The Thoroughly Modern Aristotle: An Addendum


Christopher D. Green

York University

Toronto, Canada

©2002 by Christopher D. Green

First posted 18 February 2002.

Revised 15 March 2002.


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.When seen in its full context, however, this passage 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? He says that animals cannot be analyzed in this way because they are perceptible things, but circles can because they are not. But this distinction appears to depend on the acceptance of a dualist ontology that I do not believe many today would countenance.And even for Aristotle, what are its implications for the "active intellect" of Book III, Chapter 5 of De Anima. Unlike the rest of the psychÍ, which was not believed to be able to exist apart from the body, the active intellect was said to be "separable" and "immortal"? Would this not mean that at least one aspect of the human being -- a highly distinctive aspect at that -- is subject to precisely the kind of analysis he denies to humans in the second on the two passages above?


Delving into this in detail here, however, would take us too far afield from present concerns.What is clear is that Aristotle did reject the transportability thesis in the Metaphysics, as in De Anima, 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)