Study Notes

I’ve not been blogging Aquinas much, recently, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been studying. Some study sessions yield insights that move me to blog, and others don’t; but I’d like to record what I’ve been doing in any event. So from now on I plan to leave a few words hear about what I’ve been studying, even if I have nothing very profound to say about it.

I’ve been working slowly through the first book of Aristotle’s Physics, which I think is the most challenging work I’ve ever seriously tried to get to grips with. I’m doing so with the aid of Aquinas’ commentary on the Physics; Dumb Ox Books has a nice paperback edition of it. It’s broken into “lectures”; each lecture consists of a passage from the Physics followed by Aquinas’ commentary. This is a nice format, as it means I can spend time reading and reflecting on Aristotle’s words…and then, and only then, go and see what Thomas has to say. Aristotle is extremely terse, and Thomas is very good at providing background and drawing out hidden assumptions.

Today I began looking at Lecture 11, which looks at Book I, chapter 6 of the Physics. Here Aristotle continues a discussion of the “principles” of the things we see around us: there are many things in this world, but there must be something underlying them. What is this underlying stuff? Is there one principle or many? And if many, how many? Some have said there there One principle; others have said two principles which are contraries; others have said there are many or even infinite principles.

Aristotle has already shown that there can’t simply be one principle of natural beings; here he argues (using probable arguments rather than demonstrations) that there are three: a primary contrariety (a pair of contraries, with their intermediate states), and some kind of substrate, something that can change.

He frequently makes the argument that in a single genus there can be but one primary contrariety; all other contrarieties in that genus must be reducible to the primary. And after some reflection, this seems to be to be a matter of definition; you’ve got some basic kind of thing, and in each genus you slice it up in some particular way. That’s the primary contrariety.

A genus is made up of species (which are frequently genera in their own right), and each species is distinct from the others. The species in a genus are in fact contraries; in mathematical terms I’d refer to them as disjoint sets. But Aristotle seems to be assuming more than that: that the primary contrariety is defined by a pair of opposites, as though all species in the genus must by definition be positioned along a spectrum from the one to the other. Is this necessarily the case? And if so, why? Is this a necessary corollary of essentialism?

I’m not yet done with Lecture 11; some of Aristotle’s comments toward the end of the chapter are extremely opaque to me, and I’ve not yet worked my way through all of Aquinas’ comments on them.

When I’d ground to a halt on the Physics, I moved on to something a little lighter for the rest of my study time: Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy, which I just recently discovered. I’ve just started reading the first volume, on Greek and Roman philosophy, and as I expected I’m finding it a great adjunct to the Physics. Different people learn in different ways; what’s working for me is to delve deeply into one thing (the Physics) while reading widely but shallowly in the same general vicinity. In this way I see the same topics approached from different directions, in different words, and one author often states clearly what another author states elliptically or obscurely. More than that, you can’t study everything in depth; reading widely provides needed context.

At present, Copleston is discussing the Ionian school of philosophers; so far I’ve read about Thales and Anaximander. Thales was the first we know of to discover the principle that Copleston terms “Unity in Differences”: that underlying all of the many things we see around us, there must be some principle that they all share. Thales though that it was Water, which as Copleston remarks has more plausibility than you might think: Water evaporates, thus seeming to change into Air, and freezes, thus become solid and in some sense Earth.

Anaximander goes beyond this, making the point, in fact, that Aristotle serendipitously makes in the passage of the Physics I was studying today. There must be contraries: things change from this to that. But there must be something underlying this that doesn’t change. It can’t be Water or Fire, for these are contraries. Anaximander called this underlying primitive “stuff” the Boundless Infinite.

All for now.

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