The Relation between Logic and Ontology in the Metaphysics

By Weigelt, Charlotta | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2007 | Go to article overview

The Relation between Logic and Ontology in the Metaphysics


Weigelt, Charlotta, The Review of Metaphysics


THE QUESTION CONCERNING THE RELATION between logic and ontology in Aristotle's thought has recently attracted renewed attention, as several scholars have found reason to reconsider the argumentative structure of the seventh book of the Metaphysics. What initially provoked discussion was Myles Burnyeat's study A Map of Metaphysics Zeta and its suggestion that, in order to understand the aim and direction of that particular book, we should distinguish between two different levels of discourse within it, the one "logical" and the other "metaphysical" in kind. (1) Whereas the logical level of discourse explores such concepts and principles that must be assumed by any ontology whatsoever, the metaphysical level conveys precisely Aristotle's ontology with its specific assumptions as regards the nature of reality. Burnyeat's proposal has been met with approval by many scholars, who, though they sometimes prefer a different terminology from his, in general agree that the suggested distinction provides us with a useful tool for the interpretation of this notoriously difficult book. (2) For example, if part of Aristotle's discussion here is "logical" in the sense of not presupposing any specific metaphysical notion of substance, then this may explain why he refrains from drawing upon his own concept of form in what seem to be pivotal passages as regards the inquiry into substance, but instead speaks with a more or less Platonic tongue. (3) Accordingly, recognizing two distinct levels of argument in the discussion of substance might also enable us to shed new light on Aristotle's attitude toward Plato, and perhaps even toward the tradition in general, in ontological matters.

This approach toward Aristotle's logic has found several proponents in the recent literature. More precisely, it is a rather common belief today that Aristotle's logic can be regarded as a kind of prolegomenon to his ontology, providing a "general essentialism" (4) which serves as a basis for the metaphysical inquiry into substance. One apparent consequence of this belief is the recurrent attempt to come to grips with the problems facing the discussion of substance in the Metaphysics, not least that of deciding whether substance as form is to be understood as a particular or universal entity, by means of distinguishing between different kinds of predication, so that form is allowed to be predicated of matter but not of its object. (5) In this way, one assumes that the question of ousia, at least in important respects, may profitably be treated as a question of logic. (6)

In this article, I will elaborate a different view of the so-called logical level of discourse in the Metaphysics as well as of its relation to ontology. While not denying that Aristotle refrains from introducing his own ontological theory in his logical discussion, I will nevertheless suggest that the latter, far from being free from metaphysical presuppositions, is on the contrary in conflict with the ontology presented at the metaphysical level, in such a way that it has implications for the nature of substance which Aristotle cannot accept straight off. More precisely, the idea is that Aristotle himself discovers problems that emerge out of the logical perspective, so that a major task of the inquiry at the ontological level is precisely to come to grips with these problems. In the first part of the article, which seeks to determine the aim and nature of "logical" discussions, I suggest that the conflict between different levels of discourse should be understood as a conflict between different approaches to ontology pursued by Aristotle in the Metaphysics, all of which are not of his own making but primarily retrieved from the tradition. This means that a major problem Aristotle is facing in the Metaphysics, notably in Book 7, is that of reconciling different extant discourses on reality within his own project, so that each of them is granted its proper, delimited place. The difficulty of this task is what makes this book so difficult to understand. …

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