To Be or Not to Beby Aristotle
Some philosophers assert that it is possible for the same thing to be and not to be.
Writers on nature use this language.
But it is impossible for anything to be and not to be at the same time. The uneducated even demand that this be demonstrated.
It is impossible for everything to be demonstrated as this would lead to an infinite regression that would end up with no demonstration.
The starting-point for all such arguments is not the demand that our opponent shall say that something either is or is not (for this one might perhaps take to be a begging of the question), but that he shall say something which is significant both for himself and for another; for this is necessary, if he really is to say anything.
For, if he means nothing, such a man will not be capable of reasoning, either with himself or with another. But if any one grants this, demonstration will be possible;
for we shall already have something definite. The person responsible for the proof, however, is not he who demonstrates but he who listens; for while disowning reason he listens to reason. And again he who admits this has admitted that something is true apart from demonstration (so that not everything will be ‘so and not so’).
The word ‘be’ or ’not be’ has a definite meaning. if ‘man’ has one meaning, let this be ’two-footed animal’; by having one meaning I understand this:-if ‘man’ means ‘X’, then if A is a man ‘X’ will be what ‘being a man’ means for him. (It makes no difference even if one were to say a word has several meanings, if only they are limited in number; for to each definition there might be assigned a different word.
For instance, the word ‘man’ has several meanings.
A name has one meaning.
Therefore, it is impossible that ‘being a man’ should mean ’not being a man’, if ‘man’ not only signifies something about one subject but also has one significance (for we do not identify ‘having one significance’ with ‘signifying something about one subject’, since on that assumption even ‘musical’ and ‘white’ and ‘man’ would have had one significance, so that all things would have been one; for they would all have had the same significance).
It is not possible to be and not to be the same thing, except in virtue of an ambiguity, just as if one whom we call ‘man’, others were to call ’not-man’; but the point in question is not this, whether the same thing can at the same time be and not be a man in name, but whether it can in fact. Now if ‘man’ and ’not-man’ mean nothing different, obviously ’not being a man’ will mean nothing different from ‘being a man’; so that ‘being a man’ will be ’not being a man’; for they will be one. For being one means this-being related as ‘raiment’ and ‘dress’ are, if their definition is one.
If ‘being a man’ and ‘being a not-man’ are to be one, they must mean one thing.
But since ‘man’ means different things then if it is true to say of anything that it is a man, it must be a two-footed animal (for this was what ‘man’ meant); and if this is necessary, it is impossible that the same thing should not at that time be a two-footed animal; for this is what ‘being necessary’ means-that it is impossible for the thing not to be. It is, then, impossible that it should be at the same time true to say the same thing is a man and is not a man.
This also applies to ’not being a man’. For ‘being a man’ and ‘being a not-man’ mean different things, since even ‘being white’ and ‘being a man’ are different; for the former terms are much more different so that they must a fortiori mean different things. And if any one says that ‘white’ means one and the same thing as ‘man’, again we shall say the same as what was said before, that it would follow that all things are one, and not only opposites. But if this is impossible, then what we have maintained will follow, if our opponent will only answer our question.
“And if, when one asks the question simply, he adds the contradictories, he is not answering the question. For there is nothing to prevent the same thing from being both a man and white and countless other things= but still, if one asks whether it is or is not true to say that this is a man, our opponent must give an answer which means one thing, and not add that ‘it is also white and large’. For, besides other reasons, it is impossible to enumerate its accidental attributes, which are infinite in number; let him, then, enumerate either all or none. Similarly, therefore, even if the same thing is a thousand times a man and a not-man, he must not, in answering the question whether this is a man, add that it is also at the same time a not-man, unless he is bound to add also all the other accidents, all that the subject is or is not; and if he does this, he is not observing the rules of argument.
Those who say this do away with substance and essence.
- They must say that all attributes are accidents, and that there is no such thing as ‘being essentially a man’ or ‘an animal’.
For if there is to be any such thing as ‘being essentially a man’ this will not be ‘being a not-man’ or ’not being a man’ (yet these are negations of it); for there was one thing which it meant, and this was the substance of something. And denoting the substance of a thing means that the essence of the thing is nothing else.
But if its being essentially a man is to be the same as either being essentially a not-man or essentially not being a man, then its essence will be something else. Therefore our opponents must say that there cannot be such a definition of anything, but that all attributes are accidental; for this is the distinction between substance and accident-‘white’ is accidental to man, because though he is white, whiteness is not his essence.
But if all statements are accidental, there will be nothing primary about which they are made, if the accidental always implies predication about a subject. The predication, then, must go on ad infinitum. But this is impossible; for not even more than two terms can be combined in accidental predication.
- An accident is not an accident of an accident, unless it be because both are accidents of the same subject.
For instance, that the white is musical and the latter is white, only because both are accidental to man.
- Socrates is musical, not in this sense, that both terms are accidental to something else.
Since then some predicates are accidental in this and some in that sense,
(a) those which are accidental in the latter sense, in which white is accidental to Socrates, cannot form an infinite series in the upward direction; e.g. Socrates the white has not yet another accident; for no unity can be got out of such a sum.
(b) Nor will ‘white’ have another term accidental to it, e.g. ‘musical’.
For this is no more accidental to that than that is to this; and at the same time we have drawn the distinction, that while some predicates are accidental in this sense, others are so in the sense in which ‘musical’ is accidental to Socrates; and the accident is an accident of an accident not in cases of the latter kind, but only in cases of the other kind, so that not all terms will be accidental. There must, then, even so be something which denotes substance.
And if this is so, it has been shown that contradictories cannot be predicated at the same time.
If all contradictory statements are true of the same subject at the same time, evidently all things will be one.
For the same thing will be a trireme, a wall, and a man, if of everything it is possible either to affirm or to deny anything (and this premiss must be accepted by those who share the views of Protagoras). For if any one thinks that the man is not a trireme, evidently he is not a trireme; so that he also is a trireme, if, as they say, contradictory statements are both true.
We thus get the doctrine of Anaxagoras, that all things are mixed together; so that nothing really exists. They seem, then, to be speaking of the indeterminate, and, while fancying themselves to be speaking of being, they are speaking about non-being; for it is that which exists potentially and not in complete reality that is indeterminate.
But they must predicate of every subject the affirmation or the negation of every attribute. For it is absurd if of each subject its own negation is to be predicable, while the negation of something else which cannot be predicated of it is not to be predicable of it; for instance, if it is true to say of a man that he is not a man, evidently it is also true to say that he is either a trireme or not a trireme. If, then, the affirmative can be predicated, the negative must be predicable too; and if the affirmative is not predicable, the negative, at least, will be more predicable than the negative of the subject itself. If, then, even the latter negative is predicable, the negative of ’trireme’ will be also predicable; and, if this is predicable, the affirmative will be so too.
“Those, then, who maintain this view are driven to this conclusion, and to the further conclusion that it is not necessary either to assert or to deny. For if it is true that a thing is a man and a not-man, evidently also it will be neither a man nor a not-man. For to the two assertions there answer two negations, and if the former is treated as a single proposition compounded out of two, the latter also is a single proposition opposite to the former.
“Again, either the theory is true in all cases, and a thing is both white and not-white, and existent and non-existent, and all other assertions and negations are similarly compatible or the theory is true of some statements and not of others. And if not of all, the exceptions will be contradictories of which admittedly only one is true; but if of all, again either the negation will be true wherever the assertion is, and the assertion true wherever the negation is, or the negation will be true where the assertion is, but the assertion not always true where the negation is. And (a) in the latter case there will be something which fixedly is not, and this will be an indisputable belief; and if non-being is something indisputable and knowable, the opposite assertion will be more knowable.
But (b) if it is equally possible also to assert all that it is possible to deny, one must either be saying what is true when one separates the predicates (and says, for instance, that a thing is white, and again that it is not-white), or not. And if (i) it is not true to apply the predicates separately, our opponent is not saying what he professes to say, and also nothing at all exists; but how could non-existent things speak or walk, as he does?
Also all things would on this view be one, as has been already said, and man and God and trireme and their contradictories will be the same. For if contradictories can be predicated alike of each subject, one thing will in no wise differ from another; for if it differ, this difference will be something true and peculiar to it. And (ii) if one may with truth apply the predicates separately, the above-mentioned result follows none the less, and, further, it follows that all would then be right and all would be in error, and our opponent himself confesses himself to be in error.-And at the same time our discussion with him is evidently about nothing at all; for he says nothing. For he says neither ‘yes’ nor ’no’, but ‘yes and no’; and again he denies both of these and says ’neither yes nor no’; for otherwise there would already be something definite.
“Again if when the assertion is true, the negation is false, and when this is true, the affirmation is false, it will not be possible to assert and deny the same thing truly at the same time. But perhaps they might say this was the very question at issue.
“Again, is he in error who judges either that the thing is so or that it is not so, and is he right who judges both? If he is right, what can they mean by saying that the nature of existing things is of this kind?
If he is not right, but more right than he who judges in the other way, being will already be of a definite nature, and this will be true, and not at the same time also not true. But if all are alike both wrong and right, one who is in this condition will not be able either to speak or to say anything intelligible; for he says at the same time both ‘yes’ and ’no.’
If he makes no judgement but ’thinks’ and ‘does not think’, indifferently, what difference will there be between him and a vegetable?
Thus, then, it is in the highest degree evident that neither any one of those who maintain this view nor any one else is really in this position.
For why does a man walk to Megara and not stay at home, when he thinks he ought to be walking there? Why does he not walk early some morning into a well or over a precipice, if one happens to be in his way? Why do we observe him guarding against this, evidently because he does not think that falling in is alike good and not good? Evidently, then, he judges one thing to be better and another worse.
If this is so, he must also judge one thing to be a man and another to be not-a-man, one thing to be sweet and another to be not-sweet. For he does not aim at and judge all things alike, when, thinking it desirable to drink water or to see a man, he proceeds to aim at these things; yet he ought, if the same thing were alike a man and not-a-man. But, as was said, there is no one who does not obviously avoid some things and not others.
Therefore, as it seems, all men make unqualified judgements, if not about all things, still about what is better and worse. And if this is not knowledge but opinion, they should be all the more anxious about the truth, as a sick man should be more anxious about his health than one who is healthy; for he who has opinions is, in comparison with the man who knows, not in a healthy state as far as the truth is concerned.
“Again, however much all things may be ‘so and not so’, still there is a more and a less in the nature of things; for we should not say that two and three are equally even, nor is he who thinks four things are five equally wrong with him who thinks they are a thousand. If then they are not equally wrong, obviously one is less wrong and therefore more right. If then that which has more of any quality is nearer the norm, there must be some truth to which the more true is nearer. And even if there is not, still there is already something better founded and liker the truth, and we shall have got rid of the unqualified doctrine which would prevent us from determining anything in our thought.