This is a series working from the Penguin edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.
My last post ended on Book Alpha 7. Chapters eight and nine were technical critiques of earlier metaphysical philosophy. Aristotle ends Book Alpha concluding that the earlier philosophers were all seeking principles and causes, the aim of metaphysics, but their methods and findings were confused.
In Book Alpha the Lesser, Aristotle clarifies his method and his aims. He opens, “The investigation of truth is in a way difficult and in a way easy. An indication is that no one can worthily reach it nor does everyone completely miss it, but each thinker says something about nature, and individually they make small contributions to it, and from them all together a certain volume arises” (43). The goal of metaphysics arises from a community of philosophers across history. Even the ones “who have gone astray” have contributed to this end by preparing the way. Indeed, Aristotle’s work up until now in this book indicates the seriousness with which he understands the communal nature of the metaphysical project.
Aristotle ends this chapter with a brief comment on truth. Truth concerns causes because it is cause that relates each thing to being. Specifically, uncaused, eternal things are “most true” (44) because they are true despite context and are the cause of all else.
I want to spend some time here because Aristotle strikes me as quite a systematic thinker (this is clear reading the Nicomachean Ethics also). This means that a lot of his earlier assumptions will inform his later findings, so that the validity of the latter is dependent on that of the former. Firstly, I’m sceptical of this idea of “reaching” and “contributing to” truth. Whether textual or oral, “truth” in this sense is so fickle and vulnerable. Just like the rest of nature, ideas change and disappear. The multiple destructions of the Library of Alexandria in the ancient world is a powerful statement of this. Thus although truth for truth’s sake is a beautiful thought, I can’t accept that there will be some metaphysical project that will get truthier and truthier. Rather nations, cultures, and individuals will have to continually begin at the beginning again and again, or even continually arrive (or arrive elsewhere) at the idea of a truth for truth’s sake.
Moreover, unless a system of truth is identical to the thing of which it is a truth rather than being an interpretation of it then truth is never really arrived at. To arrive at it would be to negate all that purports to be a truth in relation to it, whether that be before the project begins or at its very end. But — although he probably didn’t intend it — Aristotle has already said something along these lines in including as contributors those who went in the opposite direction from truth. If I understand him correctly, he is affirming their contribution to truth in showing successors what road not to take to truth. Not-truth acts as a boundary marker for truth. It is thus that it is related to truth and has some truthfulness to it. If I were to say that Aristotle is still alive today, it would be true in the sense that it stands on the edge of the truth that he is not alive. It does not stand outside of this, because otherwise neither alive nor no-longer-alive could be understood. Thus they are both true, but in different ways. Additionally, it is true insofar as it has being as a statement. To differentiate the truth as interpretation from the reality it interprets is to posit two realities. However, an interpretation only arises as an extension of or change within the reality it interprets. It, too, does not occur outside of reality but on its edge, or, if we want to rid the interpreter of all transcendence, within the reality. Everything we say of the reality that is cause is already a truth because it is already related to it.