A thought on OOO and Aristotle

I have been following Graham Harman’s blog of late, and one of his repeated refrains is that we must recover the Aristotelian concept of “substance” — the common dismissal of the concept among contemporary philosophers is short-sighted and doesn’t adequately reflect the richness, weirdness, and appeal of Aristotle’s notion of “substance.”

Fair enough! It does seem to be the case that many people who would reject a substance metaphysics, myself included, do not engage in detail with Aristotle’s development of the concept of “substance.” There may be a reason for that, however. People have been working through Aristotle’s thought for well over two milennia at this point, including many centuries when he was the single most dominant intellectual influence in both Europe and the Islamic world. Many of the greatest minds in history — Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, etc. — basically devoted their lives to understanding and applying his philosophy.

If after all that work it turns out that we don’t understand the concept of substance, maybe it’s because it just doesn’t make sense. If people grappled with it for milennia and then the whole thing fell apart after the rise of modern science, maybe it’s because it’s not compatible with what science tells us about nature. It’s not like we just dug up some manuscripts of this guy named Aristotle a few weeks ago, after all. There’s been plenty of time to think things through, and on the question of “substance,” there’s an amazingly broad concensus that Aristotle’s concept is lacking. I don’t see why anyone needs to relitigate this.

37 thoughts on “A thought on OOO and Aristotle

  1. It’s better to engage with an argument on its merits than to count the number of people who accept an argument, and side with the majority. The latter choice may save a lot of work, but it doesn’t meet with even the most basic standards for intellectual rigor.

    Complicating the matter is the fact that, as the best recent scholarship in Aristotle has shown, the Latinization of Aristotle (including especially the rendering of ousia as “substance”, which is wrong for a host of reasons) has obscured what he was actually saying. (Joseph Owens’ work “The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics” makes these points quite well, and Joe Sachs translations and commentary on the subject are likewise helpful.) Consequently, many modern philosophers, when criticizing “substances” and the like, took aim at something quite different than Aristotle’s concepts (Hobbes is a particularly humorous example of this).

    But it’s not like the last century of philosophy has been devoid of better understandings of Aristotle. Heidegger in particular engaged with Aristotle very deeply, leaving aside the superficial understandings that are so common. Hegel too was deeply influenced by Aristotle (though he had a poorer understanding of Aristotle than did Heidegger). Had they not engaged with Aristotle, choosing instead to rely on superficial understandings of him filtered through a foreign tradition, modern philosophy would have been much poorer for it.

  2. I sense that Harman has at least two motivations for raising the concern for Aristotle. If I recall, he notes that Badiouians critique “traditional” substance metaphysics without actually specifying and describing the content of traditional metaphysics. Yes, I agree with your claim about Maimonides, Avicenna, and Aquinas. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that one today should not venture into Aristotle’s corpus. I don’t actually think you were making this strong claim anyway. However, I did take you to be saying something like “Everything in Aristotle that can be thought has already been thought by someone in the tradition.”

    More importantly, at least for me, is that the tradition historically unfolds in peculiar ways. I actually don’t view the history of philosophy as “the” history, but rather as a fluid set of genealogical developments, i.e., a multiplicity of histories. I think we agree on this. For Heidegger, it would seem that the purpose of going bak into the history of philosophy is to think the unthought. Perhaps there are things in Aristotle that still need to be revealed, still need to be thought and then discussed. Is it possible that Aristotle might provide us with a non-anthropocentric description of objects? Is it possible that the tradition has not made use of this and that Harman still sees a useful source in Aristotle?

  3. Yeah I mean… the old testament has been around for how long? Why does anyone even read it anymore, much less devote entire disciplines to studying it.

  4. “Is it possible that Aristotle might provide us with a non-anthropocentric description of objects?”

    Nope. It is not possible. Not unless you creatively rewrite Aristotle a la Harman.

    If I get Adam’s point, I don’t think it’s about the numbers of people trying to understand X, it’s just common sense – people much much smarter than us looked into it and didn’t like it, why should we bother then?

  5. He’s just talking as though Aristotle’s theory of substance is this huge unknown territory. It’s not! Sure, there’s always the potential for finding something new, but the odds go down when we’re dealing with a figure as thoroughly worked over as Aristotle.

  6. The main problem with relational ontologies is that they’re too hipster, like silver stretch-leggings from American Outfitters. Theories of substance, on the other hand, are like a nice Brooks Brothers suit–conservative, but timeless in style. But no chic urbanites dwelling in Williamsburg would be caught dead in one! So why should we all have to suffer academically from the whimsy of contingent trends when some of us can see far beyond into the future, into the heart of the things themselves?

    So just to reiterate, this time in picture-form:

    Deleuze: http://harryallen.info/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/uki-d_cover.JPG

    Aristotle: http://nerdboyfriend.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/newhart400x500.jpg

  7. The fact that Aristotle’s doctrine of ousia is even called a theory of “substance”, while it does not quite prove the field is unknown, at least shows that it’s widely misunderstood.

  8. Is ousia really different from substance? Like, really? Is the Greek language that magical? Heidegger makes a similar argument with regard to physis being translated into Latin as natur. I’m just not sure words work so, you know, substantially!

  9. Yeah, I don’t know that translating terms into English is a sign of ignorance. Christian theology somehow managed to survive the translation of hypostasis and ousia as person and nature.

  10. Anytime a Greek term is rendered into English as essentially a Latin term bound up with a much later philosophy, there’s reason to be suspicious. But even in Latin, the terms “essentia” (the earlier rendering of the term) and “substantia” (the later rendering of the term) were mistranslations. Substantia indicated something standing under the qualities or accidents of a thing, which Aristotle actually rejects as the full meaning of ousia (though it is a related instance) (Met. 1079a).

    The problem is actually far worse once the term is rendered in English, since substance has connotations of extended matter (Cartesian substance). When one uses the term substance, it means something roughly like stuff, which is obviously quite the opposite of what Aristotle meant by the term.

    So the term substance actually connotes a different (though related) concept, rather than what Aristotle meant by ousia. The connotations of “substance” in English is even further from what Aristotle meant. Recent Aristotle scholars have produced quite a bit of literature on how the Latin translation has obscured Aristotle’s doctrines. For a fairly concise argument, you should take a look at Owens’ Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, p. 138-146 (available on Google Books).

    So yes, ousia is quite different that substance, and the mistranslation has resulted in widespread confusion about what Aristotle’s physics is really about.

  11. Why don’t we just conduct this conversation in Greek then? That should really solve all the problems!

    And while we’re at it, let’s just rehearse all the good ones:

    1) You can’t really understand Derrida unless you read him in French.

    2) One really must read Hegel in German only.

    3) Cheese steak is only delicious in Philadelphia.

    4) You can’t get a good sandwich outside of Brooklyn.

    5) Conan O’Brien on TBS is not the same.

  12. Mikhail,

    You might have a point if I were arguing “ousia” should simply be transliterated into English, but I’m not. I’m simply arguing it shouldn’t be translated using an English word that is misleading. “Being-at-work” is not a bad translation, if you don’t mind Aristotle reading a bit like a translation of Being and Time.


    I’m not trying to demand that you should be an Aristotle scholar, I’m simply suggesting that Aristotle was saying something different that what Thomists of a certain stripe (who I take you to be referring to) try to make him say. In fact, I think Aristotle is quite useful for critiquing what I would call textbook scholasticism: he did have powerful arguments against a certain form of substance metaphysics. I also think a very solid understanding of Aristotle’s Physics is helpful to understanding both Hegel and (especially) Heidegger, who were in a way reclaiming Aristotle from Scholasticism.

    If you ever decide to reread Aristotle, try the Joe Sachs translations. His translations and commentary work hard to avoid reading Aristotle through the lens of scholasticism.

  13. “People much much smarter than us looked into it and didn’t like it, why should we bother then?”

    I don’t know you could have any interest whatsoever in academics generally if you think this. I understand what Adam is saying, but pressing this point very hard at all just makes one look like a fool.

  14. Let me see if I understand you here, Hill: you’re saying that trusting the conventional wisdom on literally everything is a bad idea and unlikely to lead to much interesting academic work? My mind is blown.

  15. Hill, trying to reinvent the wheel makes one look like a fool as well. There’s a difference between academic curiosity – surely, without attempts at rereading the classics one would be a rather dull academic – and somewhat idiotic assumption that, while generations of scholars were saying X, I, the genius, found something they all missed.

    Speaking of “academics” – I’m puzzled by your rather optimistic view of academia as a place of original insight, innovation and “fresh looks” at old classics – which academics do you mean?

  16. All I’m saying is that the application of the kind of cynicism Adam (and others) are advocating here in general invalidates many of the life pursuits of the people who frequent this blog, including potentially Adam (and myself, although I’m a scientist). I mean… don’t you think it’s pretty clear what Anselm is saying at this point? Why would anyone be interested in rehabilitating him towards some other goal?

    So my point is that advancing this sort of rhetoric against something that you think is stupid is not a smart idea. If you think substance metaphysics is stupid, then say that based on whatever evidence you are able to marshal, but don’t invoke some bullshit argument from authority(!).

  17. Also, because “academics” in reality is not perfect means we should abandon all efforts towards originality, innovation or insight. What point are you trying to make? I mean… maybe you really do think all intellectual endeavors are a waste of time. It would certainly be consistent with your comments. Well I guess all intellectual endeavors except commenting on blogs.

  18. You’re clearly jesting, right? “Argument from authority”? Who is arguing anythign from authority? Twisting every exchange into heated argument about nothing is really annoying, don’t you think? I don’t think anyone is “arguing” that we shouldn’t bother with Aristotle’s substance because many have done so and declared it to be not worth their time. It’s a simple observation – not everything has to be a fucking argument!

    Many people before me concluded that, for example, Descartes’ assertions about pineal gland as the seat of the soul are rather idiotic – I have no interest in going back and studying it then – would it be cool if I did? You be the judge, lest I be arguing from authority that it shouldn’t be done because so many say it is a waste of time.

  19. “I mean… maybe you really do think all intellectual endeavors are a waste of time.”

    You have a real talent for pissing people off, don’t you? Even your ellipsis is irratating – why not just go with a comma?

  20. “We shouldn’t bother with Aristotle’s substance because many have done so and declared it to be not worth their time.”

    That is an argument from authority.

    “I’m not going to bother with Aristotle’s substance because many have done so and declared it to be not worth their time, and the probability of this being fruitful for me seems low.”

    That is an “observation,” (in the sense I take you to be using it). I don’t think anyone on the planet has an obligation to understand Aristotle.

    Descartes’ claim is an empirical one (although potentially meaningless). It doesn’t really require study to understand. I’m assuming you have some idea what is meant by soul and could find out in the span of 30 seconds what the pineal gland is to a sufficient degree to parse the claim.

    That Adam’s post constitutes an argument from authority seems fairly uncontroversial to me. And I don’t mean “argument” like we’re having a fight.

  21. Adam, I do understand what you’re saying. I just think it was worded too strongly. Perhaps I’m also less trustworthy of how the tradition unfolds than you might be. Let me give an example as to why this is the case. Those in continental philosophy have a strong appreciation for the history of philosophy and particular figures therein. Sometimes, however, we let the “big names” determine how we come to understand the tradition. For instance, for several decades those who read both Derrida and Foucault and their correspondence regarding Descartes came away with a very poor understanding of what Descartes actually wrote. While both D and F provided interesting readings of Descartes, neither really did the legwork of investigating how madness functions throughout Descartes’ corpus, particularly as it relates to the “cogito.” If my understanding of Descartes had come only through D and F (two philosophers who I respect tremendously), then I’d walk away thinking that Descartes only mentioned madness for a line or two in _Meditations_, whereas, in fact, he had quite a lot to say on the subject. Let me give a second example. Marion was critical of Aquinas for the latter’s ontotheology. However, in recent years Marion has rescinded his crticism. If I recall, he pretty much admitted that he read Aquinas through the lens of Heidegger. Later, he decided to read Aquinas for himself and found out that (1) there’s the neo-scholastic Aquinas, (2) there’s Heidegger’s Aquinas, and (3) there’s Aquinas. Marion came to think Aquinas had not been given shake by those who came afterwards. But, this is the way the history of ideas works. While I’m giving negative examples, we could probably also give positive examples of how the tradition has read someone correctly. I just think this is a case-by-case sort of thing and, therefore, I don’t blame Harman at all for suggesting that people should actually read Aristotle’s ideas regarding substance.

  22. “Your misspelling of the word irritating is irritating me. Am I doing this right?”

    Yes, you’re on the right track. Proceed to ad hominem attacks… now!

  23. Mark, I did probably word it too strongly, and Hill is right that it becomes absolute nihilism if my principle is expanded generally. I’ve certainly advanced non-normal readings of figures in my day, but I’ve also had a lot more situations where I read something and thought, “Yeah, that’s just like how people say it is.”

  24. ““Being-at-work” is not a bad translation, if you don’t mind Aristotle reading a bit like a translation of Being and Time.”

    “Being-at-work” is how Sachs renders energeia, not ousia. Ousia is “thinghood” in Sachs’s translations.

    “Thinghood” strikes me as pretty close to “substance”. Sure, the Latin roots for “substance” mention something “under” the properties, but etymology is not destiny. And “thinghood” is an ugly string of letters.

    I generally find contemporary Aristotle scholars’s emphases on not translating Aristotle using the traditional words (substance, actuality, virtue, etc.) to be kinda silly. Lots of philosophers use words in technical ways without this justifying our translating them unidiomatically.

    But the Sachs translations are the new standard, it seems; I’m assured that they’re the closest I’ll get to the Greek without reading Ross.

  25. Daniel,

    You’re right; I was confusing the terms Sachs uses.

    “Lots of philosophers use words in technical ways without this justifying our translating them unidiomatically.”

    The problem with using the term substance is not just the etymological meaning, but the technical use the term acquired is foreign to Aristotle, coming from a much later tradition, and it connotes something different than what Aristotle meant. The technical sense the term has acquired was not used by Aristotle (who of course didn’t use the term at all), and was not used until centuries after Aristotle. It’s a strange practice to translate a document written in language A into language B by using the terminology from language C, and stranger still when that term acquired a technical meaning in a much later philosophy. This has led to the reading of Aristotle through the Scholastics, which is a mistake. It would be one thing if one wanted to study St. Thomas’ interpretation of Aristotle, but even then, I would think, one would want to distinguish between the two.

  26. Thomas,

    Surely, though, at least some of these figures understood what Aquinas meant? And this understanding changed the underlying meaning of the Latin translation? I’m not arguing that Aquinas or the others are equivalent to Aristotle, but I just am having trouble thinking that it is all that different. At least as I understand it substance, at least as substantial form, often meant something like “thinghood” for the medievals.

  27. Since you were talking about arguments from authority…I can call upon authority squared.
    I was reading just yesterday this article on the ontology of quantum field theory (don’t ask…) where the author, footnoting to a 1977 German monograph titled ‘Substanz, Grundbegriff der Metaphysik’, by a Werner Stegmaier, writes ‘concurring with the verdict of Stegmaier’s careful study’ that substance is ‘an empty description’ since ‘diversifying Aristotle’s functionally overdetermined notion, the substance-ontological tradition developed at least a dozen different accounts of substance that overlap (in extension and intension) only marginally–there is no substance in ‘substance’.’ We are at a dozen+1 now.
    [Incidentally, the four, provisional, functional roles that the author accords to substance are: independence, subjecthood, persistence and ultimate determinateness].

    Anyhow, I tend to agree with you Adam, if you take physics a little seriously, there is really little philosophical work you can do with ‘substance’. But I guess some philosophers out there want to keep the ontology spotlight firmly pointed upon themselves…

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