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Aristotle, an Ancient Greek philosopher, had a different view of what constitutes the nature of a thing than the materialist philosophers at his time. Aristotle argues against these philosophers by first presenting their view. These views have been discussed by philosophers prior to Aristotle, but he disagreed with some of these philosophers, so he presented new definitions and newly constructed views. For example, he writes: “Some people think that the nature and [substance] of a thing which is due to nature is the primary constitute present in I, <something> uniformed in itself.” (193a10-193a12) In this quote, Aristotle is discussing some philosopher’s view of the nature of existing things. Aristotle is laying out a view where existing things either exist by nature or exist due to other causes. Existing things can be placed into two categories, “those which exist by nature and those which exist from other causes.” (Lear 15) This a view held by some of Aristotle’s predecessors (Antiphon); the view that “a thing’s nature is the material stuff which constitutes it.” (Lear 16) For instance, “the wood is the nature of the bed,” and similarly “the bronze the nature of the statue.” (193a10-193a12) Accordingly, Antiphon’s analogy does not consider the form of the bed, he considers the form of the bed as an attribute imposed on it and not its actual nature. This I believe is an important division between two accounts of what a thing is; either the real nature of the thing is the material it is made of (the materialist account known as atomism), or the real nature of the thing is “the shape or form which is specified in the definition of the thing.” (193a30-193a31) I disagree with the former account and agree with Aristotle in that “the form indeed is nature,” and matter is only the potential. Followingly, the form of a thing is the end of the process of coming to be, whereas matter is that which comes to have the form. Followingly, the form of a thing is the end of the process of coming to be, whereas matter is that which comes to have the form.
Aristotle continues to lay out the view of “some people” by which he means Antiphon and others who share his view. Aristotle writes, “Thus in a bed, it would be the wood, in a statue the bronze.” (193a10-193a12) According to Lear, Aristotle thinks that if we want to use the craft-nature analogy (i.e. bed to wood) to understand the nature of a thing, we must not regard the form or shape of a thing as something that is superficially imposed on it. (Lear 17)
Followingly, Aristotle further presents Antiphon’s view. He writes, “It is an indication of this, says Antiphon that if you bury a bed, and the decomposition gets the ability to send up a shoot, what comes up will not be a bed but wood.” (193a130193a16) Here, Antiphon is using the bed example to argue that the nature of a thing is the matter not the form. In other words, the nature of a bed is the wood not its shape or form. This means that Antiphon disagrees with Aristotle that the nature of a thing is its form, instead, Antiphon believes that matter is what constitute the nature of a thing. In order to prove his point, Antiphon is arguing that when we plant a bed, “what would emerge from the rotting bed would not be another baby bed, but a shoot which would grow into wood.” Antiphon’s point here is to show this as evidence that real nature of the bed is wood. The shape of form of the bed “was merely an attribute imposed on it.” (Lear 16)
On a first thought, we may agree with Antiphon that the wood (i.e., the matter) is the nature of the bed. However, Aristotle argues that in order to really know what the nature of a bed is, we should ask, “what is it to be a bed.” This question causes us to step back and reconsider Antiphon’s view. It becomes clearer that for a thing to be a bed, in needs to have the “form imposed on it.” If we instead say wood, Aristotle would say that “a pile of wood is at best a bed only potentially.” (Physics II. I 193a34-5) With the help of a craftsman, the potentiality becomes actuality. That is, the pile of wood which once was only a potential, now becomes actualized into a bed.
While the argument revolves around what the nature of a thing is, Aristotle is trying to prove that what is causing a thing to change is its nature. So, on a broader level, the disagreement between them can be characterized as a disagreement on whether (1) that which persist unchanged through the process of change determines what a thing really is; or (2) it is the particular form which a thing comes to take as a consequence of the process of change.
Given that that which persists unchanged is Antiphon’s definition of a thing’s nature, Aristotle writes that this view “seems to show that the disposition of parts customary for beds and the artistry belong only by virtue of concurrence.” (193a13-193a16) In other words, Antiphon’s view entails that the artificial arrangement the craftsman produces is just an incidental attribute and not the primary constitute. The primary constitute of the bed in Antiphon’s view is “that which persists uninterruptedly while being affected in these ways.” (193a13-193a16) To recap Aristotle thinks the view of the people he is recording here is false. For Aristotle, “form indeed is nature rather than the matter; for a thing is more properly said to be what it is when it exists in actuality than when it exists potentially.” (193b7-193b12) One may reasonably object to Aristotle and ask about the difference between unnatural things, such as a bed, and natural things, such as a human body. Supposing that one accepts Aristotle’s position, one might ask, is this the case for everything or only for unnatural things?
To understand Aristotle’s response, one must understand that things that are self-generating such as a plant and unlike a bed, have an intrinsic principle of motion. This principle of own production rests in them not incidentally or superficially but primarily and essentially. If an object like a bed does not have an intrinsic cause of it becoming something else, then it must have come to be by another interfering cause such as a craftsman, or by mere incidence.
For the sake of clarification, let us consider an analogy Aristotle presents. He presents an analogy of a doctor who can heals himself as a result of his training. It is not that the doctor possesses the ability to heal (i.e., has the principle of own production) because he is a patient, instead it is a mere incident that the same person happened to be a doctor and a patient. This explains why these attributes – for instance, being a doctor and a patient at the same time – are not always found together. Artificial objects like a bed do not possess “the principle of [their] own production,” rather the principle is in something else outside of the object. While it may be the case that somethings possess the ability to cause change in themselves (i.e. having the principle of their own production), Aristotle believes that it is not as a result of what they are. (192b24-192b32)
To further support the account that form, not matter, is the true nature of a thing, Aristotle “conceptualizes [the natural process of generation] as a process in which the organism comes to realize its (natural) form.” However, in living things we observe a process of growing and maturing, which means that matter is persistent during the process of change in form. Further, upon the death of an organism, it no longer can engage in motion (i.e. to reach a form), which means that at the end what is left is matter.
If form is superior to matter, then what must we call an organism after it has died, given that it no longer can reach a form and that what is left is matter? To refer to the thing’s nature as the form would not suffice because after it dies, it no longer has a form. Similarly, form is dependent on matter in some sense, particularly in natural organisms. (Lear 18)
The notion that an organism loses the ability to get into a form shakes Aristotle’s position, but it becomes weaker once we realize that “matter begins to decay simultaneously with death.” (Lear 18) There is a distinction between natural forms and an organism’s structure. The force for future growth that exists within an organism is the form, according to Lear. So, the form in a young organism is the force within it that makes it reach its potential. Once the organism has reached maturity, the form is no longer a potential, it becomes actual. Form, as opposed to matter, is what constitutes a thing’s nature. Additionally, form in artifacts is different than form in natural organisms. In an artifact, form is the shape it takes; whereas in a natural organism, form is both the dynamic force within it that pushes it to reach its final structure, and the final shape which it becomes upon reaching maturity.
In conclusion, this dialectic is Aristotle engaging with controversy among materialists. Aristotle presented a view of other philosophers including Antiphon who argue that a thing’s nature, a thing’s inner principle of change and rest, is the matter which it is made out of. To support their view, they argued that when we plant a bed, we do not get a baby bed. Instead, what we get is wood. In other words, when a bed decomposes, what is left is wood. On this account, Aristotle notes that they argue that the artificial arrangement which the craftsman produces is only an incidental attribute. Further, that which remains unchanged during the process of change is what determines the real nature of a thing. I included the distinction between natural and unnatural products in order to take into account any objections arising from the question of the difference between a bed which is not natural and other things which are natural. Natural things no longer have the ability to get into form, so that makes Aristotle’s position a little weaker. Finally, in order to tackle this objection, I presented Aristotle’s response: namely, that a “matter begins to decay simultaneously with death.” (Lear 18)
Translation of Aristotle’s Physics is from:
- W. Charlton. (1970). Aristotle’s Physics I, II. Translated with introduction and notes by W. Charlton. Oxford University Press (Oxford).
Chapters from Lear are from:
- J. Lear. (1988). Aristotle: the Desire to Understand. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge).
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