Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Philosophy Index: Aesthetics · Epistemology · Ethics · Logic · Metaphysics · Consciousness · Philosophy of Language · Philosophy of Mind · Philosophy of Science · Social and Political philosophy · Philosophies · Philosophers · List of lists

Book 7 of the Metaphysics: Ens dicitur multipliciter -the word 'being' is meant in many ways ]] Metaphysics is one of the principal works of Aristotle and the first major work of the branch of philosophy with the same name. The principal subject is "being qua being", or being understood as being. It examines what can be asserted about anything that exists just because of its existence and not because of any special qualities it has. Also covered are different kinds of causation, form and matter, the existence of mathematical objects, and God.


The Metaphysics is considered to be one of the greatest of philosophical works. Its influence on the Greeks, the Arabs, the scholastic philosophers and even writers such as Dante, was immense. It is essentially a reconciliation of Plato’s theory of Forms that Aristotle acquired at the the Academy in Athens, with the view of the world given by common sense and the observations of the natural sciences. According to Plato, the real nature of things is eternal and unchangeable. However, the world we observe around us is constantly and perpetually changing. Aristotle’s genius was to reconcile these two apparently contradictory views of the world.[1] The result is a synthesis of the naturalism of empirical science, and the mysticism of Plato, that informed the Western intellectual tradition for more than a thousand years.[2]

At the heart of the book lie three questions. What is existence, and what sorts of things exist in the world? How can things continue to exist, and yet undergo the change we see about us in the natural world? And how can this world be understood?

By the time Aristotle was writing, philosophy was only two hundred years old. It had begun with the efforts of thinkers in the Greek world to theorize about the common structure that underlies the changes we observe in the natural world. Two contrasting theories, those of Heraclitus and Parmenides, were an important influence on both Plato and Aristotle.

Heraclitus argued that things that appear to be permanent are in fact always gradually changing. Therefore, though we believe we are surrounded by a world of things that remain identical through time, this world is really in flux, with no underlying structure or identity. Parmenides, by contrast, argued that we can reach certain conclusions by means of reason alone, making no use of the senses. What we acquire through the process of reason is fixed and unchanging and eternal. The world is thus not made up of a variety of things, in constant flux, but of one single Truth or reality. Plato’s theory of Forms is a synthesis of these two views. Following Heraclitus, he argues that the objects of the world we see – including our own bodies – have no true existence. Following Parmenides, he says that they are merely copies or reflections of eternally true realities, which are unchanging and eternal entities that are the source of all the things that appear to us through the senses. These are the Platonic Forms: we cannot directly perceive them, but by means of our intellect and reason we can come to apprehend them in some way.

Aristotle would have encountered the theory of Forms when he studied at the Academy, which he joined at the age of about 18 in the 360’s B.C.[3] For a time, he must have been a convert to this theory, and may even have written a popular book about it. However, at some point he turned against it, feeling that there must be some reconciliation between the science of nature (to which he had a strong attraction), and the more abstract reflections suggesting that ultimate reality lies beyond the sensible world.

The result is the theory of the Metaphysics. Aristotle believes that in every change there is something which persists through the change (for example, Socrates), and something else which did not exist before, but comes into existence as a result of the change (musical Socrates). To explain how Socrates comes to be born (since he did not exist before he was born) Aristotle says that it is ‘matter’ (hyle) that underlies the change. The matter has the ‘form’ of Socrates imposed on it to become Socrates himself. Thus all the things around us, all substances, are composites of two radically different things: form and matter. This doctrine is sometimes known as Hylomorphism (from the Greek words for matter and form).

Title, date, and the arrangement of the treatises

Subsequent to the arrangement of Aristotle's works by scholars at Alexandria in the first century CE, a number of his treatises were referred to as τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά (ta meta ta fysika; literally, "the [writings] after the Physics"). This is the origin of the title for collection of treatises now known as Aristotle's Metaphysics. Some have interpreted the expression "τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά" to imply that the subject of the work goes "beyond" that of Aristotle's Physics or that it is metatheoretical in relation to the Physics. But others believe that "τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά" referred simply to the work's place in the canonical arrangement of Aristotle's writings, which is at least as old as Andronicus of Rhodes or even Hermippus of Smyrna.[4] Within the Aristotelian corpus itself,[5] the metaphysical treatises are referred to as τὰ περὶ τῆς πρώτης φιλοσοφίας (literally, "the [writings] concerning first philosophy"); "first philosophy" was what Aristotle called the subjects of metaphysics. (He called the study of nature or natural philosophy "second philosophy" (Metaphysics 1037a15).)

In the manuscripts, books are referred to by Greek letters. The second book was given the title "little alpha," apparently because it appears to have nothing to do with the other books (and, very early, it was supposed not to have been written by Aristotle) or, although this is less likely, because of its shortness. This, then, disrupts the correspondence of letters to numbers, as book 2 is little alpha, book 3 is beta, and so on. For many scholars, it is customary to refer to the books by their letter names. Thus book 1 is called Alpha (Α); 2, little alpha (α); 3, Beta (Β); 4, Gamma (Γ); 5, Delta (Δ); 6, Epsilon (Ε); 7, Zeta (Ζ); 8, Eta (Η); 9, Theta (Θ); 10, Iota (Ι); 11, Kappa (Κ); 12, Lambda (Λ); 13, Mu (Μ); 14, Nu (Ν).


Alpha to Epsilon

Book Alpha Outlines "first philosophy", which is a knowledge of the first principles or causes of things. The wise are able to teach because they know the why of things, unlike those who only know that things are a certain way based on their memory and sensations. Because of their knowledge of first causes and principles they are better fitted to command, rather than to obey. Book Alpha also surveys previous philosophies from Thales to Plato, especially their treatment of causes.

"Little alpha": The purpose of this chapter is to address a possible objection to Aristotle’s account of how we understand first principles and thus acquire wisdom. Aristotle replies that the idea of an infinite causal series is absurd, and thus there must be a first cause which is not itself caused. This idea is developed later in book Lambda, where he develops an argument for the existence of God.

Beta: A listing of metaphysical puzzles.

Gamma: Chapters 2 and 3 argue for its status as a subject in its own right. The rest is a defense of (a) what we now call the principle of contradiction, the principle that it is not possible for the same proposition to be (the case) and not to be (the case), and (b) what we now call the principle of excluded middle: tertium non datur - there cannot be an intermediary between contradictory statements.

Delta ("philosophical lexicon"): This is a list of definitions of about fifty key terms such as cause, nature, one, and many.

Epsilon: This consists of further preliminary distinctions that are necessary before Aristotle can treat of substance itself. Metaphysics in its most sublime aspect is equivalent to Theology, because the highest substance (i.e. God) is the principle of all Being, and thus the proper object of Metaphysics.

The Middle Books (Zeta, Eta, Theta)

The Middle Books are generally considered the core of the Metaphysics.

Book Zeta begins with the remark that ‘Being’ has many senses. The purpose of philosophy is to understand being. The primary kind of being is what Aristotle calls substance. What substances are there, and are there any substances besides perceptible ones? Aristotle considers four candidates for substance: (i) the ‘essence’ or ‘what it was to be a thing’ (ii) the Platonic universal, (iii) the genus to which a substance belongs and (iv) the substratum or ‘matter’ which underlies all the properties of a thing. He dismisses the idea that matter can be substance, for if we eliminate everything that is a property from what can have the property, we are left with something that has no properties at all. Such 'ultimate matter' cannot be substance. Separability and 'this-ness' are fundamental to our concept of substance.

Chapters 4-12 are devoted to Aristotle’s own theory that essence is the criterion of substantiality. The essence of something is what is included in a secundum se ('according to itself') account of a thing, i.e. which tells what a thing is by its very nature. You are not musical by your very nature. But you are a human by your very nature. Your essence is what is mentioned in the definition of you.

Chapters 13-15 consider, and dismiss, the idea that substance is the universal or the genus, and are mostly an attack on the Platonic theory of Ideas. Aristotle argues that if genus and species are individual things, then different species of the same genus contain the genus as individual thing, which leads to absurdities. Moreover, individuals are incapable of definition.

Chapter 17 takes an entirely fresh direction, which turns on the idea that substance is really a cause.

Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu and Nu

Iota: Discussion of unity, one and many, sameness and difference.

Kappa: Briefer versions of other chapters and of parts of the Physics.

Lambda: Further remarks on beings in general, first principles, and God or gods. This book includes Aristotle's famous description of the unmoved mover, "the most divine of things observed by us", as "the thinking of thinking".

Mu and Nu: Philosophy of mathematics, in particular how numbers exist.


Many scholars believe that Aristotle's works as we have them today are little more than lecture notes. Plenty of his works are extremely compressed and baffling to beginners. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Metaphysics - Ibn Sina (Avicenna), who was one of the greatest Islamic philosophers in the Medieval age, said that he had read the Metaphysics of Aristotle forty times, but still did not understand it. Later he read the book of al-Farabi, Purposes of Metaphysics of Aristotle, and understood Aristotle's book.[6]

In the 19th century, with the rise of textual criticism, the Metaphysics was examined anew. Critics, noting the wide variety of topics and the seemingly illogical order of the books, concluded that it was actually a collection of shorter works thrown together haphazardly. Werner Jaeger further maintained that the different books were taken from different periods of Aristotle's life. Everyman's Library, for their 1000th volume, published the Metaphysics in a rearranged order that was intended to make the work easier for readers.

Translations and influence

Early scholars of the Metaphysics were Arabic, who relied on Arabic translations from early Syriac translations from the Greek (see Medieval Philosophy). The book was unknown in the Latin West until the twelfth century. For a period, scholars relied on Latin translations of the Arabic. These were sometimes inaccurate, having been through so many stages of translation.

In the thirteenth century, following the Fourth crusade, the original Greek manuscripts became available. One of the first Latin translations was made by William of Moerbeke. William's translations are literal, and were intended faithfully to reflect the Greek word order and style. These formed the basis of the commentaries of Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. They were also used by modern scholars for Greek editions, as William had access to Greek manuscripts that are now lost. Werner Jaeger lists William's translation in his edition of the Greek text in the Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliothecha Oxoniensis (Oxford 1962).[7]


  1. Bertrand Russell said that “Aristotle is Plato diluted by common sense”. History of Western Philosophy, chapter 19.
  2. Lawson-Tancred, introduction.
  3. Lawson-Tancred.
  4. W. D. Ross, Aristotle's Metaphysics (1953), vol. 1, p. xxxii.
  5. e.g., in Movement of Animals 700b9.
  6. فقد قرأ كتاب أرسطو في هذا العلم ولم يفهم منه شيئا، وأعاد قراءته أربعين مرة حتى حفظه عن ظهر قلب دون أن يفهمه. وفي يوم من الأيام ذهب إلى السوق فعرض عليه دلال كتابا صغيرا في أغراض ما بعد الطبيعة، فرده ابن سينا ردا متبرما متحججا بأنه علم لا فائدة منه. فأخبره الدلال بأن الكتاب سعره ثلاثة دنانير فقط وصاحبه في حاجة إلى ثمنه، فاشتراه منه، فإذا هو كتاب الفارابي في أغراض ما بعد الطبيعة. فأسرع ابن سينا إلى البيت وقرأه فانفتح ما استغلق عليه في الحال لأنه كان يحفظ كتاب أرسطو.
  7. Cited by Foster, in his translation of Aquinas' commentary on the De Anima, Indiana 1994.

See also

Some of the concepts laid out in Aristotle's Metaphysics:

  • Energeia or Actus et potentia
  • Hyle
  • Hylomorphism
  • Zoomorphism
  • Substance
  • Matter
  • Unmoved mover
  • Formal cause
  • Final cause
  • Form


  • Greek text with commentary: Aristotle's Metaphysics. W.D. Ross. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924. Reprinted 1953 with corrections.
  • Greek text: Aristotelis Metaphysica. Ed. Werner Jaeger. Oxford Classical Texts. Oxford University Press, 1957. ISBN 978-0-19-814513-4.
  • Greek text with English: Metaphysics. Trans. Hugh Tredennick. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library 271, 287. Harvard U. Press, 1933-35. ISBN 0-674-99299-7, ISBN 0-674-99317-9.
  • Aristotle's Metaphysics. Trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle. Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1966.
  • Aristotle's Metaphysics. Trans. Joe Sachs. 2nd ed. Santa Fe, N.M.: Green Lion, 2002. ISBN 1-888009-03-9.
  • Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics. Trans. John P. Rowan. 1961; rpt. Notre Dame, Ind.: Dumb Ox, 1995.
  • Copleston, Frderick S.J. A History of Philosophy: Volume I Greece & Rome (Parts I & II) New York: Image Books, 1962.
  • Aristotle's Metaphysics translated with an introduction by H. Lawson-Tancred. Penguin 1998.

External links