You are on page 1of 13

Aristotle's Physics and the Hegemony

of His Prior Commitment1

Michael J. White

The significance of Helen S. Lang's The Order of Nature in Aristotle's

Physics lies in its consistent commitment to is own idee fixe: the shape and
substance of Aristotle's physics is determined by a particular 'prior
commitment' ('initial assumption', 'first principle', 'first starting point')
of Aristotle — viz., 'nature is always and everywhere a cause of order'
(280 et passim). According to Lang, it is difficult to overemphasize the
importance of this principle for Aristotle's physics:

The commitment to a first principle, when held consistently — as I have

argued it is in Aristotle's physics — serves both as a source for the
problems that a physics defines as central (or marginal) and the ground
for a successful solution to those problems. As such, this first principle
(along with a consistent commitment to it) defines the problems, solu-
tions, and hence the coherence of the account. (2) This commitment
functions as a first principle in the sense that it is not another element
proven, or established, by arguments within the physics. Rather, it is
determinative of the content — both problems and solutions — of
physics as an enterprise. (291)

That the concept of order is centrally important to Aristotle's concept

of nature is indisputable, as is the claim that this fact has important and

1 A critical commentary on Helen S. Lang, The Order of Nature in Aristotle's Physics

(New York: Cambridge University Press 1998). Pp. 324 + xii. US$64.95. ISBN 0-521-
62453-3. Parenthetical page references in the text are to this book.

APEIRON a journal for ancient philosophyBrought to you by | INIST - CNRS

and science
0003-6390/99/3202 140-152 $10 00 ©Academic Printing & Authenticated
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
Aristotle's Physics 141

pervasive implications for Aristotle's natural philosophy. However,

Lang makes even stronger claims for the methodological import of
Aristotle's 'prior commitment', as I shall henceforth designate it. In her
view, the topics, problems, and arguments of the Physics are in some
(sufficiently loose) sense determined by ('subordinated to' is her phrase)
Aristotle's prior commitment. The result is a sort of coherentist view of
Aristotle's natural philosophy. Aristotle's discussion of particular topics,
as well as individual arguments in his text, can be correctly interpreted
— and evaluated — only in terms of the way they fit into a pattern of
subordination ultimately derived from his prior commitment: 'in short,
the subordination of arguments to topics implies that propositions or
arguments cannot be emancipated from or compared to one another
without reference to the topics that define them' (23).
In Lang's estimation, this focus imparts to Aristotle's discussion of
physical topics a rather severe economy, giving them a straight-to-the-
jugular directedness: 'Aristotle takes up a specific problem and pursues
his analysis of it with little (sometimes no) regard for related problems
raised in the course of his analysis' (279). It is thus not surprising Lang
should appeal to coherentist criteria to support her judgment that Aris-
totle's 'arguments are not only successful, but elegant':

The power of Aristotle's arguments lies not in their specific content...,

but in the patterns and elegance exhibited by their formal structure.
And to detect this power, the arguments must be grasped on their own
conceptual grounds because this power is nothing other than their
coherence — a coherence impossible to understand without the kind of
analysis provided here. (288)

Lang suggests that 'much of our fascination with Aristotle's arguments

lies not in their particulars... but in our sense of their rigorous economy,
order, and completeness' (23). This is a happy state of affairs (if an actual
one) since Lang's coherentist methodology leads her to deprecate the
tendency of 'some commentators [to] think of Aristotle's physics as right
about some things but wrong about others' (293). Rather,

Aristotle's account is completely wrong because, finally, his initial

assumption and all that follows from it cannot, in his account of the
world, generate confirmation. And, perhaps even more importantly, he
is wrong in thinking, as I have argued that he does, that the opposite
assumption — that nature is not a cause of order — cannot found
Brought to you by | INIST - CNRS
physics as a science, (ibid.)
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
142 Michael}. White

The verdict that Aristotle's physics does not 'generate confirmation'

perhaps belies the combination of Lang's coherentism and her judgment
that his arguments are 'remarkably coherent' (5). However, it is quite
clear that she holds (i) that the importance of Aristotle's physics lies in
its 'coherent and elegant' formal structure and (ii) that the shape of this
structure, as well as its substance, is somehow strongly constrained by
the prior commitment, viz., that nature is always and everywhere a cause
of order.
In terms of the substantive content of Aristotle's physics, how does
this constraint work? If cast in sufficiently general terms, Lang's answer
to this question is admirably clear: 'Subordinate to' the prior commit-
ment of nature's being a cause of order is a teleological account of
'motion' or κίνησις developed in terms of the potentiality-actuality
distinction. Subordinate to the account of motion is the account of place
(τόπος) from the Physics as a 'unique constitutive principle ... limiting]
the cosmos, rendering it directional and so causing the motion of all
things within the cosmos' (284). Subordinate to the account of place is
an account (largely found in the de Caelo) of the 'inclination' (ροπή) of the
five fundamental elements (aether, fire, air, water, earth) toward their
natural places as constituting the Very nature of the elements' (272), with
the result that 'each element is intrinsically ordered to its respective
natural place as to its form or actuality' (274).
The hegemony in determining the shape and substance of Aristotle's
physics that Lang accords to his prior commitment yields a neat, straight-
to-the-point, pared-down (and, yes, even elegant) physics. There are
certainly thoughts to be provoked and things to be learned from Lang's
study. But I cannot help but think that too much of the richness of
Aristotle's investigation of nature is lost. One thing that is largely lost is
the role of ένδοξα: Aristotle's attempt to reflect systematically — some-
times using technical devices and bringing to bear various theoretical
commitments—on our common experience of the natural world around
us, including the way 'we' (preeminently Greeks of the fourth century
BC, but, at least in certain respects, many of the rest of us as well) think
and talk about that world. In other words, what is missing from Lang's
picture of Aristotle's physics are precisely those elements that most
connect it both to common human experience and interaction with the
natural world and to the attempts of other physical theories to give some
account of that world. The price of the elegant order and streamlined
structure that Lang's account purchases for Aristotle's physics is a sort
of hermetically-sealed character, which Lang herself all but explicitly
acknowledges in the last chapter of her book. Brought to you by | INIST - CNRS
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
Aristotle's Physics 143

I once had a colleague, of considerable philosophical ability and

sophistication, who claimed that he got the most out of Aristotle by
treating him as a denizen of an Oxford senior common room of the 1950s.
Although useful for some purposes, it is obvious that the ordinary-lan-
guage Aristotle is an historically anachronistic and quite incomplete
Aristotle (as my colleague was fully aware). Yet consider the following
mixture of theory and reflection on 'what we all think' from Aristotle's
discussion of place in Physics Δ, a discussion that is of central importance
in Lang's study: If local motion is or involves change of place, place must
be something capable of being left behind by some body occupying place
and, hence, not a feature of that body. And if we decide (say, by a process
of elimination of some sort) that place must be a πέρας (limit, edge,
boundary) and if a πέρας must always be a πέρας of something (that is,
if there cannot be 'free-floating' πέρατα), what could place as πέρας be
the πέρας of? Evidently, from what we have just said, not the body
occupying the place. What about the stuff or 'matrix' surrounding the
body (whatever stuff or combination of stuffs of which that 'matrix' is
constituted) 'at which [that matrix] touches the thing it contains [i.e., the
thing occupying the place]' (212a5-6)?2 Lang's approach to Aristotle's
physics effectively eliminates any sense of this rather homely interaction
between theory, technique, and 'commitments' (ontological and other-
wise), on the one hand, and τα ένδοξα and τα φαινόμενα, on the other.
In my view, Lang's commitment to the hegemony of Aristotle's prior
commitment and to her 'method of subordination' dictate particular
readings of Aristotle's texts, sometimes readings that are quite selective
and that exclude serious consideration of alternative interpretations. In
the remainder of this essay I briefly consider two instances of this phe-

It must be noted that Lang (91-3) would question this quotation. The clause quoted
is bracketed in standard Greek editions, and Lang has worries (legitimate, in my
view) about its being a later interpretive interpolation. Less persuasive is her
translation of the verb 'συνάπτει' by the awkward and, in the circumstances,
somewhat enigmatic 'conjoin', rather than the more intelligible 'meet', 'border on',
'touch', or *be in contact with'. I assume that her principal reason for avoiding the
more standard translations is that they suggest that the πέρας, identified as place in
this definition, would be a two-dimensional juncture of some sort, an interpretation
that Lang repudiates. But since she seems to hold that it is precisely this mistaken
2-D interpretation that is being introduced by the later Arabo-Latin bracketed
interpolation, it would not be surprising that the verb in the interpolated clause
suggests such a view. Brought to you by | INIST - CNRS
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
144 Michael J. White

nomenon and then return to a more general consideration of the thesis

of the hegemony of Aristotle's prior commitment.

I Place

I have already alluded to what I think may justly be termed the standard
interpretation of Aristotle's analysis of place in Physics Δ. According to
this interpretation, the sorts of thing that primarily have places are
individual bodies (which must have three dimensions) and determinate,
collected quantities of what are regarded as homogeneous stuffs (e.g.,
lakes, rivers, and perhaps mountains, etc.). The place of such a thing is
the innermost, two-dimensional limit, juncture, or surface of the sur-
rounding matrix. Moreover, it is often inferred from what Aristotle says
elsewhere that the two-dimensional place of something is topologically
coincident with (not geometrically separated from) the surface of thing
occupying the place. But, since it is really and conceptually distinct from
the surface of the thing occupying the place, it is not moved when the
object moves from this place.
Although this is the standard view, it is a view that I have previously
described as 'replete with difficulties/3 difficulties that have exercised
the Greek commentators as well as more recent ones. Lang cuts all these
Gordian knots by developing a radically different interpretation. In
accord with what she takes to be an ipse dixit of Aristotle at Phys IV 1,
209a4-6, Lang maintains that Aristotle conceives of place as three-dimen-
sional. Although Aristotle says, some fifteen Bekker lines later in the text,
that none of the four kinds of causation is ascribed to place (209al9-20),
Lang conceives of place as functioning in a causal role with respect to
the primary elements. Although she, officially, declines to classify this
causal role as formal or final causation, I fail to see how her extended
account of its causal influence could amount to anything substantively
different from formal and final causation, in Aristotle's sense. With
respect to Aristotle definition of the place of something as 'the first
unmoved boundary (or limit: πέρας) of that which contains' that thing,
the standard interpretation has interpreted the 'first' (πρώτον) as 'inner-

3 'Greek Concepts of Space', Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 29
(1996) 190
Brought to you by | INIST - CNRS
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
Aristotle's Physics 145

most' or 'nearest'. Lang interprets it, in effect, as 'ultimate': a reference

to that place of the 'whole heaven [as] what first surrounds everything
that is contained within the heaven' (99-100).
According to Lang, Aristotle in Physics Δ is not primarily concerned
with giving an account of 'local place' — i.e., the place of individual
bodies or quasi-bodies (lakes, rivers, mountains, etc.). Rather his discus-
sion in general and this definition in particular applies to a 'common'
sense of place. Place in this sense is a heavily metaphysical sort of limit
(πέρας), which applies to the whole cosmos (or to the vault of the heavens
or sphere of fixed stars as containing the whole cosmos). It is also limit
in a SMI generis (well, at least sui specie) sense that 'renders the cosmos
determinate in respect to the six directions, up, down, front, back, left,
right, and so constitutes "the where" of all things that are and are moved'
(102). And, T}y limiting the cosmos, place makes the six directions actual
within the cosmos; each element in some sense ... depends upon its
respective actual place' (103). The idea is that Aristotle's account of place
is 'subordinate' to his prior commitment (nature is always and every-
where a cause of order): as a surd kind of limit, it imposes sufficient
directionality on the cosmos as a whole. 'Sufficient' in what sense?
Sufficient to determine natural places for the primary elements (well, at
least the four sublunary ones) — which natural places, it transpires, will
constitute the respective 'ultimate actuality and hence the activity of the
elements' (250), their 'form and actuality' (274), or 'a limit, resembling
form' (254). Aristotle's prior commitment thus finds initial expression in
his account of natural place, which (taken in conjunction with his meta-
physical account of κίνησις in terms of potentiality and actuality) then
provides an account of the nature of both the elements and 'natural
motion' within the cosmos:

In the elements we find nature writ small, the nature not of the whole
but of each part in all its specificity within that whole. And each element
possesses a formal nature: each element is intrinsically ordered to its
respective natural place as to its form or actuality. And nature in this
sense too, i.e., in the sense of being determined, is an immediate and
intrinsic source of order (274).

One might say, without too much exaggeration I believe, that the fore-
going provides a nutshell summary of Lang's conception of the sum and
substance of Aristotle's physics.
Place as sui specie limit is supposed to supply order in the form of
determinate directionality within the cosmos. But to directions?
in six you by | INISTThe
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
146 Michael J. White

directional determination supplied is supposed to be 'intrinsic'; but it is

not obvious (to me, at least) in what sense of 'intrinsic' a sphere might
possess an intrinsic front, back, left, and right. But no matter. Since
Lang's view seems to be that the exclusive function of Aristotle's account
of place is to provide for the actuality and form (or something resembling
form) of the elements, only directional determination in terms of up and
down is really pertinent. The natural places of the elements are in con-
centric shells around the center of the cosmos; and we do have an
intrinsic determination of down (at the center of the cosmos) and up (at
the periphery) and in between (in between). Well almost: what is needed
is a determination of 'up' as Out at the periphery — but only as far as the
lunar sphere'. Why should 'up', as the actuality of fire, be determined by
radial distance from center of cosmos to the lunar sphere, as opposed to
radial distance to the periphery of the 'whole' cosmos or sphere of fixed
stars? But perhaps this is one of those relatively minor matters excessive
preoccupation with which can impair our proper appreciation of the
order of the cosmos.
Lang's discussion of Aristotle's account of place in Physics Δ is ex-
tended, detailed, and careful. It also is very much shaped by her concep-
tion of the hegemony of Aristotle's prior commitment in determining
(many of) the details of Aristotle's account of place. The standard inter-
pretation applies to individual things or bodies and can be used to
analyze the motion, either natural or 'violent', of such bodies — despite
the difficulties in so using it. This breadth of application might be
thought to be an advantage of the traditional interpretation. But, accord-
ing to Lang's view, Aristotle's account of place is single-mindedly fo-
cused on providing sufficient directional determination to the cosmos to
account for the natural motion of the four sublunary elements en masse,
so to speak. It would then seem that an account of place concerned with
the local motion of individual bodies, particularly their violent motion,
would be inexplicably digressive.
How does Lang's interpretation 'fit the text'? Opinions will vary, no
doubt. She is committed to taking Aristotle's apparent claim at 209a4-6
that place has three dimensions (διαστήματα) as his considered view of
the matter. This passage is certainly a problem for the traditional inter-
pretation of place as two-dimensional. And Lang may be correct. But she
does not consider the fact that what she takes to be Aristotle's dictum
occurs in an extended passage (209a2-30) that is clearly 'aporetic': Aris-
totle is considering a variety of puzzles, real or apparent, concerning
what we are inclined to say and think about place. There are a number
Brought to you by | INIST - CNRS
of propositions apparently affirmed in this passage (e.g., the claim that
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
Aristotle's Physics 147

'if body possess place and space, it is clear that surface and other limits
do as well' [209a7-9]) that Aristotle repudiates or modifies later in his
discussion. Might not the three-dimensionality of place also be such a
claim? Moreover, she does not comment on the fact that the term I have
translated as 'dimension' (διάστημα) in Aristotle's apparent claim of the
three-dimensionality of place is the very term that Aristotle uses for one
of the three candidates for place-hood that he repudiates in the passage
beginning at 21 Ib5. In order to sustain her interpretation, Lang must also
minimize the significance of Aristotle's claim (212a28) that place 'seems
to be some sort of surface' (δοκεΐ έπίπεδόν τι). She also has some difficulty
in dealing with Aristotle's apparent denial ('apparent/ because it occurs
in the same aporetic passage 209a2-30) that place is not a formal or final
cause: In the account of the relation of place to the sublunary elements
that Lang develops in Part II of her study, place does function as for-
mal/final cause in all but name, and sometimes in name as well. Finally,
it seems to me that the interpretation of 'πρώτον' in the definitional
phrase 'first unmoved limit of that which contains' (212a20) as signifying
the 'ultimate' place (of the whole vault of the heavens or sphere of fixed
stars) is strained, although perhaps possible. And Tjoundary' apparently
cannot translate 'πέρας' here because, according to Lang, place is a sui
specie sort of limit.
The resulting account of place as this sui specie limit strikes me a fairly
enigmatic, and vague in the details. While the traditional account of
place may be problematic, and perhaps inadequate to some of the tasks
Aristotle and later commentators have wanted to assign it, it seems to
me to be clear enough. On the other hand, it might be argued that Lang's
account is adequate to the very limited demands she thinks Aristotle's
account of place, subordinate to the hegemonic prior commitment, is
supposed to serve.

II The Sublunary Elements

Lang's conception of the hegemonic influence of Aristotle's prior com-

mitment with respect to the details of Aristotle's investigation of nature
is also of fundamental importance in Part II of her study, which focuses
on the de Caelo and the sublunary elements. It would not be reasonable
to take exception to a fundamental claim of Part II:

In short, the primary characteristic of the four sublunar elements, i.e.,

Brought to you by | INIST - CNRS
being heavy or light, is by definition nothing other than the ability to
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
148 Michael J. White

be moved each to its respective proper place upward or downward.

Hence, the determination of the cosmos as up, down, and middle, the
natural motion of each element, and definition of an element as light or
heavy are intimately related. (175)

As a result of the extended and interesting discussion of Part II, this claim
is strengthened. Inclination (ροπή), 'the active orientation of each element
toward its respective proper place' (265), 'appears unambiguously as the
very nature of the elements' (272). I shall comment only briefly on this
A crucial effect of what Lang takes to be the hegemonic influence of
Aristotle's prior commitment on Aristotle's account of the elements is
her claim that each element possesses One potency only' (249). The
severe economy imposed by Aristotle's prior commitment is that his
account of place is subordinate to that principle and the account of the
nature of the elements is subordinate to place. Consequently, it is not
surprising to find that each element's One potency' is identified with that
element's ροπή to its proper place. It is indisputable that Aristotle holds
that the nature of each element is 'intimately related' to its ροπή toward
its proper place; such an inclination is, at least, something like what
Aristotle calls a το 'ίδιον (essential characteristic, in one sense of the
phrase) of the elemental stuff in question. But why should the inclination
constitute, exclusively, the nature of an element? It seems to me that the
best answer that Lang can give is that her conception of the hegemony
of prior commitment demands such an exclusive focus when Aristotle
is discussing this particular physical issue. But, again, difficulties and
complexities of Aristotle's discussion of the elements seem to me to all
but disappear.
One such difficulty and complexity is Aristotle's conception of the
transmutation of the elements and his comments (such as at de Caelo IV
3, 310bllff.) to the effect that one element stands in relation to another
(typically, the one 'naturally below' it) as form to matter.4 It is not sur-
prising that Lang would like to 'reduce' the potentiality that elements

This doctrine of de Caelo Δ is also quite important to Ketmpe Algra's account of the
natural place of the sublunary elements (Concepts of Space in Creek Thought, [New
York: E.J. Brill 1995], ch. 5), although he puts it to a quite different use: the
construction of a relativistic account of the natural places of the elements.
Brought to you by | INIST - CNRS
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
Aristotle's Physics 149

possess for changing into one another to the inclinations of the elements
to their proper places:

How can we identify the actuality of the elements? First and unequivo-
cally, potency is potency for what is next in the series. So, for example,
if water is potentially air, air is the actuality of water; but air is poten-
tially upward and so when water becomes air, it must be potentially
upward and (if nothing hinders) is carried there immediately. Being up
is the actuality of air and so of water, which is potentially air. When air
is up, it naturally rests in its proper place. In short, to rest in its proper
place is the ultimate actuality and hence the activity of the elements.

According to Lang, 'water is potentially light in the sense of being able

to become air' (249) and water that is in its 'proper place' (prevented from
becoming air = rising yet higher) 'would remain at the "intermediate
stage" of actualization, air that is being held away from its proper place'
Such a picture may perhaps succeed in explaining the transmutation
of air into fire (since both are characterized by an upward tendency) and
water into earth (since both are characterized by a downward tendency).
But I do not see that it can readily explain the cyclical transmutations that
Aristotle evidently thinks obtains among the four sublunary elements.
Much more important, however, is what Lang's streamlined account of
the nature of the elements leaves out. In the tradition of Greek cosmology
that Aristotle inherits, the elements fill explanatory roles that are cer-
tainly not exhausted by their inclinations to their natural places, impor-
tant as those inclinations are. Fire burns, water is moist (and, hence, can
serve as the nourishment of all things), etc.
When we examine Aristotle's discussion of the elements at de Genera-
Hone et Corruptione II 3, 330a30ff, we see that it is contrary pairs of
characteristics hot/cold and dry/moist that he uses to 'constitute' the
primary elements. There are six possible mathematical combinations of
these four properties, taken two at a time. Two combinations are ruled
out as physically impossible because they would be constituted by
contrary properties. The remaining combinations yield, 'κατά λόγον/ hot
and dry (fire), hot and moist (air), cold and moist (water), cold and dry
(earth). Characterization of the four 'simple bodies' in terms of upward
or downward inclination toward natural place comes only later
(330b31ff) and does not seem to be important in the subsequent discus-
sion, in GC II4, of elemental transmutation. Brought to you by | INIST - CNRS
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
150 Michael ]. White

There is no scarcity of problems here. It is far from clear what the

import is of Aristotle's distinction between an 'empirical' element like
fire (το πυρ), which he claims is not simple, and the corresponding simple
body which he says is 'similar' to it (το πυροειδές: 'fieriness'?). Nor is it
clear what the 'mechanism' (if that is the right word) of elemental
transmutation is or whether such a mechanism is connected to the
continuous and eternal contrary causal actions of the sun during its
annual transit around the ecliptic discussed in GCII10. All this messiness
is eliminated in the economy imposed on Lang's account of the elements
by the hegemony of Aristotle's prior commitment: the nature of each
element is exclusively and fully constituted by its inclination to its proper
place and that's that.

Ill Hegemony of Prior Commitment?

A rather obvious fact is that a 'prior commitment', particularly a very

general one like Aristotle's prior commitment (nature is always and
everywhere a cause of order), can find expression within physical theo-
ries in many — and not infrequently mutually incompatible — ways. I
doubt that, say, Philoponus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein were one
whit less committed to Aristotle's prior commitment than was Aristotle
himself. But that commitment to order in nature can be manifested in a
variety of contexts, in a variety of ways, and with a variety of conse-
quences. It is also clear that Lang's subordination relation is nothing like
a relation of entailment. That is, although Aristotle's account of place
may be subordinate to his prior commitment and his account of the
elements subordinate to his account of place, the prior commitment in
no way entails his account of place, nor does the latter entail his account
of the elements. Of course, Lang is perfectly aware of all this. Her view,
I believe, is that appeal to Aristotle's prior commitment and her method
of subordination must be applied in an 'ex post facto' way in order to
achieve an adequate understanding of Aristotle's physical theory, In a
sense, this must be correct. Ferreting out 'prior commitments' of various
sorts and at various levels of generality surely is quite important in
understanding a physical theory or, indeed, any coherent philosophical
or scientific doctrine. But it seems that invocation of such prior commit-
ments will typically be particularist and quite context-dependent.
For example, Lang's conception of the hegemony of Aristotle's prior
commitment and the severe economy it imposes through her method of
subordination lead her to 'conclude that Aristotle Broughtnever
to you by | INIST -ad-
directly CNRS
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
Aristotle's Physics 151

dresses the problem of projectile motion because his definition of physics

and things that are by nature largely marginalizes this problem' (286-7).
In other words, subordinate to the doctrine of nature as always and
everywhere a principle of order is a conception of place that serves the
needs only of the doctrine of the natural motion of the elemental stuffs as
directed toward their natural places. Violent (unnatural) morion, includ-
ing the violent 'component' of projectile motion, really has no place in
this conceptual scheme. Yet, underlying the admittedly brief and none
too clear discussion of projectile motion in Phys VIII10 is a version of the
principle of sufficient reason that surely is an expression of nature's
orderliness if anything is: there must be a causally sufficient reason for
everything that happens. Since there is not a ready made natural cause
for violent motion such a projectile motion, something like Aristotle's
prior commitment to cosmic orderliness demands that one be found. If
Aristotle does not quite get the job done in Phys VIII 10, he seems to
impart a hint: the exercise of the capacity of an agent (of 'unnatural'
motion) to impart motion is not to be identified with and is not tempo-
rally coincidental with its actually moving. The 'hint' becomes the im-
petus theory of John Philoponus, who certainly shares many of
Aristotle's prior commitments concerning nature, including the big one.
So, the very same prior commitment that, in Lang's view, 'marginalizes'
projectile motion within Aristotle's physics, could also be seen, through
the instrumentality of the principle of sufficient reason, as demanding a
solution to the 'problem' of projectile motion. And Philoponus may be
seen as providing such a solution within an essentially Aristotelian con-
ceptual framework.5
Of course, Philoponus' solution is not the only order-respecting one.
One way to think of the inertial principle that is Newton's first law
('every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a
straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces im-
pressed upon it') is as a version of the principle of sufficient reason. The
first theorem that Newton proves in the first book of the Principia, which
is 'subordinate' to this principle, entails Kepler's so-called second law of
planetary motion ('the radius connecting a planet to the sun as one focus
of its elliptical orbit sweeps out equal areas in equal times') and thus

5 Of course, Philoponus, writing in the sixth century AD apparently as a Christian,

in no way shares M of Aristotle's commitments. Brought to you by | INIST - CNRS
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM
152 Michael J. White

imposes a most elegant order on a principle that Kepler himself evidently

simply stumbled on by chance, deriving it by a fallacious argument from
a false premise.6
It seems possible, then, to adduce ample evidence for the role of prior
commitments, including the principle of cosmic order that Lang takes to
be the prior commitment of Aristotle, in affecting the shape and sub-
stance of physical theories. But affecting the shape and substance of a
physical theory is not the same thing as completely setting the agenda.
Any reservations I have pertain not to the importance of Aristotle's prior
commitment nor to Lang's method of subordination but to the degree of
hegemony she accords the former and what seems to me to be her
somewhat overly zealous pursuit of the latter. The picture of Aristotle's
physical theory that results is certainly coherent, economical, and ele-
gant — but rather to a fault, in my view. Her learned study is certainly
useful; but it seems to me advisable to ingest it in combination with an
antidotal work, such as Algra's Concepts of Space in Greek Thought.

Department of Philosophy, Box 872004

Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287-2004

See, for example, the discussion in Richard S. Westfall, The Construction of Modern
Science: Mechanisms and Mechanics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1977),
8-9. Brought to you by | INIST - CNRS
Download Date | 1/9/16 1:56 AM