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Generation and Corruption


This commentary on Generation and Corruption is much like the ones which came
before but I have made greater use of Thomas Aquinas and Avecebron. But both authors
I have used by way of interpretation -I imply neither that I agree or disagree with them
but infact I remain neutral and judgment-free of both authors and all religious positions,
making use of these authors merely to help interpret Aristotle. And to interpret an
author is to essentially take a neutral/judgement-free stance towards his work only
looking to find the most plausible interpretation for the student's use.
Unfortunately this text is one of the simplest but also the murkiest to interpet because
often the simplest things are given to multiple interpretations and ambiguities. For
example, the term "good" can have many meanings, though at first it seems to be the
simplest idea. So too with "change" and its many shades and I would be the first to point
out, that at least some of my interpretations of Aristotle's words here are lacking.
Also bolded numbers refer to chapers, which I think are more or less variable according
to the different editions of Aristotle's works, but Bekker numbers are everywhere to give
an objective reference for the student/reader.
Distinctions Between Alteration, Generation and Corruption

The question Aristole pursues in this treatise is, "what is alteration and does it exist?".
Also it is about coming to be and passing away in general -the substantial changes -as
opposed to "motions" discussed in his Physics. More specifically, is coming to be/passing
away the same as alteration (314a 5) -the same as a change in the position and/or
disposition of parts/particles?

Aristotle already in his Physics talked of the continuity and eternity of coming-to-be. It
seems he was making alteration identical with generation, supposing one to be classified
as continuous and the other to be classified as "coming-to-be". However here he also
mentions the importance of elements in that, if they are distinct things then what is
made from them, seem to come-to-be, & not merely alter, for if fire and earth combine
one or the other is substantially changed not merely altered. However, what sense this
makes, I don't know for the elements are contrary and no substance is contrary, and
elements (e.g. fire, water, air) are indeed individual substances. If this is true, then
substances cannot be made of other substances for then, one would be predicated of
each other, as was ruled out by Aristotle in his Cateogries. Also, do not elements come
to be too, for Aristotle will later mention elements morphing into other elements, but
yet, that would mean elements are not really basic, that is, not really elemental, for they
too require elements? But this problem could be solved by saying that infact, there is
only one element. Yet if there is only one element surely things made from it come to be
no less, for the only alternative would be a mere alteration -a mere rearragnement of
the single element or modification of its qualities -and not generation or corruption?
I believe the student must remain satisfied with this one particular explanation, which I
acknowledge to be totally unsatisfactory, namely that the elemental substances combine
into each other however, in combining one is generated the other corrupted so that
there is no predication of substance with substance except virtually/potentially. Likewise
the elements do not come from each other actually, but potentially and all springing
from prime matter, which is pure potential, it follows that elements do not come to be
from elements but from pure potential which is akin to nothing at all. But of course, I
fully understand the equivocallness and sophistry of such an interpretation yet I find that
if it is not a correct answer it at least is an answer which will be superceded by a better
one hopefully.

Aristotle makes two claims: if coming to be is association (as other thinkers say) then
impossibilities result and if coming to be is not association - that is, does not result from
the association and dissassociation of particles -then either there is no coming to be or
all things are alteration which is equally absurd (315b 20).

Antinomies of Infinite Divisiblity

Before we continue it would be good to erase any misconceptions which some

interpreters have made regarding Aristotle's views on the possibility of the infinite
divisibility of magnitudes. Far from claiming that this division was possible & potential
but never actual, Aristotle really argued against this, writing that if something could be
divided infinitely, then it would eventually be so -as per the fact that the concepts of
potential and actual are correlatives and if it is true that a thing is antecedently potential
then it must become consequently, actual: (316b 20) "On the one hand, then, it is in no
way paradoxical that every perceptible body should be indivisible as well as divisible
at any and every point. For the second predicate will attach to it potentially but the
first actually. On the other hand, it would seem to be impossible for a body to be, even
potentially, divisible at all points simultaneously. For if it were possible, then it might
actually occur..." And indeed, if it could occur and did occur, then there would be an
actually infinite body, which is against Aristotle's views in Physics, though he does not
make this argument.

Now at (316b 15), Aristotle untangles the matter, saying that a thing divided to infinity
would either be all points in which case, how could something be combined into a
continuous whole through indivisible points (since points being indivisible, have no parts
which combine)? Yet it seems, extraordinarily enough, that this argument does not
nearly go as far as it should for Aristotle, and results in Aristotle concluding, in not so
many words, that all matter is constituted of either finite magnitudes -smallest parts of
arbitrary size, the least of which is not a point -or a finite number of indivisible points.
How can we understand this, for Aristotle would never rest on such a contradiction, for if
the points are indivisible then all things are a point, there being no parts at which
overlap, and so conjunction, cannot occur; while if all were magnitudes these are
arbitrary, for why cannot these magnitudes not be divided ever smaller still? And indeed,
if Aristotle believed in such magnitudes -the smallest things of which a thing is made
(e.g. the smallest piece of flesh or droplette of water/air) and which can be no smaller
without losing the form of that flesh, air, etc. then he really cannot hold to the reality of
corruption and generation for in the cases of air, water, and other homogeneous
substances, there will always be some of these things left over, implying that they do not
or do only partially corrupt!
So how can the student resolve these problems? As usual I think it requires
distinguishing, as we did in The Physics, between the so-called "quantum" level of
Aristotle's physical world and the macro-level. So for instance, note Aristotle's wordings
in multiple places, at (316b 30), "...the process of dividing a body part by part is not a
'breaking up' which could continue ad infinitum; nor can a body be simultaneously
divided at every point, for that is not possible; but there is a limit, beyond which the
'breaking up' cannot proceed..." Here it seems Aristotle is assigning a limit to the division
itself of a body and even a limit to the extent of how far it may be described as a
"breaking up" -implying some qualitative inadequacy in the phrase. My italics indicate
exactly what I believe to be the problematic terms. For it seems that Aristotle was
drawing attention to the difference between division -an act which can only take place
continuously/successively and over the continuous with "breaking-up" which is a
discrete separation. We can infer from these terms and our knowledge of The Physics,
that Aristotle is implying that no body can be divided into the "quantum" level -for this
would require division of the discrete/non-continuous. Secondly at (317 b 5), "For since a
point is not 'immediately next' to point, magnitudes are 'divisible through and through'
in one sense, and yet not in another." This is the main point, & here Aristotle offers up a
sort of differentia/differentiating term which annuciates the essence of the fallacy, by
using the word "immediately". For if things are immediately next to each other as we
saw in the Physics, it is generally the case that they are organically
connected/continuous. Aristotle expounds on this point by writing, "When, however, it is
admitted that a magnitude is 'divisible through and through', it is thought there is a
point not only anywhere but also everywhere in it..." which of course leads to our first
contradiction, but the reality/actuality of points/contacts or of continuum is unnecessary
for, "...there are not more points than one anywhere within it, for the points are not
'consecutive': hence it is not simultaneously 'divisible through and through...for position
is not 'immediately-next' to position, nor point to point...", that is, the places/spaces
which are the parts of the thing are not connected together in a touching of parts (for
then the acutality of discrete points -points of touch -would be realized) but exist in a
continual arrangement which are not connected by joints between discrete wholes, but
are wholly "organic" in as much as it is an undivided, motionless, whole.
For in general we might say that the realm of generation/corruption/change is
explained by the organic/continuous whole while of the discrete, while the realm of
motion/physics is explained by discrete "quata" but is of the organic/continuous whole
& further these opposite intentions are also opposite realities. Further, they are opposite
realities which exist on condition of each other: If movement happens in one part of a,
then non-movement happens from the view-point of the whole of a. So in sum, the
continuity of an object requires that it be divisible only up to a limit because each
part/space/place in matter is such only to receive the specific nature of that part. The
continuum of matter is therefore divisible down to these parts at which time, the laws of
material continua give way to the laws of discrete "quanta". But "quanta" and organic
wholes are never separate realities, but merely two opposite states of matter existing by
the efficient cause of opposite but reciprocal motions and changes.

3 In What Way Does Something "Come From Nothing"?

Does unqualified coming to be/passing away exist? that is coming to be from non-
being and not from a particular being/non-being? i.e. the way birth is unqualified and
growth is qualified? This question is tackled at (316a 35). Now unqualified coming-to-be
cannot occur unqualifiedly, as Aristotle explains, or else being would come from non-
being, that is, something would come from nothing unqualifiedly.

Aristotle poses, then three questions/problems challenging even the existence of

qualified unqualified coming-to-be: (1) if it happens then it happens from the
substratum/matter which is acted on by elements. Therefore things will come-to-be
from this potential-but-not-in-anyway-actual thing which is to say to come to be from
nothing. (2) If things come not from this nothing/prime matter then they can only come
from determinate seperate qualities -qualities that exist as separate substantial
individuals. But qualities are not substances so this is impossible. (3) The nothing, the
potential matter, will be a thing without determinate qualities.
Here we might digress to offer two criticisms of Aristotle's definition/description of
prime matter: (a) that it is a purely intential phenonmenon -it takes the place in
Aristotle's philosophy of the "forms" in Plato's philosophy by the fallacy of considering
the being necessary in one's thought as a being which is necessary extra-mentally, that
is, as a logical truth posited as a metaphysical/ontological truth. There is no reason why
we should think that Prime Matter should exist anymore than we should think -like
Avecebron - that angels were composed of matter and form (since as pure substances
they contain no matter), since they cannot be understood apart from these categories.
But of course, I don't consider my dissent on the matter final. My second objection is
that prime matter is not really anything according to its definition, for something
without act, as such and abstrated away from the contingent acts of the forms
impressed upon it, is nothing. Perhaps Aristotle can avoid this problem by positing that
prime matter is potential but actually so, yet this seems like the verbal quibble that
nothing is also "something". Or that nothing can be really nothing.

The Reciprocity of Change & It's Two Types

Ultimately, at (319b) Aristotle decides that unqualified coming to be (in it's qualified
form) is from qualified non-being and vice versa, but then where does qualified non-
being come from? If from a being, then is all death qualified, because according to the
supposition that all coming-to-be is qualified, just as all corruption is qualified, death
would have to be a becoming in some sense? Aristotle did not take up this point and
perhaps it would be better stated that he did not hold that unqualified generation could
fall into qualified non-being -though according to our experience this happens all the
time: as when someone gets injured.

In general chemical combination is not something which occurs in any way. Some
atoms combine with others in differing ways: covalent bonds, ionic bonds, etc. Whereas
some atoms bond together into different things -organic molecules, or metalic plates, or
crystal structures. That is, chemical generation and corruption is heterogeneous and so it
would not be surprising if Aristotle recognized only some affectations and orientations
among generation itself and others for corruption. In this way, I hypothesize that
Aristotle could avoid the above objection that death -which is a corruption -is only
qualified non-existence and that which springs from qualified non-existence eventually
returns to it; for one might be only active and other only passive.

Why is Change Continuous?

Also, Aristotle decides that the matter of a thing (e.g. earth, fire, etc.), and its
perceptibility are the reasons why certain things -for instance fire -are said to come to be
from nothing (e.g. air) but not conversely. The generation of one thing, upon the
corruption of another, is necessary for the circularity of change which is Aristotle's way
of explaining, just how change seems to happen indefinitely yet the prime matter is
never exhausted. But how is it that unqualified change occurs; we have already seen
how a change from ignorant to learned can happen (qualitative change), but not how
birth or death happens (substantial change).
The above argument from perception -that a thing really changes based on our
sensible perception of it changing -may be especially bothersome to the modern
Cartesian doubt; how could Aristotle be so naive to believe the mere perception was
enough to define the essences of qualified and unqualified coming-to-be? This objection
forgets however, that for Aristotle, perception was per se, infallible. It was only when the
mind-body whole/person judged the perceived that fallibility was possible but the bodily
senses themselves were transparent windows into the sensory world.

Aristotle's Linguistic Argument for the Reality of Substantial Change

Amazingly, Aristotle here simply explains the reality of substantial change by a resort to
words -for according to the Categories, substance by definition undergoes unqualified
changes -there is no "more" or "less" in the category of substance so any change must
be one that conserves or destroys or gives birth to substance. Likewise for qualities -by
definition a quality cannot change except qualifiedly -according to how a qualified non-
being (like blue) changes into another qualified non-being (like red).

Here Aristotle proves that the substratum of change -the prime matter -is not a
property of a thing but rather its material cause. This follows by definition, for take a
thing like water, and allow it to change into air, and what remains, the coldness or the
transparency, is a thing different in defintion from both, and therefore a separate
property conserved in the change but not the material substance of the thing, water,
which has changed. The case is reversed in alteration. Take for example a man who
changes from musical to non-musical, obviously his definition as the
subject/substratum/substance means that the change happened to his properties.
Therefore this change is defined as alteration.

Aristotle Differentiates Between Nutrition and Growth

Here at (320a 10) Aristotle decides that growth happens differently from nutrition.
Growth implies partial change of place -for the growing thing expands the place it
occupies. Therefore this unique quality must be accounted for. Aristotle says that
nutrition occurs through the transformation of food into flesh by unlike (the food)
countering like (the animal) however, he also says that growth is different from nutrition
being an expansion and not a maintenance of the organism. Therefore growth proceeds
not from food but from quantified food which is alloted by the body to its quantified
place. In such way a body grows everywhere at once according to form/proportion but
not all at once uniformly. Aristotle compares a growing body to a flowing river where
water may be increased but the river maintains its general shape or form.

Discourse on the Efficient Causes of Combination & Disassociation

In chapter six, (322b 5) Aristotle decides about action and passion and combination. So
he says he will have to decide about contact and touching since no action and passion
can exist without them. Aristotle says that the determination of contact occurs only
through things with place and those things which have place proper -moving things.
Touching according to Aristotle happens in two ways: (1) by the unmoved mover who is
above all categories and touches without being touched, moves without being moved
and (2) the opposite which applies to all other movers and touchers. In this Aristotle is
only being consistent with his account of touching things in physics.
Continuing chapter 6, at (323a 15) Aristotle declares that just as the first mover is
unmoved so is the first agent, who is the second mover/agent, necessarily moved and
touched through touching. He also declares that things are acted upon through a
combination of likeness and unlikeness: due to common matter and due to unlike forms.
However the objection remains: if things are unlike they cannot act on each other and if
things are like they also cannot act as two positive magnets repulse each other. And the
forms are different yet the matters are like, so nothing should be capable of acting even
on this account. However as Aristotle says the form cannot act only the efficient cause
(agent) can act likewise the matter is passive so this objection is inherently false.
Likewise for the objection that the combination of like and unlike/dissolution of unlike
and unlike is unresolved for their forms & matters don't act. Yet, when things combine,
granted they are agent and patient, still this ignores away the problem of how they
combine, which is what must be solved. They combine by someway: does the like
combine with like? How, since perfectly same things are like parallel lines -their
sameness prevents combination -and they are inert to each otehr. Does unlike
disassociate with unlike? How? The unlike is like to itself and so should associate or even
disassociate with itself, and indeed, unlike should not be with unlike to begin with if
unlike is repellent/like is attractive, much less disassociate with unlike...these and other
chemical problems do not seem answerable. Perhaps it is best to solve these problems
along lines similar to our previous difficulties on generation and corruption, by saying
that anything is never fully like or unlike, never fully passive or active, but rather is
always potentially so depending on whether it is corrupting or generating.

Like Affects Like...Or Does It?

At chapter 7 (323b 5) Aristotle determines that like is not affected by like nor unlike by
unlike, for these are not contraries but contradictories and so cannot affect each other,
but rather affectation is by contaries in species which have one genus (and all species
have some common genus). So therefore, action-passion can happen only between
contraries. Of course this book is not about motions but about changes so does Aristotle
mean to say that the same applies to change, though no change is contrary? Also, do
different velocities of different natures ever really affect each other since this would
produce a compound velocity and compound nature which is a solecism -how can one
thing have both a tendency up and down? Or one thing with a tendency towards what is
fitting for nature A and also what is fitting for nature B? Unless nature C is a compound
of both but it hardly seems correct to call what is a compound "natural" for it would
have two natures...

Can it be that all these problems in generation and corruption are resolved by realizing
what Aristotle already wrote, namely that all generation and corruption is becoming,
and all becoming is instantaneous and therefore, problems which refer to agent and
patient, time, continuity, etc. are not problems at all? On the other hand, Aristotle does
allow for discrete agents and patients; the first mover for instance, so this does not seem
to be a good answer. Yet again we will have to content ourselves by saying with Aristotle,
that some qualities are subsumed into potentiality while other remain actual and that
some qualities are dominant over others.

Difference Between Combination and Mixture -Combination Further Analyzed

At chapter 10, (327a 35) Aristotle goes on to discuss three arguments against the reality
of combination: combination cannot happen for either both or one of the elements
combined is destroyed. Therefore there is no per se combination only the destruction of
one or other elements. Aristotle answers that the combination of two bodies is only
relative and assuming one body is destroyed, the other not, then we can say that of the
compound, it is potentially the destroyed and actually the existing body. Indeed,
because compounds have this duality -being potentially other than their actual existence
-it is possible for the compound to be different than the elements composed of it.
Aristotle says that combination only happens when literally every part of A is
juxtaposed to every part of B. He also characterizes such a mix as preserving the same
ratio between the whole and the parts as between the parts with each other. But
Aristotle then says that this mixing is not the same as combination, for combination does
not leave, two actual bodies side by side, but subsumes one into the other, making one
potential and the other actual. Therefore this juxtaposition is merely mixing.

Differences in Degrees of Passivity

Note that Aristotle defines that different elements have differing degrees of passivity
or what I call material resistance or material resistance to change. At (326 b 30) Aristotle
notes that the supposed "veins" of susceptibility in metals are an instance of such
degress for, "...it's susceptibility varies in degree, according as it is more or less such-and-
such...". I believe this also illustrates that Aristotle might have viewed generation and
corruption to be set more towards one direction than another, much like our modern
entropy theory.

Aristotle then further says that when two things combine, depending on their
potencies, there is either a mix or one becomes the other and this can only happen
when both are such as to act and be acted upon.

Thus it is clear that mixing does take place, not inspite of smallness but because of
smallness for a small drop of wine when dropped into a lake is transformed into a
certain quantity of water.


Aristotle then inquires about Prime Matter: the prime matter is not separable from
bodies but it can be distinguished from them (329a 25). There is never any prime matter
without it being determined to a single form.

Elements and Their Properties

Aristotle lays, down at (330a 25), the sources of the different elements. For Aristotle
the hot and cold, moist and dry are active and passive, whereas some other sources are
not. These sources are Aristotle's forces, for hot and cold are the active and moist and
dry the passive and these are abstractly defined so that hot/dry are identified with
dissassociation per se and cold/moist are likewise identified with association. Of course
the hot and the cold are not actually or concretely supposed by Aristotle to be the
substantial forms of fire or ice, etc. For these qualities may inhere in other things than
fire and ice and so cannot be the forms of fire or ice as Thomas Aquinas commented. But
Aristotle mentioned them by way of casting them in the roles of essential properties
which imply the substantial form.

Aristotle gives a list at (330a 35) of the different moist/dry hard/soft fine/coarse
distinctions and contrarieties. He also would not be surprised that some things could be
hard, yet brittle since the two are not the same according to him. Indeed these latter are
not even well related to temperature which is something that is foreign to modern
views. But Aristotle would be puzzled at the properties of plastic objects.

Aristotle, in chapter 3 then distributes these differences amongst the apparently (his
italics @ 330b 5) simple bodies. What he meant by "apparently" we shall see in the next
Aristotle then at (330b 25) elaborates on elements: they are defined par excellence by
single qualities e.g. earth by dryness rather than coolness though earth is both dry and
cool. Aristotle seems to state that the elements are not the simple bodies (Fire, Air, etc.)
but the qualities which are in them for these qualities are not actual things (and
therefore cannot be separated qualities) but are mere properties or habits for "the hot"
according to Aristotle is just the excess of dryness. So fire is not the simple body -fire is
just the excess of dryness in the simple element which is dryness. But dryness is not an
element but a habit, and so a quality. So then too it must be the excess of that which, in
the thing as an accident or part, that causes dryness which is the element and so on for
coolness and etc. Of course Aristotle does not reach the latter conclusion (directly) and it
is just my interpretation.

How Change May Itself Be Generated and Destroyed

Is it possible for change itself to generate or corrupt? It seems possible in so much as

acceleration or better yet, because more abstract and universalizable, the derivative of a
curve, are both types of "change of change". Also, change as something that happens
instantly, there is an infinity of instants in one instant, so then there is nothing to stop
change happening infintely. Then cyclical generation and corruption of change/motion is
possible in so much as motion is a type of change. But does this generation and
corruption require prime matter and how can there be matter of habits like "change" or
"motion" since these are not substantial things but rather qualities of things?
But insomuch as prime matter is not a thing but the pre-requisite of things, then
change and motion are neither things apart from the things-which-change, (the subjects
of change) which individually and concretely exist -though perhaps these ideas are
seperable in thought only. Then let us establish two thesis with which Aristotle may (if
he were living) agree and which will help us round out our understandings of his text:
First Thesis: that prime matter can only undergo alteration and never generation or
corruption and Second Thesis: that generation and corruption can occur infinitely in a
circle and are the very alterations of prime matter, and at the same time are the
generations of A and the corruptions of B and even the alterations and motions of A and

4 The Elements All Generate and Corrupt into Each Other -At Least Indirectly

(331a 10) Here Aristotle establishes that not all elements can come from each other but
since each combines directly it follows that each also combines indirectly (e.g. If Air
combines with Fire and Water with Air, then Air combines with Fire) and therefore it
happens that all elements do come from each other.

Aristotle mentions that the intermediate is a result of the combination of contraries

and so mixing/combination happens only between contraries. (334b 30)

Circularity of Generation and Corruption
Aristotle finally notes that the reason why things are not all in place is due to the
reciprocal chemical transformation of all things which is prompted by the first mover.
(338a 5)

Summary of Aristotle's Physical Theory:

It appears that motion is distinguishable from change -the latter being discrete,
qualitative, and substantial (though not always substantial), while the former is
continuous and of the continuous and results in changes of place. But though mentally
distinguishable they are not physically separable -change in A requires motion of B and
movement of A requires rest of B. Likewise the combinations, and separations of some
thing "x", occurs by changes and/or motions so that x takes on two different but
inseparable states from two different view-points, the indefinitely tiny discrete-view and
the macro-continuum view. But of these motions the motion of the first mover is the
one that serves as the measure of them all, though not all motions may be
commensurable just as the unit in mathematics, serves as the measure of all numbers,
though not all numbers are commensurable with it or just as finite and an infinite sets
may have their elements yet related to each other finitely.This allows us to conclude that
change and motion themselves corrupt and generate each other in circular fashion and
the instances of these changes occur most singularly in the corruptions and generations
of the elements out of each other.

Takeaway Quote:
the process of dividing a body part by part is not a 'breaking up' which could continue ad
infinitum; nor can a body be simultaneously divided at every point, for that is not
possible; but there is a limit, beyond which the 'breaking up' cannot proceed.

Study Questions:
1) Does Aristotle believe in the infinite division of bodies?
2) If becoming is instantaneous, does that imply that generation and corruption must be
and if so, does this greatly complicate Aristotle's account of generation and corruption?
3) What arguments does Aristotle give for the existence of Prime Matter and do you
agree with them?
4) Does change only happen in one direction -you can break something but not unbreak
it -on your view of Aristotle? Is there any principle in matter or in the definition of the
universe which affects your conclusions?