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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Aristotle’s Reforms of the Forms: Substance, Form and Matter

Aristotle was Plato’s most famous and successful student. He spent about twenty years in Plato’s school, the Academy, before he struck out on his own. Much of Aristotle’s intellectual effort was devoted to correcting what he thought was Plato’s main deficiency  and of extending philosophical knowledge on this reformed basis. What I will stress in my remarks is the nature and some of the consequences of Aristotle’s reform of Platonic idealism. But one would do well to remember that Aristotle was fundamentally and self-consciously a Platonist.

After Aristotle left the Academy at about the age of forty he spent a number of years travelling. A few of these years were spent as the tutor of the young prince of Macedonia who was to become the future Alexander the Great. In 355 BCE Aristotle returned to Athens and there set up his own school, the Lyceum, where most of the works that go under his name were probably composed. Most of these works are probably collections of his lectures and lecture notes. They often therefore include views developed over a long period of time. They can also be very dry and rather choppy to read.

From Aristotle’s mature point of view, represented in the system of treatises that have come down to us, Plato’s handling of the problems of value and the problems of change had been unsatisfactory.  For Plato’s predecessors, the Ionian “nature philosophers”,  and also for the atomists (contemporaries of Socrates), reality was understood in terms of some underlying physical substratum identified in different ways – e.g. water, air, “seeds” (by Empedocles), atoms (Democratus and Leucippus). But none of these early philosophies of the real seemed to give an adequate account of value and purpose. They could not account for or give any place to value in their accounts of the cosmos. Plato’s response to this, as we’ve seen, was to find the real not in apparently arbitrary properties of matter (like shape and size, or condensability), but in the forms. The forms were related logically and supposedly all the forms derived themselves in some way  from the ultimate purpose embodied in the form of the Good.

From Aristotle’s point of view this was an oversimplification, but a mistake in an opposite direction than the one taken by the materialist philosophers. Where the latter excluded or could not explain value from their theoretical universe, Plato’s theory of forms tended to exclude the world of sense-perception. Plato understood the forms as composing a separate world, and a world in no way dependent upon the world of variety and change revealed by sense. Also, for Plato, as it was for Parmenides, only that which was unchangeable was real and knowable. Even the Atomists  retained this doctrine in their notion that all qualitative change was reducible to the change of place of the irreducible, permanent, indestructible atoms.

What Aristotle’s basic conceptual framework attempts to achieve is twofold: 1.  Aristotle wants to affirm the reality of both the world of the sense, and the intelligible world of value, and he recognized that to do so,  2.  Required  that reality is both changeable and knowable.  For Plato, the model science had been mathematics, in which knowledge is of unchangeable objects that are never fully embodied or realized in the sensible world. For Aristotle, the model science would become biology (something he pretty much invented himself) in which imperfect, changing entities gradually reveal their final forms in the course of a logical path of development.

Plato’s theory of reality (or “ontology” – knowledge of being) was criticized by Aristotle for “hypostatizing” the forms.  Aristotle did not use this term; it was coined much later to mean making something into an independently existing thing when this was in fact not the case.  Hypostatizing the forms was no mere technical error. It had serious consequences for Plato’s political and moral stance. Plato is always wrestling with the problem of an unbridgeable gap between the actual and the ideal. Bringing them together seems like a task which not only requires a huge practical effort, but is logically impossible. Remember the parable of the cave which, among other things illustrates that it is impossible to be in both worlds at once. Thus for Plato there could be knowledge of what ought to be, of the Good, but this knowledge could barely be communicated, if it could be communicated at all, and what it might mean for actual pressing down-to-earth problems of a limited nature was quite obscure. Or at least it was too obscure for Aristotle. Perhaps virtue, being knowledge, could be taught, but was the virtue taught by Plato still excellent and noble action in the political sphere? Plato, in fact, has sometimes been criticized for a tendency towards “mysticism”, in the sense not only of aiming at an ineffable truth, but of tending in a wholly otherworldly direction. At the same time that Plato teaches a virtue that tends to otherworldliness, our knowledge of what goes on and what is possible in the world of sense-perception and material relations is devalued to at best a set of merely probabilistic opinions. Just how exactly sensible individual things or particulars “participate” in the reality of the forms was a question Plato was never able to answer to his own satisfaction. You may have sensed this problem when I was discussing Plato’s “divided line”.

Aristotle’s response to this set of problems – problems which are both theoretical and practical – will be a thorough revision of the theory of the forms.  What Aristotle does is to reject the two-world theory.  Form for Aristotle is not a separate or separable entity, but simply one crucial aspect of the actual world of things. Aristotle retains the forms, but does not hypostatize them. There are no forms that are not forms of matter. All things have form and these forms are distinguishable from each other. But the fact that we can, for example, distinguish between a shape and a colour, does not mean that shape and colour are two separate, independent things. We always find them together. To imagine the existence of a separate world of forms, as Plato does, is simply, for Aristotle, to commit the basic error of mistaking intellectual analysis for ontological status. Two different concepts are not, by that fact, two different, separately existing things. A concept that is conceivable independently of another concept does not imply that that the first concept can exist independently.

So, for Aristotle, the forms are not a separate world, a world that is real because permanent and unchangeable, as opposed to the (relatively) illusory world of the senses. Yet for Aristotle, these forms are definitely not mere subjective experiences (not merely, say, events in the brain that correspond to what could be radically different events “out there”). The forms are not mere abstractions made by an observer. They are not illusions, but they are also not the whole of reality.

Reality, for Aristotle, therefore includes that from which the forms could be abstracted and hypostatized. Reality is some kind of order or relation of individual “substances”. So the question is, “What is a substance?” Well, substances are the everyday things we see around us, including ourselves – people, oak trees, chairs, etc… Each of these individual substances (which may be simple or compound) has two essential “aspects” (we’ll call them that, although Aristotle did not) – form and matter:

A. Form – each substance or individual is identifiable as what it is by virtue of its membership in a class. The form is the set of properties that distinguish one class of object from another. Thus sheep can be separated from wolves, etc… But no complete enumeration of the individual properties a substance has by virtue of its membership in a class includes what you could call the “this-ness” of the individual.

B. Matter – The this-ness is accounted for by what Aristotle calls “matter”. It distinguishes between this and that member of the same class which share a common form.

So far so good. But how do you determine the form of any given substance? Generally, for Aristotle, the form was determined by the function the substance played in relation to other substances.  Take for example, the form of a brick. A brick is rectangular, 3-dimensional, solid, heavy, able to hold adhesive substances like mortar. But simply enumerating these properties does not tell us truly what a brick is. The form of the brick is determined by the purpose it is to serve as the structural element of a wall. You can see the form of the brick by seeing it as potentially or actually a part of the wall. Matter is therefore simply the potential to take on or develop a certain form. Matter, for example the matter of the brick – clay – is the potential to take on a rectangular shape in three dimensions, to become rigid, etc…

Now, clay itself is obviously also a substance with matter and form. Clay has the form of being malleable, of being able to lose that malleability under certain conditions (when it is fired), etc… So you begin to get a picture of reality that is made up of substances, each of which must have both form and matter and each of which must, so to speak, face two ways:  in relation to the clay, the brick is an end (or purpose). The brick is a “higher”, more articulated and developed structure. But the brick, as actuality or realization or end of the clay, is itself only the potentiality of a wall. And the wall is, in turn, the potentiality whose end and actuality would be the house, the matter of which is walls. Matter takes on form by virtue of the function of substances which are themselves parts of a whole.

In other words, if we look at any substance for more than an instant, but as enduring through time, and if we are to have effective knowledge of that substance, then we have to re-interpret form and matter as also being  potentiality and actuality. Aristotle therefore allows time and change into reality, whereas for Plato the only truly real is the eternal and unchanging. The oak is for Aristotle, the end and actuality of the acorn which, relative to the oak, is its potentiality and matter. Each individual in which what is, is not yet (simple potentiality) becomes what it is completely over time (its actuality).

In this system, form is thought of as a sort of driving force, inhering in the individual substance and working out its development by shaping and forming its matter, until the individual becomes its fully articulated and developed self. The world therefore can present itself not as a collection of randomly associated bits and pieces, but as ordered hierarchy of substances. In this hierarchy, each substance is, at one and the same time, the relative fulfillment of the purpose of another  lower substance (or the form of that lower substance) and the basis, or matter, of a further development beyond itself.

Next time we’ll see how this new scheme of things helped Aristotle account for change and how it led to his theory of causation.

Study Questions for Topic III – Aristotle: Ethics and Politics

  1. How does ethical or practical knowledge for Aristotle differ from ideal or theoretical knowledge?
  1. What does Aristotle mean by happiness (eudaimonia)? What is happiness not? Or not simply?
  1. Why are training and habituation so important to Aristotle in making people ethical?
  1. What is the point of acting virtuously for Aristotle?
  1. For whom is Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean intended? Is it aimed at excellence or average, everyday goodness? For men and women? Can it account for the goodness of a Socrates?
  1. What does Aristotle mean by saying in Book 1 of the Politics that the political association is both natural and the highest, best developed form of association?
  1. What are the three different relations of ruling that make up the household? In each, who is involved in what role?
  1. Why does Aristotle think he needs the institution of slavery in the polis? What makes him think that such a thing is “natural”? What doubts does he have about this institution?
  1. What are Aristotle’s arguments in favour of private property? What, according to him, should limit the extent of private property and why? What is the proper use of private property? Is it possible, for Aristotle to be a citizen if you have either too much or too little private property? What would be his solution to a situation in which a city has many who are without property and a few who have too much?
  1. What are Aristotle’s key objections to Plato in Book 2? Are they well-founded? Did he miss the point of Plato’s ideal city?
  1. What, according to Aristotle, is the difference between a good citizen and a good man [sic]. Can one be both?
  1. Describe Aristotle’s “best of the possible” constitutions. To what problem(s) is it the solution?
  1. What does Aristotle mean by “leisure”? Why is it of importance to his political ethic?
  1. Aristotle seems to have been arguing all along that the political association fulfills a number of purposes, which purposes are ordered hierarchically – some purposes are higher than others, better and more suitable to the fulfillment of what it means to be human. What are these purposes? Did he get these purposes and their order right?

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