21 April 2006

Substance Over Form

Suppose you are an Aristotelian. I am a philosopher with Platonist tendencies, and I approach you, all excited, that I have developed a new theory of pleasure and pain. "Pleasure and pain," I say, "are actually ratios of numbers. If the ratio is greater than 1, then it is a pleasure; but if it is less than 1, then that is a pain."

As an Aristotelian, in considering this theory, you might very well object that it was deficient in very basic way, such that it could not possibly be a correct account, yet, of pleasure and pain in living animals. "Your theory, if correct," you might say, "would be an account only of the 'form' (eidos) or definition (logos) of pleasure and pain. But, if you wish to give an account of these as they occur in living creatures, you must also explain their 'matter' (hule). That, indeed, is what distinguishes a natural philosopher from a mere dialectician or logician--attention to the matter. After you propose also an account of the matter, then we might begin to evaluate the correctness of what you say."

I tell this simple tale (adapted of course from De Anima 1.1 403b) because, to my mind, it establishes an 'antecedent probability' for the interpretation of Metaphysics Z, with which, it seems to me, Myles Burnyeat's famous account is prima facie at odds.

Recall that Burnyeat holds that Z consists of four 'non-linear' and non-cumulative discussions, each of which examines one of the marks for substance set down at the beginning of Z 3 (hypokeimenon, to ti en einai, katholou, genos). According to Burnyeat, each of Z's four discussions is carried out on 'two levels' , starting with one of these marks considered as proposed in a merely 'logical' way (the first level), and then moving on to a consideration of the mark in terms of the form-matter distinction (the second level).

It is a familiar enough view that, in the Metaphysics, Aristotle goes beyond concepts he had used in the Organon by deploying the (supposedly) later form-matter distinction developed in the Physics and in his other writings on natural science. What is distinctive about Burnyeat's version of this thesis, I take it, is that Burnyeat understands Z as, so to speak, polemical rather than merely developmental: he proposes that its discussions are pointedly directed at Platonists, or philosophers with a similar outlook, who consider that one should do metaphysics relying solely on notions in logic or mathematics. (Burnyeat quotes Philip Merlan to bring home this point: "Whenever we use the word 'metaphysics', we should hear its Platonic or anti-Platonic overtones: metaphysics and not metamathematics", 81n6.)

What is especially appealing, I think, about Burnyeat's understanding Aristotle's target in this way, is that it seems true to life. In our own time, for instance, we are familiar with major philosophers, metaphysicians, who similarly believe that the right way to approach questions of ultimate reality is to ask what the world must be like for logic and mathematics to be possible.

But to my mind there is a basic difficulty in Burnyeat's interpretation, which becomes clear if we pose the question: Precisely why does Aristotle use the form-matter distinction against these Platonists and 'logical' metaphysicians? Why reply to them in that way, rather than in some other way?

I don't see that Burnyeat gives a satisfactory answer to this. He speaks as if the form-matter distinction is simply a kind of philosophical wringer which all theories must pass through (while admitting that Aristotle does not deploy the distinction in major treatises such as the Ethics or Politics).

[The procedural peculiarities of Z] are Aristotle's solution to the problem of how to encourage his readers to start at the right place, with reflection on form and matter as the first principles of physics. (81)
But why is this the 'right place'? Burnyeat doesn't say. Or, if he does give an answer, it has to do with the result which, according to Burnyeat, Aristotle wishes to draw from his deployment of the form-matter distinction, namely, that 'substance is form':
From the perspective of physics, substantial form is nature as the internal principle of change and stability characteristic of natural things. The very last sentence of Z brings us back to substantial form in nature... (7)
That is to say, if Burnyeat gives an answer to the question of why Aristotle introduces the form-matter distinction in Z, it is that Aristotle wishes to force the conclusion that substance is to be identified with his notion of form.

But the point I wish to make--to go back to the tale I told at the beginning of this post--is that the antecedent probabilities work in another direction. It is antecedently likely, I consider, that, in a discussion between Aristotle and a merely 'logical' philosopher, if Aristotle introduced the form-matter distinction, this would be, rather, to make a point about matter, not form. Isn't it precisely what is wrong with a merely 'logical' account, that it considers the form, and only that? Antecedently, we'd expect that Aristotle's lesson, in Z, would be the opposite of what Burnyeat proposes: that matter must be considered, too, in any correct account of substance.