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Is There Any Ontology in Aristotle?

  • Joseph Owens (a1)

The term “ontology”, as is well enough known, is of seventeenth-century vintage. According to current research, it first appears in the year 1613. By the end of the century it had waxed firm in common recognition. Through the influence of Christian Wolff in the following century, the eighteenth, it quickly became standard in the school tradition for the science of being in general, the science of being qua being. In its morphology the term showed clearly enough that it was meant to designate a science that bore upon being in the widest range of the notion. In that tenor it was described at the time as metaphysica de ente, philosophia de ente, doctrina de ente, or entis scientia, in the sense that “being” denoted its proper subject matter (objectum proprium) more correctly than did “metaphysics”.' Accordingly, it was intended to imply that “being”, tout court, was to be regarded as the object of a philosophical science quite as “soul”, for instance, played the role of object for psychology.

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1Ontologia seu Philosophia prima est scientia entis in genere, seu quatenus ens est.” Wolff Christian, Philosophia prima sive ontologia Prol. 1, ed. Ecole J. (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1962), 1. Cf. “Thus ontology, or first philosophy, is defined as the science of being in general, or insofar as it is being.” Christian Wolff, Preliminary Discourse on Philosophy in General 73, trans. Blackwell Richard J. (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 39. On the origin of the term “ontology”, see Mora Jose Ferrater, “On the Early History of ‘Ontology’”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 24 (1963). 3647. On its earliest occurrence, see Ferrater Mora, 38, and Ecole, vii–ix.

2 “In metaphysics, ontology or first philosophy comes first, general cosmology is second, psychology is third, and natural theology is last.” Wolff , Preliminary Discourse #99, 5051. Wolff (e.g., #112, 57) already differentiated “empirical psychology” from “rational psychology”. On the way “natural theology” came to be separated from general metaphysics, see my article Theodicy, Natural Theology, and Metaphysics”, The Modern Schoolman 28(1951), 126137, especially 131–134.

3 “But the inquiry concerning God, Unity, the nature of Good, Angels and Spirits, I have referred to Natural Theology. It may fairly therefore now be asked, what is left remaining for Metaphysics? Certainly nothing beyond nature; but of nature itself much the most excellent part.” Bacon , De Angmentis, 3.4; ed. Spedding (London: Longman, 1860), IV, 346.

4 Metuphysku, 4, 2–3, 1005a2–bl. For explanation in the sense of atheology, see Merlan Philip, From Platonism to Neoplatonism (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1953, 2nd ed., 1960); On the Terms ‘Metaphysics’ and ‘Being-Qua-Being’”, The Monist 52 (1968), 174194. For interpretation in the opposite sense, namely as an ontology, see Leszl Walter, Aristotle's Conception of Ontology (Padua: Antenore, 1975).

5 See Pseudo-Alexander . Metaphvsica, 447, 2232: 661.

6 See Aquinas , In Boeth. de Trin., 5, 1. resp.; 4, resp. English trans., Maurer Armand, The Division and Methods of the Sciences (3rd ed.; Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1963), 8, 45.

7 The Greek is ö;έέ έπİσΤήμη έστί μία ΌΫΤε ΤΟΤΟξ ΌνΤέ Τον αλαØΟν—Ethica Eudemia, 1, 8, 1217b34–35. To conform with 1218al (“it can hardly be the case that the Absolute Good is the subject of only one science”—trans. Rackham), the translation at 1217b35 has to run “nor can there be only one”, for the point is that there will have to be a number of different sciences to deal with things that are good. Accordingly Dirlmeier Franz, Eudemische Ethik (2nd ed., Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1969), 14, translates it “Und es gibt auch nicht (bloss) eine einzige Wissenschaft weder vom Seienden noch vom Gut.” Dirlmeier (201), however, asks if Aristotle could deny in such radical fashion the existence of a single science to cover all being if he had been making the denial after he had assigned being qua being as the object for his metaphysics. Fragstein Artur von, Studien zur Ethik des Aristoteles (Amsterdam: B. R. Griiner, 1974), 34, answers that in fact Aristotle has several sciences of being: of being qua being in metaphysics, of being qua mobile in natural philosophy, and of being as expressed in thought and language in logic. Décarie Vianney, Ethique a Eudeme (Paris: Vrin, 1978), 7072, n. 94, has a long footnote on the controversy overthis passage among those who took it to mean the denial of any science of being with universal range. Actually, it means that there are not one but various demonstrative sciences of being.

8 The reason why a dialectical treatment of being is not a science for Aristotle emerges clearly enough from his description of the science of being qua being, or beings qua beings, in Metaphysica, 4, 2, 1003a33–1005a18. Dialectical treatment can be only explorative or tentative, not scientific (1004b25–26). Those for whom the investigation of the characteristics and properties of being is carried on in this manner are, he says, doing philosophy. But their method is wrong, “because substance, of which they know nothing, is of a prior order” (b9–10). Substance is in this way “something prior” to all else in the realm of being. By holding it in that priority the investigation is scientific. The focal reference in being is accordingly what makes the investigation of it scientific, instead of just dialectical. The science of being is in this way the science of its primary instance (1003a16–19). That is why one may say “The Aristotelian ‘first philosophy” is an ‘ousiology’ “— Reale Giovanni, The Concept of First Philosophy and the Unity of the Metaphysics of Aristotle, trans. Catan John R. (Albany: SUNY Press. 1980). 31. However, “ousiology” or the science of substance has not become a generally accepted title for it in English. But unlike ”ontology“, “ousiology” carries the focal reference character of the Aristotelian primary philosophy.

9 E.g., Hook Sydney, The Quest for Being (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1961). 147:Williams Donald C., ”Dispensing with Existence“, The Journal of Philosophy 59 (1962), 753.

10 ”The largest logical system is the system of ontology“, Feibleman James K., Ontology (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1951), 124.

11 “It lies in the nature of all knowledge to be directed not towards itself but towards its object.” Hartmann Nicolai, New Ways of Ontology, trans. Kuhn Reinhard C. (Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery, 1953), 16. A discussion of this ontology may be found in Smith John E., ”Hartmann's New Ontology“, Review of Metaphysics 7 (1954), 583601.

12 See Weidemann Hermann, Metaphysik und Sprache (Freiburg/München: Alber, 1975), 3238, 176. The term is Heideggerian. Cf. ”…metaphysics is onto-theo-logy“, Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. Stambaugh Joan (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 54.

13 See Aquinas, In Metuphyskorum Libros, Proem., Ex quo apparel.

14 For details on this topic, see Carlini A., in Enciclopedia Filosofica, s.v. ”Ontologia“, VI and IX, and A. Del Noce, ibid., s.v. ”Ontologismo“.

15 ”On the other hand, the expression ‘ontological proof’ (ontologischer Beweis) used by Kant is not a mere alternative expression to Anselmian proof; it is intended to emphasize the very nature of the proof.” Ferrater Mora, “Early History”, 36.

16 See Reiner Hans, “Die Entstehung und urspriingliche Bedeutung des Namens Metaphysik”, Zeitschrift fiir Philosophische Forschung 8 (1954), 210237.Die Entstehung der Lehre vom bibliothekarischen Ursprung des Namens Metaphysik”, Zeitschrift fiir philosophische Forschung 9 (1955), 7799. On Buhle's limpid transition from historical sources to mere imagination on this theme, see his“Uber die Aechtheit der Metaphysik des Aristoteles”, in Bibliothek der alte Litteratur und Kunst (Göttingen) 4 (1788), 4142. For a short discussion, seeOwens J., An Elementary Christian Metaphysics (Houston, TX: Center for Thomistic Studies, 1985), 14.

17 In this regard, Heidegger takes the Greek meta as directly meaning “beyond”: “In Greek, ‘beyond something’ is expressed by the word meta”. An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Manheim Ralph (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 17. To the objection that meta just in itself does not mean “beyond”, one may answer that in compounds it does mean “passing over” to something else and in that sense to something beyond. See LSJ, s.v. meta, G VIII. In “metaphysics”, accordingly, it can refer to what “‘jenseits’ or ‘hinter’ der Natur leigt”—Reiner (1954), 211. Reiner (211) notes that the image evoked is that of something spatially beyond something else. On its use by Neoplatonists as equivalent here to epekeina (beyond), see Reiner, 219, n. 34, and 234, n. 65. On its equivalence with “above” (huper), see Simplicius, Physica, 257.25–26, and with “better than” or (trans. Michael Woods) “superior to” at Ethica Eudemia, 8.2.1248a28, see Rist J., “The End of Aristotle's On Prayer”, American Journal of Philology 106(1985), 112. The notion of “going across” in the sense of “going beyond” may be seen in Aristotle's use of metabainein at Metaphysica, 7, 4, 1029b12, and, in the sense of passing over from the particulars to the universal, at Analyticu Posteriora, 2, 13, 97b29.

18 On different interpretations of what “God” means in the Metaphysics, see Elders Leo J., Aristotle's Theology (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1972), 1114, 240–241. A sketch of the history and meaning of “metaphysics” is given by Elders Die Metaphysik des Thomas Von Aquin in historischer Perspektive. I. Teil (Salzburg-Miinchen: Anton Pustet, 1985), 1137. On discussions about the object of metaphysics during the middle ages, see Zimmermann Albert, Ontologie oder Metaphysik? Die Diskussion iiher den Gegenstand der Metaphysik im 13. nnd 14. Jahrhundert (Leiden-Köln: E. J. Brill, 1965). Nevertheless “ontology” is still used regularly by some writers for the Aristotelian metaphysics, e.g., Booth Edward, Aristotelian Aporetic Ontology in Islamic and Christian Thinkers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). On the other hand, metaphysics in general can be covered today without even an index entry for “ontology”, as with Korner Stephen, Metaphysics: Its Structure and Function (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).Hamlyn W. D., Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 3459, has a section on “Ontology”, but without explanation of what it means in contrast to alternative titles, and with interest centring on a critique of Quine's approach seen in the light of two considerations regarding “the main traditional stand of metaphysical thinking about ontology” (35).

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