Aristotle and Modernity: The Eternal and Science

Philosophy Series Contents (to be updated with each new installment)

Philosophy Series 1 – Prelude to the Philosophy Series

Philosophy Series 2 – Introduction

Philosophy Series 3 – Appendix A, Part 1

Philosophy Series 4 – The Pre-Socratics – Hesiod

Philosophy Series 5 – A Detour of Time

Philosophy Series 6 – The Origin

Philosophy Series 7 – Eros

Philosophy Series 8 – Thales

Philosophy Series 9 – An Interlude to Anaximander

Philosophy Series 10 – On the Way to Anaximander: Language and Proximity

Philosophy Series 11 – Aristotle and Modernity: The Eternal and Science

Philosophy Series 12 – Levinas and the Problem of Metaphysics

Philosophy Series 13 – On Origin


Aristotle argues that being (ousia; feminine present participle) is simultaneously matter and form (eidos, idea) governed by change (metabole).(1) The form shown in a being’s figure or shape (morphe) is given by limit or boundary (peras) and is the genesis of its being. Form is always with matter to make it what it is as a being. A being that is form and matter is physics (phusis). Phusis is Aristotle’s word for emergence or growth that sustains itself in its presence as a morphe (shape) from peras (form) or being (ousia). Antiphon’s argument with Aristotle in Physics, Book 1, is a materialistic argument about the essence (wesen) of being (ousia). In an attempt to find the immutable and eternal, not subject to change and therefore, real, Antiphon argues that formless matter (hule) is real. For example, wood, stone, metal, etc. is real and eternal and thus, the essence of being. Since the form of wood can change from say a chair to a scrap pile, the form is mutable and therefore, not real but accidental (sumbebekos). The issue here is the one (hen) and the many (polumeres). Following after Plato and his Forms Antiphon along with Parmenides wants to understand the origin (arche) of being as one. For Parmenides, the one could be seen with the mind (nous) as ideas (eidos). Ideas do not change. They do not grow. The world of matter simply reflects, as a shadow, these ‘behind the scene’ Forms. In so doing, being is established as immutable (non-changing) and eternal (aidion). For Antiphon matter was real and for Parmenides the idea was real and everything else was accidental and illusion. Aristotle was quite the heretic in this setting to insist that form and matter, emerging and enduring in their presence was being. In effect, Aristotle was saying being was one and many, being and beings, and change and endurance in presence were the origin of the real. As a thought experiment, let’s jump ahead to the modern notions of particle physics, evolution and genetic science.

Genetic science manipulates genes in very short time scales while evolution takes much longer with natural selection. However, both change beings from one kind of being into another and create beings that have never existed naturally. Likewise particle physics has accomplished the alchemic task of changing one elementary particle into another and even more, creating new particles that have never existed naturally. Let’s remember that for Aristotle and the Greeks being encompassed all beings not simply human being. This implies that evolutionary change would not contradict Aristotle’s notion of beings since he allows for change and mutability as essential (wesen) to being (phusis). However, these sciences certainly bring into question the insistence of Antiphon and Parmenides. It implies that pure materialism (as hule without eidos) and pure spiritualism (as eidos without hule) is never found in nature as immutable and eternal. Both form as idea and matter can be essentially changed and manipulated by evolution and human technology. New beings that have never existed can emerge into nature. Perhaps Parmenides could take partial exception as the change in the present shape of a being could be accidental while maintaining that the ideas behind them do not change. However, would totally new beings imply an addition to the ideas? Likewise, Antiphon may have more thorny issues with new elements not found in nature but he could insist that the elementary elements were eternal just not present in nature. However, atomic manipulation of elements that changes one element to another would directly imply that fundamental elements can change and are therefore, not immutable. In both cases the mutation and change might still be denied as essential to being. However, the manipulation of elementary particles and biology vis-à-vis technology, at least in the case of particle physics and genetic science, imply fundamental human intervention in nature and therefore essential (not accidental) mutability.

In regard to Antiphon and by extension Parmenides, Aristotle wrote that “According to this understanding of the essence of being, all things—whether natural or made—are never truly being, and yet they are not nothing. Hence they are non-being, not fully sufficing for beingness” (WBP 337). He thought that both of these ideas forced the argument into either being already thought as immutable OR non-being (me on) already thought as mutable, In so doing, a universal category is set up (i.e., being) and all else is not being (i.e., beings). It turns out to be a tautological argument. If A is A then it certainly follows that everything else is not A. If being cannot change then everything that changes is not being. This kind of argument cannot legitimately think of the differences between being and beings. It can only assert an opinion (doxa) and therefore is not an argument at all.

If being is thought after matter such as wood or stone and asserted to have permanence then being has been modeled after permanent, separate and indivisible units (i.e., wood, stone, etc.). Likewise if eternal ideas stand behind the accidental, shadowy world of matter then being has been thought in terms of permanent, separate and indivisible units. In both cases the unity (hen) of being is preserved by denying change based on separation. When being is thought after the model of separation then it is thought after beings. Beings are separate by definition. Aristotle thought that ultimately Antiphon and Parmenides made the mistake of taking individual beings for the one (hen) – being. They thought the enduring, eternal and immutable essence in beings, whether matter or idea was separate from beings and therefore, merely another type of being. They were unable to think unity and multiplicity together as the being of beings. Aristotle certainly thought through the problems in Antiphon and Parmenides that have been articulated by modern science but he still faces the question of natural beings and produced beings.

If evolution is thought in terms of Aristotle’s notion we must ask ourselves about the gradual change from simple chemical reactions to Homo erectus (human being). As each new species evolves it emerges and endures in its presence as its own being (i.e., bacteria, fish, monkey, human, etc.). As the being changes gradually over millions of years so also does the particular being. By thinking that beings are, we are thinking about the being (singular) of beings (plural). Aristotle is thinking after the being of beings, how beings are one and many simultaneously. Aristotle achieves this in presence. As present, beings show themselves as emergent and enduring. Thus they maintain themselves in phusis. For Aristotle, this means they have their origin (arche) in themselves. This is what he refers to as natural beings. If a being is made by a human such as a work of art, he thinks of that as techne. In the case of the being of art the cause (aition, that out of which a being comes to be and endures) is: hule (raw material, the whatness), telos (goal, the fulfillment and completion, the towards which), eidos (the knowledge of the artist about materials, brush strokes, etc,, the how) and techne (a gathering or bringing together of the other causes, the from which). Aristotle thinks beings can arise from natural means (in which case they have their origin in themselves) or techne (their origin is not in themselves). The being of the work of art does not have its eidos in itself like natural beings but in the mind of the artist. Therefore, how they show themselves (aletheia) is not from themselves but from the techne of the artist. Since natural beings come to be of themselves, they cannot be accidental, they have their essence in themselves. However, beings that are produced from techne have their origin and are governed outside of themselves. This makes produced beings possible for use and manipulation.

It seems that evolution as ‘natural’ produces human beings and other types of natural beings. Why couldn’t we say that the techne in nature produces beings with eidos, hule and telos? Evolution (techne) uses natural selection to manipulate biological matter (hule) and genetic adaptation (eidos) for survival (telos). Now that humans have figured out how to manipulate genetics faster than evolution and for various uses, we could easily say that genetic engineering is techne. So the question is how can we maintain a being that has its origin in itself and one that does not? It seems that humans can have ‘use’ value just like beings that are produced.

The problem posed here is how can we think beyond the use and manipulation value of human beings? In light of the gray areas discussed already between natural beings and produced beings how can we definitively suggest an essential, original difference in the two? Both, no matter their origin, can be thought in terms of their ‘use’ value. Heidegger thought that misunderstanding the difference in being and beings gave rise to technology and the dreaded industrial wasteland described by Junger. He thought by re-thinking the difference that got lost after Aristotle in Latin and subsequent Christianity we could find a second beginning. However, if there is a valid confusion of terms posed by the modern sciences we are back to Nietzsche’s nihilism and end of truth as envisioned and historically worked out from the Greeks. Thomas Aquinas, G.W.F. Hegel, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others have tried to found a thinking that would ensure a human future but each have resulted in historical failures. Philosophers have tried to re-think these avenues and discover where the Occident departed from thinking the being of beings and to establish the legitimate bearing of human being. Nietzsche’s answer was the collapse into nihilism and the mysterious arrival of the overman, the second coming of the human.

My current direction is working through Levinas and the radical rupture of ontology that can only be recuperated (and thus lost) into the same with the totalitarian assertion of the ‘not’. It may be that the anarchism of the face of the other and thinking after alterity in metaphysics holds the promise of ethics and a leap into the future. Levinas’ thinking would not imply separateness after the kind of Antiphon and Parmenides in the history of ontology and thus, fall into materialism that Derrida maintained. Levinas thinks of the face of the other as a rupture in ontology, the destruction of ontology and the history of the tyranny of light and it’s not. This thinking would bring down the history of ontology, the thinking of Being, from the Greeks. However, Levinas would also try to trace out another anarchical thought at work in metaphysics. His work does not think metaphysics toward phusis as Heidegger and Aristotle would but towards the other; the other that is not a being of Being nor a ‘not’ of Being but announces and brings about ‘me’ in absolute withdrawal. For Levinas this is the beginning and founding of Ethics, an anarchical founding. The history of light and it’s ‘not’, the dark, is the history of violence. This is why philosophy can only reawaken the history of violence and, as Sisyphus, eternally push the boulder of truth (aletheia) up the mountain of its clearing (lichtung). What is missed is not the difference of being and beings but ‘difference’ that is not neuter, ‘difference’ that is never sublated but always reawakened by the face of the other; ‘difference’ that is never cast off or lifted up in the light of self-determining logic and only swept away by violence and totality (completeness). Presence as immediacy is not mediated by the ‘not’ but given by the alterity of the other, not the neuter of the ‘is’ of difference. When the history of ontology, the peras (self limiting measure) of ‘me’ rising amidst the aperion in light, is thought as false then the difference, the aperion, that is not an ‘it’ but a he or a she, can destroy the fight for immutability and eternity. What is left? …my absolute finitude and indebtedness to the other that faces me and calls me to exist.

Philosophy Series 12 – Levinas and the Problem of Metaphysics


(1) Heidegger and Aristotle The Twofoldness of Being, Walter A. Brogan, State University of New York Press, Albany© 2005 State University of New York – This essay is largely inspired and informed by Walter Brogan’s magnificent insights into Heidegger and Aristotle.

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