This paper is an initial attempt to develop a dynamic conception of being which is not anarchic. It does this by returning to Aristotle in order to begin the process of reinterpreting the meaning of ousia, the concept according to which western ontology has been determined. Such a reinterpretation opens up the possibility of understanding the dynamic nature of ontological identity and the principles according to which this identity is established. The development of the notions of energeia, dynamis and entelecheia in the middle books of Aristotle’s Metaphysics will be discussed in order to suggest that there is a dynamic ontological framework at work in Aristotle’s later writing. This framework lends insight into the dynamic structure of being itself, a structure which does justice as much to the concern for continuity through change as it does to the moment of difference. The name for this conception of identity which affirms both continuity and novelty is "legacy." This paper attempts to apprehend the meaning of being as legacy.

There is perhaps no idea in the history of western ontology with a more powerful legacy than Aristotle’s conception of ousia. Traditionally construed, "ousia" stands for the primary, foundational principle of being. It can be said that ontology has historically been ousiology – the search for ultimate foundations. In this quest for ultimates, the ousia names the absolute arche, the foundational principle that reigns over and orders all being. The political tone of this formulation is intentional; it is designed to frame the ontological question concerning the meaning of ousia in ethico-political terms. The impetus behind this strategy is to suggest that western ontology has been largely determined by an authoritarian tendency that seeks to establish a single ultimate principle in order to secure a firm and certain foundation. On the one hand, this authoritarian tendency may be traced back to Aristotle, for ousia is precisely such a hegemonic principle; on the other hand, Aristotle also suggests another conception of ousia, one that can be drawn upon in the attempt to resist this authoritarian tendency. In what follows, I trace both the authoritarian and this resistant conception ousia in Aristotle.

Aristotle’s Authoritarian Ontology

To apply the political term "authoritarian" to an ontological account may at first seem to be a simple category mistake. However, this first impression fails to recognize that many of the terms that have come to take on exclusively ontological meaning are saturated with ethical and political connotations: for example, "arche" means "ruler" and "political office" as well as "beginning" and "principle;"(1) "ousia," can mean "property" or "that which is one’s own," as well as "being" or "substance" (Liddell and Scott 1968, 1274-5);(2) even the term "katagoria," from which we derive "category," has political significance insofar as it means to accuse someone of being something or other in a public place (agora).(3) From its beginning, ontology has always intimately related to ethics and politics.

The authoritarian tendency in Aristotle’s ontology is perhaps most perspicuous in book XII of the Metaphysics, where he turns his attention to the highest, most honored and most authoritative principle of all, the principle that provides his ontology with its ultimate order: the first immovable mover (to proton kinoun akineton) (1074a37). The political nature of this conception can hardly be questioned. In a famous passage at the end of book XII, Aristotle establishes an analogy between this highest principle and the general of an army. Here, he asks if the whole has the highest good as something existing separately by itself or in the order of its parts:

Or does it have it in both ways, as in the case of an army? For in an army goodness exists both in the order and in the general, and rather in the general; for it is not because of the order that he exists, but the order exists because of him (1075a13-16).(4)

The order of the universe is like that of the army; it is ultimately dependent upon the authority of the first mover, the general of the universe. There are two basic characteristics of the first mover that testify to this absolute authority. The first is its causality, the way in which it orders; the second is its absolute autonomy.


Aristotle explicitly grants only one kind of causality to the first mover: the kind of final causality endemic to the desired object (1072b3-4).(5) For the most part in Aristotle there is no movement without some counter-movement (Ross 1924, II, 374).(6) However, the causality of the desired object is an exception, for it is capable of moving others towards it without itself being affected in any manner. It is this asymmetry, the lack of reciprocity that causes Aristotle to characterize the first mover as an object of desire (to orekton) and thought (to noeton), for such objects cause movement without themselves being moved (1072a26-28). The nature of this causality may be designated as "assimilation," for all being desires to be like the highest principle, and this desire brings the world into conformity. Thus, the first mover gives the world its order by being that for the sake of which (hou heneka) everything moves – nothing escapes the influence of its assimilating force. It is the ultimate principle, the one authority towards which all is ordered (1075a19-20).


Closely related to Aristotle’s conception of the causality of the first mover is his understanding of its manner of existence. The first mover is understood to be pure activity (entelecheia), devoid of all potentiality; for if the first mover was in any sense potential, not only would it be possible for it not to exist (1050b7-ff.), but also, its very existence would wear it out, for it would constantly need to overcome its potency (1074b28-9). This lack of potentiality indicates both the autonomy of the first mover and its absolute authority; for there is no other principle that can challenge it. In order to secure this absolute status for the first mover, Aristotle has to argue for its immateriality, for matter presents a challenge to the authority of the first principle. Thus, Aristotle states in no uncertain terms:

But things which are many in number have matter; for the formula is one and the same for the many, as in the case of the formula (logos) of a man, while Socrates is only one. But the primary essence has no matter, for it is actuality [to de ti en einai ouk echei hylen to proton, entelecheia gar]. Thus, the first immovable mover is one both in formula and number; and so that which is always and continuously in motion is only one (1074b34-39).

This passage is important for two reasons: first it expresses Aristotle’s unequivocal position that the first mover is utterly devoid of matter. This allows him to affirm the simplicity of the first principle and thus, its authority; for once matter is rejected, there is no other principle that can possibly challenge or resist its absolute hegemony.

The second important dimension of this passage is the manner in which it distinguishes between the identity of the first mover and the identity of Socrates. Socrates is one because of his matter, that is, his matter individualizes him (1034a7), even though he has one and the same definition (logos) in common with that from whom he came. However, the first mover is singular, it does not share its logos with anything else. Here, Aristotle employs the terms "to ti en einai" and "entelecheia" to designate the sort of identity endemic to the first mover. While these terms ostensibly suggest the dynamic nature of the first mover, the virtue of this ultimate principle for Aristotle lies in its static nature – that it can cause motion without itself being moved, that it is eternal, separate and constantly present. Only in this way, it seems, does Aristotle think it is possible to account for the ultimate order of things.

However, in the middle books of the Metaphysics Aristotle also employs the terminology of "to ti en einai" and "entelecheia" to determine the nature of the identity of sensible ousiai like Socrates or Callias. The equivocal use of these terms opens up the space for a different conception of identity, one that genuinely deserves to be called "dynamic" because it refuses to reduce all being to a single immovable principle. Here, no absolute ultimate is possible, for the nature of the identity of sensible ousiai must be such as to allow for change, and specifically for generation and corruption.

Aristotle’s Dynamic Ontology

In the middle books of the Metaphysics, Aristotle develops the vocabulary of "to ti en einai" in order to account for the identity of sensible substances. While this formulation gains pride of place in traditional western ontology by means of its Latin translation, "essentia," the simple term "essence" fails to capture the nuances of Aristotle’s Greek. Specifically, the Latin translation obfuscates the historical dimension of to ti en einai. I will emphasize this dimension of the term so as to suggest a more dynamic understanding of the Aristotelian eidos, an understanding that, when combined with the teaching that matter must be recognized along with form as a determining factor in the identity of sensible beings, can be exploited in the attempt to establish a conception of identity that resists the authoritarian tendency. Rather than locating the ultimate ground of his ontology in the static figure of the immovable mover, here Aristotle attempts to think the being of sensible ousiai dynamically as the relation between form and matter.

The Historical Dimensions of to ti en einai

The formulation "to ti en einai" is historical in two senses. First, it implicitly points to the legacy of Socrates, and thus, to an important moment in Aristotle’s own philosophical history. Aristotle names Socrates as the originator of the way of thinking designated by this formulation. It was he who was the first to seek the "ti esti," the "what is it?" or definition of things to which the most appropriate answer was given by telling the ti en einai – the "what it was for something to be." Each time Aristotle recognizes Socrates as the first to seek universal definitions in this manner, he is at pains to differentiate the Socratic position from that of the Platonists. Thus he writes: "But Socrates did not posit the universals as separate, nor the definitions; these thinkers [namely the Platonists] regarded them as being about other things, separate from sensible things, and called such things ‘Ideas’" (1078b30-32).(7) This difference was, for Aristotle, vital; for while he follows his teacher, Plato, by affirming the ontological significance of forms, he does not believe that these forms exist in strict separation from the sensible beings for which they are ontologically responsible. This hesitation to affirm absolute separation already hints at the possibility of looking to Aristotle’s account of sensible substance for a view different from and opposed to the authoritarian ontology of the first mover.

The second sense in which "to ti en einai" must be understood as historical is announced by the little word "en." The precise explanation of this, the imperfect form of the verb einai, "to be," has been the object of much speculation. Many argue that it is to be understood as the so-called "philosophical imperfect" which indicates an ontological priority rather than a temporal distinction (Frede and Patzig 1988: I, 35).(8) While I agree with the basic tenor of this position and affirm that the imperfect indicates a certain sort of ontological priority, the historical dimension of the word must not be denied; for it is precisely this historical element which gives the concept to ti en einai its ontological significance. Those beings that have a to ti en einai, an essence, are historical beings; they are beings with histories. Thus, part of the answer to the what is it? question is sought in the to ti en einai, the "what-it-was-for-something-to-be." If this ambiguous reference to the historical past by means of the imperfect endemic to the term to ti en einai is permitted to be held, the philosophical significance of to ti en einai comes into focus: it points to the preservation of what has come before in the very existence of the being itself. What it means for an ousia to be is to exist as this being with this history. This historical dimension is completely lacking in Aristotle’s authoritarian ontology, for the first mover is absolutely ahistorical, it neither comes to be nor passes away.

The Irreducibility of Matter

Aristotle’s ability to affirm the absolute presence of the first mover is based upon his explicit rejection of the possibility that it has matter. With matter comes the possibility to be otherwise. To introduce such a possibility into the highest principle is to undermine its absolute authority. The impetus behind Aristotle’s unequivocal rejection of matter is an unwillingness to challenge this authority, a challenge that would call into question the very order of things. However, it is otherwise with sensible substances, for by nature sensible beings come to be and pass away. This is because sensible beings have matter by nature, that is to say, they are like the snub: the what it was for them to be, their ti en einai, includes matter (1026a1-5).(9) In Metaphysics VII, 7-9 Aristotle takes up the question of the ti en einai of generated beings.(10) What is important about these and the chapters which follow, namely VII, 10-11, is that they affirm the irreducibility of matter in the attempt to offer a definition of such beings. Nowhere is this stated more clearly than in VII, 11, when Aristotle writes: "Thus, to lead all things up to a higher level (anagein) and to take away the matter is a useless effort [periergon], for surely some things exist as a this in a that or as having that in such a manner" (1036b22-25).(11) In denying that generated ousiai can be defined exclusively in terms of form, Aristotle hints at a conception of ontological identity fundamentally different from that offered in this discussion of the first mover. Whereas he had established the ultimate authority of the immovable mover by unequivocally rejecting the material principle, here he affirms the decisive role the material principle plays in establishing the ontological identity of sensible ousiai. The structure of such a conception of identity is fundamentally different from that of the identity of the first mover, for by affirming the material principle, Aristotle attempts to think identity in terms of the irreducible tension of the relation between form and matter. Matter resists assimilation; it is that principle in Aristotle that cannot be co-opted by the ultimate authority. It alone stands against the hegemony of the absolute eidos.(12) The nature of a conception of identity that holds the tension between form and matter is dynamic in a deeper way than is the identity of the first mover which moves others while remaining itself unmoved. In the former conception neither principle remains unaffected and yet a strong identity arises; for indeed, Aristotle has always understood beings like Socrates and Callias as having a very strong identity.(13)

Dynamic Identity

Aristotle considers the problem of the identity of such individuals at the end of Metaphysics VIII, when he asks "What is it, then, that makes a man one, and why is he one and not many …?" (1045a14-15). He then suggests that if form and matter are reinterpreted as actuality (energeia) and potentiality (dynamis) respectively (1045a23-25) and if the ti en einai of each being is understood to be the cause of its identity (1045a30-35) a possible answer emerges. Once this reinterpretation is established, Aristotle asserts that: "[…] each thing is a kind of unity, and potentiality and actuality taken together exist somehow [pos] as one" (1045b16-23). These are strange words indeed! Obviously much is riding on this little word pos, "somehow." Indeed, the project of book IX may be conceived as an attempt to determine the precise nature of this pos, that is, it is an attempt to think the meaning of ousia as the dynamic identity between form and matter, energeia and dynamis.

In order to explain this identity, Aristotle establishes the distinction between a motion (kinesis) and an activity (energeia, entelecheia). He indicates that the structure of kinesis provides only an analogy for the way form and matter are to be thought together.(14) According to Aristotle, building a house, losing weight, or learning from a teacher are examples of motion because the end of each motion remains external to the motion itself – such motions are essentially incomplete (1048b25-ff.).(15) Thus, once the process of building a house is completed, its end has been reached and the motion comes to a stop, it ceases to be. During the process itself, its end exists only externally, in the mind of the builder. Thus, the beginning (arche) and end (telos) of the process provide the two static positions according to which the motion is determined. On this model, the identity of potentiality and actuality is not thought – for so long as the bricks and stones lie in a heap, they are only potentially a house, however, once the process of building is completed, the house exists in actuality and no longer in potentiality.

In contrast to this model, Aristotle offers the notion of activity or action which is variously designated in Greek by the words energeia, entelecheia, and praxis:

[…] since that which loses weight while in motion does not have that for the sake of which its motion exists, such an action is not an action [praxis], or at least it is not complete, for it is not an end. But the end and action belong to that other kind. For example, one is seeing and at the same time one has seen [eorake], and one is engaged in acts of prudence and one has been so engaged [pephoke] […]. Also, one lives well and at the same time has lived well, and one is happy and at the same time has been happy. If not, the action should have come to an end sometime, as in the process of losing weight (1048b20-30).(16)

The difference between a motion, like that of losing weight, and an action or activity, like living, is that a motion tends towards an external end, while an activity has not only its end (telos), but its beginning, its arche, its principle, in itself. Thus, Aristotle attempts to think arche and telos together by means of the notion of praxis, action.(17) Praxis has, then, a profound ontological significance insofar as it provides Aristotle with a model by which to think being the active identity of potentiality and actuality, of matter and form. Ousia, as praxis, is the identity of energeia and dynamis as expressed in the activity of the existing being itself. Aristotle also uses the term "entelecheia" to name this sort of identity. The use of that term here is at odds with the designation of the identity of the first mover as an entelecheia without matter (1073a34-39), for here, entelecheia is used to think the active identity of form and matter, energeia and dynamis.(18)

Interestingly, this sort of activity is thematized in terms of the strange formulation that places the perfect tense of a verb next to an iteration of the same verb in the present tense: the same thing has seen and is seeing, has lived and is living. The significance of this formulation may be apprehended if the historical dimension of to ti en einai is recalled, for here, as there, Aristotle’s use of verb tense in this manner emphasizes a point of deep ontological significance: the identity of generated beings is historical, or to put it more accurately: an ousia is its history. The perfect tense at work in this strange formulation should be understood to suggest the preservation of the historical element in the active life of the living being. However, by placing this perfect form of the verb next to the present tense, Aristotle emphasizes the unity of the past and the present in the activity itself. On this model, to be is to exist as the active identity of past and present, it is to be determined by the past, but not exclusively so; for there remains in this formulation an explicit emphasis on the action of the present, an activity that injects the structure of identity with a dimension of openness and even freedom. To think ousia as praxis is to hold the tension between past and present; it is to recognize that the past determines the present, but that the present also continually re-determines and re-creates itself, thus preserving and transcending that which has come before for the sake of that which is to be.(19) This is the activity of being.

The Legacy of ousia

Therefore, in Aristotle’s philosophy, we find, on the one hand, what may be considered a strong authoritarian ontology in which the absolute hegemony of the first principle reigns supreme, establishing order without itself being affected in the slightest. On the other hand, there are the hints at an other ontology, one that affirms the irreducibility of matter and attempts to think the identity of the individual in terms of the relation between energeia and dynamis, form and matter. Aristotle’s ultimate concern to account for order is the impetus behind his assertion of the former, authoritarian position. Such thetic assertions have determined the history of western ontology, a history with a legacy of despotism and oppression. However, Aristotle’s concern to account for the identity of sensible ousiai suggests the possibility of tracing a different legacy, one that is dialogical rather than despotic, open rather than oppressive. This other conception of ontological identity is underdeveloped by Aristotle, but it is nonetheless discernible.

I would like to use the rather enigmatic phrase "ousia is legacy" to designate this other ontology. Here the term "legacy" must be taken in a technical sense. On the one hand, "legacy" affirms the power of the historical past in the present. It indicates that the present is saturated with a history that fundamentally determines it. This dimension of ousia as legacy is expressed by the historical nature of to ti en einai. Here the power and significance of that which has come before is affirmed – the aspect of continuity through change, of order, is emphasized and with it one of Aristotle’s deepest concerns. On the other hand, the term "legacy" includes a futural element which, in fact, is not explicitly developed by Aristotle, but which nonetheless is of decisive importance if this dynamic conception of identity is not itself to fall into a dangerous sort of determinism. Legacy is never something once and for all complete, but rather, it is continually in the process of being determined and re-determined, inherited and handed down. It is the irreducibility of matter, its resistance to the absolute hegemony of the first mover, that gives this account its openness. By holding on to the tension of the relation between form and matter, energeia and dynamis, ousia as legacy holds open the possibility of new beginnings and therewith of a certain sort of freedom. The freedom endemic to this understanding of being, however, is not without its loyalties; for it is a freedom born of the history that determines it. With this, the full ontological and ethical/political significance of the phrase "ousia is legacy" begins to come into focus: the very meaning of being is to exist as the expression of the dynamic play between history and freedom, energeia and dynamis, form and matter; it is to hold onto the tension of this relationship and to resist ascribing absolute authority to one ultimate principle.


(1) Aristotle himself outlines the different senses of "arche" in Metaphysics 5, 1, 1012b34-ff. Reiner Schürmann emphasizes that Aristotle was the first to bring two senses of arche, namely that of inception and that of domination, together (Schürmann 1987, 97). Fred Miller, Jr. points to the various political meanings of arche (Miller 1995, 145).

(2) Heidegger too recognized the "pre-philosophical" use of the term (Heidegger 1976, 330). For a discussion of the significance of some of the different connotations of the term, see Long 1998, 372-ff.

(3) Heidegger emphasizes public dimension of the accusation (Heidegger 1976, 322). For the meaning of "katagoria" as "to accuse," see Liddell and Scott 1968, 926-7.

(4) All citations from Aristotle are taken from Apostle 1979. Where noted, Apostle’s translation has been amended in consultation with the Oxford Classical Text edited by Jaeger.

(5) See too, Owens 1978, 443.

(6) Cf. G.A. 768b18.

(7) See too 987b1-ff: "Now Socrates was engaged in the study of ethical matters, but not at all in the study of nature as a whole, yet in ethical matters he sought the universal and was the first to fix his thought on definitions. Plato, on the other hand, taking into account the thought of Socrates, came to the belief that, because sensible things are always in a state of flux, such inquires were concerned with other things and not with the sensibles; for there can be no common definition of sensible things when these are always changing." The formulation to ti en einai was not originally an ontological conception, rather it arose out of the Socratic concern for ethical matters.

(8) For a thorough discussion of this term, see Owens 1978, 180-8, although I disagree that the term should be taken in a timeless sense in the context of the discussion of sensible ousiai. For a discussion of to ti en einai as a political term, see Fritsche 1997.

(9) Michael Ferejohn makes the distinction between the logical and the physical account of definability in book VII, assigning VII, 4-6 to the former and VII, 7-9 to the later. The example of the snub is precisely the sort of case that indicates the inadequacy of a purely logical approach to the definition of generated beings (Ferejohn 1994: 292-ff).

(10) Although it is likely that these chapters where inserted into book Zeta at a later date, it is just as likely that they would have been inserted by Aristotle himself. Over and above the philological evidence for this conjecture, further justification for this belief lies in the recognition that it is precisely generated beings that Aristotle had always intuitively held as primary and therefore, that a consideration of the ti en einai of such beings would not only have been quite appropriate, but fundamentally necessary (Long 1998: 116-ff.).

(11) I have amended Apostle’s translation here to emphasize the upward direction of the movement of abstraction. Apostle has: "And so to try to reduce all things and to do away with matter is a useless effort, for surely some things are of a distinct form in a distinct matter, or they are such subjects disposed in such-and-such a manner." This translation has the advantage of clarifying Aristotle’s rather obscure formulation: "tod’ en toid’ estin" which is correctly glossed as "…are of a distinct form in a distinct matter…." However, the translation of "anagein" as "reduce" is misleading insofar as the prefix "ana" implies upward movement. Thus, what concerns Aristotle here is any attempt to give an account of generated beings by abstracting them from their matter. The direction of this movement is important, for it indicates Aristotle’s unwillingness, at least when considering sensible ousiai, to sacrifice the beings here below for the sake of establishing a higher abstract truth. It hints at an attempt to resist the temptation to affirm the absolute authority of form over matter.

(12) Nicolai Hartmann suggest that matter is the principle of "metaphysical resistance" in Aristotle (Hartmann 1957, 242).

(13) In the Categories, Aristotle simply assumes that individuals like Socrates or this horse are the primary ousiai with unproblematic identities (2a13-ff). This remains a strong intuition throughout his thinking although he deepens his position by introducing the distinction between form and matter, thus thematizing the internal structure of the primary ousiai of the Categories (Long 1998: 47-ff.). Once this distinction is made however, the challenge Aristotle faces is how to think form and matter together in such a way as to account for the strong identity of individuals.

(14) See 1045b35-ff. where Aristotle says he will set out the normal sense of energeia and dynamis, although it is not useful for the present purpose. I take the "present purpose" to be the attempt to find an expression for the identity of the two terms.

(15) In those examples of incomplete motion like the doctor healing himself or the person himself trying to loose weight, the agent acts on the patient not as itself, but as another. The vital aspect of the model of motion is that the agent and the patient remain distinct, even if the agent is its own patient (as in the case of these two examples), there remains a distinction between the person qua agent and the person qua patient. See Metaphysics, IX, 1, 1046a11-26 and V, 12, 1019a20-23.

(16) I have amended the translation because Apostle was translating the third person singular as the first person plural, which, although it perhaps gets at the profoundly personal nature of this point, does not remain faithful to the text as we have inherited it.

(17) I emphasize Aristotle’s use of the term "praxis" here in order to suggest the ethical/political nature of this ontological position. Although Aristotle uses the term "praxis" in other contexts to indicate the activity for the sake of which something is made (cf. P.A. I, 5, 645b15), in the Nichomachean Ethics, "praxis" is distinguished from "poiesis" precisely along the lines suggested here by the difference between kinesis and energeia (N.E. VI, 4 and 5, 1140a1-1140b20). There, as here, the decisive difference is that the end of poiesis is some other thing, that is, a product, "while in the case of action there is no other end (for a good action is itself the end)" (1140b6-8).

(18) Given Aristotle’s use of equivocation, this difference need not concern us save insofar as the distinction between the two uses of it must be established, for it is precisely what distinguishes the authoritarian from the dynamic conception of identity.

(19) For a discussion of the futural dimension of the term "entelecheia" in Aristotle, see Long 1998: 182-ff.


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———, trans. and commentary. 1979. Aristotle's Metaphysics. Grinnell, Iowa: The Peripatetic Press.

———, trans. and commentary. 1980a. Aristotle's Categories and Propositions. Grinnell, Iowa: The Peripatetic Press.

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