Unit 2: Metaphysics

An Introduction to Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Heather Wilburn, Ph.D.


Aristotle sees philosophy as an extension of science, which means that he is attempting to understand the whole—the universe, humanity, and culture. He tries to find the basic principles that reveal the underlying pattern in all of the changing and conflicting aspects of our world.[1]

Modern science is grounded by a few basic concepts: mass, force, element, evolution and the like. Aristotle’s concepts are function, classification, and hierarchy; he uses these concepts to explain everything. While modern science emphasizes laws, Aristotle emphasizes the search for accurate definitions of things in terms of their essential properties. He believed that philosophy could find answers to things through observation. Another difference is that modern science sees the world as a machine whereas Aristotle sees it as an organism. Everything has a function or purpose and its essential nature is to grow and achieve its purpose. This applies to ethics, politics, art, and the natural world (ibid.).

Plato and Aristotle’s Relationship:

According to Plato’s theory of Forms, all else is an imperfect copy—an illusion in comparison. Aristotle believed that it is the physical world that is observable. He rejected Plato’s transcendentalism (i.e. his notion that there is a higher reality that is only graspable by the mind).

Explain the objections that Aristotle raised regarding Plato’s Forms:

Plato’s Forms fail to explain the relationship between the Forms and the particular things. Specifically, the idea that an object “participates” with a Form is vague and tells us nothing about how these things truly interact.

Plato’s Forms are degrading to the particular things we experience in the world

The eternal nature of the Forms made them useless for understanding how particular things could change.

Also, Aristotle wanted to determine the nature of reality, but Plato had argued that reality was something transcendent–beyond our experiences. Aristotle believed that this world is our world. He agreed with Plato that knowledge must be universal and concerned with what things have in common, but he rejected Plato’s view that Forms could be separated from particular things.

What is metaphysics for Aristotle?

Metaphysics, for Aristotle, was the study of nature and ourselves. In this sense he brings metaphysics to this world of sense experience–where we live, learn, know, think, and speak.

Metaphysics is the study of being qua being, which is, first, the study of the different ways the word “be” can be used.

The primary type of being is the “what,” which indicates the substance of the thing. For example, when I say that a person is good or that a person is 6 feet tall, we are referring to that person. This is the substance.

All other things are said to be because they are quantities or qualities of that substance (6 feet, or good). These are secondary.

Hence, substance is that which stands alone or first. I would exist even if I didn’t have hair, but my hair could not exist without me, so hair is not a substance.

He was Plato’s student so his rejection of Plato’s Forms was gradual. He began by asking some basic questions: what is real, what types of things exist, what is the world made of, is the table more or less real than squareness? His solution was to examine all of the things that could be said about the table and to classify these statements into categories, of which there are 10:

Joe is 6 feet tall: quantity.

Joe has brown eyes and brown eyes: quality.

Joe is 2 years older than Jill: relation.

Joe is in the office: place.

Joe is 18 years old: time.

Joe is standing: position.

Joe is in good health condition.

Other categories are action (cutting or burning), affection (is cut or burned), and substance (table or human being).

What is primary substance?

Substance is a unique category: it is basic. It is that which all of the other categories refer to. So, Joe (substance) is…or has all of the above qualities. Joe is primary or most basic and the others are secondary (ibid.). This means Joe can exist without the other categories but the other categories cannot exist without substance. For example, without a substance like Joe there is no condition of the thing being older or healthy.

Things that we make (artifacts) are not primary beings because primary beings have their own natures. Something we make cannot exist without a human being and, as such, have a lower existence.

How does matter + form relate to substance?

For Aristotle, a substance is a particular thing and its properties. The substance is the matter and the secondary categories or properties are form. A substance consists of matter and form. Form is not a separable realm as it was for Plato; it must exist with matter.

While Plato holds that the more abstract Forms are the most real, Aristotle thinks that the more concrete things are most real. For example, individuals are more real than species.

Aristotle gives four definitions of substance. What are these?

Substance is the thing referred to by a noun; the subject of a sentence. Joe is tall. Joe is the substance, which is independent of all else–all other qualities.

Substance is what underlines all the properties and changes in something. Joe is Joe despite the changes he undergoes.

Substance can be thought of as what is essential. “For example, it is part of the essence of being Socrates that he is a human being, that he lived in the fourth century B.C.E. and that he is wise. Other properties like his gray hair, big nose, or the like are all accidental rather than secondary.

Substance is a combination of form and matter. Form here means basically the same thing as Plato’s notion of Form, but it does not exist apart from matter (i.e. it is not transcendent). It is always informing some matter. Matter is what the thing is made out of and form is what gives the thing its shape and structure.

Use the little “f” when referring to Aristotle’s forms.

Essence does not change whereas accidental properties can.

So, we cannot separate form and matter, but we can distinguish the two. Clay is matter and it can be shaped to form a bowl (the shape is the form). We can talk about matter and form separately, which is what allows us to understand change and stability.

Substance changes but also remains stable (self).

If we are trying to understand something, why is being able to give a definition so important?

Given the essence of the thing is so very important and the fact that Aristotle does believe that knowledge is universal, it is important to understand the definitions of things (like Plato).

In order to organize our observations it is important to have a system. Aristotle classified animals according to those that laid eggs and those that gave birth to live young, by their means of movement, and so forth. This type of classification is a way to understand a thing’s nature. So, we have a specific animal then we can determine which group it belongs to.

The goal of philosophy is to understand the nature of things and understanding the nature of a thing means being able to define it. We can try to define all sorts of things: humans, art, happiness, etc. We must be able to define something if we are to understand it (Washburn).

If we are trying to understand something how would prioritizing things in a hierarchy be helpful?

Another important concept for Aristotle is hierarchy. If we want to truly understand something, understanding its relation and level of importance in comparison to other things is crucial.

Hierarchy: Hierarchy is an arrangement of things in a scale from the least to the most valuable. Aristotle believed that nature was a hierarchy. Everything has an essential nature, expressed in its definition and the most important things are its function or goal. For example, there are four types of life: 1) nutritive in plants, which absorb food and reproduce; 2) nutritive plus sensitive for simple animals that absorb food and reproduce but can also sense things; 3) locomotion for higher animals, which in addition to the other faculties, can move about; and 4) rationality for human beings, who do all the things below but also can use reason.

He also applied hierarchy to the physical world. As one ascends the scale from plant to animal to human, one sees an increase in the power of the mind. The highest development on earth is human reasoning or intellectual contemplation. Aristotle believed that the heavenly bodies were gods with greater powers of understanding than humans. They were made of an element called ether and did not eat, reproduce, perceive, or feel pleasure or pain. They only thought.

He believed that at the highest point there was a god that was pure thought, pure actuality (instead of potentiality), and the highest stage of growth. All activities are attempts to reach the pure actuality of god (I keep the term god in lower case letters, because Aristotle was prior to the monotheistic religions of the West: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

Everything an animal does is aimed at its fullest development of its potential. Everything strives for this state of pure consciousness. Aristotle called this the unmoved mover: the ultimate cause of everything including motion and change. The unmoved mover draws everything in the sense that it is the goal of all change. Everything is drawn toward it and things change because they are attempting to reach the unmoved mover/god (ibid.).

The idea that everything develops according to potential entails that all things have a purpose or goal. This is different than our modern conception of science and the push for causal explanations. Instead of asking why, Aristotle would have asked how. The answer to this question is given in terms of the purpose of the thing or the part in question.

Function: Everything in the world, for Aristotle, has a distinctive and essential function. Trees grow in certain ways depending on their kinds, buildings are made for certain purposes, human beings have their particular arts. In Aristotle’s view, this function or activity determines excellent characteristics or virtues. Good carpenters, for example, are those who build sturdy and beautiful things. Therefore, virtue in carpenters is an eye for proportion, kills with a saw and other tools, and a feel for what a piece of wood can and cannot do. In this sense the virtue of the thing under investigation means that it functions excellently according to its purpose.

The function of brakes in a car is to stop and the function of the battery is to provide electricity. To understand a car we must recognize what the function of its parts are. This holds true for plants and animals as well. To understand an animal we need to go beyond describing the parts or stages of growth and understand what the parts are for. For instance, the little pads on an octopus’ arms—the function is suction. The roots of a plant are not just for branching; they also absorb water and provide nutrients (ibid.).

What does the term telos or teleological mean?

Telos or Teleological: Aristotle believed that asking what the function of something is, is fundamental to explaining and understanding the natural world. Function meant natural development. When something exercises its function, it is fulfilling its nature. Hence, you can think of a thing’s function as its natural development. Growth is universal for all living things. An acorn’s function is to become an oak tree and its growth can be explained as its blind attempt to realize its true nature.

From the Greek, telos refers to the fulfillment, completion, or perfection of something. For Aristotle, everything has a final end or purpose and everything aims at some good. There are different goods (contrary to Plato) that correspond to different creatures, arts, or sciences and some of these ends are subordinate to more ultimate ends. For instance, a specific law’s goal may be to gain taxation; however, the more ultimate goal is for government to provide services that are directed at the citizen’s well being (ibid.). See his Nicomachean Ethics, Bk I, section 1-2 and 5-10.

Function of the Human Being: Because plants and animals also experience growth, nutrition, and sensation, these activities cannot be representative of human function in particular. Only human beings have the capacity for rationality, thus, Aristotle concludes that the function of the human being is the activity of the soul in accordance with reason. Reason is what makes us unique and if we want to understand what human beings are, we need to understand that we are rational beings.

What it means to be a rational being, for Aristotle, includes the ability, habits, wisdom, and judgment that enables us to bring a complex self into order as it unfolds—self-actualization or flourishing (Washburn).

Aristotle explains four causes. What are these?

In Aristotle’s teleological account, he does explain cause, but not in the same way we do today. For him there are four types of cause, all of which combined together explain why a thing is the way it is at any given time.

material cause: the clay of the bowl or the silver of the spoon

formal cause: the blueprint, model, or plan

efficient cause: the person or event that makes something happen

final cause: this is its telos

How does Aristotle’s teleological understanding of the world differ from how we think about the world today?

One of the main differences between how we think about these issues and how Aristotle did, is the fact that when we think about purpose we are generally referring to human activities (the purpose for my action). When we discuss nature we generally do not think in terms of purpose. However, Aristotle, thought that all things (natural, human, or artifact) have purpose. Everything that exists has to be accounted for in terms of inner purpose and the overall purpose it served in nature. This was the view until the 17th century and was obviously very influential in the development of Christian beliefs (Saint Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotle).

What is Aristotle’s concern with infinite regress?

Teleological explanations cannot go on forever. We cannot have an infinite regress. So, if x exists for the purpose of y, and y exists for the purpose of z, there must be an ultimate purpose that will explain them all (final cause). Likewise, if p makes q happen, and q makes r happen, there must be an end (efficient cause). We cannot go on forever, or infinitely. This is, once again, where Aristotle’s prime mover comes in; god.

Aristotle’s prime mover, however, is different than the Christian God in a few fundamental ways:

  • the prime mover did not create the universe or has no special concern for human beings.
  • the prime mover is more of a metaphysical necessity than a proper object of worship
  • ultimate goal was contemplation itself

  1. Phil Washburn, The Many Faces of Wisdom: Great Philosophers’ Visions of Philosophy (Pearson, 2002), 67-78. Hereafter this text will be referred to as MFW.


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An Introduction to Aristotle's Metaphysics Copyright © 2020 by Heather Wilburn, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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