Aristotle Wittgenstein, Alias Isaac Newton between Fact and Substance

  • Guy Debrock
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idées / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 123)


In spite of what many contemporary philosophers might claim, every human being holds certain metaphysical ideas. No more is meant by this than that every human being has some idea of what he considers to be real, as opposed to mere thought or fancy. Generally speaking, there are three sorts of entities which most people would at some point or other hold to be real: things, facts and events. Most people would say that this table is real, that Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was real, and that the event of their birth was real. Indeed, our ‘ontological commitment’ to things, facts and events is so immediate and irresistible hat ordinary discourse tends to use the three terms indiscriminately. It seems to make little difference whether one believes in Napoleon defeated, or in the fact of his defeat, or, yet again, in the event of that defeat.


Ontological Commitment True Proposition Fact View Extended Substance Individual Thing 
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  1. 1.
    Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book Z (VII), 1, 1028 a 13–15; 29–31. Translation by W.D. Ross as reproduced in The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes (Princeton U. Press, 1984), Vol. II, p. 1623. See also Metaphysics, T (IV), 2, 1003 a 33 ff.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Metaphysics, Z (VII), 2, 1028 b 9–13.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1921 [1963]), p. 7.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    The first newspapers (in the modern sense) were, on the continent, the Mercurius Gallobelgicus which first appeared in 1590, and, in England, the Corante, or, newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France, which appeared in 1621. See the article “Newspaper” in Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, 1979), Micropaedia, Vol. VII. Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie which was inspired by the success of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia or an Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences (London, 1728) appeared in the years 1751–1772, while the Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1758. See Ibid., Micropaedia, Vol. VI.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The closest Aristotle comes to using a term with a similar meaning is when he says that a proposition is true when it corresponds to the πραγμα, literally, the ‘thing at hand’. See Aristotle, De Interpretatione, IX, 19 a 33. J.L. Acrill (in the Bollingen edition) translates the term by the expression “how actual things are”, H. Tredennick in the Loeb edition by “facts.” See Aristotle in twenty-three Volumes, Vol. II, Posterior Analytics by Hugh Tredennick [and] Topica by E.S. Forster (Cambridge, MA: Harverd University Press, 1976).Google Scholar
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    “A substance — that which is called a substance most strictly, primarily and most of all — is that which is neither said of a subject nor in a subject, e.g. the individual man or the individual horse.” See Aristotle, Categories, V, 2 a 13–15.Google Scholar
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    Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 9, 18 b 31–32.Google Scholar
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    This follows from his conception of science: “We think we understand a thing simpliciter (and not in the sophistic fashion accidentally) whenever we think we are aware both that the explanation because of which the object is is its explanation, and that it is not possible for this to be otherwise.” Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, I,2, 71 b 9–12. But paradoxically, even scientific knowledge must ultimately rely on νους (“comprehension” according to Ackrill, “intuition” according to Tredennick). Cfr. Posterior Analytics, II, 19, 100 b 15.Google Scholar
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    The doctrine is expressed in two fragments. In fr. 5, Parmenides writes: ‘το#‘γα#‘ρ αθ#ητο#‘νοειν εστι τε και#‘ειναι.’ Fragment 8.34 gives a different version: ‘ταθτο δ’εστι νοειν τε και οθνεκεν εοτι νοημα”: thinking is the same as that about which there is thought. Cfr. Hermaan Diels and Walther Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 10th ed. Berlin, 1960.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    The pratītyasamutpāda or doctrine of dependent origination is related to the second “noble truth” of Buddha, which says there is a cause of suffering. This causation is conceived as a chain of causation where one element as it were necessitates another. “Pratītyasamutpāda tells us that in the empirical world dominated by the intellect everything is relative, conditional, dependent, subject to birth and death and therefore impermanent. The causal formula is: ‘This being, that arises,’, i.e., ‘Depending on the cause, the effect arises.’ Contrary to the Western conception of causality, however, Buddhism sees causation as the proof of radical relativism. See Chandradhar Sharma, Indian Philosophy: A Critical Survey (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1962), p. 61.Google Scholar
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    The Leibnizian Predicate-in-Notion Principle (I borrow this expression from C.D. Broad. See his “Leibniz’s Predicate-in-Notion Principle and some of its alleged consequences,” in H.G. Frankfurt (ed.), Leibniz: A Collection of Critical Essays (Graden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1972), pp. 1–45.) is to be found in several works, but most notably in his Discours de Métaphysique and his Correspondence with Arnauld. The original text is to be found in Philosophische Schrifte von G.W. Leibniz, 1 vols. (Berlin, 1960–61), the former in Vol. IV, the latter in Vol. II.Google Scholar
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    The expression constitutes the title of a work by Martin Heidegger. See M. Heidegger, Die Frage nach dem Ding (Tübingen, 1962). No direct relationship between the thesis of this paper and Heidegger’s work is intended.Google Scholar
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    My use of the distinction is somewhat more liberal than Peirce intended it to be. Perhaps the clearest exposition by Peirce is the following: “A decrease of supposed information may have the effect of diminishing the depth of a term without increasing its information. This is often called abstraction’, but it is far better to call it prescission; for the word abstraction is wanted as the designation of an even far more important procedure, whereby a transitivie element thought is made substantive, as in the grammatical change of an adjective into an abstract noun.” Cfr. C.S. Peirce, Collected Papers, 8 vols in 4 (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 1932…), 2.364.Google Scholar
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    See G. Debrock, “The Future of Time,” in P. Scheurer and G. Debrock (eds.), Nature, Time and History, 2 vols. (Nijmegen: Philosophy and Nature, 1985), pp. 129–147.Google Scholar
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    From the Quaestiones as found in the additional MS in the Cambridge University Library, quoted in Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest. A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1980), pp. 91–92.Google Scholar
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    Obviously the most authoritative work on the importance of alchemy in Newton’s work is: B.J.T. Dobbs, The Foundatons of Newton’s Alchemy: The Hunting of the Greene Lyon (Cambridge, 1975).Google Scholar
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    See the “General Scholium” of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia, 3rd ed. with variant readings, 2 vols., edited by Alexandre Koyré and I. Bernard Cohen (Cambridge, 1972).Google Scholar
  19. 24.
    See e.g.: “I have not yet disclosed the cause of gravity, nor have I undertaken to explain it, since I could not understand it from the phenomena.” Quoted in A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall (eds.), Unpublisheed Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978 [1962]), p. 213.Google Scholar
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    For a detailed analysis of the importance of the issue of substance in Newton’s concept of space, see I. Leclerc, The Nature of Physical Existence (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1972).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Guy Debrock
    • 1
  1. 1.Catholic University NijmegenThe Netherlands

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