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APS Comment On Emanuela Bianchi’s Work

On April 27, 2014, I will be commenting on Emanuela Bianchi’s essay, “The Aristotelian Organism and Aleatory Matter.”  I’m posting my comments here for those of you who won’t be attending the Ancient Philosophy Society in Tampa, FL April 24-27. I’ll be live tweeting at #APS14, follow me @adrieltrott.

A note on the photograph: Emma took this photo of my husband and I in Città di Castello, Umbria, Italy in 2012.  At the time, we’d only been married for three weeks.  She later posted it with the caption, “Marriage: Italian Style.”  I think this it’s particularly apropos given the dispute that she and I have over the role of the feminine in Aristotle’s work.


It is a pleasure for me to comment on Emma Bianchi’s work, not only in the spirit of friendship, but also in the spirit of true and earnest disagreement with a friend with whom I share many philosophical commitments.  This project seems to be drawing together some elements of Bianchi’s previous work, and as such, I find her formulations and concerns to be helpful in my own thinking on Aristotle.  So I’d like to express my gratitude to her for keeping these questions and concerns about Aristotle at the fore.  These are questions and concerns that I share, questions that I thank Bianchi for forcing me to think about more carefully in Aristotle. They are important questions whose ramifications extend beyond the confines of Aristotle and Aristotle scholarship.  Bianchi encourages us to critically consider the implications of the standard of substance as a unified and hegemonic totality.  She asks how and why Aristotle’s teleology introduces a normative element into the generative interplay between form and matter.  And she joins others who have asked whether Aristotle’s hylomorphism and actuality and potentiality explanatory structures articulate an oppressive structure that requires one element in the two to be subordinate to the other, grounding the whole but only becoming meaningful and significant through the activating work of the other.

Bianchi’s approach to these concerns is to argue that the failure of Aristotle’s text to live up to the “metaphysically hegemonic” account shows that unity and hegemony are “continually vitiated by inassimilable factors” of material.  She calls this the material feminine symptom, which I should note is the title of her forthcoming book with the subtitle: Aleatory Matter in the Aristotelian Cosmos.

I share Bianchi’s concern that these metaphysical structures contribute to and underwrite a dualist and hierarchical conception of gender, in fact, these metaphysical structures might be called symptomatic of a certain understanding of gender where the feminine principle needs to be given direction and shape by a masculine form.  But another way of reading Aristotle is to argue that instead of this being a failure of Aristotle’s text, it is rather a failure of the hegemonic reading of Aristotle to fit Aristotle’s text.  One could argue that this reading arises from taking over too thoroughly the account of change from Physics I.7 where change seems to require some substratum that remains the same which is the material, an account that seems to better explain accidental or craft change, but not natural change.  Thus Aristotle clarifies, “Now in all cases other than substance there must be something underlying,” (Physics 190a33), suggesting that something else happens in substantial generation.  One might argue that Aristotle’s account does not have a material that is prote hylē that has no form of its own (he does say that menses is akin to this, but the way he describes menses as active, resistant, always already formed, suggests that it is far from prote hylē). So one could argue that we’ve been wrong about reading material as pure and unformed in Aristotle because we look to technē as a model to think physis.  I’ve been thinking about how even this is not adequate enough of a diagnosis of the problem since really, we’ve been wrong about physis and technē.  We’ve been criticizing physis by criticizing technē, but we should also be criticizing a view of technē that takes material to be purely passive and unformed, made meaningful only by the craftsperson.  Even technē material can resist, can do the unexpected, can force the craftsperson to re-evaluate the telos of the project.

Bianchi writes, “Matter, however, turns out to be a more complex notion than Aristotle himself acknowledges.”  Given the many ways that matter is said to change and effect the generative process, the role of heat in generation in particular and the way that menses itself can be said to be a seed in Aristotle, is it more complex than Aristotle acknowledges or more complex than we acknowledge in Aristotle?  So one question I have for Bianchi is whether we are arguing with Aristotle or with the reception of Aristotle.

Bianchi hits on the most damning claim that Aristotle makes that I briefly want to consider in two passages, GA II.4 and in Metaphysics VII.9.  I think the details of these passages present some difficulties to a facile parallel between nature and art in Aristotle.  So I am going to read both of these passages and then ask some questions of each.  First, from Generation of Animals:

The female (τὸ θῆλυ), then, provides matter (ὕλην), the male (τὸ ἄρρεν) the principle of motion (τὴν δ᾽ἀρχὴν τῆς κινήσεως).  And as the products of art (τὰ ὑπὸ τῆς τέχνης) are made by means of the tools (διὰ ὀργάνων) [of the artist], or to put it more truly be means of their movement (διὰ τῆς κινήσεως), and this is the activity (ἐνέργεια) of the art (τέχνης), and the art (τέχνη) is the form (μορφὴ) of what is made in something else, so is it with the power of the nutritive soul (θρεπτικῆς ψυχῆς δύναμις). As later on in the case of mature animals and plants this soul causes growth from the nutriment, using heat and cold as its tools (ὀργάνοις) (for in these is the movement of the soul…). GA 740b25-29

In the framework of technē, heat and cold as the tools would seem to come from outside moved by the external mover.  But if heat and cold are the tools, in natural things, then it is worth considering how heat may be an internal capacity since heat is what makes the sperm have the capacity sperm has, the capacity not only to concoct fluid to a hot enough degree that it becomes life but to concoct it to the degree that the fluid that becomes life would also have the capacity to concoct heat in another.  Heat is related to the maker, if that is the sperm, differently than the house builders tools are related to him since the heat is internal certainly to the sperm and maybe to that which becomes living (consider the nutritive soul that draws this heat from the earth) while the builder’s tools are external to the maker and the house.  But perhaps this passage suggests that art isn’t defined as imposing form but rather as making in something else.  So the male makes in something else not in itself, but this doesn’t mean either that the material is formed from something external nor that the tools, heat and cold, are external.  A longer consideration of how heat works in making sperm have the capacity to bring heat into other things shows that there is a strong materiality involved in Aristotle’s account of sperm.

In the second passage, Metaphysics VII.9, Aristotle writes:

And things which are formed by nature are in the same case as these products of art.  For the seed produces them as the artist produces the works of art; for it has the form potentially, and that from which the seed comes has in a sense the same name as the offspring; only in a sense, for we must not expect all cases to have exactly the same name, as in the production of human being from human being. Meta. 1034a32-1034b3

In this passage, Aristotle is referring to substance as the starting point of production when he writes “in the same case,” showing that just as natural generation begins with substance in another substance of the same kind, so artifice begins with the artisan.  Aristotle isn’t saying here that natural generation is just like artificial generation in that both have external form imposed, he is saying that they are similar in that both begin with substance.  Natural generation may be about imposition of form depending on the view you have on how heat works in and through sperm, but this passage does not confirm that point.

So my second question for Bianchi is about the relation between these broader claims and the details of Aristotle’s project to ask how these alternate readings of these passages might encourage a reading of Aristotle that doesn’t fit into the tradition of the reception of Aristotle but opens possibilities for alternative ways of thinking about his work.

In conclusion, Bianchi excavates the roots of Aristotelian metaphysics to challenge assumptions of contemporary metaphysics, where things, and especially, living things, continue to be construed in terms of actuality and potentiality and form and matter.  The implications of that view are normative thereby hierarchical because this account offers a standard that judges persons and living things by their degree of actuality and their degree of formedness or forming capacity.  This standard hierarchically orders organisms in terms of their capacity to reach an end, making actuality and teleology hegemonic, controlling and marginalizing.  I want to say that I agree with these concerns and commend Bianchi for making many of us in the APS pay attention to these concerns.

But there is another strategy to this project, and I am interested to learn what Bianchi thinks of this second strategy and why she chooses the first.  Why work to uncover this account of actuality and teleology and its implications in Aristotle rather than argue that Aristotle’s own text needs to be pulled out from under the towering stacks of books that rest upon his, to topple those stacks by showing that Aristotle’s text cannot and does not support them?

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