Aristotle on the Many Senses of Priority

Aristotle on the Many Senses of Priority

Aristotle on the Many Senses of Priority

Aristotle on the Many Senses of Priority


Cleary discusses the origin, development, and use of the many senses of priority as a central thesis in Aristotle's metaphysics.

Cleary contends that one of the most revealing problems for the ambiguity of Aristotle's relationship to Platonism is that of the ontological status of mathematical objects. In support of his claim, Cleary analyzes a curious passage from Aristotle's Topics, where he appears to accept a schema of priorities that makes mathematical entities more substantial than sensible things.

How does Aristotle try to reconcile the ordering of things dictated by sciences like mathematics and dialectic with the ordering of sense experience upon which his own physics and metaphysics are based? To find the answer, Cleary reviews three different outlines of the many senses of priority given by Aristotle himself and found in Categories 12-13, Metaphysics Delta 11, and Metaphysics Theta 8. Cleary suggests there is an implicit hierarchy for Aristotle that leads him to posit the Prime Mover at its apex as complete actuality and, therefore, as the focus for the concept of priority. Having reviewed Aristotle's treatment of the many uses of priority, Cleary demonstrates how the concept is used in some typical arguments by Aristotle for his mature metaphysical positions.


The problem that motivates this study was generated quite some time ago when I was working on a dissertation about Aristotle's thought on the foundations of mathematics and came across a passage in the Topics that did not seem to fit with the anti-Platonism I had routinely assumed to be characteristic of his views. In spite of the dialectical nature of the general context, I was unable to explain away this puzzling passage or to reconcile it with passages in Metaphysics Mu that clearly rejected mathematical Platonism. The resultant state of puzzlement in which I found myself proved to be fertile ground for the seeds of doubt about the standard account of Aristotle's intellectual development as a thinker with an inbuilt prejudice against mathematics. But the development of an alternative account is not an easy task and I am not satisfied that this has yet been accomplished. In fact, I am presently writing a book-length study that tries among other things to give a comprehensive account of both the positive and negative functions of mathematics in Aristotle's cosmological and metaphysical thought. In the present monograph, however, I am undertaking the more modest project of studying the different senses of 'priority' in his logical and metaphysical works. Apart from the intrinsic interest of the topic itself, such a study serves to focus our attention on the characteristic way in which Aristotle both continues and breaks away from the Platonic tradition.

Like everyone else who has worked on a project such as this, I have incurred all kinds of personal and intellectual debts that can never be fully repaid. Though he may not always recognize the way in which his influence has worked on me, I think that my greatest intellectual debt is owed to Hans-Georg Gadamer, who taught me (among many other things) to respect the ancient tradition about the unity of the Platonic-Aristotelian problematic. I am also greatly indebted to my friend Donald Morrison (who read an earlier version of this project and made many insightful criticisms) for allowing me to read and cite his unpublished papers on Aristotle's degrees-of-reality thesis. A similar debt is owed to John Rist for allowing me to read and cite his unpublished manuscript on Aristotle's development. In addition, I would like to thank Hippocrates Apostle for giving me permission to use his fine translations of Aristotle's works. Finally, I am deeply grateful to my colleague, Arthur Madigan, S. J., for carefully checking all my translations from the Greek and for improving them . . .

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