“Being” vs Being Itself: Aristotle
We have seen how Plato’s notions of being were limited by their own nothingness. His most famous student saw it too, and invented an extremely clever method of overcoming it—thus launching the great divide in philosophy and its concepts of “being.”
Let’s start with what they agreed on. They were both in love with intellect and its capacity to make value judgments about the good. They both thought they could use this power to describe “being” and obtain the good of happiness. They both thought happiness consisted of pure intellect or contemplation.
At the same time, they were two very different people with very different temperaments. And these differences led to divided concepts of being.
Apparently Aristotle was not as unhappy with present existence as his teacher. He had a great love for nature, both for its beauty and its functional excellence. He also had a love for the arrangements that currently exist. These affections caused him to want to resist Plato’s love of pure resistance and the nothingness it produces.
All concepts of being are based on the force of resistance found in intellect. Plato described being as a force of pure resistance to the materialism of the prominent philosophers of his time. He was unhappy with the state of philosophy as he found it, and he tried to use this unhappiness, this resistance, to reform it and put it on a more promising trajectory.
Likewise Aristotle was unhappy with his teacher’s Idealism and the nothingness it produces. He was very unwilling to negate nature and values that presently exist. No, his natural instinct was to try to preserve them. His description of being, then, was a product of his resistance to the limitations of his own teacher’s philosophy.
The same is true of all philosophers, by the way. Without exception, they attempted to provide a new description of being because they were unhappy with the descriptions that already existed. But since they rooted their philosophy in resistance, their notions of being were highly divided.
Aristotle had a major challenge on his hands. Like Plato, he wanted to glorify intellect as a transcendent power, but he also wanted to preserve existent values. He wanted to make the argument that those values are in fact good—that the qualities of transcendent intellect are embodied in them.
But how to do this? How to preserve the seeming transcendent quality of intellect and also ascribe this quality to existent values? His solution was to attempt to describe a construct of intellect and matter where the two appear to come together without actually losing their difference.
To this end, Aristotle introduced the notion of intellectual and material “causes.” This notion appears to create a connection between intellect and matter, if both can act as “causes.” Also these are not “causes” in the normal sense of the word. The meaning of these causes cannot be pinned down, and yet they seem to mean something; and the tension between these two attributes produces a certain rhetorical freedom.
Next, Aristotle relied heavily on definition. Two things may seem starkly opposed, but one can still use the power of definition to shade or obscure their differences. So, for example, he defined the material cause in such a way that it isn’t really matter at all, it isn’t just a thing; and he defined the intellectual cause so that it wasn’t really intellect in the way Plato conceived it—a transcendent power.
This grand attempt at putting intellect and matter together while still maintaining their difference is now often referred to as a construct. All philosophers who followed the path blazed by Aristotle attempted to create constructs of this type, including Aquinas, Kant, and Hegel. Their method is sometimes called the synthetic method, not because it is artificial but because it joins two disparate things together.
These constructs of “being” tend to be rather shaky, however, since they depend heavily on definition. Also they require pure unstinting action in order to hold together two opposite things. If pure intellect is the negation of sense, then the only way to overcome its negative force and join it to sense is through pure synthetic action. And in fact Aristotle himself characterized being as Pure Act.
But it’s not just the shakiness of the constructs that limits the appeal of the synthetic method. It is the divide between Immanence and Transcendence. Plato was right. Intellect quests for happiness through its resistance to the unhappiness of existence. If we turn this resistance into a transcendent power, we wind up negating all existent values, which results in nothingness. But the only way to overcome this nothingness is to try to make the goodness of intellect immanent in existence.
This is just what Aristotle tried to do. He wanted to preserve the positive values found in nature and existing arrangements and restrain the annihilating impulse of Idealists. But the only way to ascribe the goodness of intellect to sensuous existence is to deprive it of some of its capacity for resistance. Intellect loses its fully differential power in Aristotle’s description of being and is drawn into existence; it loses the very goodness that the Idealists loved.
To put it another way, present existence is precisely the unhappy thing that the philosopher is trying to resist through the power of intellect. If he uses the synthetic method to negate the difference between resistance and existence, then intellect loses some or all of its transcendent power and its freedom from the limitations of existence.
Aristotle made the case that the goodness of transcendent intellect was already immanent in existence. To him, “being” was some sort of construct of intellectual and material causes. But this construct is a very different thing from being-itself.