Reading Aristotle: Physics 1.5: Contraries as Principles

In the previous four chapters of his book Physics, Aristotle has been examining the views of other ancient philosophers concerning the principles of nature, showing them to be unsatisfactory as explanations. In chapter five, he begins to seek a positive account for himself:

“All thinkers then agree in making the contraries principles, both those who describe the All as one and unmoved (for even Parmenides treats hot and cold as principles under the names of fire and earth) and those too who use the rare and the dense. The same is true of Democritus also, with his plenum and void, both of which exist, he says, the one as being, the other as not-being. Again he speaks of differences in position, shape, and order, and these are genera of which the species are contraries, namely, of position, above and below, before and behind; of shape, angular and angle-less, straight and round. It is plain then that they all in one way or another identify the contraries with the principles” (Physics 1.5, 188a19-26) [1].

Remember that Aristotle is seeking for the underlying principles/causes/explanations of things, and in doing so he is asking whether this principle is just one, or many. Here he says that “all thinkers” agree “in making the contraries principles”, meaning that everyone seems to agree to an extent that contraries are underlying principles, which means there is a multiplicity of principles. He points out that even philosophers such as Parmenides, who held that being is “one and unmoved” (see Physics 1.2 and 1.3), seem in some sense to admit this. Aquinas explains:

“Parmenides said that all things are one according to reason, but many according to sense. And to the extent that there are many, he posited in them contrary principles, e.g., the hot and the cold. He attributed the hot to fire and the cold to earth” (Lectio 10.76) [2].

So as Aristotle has already discussed, Parmenides does think that being itself is one and unmoving, but our senses perceive contraries, such as hot and cold.

Next he mentions the physicists who were the subject of the previous chapter and who “posited one material and mobile principle. They said that other things come to be from this principle according to rarity and density” [3], thus making “the rare and the dense”, which are contraries, principles.

Finally he refers back to Democritus (see 1.2), who believed that reality fundamentally consists of a “plenum” of atoms which exist in “the void” of space. The plenum and the void are principles, similar in relation to “being” and “not-being”. All of Democritus’s atoms are “one in kind”, that is, they all have the same nature/essence, but they can differ from each other quantitatively (as can the things they connect to form, such as the ordinary objects of our experience) in “position, shape, and order”. These three things, says Aristotle, are “genera”, the species of which are contraries. So under the genera of position exist the species above and below, which are contraries; under shape are angular and angle-less, which are contraries, and straight and round, which are contraries.

And so, says Aquinas, that “thus Aristotle concludes, by a sort of induction, that all of the philosophers held that the principles are contraries in some way” [4].

And Aristotle here agrees with all these other philosophers in doing so:

“And with good reason. For first principles must not be derived from one another nor from anything else, while everything has to be derived from them. But these conditions are fulfilled by the primary contraries, which are not derived from anything else because they are primary, nor from each other because they are contraries” (Physics 1.5, 188a27-29) [5].

First principles, says Aristotle, must 1) not be derived from one another, 2) not be derived from anything else, 3) be that from which everything else is derived. These qualifications follow from the very definition of what it is to be an underlying principle. They cannot derive from one another because in that case, one would be more fundamental than the other, and so the latter would not actually be an underlying principle at all, since it is explained by something more fundamental than itself. They cannot derive from anything else because, as just said, then that from which they derive would be more fundamental, meaning that the latter are the real principles. And they must be that from which everything else is derived, because they are the underlying causes/explanations of these things. The first of these points is further established if the principles are contraries, for “things which are contraries are manifestly not from each other” (Lectio 10.77) [6], although this latter statement will need to be further explained below.

So what fits these qualifications for being first principles? “These conditions are fulfilled by the primary contraries”, asserts Aristotle. Aquinas explains the difference between “primary” contraries and other contraries:

“Now in order to understand what he means when he speaks of primary contraries, we must realize that some contraries are caused by other contraries, e.g., the sweet and the bitter are caused by the wet and the dry and the hot and the cold. Since, however, it is impossible to proceed to infinity, but one must come to certain contraries, which are not caused by other contraries, he calls these last contraries the primary contraries” [7].

These primary contraries then, “are not derived from anything else because they are primary”, and they do not derive from each other “because they are contraries” to each other.

So it would make sense for primary contraries to be first principles. But this by itself isn’t enough to establish it as so.

“But we must see how this can be arrived at as a reasoned result, as well as in the way just indicated. Our first presupposition must be that in nature nothing acts on, or is acted on by, any other thing at random, nor may anything come from anything else, unless we mean that it does so in virtue of a concomitant attribute. For how could ‘white’ come from ‘musical’, unless ‘musical’ happened to be an attribute of the not-white or of the black? No, ‘white’ comes from ‘not-white’–and not from any ‘not-white’, but from black or some intermediate colour. Similarly, ‘music’ comes to be from ‘not-musical’, but not from any thing other than musical, but from ‘unmusical’ or any intermediate state there may be” (Physics 1.5, 188a30-188b2) [8].

For those readers who have been waiting patiently through the first four chapters of Physics for Aristotle to get to the “really good stuff” for which he is renowned and upon which entire systems of philosophical thought have been built, this is it.

How are we to understand the sense in which all things are derived from primary contraries as first principles? Like this: Nature (which for Aristotle is the force of movement/change/causality in physical reality) is not random. This simple yet incomprehensibly profound fact is what enables us to function as beings with intellect, what enables us to interact in and with the world around us in a coherent manner, what from the very beginning inspired thinkers to try to understand reality through philosophy and science and express it through literature and the arts.

Our first presupposition in nature, Aristotle tells us, must be that “in nature nothing acts on, or is acted on by, any other thing at random”. And he adds: “nor may anything come from anything else”. In perceiving and experiencing physical reality, we become aware of definitive patterns and relationships. If I throw a rock at a window with enough force, it will break. If I drop an apple from a cliff it will fall, not grow wings and fly off into the sunset. It is not the case that anything may come from anything. Cows don’t lay eggs. Gold doesn’t grow on trees. Elephants cannot fly. Rocks don’t shape shift at will. If you light a candle it doesn’t suddenly start performing a beautiful rendition of Handel’s Messiah at the top of its lungs. That is why Aristotle says this must be our “first” presupposition; because without it we cannot even begin the project of science/natural philosophy. Without it we cannot even begin to make sense of reality and all of existence.

Aquinas comments:

“neither action nor passion can occur between things which are contingent in the sense of merely happening to be together, or between things which are contingent in the sense of being indeterminate. Nor does everything come to be from everything, as Anaxagoras said, except perhaps accidentally” (Lectio 10.78) [9].

Anaxagoras, more specifically than saying “anything can come from anything”, said that everything does come from everything (see 1.4). Aristotle contends that this is impossible, and to demonstrate so he uses as an example “white” and “musical”. Considered as attributes, white does not come from musical “except accidentally insofar as white or black happen to be in the musical” [10]. In other words, if something musical also happened by chance to be black, then white could come from that thing. If, for example, some sort of songbird were black in feather color, and then somehow the feathers changed to white, that is the only sense in which “white” could come from musical. White can only come from something musical if both the musical and the not-white exist in that substance together concomitantly. In this sense, white does not come from musical in virtue of the musical qua musical, but only in virtue of the musical qua not-white. As Aquinas puts it, “white comes to be per se from the non-white” [11].

What does this mean? If you remember from the previous chapter, the physicists held that contraries proceed from each other. For a simplistic instance, if a room is cold and you light a fire so that it becomes hot, the room has changed states from cold to hot, which are contraries. You become older only by virtue of the fact that you were before younger, which are contraries.So white comes to be from “non-white”. But “not from any ‘not-white’, but from black or some intermediate colour.” Why? To use a joke from one of my teachers, all that exists can be classified as either a “Hippopotamus” or a “Non-Hippopotamus”. A tree is a tree, yes, but it is also a Non-Hippopotamus, in that it is not a hippopotamus, however trivial and useless that fact may be. In the same way, saying that white can come from any not-white is just the same as saying that white can come from anything, because everything other than white just is “not-white”. And as we said, holding that anything can come from anything is just absurd. White only proceeds from certain specific types of not-white, such as “that non-white which is black or some mean colour” [12]. Likewise, musical comes to be from not-musical, but not any not-musical thing, but only “from ‘unmusical’ or any intermediate state there may be”, where unmusical is to not-musical what black is to not-white.

This all may be a bit confusing, but it is explained in more depth as Aristotle goes on:

“Nor again do things pass into the first chance thing; ‘white’ does not pass into ‘musical’ (except, it may be, in virtue of a concomitant attribute), but into ‘not-white’–and not into any chance thing which is not white, but into black or an intermediate colour; ‘musical’ passes into ‘not-musical’–and not into any chance thing other than musical, but into ‘unmusical’ or any intermediate state there may be” (Physics 1.5, 188b2-6) [13].

So just as something only comes from its contrary, so too it only passes away into its contrary. White arises from not-white and passes into not-white. Musical arises from not-musical and passes into not-musical. And, again, not into anything, but into that specific contrary to which it is related.

Why is it so that things only generate from and corrupt into their per-se contrary? Aquinas explains:

“Whatever comes to be or is corrupted does not exist before it comes to be and does not exist after it is corrupted. Whence it is necessary that that which a thing comes to be per se and that into which a thing is corrupted per se be such that it includes in its nature [ratio] the non-being of that which comes to be or is corrupted” [14].

We can imagine, for instance, a pot of room-temp water that is placed on a stove and heated until it reaches its boiling point. “Heat” has now arisen, but how? Metaphysically speaking, the heat has come from non-heat. But it is not just any non-heat, because literally everything that exists, other than heat, falls under the category of non-heat. It comes rather from the specific non-heat which contains within itself the ability to actualize heat. The “non-being” (meaning the not-current actuality) of heat somehow exists within the non-heat, and yet in such a way that the “being” of heat must be able to arise therefrom. If you are already somewhat familiar with Aristotelian metaphysics, you probably recognize that this point is setting up his famous and brilliant act/potency principle.

The Philosopher continues:

“The same holds of other things also: even things which are not simple but complex follow the same principle, but the opposite state has not received a name, so we fail to notice the fact. What is in tune must come from what is not in tune, and vice versa; the tuned passes into untunedness–and not into any untunedness, but into the corresponding opposite. It does not matter whether we take attunement, order, or composition for our illustration; the principle is obviously the same in all, and in fact applies equally to the production of a house, a statue, or any other complex. A house comes from certain things in a certain state of separation instead of conjunction, a statue (or any other thing that has been shaped) from shapelessness–each of these objects being partly order and partly composition” (Physics 1.5, 188b7-21) [15].

Before, the examples used of “white” and “musical” were just simple attributes of things. Now Aristotle says that the same principle applied to these simple attributes applies also to complex things. But whereas the opposites of simple things like white and musical often have specific names, the opposites of complex things often do not, so it is not as noticeable that composites also come from their contraries. Here he uses as an example “what is in tune”, which Aquinas just refers to as harmony. If you tune an instrument, it passes from “untunedness” to “attunement”, and then, over time, it tends to relapse back into untunedness. Now, there are several ways in which something can be a complex whole. Aristotle lists attunement (harmony), order, and composition as different methods of this, yet “the principle is obviously the same in all”. To use Aquinas’s words, “Some wholes consist of a harmony of order, e.g., an army; and other wholes consist of a harmony of composition, e.g., a house” [16]. An orchestra is a complex whole by attunement–all the distinct members coming together in unity of sound, rhythm, etc. An army is a complex whole by order–all the distinct members submitting to a designated rule, authority, or system. And a house is a complex whole by composition–all the distinct members/parts (e.g. the bricks, stones, etc.) fitted together in such a way that overall they perform some function (i.e. providing shelter). Before the house is built, all the parts exist separately, non-compositely. The house itself is in essence just a “conjunction” or composition of these separate parts. Thus the house, as a composition, comes from separation, which is its contrary. And to destroy a house is just to take away its composition, separate all the parts from each other. Similarly, if one were to take a slab of marble and carve from it a statue, the marble has gone from “shapelessness” to shape. What is involved in this process is just order and composition, each of which come from their contraries. So what was true of simple attributes is also true of complex objects.

“If then this is true, everything that comes to be or passes away comes from, or passes into, its contrary or an intermediate state. But the intermediates are derived from the contraries–colours, for instance, from black and white. Everything, therefore, that come to be by a natural process is either a contrary or a product of contraries” (Physics 1.5, 188b22-26) [17].

“Intermediaries” are just states between contraries. If we think of gray as an intermediary of black and white, we know that gray comes from black and white. So the intermediaries are derived from the contraries. And therefore, everything “that comes to be by a natural process is either a contrary or a product of contraries”. And if you remember the three conditions which first principles must have, the third was that the principles must be that from which everything else is derived. And here we establish that primary contraries do in fact meet this condition for first principles, since everything that comes to be by a natural process is a primary contrary or a product thereof.

Going on:

“Up to this point we have practically had most of the other writers on the subject with us, as I have said already: for all of them identify their elements, and what they call their principles, with the contraries, giving no reason indeed for the theory, but constrained as it were by the truth itself. They differ, however, from one another in that some assume contraries which are more primary, others contraries which are less so: some those more knowable in the order of explanation, others those more familiar to sense. For some make hot and cold, or again moist and dry, the conditions of becoming; while others make odd and even, or again Love and Strife; and these differ from each other in the way mentioned” (Physics 1.5, 188b27-36) [18].

As he said before, most of the philosophers held, in some sense, that the principles are contraries. However, they did not do so by reasoning, but “constrained as it were by the truth itself.” Aquinas gives a beautiful account of this in his typical style:

“For truth is the good of the intellect, toward which the intellect is naturally ordered. Hence as things which lack knowledge are moved to their ends without reason [ratio], so, at times, the intellect of man, by a sort of natural inclination, tends toward the truth, though it does not perceive the reason [ratio] for the truth” (Lectio 10.79) [19].

In other words, they knew what must necessarily be the case, but they didn’t really have conscious, worked out reasons for why it is so.

But even though all the philosophers in some way held contraries to be principles, they differed in what sense they held this. Some thought that the first principles were “contraries which are more primary, others contraries which are less so”. Some thought that the first principles were contraries “more knowable in the order of explanation, others those more familiar to sense”. This, if you remember, harkens back to the very first chapter, in which Aristotle laid out briefly his theory of knowledge pertaining to nature. This was that some things are more evident/knowable to our senses, but some things are “clearer and more knowable by nature”, meaning that these are the principles by which nature operates, even though they aren’t perceived by our senses. So some held that “hot and cold” or “moist and dry” are the first principles, and these contraries are known to us by sense. Others held that “odd and even” or “love and strife” are the first principles, and these are not known to us by the senses, but by reason.

“Hence their principles are in one sense the same, and in another different; different certainly, as indeed most people think, but the same inasmuch as they are analogous; for all are taken from the same table of columns, some of the pairs being wider, others narrower in extent. In this way then their theories are both the same and different, some better, some worse; some, as I have said, take as their contraries what is more knowable in the order of explanation, others what is more familiar to sense. (The universal is more knowable in the order of explanation, the particular in the order of sense: for explanation has to do with the universal, sense with the particular.) ‘The great and the small’, for example, belong to the former class, ‘the dense and the rare’ to the latter” (Physics 1.5, 188b37-189a9) [20].

The principles of these philosophers are “in one sense the same, and in another different”. How so? They are different because they all took different contraries to be their principles, as has already been seen. And yet the are the same “inasmuch as they are analogous”. For one thing, they all took contraries to be their principles. But even the contraries which they took are similar analogously.

Aristotle explains that they are “all taken from the same table of columns”. He is referring here to a table which he discusses in his book Metaphysics, a table which some had made with two columns of “cognates”, with one contrary on one side, and the other on the other. And thus they are similar, because all the contraries given by philosophers as first principles are from this table. Some of the pairs of contraries which they took were “wider” in extent, some “narrower”, referring presumably to their explanatory position, as discussed above.

Now when Aristotle says that, of the theories posited by the other philosophers, “some [are] better, some worse”, he could mean either of two things. The first is that he thinks some philosophers chose better contraries as their principles, some worse. Aquinas, however, takes him to mean that every philosopher took contraries as their principles, and of these, one contrary itself was better than the other. This is so, he says, because “one of the contraries always has privation joined to it” (Lectio 10.81) [21]. For instance, the contrary to house is “not-house”, which is its privation. So one contrary is positive and the other is a privation, the former being “better” and the latter “worse”. This is the same for every pair of contraries chosen as principles by the philosophers, thus again making their theories both the same and different.

Finally, the pairs chosen are similar in that they are all “knowable”, but different in that they are knowable relative to different perspectives. Some contraries, as we’ve said, are “more knowable in the order of explanation”, i.e, by reason; and some are “more familiar to sense”. Aristotle further extrapolates that what is more knowable to reason is that which is universal, while what is more knowable to the senses is that which is particular. “Great and small”, for example, are abstracted, universal qualities known to the intellect, while “dense and rare” are particular qualities known to the senses.

Finally, Aristotle states simply in conclusion:

“It is clear then that our principles must be contraries” (Physics 1.5, 189a10) [22].

Despite the fact that different thinkers disagree about which contraries are the first principles, all agree, and are demonstrated to be correct by the reasons given in this chapter, that the first principles must be contraries.

In the next chapter, Aristotle will consider how many first principles there are.

 

Notes

[1]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print, 226.

[2]. Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. Books I-II translated by
Richard J. Blackwell, Richard J. Spath & W. Edmund Thirlkel
Yale U.P., 1963. Lectio 10.76 <http://www.dhspriory.org/thomas/Physics1.htm#9&gt;.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. McKeon. The Basic Works of Aristotle. 226-227.

[6]. Aquinas. Commentary. Lectio 10.77.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. McKeon. The Basic Works of Aristotle. 227.

[9]. Aquinas. Commentary. Lectio 10.78.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. McKeon. The Basic Works of Aristotle. 227.

[14]. Aquinas. Commentary. Lectio 10.78.

[15]. McKeon. The Basic Works of Aristotle. 227.

[16]. Aquinas. Commentary. Lectio 10.78.

[17]. McKeon. The Basic Works of Aristotle. 227.

[18]. Ibid. 227-228.

[19]. Aquinas. Commentary. Lectio 10.79.

[20]. McKeon. The Basic Works of Aristotle. 228.

[21]. Aquinas. Commentary. Lectio 10.81.

[22]. McKeon. The Basic Works of Aristotle. 228.

Cover image in the Public Domain in the United States, taken from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASanzio_01.jpg

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13 thoughts on “Reading Aristotle: Physics 1.5: Contraries as Principles

  1. “. . . to destroy a house is just to take away its composition, separate all the parts from each other. Similarly, if one were to take a slab of marble and carve from it a statue, the marble has gone from “shapelessness” to shape. What is involved in this process is just order and composition, each of which come from their contraries.”

    The marble had a shape before being carved into a statue.
    The marble is not combined with anything physical, as are the parts of a house. The house does not exist until the requisite parts are fastened together. The statue is made by removing bits of marble, leaving less marble behind while changing its shape. Marble is marble before and after the carving. I don’t see an analogy here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s fair. Some of Aristotle’s specific examples probably need to be modified in light of advances in modern science. For instance, there seems to be some debate about whether black and white are really “opposite” colors. So we could modify the example of the statue. The marble might not change from “shapelessness” to “shape”, but the shape itself changes from “non-statue” to “statue”.

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      • I agree, the shape changes from non-statue to statue. Again, though, this example does not describe a coming together of parts, such as the house example does. Rather, “parts” of the marble are taken away. But even these parts do not exist (as the house parts do) until the sculptor carves the work. The house example is adequate; I don’t think you need the marble/statue to help illustrate the point. Also, the house example does not depend on updating any technology; it works as is. Anyway, this is all relatively trivial in the context of “Contraries as Principles.” I’m still studying the argument leading to “principles must be contraries.” That is the main event.

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      • You wrote,
        “We can imagine, for instance, a pot of room-temp water that is placed on a stove and heated until it reaches its boiling point. “Heat” has now arisen, but how? Metaphysically speaking, the heat has come from non-heat. But it is not just any non-heat, because literally everything that exists, other than heat, falls under the category of non-heat. It comes rather from the specific non-heat which contains within itself the ability to actualize heat. The “non-being” (meaning the not-current actuality) of heat somehow exists within the non-heat, and yet in such a way that the “being” of heat must be able to arise therefrom. If you are already somewhat familiar with Aristotelian metaphysics, you probably recognize that this point is setting up his famous and brilliant act/potency principle.”

        Another explanation of this example:
        The molecules of the room-temp water have been energized from a heat source. Hot gas from a flame has transferred energy to the pot, and from the pot to the water. Conclusion: water molecules have the potential to become energized from proximity or collision with more energetic molecules.

        What purpose does it serve to speak of “non-heat” and “non-being”? To me, this kind of language confuses the issue.

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      • Scientifically speaking, your explanation is completely correct and is probably much more useful practically. But Aristotle here is trying to look at things at a much deeper, more fundamental level. Nature is driven by change and causation, and Aristotle is wondering how this actually happens. The water molecules have changed, have gained more energy, but Aristotle is asking how this actually happens, from the perspective of being/existence itself. He’s also trying to find an underlying principle for ALL change, not just specific instances thereof. So the water changes from room-temp to boiled by virtue of increased energy from the stove, but at the same time a tree is chopped down and turned into a table. In both instances a change has occurred, but not in both instances is this change due just to increased energy from a heat source. Aristotle is asking what is change in itself, what is the underlying principle of change, that allows it to manifest in these very different particular instances? Since we already know about his philosophy we know he’ll arrive at the act/potency distinction, but in Physics 1.5 he hasn’t arrived there yet, he has to build up to it.

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  2. About:
    “‘Great and small’, for example, are abstracted, universal qualities known to the intellect, while ‘dense and rare’ are particular qualities known to the senses.”

    l don’t see a difference between the two examples. It seems to me that knowing great and small requires sense perception as much as do dense and rare.

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    • I agree, and I think Aristotle would too. For him, all knowledge derives from our experience/sense perception of the physical world. But since we have reason/intellect, we can also abstract from our sense perceptions and consider things universally/formally. I think what he’s getting at with great and small is that when we see an object all by itself, there’s nothing *in itself* that’s either great or small, but it’s only when we can consider it in relation to other objects that we compare them as big, small, etc. He also mentions somewhere that Plato had a theory about the “great and small”, but I haven’t come across anything like that in my Plato readings, so I’m not entirely sure what he would be referring to.

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      • I agree that we know great and small by comparison. I say that we know the difference between dense and rare the same way. This isn’t enough to differentiate the two comparisons (great/small, dense/rare). Both require sense data; both require comparison and intellect to articulate the contrariness of each pair. I’m not questioning the idea of intellect / perception as two ways of knowing. I just don’t see a difference between the two examples.

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