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What sort of ontology do the Stoics develop by making corporeality the hallmark of
existence? What then is the status of incorporeals? Is there anything that is neither
corporeal nor incorporeal?
Stoicism was the most powerful school of thought in Hellenistic philosophy founded
by Zeno of Citium (Cyprus) in the fourth century BCE. It gained its name from the
colonnades under which its founder Zeno taught his philosophy (Stoa is Greek for porch).
Following his death his former pupils continued to teach and refine his philosophy until
Stoicism became one of the major schools of thought in the ancient world.
Stoic Ontology
In the Stoic account of physics, all things identified, debated, discussed and pondered
fall strictly into certain categories in the Stoic ontological structure. The central claim of
Stoic ontology is that only bodies exist. Thus at one level the Stoics are straightforwardly
materialists. However, matters are complicated by the fact that they also acknowledge the
necessity of a number of other types of entity that cannot be reduced to body. They are
characterized as bodies, a range of entities that might not at first sight seem to be so,
including the soul, virtue, and wisdom. They did this by defining a body as anything that is
capable of acting or be acted upon. Thus, anything that can act or be acted upon is a body; the
soul can act or be acted upon. Therefore, the soul is a body.
But some entities cannot be subsumed within a wider conception of body in this way.
One example would be void, which the Stoics deem necessary to posit for their cosmology.
Other examples which Stoics included were time, place and lekton. These four types of entity
are not bodies (smata), they are incorporeal (asmata), and so they cannot be said to exist.
Nevertheless they remain necessary. The Stoics get round this by suggesting that these four
types of incorpreals do not exist but they subsist (huphistanai). They may not bear the mark
of existence but nevertheless they can be said to be real. In certain circumstances some of
these incorporeal dont merely subsist (huphistanai); they belong (huparchein). For
instance, while the past and future subsist, the present moment belongs, for it is in some sense
more real than moments in the past or future, but still not as substantial as a physical object.
Thus, Stoic ontology bifurcates into two classes of entities: existing bodies and
subsisting incorporeals. These two classes are united under a single highest genus of
something. Being a body may be the mark of existence, i.e. being something is the mark
of reality; incorporeal are real but they do not exist; bodies are both real and exist.
Figure 1




Status of Incorporeals
To explain the rigid conception of Physics Stoics used these incorporeal as a means to
categorize, locate, and evaluate those things which are bodily. These do not have actual
being, because none of them possesses any causal powers to act or be acted upon.
Nevertheless, an account of the world is incomplete without them, and they are therefore
proper subjects of discourse. This entitles them to be described, with a lesser label, as having
According to Stoic a things place is a portion of three-dimensional (geometrical)
space, coextensive with its own occupant. Stoic defined place as that which:
is able to be occupied by what is
is occupied throughout
whether by something or by some things.

Here (i) gives place its genusroughly, space; (ii) adds its differentia, namely that its
capacity to be occupied must be being exercised; (iii) specifies that the being, that is, body,
which occupies it may be comprised of one or more discrete individuals. Putting non-
technically, a place is a fully occupied portion of space, whether occupied by a single entity
or by a collection of entities.
On the other hand some spaces capacity to be occupied is not being exercised, it is
called void (or vacuum). Void is defined as that which is able to be occupied by what-is,
but which is not occupied. As a matter of fact, this failure to be occupied is held to be a
possibility only for the infinite space surrounding the world. The extra-cosmic void comes to
be occupiedat least, some of it doesonly during the conflagration, when the world in its
pure fiery state is said to expand into it.
The whole universe, called the all in the sense of sum total, consists of the world
body plus the infinite surrounding void. But of this combination, it is only the world body
which is called the whole. A whole, to qualify as such, must have a single unifying pneuma,
something with which the void, being altogether empty, could not possibly be imbued. Thus
the terminological distinction captures the Stoic thesis that the void is not any interacting part
of the cosmic organism. It provides the conditions for one special kind of cosmic change, but
it is not itself a participant in any change.
The third incorporeal on the Stoic list is time. Yet, curiously, in our sources
individual parts of time are often analysed, in typical Stoic fashion, as corporeal. For
instance, days and nights are simply the worlds atmosphere as such, and hence both they and
the longer periods of time composed of them are said to be bodies. And reasonably so, one
may think, since these temporal items could easily be deemed to have active or passive causal
powersfor example, to be caused by the movement of the sun, and in turn to cause the
progression of life cycles, and so on.
It seems to be only time as a whole which is conceded to be an incorporeal. Why so?
Time (in this sense) is defined as the dimension of the worlds motion. Probably then the
idea is as follows. The regularity of a bodys motionincluding the rotation of the heaven,
which paradigmatically displays the progress of timepresupposes fixed spatial and temporal
intervals through which it takes place. If either of those intervals were identified with the
moving body itself, its motion would be left altogether without objective coordinate. This
consideration may be what motivates the thesis that not only the spatial intervalplacebut
also the temporal intervaltimesubsists independently of the moving bodies which pass
through it.
The fourth incorporeal on the list, the lekton (plural lekta), sayable, is a key term in
Stoicism. Plato in the Sophist (261262) distinguishes two linguistic tasks, naming, which is
to pick out a subject, and saying (legein), which is to attach a predicate to that subject. This
is probably the background to the Stoic lekton, which seems to have originally meant, as
distinct from a subject, the sort of thing that you can say about a subject. As in Plato, it is
typically expressed by a verb like walks or to walk. The actual action, walking, is itself a
body: it is analysed as the commanding faculty of the soul (itself pneuma, and therefore a
body) functioning in a certain way. But in certain contexts the predicate expressed by the
verb to walk is not properly identified with some body. The Stoics noted at least two cases
wishing and causation.
When we say I want to walk, the soul which wishes is a body, but what it wishes for
is not either itself, or for some further body to be added to it: it is for some predicate
to become true of it.
When, for example, fire causes wood to be burnt, the effect generated is not some
new body, burnt wood, since the wood already exists: it is that some new predicate
becomes true of the wood. Thus, both the objects of wishes and the effects of causes
are incorporeal predicates, technically called lekta.

The most prominent role of the lekton is in logic. Stoic logic is less interested in
predicates as suchwhat they call incomplete lektathe complete propositions containing
them, the primary bearers of truth. Normally speaking the predicate expressed by a verb, for
example, walks, serves a full linguistic function only when it has a subject term supplied
by a noun, for example, when someone says Dion walks. The notion of a complete lekton
is used to distinguish such cases. Most commonly, a complete lekton is the proposition
expressed by a complete declarative sentence, as in the example given, although other
complete lekta include questions (Is Dion walking?), commands (Walk, Dion) and so on.
A complete lekton is said to be produced by attaching a predicate to a nominative
case (ptsis). This generates an interpretative puzzle. A lekton is well attested to be an
incorporeal, yet a nominative case, being a grammatical form, ought to be a word and hence a
body. Can a complete lekton be incorporeal and yet have one part which is corporeal? It may
be that the subject term, by being expressed, makes the lekton complete without actually
becoming part of it. Or it may be that the Stoics posited, in addition to the predicate
expressed by the verb, a further incorporeal incomplete lekton, namely the subject of the
complete lekton, expressed by the subjective nominative noun of the corresponding uttered
sentence. Both suggestions are problematic, and neither gains unequivocal support from the
surviving evidence.
Nor is it easy to find a link between the incorporeality of the lekton and that of place,
void and time. These latter three have some sort of mind-independent reality. Can the same
be said for lekta? This is controversial, but the causal role of lekta must lend them some
degree of objectivity, since causal processes presumably go on in the same way whether or
not anyone is there to observe or analyse them. The lekton is defined as that which subsists
in correspondence with a rational impression, that is, roughly with a human thought. This
could be taken to make it parasitic on the thought processes of rational beings. But it may
alternatively mean no more than that a lekton is a formal structure onto which rational
thoughts, like the sentences into which they can be translated, must be mapped. This latter
possibility bears some comparison to space and time, which, although defined by reference to
their potential or actual occupants, are the objective dimensions onto which the positions and
motions of those occupants are to be mapped, and are not altogether parasitic on them for
their reality. The analogy must not be pushed too far, since the lekton differs from the other
three incorporeals in not being any kind of mathematically analysable extension. But
rationality is as much an intrinsic feature of the Stoic world as dimensionality, and it would
be entirely Stoic to hold that there are objective parameters onto which its rational structures
can be mapped.
Critics of Stoicism argue that this strange ontological category of the incorporeal,
grouping together four seemingly unrelated types of entity, simply highlight the inadequacy
of their rigid materialist claim that only bodies exist. Indeed, one traditional view of Stoic
ontology claims that initially the Stoics posited a straightforward materialist ontology, with
existence as the highest genus. But due to pressures from hostile critics, were forced to admit
the reality of a number of disparate non-physical entities, which they then gathered together
under the heading of incorporeal. On this view the creation of the highest genus of
something was merely an ad hoc amendment that simply served to show the inherent
weakness in any purely materialist ontology.

Is there anything that is neither corporeal nor incorporeal?

The above discussion on the features of Stoic ontology has briefed us with corporeal
and incorporeal existence of the world. But a number of variations on this basic outline have
been put forward, which has been discussed one by one.
Nevertheless, Stoics united existing bodies and subsisting incorporeal under the
highest genus of being something. This ontological scheme leaves out the universals, such
as Platonic Ideas. For the Stoics such Ideas neither exist nor subsist. As existence and
subsistence appear to be the only two categories of something, such entities are dismissed
as not-something (outi), i.e. nothing. As such they are classed alongside hallucinations and
phantoms of the imagination. This rejection of the reality of universals has led some to call
the Stoics the first nominalists. Thus it has been suggested that the criterion for being
something is one of particularity: only a particular can be a something. Universals have no
place in Stoic ontology and this is clearly in marked contrast to Platonism.
Long and Sedley has suggested that in fact the Stoics had tripartite ontology, with
Something dividing into bodies, incorporeal and a third category, which is neither corporeal
nor incorporeal; this category includes fictional entities. These new examples of 'something'
will also have to be particulars, as universals still have no place in this account of the Stoic
ontological scheme.
Figure 2

something incorporeals

Neither? e. g. fictional entities

Jacques Brunschwig offers a slightly different version of Stoic ontology built upon the
common core comprising of existing bodies and subsisting incorporeal. Brunschwig accepts
the characterization of Platonic Ideas as not something reported by Simplicius, into a new
category of not-something. He places the fictional entities of Sedley into this new category.
Brunschwig is particularly concerned with a traditional conception of Stoic ontology which
suggests that originally the Stoics did hold existence to be the highest genus but that in the
light of hostile criticisms they had to retreat from this. Too stubborn to let go of their
identification between existence and body, and yet forced by external criticism to admit the
necessity of some non-bodily entities, the Stoics were, it has been held, backed into a comer
in which they were forced to create a new supreme genus above existence. Brunschwig want
argued that Stoic ontology was not a knee-jerk response to external pressures but rather a
carefully developed system built in response to Platonic ontology and in particular in
response to a reading of the Sophist.
Figure 3





fictitious entities

So we see that the resulting Stoic ontology operates with two criteria of reality instead
of one. In addition to a newly robust existential criterion, which licenses a materialist analysis
of the virtues and other qualities, the Stoics developed a minimal Something criterion that
makes room for objective particulars that are intangible but perfectly real; they are subsistent
rather than existent. What counts as Something subsistent is not reducible to body, but still
subject to a physical analysis of its objectivity and particularity. The Something criterion
applies to all incorporeals, including the lekta, and can account for problem cases like
figments, limits, concepts, and the all. The Stoics are not closet Platonists with conflicting
criteria, which is why they are not just a patchwork of the Gods and Giants views. And the
Stoics do not undo their hard-won progress by positing Not-Something between
Something and nothing at all. To posit Not-Something is to deny that Something is the
highest and most comprehensive ontological categoryin direct opposition to perfectly good
testimony to the contrary. Crucially, it is unnecessary to posit the category when problem
cases like figments, limits, concepts, and all have a natural account according to the tripartite