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The Aristotelian universe was finite; ours is infinite. The Earth was at
the centre of that older model; it has no special position now. Man,
says Alexandre Koyre (1958, p. 1), has "lost his place in the world".
The scientific revolution has brought forth "the destruction of the Cos-
mos, the disappearance ... of the conception of the world as a finite,
closed, and hierarchically ordered whole".
It was perhaps inevitable, certainly understandable, that early cos-
mology would tackle questions like these, about the relationship of
humanity to God, and the place of humans in the ontological order of
the universe. In the seventeenth century, the thought that if humans
are not placed at the centre of the universe they can lay no claim to
special status in the 'great chain of being' may have done something to
delay the end of geocentrism. The proponents of heliocentrism were
not innocent of this sort of concern either. As Koyre says:
The displacement of the earth from the centrum of the world was not felt to be a
demotion. Quite the contrary: it is with satisfaction that Nicholas of Cusa asserts its
promotion to the rank of noble stars, and as for Giordano Bruno, it is with burning
enthusiasm - that of a prisoner who sees the walls of his jail crumble - that he announces
the bursting of spheres that separated us from the wide open spaces and inexhaustible
treasures of the ever-changing, eternal and infinite universe. (Ibid., p. 43)

It is hardly surprising that it has become a part of the iconology of

modern science that early cosmology was more myth than science.
It was Aristotle's universe that was transmuted into the hierarchy of
beings that Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano found so confining. And so
it is reasonable to ask: Did theocentric or antropomorphic conceptions
play any role in Aristotle's thinking about the universe? The answer,
unsurprisingly, is that they did: following in the tradition of Pythagoras
and Plato, Aristotle does pay attention to the perfection of the celestial
motions, to the animatedness and divinity of the stars, to the role of
the divinity that resides beyond the celestial orbs. And in De Caelo II,
he makes extensive use of degrees of perfection to explain some of the
structural features of the universe. Nevertheless, there is a distinctly
empirical train of thought in Aristotle's cosmology, and it is with this

Synthese 96: 417-435, 1993.

1993 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

that we shall be concerned in this paper. Our concern here is with

Aristotle's idea that in cosmology the primary explanatory factor is the
form of the universe. We are interested in the scientific and the empiri-
cal provenance of this idea, and in how it fits into Aristotle's philosophy.

For Aristotle, and for the ancients generally, the most striking cosmo-
logical observation is this: the stars seem to move around and around
eternally, and correlatively the Earth seems to be at rest. Aristotle's
predecessors attempted to explain this phenomenon in a variety of
ways. Some placed the Earth on a firm foundation, water (Thales) or
an infinite column of earth (Xenophanes), and others (Anaximenes)
tried to expfain how it might float on a cushion of air. Famously,
Anaximander thought that the Earth needed no cause for its stillness
- since it has no reason to move in any particular direction, it has no
reason to move at all. But Aristotle sought to solve the problem in a
novel fashion, rejecting all of these accounts on the ground that they
do not explain both the fact that the Earth is stationary and the fact
that pieces of earth move downwards.
It is an anesthetized mind that is not at all puzzled to find that the smallest portion of
earth, let loose in mid-air, moves and will not remain still, the more of it there is the
faster it moves. Yet the whole Earth suspended in mid-air does not move: such a great
weight at rest. (Cael. II 13, 294all-16; cf. II 14, 296a24-34)

Aristotle thought that this duality of behaviour had to be accounted

for by making the natural movement of earth rectilinear towards the
centre of the universe, the result of an innate capacity actualized when
earth is at the centre (Phys. VIII 4, 255b8-17, Cael. IV 3, 31lal-6).
The Earth is stationary because it has actualized this capacity to the
extent that it is possible to do so, but pieces of earth removed from
the centre will fall towards it if free to do so.
Aristotle could not therefore have explained the apparent motion of
the stars by rotating the Earth; to do so would have destroyed the
elegance of his conception. So the stars must rotate around the Earth.
Since their movement is eternal and perfect, it cannot be forced; the
stars rotate by virtue of an innate tendency (II 1, 284all-18, 27-35),
which Aristotle ascribes to the starry element aether, as it was popularly
called. The extent of the starry sphere cannot then be infinite (apeiron);
if it were, its diurnal rotation would require infinite velocity, which is
a physical impossibility (I 6). It follows that the universe must be finite,

or else there would have to be other worlds beyond the starry sphere,
and there cannot be more than one world (I 8-9).
Aristotle's universe is the opposite of apeiron in another sense of
that term as well: it is structured, possessing a centre and a periphery. 1
This is not merely a geometrical feature of the universe, accruing to it
as a result of its finite extent and spherical form. The centre and the
periphery figure essentially in the laws that govern the motions of
the elements, and so they are natural places possessing more than
conventional significance (Phys. IV 1, 208b8-22). They impart causal
concreteness to what would otherwise be a purely mathematical notion
of place (Phys. V 4, 211a3-6, 212a20-28; 5, 212b29-13a3). The occur-
rence of these natural places has always been a controversial feature
of Aristotle's system. It had already been attacked in ancient times,
but not in a way that touched on Aristotle's basic framework of cosmo-
logical explanation. But to do without natural places requires a com-
pletely new physical science, not just a retooling of Aristotle's system,
as some Hellenistic philosophers believed. As we shall see, Galileo's
criticism of natural places was part of the revolution of the scientific
world view in the seventeenth century.
The argument we have sketched is plainly empirical, but according
to Aristotle it is not explanatory. The rotation of the heavens, apparent
or real, does not cause, and therefore does not explain, the existence
or nature of the aether; rather that motion is caused and explained by
the nature of the aether. To understand the motion of the stars and
the aether that causes it, we must explain these things by reference to
their causes, and for Aristotle this means that we must show why the
aether must exist by reference to first principles.

The line of thought that we find presented in De Caelo is meant to be

explanatory. Aristotle makes this clear by his choice of terminology in
the various prospectuses and summaries he scatters through the treatise.
In the opening passage of the work he says that natural science (he peri
phuseos episteme) is concerned with principles (archai). At the start of
I 2, he says that he will take it as a starting point (arche) that natural
bodies and magnitudes are intrinsically movable. He begins I 3 by
stating that the existence of a body that is neither heavy nor light has
been made evident from assumptions as well as demonstration. In III
7, 306a5-11, he suggests that the reason why others have gone astray
is that they have erred with respect to first principles. In the introduction

to Book IV, he says that the consideration of the cause (aitia) why
things possess heaviness and lightness is proprietary to the theory of
movement. To a reader familiar with Aristotle's terminology and scien-
tific method, these are signs that Aristotle's endeavour is explanatory.
It is evident that, in this treatise, he is content with only a few asides
about how the phenomena come to be known.
It is therefore quite surprising to find that, in a recent treatment of
the theory of the elements in Cael. I 2-4, Christian Wildberg (1988),
modifying somewhat an earlier (more sympathetic) account by Wolf-
gang Kullmann (1965), construes the proof of the existence of the
aether in Chapter 2 as a "syllogism of fact". A syllogism of fact does not
explain; its purpose is to give one reasons for believing that something is
so without explaining why it so (APo. I 13); the empirical argument
rehearsed above could be recast in the form of syllogisms of fact.
According to Wildberg (1988, pp. 56-60), the argument for the aether
is cast in this form:
Some simple movements are circular movements.
All simple movements are movements of simple bodies.
So, there is a simple body which moves in a circle.

He criticizes the second premise of this syllogism on the grounds that

it cannot properly be arrived at by inductive generalization.
Whatever the flaws in Aristotle's reasoning, it cannot plausibly be
criticized on these grounds; for it is implicit that Aristotle must be aware
of the impossibility of arriving at the second premise by induction. The
simplicity of motions is explicitly derived from the simplicity of lines
(268b19-20), and the simplicity of lines is defined as follows:
A line is simple if a) it is homogeneous (that is, if any two segments of equal length are
congruent), and b) it cannot be derived from any other lines by addition.2

Given this definition, the identification of a line or motion as simple

must rest on mathematical analysis, not induction. One cannot observe
that a body is simple, nor can one observe that motion along a particular
sort of trajectory is simple. As for the idea that a simple motion must
be the motion of a simple body, it must be a first principle that Aristotle
uses to explain why any universe with the structure he envisages must
have certain properties.3 Such a first principle is not inductively arrived
at, but we should not conclude that it is non-empirical. For there is
something hypothetical and empirical about the postulation of such first

principles; they are judged at least in part by the success with which
they are able to account for the phenomena - as Aristotle says later:
"It seems both that the argument confirms the appearances and the
appearances the argument" (I 3, 270b4).

The argument of De Caelo I 2-4 is a sketch of a demonstration of the

existence and properties of the aether and the sub-lunary elements
considered as parts of the totality: a derivation of the theory of the
elements from first principles. Properly speaking, it ought to be set out
in the axiomatic form prescribed in Posterior Analytics, but here Aris-
totle is content to point in the direction of such a presentation.
The principles from which a demonstration starts are domain-specific
truths prior from an explanatory perspective. They will include some
principles, called theses, that are proprietary to the subject-matter being
investigated, in this case the totality, or universe. The theses divide
into definitions, which do not assert that anything is the case, but merely
identify and demarcate the subject domain, and hypotheses, which make
assertions about the domain previously defined (APo. I 2, 72a18-24).
As we shall see shortly, the cosmological definitions are found in De
Caelo I 1. Aristotle does not explicitly identify the hypotheses he uses,
and they are not easy to identify and formulate.
More general principles are also employed in the argument. The
axioms are the propositions that must be known in order to know
anything at all (APo. I 2, 72a16-17), propositions like the principle
of non-contradiction, which pertain to the universal domain, and the
principles of proof itself (APo. I 7, 75a41). As well, a scientific demon-
stration may employ principles pertaining to any domain that includes
(75a42) or mathematically abstracts from (I 13, 78b34-79a16) the speci-
fic domain being studied. In De Caelo, Aristotle draws on mathematical
principles concerning the simplicity of magnitudes, and on the principles
of motion laid out for the most part in Physics III-VIII. These principles
apply not only to the cosmic motions of the elements, but also to the
motions and changes described by the other natural sciences; thus they
are neither general axioms that apply right across the domain of existent
things nor theses specific to cosmology, but of a more inclusive science,
the science of motion in general. 4
The definitions employed in the demonstrative arguments of De
Caelo are laid out in I 1. Here we find a definition of the totality
preceded by definitions of body, and a body. Since, the totality is

understood by contrast with a body, let us consider these definitions in

First, body:
What is divisible into what is forever divisible is continuous, and what is divisible in every
way is body. Magnitude divisible in one direction is a line, that in two a plane, that in
three a body. (268a6-8)5

The issue here is the atomistic conception of body as consisting of

indivisible plena interspersed in the void. Aristotle argues that only
continua can move (Phys. VI 4, 234b10-20; 10, passim). Since it is
integral to his argument that body be essentially movable ( Cael. I 2,
268b14-15), he cuts the atomistic conception off right at the start.
Body is not just continuous, it is continuous in three directions; and
this makes it complete:
There is no other magnitude over and above these, for the three are all there are, and
threefold is every way there is. For it is as the Pythagoreans say: the totality and
everything in it are made determinate in threes, since end, middle and beginning give
the number of the totality, and their number is the triad .... (268a9-13)

It is clear that there is no progression to some other type, as there is from length to
plane, and to body from plane, for in that case this kind of magnitude would not be
complete, since necessarily every advance is in respect of some defect, and it is not
possible for the complete to be defective: for it is in every way. (268a30-b5)

What is the basis of the claim that three-dimensional body is com-

plete, and that "there is no progression to some other type", so that
there is no fourth dimension? The key to understanding this passage lies
in the last clause: body is in every way. Aristotle holds that "substance is
thought to belong most obviously to bodies" (Met. VII 2, 1028b8),
which implies that bodies can exist independently of anything else. But
lines and surfaces cannot so exist; for there are no concrete lines or
surfaces except in concrete bodies. The relationship of line to surface
and surface to body is a relationship of completion - it is only by
abstraction from independently existing, concrete bodies that these
objects have whatever reality they possess. Since body exists concretely,
it stands in no need of dimensional completion, and so it cannot stand
to anything else as lines and surfaces stand to it. Body is not ultimate,
for form can be imposed on it, but that is not to say that it could be
completed in a fourth dimension.
This argument does not, by itself show that there is no four-

dimensional object, only that such an object could not be a completion

of body. Consider four independent variables, for example, age, weight,
height, and family income. One could think of these variables as defin-
ing a four-dimensional space, since each four-membered set of deter-
minate values for example, a particular person's age, weight, height,
and family income - constitutes a point in this space, since the mutual
independence of the variables corresponds to the orthogonality of the
dimensions, and since the totality of such points is measured by a
distance metric characteristic of space. And one could define lines,
surfaces, and volumes in the four-space. These would correspond to
contiguous ranges of values; so the collection of points with age between
20 and 30 years old, and weight between 120 and 140 pounds could be
thought of as constituting a volume bounded in two dimensions and
unbounded in the other two. Examples like this show that there can
be no mathematical proof that for any n, n is the maximum number of
dimensions. (Commenting on this passage, Galileo (1953, pp. 13-14)
suggests that there is a mathematical proof of the three dimensionality
of space based on the fact that there can be at most three orthogonal
lines through a point; but this is circular, as we now know.)
However, the above construction fails to take seriously Aristotle's
conception of successive dimensions completing previous ones. As we
have seen, Aristotle says that each dimension after the first completes
the previous ones, that is, it builds towards a self-subsistent object.
Once we have reached a self-subsistent entity, a body, no further
completion is possible, and so there can be no further dimensions. The
fourth variable, family income, in our four-space above is not, in any
physical way, a 'completion' of the first three. And that is why it does
not tell against Aristotle's claim that 'there is no progression' to a
fourth dimension. As far as this point is concerned, it is not easy to
see how the dimensions of physical space could be conceived differently
from Aristotle. It is worth noting that in the Einstein-Minkowski geo-
metry of four-dimensional space-time, a three-dimensional object is
incomplete in precisely Aristotle's sense: since it has no extension in
time, it has no temporal reality, and thus does not exist concretely. It
would be an abstraction in precisely the same way as, according to
Aristotle, lines and surfaces are abstractions. 6
As defined here, body is not an individual thing; rather it is indefinite
extension, and individuals exist as determinate parts of (indefinite)

body. There are two sorts of individuals that result from imposing form
on body.

All bodies in the form of a part are of such a kind according to this definition, since it
has all the dimensions. But each is determined by contact with what is close to it, and
hence in a way each of these bodies is many. But the totality of which these things are
parts is necessarily complete, and totally so, as the name indicates, and not in one way
but not in another. (I 1, 268b5-10)

Bodies 'in the form of a part' are spatial sub-regions of the universe.
Here Aristotle is speaking of a body, of this body, or of bodies (plural),
not merely of body, which is indeterminate continuous extension in
space, but of a spatially delimited entity. Bodies are 'determined' (that
is, delimited, and given definite size) "by contact with what is close".
This does not mean that a body is defined by reference to particular
things that it touches, at least not in the sense that it is essential to a
body that it be in contact with that which it currently touches. At the
same time, bodies considered as such have no intrinsic unity, "in a
sense they are many" (268b7-8). 7
The totality is defined by contrast with "bodies in the form of a
part", as "that of which these are parts", "necessarily complete", and
complete "in every way, not complete in one way, incomplete in ano-
ther". It is perceptible, hence, it is an individual. And since it is an
individual, it consists of form in matter (Cael. I 9, 277b27-78a16). The
matter of the totality is body; thus it is a bodily thing, it is made of
body. But obviously it is not a "body in the form of a part". Further,
it is not "determined by contact", since there is nothing outside itself
with which it could come into contact. Thus it is not in place, and
cannot move, except accidentally (Phys. IV 5, 212bll-22). For these
reasons, the totality is probably not suitably considered to be a discrete
The form of the totality is, simply, completeness.

Everything, the totality, and the complete do not differ from one another in form, but
if at all then in their matter and that of which they are said. (I 1, 268a20-22)

Each of these terms has universal comprehension, but in different

domains. 'Everything' is usually applied contextually to some limited
domain of individuals, and 'complete' to the entirety of some limited
collection or mass - the term 'the totality', however, is understood to
apply without any such implicit or explicit restriction.

Putting the form and the matter together we get this result: the
totality is all the body there is. Thus, even though the form of the
totality is distinguishable from its matter:

We are not compelled to assert a plurality of worlds. Such a plurality is indeed impossible
if this world is made from the entirety of matter, just as it is. (278a25-28)

It is the form of the universe that compels it to comprehend all matter;

nevertheless, one can distinguish between that form and the entity that
arises out of the realization of the form in the matter it necessarily
Taken out of the context of Aristotelian thought, this argument is
not persuasive. Aristotle insists that the totality of body cannot be
infinite (Phys. III 5-8; Cael. I 5-7), and it follows that it is body
possessed of definite shape. But this does not constitute sufficient justi-
fication for thinking that the totality should be considered an individual
entity, with all the implications of that status in Aristotle's metaphysics.
The crux of the matter is this: Does the totality possess some property
that it does not inherit from the accidental distribution of matter in
space, and that stands as cause to some of its features? From the fact
that it is described as complete, certain things follow, but why should
one take the logical potency of the definition to be anything other than
verbal? Nothing in the argument given above gives us much by which
to decide this question, but there are reasons internal to Aristotle's
way of thinking that make it inconceivable to him that the totality could
be otherwise. It is to these that we now turn.

Aristotle's universe is a self-maintaining structure. Its configuration is

held in steady state by the dynamic tendencies of his five elements. The
natural downward tendency of earth ensures that the Earth will be
stationary at the centre. Similarly, the luminous phenomena are above
us because fire and air move upward, as we see from the upward
movement of flames and other hot effluences. And the rotations of the
heavenly bodies are maintained in place by the innate tendency of the
starry element to move in a circle. Contemporary natural science tends
to be reductionistic in the sense that its explanations go from properties
of parts to properties of wholes. Reductionistic science is satisfied when
a physical structure is shown to be stable because it is self-maintaining
in the way that Aristotle's is; it does not deem it desirable to embellish

the explanation by arguing that the mechanisms of maintenance derive

from the nature of the whole.
By contrast, Aristotle's science is anti-reductionistic in the sense that
it attempted in a wide variety of different cases (including even that of
the state; see Pol. I 2, 1253a19-39) to show that parts are ontologically
and causally subordinate to wholes. It is not that Aristotle would have
denied that in such cases the whole is maintained by the nature of the
parts - on the contrary, his category of material causation constitutes
a recognition of just this relationship, since it comprehends the effects
that parts have on wholes. But he insisted on subordinating material
causation to the reciprocal explanatory trope of formal causation. In
Aristotle's system, parts that maintain the nature of the whole are
typically treated as deriving their nature from the whole, and as post-
erior to it in being (however that is to be understood).
In large part, this anti-reductionism can be traced to the perception
that regularly occurring self-maintaining wholes have a certain stability
that cannot be attributed to mere chance. Consider a puddle of water
with a film of oil floating on top. In one sense, it is no accident that
the oil should float on top of the water, for it is lighter. But in another
sense, the puddle is merely an accident: the relative lightness of the oil
cannot explain why a puddle of this sort should exist. The properties
of the parts of the puddle explain the structure of the whole without
being themselves determined by the nature of the whole. Even though
the beauty of the colors in the puddle could have been reason to create
it, it was not in fact created for this reason.
Events which (1) belong to the general class of things that may come to pass for the sake
of something, (2) do not come to pass for the sake of what actually results, and (3) have
an external cause, may be described by the phrase "from spontaneity". (Phys. II 6,

The case is very different with a wall in which the parts are put
together in order to maintain the whole:
As if a wall necessarily came to be because what is heavy is naturally carried downwards
and what is light to the top, wherefore the stones and foundations take the lowest place,
with earth above because it is lighter, and wood at the top of all as being the lightest.
(Phys. II 8, 199b36-200a4)

This kind of explanation misrepresents the nature of the wall because

in fact the choice of its parts and the way in which they were put
together were dictated by the form of the whole - even if this form

acts indirectly, via a representation in the architect's mind. Because of

the lack of coordination of its parts, Aristotle would say that the puddle
came to be spontaneously, while the wall did not. 8
Aristotle is sensitive to the epistemological question of when one
ought to posit formal or final causation, and when one ought to rest
content with the weaker claim that the whole is due merely to chance.
Unfortunately, however, it is precisely in the consideration of this
question that he makes a crucial wrong turn.

Natural things come to be the way they are always or for the most part, but this is never
true of the products of chance and spontaneity. It seems not to be by chance or happenst-
ance that it rains frequently in winter, but it does seem so when it rains during the dog
days. Nor is it happenstance when it is hot during the dog days, but it is so, when it is
hot in winter. (Ibid., 198b35-99a3)

Regularities cannot be the product of chance and spontaneity, Aristotle

thinks (cf. Cael. II 5, 287b25-27; II 8 289b25-29). This thought led
him to a number of profound biological insights. But in the physical
world, it is generally wrong; colourful puddles occur all the time, as
indeed do Aristotle's own spontaneously generated creatures. Such
effects occur because certain sorts of events coincide regularly, though
not by design.
Aristotle predated the discovery of a variety of explanatory tech-
niques that show how large-scale stable phenomena can arise repeatedly
out of purely local small-scale interactions. Stable equilibria are brought
about by forces that return a system to the equilibrium state if it is
disturbed. Such forces need not have been designed for the purpose,
though they could have been. In the social sciences, 'hidden hand'
explanations show how the uncoordinated behaviour of individuals can
bring about transitions of population-level variables that are predictable
independently of detailed knowledge of the conditions under which the
individuals acted. Statistical analysis can show how many different
small-scale patterns generated randomly can be amplified over time to
produce striking large-scale effects. 9 It is neither true, in general, that
stable phenomena must have coherent causes nor true that regularities
cannot be produced spontaneously.
However that may be, the point important to us here is that, from
Aristotle's perspective, the universe is the extreme case of stability; an
eternal being that exists necessarily, and hence without beginning or
end (Cael. I 10-12). Indeed he viewed this as a fact that can receive

empirical confirmation. He tells us that in Democritus's view, "the

heavenly sphere and the most divine of visible things arose spon-
taneously, having no such cause as is assigned to animals and plants"
(Phys. I 5, 196a32-35). But this contradicts the phenomena, he says,
for "they see nothing coming to be spontaneously in the heavens"
(196b3-4). (It was of course this assertion that made Tycho's obser-
vation of a nova and Galileo's discovery of sunspots so significant as
refutations of the Aristotelian system.)

Having defined the totality, Aristotle proceeds to demonstrate the pro-

perties of its elementary parts - as he says at the start of De Caelo I
2: "Now let us speak of the parts that [the totality] has in virtue of
its form" (268b12-14). (This sentence is uniformly mistranslated and
misinterpreted, but it is extremely important, because it contains the
clearest indication of the role that Aristotle gives to the form of the
whole 10). Space does not permit us to discuss this demonstration
(268b14-20) in any detail here, but it appeals to two principles. First,
body is three-dimensional and essentially movable on account of its
continuity. Since it is continuous in three dimensions, it must contain
principles of motion in all three dimensions. Second, simple motions
belong to simple bodies or elements. (See the third section above for
the definition of simple motion.) Since the only simple motions are the
straight and circular, and since circular motion together with opposed
rectilinear motions along the radii will together account for motion in
three dimensions, the elements must correspond to these motions. "It
seems", Aristotle says, "that this follows logically from what we said
at the outset: since body is completed in the number three, so is its
motion" (268b24-26).
Whatever one might say about the mathematical validity of this
reasoning, it does not prepare us for the way in which Aristotle now
defines the elementary motions.
Circular motion, then, will be that around the centre, while straight will be upwards and
downwards. By 'upwards', I mean away from the centre, by 'downwards' towards the
centre. Consequently all simple movement must either be away from the centre, towards
the centre, or around the centre. (268b20-24)

Why does Aristotle insist that simple or elementary circular motion

must be about the centre of the universe? According to Alexander of
Aphrodisias (in Simplicius, Heidel, 1893, 14.31-15.8), the great third-

century Peripatetic commentator on Aristotle, it was because eccentric

circular motion cannot be simple since it contains some up and down.
Similarly, non-radial straight motion would have in it a tincture of the
circumferential. This is ingenious, and possibly correct, but it begs the
question, for the most that it shows is why the three definitions should
refer to the same centre. What Alexander does not tell us, however,
is why the motions should in the first place have been defined with
respect to the centre. The only charitable answer to this question is to
construe these as definitions posited additional to, and not following
from, the argument alluded to above, and made plausible by the empiri-
cal reasoning that we reviewed earlier.
Galileo remarked on these definitions with considerable asperity in
his Dialogues (1953, p. 16), complaining that they are physical not
As to the explanation of what Aristotle means by simple motions, and how he determines
them from properties of space, calling those simple which are made along simple lines,
these being the straight and the circular only, I accept this willingly .... But I resent
rather strongly finding myself restricted to calling the latter "motion about the cen-
tre" ... and the former ... "upward" and "downward". For such terms are applicable
only to the actual world .... If simple motion is natural then it remains so in any direction
whatsoever ....

In any case, the introduction of the centre of the totality into the
definition is highly significant in two ways. 11 It has the effect that the
elements are defined in terms of the totality of which they are parts.
And it imports an absolute frame of reference into physical law. We
now take these points up in order.

In Metaphysics VII 10-11, Aristotle discusses the question of the prior-

ity of parts and the whole. He distinguishes two sorts of parts, the parts
into which the formula of a thing divides, and those into which a
concrete thing divides because its matter so divides. The formula of a
circle does not mention its segments, but any concrete circle can be
divided into segments; the formula of a right angle does not mention
acute angles, but any concrete right angle divides into acute angles.
The concrete acute angle is then a part of the concrete right angle, the
concrete segment of the concrete circle, but these are material, not
formal, parts. On the other hand, the formula of the right angle does
mention lines, and so the lines that bound the right angle are parts of
its form. Because this is so, there cannot be a right angle without the

prior existence of lines. Thus, the parts required by a formula are prior
to the whole defined by the formula (1035b5-6).
There is another sort of part that is involved in the form of the whole,
namely, a part identified by means of the formula of the whole. As we
have seen the acute angle is a material part of the right angle. But the
acute angle is identified by means of a formula that mentions the right
angle, for an acute angle is simply an angle less than a right angle.
More significantly, a finger is a part of a human, identified by means
of a formula that states the role that it will play in human functioning.
"Therefore the parts which are of the nature of matter and into which
as its matter a thing is divided, are posterior" (1035bll-12). In these
cases, the whole is prior not only in definition but also in existence:

For [such parts] cannot even exist if severed from the whole; for it is not a finger in any
state that is the finger of a living thing, but the dead finger is a finger only homonymously.
(Met. VII 10, 1035b22-25)

For it is not a hand in any state that is a part of man, but the hand that can fulfill its
work, which therefore must be alive; if it is not alive it is not a part. (1036b31-32)

Parts defined with respect to the whole depend for their existence on
the whole, for they cannot perform their characteristic activities without
the existence of the whole. In this sense, then, these parts are posterior
to the whole whether they are considered concretely or formally.
Returning now to the elements, we have seen that Aristotle defines
them in terms of the sphere that constitutes the totality. The perfor-
mance of their characteristic activities thus presupposes the existence
of that whole - they move towards the centre and the periphery of this
sphere. So they are ontologically posterior to the whole: they cannot
pre-exist the sphere, because without the sphere they would lack their
defining innate tendencies. Thus the doctrine of natural places is how
Aristotle's notions about the explanatory priority of the whole come in
the end to be cashed out in his cosmology.

The doctrine of natural places was controversial from the very begin-
ning. Richard Sorabji (1987, pp. 16-18) summarizes an ancient contro-
versy generated by this doctrine. Theophrastus, Aristotle's colleague
and successor as head of the Peripatos, argued that Aristotle was wrong
to suggest (Phys. IV l, 208bl0-22) that place is an entity in its own

right on the grounds that it has a causal influence. 12 In Sorabji's synopsis

the criticism ran like this:
An animal's limb has a place, because the animal has a nature and form which require
a certain arrangement of the animal's parts. For this reason each limb seeks (but not
consciously) its position in the arrangement. This explanation assigns no power to place,
but appeals to the nature of the whole organism. (Sorabji, 1987, p. 16)

But the cosmological natural places can claim no such relationship to

an explanatory whole, Theophrastus thinks.
The great sixth-century commentator Simplicius, and his teacher Da-
mascius, took the opposite line on this issue. Following the third-
century Syrian philosopher Iamblichus, they proposed that "the cosmos
as a whole is an organism" whose parts are the elements. 13 They held
that, as all such entities, the cosmos was coherently held together in a
place. Thus, says Sorabji, they
restored to place an active power and claimed that each body was actively held together
and prevented from dispersing by its own proper place. Simplicius, and Damascius as
Simplicius interprets him, thought of this proper place as preserving the arrangement of
the body's parts. (Ibid., p. 17)

On both sides of this controversy there is an uneasiness with the idea

that a non-concrete entity like place could have a causal influence. At
the same time, the philosophers mentioned above are clearly convinced
that the centre of the universe has to figure in the laws of physics,
and their efforts are directed towards giving the centre the kind of
metaphysical status that would equip it for such a role.
One difficulty with the views expressed above is that they all assume
that, in Aristotle's view, natural place exerts a causal influence of some
sort on the elements. But as Peter Machamer (1978) has cogently
argued, this assumption is mistaken. In Aristotle's view, the natural
place of an element is its actuality (energeia: Phys. VIII 4, 255b8-17;
entelecheia: Cael. IV 3, 311al-6). The cause of the motion is not in
the place to which it moves, but in the element itself, in the potentiality
that is actualized only when the element resides in its proper place. In
Aristotle's scheme of things, the elements are not self-movers in the
sense that there is something in them that reacts to external circum-
stances, causing change when change is required to react to these
circumstances. Since the elements are simple, and one and continuous,
there is no possibility of their being divided in this way into active and
passive principles (see Phys. VIII 4 255a5-20). But if the elements are

not self-movers in this way, they are not moved by something else
either. They are in an intermediate class of things that move on account
of their own nature to what the actuality of that nature is. These things
move whenever this actuality is not realized, if they are not hindered
(ibid., 255b13-24).
It is in the context of this doctrine of place constituting the intrinsic
actuality of the elements that one can best appreciate how modern
physics achieves the elimination of natural places. In his preface to
Stillman Drake's translation of the Dialogues (Galileo, 1953), Albert
Einstein assesses Galileo's attitude to natural places as follows:

A close analogy exists between Galileo's rejection of the hypothesis of a centre of the
universe for the explanation of the fall of heavy bodies, and the rejection of the hypothesis
of an inertial system for the explanation of the inertial behaviour of matter. (This latter
is the basis of the theory of general relativity.) Common to both hypotheses is the
introduction of a conceptual object with the following properties
(1) It is not assumed to be real, like ponderable matter (or a "field").
(2) It determines the behaviour of real objects, but is in no way affected by them.
The introduction of such conceptual elements, though not exactly inadmissible from a
purely logical point of view, is repugnant to the scientific instinct. (Galileo, 1953, p. xiii)

It is notable that Einstein is not concerned here with the question of

whether, in Aristotle's system, space (or place) can determine the
motion of bodies. For him the more significant point is that Aristotle's
space is anisotropic - it has a different influence on motion in different
directions. What cause does Aristotle assign to this? Einstein's point is
that in modern physics, such a deformation of space would have to be
assigned a concrete cause, a gravitating body or force field or acceler-
ation. In contrast, the only cause that Aristotle assigns to the anisotropy
of his totality is the form or essential nature of the totality. But this is
to assign the form of the whole a causal role that is not reducible to
any disposition of any of its parts.
It has been said that Aristotle's view of the role of form in psychology
and biology conforms to modern supervenient materialism, in that form
always plays an organizing role with respect to matter, and exerts its
influence only through the organization of matter. 14 No such apology
is possible with regard to the cosmology. The doctrine of natural places
gives the form of the whole a causal role that is not in any way under-
written by matter. The ancient commentators were right, then, to ques-
tion the role that natural places played in the Aristotelian universe, but

what they failed to realize was that the problems lie not at its centre
but in its whole.


* This work was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council of Canada.
The term derives from peras, and its connotation of limitlessness carries with it a lack
of internal structure as well as external boundaries. It is an important part of Aristotle's
thinking about the infinite that there can be no distinguished places in a boundless
universe, and so no elemental capacities defined in terms of such places. Koyre (1957)
is the classic discussion of the historical opposition between the structured and the
unstructured conceptions of the universe. See also Furley (1987, Chap. 1).
We derive this criterion not from Aristotle but from Simplicius's discussion of the
simplicity of lines (Heiberg, 1893, 13.6-14.29). It is, however, plausible that (as Simplicius
implies) Aristotle had some such criterion in mind, though he was certainly unaware of
the various difficulties that lead to the complexities in the above definition.
It is clear that Aristotle's arguments are supposed to have this universal form despite
the necessary uniqueness of the universe (Cael. I 9, 277b26-78a16).
Pace Nussbaum (1978, Chap. 2), the observation that principles proprietary to a more
inclusive domain are admissible into a science suffices to account for the argument of the
De Motu Animalium. That short treatise begins with two chapters on the unmoved
mover in animal motion, continues with two chapters concerning the unmoved mover in
cosmology, followed by three chapters on the soul, with a few comments on how it
instantiates general principles concerning the unmoved mover, and how it is itself actual-
ized in animal bodies. Only in the last two chapters of the work does Aristotle deal
specifically with such things as pneuma, which are specific to animal bodies. Nussbaum
suggests that the references to cosmology constitute an application of the principles of
the cosmological domain to that of animals, in violation of the methodology of Posterior
Analytics, presaging a more flexible inter-disciplinary Aristotelian approach. But in fact
the first four chapters of De Motu Animalium discuss animal motion and cosmology only
insofar as they shed light on the principles of change, in much the same spirit as these
same topics are discussed in Physics VIII (see Kung, 1982). What we find in De Motu
Animalium is an inductive discussion of appropriate principles of motion, drawing from
two separate areas of application.
The gloss on continuity given here will strike the modern reader as careless. Infinite
divisibility does not suffice for continuity: to be continuous a thing must be free of internal
gaps, and infinite divisibility does not secure that, since an expanse that contains some
continuous parts will be infinitely divisible even if it has internal gaps. However, it is
unlikely that Aristotle knew that these two conceptions were non-equivalent: he some-
times uses the no-gap criterion to define the continuous (e.g., in Phys. V 3, 227a10-13
and Cat. 6, 5al-14), and at other times the infinite divisibility criterion (Phys. VI 1,
231b14-18: note that this reference appears to use both definitions as if they were
Mathematically, a curved n-dimensional space implies the existence of an n + 1th

dimension, which could be thought of as 'completing' the n-dimensions in the sense of

being somehow implied by the curvature in n dimensions. Thus the curvature of three-
dimensional space in relativistic geometry requires completion. But this sort of mathema-
tical concept is not what Aristotle was after, in our view, as is evidenced by the allusion
to self-subsistence in our passage.
Aristotle's own usage is not always as clear as one would like concerning the distinction
between body-as-extension and discrete body; sometimes this is because the lack of a
Greek indefinite article makes for a lack of clarity. Thus at Physics III 5, 204b5-6, he
says, "by definition body is what is bounded by surface", but fifteen lines later he says,
"body is that which has extension in all [dimensions]". One would like to say that in the
first context he is speaking of individual discrete body, and in the second of body as
continuous magnitude. It would have been easier to make the distinction explicit if the
indefinite article had been available for insertion into the first statement.
See Physics II, 4-6, for Aristotle's discussion of chance and spontaneity.
See Spergel and Turok (1992) for an application of this idea to cosmology.
The phrase we translate "of the parts that it has in virtue of its form" has been
misinterpreted since Simplicius. The Greek phrase is ton kat' eidos autou morion. Simplic-
ius suggests that the maria or natural parts of the totality must be the five elements taken
as wholes (Heiberg, 1893, 11.27-30). Following Simplicius's explanation, the phrase is
almost always rendered as "formally distinct parts". Presumably this means, 'parts distinct
from one another in form'. But this does not give a good account of the Greek. The
adjectival phrase kat' eidos autou - 'in virtue of its form' - is in attributive position and
must modify 'parts'. As well, the possessive pronoun in this phrase is singular; in the
context, it seems clear that it refers to the totality. Thus the natural reading is 'parts of
the totality in virtue of the form of the totality'.
This condition was later at the heart of a controversy concerning the Ptolemaic system,
which violates this Aristotelian principle by positing eccentric orbits and epicycles. As
Shlomo Pines (1986) puts it:
In Ibn al-Haitham's time [the eleventh century], the opinion that many of the spheres,
figuring in Ptolemy's theories, were imaginary "circles" having no physical existence,
was wide-spread among the astronomers, being held among others by al-Biruni, and
most of them seemed resigned to this state of affairs. Ibn al-Haitham was not . . . . It
is clear from several passages that in his view astronomical science, in order to be
valid, must deal with real bodies, and not with imaginary ones, however convenient
the latter may be from the point of view of mathematical theory. In this respect he is
a forerunner of the Aristotelian Spanish philosophers of the 12th century who brought
about a crisis in science by pointing out that the Ptolemaic system is incompatible with
physical science and must, because of this fact, be rejected.
Cf. Diogenes I 21; Galen, On Antecedent Causes, Chap. 7.
It is misleading to suggest that Aristotle thought that the cosmos is an organism. This
becomes clear in Aristotle's discussion of the natural places of the heavens (Cael. II 2).
There are six natural places in organisms: up and down, left and right, front and back;
and since the heavens are alive, these directions can be defined for the heavens. However,
the terms up and down are defined in a different way with respect to organisms than
they are in the cosmos; they mark particular directions in organisms, not directions along
radii arrayed in all directions.
See Matthen (1989) for discussion of this point and further references.


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Department of Philosophy
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alb. T6G 2E5

Department of Philosophy
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712-1180