Substance and the Primary Sense of Being in Aristotle

By Brook, Angus | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Substance and the Primary Sense of Being in Aristotle


Brook, Angus, The Review of Metaphysics


CLEARLY, SUBSTANCE (OUSIA) IS THE PRIMARY SENSE of being in the Metaphysics. Aristotle is unequivocal at various points in the Metaphysics in positing the primacy of ousia in relation to the question of being qua being. However, Aristotle's arguments in the Metaphysics are not completely clear on what he means by ousia or the way in which the investigation of ousia enables a proper understanding of the meaning of being qua being. There has been much academic debate as to whether it is the composite substance, individual form, or essence that can be said to be the primary sense of ousia. The question remains as a matter of academic and scholarly concern: what then is the primary sense of ousia? In this article I attempt to explore Aristotle's arguments about ousia, and on the basis of this exploration, I argue that Aristotle can really only make sense of ousia, in relation to its basic intelligibility, through the concepts of telos (end) and entelechy (fulfilment). Thus, in some important respects telos and entelechy signify the unifying principle of the intelligibility of ousia in Aristotle's Metaphysics.

This article's argument will inherently involve an attempt to integrate various scholarly arguments about and interpretations of Aristotle's conception of being and ousia and tease out the possible implications of a synthesis of these. More specifically, I will attempt to use Michael V. Wedin's discussion of Aristotle's theory of substance in conjunction with recent discussions of Metaphysics, book 9, for example, Jonathan Beere and Aryeh Kosman, as a means to explore the real unity and first principle(s) of substance. At the same time, there are a set of scholarly debates surrounding these arguments and interpretations of being and ousia that I will not have the space to investigate and must, as such, take for granted to a certain degree. It is worthwhile, then, to be transparent at the outset about which arguments and interpretations will be accepted and thus which positions in the various debates will be taken for granted.

One matter of debate is whether what is now called Aristotle's Metaphysics was ever intended to be a unified text, or whether there is an even loosely coherent framework to the various arguments of the text. (1) Here I will take it for granted, following the arguments of Aryeh Kosman, Terence Irwin, and others, that there is an overarching coherence in the subject matter of the Metaphysics (even if the various texts/notes it includes were not originally intended to be a single polished work) and, therein, that there are conceptual connections among the question of first principles and causes, being qua being, substance, the discussion of potentiality (capability) and activity (doing), the divine, and so on. (2) The focus of this article will be specifically to explore the conceptual connections among the question of being, substance, form/essence, activity, and end/fulfilment.

A second area of debate revolves around the question of being qua being and what, in general, Aristotle is looking for in asking the question of the primary sense of being. One modern trend in the scholarship surrounding Aristotle's Metaphysics has been to interpret being as existence. (3) Others, however, suggest that being in Aristotle's thought signifies the copula, others the composite of matter and form, (4) and others concrete essence (5) or individual actualized form. (6) In relation to this debate, I will take for granted the arguments of those like Charles Kahn, who provides strong justification for the claim that the concept of being is primarily oriented toward the intelligibility of reality and is therein primarily veridical and therefore cannot primarily signify existence. (7)

A third key area of debate relevant to the subject matter of this article is the relation between the conceptions of substance in the Categories and the Metaphysics. (8) Some argue that the notion of substance in the Metaphysics is incompatible with the notion of substance in the Categories, others that there is a development of the notion of substance in Aristotle's intellectual life and philosophical writings that suggests some changes and crucial differences between the two formulations, and others argue for various degrees of compatibility between the two. …

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