The Thoroughly Modern Aristotle: An Addendum


Christopher D. Green

York University

Toronto, Canada

2002 by Christopher D. Green


Aristotle's Metaphysics, Book Zeta (VII), Chap. 11, reads as follows (W.D. Ross, trans.):


In the case of things which are found to occur in specifically different materials, as a circle may exist in bronze or stone or wood, it seems plain that these, the bronze or the stone, are no part of the essence of the circle, since it is found apart from them. Of things which are not seen to exist apart, there is no reason why the same may not be true, just as if all circles that had ever been seen were of bronze; for none the less the bronze would be no part of the form; but it is hard to eliminate it in thought. E.g. the form of man is always found in flesh and bones and parts of this kind; are these then also parts of the form and the formula? No, they are matter; but because man is not found also in other matters we are unable to perform the abstraction.


In bringing this passage to my attention in conversation, some have attempted to make the case that Aristotle was indeed a functionalist, or at least that the case that I made against his having been a functionalist, specifically against his having accepted the transportability thesis (Green, 1998), is not nearly as clear as I claimed. This passage seen, however, when seen in its full context, actually has little to offer the defender of Aristotle's putative functionalism. In the very same chapter, just two or three paragraphs later (depending on the translation one uses), Aristotle continues his discussion as follows:


We have pointed out, then, that the question of definitions contains some difficulty, and why this is so. And so to reduce all things thus to Forms and to eliminate the matter is useless labour; for some things surely are a particular form in a particular matter, or particular things in a particular state. And the comparison which Socrates the younger used to make in the case of "animal" is not sound; for it leads away from the truth, and makes one suppose that man can possibly exist without his parts, as the circle can without the bronze. But the case is not similar; for an animal is something perceptible, and it is not possible to define it without reference to movement -- nor, therefore, without reference to the parts' being in a certain state. For it is not a hand in any and every state that is a part of man, but only when it can fulfil its work, and therefore only when it is alive; if it is not alive it is not a part.


Thus it appears that although Aristotle understood the argument that we now call "functionalist," he rejected it nonetheless. What is not completely clear (at least to me) is why he rejected it. Where exactly is the line to be drawn between those cases in which it is permissible to abstract the form from the matter, and those in which it is not? Aristotle gives us two clear examples (the circle and man), but I do not know that I could reliably make the distinction in all other cases. What is clear, however, is that he did reject the argument, and this was the burden of my original paper.



Green, Christopher D. (1998). The thoroughly modern Aristotle: Was he really a functionalist? History of Psychology, 1, 8-20. (Also HTP Prints document number 16)