Translated with introduction and notes by A.E. Taylor

Life of Aristotle← TOC→Historical Value of Aristotle's Criticism


The fourteen books which contain the substance of Aristotle's lectures on the ultimate conceptions of philosophy are cited by the ancient commentators and designated in the MSS. by the title τὰ μετἀ τἀ φυσικά, whence has arisen our name Metaphysics. The title, however, is one which gives no indication of the nature of the subjects considered, and is never employed by the author himself. τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά means, literally, simply the (lectures) which come after the (lectures) on "Physics," and indicates only that in the traditional arrangement adopted by ancient students of Aristotle the fourteen books of Metaphysics were made to follow on the eight books of φυσικά, or "Lectures on Physics.” This arrangement may have been adopted either because, as the numerous allusions in the first book of the Metaphysics to previous explanations given in "our discourses on Physics" are enough of themselves to show, Aristotle composed the Metaphysics after the Physics, or because a knowledge of the main doctrines of the latter is presupposed by the former, or for both reasons. (The notion of some of the ancient expositors that the Metaphysics are so-called because the objects of which they treat are more sublime and recondite than those of Physics is more far-fetched and probably historically mistaken.)

When we ask what is the character of the subject which Aristotle is expounding in these books, and how the science of "Metaphysics" differs from other sciences in scope and aim, we are thus thrown back from the insignificant title bestowed on the work by ancient tradition to a study of the names actually employed by Aristotle to denote this division of his philosophy. Of such names, we find, on inquiry, he has three. The subject of his present course of lectures is called "Wisdom," "Theology," "first Philosophy."4 Of the three, the last is the most characteristic and, as we might say, the official designation of the science. Of the other two, "Wisdom" is simply an honorific appellative, indicative of Aristotle's conviction that "first Philosophy" is the highest and noblest exercise of the intellect; "Theology," again, is, so far as it goes, a correct designation, since "first Philosophy" is a study of ultimate first principles, and, in the Aristotelian Philosophy, God is such an ultimate principle. But God is only one ultimate principle among others, and thus "Theology," the doctrine of God, is, strictly speaking, only one part, though in a sense the culminating part, of the Aristotelian "first Philosophy."5 What, then, is "first Philosophy," and what are the "second Philosophies" from which Aristotle wishes to discriminate it? To answer this question we have to turn our attention to Aristotle's classification of the sciences. The deepest and most radical distinction among the forms of knowledge, according to Aristotle, is that between the Theoretical or Speculative (θεωρητικαί) and the Practical Sciences, a distinction roughly corresponding to that which we draw in English between the sciences and the arts. Speculative Philosophy (the tout ensemble of the speculative) differs from Practical Philosophy (the tout ensemble of the practical sciences) alike in its purpose, its subject-matter, and its formal logical character. The purpose of "theoretical" Philosophy as its name shows, is θεωρία, disinterested contemplation or recognition of truths which are what they are independently of our personal volition; its end is to know; the purpose of "practical" Philosophy, on the contrary, is to devise rules for successful interference with the course of events, to produce results which, but for our intervention, would not have come about; its end is thus to do or to make something. Hence arises a corresponding difference in the objects investigated by the two branches of Philosophy. Speculative Philosophy is exclusively concerned with what Aristotle calls τὰ μὴ ἐνδεχόμενα ἄλλως ἔχειν, "things which can by no possibility be otherwise," truths and relations independent of human volition for their existence, and calling merely for recognition on our part; "eternal verities," to speak after the fashion of Leibnitz. Practical Philosophy has to do exclusively with relations which human action can modify, things which can be altered in various ways; as Aristotle calls them, τὰ ἐνδεχόμενα ἄλλως ἔχειν, "things which can possibly be otherwise," the "contingent."6

And hence arises again a logical difference between the conclusions of speculative and those of practical Science. Those of the former are rigidly universal truths which are deducible with logical necessity from self-evident axiomatic principles. Those of the latter, precisely because they relate to "what can possibly be otherwise," what is capable of alteration, are never rigid universals; they are general rules which hold good ὡς επὶ τὸ πολύ, "in the great majority of cases," but which are all liable to occasional exceptions, owing to the unstable and contingent character of the facts with which they deal. It is, according to Aristotle, a convincing proof of a philosopher's ἀπαιδευσία, " lack of grounding in Logic," that he looks to the results of practical sciences (e.g., the detailed precepts of Ethics) for a higher degree of certainty and universality than the contingent nature of their subject-matter permits.7

"First Philosophy," then, is essentially a "speculative science;" its aim is knowledge, the recognition of eternally valid truths; not action, the production of changes in the contingent world-order around us. It is on this ground especially that in our present book Aristotle, with his characteristic preference for the life of the student rather than that of the "man of affairs," claims the honorific title of "wisdom," traditionally consecrated to the worthiest and most exalted form of mental activity, for "first Philosophy." We have next to determine the exact position of "first Philosophy" among the various divisions of "speculative science," and its relation to the sister branches. Plato, indeed, had taught that all the sciences are, in the end, deductions from a single set of ultimate principles which it is the business of the supreme science of "Dialectic" to discover and formulate.8 On such a view there would, of course, be no "sister" branches, no "second Philosophy." Dialectic would, in the last resort, be not only the supreme but the only science, just as a growing school of thinkers maintains to-day that all "exact" or "pure" science is simply Logic. This is, however, not Aristotle's view. According to him, speculative philosophy falls into a number of distinct and independent, though not co-ordinate, branches, each with its own characteristic special subject of investigation, and its own special axiomatic principles. "First Philosophy," though, as we shall see directly, the paramount branch of speculative science, is only prima inter pares.

How many distinct branches of speculative science, then, are there? Aristotle answers that there are three, "first" Philosophy, Mathematics, Physics. The logical basis of this classification is explained in the following important passage from Metaphysics E, I, 1026a 10-32: "If there is anything which is eternal and immutable and has an independent and separable existence,9 manifestly the cognition of it belongs to speculative science, since it is neither the object of Physics (which is a science of things capable of motion) nor of Mathematics, but of a study logically prior to both of them." For Physics deals with objects which have no existence separable [from matter, TR.], but are not devoid of motion, and Mathematics, in some of its branches,10 with objects which are incapable of motion and have, perhaps, no separable existence, but are inherent in matter, whereas the objects of first Philosophy are both separate and devoid of motion. Now, all causes must necessarily be eternal, but most of all these, for they are the causes of the visible divine things.11 Thus there will be three speculative philosophies, the mathematical, the physical, the theological. For, manifestly, if the divine exists at all, it is to be found in such a class of entities as that just described, and the noblest science must have the noblest class of objects for its study. Thus the speculative sciences are of superior worth to all others, and this study of superior worth to the rest of the speculative sciences.

The question might, indeed, be raised whether first philosophy is of universal scope or confined to the study of a single department and a single class of entities. For even in Mathematics, the different branches are not co-ordinate; Geometry and Astronomy are confined to special classes of entities, but universal Mathematics12 embraces all alike. If, then, there are no substances besides those which arise in the course of nature, Physics will be "first" Philosophy. But if there is a substance which is immutable, it will be logically prior, and the Philosophy which studies it will be "first" Philosophy, and because "first" will be universal. And it will be for this science to study Being as such, both as to what its fundamental character is and as to the attributes which are predicable of it qua Being.13

We see from this explanation both why there are three distinct branches of Speculative Science, and why one of the three has a logical position of priority over the other two, which justifies the name "first" Philosophy. "First" Philosophy, to begin with, is logically prior to the other sciences on the same ground on which Aristotle tells us in the present book that Arithmetic is "prior" to Geometry; its initial assumptions are simpler and less complicated than theirs. Physics is a study of the relations between objects which possess the double qualification of being embodied in concrete material form and being, potentially at least, in motion. In Mathematics one of these restrictions is removed; we consider objects (points, lines, surfaces) which are motionless and immutable, and the presuppositions of Mathematics are consequently so far simpler than those of Physics. (It was on this ground, it will be remembered, that Plato, in the educational scheme of Book vii. of the Republic, had contended that the study of Arithmetic and Geometry, plane and solid, should precede that of Kinetics or Astronomy.) But the other restriction still remains. The objects of Mathematics, according to Aristotle, are still things which have no existence except as modifications or attributes of concrete material things. They are, in fact, the numerical properties of collections of concrete objects, or again, ideal boundaries and limits of sensible bodies. It is true that the mathematician makes abstraction from this fact, and treats it as though it were not there. He talks of numbers, lines, planes, etc., as though they were things with an independent existence of their own. But the fact, according to Aristotle, is none the less there, and it is the business of a sound Logic of the sciences to call attention to it. Numbers are really always numbers of something, of men, of horses, oxen, etc. "Two and two are four" means "two men (horses) and two men (horses) are four men (horses)." Only, as the numerical result is always the same whether you are counting men or horses, there is no need to specify the particular character of the objects you are counting. So with Geometry; a plane is, e.g., always the boundary of a certain physical solid body, only, for the purposes of Plane Geometry, it may not be necessary to take this into consideration.14 But in "first" Philosophy this restriction, too, is removed. We study Being not, like the physicist, in so far as it is composed of bodies in motion,15 or like the mathematician, in so far as it possesses number and spatial form, but in all its generality; we investigate what it means to be, and what relations between Beings are deducible from the great fundamental condition that they one and all are. This is why "first" Philosophy, as compared with the other speculative sciences, has a higher degree of universality in its scope. The propositions of the physicist become false if they are asserted about anything except bodies in motion; those of the mathematician become false when asserted of subjects which are neither numerable collections nor the spatial forms of bodies. The general principles of "first" Philosophy are applicable alike to God, to a geometrical figure, to a physical corpuscle, since each of these three is something of which you can say that it has being or is. At the same time, there is one class of "things which are" which may be regarded as constituting in a very special sense the object of "first" Philosophy, conversant though that science is, in a way, with everything. This is the class of immutable entities which have neither bodies nor spatial form of any kind, and are therefore excluded from the purview both of Physics and of Mathematics. The chief of such entities is God, the immaterial and immutable source of the vital movement in the universe, and hence the appropriateness of the name "Theology" or "Science of God" as a synonym for "first Philosophy" itself. Now, Aristotle holds that any complete explanation of any process, e.g., the simplest process of physical change, involves the introduction of this concept of God as an eternal and immaterial "first mover;" hence, the "doctrine of God" is the necessary crown and culmination of the physical sciences themselves. This explains how, in his conception of "first" Philosophy, the notion of a "Science of God" and that of a most universal science of the "principles of Being as such" come to be so completely fused. The business of "first" Philosophy thus comes to consist in the analysis of the conception of individual Being or Substance (οὐσία) as such, i. e., the determination of the fundamental meaning, the τί εστί ( or what is it?) of Being, and the analysis of individual Being into its logical factors or elements. These constituent factors constitute, in Aristotelian language, the Causes or First Principles of Being. Thus it becomes possible to describe the science of "first" Philosophy, as is done in the opening chapter of our present book, as the Science of the Causes and Principles of all Being. Aristotle believed himself to have finally performed the requisite analysis by his doctrine of the Four Causes (see appendix B and the notes there), and the part which they play in the development of the individual substance from mere possibility or potentiality into actual existence. Accordingly, we find that the central books of our Metaphysics constitute a treatise of which the principal topics are the nature of individual substance, the doctrine of the four Causes, and the conception of the development from potential to actual existence. Outside this general scheme fall the two concluding books, M and N, which contain a polemic against the mathematical philosophy of the Pythagoreans and Plato; book K, a patchwork résumé, presumably by a later hand, of various portions of the Physics and Metaphysics; book Δ, a treatise on the principal equivocal terms of philosophy; book a, a brief introductory account of "first" Philosophy, which was widely recognized, even in antiquity, as non-Aristotelian; and our present book A, which forms an historical introduction to the whole work, and has the interest of being the earliest known systematic attempt at writing the History of Philosophy. As the present work is offered merely as a translation of this historical sketch, and not as a specimen of Aristotelian metaphysics, I shall at once proceed to terminate these introductory remarks with a few observations upon Aristotle's method of writing philosophical history.

Taylor's Notes

(Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes)


[4] For the name "wisdom" (σοφιά), see chapters 1 and 2 of the present work, passim. For the other two designations, compare particularly the passage from Metaphysics E, 1, quoted below.

[5]. Thus, strictly speaking, the "doctrine of God" only occupies half of one of the fourteen books of our existing Metaphysics, viz.: the second half of book Λ (c. s. 6-10).

[6]  Cf. for all this, Ethica Nicomachea vi 2, 1139a 6-31, vi 4, 1140a 1-23.

[7]. Cf. e.g. Ethica Nic. I3, 1094b 19. "Such being the nature of our subject-matter and our axiomatic principles, we must be satisfied with establishing results which are true roughly and in their general outline, and, since the facts of which we treat and the principles from which we reason are true only in the generality of cases, we must be content with conclusions of the same kind . . . . The man of logical training will only seek such a degree of certainty in each branch of study as the character of the objects studied permits. To demand demonstration from a statesman is an error of the same kind as to be content with probable reasoning in a mathematician."

[8]. Plato, Republic vi, 510b-511d.

[9]. "Independent and separable;" Greek, χωριστόν. The double epithet seems required in English to bring out the full sense.

[10]. The qualification is inserted simply because Aristotle has not yet given the formal proof, that the objects of Geometry and Arithmetic themselves are not independent entities, but mere predicates of matter, though investigated by the mathematician in abstraction from the matter which, in fact, they qualify. This proof he attempts later in M. 3. At present, he seems to be merely appealing to the existence of such branches of mathematics as Optics and Harmonics as obvious examples of the distinction in question.

[11]. i. e., The heavenly bodies.

[12]. i. e., Arithmetic, the principles of which are presupposed by every form of special mathematical study. Cf. below in the present book, C. a, 982a 26.

[13]. Thus we get the following classification:

Image chart of some branches of knowledge: Science is divided into Speculative and Practical, Speculative science is divided into First philosophy, Mathematics and Physics.

[14]. I need not say that I am not here giving my adhesion to this view of the nature of mathematical science, but merely epitomising the position assumed by Aristotle.

[15] Strictly speaking, this description unduly narrows the scope of Physics as conceived by Aristotle. With him "matter," the substratum of change, is not necessarily corporeal, and "motion" includes every species of quantitative and qualitative change. Thus, since the human soul is something which grows and develops, Psychology is a branch of Physics.

Created for Peithô's Web from Aristotle on his predecessors; being the first book of his Metaphysics; tr. from the text edition of W. Christ, with introd. and notes by A. E. Taylor. Chicago, Open Court, 1907.Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Greek unicode text entered with Peithô's Younicoder.
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