TWO KINDS OF METAPHYSICS
D. R. Khashaba
When the Alexandrian editor(s) of Aristotle’s works collected his lecture notes on “first philosophy” and placed them after the writings on physical subjects they referred to them or titled them ta meta ta phusika. Whether they meant simply the writings that come after the physical ones or whether they meant to describe those writings as dealing with what is beyond physical things, that is anybody’s guess, but in any case that editorial fiat gave us the word ‘metaphysics’ which students of philosophy subsequently gave diverse, often irreconcilable, meanings. Unfortunately, no one has the right or the authority to single out one of those meanings and say: this and only this is what ‘metaphysics’ properly means. However, I believe it is possible and necessary to distinguish two basically different kinds of metaphysics to which it would be desirable to assign different designations if possible. These two radically different kinds I refer to as Platonic metaphysics and Aristotelian metaphysics. Essentially they have little in common other than that they give totally opposed answers to the question: What is ultimately real? I will first outline what I see as Plato’s metaphysics and follow that with an outline of Aristotle’s metaphysics. Other varieties have something of the one kind or of the other. But the travesty for which analytical philosophers have brazenly and rapaciously grabbed the name has nothing to do with either kind: for a sampling see Contemporary Readings in the Foundations of Metaphysics, ed. Stephen Laurence and Cynthia Macdonald, Blackwell, 1998.
I will use the word ‘metaphysics’ freely although neither Plato nor Aristotle, nor indeed any pre-Hellenistic philosopher, knew the word. In presenting Plato’s metaphysics I permit myself to give my own interpretation which is widely at variance with the mainstream academic interpretation. At certain points I also go beyond Plato in what I believe to be a genuine Platonic development. In presenting Aristotle’s metaphysics, with which I do not have much sympathy, I proceed with much diffidence. In other words, I will not quarrel with anyone who will contest my reading of Aristotle, for my primary intention is not to give an account of Aristotle’s Metaphysics but to exemplify the kind I designate Objective Metaphysics.
I beg the reader’s indulgence for the many reiterations and repetitions in what follows, especially under “Platonic Metaphysics”, for I am trying to drive home original notions that many students of philosophy find difficult to absorb.
I believe that very early in his philosophical career Plato reached his fundamental vision of reality. This vision was formed under two major influences. I do not assign priority to the one or the other: they may have been working simultaneously. On the one hand, Plato was profoundly impressed by Heraclitus’s insight into the unreality and essential evanescence of all things of the natural world. They are always in flux, have no permanence, and as such can have no assignable character and therefore cannot be the object of true knowledge. On the other hand, Socrates found all meaning and all value in the intelligible ideas that are born in the mind and have no being other than in the mind. Socrates distinguished between the intelligible, which was all that concerned him, and the perceptible in which he was not philosophically interested. It is in virtue of the intelligible ideas that we have our characteristic nature as human beings, good or bad. When a lion devours a deer the lion is not cruel and its act is not evil. When a man kills another man out of revenge or out of greed the man is bad and the act is evil.
When Socrates began his examination of an interlocutor by asking: what is, for instance, sôphrosunê (‘temperance’)? it was not his intention to reach a formal definition as Aristotle has misled us into thinking. Socrates wanted to help his interlocutor clear up confusions and obscurities in his thought, remove false associations, disentangle crippling entanglements of ideas and values. Socrates’ investigations never ended in a definition but invariably ended in aporia (perplexity) that hopefully would rid the interlocutor of the worst amathia (ignorance) – which is to believe that one knows what one does not know – and lead him to seek all meaning and all understanding in the self-evidence of the ideas in the mind. An act is good when it flows from a clear understanding of what is good. This is the gist of Socrates’ much traduced ‘intellectualist’ identification of virtue and ‘knowledge’ (an unhappy choice of word) and I find Socrates’ position essentially one with Kant’s likewise much-maligned maxim that an act is morally good when it is done ‘from duty’, that is, specifically from a clear understanding of what is morally good. A mother suckling her babe is doing something good but it is not, strictly speaking, a moral act.
Plato referred to an intelligible idea by the word eidos or the Greek word idea which originally simply meant shape or form. In contrast to the unreality or deceptive ‘reality’ of things in the natural world, the Forms are what is real and are all the reality we know. In the Phaedo this is repeatedly affirmed and emphasized. In his youthful enthusiasm Plato spoke of the Forms in a mystic fervour and a poetically devotional tone. He stressed, overstressed, the permanence and immutability of the Forms. In a flight of poetic imagination (in the Phaedrus) he gave the Forms a celestial abode.
He experimented with various formulae of expression relating the unchangeable Forms to the changeable natural things in which the Forms are exampled. These various modes of expression, none of which Plato thought final or found satisfactory, are what Aristotle criticizes as constituting Plato’s ‘theory of Forms’, disregarding the fact that Plato had anticipated all of Aristotle’s criticisms in the first part of the Parmenides. (It is conceivable that Aristotle had been voicing those criticisms in the Academy and that Plato in writing the Parmenides meant that first part to show that those criticisms did not touch his basic position.) Later on, in the Sophist, he criticizes the unguarded emphasis on the permanence and constancy of the Forms. Arguing with certain ‘Friends of the Forms’ (who may have been members of the Academy who took his youthful flights too seriously); he stresses that the real cannot be without life and understanding and that life and understanding cannot be without motion and mutation (Sophist, 248e-249a). I will come back to this important point in what follows.
In the Republic Plato’s vision of Reality finds its maturest expression in that central part extending from 472a in Book V to the end of Book VII which many see as a mere digression but which I see as the epitome of Platonism and the heart and core of all philosophy proper. That precious metaphysical gem in which epistemology, ontology, and moral philosophy are inextricably united begins as an attempt to answer the question “Who is a philosopher?” or “What is a philosopher?”.
We learn that a philosopher loves wisdom (Sophia) and desires all knowledge (pantos mathêmatos) (475b-c), but not any knowledge, not knowledge of the multiple things in the outer world, but knowledge of the one intelligible form that gives the many their character, their meaning, and what share of imperfect ‘reality’ they have. This crucial distinction between the intelligible one, the form, that is fully real and the perceptible many that only have a borrowed and imperfect ‘reality’ is implied in Plato’s affirmation that “what wholly is, is wholly knowable, what is not, is in no way knowable” (Republic, 477a). (I will not here digress into the question of ‘knowledge’ of what is in-between what is and what is not, which Plato named doxa, opinion, or pistis, belief.) To sum up: a philosopher, lover of the intelligible, is a lover of what is real (480a), for the intelligible is not only real but is all that is real in the fullest sense, or as we may say, the intelligible is the metaphysically real.
In affirming that “what wholly is, is wholly knowable, what is not, is in no way knowable” Plato takes up the insight expressed in Parmenides’s principle: “It is the same thing to be intelligible and to be”: tauto gar esti noein te kai einai, and again: to gar auto noein estin te kai einai. For Plato alêtheia does not have its customary meaning ‘truth’ but always means ‘reality’ and is synonymous with ousia (‘essence’), to on (being) and ho estin (what is). Likewise, einai – apart from its idiomatic usage in conversation to mean ‘it is so’ or ‘that is right’ – never means ‘is objectively existent’ but always ‘is subjectively real’. Again he often uses phusis to mean – not phenomenal nature, the things we see and touch – but the reality beyond that.
We find ourselves reminded of the lesson of the Phaedo: the farther we withdraw away from what is given in sensuous experience and dwell on what is bred in the mind, the closer we are to the higher reaches of knowledge (intelligence, understanding, reason) and to communion with reality. Reality for Plato is a vision, a spiritual experience, a state of perfection we attain, not the product of a syllogistic process we perform.
An art critic speaks of aesthetic reality, a reality in the painting or sonata or drama not to be found in the outer world: if you find that notion meaningful you will understand what is meant by intelligible reality, a reality in us and for us beside which all the actualities of the natural world are fleeting shadows. Music gives creative expression to our internal reality in coherent form and in that sense it is metaphysical, perhaps the purest of metaphysics. (See the Note appended at the end of this essay.)
Plato depicts in the Republic the philosopher’s progress towards the vision of ultimate Reality in winged words that are reminiscent of Diotima’s description (in the Symposium) of the lover’s ascent to the vision of absolute Beauty. I make no apology for quoting in full this Republic passage that I have repeatedly quoted before:
“Would we not be making a reasonable defence when we say that a true philosophical nature aspires to what IS, does not tarry by the many particulars that are thought to be, but goes forth with no blunting and no slackening of her desire, until she grasps the essence of every reality by that in her soul to which it is becoming – that is, what is congenial – to grasp that, approaching and mingling with what has true being, gives birth to reason and reality; enjoys knowledge and true life and is nourished, and then has relief of her birth pangs, but not before then?” (490a-b.)
This inspired passage, with its mystic fervour and its poetic expression, shows that the philosophical vision of Reality is, and can never be anything other than, a subjective experience, an experience that is strictly ineffable, but that yet “gives birth to reason and reality”, in accord with Plato’s prophetic notion of tokos en kalôi (procreation in beauty) introduced in the Symposium. For reality cannot be passive or inactive; it must be active or rather it is sheer activity. I will revert to this point and develop it further in what follows since it is crucial for what I will designate ‘subjective metaphysics’.
The passage is necessarily mystical in tone, for philosophical understanding in its highest reaches is essentially a mystic experience, being an immediate awareness of the perfection of being in the integrity of creative intelligence. It is necessary to lay stress here on two essential points. It is (1) by becoming united with reality, and (2) by engendering reason and real essences, that a philosopher attains understanding. Philosophical understanding is at no point passive, a reception of something from outside; it is through and through a creative act, and it is that creative act itself that is the reality that the philosopher comes to behold and to understand. For Plato, philosophical understanding, reality, and the good life are inseparable.
Plato’s vision of Reality finds its profoundest expression in what he has to say about the Form of the Good. We will therefore dwell at some length on this creative notion.
As in Socrates’ examinations we found all particular virtues merging in one Virtue, and that Virtue is found to be one with ‘knowledge’ (or wisdom or understanding) and when we ask what that ‘knowledge’ is we find it is one with virtue, so in the Republic we find all forms merging in the Good which, while it is itself beyond knowledge and beyond being, is the origin of all knowledge and being.
At one point Socrates states that our ruler-candidates (for the model state delineated in the Republic) will have to be tested for their moral characteristics and for their capacity to endure strenuous study, and be trained in the greatest of studies. Adeimantus asks, “What are these greatest of studies?” (503e-504a.) At this point we get to the core of the metaphysical problem. Socrates affirms that the highest knowledge is the Form of the Good, hê tou agathou idea megiston mathêma. It is crucial to note that Plato does not say that the highest knowledge is knowledge of the Form of the Good: the Form of the Good is itself all understanding and all being. To miss this is to fail to get to the core of Plato’s metaphysics. (Plato’s translators, failing to grasp this, disfigure the true meaning by ‘correcting’ Plato’s text in their translations.)
Socrates also says that we have been saying this all the time (504e-505a). Is this not what Socrates in all his discourses had been leading up to? All virtue is one and is one with knowledge. And when we ask, “What knowledge?” the answer is invariably, “Knowledge of the good”. And when we ask, “But what is the good?” the only answer we get is that the good is knowledge. (See the didactic conversations of Socrates with the lad Clinias and Chapter Three of my Plato: An Interpretation, 2005.) The good is what we arrive at when we follow unhampered reason to the seat of active, creative intelligence. The apex of the dialectic quest for the meaning of true being, of goodness, and of intelligence is to behold all these as inseparable aspects of one whole, one reality. (Plato has various usages for the term ‘dialectic’ but it is what he says in the Republic that is most significant.)
The Good takes quite a new meaning and a new profundity, and it is no wonder that 'Socrates' goes on to say that we do not know the Good sufficiently (505a). Indeed, as we will see in the sequel, after all that we have been saying about the greatest study and the study of the Good, there is in fact no science of the Good and no direct study of the Good. There is only a constant approach, a constant aspiring, to the Good. Our studies when properly pursued will lead us to where we can have a vision of the Good. And where do we behold that vision? Within ourselves. It is the selfsame vision that Socrates has been leading us to behold in prodding us to discover our inner reality and our proper worth in our active intelligence. And it is the selfsame vision that is given mystical expression in the mystic ascent described by Diotima in the Symposium. It is our inner reality, but in Plato's creative mind it has given birth to the idea of absolute Reality. Socrates believed in God as the principle of moral perfection; Plato created the God of metaphysical perfection.
When pressed to say what the Good is Socrates offers a simile: “I am willing to tell you of a child of the Good that is very like it”, ne says (506d-e). Our knowledge of ultimate Reality cannot be encapsulated in a formula of words or in any determinate formulation of thought. This highest knowledge, the knowledge of the Good is an experience to be attained in the process of searching for it by reason. The journey towards Reality, Intelligence, and the Good has no extraneous end: the journey itself is the end.
Preparing to give his account of the child of the Good that is very like it, Socrates finds it necessary to recall (507b-c) the root conception of the distinction between the multiple actual instances of any character and the unique intelligible form of that character, which IS, which has true being; the multiple being perceptible but not intelligible, while the forms are intelligible but not perceptible. This reminder was necessary because the highest reality accessible to us, symbolized by the Sun as the child of the Good, is none other than the seat and fount of the intelligible realm, the mind as active, creative intelligence, giving birth to all forms in which and through which alone the things of the world have meaning and have what ‘reality’ they have..
The Sun is the offspring and the like of the Good, standing, in the visible sphere, to sight and the visible, in the same relation as the Good stands, in the intelligible realm, to mind and the intelligible. What gives reality to the things known and the power of knowing to the knower, is the form of the Good. Being the source of knowledge and of reality (aitian d' epistêmês ousan kai alêtheias), knowledge and reality both being beautiful, it is yet other than these and more beautiful. Just as light and sight are akin to the Sun but are not the Sun, so knowledge and reality (epistêmên de kai alêtheian) are akin to the Good but are not the Good, for the Good is far above these in excellence (508e-509a).
Once again we note the mystic fervour and the mystic language for the Form of the Good is the idea of perfection, the only viable metaphysical conception of Reality. To have a conception of reality on the metaphysical plane at all is to have a conception of what the most perfect being is. Before Plato and after Plato many thinkers offered their conceptions of ultimate reality, of the most perfect being. But it was Plato who saw that, though we cannot know Reality objectively, our idea of Reality is the reality we live in and that confers reality on all the contents of our experience. (The propounders of the Ontological Proof, from Anselm to Descartes. sought in vain to ‘prove’ the independent existence of a Perfect Being: All they could do and all they had need to do was to affirm that the idea is real in us and that it confers intelligibility and reality on all things. Critics of the Ontological Proof focused on the formal error and disregarded the insight in that creative idea.)
In 379a-b we had been told that poets must speak of God as he truly is, and that God is truly good. We may call this the fundamental myth of all philosophy. The philosopher identifies ultimate reality with perfection, primarily moral perfection, not because this is a fact for which she or he can find evidence or which she or he can deduce from any premises, but because this is the idea of Reality which invests life with meaning and value. Are we then deceiving ourselves? No. Like Kant in his more sanguine moments, I say that reason can discover no meaning or value in the actual world. When dealing with the 'outside' world reason can only give us phenomena, formulae of processes and regularities, all perfectly sterilized. The Reality philosophy offers us is our reality, but it is also a Reality of which we can say, if the fount and origin and fundament of all things is to be intelligible, it must be such. That is why, though I maintain that all the reality we know is the reality of creative intelligence in ourselves, yet I think it reasonable to say that if we are to find ultimate Reality intelligible we have to see it as ultimately good and intelligent. In saying this I believe I am not falsifying or departing from Plato’s metaphysical vision.
The vision of Reality, being an inner, essentially mystic experience, is strictly ineffable and cannot be exhausted or comprehended in any formulation of thought or words. But though ineffable it is not dumb. It is a living, fecund experience, giving birth to reason and reality garbed in oracular myth, in meaningful metaphor, in suggestive aphorism. This is tokos en kalôi and it is the same in a poet, in an artist, in a philosopher, or in a lover. But the myth, the metaphor, and the aphorism if mistaken for objective truth smother the intelligence and stifle the inner life. That is why Plato insists that the ground of all philosophical formulations must be destroyed (anairein, Republic, 533c). This is a point I have dealt with repeatedly and extensively in Plato: An Interpretation and elsewhere and will not go into further here.
In the Sophist Plato speaks of the raging contest between those who say that only the intelligible is real and those who think that only what they can see and touch and handle is real. He likens this contest to the mythical battle of the Gods and the Giants. He then asks: If both what the idealists and what the materialists believe in are in a sense real, what is the character common to both classes that justifies our giving them the same designation? Plato then gives in a few words an answer that is of the highest philosophical import and that, to my knowledge, only A. N. Whitehead among modern philosophers has fully appreciated. Plato says that “things that are, are no other thing than activity”, ta onta hôs estin ouk allo ti plên dunamis (247e). We are speaking of what is common to both invisible and visible things. We equate being real (in both the philosophical and the common sense of the word) with activity (dunamis). Also neing affected is not a negatively passive state, but is an internal adaptation and thus an activity. Plato is not departing from or altering any position he had held, but is giving explicit expression to an aspect of his philosophy which his youthful language had tended to obscure. Elsewhere Plato often equates a particular aretê (virtue) with a specific dunamis (function, activity). In what follows I will permit myself to give Plato’s brief statement a development that goes beyond Plato’s explicit words but that I believe to be fully consistent with his fundamental position: But before doing that let us tarry a while to note that here we have no argument, no deduction or demonstration, but an oracular declaration. No original philosopher ever reaches his creative notions by reasoning from prior premises. Argument comes later to help coordinate and harmonize various aspects of the philosopher’s thought and to facilitate giving an intelligible exposition. This runs counter to fixed academic convictions and even original philosophers have often misrepresented their own work by failing to acknowledge the true nature of philosophical thinking, the most striking example of this being Spinoza who arduously laboured to present his work as a systematic geometrical structure when he was truly only developing the notions inherent in the definitions and axioms prefacing his Ethics. And the venerable Kant laid himself open to Nietzsche’s bitter ridicule by choosing to support his valuable insights by an imposing architectonic of austere reasoning. When Schopenhauer and Nietzsche presented their creative visions prophetically only the reception of their work outside academic circles forced the professors to pay attention.
When we say that all things that are ‘really real’ and all things that in any sense share in ‘reality’ are nothing but dunamis (not ‘power’ but activity, creativity) we should understand that what is real is not a thing that is active but that it is sheer activity; the activity is the reality. I have to insist on this fundamental metaphysical principle and to keep reiterating it ad nauseam since it is difficult to absorb because it is opposed to our habitual linguistic usages and our common ways of thinking. There is no reality, no being, other than creativity; whatever is, is sheer creativity; the creativity is the reality. In my philosophy ultimate Reality, which I name Creative Eternity, is nothing but creative intelligence, or better put, intelligent creativity. I maintain that wirhout accepting creativity as an ultimate principle, as an ultimate dimension of Reality, we cannot find being or becoming intelligible. Aain, I maintain that the riddles encumbering the ‘problem’ of Free Will can only be resolved by tne principle of creativity. (“Free Will as Creativity” in The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009.) I confess I am here going beyond anything definitely stated or suggested by Plato, but I insist that I see my position as a genuine flowering of Plato’s.
The above account, to my understanding, is the gist of Plato’s metaphysics. I cannot confidently name one modern philosopher as representing this position. In my late teens I read Bradley’s Appearance and Reality and was profoundly impressed by his vision of absolute Reality as the All and by his insistence on the imperfection and the contradictoriness of all particular, finite being. But I think that Bradley’s Reality, like the One of Parmenides, remained a thing outside us. I have lately made a close study of A. N. Whitehead’s philosophical works in which I have found much to admire. But Whitehead could not completely free himself from his fundamental objective outlook as evidenced by his subtitling what many see as his magnum opus “An Essay in Cosmology”. In what I say of ultimate Reality I do not refer to the world outside us; I merely depict the only way I can find things intelligible.
To distinguish this kind of metaphysics from the Aristotelian kind I propose to designate it Subjective Metaphysics, calling the Aristotelian kind Objective Metaphysics, to which we will now turn.
Aristotle spent twenty years in Plato’s Academy, from the impressionable age of twenty to the ripe age of forty, and yet failed completely to understand Plato’s outlook and vision because he had a different mind and different interests. If this statement sounds preposterous, I will recall one case from the twentieth century that might help make it sound less so. When Ludwig Wittgenstein went to Cambridge to study under Bertrand Russell, Russell had high hopes for the young Austrian. He dreamed that this brilliant youth would complete the work of the master. When Wittgenstein submitted to him his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Russell wrote a highly laudatory introduction to the slender volume in which he gave an outline of what he saw as the philosophy of the Tractatus, an account that was in flat contradiction to what Wittgenstein said in his own preface and that both men explicitly admitted later on was a gross misreading of Wittgenstein’s text. (See “The Wittgenstein Enigma” in The Sphinx and the Phoenix.)
We do justice to both Plato and Aristotle when we realize that they were raising radically different questions relating to radically different conceptions of reality. Aristotle was an outward-looking thinker. He was philosophically interested in the things of the outer world. He classified plants and animals. He asked his former student Alexander to send him specimens from the distant lands he conquered. It is not unlikely that the method of Collection and Division with which Plato experimented for some time was a child of Aristotle’s brain.
In the Categories Aristotle ranges all that can be predicated of a subject on a principle totally distinct from that on which the classification of animals and plants into species and genera was made. Aristotle’s doctrine of Categories has been a bone of contention among scholars. I have neither competence nor desire to enter into this fray. I only mention the doctrine of Categories because I suppose it was a stage or a side-track in Aristotle’s endless striving to reach the idea of a character common to all beings, for this was a constant goal in Aristotle’s theoretical thinking. The Categories, in their logical function, could not be subsumed in a higher Category. For Aristotle’s Categories are not gradations of abstraction from particular characters, as in the case of classification in successive species and genera, but are classes of the aspects under which we may view things, classes of the answers we may give to the questions: what? where? when? etc. I do not see how this has any metaphysical significance or relevance. It is on par with the grammarian’s classification of words into nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc.
If Aristotle meant that when we have specified all the Categories of a thing then we have defined its ousia, ousia would be for Aristotle none other than the concrete thing with all its particular characteristics, in other words the concrete thing would be the reality. Aristotle with his interest in actual things may have meant that in one of his moods. But how does that relate to his quest for the meaning of Being as Being? The pluralistic empiricist is content with the view that the concrete thing (or its nuclear and subnuclear constituents) is what is real, but then the empiricist consistently throws all metaphysics to the dustbin.
The search for the highest Being as Being had to proceed along a different route. The farther away we move from the particular with its specific characteristics, the higher the abstraction, the nearer we are to a common character in all things, but the poorer the class is in content. Thus when we get to that highest abstraction we find on our hands not any definite character but the bare notion of Being that has no content at all. It is an empty barren notion. Yet, by an unaccountable imaginative leap, Aristotle imports into it the characters of perfection and thought. But the perfection is destitute of value and the thought thinks nothing but its own empty being. For indeed, Aristotle’s objective approach that works well in the sphere of the finite, perceptible things of the natural world, is unfit to deal with the invisible, the purely intelligible, Plato’s realities, Kant’s Ideals of Pure Reason. The objective approach to the quest of reality can give us a coherent, consistent cosmology, but the only conception of the All it can reach or present is the pluralistic sum-total of all things.
I maintain that the metaphysical question – any meaningful formulation of the question itself or any relevant answer to it – cannot be reached through the investigation of the actual things of the natural world. As Socrates emphatically insisted, no genuinely philosophical question can be answered by the investigation of things but only by the examination of ideas in the mind. Aristotle could have a meaningful, imaginative, metaphysics but it was totally unrelated to his scientific investigations. Kant re-discovered the Socratic insight: the investigation of the phenomenal world and philosophical reflection on ‘the Ideals of Pure Reason’ are radically distinct spheres. A. N. Whitehead failed to break through the confines of his cosmology to form a metaphysics because he failed to see this.
It seems that Aristotle posed the question: What is the ultimat being of things? and finding that ultimately Being as Being is inexplicable, instead of accepting that as an ultimate mystery that we cannot probe, assumed that it must be caused. Apparently he thus made the leap from the idea of bare inexplicable being to the being of a Being that causes all being. To my mind this does not help us evade the ultimate mystery of Being, for the being of the ultimate Thinking Being remains unexplained. Besides, Aristotle’s Thinking Being thinks its own being but apparently does not think things into being. The fly in the ointment is that Aristotle wanted a metaphysics for the actual natural world. This is an illusory goal. Of the actual world all we can know are the transitory regularities we detect in the elusive appearances: that is the whole object of natural science. The only reality we are vouchsafed to know is the reality of the intelligible realm, a reality we create to give intelligibility to our living experience.
In Generatione et Corruptione Aristotle expounds his doctrine of the four causes. But these are not causes in any cogent sense, not even, strictly speaking, the efficient cause. In the ‘autobiographical’ section of the Phaedo Socrates makes a distinction between the true cause and the conditions in the absence of which the cause does not function (98c-99a). But we need not impose Socrates’ or Plato’s understanding of ‘cause’ on Aristotle. Aristotle’s four causes are factors that have to be there for a thing to come to be that was not before, or rather, are factors that we can abstract from a thing that has come to be. The material cause is the state of affairs that must have been there for the new state of affairs to issue from, for it is inconceivable that something should come out of nothing. I suppose that Aristotle would have ridiculed the monotheistic notion of a God creating the world out of nothing. Plato’s Demiurge brings order into a state of chaos that was already there. I am obviously widening the notion of material cause: Homer brought forth the Iliad from impressions, sensations, memories, longings, dreams that he worked into a coherent whole. The formal cause is the shape, the configuration, of the thing that becomes when it becomes. The final cause is the formal cause as envisioned by the maker in the course of the making. But what would it correspond to in the case of ‘natural processes’ where we presume there is no intelligent agency? The efficient cause also is meaningless apart from the notion of agency. A house does not build itself. There must have been forethought and will for it to become. Aristotle’s efficient cause cannot apply to natural processes unless we suppose there is purposiveness behind all processes. Perhaps this was what Aristotle was intimating in his notion of entelechy. For Aristotle was not a full-blooded empiricist. He was outer-looking, studied the things of the natural world empirically, but he had enough of the Academy culture and of the Hellenic spirit in him to be blind to the central role of intelligence in all things. That is why his hughest abstraction, Being, had to be a thinking being. Our modern Empiricists finding that the empirical methodology was all they needed to carry on their objective (extraneous) investigations of objective (outer) things studied objectively (from the outside), became totally blind to what is within. And not only the Empiricists: the Rationalist Descartes, having reduced all reality to two non-communicating substances, looking at a frolicking kitten practising its caprices and its pranks, could only see an automaton. Is it to be wondered at that, having plunged ourselves into a world without mind, we are hurtling towards self-destruction?
Aristotle was certainly insightful in seeing that we cannot accept the persistence of a thing in being what it is as a brute fact; this is to stifle the mind’s insatiable yearning for intelligibility. Besides, as Plato in his later works insisted, nothing is ever a stable ‘this’ or a stable ‘what’, for as Heraclitus had said, everything is ceaselessly becoming what it is not.
Let us say that Aristotle seeks the cause of everything being as it is, and finds that cause in intelligence. But where are we to locate that intelligence? That is what differentiates the two kinds of metaphysics I am trying to distinguish. The subjective metaphysician finds it within us, in our active, creative mind, and acknowledges that this vision of an active, creative intelligence is a myth that satisfies us and that invests all things with intelligibility. The objective metaphysician places the intelligence outside us. For reasons I have repeatedly given, I don’t find this acceptable, but perhaps to the end of time there will be thoughtful persons who will adopt this or that approach.
To my mind any cosmological speculation lies outside the scope of philosophy proper. Cosmology must be relegated to theoretical science. I do not intend to expand on this point here. Plato presented a cosmology in the Timaeus, but he explicitly described it as a ‘likely tale’. Had Aristotle understood Plato properly, he would have presented his cosmology as a tentative hypothesis, the most likely under the current state of knowledge based on observation of the world around us.
To say that to be is to be alive is good philosophy but bad science. The philosopher says: there is life in all things and there is intelligence in all things, but adds: this is the only way I can find things intelligible. But if a scientist makes that same statement he would mean that that is a fact that can be observed and verified; wnich is not the case. Aristotle had a foot in either world and that harms both his philosophy and his science. Practically all modern philosophers err by thinking their speculations are true of the natural world. Modern scientists on the other hand, contenting themselves with what can be observed and empirically verified, are blind to intelligible realities.
Aristotle arrives at his notion of an Unmoved Mover by a specious argument when he premises that a thing desired or a thing thought are causes of motion. A thing desired does not move the desirer extraneously; it is the idea of the thing desired within the desirer that issues in the movement. This is so too with ‘a thing thought’.
Aristotle argues at great length for the intelligibility of things, yet no argument is needed: intelligibility is the self-evidence of our own active, creative intelligence, and the intelligibility conferred by the mind on things is only light shed by that intelligence. This statement is necessarily tautologous; it could not be otherwise.
Can a definition of the World or of the All give us understanding of the World or of the All? As Socrates repeatedly showed in his examinations of ideas, a definition of anything gives an account of the thing in terms of what is other than the thing itself; a definition is necessarily always extraneous and cannot give us insight into the reality of the thing defined. That is why all the investigations of Socrates into the meaning of an idea invariably end in aporia (perplexity). Only a creative mythical or metaphorical expression, a creative tokos engendering an ekgonos of the inner reality gives us insight into the reality of the reality. That is why, let me repeat, poets are the truest philosophers and why the best philosophers are those who speak in myth and parable.
To say that the divine Thinker thinks all species of animals and plants into being would be a good myth that gives intelligibility to the becoming of all that becomes, but it must be acknowledged as myth: to affirm that it is true of the actual world would be an error, the error commited by all theology. But Aristotle found that view unacceptable: it would have involved qualifying his view that the divine Being thinks only its own thinking and stands aloofly apart from the actual world. Aristotle also rejected the view that actual things in the world could be derived from their mathematical aspects. Pythagoras could not satisfy him nor would Berkeley have satisfied him.
If Books 13 and 14 were placed as Aristotle deliberately had or would have placed them, and if their conclusions are entirely negative, then it seems that Aristotle finally concluded that Being ultimately remains a mystery. He would then have been right in thinking it a mystery that will always remain with us and that we, as thinking beings, can never evade facing. That harmonizes with Plato’s view that we can only, and must always, give expression to our insight into Reality in myths that we must as constantly demolish in dialectical examination. But where will that leave Aristotle’s positive speculation on, to use the easiest code word, God? Subjective Metaphysics finds ultimate Reality in an idea within us that is one with our inner reality and that we can never encapsulate in a formula of words but that we have to reflect in creative thought and creative deed. Objective Metaphysics speaks of an outer world and an outer Higher Being. Well and good. But Kant, to my mind, showed in the Antinomies of Pure Reason that all answers to all possible questions about the reality of the outer world, about the World as a Whole, or about an ultimate Reality outside us, are all contradictory and all futile.
Thus we have two fundamental kinds of metaphysics. The one finds that our subjectivity is the locus of reality and that, while that reality is strictly ineffable, yet poets, musicians, playwrights, novelists, essayists, authors of belles-lettres (that genre that has sadly disappeared), and philosophers have been bringing us in communion with that reality, enriching our souls and enriching our world. The other kind seeks to find reality in the world surrounding us, sometimes by imaginatively raising structures of pure reasoning, sometimes by synthesizing and developing the findings of natural science. In either case they give us theoretical vistas for our thought to pleasantly roam in. My chief objection against those who ply this objective metaphysics is that they claim to give us truth where there is no truth; truth is a notion that has meaning in the sphere of empirical, verifiable science, wrongfully imported into a sphere where it has no meaning and no applicability: you might as well try to apply the criterion of truth or falsehood to Coleridge’s Kubla Khan or Mozart’s Kleine Nachtmusik. Other than these two kinds of metaphysics, or hybrids of these two fundamental kinds, since there is no law criminalizing the misappropriation and misuse of philosophical terms, marauders from a sphere totally unrelated to the questions of meaning and value that have engaged the thought of philosophers from the earliest times, took over the name without reason, without justification, and without need. I am speaking of analytical philosophers who took a craze for the prefix ‘meta’ and have been calling their empty symbol-juggling ‘metaphysics’.
NOTE: While working on this essay I happened to be reading a wonderful little book that perhaps no one now would remember or even have a hazy notion about the author, Irwin Edman. (Or it may be that in saying this I am merely revealing my ignorance.) I owe the paragraph above where I refer to this Note to evocations emanating from that book. I was tempted to quote long passages from it; had I not resisted the temptation I might have quoted at least nearly the whole of chapter 5, “Sounds, the Ears, and the Musician” and large excerpts from the final chapter “Art and Philosophy”. As that was impracticable I thought the least I could do is to draw attention to this beautiful forgotten book: Arts and the Man, by Irwin Edman, 1928, 1939, 1949, being a revised and enlarged edition of the author’s book published in 1928 under the title The World, the Arts and the Artist. I have been reading the third Mentor Books printing, December, 1951. It appears that up to the middle of the twentieth century people still appreciated good books.
Sixth-October City, Egypt.
January 9, 2015.