Read On Generation and Corruption by Aristotle Free Online
Book Title: On Generation and Corruption|
The author of the book: Aristotle
ISBN 13: 9781425000875
Date of issue: September 4th 2007
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 5.88 MB
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With this relatively minor work of proto-science, my voyage through Aristotle’s corpus continues.
Of Generation and Corruption is a very poor name for this work; a better one would be Of Coming-to-Be and Passing-Away. Those two terms capture what Aristotle is investigating: How does matter come about in the first place? How is one type of matter transformed into another type? How do things grow and diminish? How do the elements act on one another? These questions lead Aristotle into what might justly be called proto-chemistry.
One thing Aristotle spends a lot of time wondering about is, from our modern point of view, unmistakably conservation laws. Can matter spring into existence from nothing? Or must it always come from something else? Aristotle (though not for the correct reasons) decides upon the latter: "every coming-to-be is a passing-away of something else and every passing-away some other thing’s coming-to-be.” In other words, out of nothing, comes nothing.
While Aristotle is correct in this surmise, he is less successful in investigating what I cannot but call Newton’s Third Law. Can or cannot one thing affect another thing without it itself being affected? Here we see Aristotle’s puzzling confusion of metaphorical uses of terms with their more strict definitions:
... it is commonly supposed that ‘touching’ must be reciprocal. The reason of this belief is that ‘movers’ which belong to the same kind as the ‘moved’ impart motion by being moved. Hence if anything imparts motion without itself being moved, it may touch the ‘moved’ and yet itself be touched by nothing—for we say sometimes that the man who grieves us ‘touches’ us, but not that we ‘touch' him.
In other words, since we are ‘touched’ by an emotional event, while our ‘being touched’ does not necessarily affect the event itself, Newton’s Third Law isn’t necessarily true—there was an action without a reaction. Aristotle makes a similar point when he says “if agent and patient have not the same matter, agent acts without being affected: thus the art of healing produces health without itself being acted upon in any way by that which is being healed.” When a doctor heals a patient, the art of healing acts without itself necessarily being acted upon. (Incidentely, I’m not sure if I’d agree with that.) This confusion of words when applied to social and physical situations runs through much of his proto-scientific work, leading to much confusion.
In any case, Aristotle soon moves on from these preliminaries into a deeper investigation into the four elements—which are, of course, Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. What are the specific qualities that differentiate these elements from one another? Well, for one, Fire and Air rise, while Water and Earth fall. But what differentiates Fire from Air and Water from Earth, then? Says Aristotle: “Fire is hot and dry, whereas Air is hot and moist (Air being a sort of aqueous vapour); and Water is cold and moist, while Earth is cold and dry.” Now, by “moist” Aristotle doesn’t mean “damp,” but rather what us moderns would call “fluid”: “ ‘moist’ is that which, being readily adaptable in shape, is not determinable by any limit of its own: while ‘dry’ is that which is readily determinable by its own limit, but not readily adaptable in shape.”
The way these elements interact is qua their contrary qualities:
... it is a law of nature that body is affected by body, flavour by flavour, colour by colour, and so in general what belongs to any kind by a member of the same kind—the reason being that ‘contraries’ are in every case within a single identical kind, and it is ‘contraries’ which reciprocally act and suffer action.
Yes, they do share some qualities, which would seem to complicate this interaction via contraries idea; but though each element is described by two qualities, one quality gives each its fundamental identity: “Earth by dry rather than by cold, Water by cold rather than by moist, Air by moist rather than by hot, and Fire by hot rather than by dry.”
Aristotle quickly moves on from there, thinking he has basically solved all of the pertinent problems, and then makes some more general statements about the universe as a whole. This leads him to a paragraph that I will quote in full, because it so marvelously encapsulates his way of thinking:
Coming-to-be and passing-away will, as we have said, always be continuous, and will never fail owing to the cause we stated. And this continuity has a sufficient reason in our theory. For in all things, as we affirm, Nature always strives after ‘the better’. Now ‘being’ … is better than ‘not being’: but not all things can possess ‘being’, since they are too far removed from the ‘originative source’. God therefore adopted the remaining alternative, and fulfilled the perfection of the universe by making coming-to-be uninterrupted: for the greatest possible coherence would thus be secured to existence, because that ‘coming-to-be should itself come-to-be perpetually’ is the closest approximation to eternal being.
Again, in this work we see the centrality of the idea of ‘potential’ to Aristotle’s worldview. The above statement is similar to one he makes in the Physics regarding infinities: Aristotle believes that there is no such thing as an actual infinity, but there are such things as potential infinities. The above paragraph seems to be just another way of saying that the cosmos is a potential infinity.
This leads me to wonder: what is the ontological status of a ‘potential’ object? Aristotle treats them as if they are real—just as real as ‘actual’ objects, though in a different way. For example, for Aristotle, the statement “there is an egg on the table” and “that egg is potentially a chicken” are equally true statements, applied to two equally real objects: namely, the egg, and the potential chicken. But a year or so ago I remember reading an essay by Quine, in which he points out that absurdities result from regarding potentialities as real. For example, is my refrigerator full of an infinite amount of potential food? Are an infinite number of potential men standing in my doorway? These rhetorical questions merely point out that, unlike actualities, mutually exclusive potentialities are ‘real’ (or, at least, apparently real).
Let’s take a concrete example. Say that, the day after Aristotle calls a certain egg “potentially a chicken,” I’m carrying it back to its nest, and accidentally drop and break it. Clearly, the broken egg is no longer potentially a chicken; both the actual and potential object has been destroyed. But the real question is: was the egg ever a potential chicken? Was not that specific egg doomed to being dropped?—and couldn’t a hyper-knowledgeable, hyper-intelligent physicist have predicted that I would drop it? What I mean by this is that physically determinative theories are not compatible with potentialities: either something will happen, or it won’t. (This, of course, isn’t quite true on the quantum level, but I’m not sure that’s relevant on this macro-scale thought-experiment.) Under this interpretation, it would seem that potentialities are not real, but are merely the products of human ignorance: we cannot determine what will happen, and so have to entertain multiple possibilities to compensate.
This, to me, is slightly disturbing. For, to alter the chicken example a bit, we regard murder as the worst of crimes because it destroys another person’s potential; the future of potentialities is closed to that person. The murderer (like myself, the egg-dropper) is then held responsible, because the murder itself is regarded as a potentiality that might not have been actualized; in other words, the murderer might not have chosen to murder, thereby activating another, parallel, potentiality, in which the victim lived. Yet if potentialities are not real, then the event couldn’t have happened any other way. It was, in a word, inevitable. Disturbing, no?
Aristotle wonders aloud about this same problem—viz., whether things necessarily turn out the way they do—in this arresting passage:
Then are all the things that come-to-be of this contingent character? Or, on the contrary, is it absolutely necessary for some of them to come-to-be? Is there, in fact, a distinction in the field of ‘coming-to-be’ corresponding to the distinction, within the field of ‘being’, between things that cannot possibly ‘not-be’ and things that can ‘not-be’? For instance, is it necessary that solstices shall come-to-be, i.e. impossible that they should fail to be able to occur?
I think a more careful thinker than I could do this philosophical problem justice; even Aristotle seems a little stumped.
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Read information about the author(Greece: Αριστοτέλης)
(Alternate European spelling: Aristoteles)
Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) numbers among the greatest philosophers of all time. Judged solely in terms of his philosophical influence, only Plato is his peer: Aristotle's works shaped centuries of philosophy from Late Antiquity through the Renaissance, and even today continue to be studied with keen, non-antiquarian interest. A prodigious researcher and writer, Aristotle left a great body of work, perhaps numbering as many as two-hundred treatises, from which approximately thirty-one survive. His extant writings span a wide range of disciplines, from logic, metaphysics and philosophy of mind, through ethics, political theory, aesthetics and rhetoric, and into such primarily non-philosophical fields as empirical biology, where he excelled at detailed plant and animal observation and taxonomy. In all these areas, Aristotle's theories have provided illumination, met with resistance, sparked debate, and generally stimulated the sustained interest of an abiding readership.
Because of its wide range and its remoteness in time, Aristotle's philosophy defies easy encapsulation. The long history of interpretation and appropriation of Aristotelian texts and themes—spanning over two millennia and comprising philosophers working within a variety of religious and secular traditions—has rendered even basic points of interpretation controversial. The set of entries on Aristotle in this site addresses this situation by proceeding in three tiers. First, the present, general entry offers a brief account of Aristotle's life and characterizes his central philosophical commitments, highlighting his most distinctive methods and most influential achievements. Second are General Topics which offer detailed introductions to the main areas of Aristotle's philosophical activity. Finally, there follow Special Topics which investigate in greater detail more narrowly focused issues, especially those of central concern in recent Aristotelian scholarship
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