I recently posted the penultimate version of my ‘Metaphysics as the First Philosophy‘, forthcoming in a volume edited by Ed Feser: Aristotle on Method and Metaphysics (Palgrave Macmillan). I don’t think that Palgrave has officially announced the volume yet, but I guess I can reveal some of the other contributors; they include Robert Bolton, Stephen Boulter, David Charles, Kathrin Koslicki, David S. Oderberg, E. J. Lowe, Gyula Klima, and others — so it’s a pretty impressive volume! This is in Palgrave Macmillan’s Philosophers in Depth series. (I’ve also contributed to the Spinoza on Monism volume in this series.)
Aristotle talks about ‘the first philosophy’ throughout Metaphysics -– and it is metaphysics that Aristotle considers to be the first philosophy -– but he never makes it entirely clear what first philosophy consists of. What he does make clear is that the first philosophy is not to be understood as a collection of topics that should be studied in advance of any other topics. In fact, Aristotle seems to have thought that the topics of Metaphysics are to be studied after those in Physics. In what sense could metaphysics be the first philosophy in the context of contemporary metaphysics? This is the question examined in my chapter. Contemporary topics such as fundamentality, grounding, and ontological dependence are considered as possible ways to understand the idea of first philosophy, but I argue that the best way to understand it is in terms of essence.
Another, related thing that I wanted to mention. My Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics volume was recently reviewed in NDPR by Robert C. Koons, as I’ve mentioned. Koons briefly criticised mine and Lowe’s approach to metaphysical modality, noting that it may be closer to Plato’s than Aristotle’s. Alexander Pruss has developed an alternative approach to modality in his recent book, which Koons mentioned, but I can’t comment on that as I haven’t read the book (yet, it’s waiting on my shelf though). An observant reader (John) commented that this may not be quite accurate. John notes that In Book Theta there are suggestions to the effect that actuality is ontologically prior to capacity or possibility, and the line that myself and Lowe (and, of course, Kit Fine) take regarding the ontological priority of essence over modality doesn’t directly conflict with that.
I have a couple of things to say about this. I already mentioned something about this in comments, but I thought it would be useful to dedicate a post to the issue, since it’s quite central to my research. I discuss these matters, albeit briefly, in the first philosophy paper, and I’ve made use of relevant passages below.
Firstly, there is a certain tension between the idea that essence precedes existence (which entails that possibility precedes actuality), and what we see especially in the Posterior Analytics, but I believe that there’s an explanation to this, which is Aristotle’s peculiar conception of ‘species’, i.e. that they are eternal. From my discussions especially with Kathrin Koslicki and some others who know their Aristotle better than I do (like my colleague Mika Perälä here in Helsinki), it seems that it may not be unreasonable to revise the Aristotelian picture somewhat. This contrasts with the views of some Aristotle scholars. In a paper from the 70s (‘Essentialism and Semantic Theory in Aristotle’, The Philosophical Review 85:4), Robert Bolton suggests that, for Aristotle, knowledge of existence typically precedes knowledge of essence. Bolton’s case is based on his reading of the Posterior Analytics (especially 93a16–24). For instance, Aristotle discusses whether someone could know what a goatstag is, but denies that this is possible -– even though one may know what the name signifies -– since goatstags do not exist (92b4–8).
The reason why this may not be as serious as it first seems is that Aristotle holds only species to have essences (Metaphysics 1030a11–17); and, like I said, that species are eternal (e.g. Generation of Animals, 731b24–732a1). We can now see that, for Aristotle, there could never be an essence of a non-existent thing, such as a goatstag, for Aristotle thinks that there could be no such thing. Therefore, if we were to share the Aristotelian conception of species, we would indeed have to agree with him that there is no goatstag essence. Surely, only things that could possibly exist can have essences, and since there are no actual goatstags, Aristotle regards them to be impossible in this sense. Aristotle does not use these exact terms, but we can perhaps take Aristotle’s notion of actuality to correspond with what I am here calling existence. Similarly, my use of possibility roughly corresponds with Aristotle’s potentiality. Accordingly, we can formulate the idea at hand as follows: actuality precedes potentiality. It follows that this peculiar doctrine may be an artefact of the Aristotelian conception of species, although this brief analysis is hardly conclusive.
In his review of my book, Koons also makes the following claim regarding Aristotle’s position:
Epistemologically speaking, there is no clear priority in either direction. Instead, there is a dialectical interplay between our knowledge of the possible and of the actual.
In fact, I also subscribe to this view, at least if we specify it a little bit. That’s because I think that even though essence, or possibility, has ontological priority in individual examples, scientific and philosophical inquiry in general proceed in such a way that our knowledge of possibility is constantly being complemented by our knowledge the actual. I’ve described this process in my earlier papers on the relationship between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, and coined it ‘the bootstrapping relationship’.