Another Infinite Regress in Aristotle

After these things, [one must observe] that neither matter nor form comes to be, I mean the ultimate ones.  For everything undergoes change as something and by something and into something.  The by something is the initiating mover, the something is the matter, and the into which is the form.  Therefore they continue into an infinite regress, if not only bronze comes to be round but also the round comes to be and the bronze comes to be.  Indeed, there must be a stopping point (My translation, Metaphysics 1069b35-1070a4) (1).

This is how Lamda 3 begins.  Focus for a moment on the infinite regress which Aristotle offers as a consequence of this first paragraph. What line of reasoning is Aristotle following here?  Certainly if bronze has to come to be before it even serves as the subject of a transition into a bronze statue, then the process is pushed back one step.  But why should this be an infinite regress.  In other contexts, Aristotle uses eis apeiron to mean infinite regress, so I think it is solid to interpret it as such here.  

I believe that Aristotle is here already assuming a substratum or hypokeimenon. The idea of a substratum, or underlying thing, would seem to serve at least two purposes.  The first would be to explain the persistence of a thing through change and over time.  Secondly to avoid having to explain the antecedent coming to be of something in order to serve as the subject of a change.  It is perhaps this second idea that is motivating Aristotle’s infinite regress.  I will try to develop this idea in a second post.



(1) Μετὰ ταῦτα ὅτι οὐ γίγνεται οὔτε ἡ ὕλη οὔτε τὸ εἶδος,   (35)
λέγω δὲ τὰ ἔσχατα. πᾶν γὰρ μεταβάλλει τὶ καὶ ὑπό
(1070a) τινος καὶ εἴς τι· ὑφ’ οὗ μέν, τοῦ πρώτου κινοῦντος· ὃ δέ, ἡ
ὕλη· εἰς ὃ δέ, τὸ εἶδος. εἰς ἄπειρον οὖν εἶσιν, εἰ μὴ μόνον
ὁ χαλκὸς γίγνεται στρογγύλος ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ στρογγύλον
ἢ ὁ χαλκός· ἀνάγκη δὴ στῆναι.

Misreading Aristotle’s “Leisurely Philosophy” in Cicero

In the fifth book of the Tusculan Disputations (concerning the self sufficiency of virtue) there are, it seems, several parallels or echoes of Aristotelian philosophy.  It is commonly accepted that Cicero read Aristotle, so this is not surprising.  Further, it is likewise not so shocking that Cicero might have misread Aristotle as well.  Aristotle famously says in the first book of Metaphysics that,

It is therefore probable that at first the inventor of any art which went further than the ordinary sensations was admired by his fellow-men, not merely because some of his inventions were useful, but as being a wise and superior person.  And as more and more arts were discovered, some relating to the necessities and some to the pastimes of life, the inventors of the latter were always considered wiser than those of the former, because their branches of knowledge did not aim at utility. Hence when all the discoveries of this kind were fully developed, the sciences which relate neither to pleasure nor yet to the necessities of life were invented, and first in those places where men had leisure (Metaphysics A.1, trans. Rackham) (1).

Cicero takes this as meaning that the first philosophers willingly put aside the distractions of a pragmatic life in order to give total devotion to philosophy:

Those who first directed themselves to the study of philosophy, so that, with all things being put aside, they were positioning themselves to whole-heartedly inquire into the best state of life (my translation) (2).  

This interpretation suggests the image of a retiring gentlemen leaning back in his recliner to focus his attention on the finer, and more pleasing, aspects of the intellect.  Although this may, in fact, have some of the intent of Aristotle’s account, and perhaps in no small part may explain his exaltation of the contemplative life, it strikes me as an oddly individualistic account. 

I have always read the account in the Metaphysics as at least a partial attempt at explaining a historical phenomenon.  When mankind had reached only so far in the ascent of science, it did not yet reach to the non-productive realm of the theoretical science, philosophy.  When it did, it philosophy was born, not of necessity, but of leisure. This is not an account of a single man, but of mankind,or at least the Greeks.



  1.  Τὸ μὲν οὖν πρῶτον εἰκὸς τὸν ὁποιανοῦν εὑρόντα τέχνην παρὰ τὰς κοινὰς αἰσθήσεις θαυμάζεσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, μὴ μόνον διὰ τὸ χρήσιμον εἶναί τι τῶν εὑρεθέντων, ἀλλ᾿ ὡς σοφὸν καὶ διαφέροντα τῶν ἄλλων· πλειόνων δ᾿ εὑρισκομένων τεχνῶν, καὶ τῶν μὲν πρὸς τἀναγκαῖα, τῶν δὲ πρὸς διαγωγὴν οὐσῶν, ἀεὶ σοφωτέρους τοὺς τοιούτους ἐκείνων ὑπολαμβάνεσθαι,1 διὰ τὸ μὴ πρὸς χρῆσιν εἶναι τὰς ἐπιστήμας αὐτῶν. ὅθεν ἤδη πάντων τῶν τοιούτων κατεσκευασμένων αἱ μὴ πρὸς ἡδονὴν μηδὲ πρὸς τἀναγκαῖα τῶν ἐπιστημῶν εὑρέθησαν, καὶ πρῶτον ἐν τούτοις τοῖς τόποις οὗπερ ἐσχόλασαν (~981b13 ff). 
  2. …qui primi se ad philosophiae studium contulerunt, ut omnibus rebus posthabitis totos se in optimo vitae statu exquirendo collocarent… (Tusculan Disputations 5.1).

Is Flesh an Organ or Medium? “Touch Experiments” in Aristotle

Aristotle takes a curious position on whether the sense of touch involves a medium.  It seems easier, simpler, and more intuitive to believe that there is no medium, and that the sense of touch works by having the sense object affect the flesh directly.  However, Aristotle imagines several thought experiments, which serve as arguments to bolster his position, all of which are clever, but which have been found wanting by some commentators. (1)  These arguments are laid out in De Anima II.11, the chapter which particularly explores and describes the sense of touch. 

The first of these arguments is the “Membrane Argument.”  We are told by Aristotle to imagine a membrane, stretched as an extremely thin layer around our body, or perhaps limited, for clarity, to only around a hand.  In such a situation, the membrane, “would communicate the sensation in the same way, immediately when touched”  (trans. Shields, 423a3-4).  We would not, Aristotle insists, think that the membrane was an organ, even though there was an immediate transmission of the perception.  So, just as an immediate communication does not suffice to make an organ out of a membrane, so too immediate communication of the perception in the case of the flesh does not make it an organ either. 

There is a modification of this argument, acknowledging the possible objection that the membrane example is rigged in favor of Aristotle’s conclusion: a membrane is not living, and so this example is doomed to failure from the outset, because all organs are necessarily living.  Coming immediately on the heels of the membrane argument, then, Aristotle offers up the “Natural Membrane Argument.”  The idea here is to imagine, however this would come about, that the membrane from the first example is now “naturally attached” (symphues) to the skin, rather than an artificial add-on.  Aristotle says that in this scenario, “the perception would pass through it still more quickly” (Trans. Shields, 423a5).  It is unclear how perception would occur more quickly than the instantaneity implied in the case of the mere membrane, but that it occurs, seems for Aristotle to result from the idea that some things, namely naturally affixed ones, are better media than others. 

Continuing on with this same line of thought, Aristotle next fleshes out his naturally attached argument by inventively offering air as that thing to which we become naturally affixed.  Supposing that were air to become naturally affixed to us, we would then think that sound, smell and sight were brought about by one thing, namely the air as our single organ (since they, of course, operate via air).  We would nevertheless be mistaken, as the organs would properly be the ears, eyes and nose.  So just as in the hypothetical case of air becoming naturally affixed to us, with air as a medium which appears to us as an organ, so too in reality in the case of flesh, where flesh is actually a medium but also falsely appears to us as an organ.  One important feature to pick up on here is that it is not the relative proximity of the object of perception that determines whether a medium is mistaken for an organ, but it is rather how indistinguishable the medium is from the sense faculty itself, in other words, how closely aligned the medium and faculty are.  This may in fact be only hard to distinguish because of our point of view, in that the sense of touch is in some way internal to flesh, and thus difficult to experientially separate from the medium of flesh.  In the same way that in the example of air becoming naturally fused to our flesh we would have difficulty in determining whether, for example, the air was the medium or the organ of hearing (when it fact the ear was the organ all along,) so it is the case now when we are with great difficulty trying to determine the difference between the medium and organ when it comes to flesh in the case of touch. 


(1) In fact many consider these arguments poor.  But I do think, along with Polansky, that these arguments were attempting to make room for “the possibility for the flesh to be medium rather than sense organ”  (Polanksy 2007: 325)

Aristotle, and Christopher Shields. Aristotle De Anima. Trans. Christopher Shields. Oxford Univ Press, 2016.

Polansky, Ronald. 2007. Aristotle’s De anima. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.