Aristotle’s "Categories": Semantic or Metaphysical (or Ontological)?

Wehrle, W. “The Categories: Aristotelian Semantics.” In The Myth of Aristotle’s Development and the Betrayal of Metaphysics. Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Wehrle critiques the development-hypothesis claim that Aristotle’s Categories contradicts his Metaphysics and therefore represents a different stage of Aristotle’s thought, arguing instead that the distinction between and ordering of primary and secondary substances in the Categories is semantic rather than metaphysical, and is therefore consistent with the privileging of substantial form over the individual composite found in the Metaphysics. The semantic nature of the Categories has long been recognized by Aristotle’s Neoplatonic interpreters (Porphyry, Ammonius, etc.), yet their reading has been unjustifiably ignored as a mistaken attempt to reconcile the thought of Aristotle with that of Plato. Yet the consequence of the development hypothesis is that it makes Aristotle out to be less sophisticated and consistent than he really was.

One area where Wehrle’s argument could possibly be clarified: he argues that the Categories is semantic rather than metaphysical, but then also points out that for Aristotle ontology, or the question of “what there is”, is not the same thing as metaphysics, or the question of the causes of “what there is.” This raises a question that Wehrle doesn’t directly answer, but which might help clarify the nature of his argument: even if we grant that the Categories is semantic rather than metaphysical, might we still also say that the Categories, and in particular, its distinction between primary and secondary substance, is at least ontological, even if it is not metaphysical? In the order of ontology, which is to say, the order of what there is, after all, the individual, physical substance is primary in a way that the substantial form of the substances is not, even if at the metaphysical level the substantial form is the cause of, and is thus primary to, the individual substance.


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