Aristotle’s Metaphysics: being qua being

What does Aristotle mean with the science of being qua being?


    The following paper concerns book Gamma of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle comes up with the science of being insofar as it is being, and what the duty of this science regarding being qua being is. What does he exactly mean by this? He follows on how philosophy is the science that has to examine what substance is, as substance is the primary essence of being qua being. Why would this be substance?

    In the following essay you will find explanations for how Aristotle answers to these questions and some approaches to problems Aristotle’s answers bring up.

    Book Gamma starts with Aristotle saying: “There is a science that gets a theoretical grasp on being qua being and of the coincidents belonging intrinsically to it.”1 Later it gets clear, that by this science he meant philosophy. All the other sciences cut off a part of being and study exclusively the part they cut off. But to Aristotle, philosophy is the science of all first principles. Everything is, that is why even when we say, “there is nothing”, we say “there is nothing”. And as being is the first principle of everything, and philosophy is the science that studies the first principles, it makes sense, that the duty of the philosopher is to engage in being.

    Chapter two of book Gamma starts with: “Something is spoken of in many ways, however, but with reference to one thing and one nature – that is, not homonymously2. What is meant by this, is how when we speak of something, we always refer to one thing. For example, if I speak of how walking is healthy, I refer to health. He also specifies, that it is not meant homonymously. It is not meant, that we say one thing that has different meanings, like fair has two meanings, namely equitable and beautiful. By “not homonymously”, it is meant, that many things we speak of refer to one specific nature. For instance, not only “walking is healthy”, but also “my mother heals me” and endless other things we speak of refer to health. Things refer to its first principle in different ways. One can be in relation to it by possessing it, another thing can be related to its first principle by producing it and so on.3 And so, it is also with being. If I say something is, I refer to being. As already mentioned, everything is and therefore there must be a science that examines being insofar as it is being.

    Now, if philosophy has to study being qua being, and everything is being, then would philosophers not have to study literally everything? It clears some things up to remember, that the philosopher searches the first principles, the primary things of what he examines.4 He tries to go to the deepest point of what being is, he does not just want to examine everything that is. So, for instance opposites and axioms are part of the science of being qua being. This problem comes close to what Christopher Shields calls the Possibility Problem: If every science is defined by one genus, but there is no genus to being, then how can there be a science of being? Aristotle is in fact speaking of being qua being and not of being insofar as it is a living being or a being subject to motion or else.5 But then there is still the question whether being qua being has a genus. Later in the book it gets clear that to Aristotle the genus of being qua being is substance.

    We now want to look at what Aristotle means by “a philosopher should engage in being qua being”. To Aristotle, as it gets clear very quickly in chapter two of book Gamma, substance is the essence of being. If being is the primary thing of everything and you go further, you will find substance as the first principle of being.

    “In every case, however, a science in the fullest sense is of what it its primary, and of what the other things are based on, and because of which they are said to be. So, if this is substance, it will be of substance that the philosopher must possess the starting-points and causes.”6

    The first sentence of this citation brings us back to what was said before. Any science is what many things are referred to. The science of medicine is everything that is in any way related to it. In the second sentences, he expresses, that the philosopher must know the principles and the causes for substance. Substance is the central way in which being is spoken of. Like of all other sciences, the goal of philosophy must be to find the principles and causes to its subject7, which in the case of philosophy would be substance.

    The previous information leads us to the question why substance should be the starting point for being qua being. In the Categories, it is clarified, that a substance (greek: hypokeimenon) forms the basis of what is. For example, “Sokrates” is a substance, it cannot be separated into parts and does not function as an attribute to others, but rather is the carrier of attributes. Like nothing can have a quality called “Sokrates”, but Sokrates has different qualities. Substance is specific and can be separated into form and matter. We will not go into further detail on this, but it responds to the question asked earlier. Substance is the underlying thing to anything that is, and therefore it must be the first principle of being qua being. Aristotle then engages in what substance is in books Zeta, Eta and Theta.

    This essay explained what is meant by “Something is said to be in many ways” in the context of being qua being. It then goes through the Possibility Problem, that has been posed by Christopher Shields. Further it reveals how substance occurs to be the fundament of being qua being and what the consequence of this is.

    To conclude, the essay cleared up some points Aristotle makes in book Gamma, and also showed some of the problems I spotted. Even if now, I understand, that substance is the first principle of being qua being, it is still hard to imagine, what exactly it is, that falls under the science, that studies substance. Further in book Gamma, Aristotle shows, how opposites and axioms and else in his regard fall under that science. But substance does not describe this sort of issues, like for instance the relation between substance and the opposite of the one and the many is not indicated in substance. If I would take literally the sentence “philosophy has to engage in substance”, for what I know from the Categorias, I would believe Philosophy has to engage in everything that is specific. This would mean in “Sokrates” himself or in a specific horse or an apple, and then I would find myself again in the so called “special sciences” like biology or chemistry. 4



    1 C.D.C. Reeve: p. 48

    2 Ibid. p. 48

    3 Ibid. p. 48

    4 Ibid. p. 4

    5 C. Shields: p. 344

    6 C.D.C. Reeve: p. 50

    7 Ibid. p. 4


    C.D.C Reeve, 2016: Aristotle’s Metaphysics

    Christopher Shields, 2012: The Oxford Handbook of Aristotle, Being Qua Being