- One of the roles of matter in Aristotle's philosophy, according to well-established historical tradition, is to provide a principle of individuation1. This tradition has been challenged from time to time. Some historians, noting that it is form rather than matter that wears the metaphysical trousers for Aristotle, have tried to give form the role of providing a principle of individuation2. Others have suggested that there is no such principle at all to be found in Aristotle's works. This ongoing dispute has been frequently flawed by a failure to be sufficiently clear precisely what problem a principle of individuation3 is supposed to provide an answer to.
- Discussions of this topic in recent years have benefitted considerably from the additional attention that has been paid to this question. A number of important distinctions have been made in the literature, and we can best begin by surveying those distinctions.
- In a well-known symposium4 on this topic held some years ago, Jan Lukasiewicz and G.E.M. Anscombe came down on opposite sides of the question whether matter is, for Aristotle, the 'source of individuality,' as Lukasiewicz put it. But their fellow symposiast, Karl Popper, pointed out that Lukasiewicz and Anscombe were actually dealing with two entirely different problems. (Lukasiewicz's formulation of the question, in the lead paper, was obscure enough to be, at best, ambiguous between these two possibilities.)
- The first problem concerns the unity of something that is composed of many parts: what makes the composite thing a single individual, rather than a plurality?
- The second problem concerns not the unity of an individual, but its distinctness from other individuals: what makes an individual that individual, numerically distinct from all other individuals?
- Lukasiewicz was dealing with the first problem when he answered 'form,' Anscombe with the second when she answered 'matter.' One may say, in answer to the first problem, that this collection of limbs and organs constitutes a single individual (Socrates, say) because of the form or structure that unifies them into a whole; and one may add, quite compatibly, that the individual so constituted is distinct from others of like form or structure (Callias, for example) because of the numerically distinct parcel of matter that composes him.
- I will follow the common practice of calling an answer to the first problem a principle of unity and. an answer to the second problem a principle of individuation5. What I want to discuss here is Aristotle's answer to the second problem, although I will find it necessary to refer occasionally to his answer to the first problem as well.
Footnote 4: See "Anscombe (G.E.M.) - The Principle of Individuation: II" and references.
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