The Primacy of the Organism: Being, Unity, and Diversification in Aristotle's Metaphysics

By Peterson, Anne Siebels | The Review of Metaphysics, June 2017 | Go to article overview

The Primacy of the Organism: Being, Unity, and Diversification in Aristotle's Metaphysics


Peterson, Anne Siebels, The Review of Metaphysics


I

THE QUESTION OF DIVERSIFICATION AND THE MAINSTREAM VIEWS. In virtue of what, for Aristotle, is a given member of a species numerically distinct from another member of that species? The question of what diversifies members of the same species has a long and vexed history in Aristotelian scholarship. It is a metaphysical question to be distinguished from its epistemological counterpart, the question of how we know that a given member of a species is numerically distinct from another, so that we can, as P. F. Strawson puts it, identify distinct particulars. (1) Traditionally, the answer to this metaphysical question has been that for Aristotle, it is in virtue of having numerically distinct matter that such individuals are numerically distinct. (2) This traditional answer has been paraphrased time and again as the claim that matter is the principle of individuation. However, as G. E. M. Anscombe and P. T. Geach point out, that same phrase is often used to refer not to what makes one individual distinct from another, but to what makes each a genuine unity, a genuine individual, in the first place. (3) No matter how interdependent these two issues may turn out to be for Aristotle, neither issue, much less the extent of their interconnection, can be properly investigated without terminology that clearly distinguishes them. To avoid this ambiguity, I will use "diversification" to refer to the first issue and "unification" to refer to the second. The question of what unifies a given member of a species is the question of what makes it a genuine unity, a genuine individual, as opposed to, say, a mere heap or a stuff; it is a question that seems especially pressing under certain interpretations of Aristotle's doctrine of hylomorphism. (4) But it is distinct from the question of what diversifies such individuals, and it is the question of diversification that is my ultimate focus here. (5)

Diversity in number, or numerical diversity, is the sort of diversity that can be had among things that are the same in genus and even in species--the type of diversity had by, for example, two human beings or two horses. Numerical diversity is the most fundamental sort of diversity for Aristotle, in the sense that things unified in genus or species can still differ from each other in number, while things unified in number cannot differ from each other in any sense. As Aristotle puts it in Metaphysics 5.5, "We call different (1) those things which though other are the same in some respect, only not in number but either in species or in genus or by analogy; (2) those whose genus is other, and contraries, and all things that have their otherness in their substance." (6)

What is it, then, that explains difference in number for Aristotle in the case of hylomorphic organisms falling under the same species? There have been two dominant and opposing views over the centuries: (1) the traditional view that matter is the principle of numerical diversification, and (2) the view that form is the principle of numerical diversification. Because both of these mainstream views take an organism's numerical diversity to derive from the numerical diversity of something else (albeit something very closely related to the organism), I will refer to them as derivative views of diversification.

The central text appealed to in the traditional view that matter is the source of numerical diversity comes at the end of Metaphysics 7.8: "And when we have the whole, such and such a form in this flesh and these bones, this is Callias or Socrates; and they are different on account of their matter, for that is different; but they are the same in form; for the form is indivisible." (7) We should understand this view's reference to "matter" as a reference to what is often called nonfunctional matter (that is, some mixture or combination of the elements) (8) rather than to functional matter (that is, parts of the organism's body--flesh and blood, or the various organs). …

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