepts' of A and B could be of any use in an investigation of 'a realm in which neither A nor B apply'.

A more relevant difficulty is that it is not at all clear how Z prepares the way for or is necessary for a consideration of actuality and potentiality. Moreover, if Burnyeat's view were correct, wouldn't that be a disappointing and unsatisfactory result? All of the dialectic in Z, all of its careful analysis and subtle distinctions--this would be of no more philosophical consequence, for Aristotle's project, than to prepare the way (somehow) for a discussion of actuality and potentiality, which, gets used in some of the arguments of first philosophy proper?

That looks like a lot of build-up for a very disproportionate payback. A philosophical fizzle, really.