In a way, following the concepts of Bertrand Russell that most post-modern philosophers rejected, metaphysics can be seen as also representing the science of science.1 It retains an investigation into one of the primary aspects of philosophical study. In this, it seeks to capture the foundational or fundamental concepts of objective life. Equally, there are those who reject objectivity and seek to find a subjective view that these individuals would oppose the concept of reality presented by Aristotle.2 This work by Aristotle, The Metaphysics, represents one of the most enduring and in-depth examples of Western thought. Even when rejected by the reader, the reader must be taken seriously in any honest investigation of the topic.
Book 1 of Aristotle’s work sets the philosophical foundations of many of his concepts and ideas. Additionally, there is a historical aspect to the work. In introducing the principles or beginnings of Greek philosophy, Aristotle creates the foundational base of Western thought.3 In studying Aristotle, we both find the first principles of objective reality and a historical link to the concepts brought about by other Greek philosophers who would have been lost to us if not for Aristotle. Individuals including Anaximander, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Thales and Xenophanes and more are documented in various depth within this work. As well as providing substance helped, these authors found the basis of Western philosophy while being broadcast through the work of Aristotle.
This work also serves as a counterpoint between Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle provides a detailed critique of Plato, one of his teachers. The in-depth critique of Platonic thought has been debated ever since. These divergent views are foundational for many of the subsequent Western philosophical diversions. For example, the distinction between dialectic and scientific documentation and dialogue and logic may be seen. Further, the foundations of romanticised ideas of the Renaissance and the more modern concepts of the Renaissance may be extracted from these divergent views.4
There is a saying that we cannot have our cake and eat it. We cannot have everything in all ways. We can’t be in two places simultaneously, and we cannot be in two times. To this, Aristotle ascribes the law of non-contradiction. The philosopher sees this as the ruling axiom of all metaphysical analysis and enquiry. This principle forms the heart of objective reality and the foundation of common everyday experience and what most people would call common sense.
At the same time, many intellectuals, including Heraclitus at the time of Aristotle and more recently in history Hegel, have sought a more subjective view of reality.5 These and many other philosophers have argued that the law of non-contradiction cannot be held to be universal. This view of reality is one of the foundational aspects of scientific thought and rational and logical analysis. In this view, we expect individuals to be logical and rational, and when they say something, they will not contradict their own words with the opposite directly afterwards if they tell us the truth. A philosopher in this view seeks to find an objective truth to the world.
There is a problem with imprecise terminologies that can be seen when objectively analysing the world and the universe and seeking to understand reality. We could argue that there is a problem with a lack of intellectual honesty attributed to those who don’t address problems with full and logical rigour. Those who argue that something is both now and not create a scenario that cannot be argued or disagreed with. The work Ulysses by Joyce presents us with a scenario that frequently flips from yes to no to yes to no.6
For Aristotle, any serious enquiry must be defined through a series of logical and linguistic requirements. Without these foundational structures, no discourse may be truly engaged honestly. The notions of truth and falsity themselves cannot logically coexist, and for any human knowledge to be obtained, it requires a rigorous observation and adherence to this principle.
Non-Contradiction And the Excluded Middle
The Law of Non-Contradiction is a key foundational aspect of Aristotle’s philosophy. Beginning in Chapter III, Aristotle creates the foundations of a concept that he continues into Book IV. While a discussion of the subject matter of the science of metaphysics or the science of science forms a necessary foundation, it becomes necessary to understand the logical formation of concepts even to understand the metaphysical definitions. To Aristotle, the metaphysical subject is one of understanding “being as such”.
This is the study of reality and the study of existence and/or things. As such, metaphysics should be aimed at understanding the characteristics and principles of reality and the underlying core aspects of the mathematical systems and physical measurements of all that creates reality. Aristotle starts by introducing a defining substance. Everything is, to Aristotle, defined by a substance in some form. These foundational substances differ from attributes. In a primary reality, every item and being is possessed through some unchangeable substance. This may be seen to never come to full existence or to pass away but is always simultaneously actual. To Aristotle, this is the philosophical realm of God. This also founds the concept of theology.
Unity, or as it may also be called identity, is a key aspect of substance and reality. There is a substance in all things. To this, Aristotle notes that “the substance of each thing is one in no merely accidental way and similarly is from its very nature something that is”. Otherness can thus reflect something different to sameness and outside of unity.7 The denial of unity for opposites does not exclude them but differentiates them. As such, “all things are either countries or composed of countries, and unity and plurality are the starting points of all contraries”. From this, negations or privations of substance can be further defined.
To the scientist, that profession must discover the foundational axioms upon which knowledge exists. Aristotle argues that all axioms of science derived from the first principles and that “the principles of the syllogism” derived from both the law of non-contradiction and the corollary of the law of the excluded middle. Moreover, these axioms of science are based on formal logic.
Contradiction here is defined as saying something opposite or denying an affirmation. There is a contradiction between any true or false statement or a contradiction between the affirmative and negative. Is and is not our contradictory. Contradictories or contraries may be seen in a statement of white and not white. Something cannot be simultaneously one thing and another. One cannot affirm something while equally denying it. Equally, black and white are contradictory terms. Something cannot be both black and white simultaneously. One of these terms has been confirmed; the other must be false. It is equally possible to say that something is neither black nor white and that each may be denied.
In this, we can create a logical relationship between the propositions of all, none or some. For example, we can say that all swans are white, we can say that all swans are black, and we can equally say that some swans are white and some are black. These form contrary propositions that can be tested, and only one can be true simultaneously. However, with the propositions of all swans being black and the contradictory proposition of all swans being white, it is possible that while both of these cannot be true, both of them may also be false.8 Simultaneously, we can say that all swans are white, but some are not white and note that this is equally contradictory. Further, however, stating that no Swan is white and some swans are white our contradictory propositions. In this, if one statement is true, the other must be false. In this, both statements cannot be true and cannot be false at the same time.
These statements may seem trivial but start to form the foundation of logic and rational thought. Aristotle forms a detailed enquiry into contradiction and investigates how propositions may be distinguished between contraries and contradictories. While people note that grey may be considered the intermediate between white and black, this may also be an intermediate between contradictories and represents the field of some concepts rather than those that are exclusively one or the other.
Metaphysics has been misrepresented and abused by many philosophers following Aristotle. It has been taken to represent the mystical or occult. Commonly, we find many later works, including those from the romanticised periods representing magic or more pejorative topics. Consequently, these topics have been relegated to many empty generalities and are often seen to represent an absence of scientific and modern understandings of the world.
The origin of metaphysics in translations of Aristotle occurred accidentally. Aristotle defined the term that he represented to be first philosophy. This was arranged directly after the work on natural philosophy, which the philosopher noted to be called physics. The works were grouped as meta ta physica or “the writings after the physics”. Hence our terminology, metaphysics. At one point, the totality of this work Incorporated ten treatises, but other aspects have been incorporated to expand this into fourteen books.
Metaphysics has evolved to have several meanings. While this was originally a convenient notion defining the overarching subject, the topic should be representing “the study of being as such,” and others have taken a more subjective and less logical foundation of how that has been investigated. Metaphysics represents to Aristotle the natural or physical realm of reality. However, Aristotle also calls this science theology. Yet, in exploring what Aristotle needs to be the “first philosophy” or the “highest science”, we also need to understand that Aristotle sought to have an objective foundation to reality.
Book I of Aristotle’s work introduces and defines many aspects of the study of science as Aristotle saw it. This work is the alpha. In defining Aristotle’s concepts of metaphysics, the author also introduces a history of early Greek philosophical thought. Much of the early Greek philosophy has vanished or been lost, and through Aristotle’s work, we have a detailed account of many pre-Socratic philosophers and a critique of Plato.9 In this work, the purpose of history and histiography, as defined by Aristotle, is to analyse and critique those who have gone before us. To do this, we need to incorporate our first principles and to act in comparing these in a way that is both complete and consistent.
Nature, Value and Origin
Aristotle starts by investigating the origin of wisdom and knowledge. The highest and most abstract knowledge contains many aspects of natural philosophy, social science, the history of the universe, and the people within it. Moreover, Aristotle notes that “all men by nature desire to know”. We see that there is an underlying inquisitiveness in the majority, at least of people and that this is expressed in nearly every child.10
We all start with a delight and longing for new experiences, find normal sense perceptions, and learn and comprehend the world around us. Somewhere along the way, many of us forget this. There is a natural role in development, and this stage of experience and learning develops awareness as we repeat and continue to experience different perceptions and gain knowledge. Further, we learn to develop the exclusively human skillsets of rational thought, art, and science through this process. No other animal has ever achieved any of these.11 It is for this reason that humans are separated from everything else. It is human knowledge, rational thought and the ability to develop skills with an intensive and focused purpose that differentiates humanity from everything else.
To Aristotle, art is one of the most profound and sublime activities that humanity can conduct. He sees this as one of the most heavenly of virtues and this in itself implies a type of wisdom. The artist develops knowledge and presents this in patterns and classes of things that are universal. This differs in Aristotle’s opinion from the man of mere experience who seeks to act pragmatically without looking for an understanding of the patterns underlying a particular event or condition. The difference is understanding not just the how but to comprehending the why.
Humanity has gradually advanced through history, increasing the need for art and the useful arts and sciences into seemingly trivial and non-useful.12 These provide at first the fulfilment of recreation and entertainment and advance from enjoyment into the abstract sciences, including mathematics. As this occurs, the wisdom of humanity also increases. In having time to develop the least necessary and most seemingly trivial arts, humanity also develops the deepest wisdom. This requires that we find endeavours pursued without any necessary practical interest but merely for themselves.
Mathematics has developed further in this manner. Many who are pragmatic seek to argue that finding new mathematics merely for the sake of finding patterns and for itself is wasted activity. Yet, many of the most profound mathematical developments, including cryptography, have occurred because of a continuing investigation into obscure forms of mathematical study. To Aristotle, the artist is thus wiser than the merely empirical individual, but the man of science remains wiser than the artist. This is a consequence of art being still a practical and productive activity, whereas science in itself is at its extreme purely theoretical. Wisdom in the full sense is obtained through a continuing investigation and increase in theoretical knowledge.13
Knowledge of this type represents those aspects of life that are the most difficult to learn, the most exact and foundational aspects of understanding. In seeking knowledge for its own sake, we may find the most authoritative theories and information and eventually better know the first principles of how each aspect of the universe operates. Only through this process can we know the supreme and all good. To Aristotle, this form of endeavour is concerned with the transcendent. While this may seem abstract and obtuse, it forms the basis of understanding and developing wonder.
“For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and it first began to philosophise; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the son and of the stars and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who was puzzled by and wonders thinks himself ignorant, whence even the lover of myth is in a sense lover of wisdom, for the myth is composed of wonders; therefore since they philosophised to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science to know and not for any utilitarian end.”
It is the knowledge and understanding of causal events and the ability to understand how and why. However, at the same time, each event starts to lose the sense of wonder as we need to move on to finding another mystery to solve.
“For all men begin as we said by wondering that things are as they are, as they do about self-moving marionettes or about the Solstices or the incommensurability of the diagonal of a square with the side for it seems wonderful to all who have not seen yet the reason that there is a thing which cannot be measured even by the smallest unit. But we must end in the country and according to the proverbs the better state as is the case in these instances too when men learn the cause, for there is nothing which would surprise a geometer so much as if the diagonal turned out to be commensurable.”
First Principles and the Cause of Things
Understanding first principles make it possible for us to understand the cause of things. 14Such knowledge is what Aristotle sees as the highest knowledge. The remainder of Book I (chapters 3-10) documents a discussion of these topics. This includes an analysis of the earlier philosophers before Aristotle and a criticism of their views. In this analysis, Aristotle seeks to present each argument in terms of a first cause.
Aristotle defines his hypothesis that there are four “original causes” or equivalently four senses defining how things may come into being. These are:
- The substance or essence of a thing representing the formal cause,
- The material substratum acting as the material cause,
- The source or agent acting to form how an event comes into being, which represents the efficient cause, and
- The purpose or end of why something occurred represents the final cause.
In defining such a structure, we may analyse something as banal as a household appliance or even furniture. If we analyse a table, we see that the formal cause represents the definition of a table. That is, what is a table. Next, the material cause is the substance that creates the object, such as wood, plastic, iron, or other product used to manufacture it. The efficient cause is represented by the manufacturing process and the art that has gone into crafting the object. And lastly, the final cause involves using the table either to study upon, have meetings, or as a dinner table.
In this instance, the first and final cause coincide, and the purpose of the object matches the definition.15 The final cause amongst natural objects includes defining what the item represents. For instance, the final cause of a dog is being a dog. The definitions given by Aristotle in the Physics take this subject further and provide a far more in-depth series of examples on the four causes. Aristotle invites the reader to examine his thesis and ensure that he is correct in his hypothesis and that this is superior to an analysis of why and how things occur compared to previous philosophers.
“We have studied these causes sufficiently in our work or nature, but yet let us call our aid those who have attacked the investigation of being and philosophised about reality before us. Obviously, me to speak of certain principles and causes; to go over their views than will be of profit to the present enquiry for we shall either find another kind of cause or be more convinced of the correctness of those which we now maintain.”
Aristotle starts by examining the work of earlier Greek philosophers who sought to document the material elements through principles such as defining earth, fire, air and water. Thales proposed that water was the primal element that existed as an eternal substance from which all other things arose and returned. Heraclitus made the argument that fire was the foundational element. Empedocles argued that all four primal elements together formed the original cause of all things.16 Aristotle took this further, noting that these arguments only account for the material and substance of what comes into existence. For example, Aristotle argued that the chair does not come into existence newly because of the wood. While the wood is necessary to create the chair, it does not account for the process of manufacturing the chair and does not describe why this has occurred.
Aristotle understood that there was a major deficiency in explaining the universe through material cause alone. It is necessary to discover the efficient cause, “that from which comes the beginning of the movement”. To Aristotle, this principle brings such a change into existence. This process required a deeper analysis that led some to see that goodness and beauty must be accounted for using mental principles and not merely by analysing the material cause. Anaxagoras saw the Logos or immanent reason to be at the heart of all things and used this in explaining the causes of the order that are developed throughout the world and argued that this explained the movement and change in things.
Empedocles argued that two efficient causes in love and strife acted to form the cause of both good and evil throughout all things. These philosophers argued that “the matter and source of the movement” could be defined for both the material and the efficient causes but in a manner that Aristotle sought to demonstrate was inconsistent. Aristotle continued by investigating the Pythagoreans. These philosophers looked at mathematical objects and equations and used the relationships between numbers and ratios as a foundational explanation for all things. These individuals sought to demonstrate that everything, including abstract concepts such as art, justice and reason, may be explained mathematically. Using this form of analysis allowed them to discover the mathematical relationships between music and harmony and apply this musical scale to the heavenly bodies in seeking a ratio and proportion against all things.
While Aristotle does credit the Pythagorean school with differentiating between the material and the formal causes through the consideration of how “numbers are the principal both as a matter for things and as forming both the modifications and their permanent states”, he also goes on to note that these thinkers remain too simpleminded and fail to investigate the formal cause of events in-depth leaving them to be “defined superficially” and without an adequate explanation.
Aristotle demonstrates that some other philosophers in ancient Greece believed that the universe was created through a single unchanging substance.17 These individuals saw that reality does not change and forms a psychic event that always repeats and always was. These individuals avoided any necessity in a discerning and efficient cause. The monistic schools included the Eleatics who followed Elea of Italy. Parmenides was one of the members of the school, and Plato named a dialogue after this philosopher. This individual held that only ultimate reality exists and that we are, in effect, a thought or dream of God. Parmenides sought to define one by definition related to something outside our sense experience. In this, Parmenides sought to material principles of hot and cold, fire and earth and used these to account for existence and nonexistence in terms of plurality or unity. Despite this, Aristotle believes that Parmenides holds a concept of an efficient cause despite having a monistic doctrine.
In modernity, Spinoza has developed a similar concept to Parmenides, presented in Spinoza’s work, Ethics.18
Aristotle also investigates his fellow philosopher and teacher, Plato. Aristotle notes that the philosophical influences of this proceeding philosopher included Heraclitus and Socrates. Heraclitus argued that sensible things must change and cannot be known. Socrates sought to find universal concepts in an ethical and non-realist realm. Heraclitus argued about constant flux and the inability to measure anything at any point in time. In contrast, Socrates sought “common definitions”, and together, these influences led to Plato seeking universals that may exist in non-sensible or non-empirical things. It is for this reason that Plato sought ideas or forms.
To Plato, at least through the argument of Aristotle, the ideas or forms represent the cause of things, and it is through these that the empirical and physical world can exist. Hence, in this way, Plato would argue that ideas or forms represent the cause of things and correspond to Aristotle’s view of formal causes. Aristotle also notes that the Pythagoreans conduct what they call imitation, analogous to what Plato referred to as participation.
Further, Plato held that ideas inform represented the cause of reality. In this way, Plato was aligned with the Pythagoreans in holding that mathematics and numbers represent the foundational cause of things. The difference in Plato’s conception of this was that Plato created an intermediate realm between the ideal and the sensible or empirical world. He considered these to exist apart from empirical items that differed from the Pythagoreans’ idea, who saw numbers to represent reality. The distinction between the Pythagoreans and the views held by Plato, as argued by Aristotle, derive from Plato’s training in the dialectic and a desire to find common definitions. However, Aristotle notes that Plato could only still account for the material and formal causes and could not find efficient or final causes as explanations.
The Comparison of What Went before
Aristotle criticises the Pythagoreans, his own master Plato and the Platonists, and the materialists and similar philosophers.19 In this analysis, Aristotle notes that each of the preceding philosophers has at best discerned a quarter or half of the four causes noted above. Moreover, no philosopher has indicated any other possible forms of a cause beyond these four. “All evidently have some inkling of them [the four causes], but only vaguely”. We can also see that Aristotle was at times rather patronising. Some saw the material cause. Some saw love and reason and argued a first principle that recognised an efficient cause. Others understood the formal cause. However, Aristotle notes that no other philosopher recognised the final cause and did not produce an argument based on the reason for why things come into existence.
The main criticism Aristotle presents against the materialists derives from how they cannot form a theory explaining anything other than the empirical and fail to understand why things change. Aristotle notes that the materialists ignore the efficient and formal causes. Aristotle notes that any suitable explanation needs to include sensible, non-sensible and intelligible explanations of reality.
“But these thinkers, after all at home only and arguments about generation and destruction and movement; for it is practically only of this sort of substance that they seek the principles and the causes. But those who extend the vision to all things that exist and of existing things suppose some to be perceptible and others not perceptible, evidently study both causes, which is all the more reason why one should devote some time to seeing what is good in their views and what is bad from the standpoint of the enquiry we have now before us.”
Aristotle knows that the Pythagoreans derived principles associated with non-empirical and non-sensible concepts and used these to explain physical events and phenomena in the real world. As with the materialist, the Pythagorean incorporates a view of reality linked to a mathematical principle and the imperceptible that uses a “higher realm of reality” to explain reality. But, again, these explanations do not provide a full set of causes and do not aid the person investigating phenomena in explaining either movement or change or the underlying principles. Rather, such an approach incorporates an irrational adherence to numerical relationships and properties that further limit the investigation of reality.
These explanations also provide abstractions that do not cover many aspects of human understanding, including investigating topics such as love, injustice, and politics. Aristotle notes that “mathematics has come to be identical with philosophy for many contemporary thinkers”. Plato extends many of his criticisms of the Pythagorean school into a direct attack against the Platonists. He attacks the concept held by “those who posit the ideas as causes”. Importantly, the approach used by Plato and others like him creates an alternative dual world where there is a world of the intelligible in a world of the sensible.
“For the forms are practically equal to or not fewer than the things in trying to explain which these thinkers proceed from them to the forms. For two each thing, there answers an entity which has the same name and exists apart from the substances and so also in the case of all other groups there is one over many whether the many are in this world or are eternal.”
Aristotle notes that the universality of an item creates an unnecessary “doubling” of that aspect of reality. In effect, Aristotle notes that the Platonist creates a map of the world and items as large or larger than the measured item. Moreover, Aristotle notes that this will necessitate a third entity that will connect the ideal to the real. Again, as with the Pythagoreans, the Platonist fails to account for how emotional change occurs. But importantly, Aristotle most cogently notes that this concept of how Plato and others explain reality does not increase our knowledge of the real world. Any item or abstraction that is described remains entirely transcendental and fails to become immanent. Where the ideas form reality, they miss becoming engaged intrinsically with the aspect of reality it describes.
The Platonic theory of “participation” not only fails to describe causality but merely creates archetypes as patterns that certain things share. Aristotle notes that this is merely “to use empty words and poetical metaphors”. However, it does not increase our knowledge as it fails to document an efficient cause. There is no mention of the agency behind any aspect of reality nor any description of why and how something occurred; moreover, Aristotle notes that there must be “something to originate movement” and act as the agent of change. In failing to describe why things occur, Plato merely documents a series of patterns that set the idea of a concept. To Aristotle, such an approach is both puzzling and insufficient.
Collating a Fragmented Whole
The most frustrating and disappointing aspect of any study of Greek philosophy derives from what is missing.20 From the analysis Aristotle provides us, many additional sources have been lost. Unfortunately, this means we need to take Aristotle’s analysis at face value. We cannot dissect the early works that have been lost. This leaves us with Aristotle’s critique of these works.
“It is evident than even from what we have said before that all men seem to seek the causes named in the physics and that we cannot name any beyond these, but they seek these vaguely; and though in a sense they have all been described before in a sense that they have not been described at all. For the earliest philosophy is on all subjects like one who lisps, since it is young and in its beginnings.”
Aristotle has been argued to be inaccurate and unjust in his criticism of other scholars.21 The difficulty in making such an assertion stems directly from the fragmentation and lack of original sources. Unfortunately, this makes analysing the analysis by Aristotle of the pre-Socratic philosophers difficult, if not impossible. However, Aristotle is critical of many aspects of Plato, and the works and writings from Plato are widely available. Aristotle entered Plato’s Academy in Athens when he was young and remained and studied under Plato for a period of two decades. Plato and Aristotle are known to have been friends, and each holds the other in high regard. The elegy Aristotle provided for Plato demonstrates profound respect.22 Equally, Plato was known to have called Aristotle several endearing and flattering names, including “the intellect” and “the reader”. However, Plato also is reputed to have called Aristotle a colt that kicked its mother. So, some underlying tensions may exist.
For all that, there is no evidence that Aristotle was disgruntled or sought to cause problems within the academy. Moreover, some fragmentary documentation that has been attributed to Aristotle and which is written in dialectic form seems to point to a student who was very closely aligned to the Platonic views early on.23 However, it may also be seen that Aristotle started to diverge from the Platonic teachings after Plato’s death. At this point, the philosopher left the academy and founded another school in Athens called the Lyceum after some travel.
As Aristotle matured, his views on reality and the philosophy of the universe developed and started to align into a systematically organised approach. Aristotle conducted detailed research into nature and extended this into analysing human history. While many statistical techniques did not exist at this time, Aristotle still maintained comprehensive empirical records that led the philosopher away from the Platonic realm of ideas and developed a more objective philosophy. We see this further in the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle takes issue against Plato’s universal good.
“Such an enquiry is made an uphill one by the fact that the forms have been introduced by friends of our own. Yet it would perhaps be thought to be better indeed to be our duty for the sake of maintaining the truth even to destroy what touches us closely, especially as we are philosophers or lovers of wisdom; for, while both ideas, piety requires us to honour truth above our friends.”
An Analysis of Causes
Aristotle rightly points out that understanding causation is critical to understanding the world. However, we also need to define the term “cause”. In looking to what caused an event, we need to investigate the agent or agency that has acted to the event occurring, and Aristotle calls this the efficient cause. Likewise, the end or alternatively the purpose for which something comes into existence is the final cause. These answer the question, “why?” However, if investigated correctly, the more important and scientific aspect is answered through the efficient cause, which tells us, “How?”
Aristotle refers to the term “principle”. Through this, he seeks to gain an adequate understanding of the causalities. What and why. Suppose we are to truly understand some aspect of reality. In that case, it becomes necessary to understand many aspects of an item and understand the root causes and basic functioning. For example, Aristotle will say that humanity is the formal, efficient and final cause of human reproduction.
Objective Thought and The Death of Romanticism
Aristotle notes that all enquiry begins in a state of wonder and bafflement. As we learn and understand how to explain and define events, we find that knowledge removes the wonder. While ignorance removes some mystique, that awe can still be found in discoveries yet to be answered. Equally, while bafflement is abated, it becomes possible to enjoy a deepened sense of reflection and spiritual development that can link into a sense of awe and wonderment at the majesty of all that there is. Just because we understand something does not mean that we can’t appreciate it, and sometimes we can appreciate it even more.
The Basis of Metaphysics and the Science of Being
The most basic axiom of the metaphysics or the science of being directly related to the law of non-contradiction. This has also been referred to as “the law of contradiction”, relating to the necessity for such a contradiction not to exist.
“The same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect… This, then, is the most certain of all principles… For it is impossible for anyone to believe the same thing to be and not to be.”
This axiom forms the basis of all science and logic. This founds the principle of objective reality and binds the mind to accept it and believe in an objective universe. However, there is an impossibility associated with the universe that forbids contradiction. Something cannot both exist and not exist simultaneously. Something cannot be simultaneously at rest and also at motion. Equally, somebody cannot simultaneously be both a man and a dog. While it is possible for individuals to hold “contrary opinions at the same time”, this self-contradiction demonstrates an error in thought.
Book II (Chapters 4 – 8) is dedicated to refuting the suppositions of those philosophers who “assert that it is possible for the same thing to be and not to be, and say that people can judge this to be the case”. In other words, individuals who assert contradictions are possible in the world, and those minds that judge it may be refuted. To Aristotle, the law of non-contradiction holds as a self-evident principle which at its root is demonstrable. It is an axiom or “starting point” upon which all rational thought may be built. But, again, without accepting a basic axiom, infinite regression will apply. This, however, can be intuitively judged and may form a foundation of first principles.
Importantly, denying such an axiom leads to absurd results. Without definitions and meaning, Aristotle notes that no language is possible and even though with oneself becomes infeasible. If any term is to have any meaning, it must be defined in a way that is not meaningless. Through this, Aristotle notes that the law of non-contradiction requires an essence or substance to all things and definitions and that these are attributable to specific attributes. Such attributes are limited in number and scope and must hold across the definition and over various tests.
Further, if the law of non-contradiction does not hold, nothing can be said or denied to be true or false, and all language becomes indefinite. All argument and discourse, including the statement about non-contradiction, becomes indeterminate and without meaning if contradiction exists. Any logical analysis will demonstrate that violating the determinate character of something and its definition will lead to a state of absurdity. Aristotle extends this to say that “the conclusion that it is not necessary either to assert or to deny” anything about anything leads to pure nonsense and the inability to hold any knowledge.
Moreover, following the very argument of those who believe in contradiction takes us to a point where the person arguing for the existence of contradiction must concede that their argument does not exist. For example, suppose any statement can be judged both true and false. In that case, that statement concerning statements being either true or false and in contradiction is judged false and should not be taken seriously. Pragmatically, such an absurdity leads to an absence of knowledge.
Arguing without contradiction provides only dead-end answers without resolve.
The Comparison of Objective and Relativist
Protagoras was well known as being a “relativist”.24 To him, “man (through the individual’s perceptions) is the measure of all things.” Aristotle notes, however, that this approach to philosophy instils the rejection of the law of non-contradiction.
“If all opinions and appearances are true, all statements must be at the same time true and false… So that the same thing must be and not be. And on the other hand, if this is so, all opinions must be true.”
Equally, all opinions must also be false. Such an approach can easily be seen to be logically inconsistent. Aristotle seeks to engage with those who honestly believe but rejects those who are perverse and take an opinion merely for argument. “The same thing can be potentially at the same time two countries, but it cannot actually”. In this, Aristotle notes that something can change and be an intermediate state, but this in itself is different to either of the beginning or end forms.
Aristotle argues that an empiricist view of “what appears to our senses must be true” is pervaded with indeterminacy. While something can change, it changes from one state to another and during the state of change is neither what it was nor what it will be. More importantly, the relativist or empirical concept that infallible sensation is noted against “appearance is not the same as sensation”. Further, different people will have different sensations. One individual might find something sweeter than another or saltier. In terms of senses,
“…each of which senses never says at the same time of the same object that it simultaneously is ‘so and not so’; but not even at different times does one sense disagree about the quality, but only about that to which the quality belongs.”
We can see that the perception held of something is not the measure of all things. Truth must be determined by the things and not by the mind which apprehends them.
“And, in general, if only the sensible exists, there would be nothing if an at things were not; for there would be no faculty of sense. The view that neither the sensible qualities nor the sensations would exist is doubtless true (for they are affections of the perceiver ), but that the substrata that cause the sensation should not exist even apart from sensation is impossible. For sensation is surely not the sensation of itself, but there is something beyond the sensation, which must be prior to the sensation; for that which moves us before in nature to that which is moved.”
In holding that appearance is true, one must also understand and hold the view that things are relative to the particular perception and views of the individual perceiver. Hence…
“Not that what appears to exist, but that what appears to exist for him to whom it appears and when and to the sense to which and under the condition under which it appears.”
However, this is nothing more than a factual description that has appeared to somebody under a set of specific conditions. Modern psychological studies have demonstrated that our focus is directed and may miss or misperceive objects. At best, the relativist can only say that something appears true for a particular individual. In doing this, they fail to understand or see what is true per se.
The Law of the Excluded Middle
The law of the excluded middle is presented in Chapter 7.
“There cannot be an intermediate between contradictory is, but of one subject we must either affirm or deny any one predicate.”
If an intermediate or middle term existed between contradictory terms, it would be possible to create non-binary statements and outcomes to a predicate that must end as neither true nor false. However, such a condition is impossible by definition.
“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true; so that he who says anything that it is, or that it is not, will say either that it is true or what is false; but neither what is nor what is not is said to be or not to be.”
Denying the discrepancy that must exist between the states of true and false will always lead to a logical incongruity. Implying the distinction between the states does not exist or that there is a middle ground creates an implication that all statements are true or that no statements are true. If all statements are found to be true, we end up with the logical inconsistency that all statements are false must also be true. Equally, if we claim that all statements are false, it follows that all false statements must themselves be false. In this, we find that the postulates annihilate themselves and leave a contradiction. It becomes necessary to define meanings that distinguish things and stop these contradictions from being possible to counter this.
“But against all such views, we must postulate, as we said above, not that something is or is not, but that something has a meaning so that we must argue from the definition, viz. by assuming what falsity or truth means. Therefore, if that which it is true to affirm is nothing other than that which it is false to deny, it is impossible that all statements should be false, for one side of the contradiction must be true. So again, if it is necessary concerning everything either to assert or deny it, it is impossible that both should be false, for it is one side of the contradiction that is false.”
Must Reality Follow Non-Contradiction?
Before we approach this question, we will have to get to Hegel. “Everything is opposite” was a position taken by Hegel and “neither in heaven nor in earth, neither in the world of mind nor of nature is there anywhere such an abstract ‘either-or’ as the understanding maintains. Whatever exists is concrete, with difference and opposition in itself.” To Hegel, “contradiction is the very moving principle of the world: and it is ridiculous to say the contradiction is unthinkable”. So, while Aristotle’s approach makes logical sense, others such as Hegel moved towards a dialectical understanding of items passing into being (the thesis), to entering into opposition and negating being (the anti-thesis) and to a final stage the combines and transcends the stages in a synthesis. Hegel would argue that we cannot assert that something in existence is being or not being but rather is continuously becoming.25
Heraclitus argued that all things are in constant change in flux. The reality he propounded forms from the unity and not the separation of opposites. Heraclitus noted that harmony comes through a chaotic clash of opposites. “Opposition unites, from what draws apart results in the most beautiful harmony… All things come into being by a conflict of opposites, and the sum of things flows like a stream”. To Heraclitus, “upward, downward in the way is one and the same,” and through this, all things may be seen to Hegel, and Heraclitus is a state of being and non-being and unified state of becoming.
This is distinctly different from the position taken by Aristotle. Aristotle’s objective view does not accept non-contradiction and notes that reality is determinate. Therefore, true contradictions cannot be found, and if we talk about subjects using contradictory terms, we are merely failing to differentiate between different objects and events. In this, Aristotle sees the primary principles of metaphysics in the law of non-contradiction and of the excluded middle.
Questions and Reflections
In order to best understand and comprehend the work, we must question it and think about our understanding by challenging ourselves. Through this, we can learn how to question our own comprehension and whether we have been thorough in understanding what we have read.
- Why does Aristotle differentiate both the sophisticate and the dialectic, and how does Aristotle note philosophy to form into its own genre? Moreover, explain the modern aspects of objective thought in Aristotle.
- What is the distinction between a philosopher and a natural scientist?
- Why is it necessary to define terminologies and what happens where a term has multiple meanings and how does this impact discourse?
- How can something be both true and false and is this, in fact, possible, and is there an objective truth?
- Explain the doctrines of Heraclitus?
- Explain the doctrines of an Anaxagoras.
- How do these doctrines fit in with the concept of truth, and what is falsity?
- Explain what is meant by saying that you cannot step into the same river even once, and how does this fit with the idea of philosophy versus sophistic terms?
- Explain free will against accidental attributes.
- Can perception act to give us true knowledge?
- Is wisdom a divine science?
- Is the reason the cause of things?
- What is the relationship between all things being one and the ideas of the Platonists?
- Does Plato’s theory of ideas incorporate the non-natural items and objects created?
- What is the idea of a final cause, and how does this relate to goods and the good, especially concerning concepts such as reason and friendship?
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