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Aristotle METAPHYSICA Book 13 Part 10

On the separability of substance

1. Let us now mention a point which presents a certain difficulty both to those who believe in the Ideas and to those who do not, and which was stated before, at the beginning, among the problems. If we do not suppose substances to be separate, and in the way in which individual things are said to be separate, we shall destroy substance in the sense in which we understand 'substance'; but if we conceive substances to be separable, how are we to conceive their elements and their principles?

2. If they are individual and not universal, (a) real things will be just of the same number as the elements, and (b) the elements will not be knowable. For (a) let the syllables in speech be substances, and their elements elements of substances; then there must be only one 'ba' and one of each of the syllables, since they are not universal and the same in form but each is one in number and a 'this' and not a kind possessed of a common name (and again they suppose that the 'just what a thing is' is in each case one). And if the syllables are unique, so too are the parts of which they consist; there will not, then, be more a's than one, nor more than one of any of the other elements, on the same principle on which an identical syllable cannot exist in the plural number. But if this is so, there will not be other things existing besides the elements, but only the elements.

3. (b) Again, the elements will not be even knowable; for they are not universal, and knowledge is of universals. This is clear from demonstrations and from definitions; for we do not conclude that this triangle has its angles equal to two right angles, unless every triangle has its angles equal to two right angles, nor that this man is an animal, unless every man is an animal.

4. But if the principles are universal, either the substances composed of them are also universal, or non-substance will be prior to substance; for the universal is not a substance, but the element or principle is universal, and the element or principle is prior to the things of which it is the principle or element.

5. All these difficulties follow naturally, when they make the Ideas out of elements and at the same time claim that apart from the substances which have the same form there are Ideas, a single separate entity. But if, e.g. in the case of the elements of speech, the a's and the b's may quite well be many and there need be no a-itself and b-itself besides the many, there may be, so far as this goes, an infinite number of similar syllables. The statement that an knowledge is universal, so that the principles of things must also be universal and not separate substances, presents indeed, of all the points we have mentioned, the greatest difficulty, but yet the statement is in a sense true, although in a sense it is not. For knowledge, like the verb 'to know', means two things, of which one is potential and one actual. The potency, being, as matter, universal and indefinite, deals with the universal and indefinite; but the actuality, being definite, deals with a definite object, being a 'this', it deals with a 'this'. But per accidens sight sees universal colour, because this individual colour which it sees is colour; and this individual a which the grammarian investigates is an a. For if the principles must be universal, what is derived from them must also be universal, as in demonstrations; and if this is so, there will be nothing capable of separate existence - i.e. no substance. But evidently in a sense knowledge is universal, and in a sense it is not.


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