Following the Footprints of Aristotle: On Kosman's The Activity of Being

[The following is the text of my remarks on Aryeh Kosman’s book: The Activity of Being: An Essay on Aristotle’s Ontology for the special book session to be held at Villanova University on Sunday, March 16th at the Pennsylvania Circle of Ancient Philosophy conference.]

Aristotle’s thinking is peripatetic. It moves along paths, some of which are well-worn, others newly cleared by the creative elasticity of his thinking. It pursues questions by traversing along a course for a stretch, on the scent of truth itself, but when it finds its way impeded, it is unafraid to turn around, return to the start, or even to cut a new path of its own to navigate a hindrance, to find a way to around an aporia.

To read Aristotle well is to cultivate something of that peripatetic elasticity of mind; it is to learn to walk with him, without rushing; it is to tarry with his thinking and to patiently follow where it leads. To follow Aristotle in this way is no mindless passion, though perhaps it does involve a certain degree of suffering; rather to follow Aristotle requires a heightened activity of mind, an attuned awareness of the movement of thinking itself, and a willingness to follow where it leads. The practice of Aristotelian thinking habituates us to the activity of thinking itself, which is, in the end, the very place to which Aristotle’s thinking leads us: to the thinking of thinking thinking.


When walking with Aristotle, it is advisable to bring friends along, and whenever possible, a guidebook. There is no better companion to ask than Aryeh Kosman, for he has dedicated a lifetime to walking with Aristotle, and there is no better guidebook than his, The Activity of Being: An Essay on Aristotle’s Ontology. The best guides are pious, for they respect the terrain as much as the landscape. There is, at the heart this book, a deep and abiding piety, which Aryeh himself emphasizes when he claims to read “Aristotle with a worshipful hermeneutical eye” (xii). His approach combines the disciplinary patience of a disciple with the candor and critical attentiveness of a trusted friend. The stated purpose of his book “is simply to try to make clear what [Aristotle] is saying” (xiii). This enterprise should thus to be understood as an attempt, a kind of assaying – it bears, after all, the subtitle “an essay on Aristotle’s ontology.”

The book is, in fact, an essay in the sense Oakeshott associates with philosophical reflection.

Philosophical reflection is recognized here as the adventure of one who seeks to understand in other terms what he already understands …. Its most appropriate expression is an essay where the character of the utterance (a traveller’s tale) matches the character of the engagement, an intellectual adventure which has a course to follow but no destination. … It is, in short, a well-considered intellectual adventure recollected in tranquility. 1

The adventure Kosman’s essay recollects is that of Aristotle’s ontology, its tranquility informed by a lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of being in Aristotle. At the end of Metaphysics VII.1, that is to say, at the end of the chapter that begins Aristotle’s deepest, most perplexing and rewarding investigation into the question of being, Aristotle himself articulates the course the quest for being must follow: “And indeed, in early times, now and always, the inquiry, indeed always the perplexity concerning what being is (ti to on) is just this: ‘what is ousia?’” 2

If Oakeshott is right and the philosophical essay seeks to understand in other terms what has already somehow been understood, we might take this passage as itself a kind of assaying, an attempt to articulate in other terms the question ‘what is being?’. The other term to which Aristotle points, ousia, is of course, as elusive and perplexing as the cognate it is said to replace. Ousia is the substantive form of einai, to be, of which on is the participle. The shift from the participial articulation of the verb to its expression as a substantive noun seems, on the surface, to shift our focus from activity to thing. This impression is surely reinforced by the Latin into which ousia was translated, substantia, and by which it found its way into English as ‘substance’.

Kosman suggests, and rightly, that “the choice of substance as the primary mode of being is not as arbitrary and tendentious as it sounds … It is [ousia’s] translation as substance that is the tendentious move” (256n3). This can be heard, however, only if we attend to the word in its ancient sense, as what is most one’s own–not only one’s property, though also that–but more significantly, the conditioned habits of being what one really is. 3 Heidegger is helpful in this regard: “What is characteristic of the customary meaning is that not only does it express a being, but a being in the how of its being.” 4 Thus, the direction to which Aristotle points at the beginning of his inquiry into being is toward a being in the how of its being, toward a determinate being doing what it does, being what it is – ousia.

And yet, although this is the direction in which Kosman intends to follow Aristotle in order to demonstrate how ousia is further and decisively determined as energeia, that is, as a being-at-work “best construed,” Kosman suggests, “as activity,” nevertheless, he retains “substance” as a translation of ousia because it “has by now acquired such authority in its own right that it would be a mistake to abandon it” (x). Here, however, Kosman’s hermeneutical eye seems perhaps too reverent, not of Aristotle, but of a misleading tradition of translation, however authoritative it has become. This deference to tradition is somewhat surprising insofar as Kosman in a number of other places rejects traditional renderings of Aristotelian terms precisely in order to understand in other words the dynamic thinking of Aristotle himself.

Indeed, it would not be hyperbolic to suggest that the entire essay depends upon the rejection of the traditional translations of energeia and dunamis as actuality and potentiality, respectively. These translations, Kosman reminds us, “lead us to think of realization as the making actual of a possibility.” But this, he goes on to say, “obscures what is fundamental in Aristotle,” which is that “the paradigmatic realization is the exercise of a capacity” (viii). Rather than actuality and potentiality, Kosman rightly insists upon activity as the translation for energeia, and ability or capacity for dunamis. This shift in translation requires a shift in thinking away from an understanding of being as an entity, toward being as an activity. In attending to such subtle questions of translation, Kosman remains true to Aristotle’s legomenological method, that is, to his recognition that the ways we speak about being provide access to the nature of being itself. 5

By shifting our ways of saying energeia and dunamis Kosman brings us further along the path Aristotle’s own thinking travelled, for activity and ability direct our attention to ousia as the how of being, the manner in which it is at work being what it is.

But if this shift in the manner in which being is said in English sets us effectively onto the path upon which Aristotle’s intellectual adventure in search of the meaning of being unfolds, it proceeds, if not to a destination, at least to an articulation of being as divine.

Divine Being

In turning, in the last third of the book, to the question of divine being, Kosman suggests a reversal that enables him to develop an account of how Metaphysics XII, where we encounter the unmoved mover and the divine nature of the thinking of thinking thinking, ought to be read in connection with the middle books of the Metaphysics, where we encounter perceptible ousia in all its rich complexity. This reversal involves a particular way of ascribing divinity to what is divine. Kosman puts it this way:

“Instead of imagining ourselves discovering what is divine and then coming to see it as the principle of being – of ousia – think instead of coming to see that which is the principle of being as, just because it is the principle of being, divine” (186).

This seemingly simple reversal of perspective, subtly shifts our attention to the divine nature of the natural world. It enables Kosman to read Metaphsyics XII not as an account of the divine sub specie aeternitatis, but as an account of the world sub specie divinitatis. Metaphysics XII is not an articulation of the divine from the perspective of eternity divorced from the vagaries of temporal existence, it is rather an articulation of ousia in a different register, under the aspect of divinity. Thus, Kosman insists that the proper path of thinking is precisely the path the Metaphysics traverses, namely, from the world to its divinity, and not from the nature of the divine into the world. The Metaphysics pursues the traces of the divine by attending to the manner in which beings are at work being what they are – an activity Aristotle calls ousia.

First Mover

Metaphysics XII, then, must be read as consistent with the middle books, but in the register of theology (186). Thus, in framing the discussion of the unmoved mover, Kosman insists: “Rather than attributing the role of the first mover to divinity, think instead of conferring divine status on that which is revealed to be the world’s motive principle …” (ibid.). This enables him to offer a compelling account of the continuity not only between the middle books of the Metaphysics and Metaphysics XII, but also of the strand of thinking about the first mover that connects the De Caelo, the Physics, and the Metaphysics.

Rather than falling into the traditional developmentalist reading that emerges from the notion that the first mover in the De Caelo is, unlike that found in the Physics and Metaphysics, itself in motion, Kosman proposes a more complex account in which “Aristotle’s first mover remains a self-mover” (194). He accomplishes this by arguing that the motive principle of the heaven described in the De Caelo ought best to be understood as the soul of the visible world of motion (200). Thus, Kosman suggests, because the first mover in the De Caelo is said to be the living principle of the heaven (De Caelo 1.9, 279a23-279b4), “[w]e may therefore speak of it as forming with the heaven what is in effect the soul and body of a single divine entity” (201).

Understanding the first mover of the De Caelo in this sense enables Kosman to point to its continuity with the position articulated in the Physics in which the first mover is said to be itself unmoved (Physics 8.6, 259b22-24). For Kosman, the emphasis on the unmoved nature of the first mover in the Physics is driven by the demands of that particular investigation, concerned as it is to give an account of natural motion. But this emphasis should not prevent us from recognizing a deeper continuity between the two texts, for there remains a sense in which the first mover in the De Caelo, understood as the soul of the world of motion, may itself be said to be unmoved in the sense required by the argument of the Physics.

A third shift in emphasis can be found, according to Kosman, in the Metaphysics, where the being of what is “unmoved” [akinēton] is further determined as an activity, energeia (205-6). Kosman puts it this way:

“The systematic redescription of unmoved substance as active substance — the replacement of the term akinēton by the term energeia — is not an abandonment of the requirement that the first mover be unmoved. What it discloses is the sense in which the first mover must be understood. For it is a principle that is unmoved in a deeper and more subtle sense than the simple akinēton may capture, the sense revealed in recognizing the divine principle of motion and being alike as substance that is activity” (206).

This attention to the various senses of the unmoved is deeply Aristotelian. With Kosman, we experience Aristotle’s thinking at-work being the elastic and dynamic thing it is. By tracing the contours of the activity of being in Aristotle, Kosman draws us into the very activity that is Aristotle’s thinking and opens a path for us to appreciate the significance of Aristotle’s most poignant formulation of the activity of thinking itself as divine.

Divine Thinking

Here again, we proceed in accordance with the reversal Kosman enacted earlier. If we were led to recognize the first mover as divine precisely insofar as it served as the principle of the world’s motion, here we are asked to attend to the nature of thinking as divine. Thus, Kosman writes: “instead of imagining a cardinal feature of god as awareness, think instead of coming to see the principle of the awareness we have of the world — of the consciousness that we know as nous — as for that very reason being divine” (186). To see the world sub specie divinitatis is not to posit god as the first principle of the world, but to see our awareness of the world itself, the very activity of being aware, as divine.

For Kosman, this is precisely a way of seeing, one that emerges for us as we follow his highly cultivated worshipful hermeneutical eye. Less clear, however, is whether we miss something vital about the activity of being if we see thinking as analogous to vision without also attending to the manner in which it comes to expression in the things Aristotle says. Kosman rightly insists that in order to understand the connection between thinking and divine being, we need to attend to how it “reveals itself” (214); but this revelation unfolds largely, but at important moments not exclusively, as an analogy with seeing.

Specifically, when Kosman turns his attention to Aristotle’s decisive formulation that thinking “if it is the most excellent, thinks itself and is the thinking of thinking thinking [hē noēsis noēseōs noēsis] (Metaphysics XII.9, 1074b33-4)” he does not attend to the texture of the articulation itself, but moves quickly to the analogy between knowing and the thing known in order to illustrate that this most provocative of formulations does not entail reflective self-awareness. In so doing, he moves perhaps too quickly from the thing Aristotle says here, for the point he wants to make with reference to knowing and the thing known is itself already heard in the very articulation of the words “hē noēsis noēseōs noēsis,” the thinking of thinking thinking.

Kosman, however, moves quickly and not without good reason, to the example Aristotle introduces immediately afterwards when he insists that there is a sense of understanding in which “understanding [epistēmē] is the thing [pragma].” The active identity between understanding and thing understood, epistēmē and pragma, helps us to see how it is possible for thinking to be identical with what its thought without becoming its own object. Kosman puts it this way: “it must reveal a mode of thinking in which there is no distinction between thinking and being thought, but in which thinking does not become its own object” (226).

Kosman further elucidates this mode of thinking by appealing to Aristotle’s account of our capacity for vision in the De Anima. Taking as his example the seeing of a red door, Kosman rightly reminds us that our ability to see the red door depends upon a cooperative activity between the visibility of the door and our human powers of vision. He writes:

“The correlative power enjoyed by my body and the door are exercised in the activity of vision, in which perception and its immediate object become one by virtue of the oneness of the activity that constitutes their mutual realizations: perceiving and being perceived (De Anima 3.2, 425b26). But while they do so, eye and door remain distinct” (227).

This detour through the economy of visual perceiving allows Kosman to return to the example of the active identity between epistēmē and pragma in order to suggest that this activity itself is not a simple act of self-reflection. “The pragma is nothing but the immediate object of understanding with which the understanding becomes one, and it therefore occupies the place in the economy of importance and value that is occupied in perception by the remote, that is, ultimate object of perception” (228).

Here Kosman is careful to tease out the significance of the analogy with vision for our understanding of divine thinking, but just as the powers of vision and understanding in their active identity with what is seen and understood don’t simply reflect upon themselves, so too the activity of thinking Aristotle calls divine is not simply reflective self-awareness. Indeed, here Kosman returns to the formulation itself — hē noēsis noēseōs noēsis — in order to emphasize that “[i]t signifies simply the internal self-presence that must characterize any act of cognition (whatever its object) insofar as it is an act of awareness” (230).

It is striking, however, that Kosman does not conclude his account of thinking as divine with this gesture to that awareness which conditions all acts of cognition. Rather, he goes on to emphasize the manner in which the formal principle of cognition is itself intentional, that is, the manner in which it touches upon the world in active awareness. Here Kosman takes recourse in the discussion of De Anima, book III, chapter four, where thinking is said to be apathēs, which points to its capacity, as Kosman puts it, “to become (without relinquishing its identity) whatever it takes as object” (231, De Anima, III.4, 429a21-2). This allows him to articulate consciousness as a power of receptivity, “a power of openness to determination by the other, given at once active being and determinacy by its intentional object” (231).

This move, however, to the receptivity of thinking, this turn to the world in order to articulate the dynamics of an activity capable of being determined without relinquishing its identity, is heard already in the very formulation Aristotle uses to give voice to divine thinking — hē noēsis noēseōs noēsis — the thinking of thinking thinking. The genitive in the middle gestures to the intentional openness Kosman’s account so beautifully articulates even as the repetition of the name for the activity itself reinforces the integrity of its identity. In the very articulation of the phrase itself, we can discern the trace of a capacity at work in the activity of being, an active capacity Kosman has described as emblematic of the nature of substance — ousia, an activity at once divine and mundane: “The emulation of divinity thus takes place in Aristotle’s view not only in the activity of thinking, but in the activity of reproduction as well, in the complex biological, social, and in our case, political and cultural acts by which substances pass on to their progeny the bounded activity of their mortal lives” (234).

Here then, we hear again, the degree to which this book is itself an essay, for as Lukács has said, “the essayist who is really capable of looking for the truth will find at the end of his road the goal he was looking for: life.” 6 Kosman, with his worshipful hermeneutical eye, keeps us close on the trail of the Stagirite, where, activating all our capacities of discernment — perceiving, imagining, and thinking alike — we might encounter the traces of the very activity by which life expresses itself.

  1. Oakeshott, Michael. On Human Conduct. Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon Press, 1975, vii. The passage elided at the end of the quotation is: “A philosophical essay leaves much to the reader, often saying too little for fear of saying too much; its attention is concentrated, but it does not stay to cross all the ts of the argument; its mood is cautious without being defensive; it is personal but never merely ‘subjective’; it does not dissemble the conditionality of the conclusions it throws up and although it may enlighten it does not instruct.”
  2. See, Metaphysics, VII.1, 1028b2-4; translation is my own, from Long, Christopher P. The Ethics of Ontology: Rethinking an Aristotelian Legacy. SUNY Series in Ancient Greek Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004, 4.
  3. ousia, n. Liddell and Scott.
  4. Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy. Translated by Robert Metcalf and Mark Basil Tanzer. Indiana University Press, 2009, 20.
  5. For a discussion of the legomenological method, see Long, Aristotle on the Nature of Truth
    , 7: “The things said, ta legomena, open a way into the nature of things; and it is the nature of things to express themselves.”
  6. Lukács, György. Soul & Form. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, 27

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