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Aristotle's Aporetic Ontology

Lecturer: Tim Johannessen

Originally Taught: Summer School 2013

This course is intended as a general introduction to Aristotle’s thought—above all Aristotle’s noetic and ontology—its history and genesis. Students will be introduced to central concepts such as ‘substance’, ‘universals’ and ‘apodeixis’ (demonstration) through a close examination of key texts of Aristotle. We will also examine how these concepts emerge out of and alongside Aristotle’s running ‘Plato-critique’. Finally, we will examine the interpretative reception and ‘systematization’ of Aristotle’s work—especially his Metaphysics and Categories—and thus, the historical development of ‘Aristotelianism’.

As a guiding thread this course will examine the role of ‘aporetic’ in, especially, Aristotle’s Metaphysics.An ‘aporia’—literally, ‘without passage’—is a problem or figure generating an impasse, a state of puzzlement.

Following Edward Booth's Aristotelian Aporetic Ontology in Christian and Islamic Thinkers one central aporia in particular shall concern us. Against Plato—or rather Aristotle’s presentation of Plato’s ontology—Aristotle rejects the commitment to the ‘separate’ existence of forms or universals in favour of the primacy of individual substance (ousia). The concrete individual (this particular man, Callias), and not the universal or form of which it is an instance (‘man’), for Aristotle, is paradigmatic of ‘what is’ (being). But this very conception threatened to undo Aristotle’s hoped-for ‘science’ of metaphysics, since discourse (logos) and so demonstration (apodeixis)—the foundation of Aristotelian ‘science’—is inevitably directed toward the ‘formula’ expressing what a thing is—that is, towards the ‘universalizable’ element contained within each thing, which is said to constitute its nature (such as ‘man’, ‘horse’ and so on). As Aristotle notes: ‘The fact that all knowledge is universal, so that the principles of existing things must be universal and not separate real objects, contains the greatest problem (aporian) among those mentioned’ (Metaphysics, 1087a). Very generally we might say that this ‘aporia’ points to the ‘gap’ between speech (logos) and that which speech or analysis attempts to get hold of, to account for; or, between noetic (knowledge) and ontology. As such, this problem raises doubts about the very possibility of philosophy, and the limits of analysis. Aristotle is well aware of its importance.

Such a seeming ‘impasse’ might be considered a hopeless starting point for the modest task as we are proposing here—facilitating an introduction to Aristotle’s thought. But there are good reasons for proceeding in this way. First of all, it is Aristotle’s starting point. That is, it is clear that ‘aporetic’ is for Aristotle (not unlike dialectic for Plato) precisely a kind of pedagogical device; the necessary ‘entrance-point’ to the subject matter at hand. This acknowledgement alone perhaps makes sense of numerous ‘conflicting’ passages in, above all, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, a work whose ‘unity’ has puzzled modern commentators especially. Moreover, this approach allow us to grapple with Aristotle’s thought ourselves as he attempts to think through a central philosophical problem, and the consequences of his running Plato-critique.

As well, this focus will allow us to examine the historical reception and interpretation of Aristotle’s work, and so by extension the development of ‘Aristotelianism’. However much Aristotle’s ancient readers acknowledged the role of ‘aporetic’ in his writings, the overwhelming trend was to attempt to arrive at a single, ‘systematic’ interpretation. The reasons for this trend are complex; they go hand-in-hand with the self-imposed task of philosophers in late antiquity to ‘harmonize’ the thought of Plato and Aristotle—an exegetical demand since at least the time of Ammonius, Plotinus’ teacher. The result was that interpreters tended to ‘platonize’ Aristotle, granting primacy to ‘universals’ (without, it must be said, granting universals a separate existence). This interpretation, naturally, ‘purged’ Aristotle’s thought of its obvious ‘aporetic’ quality. But this did not altogether remove Aristotle’s central aporia—only from sight. As Booth and others have shown, it continued to reassert itself in later thinkers’ work, and even today remains a central problem of philosophical inquiry.

Course Schedule:

Monday: Introduction. Aristotle: his approach, and mind. His ontology and noetic. His running Plato-critique. Basic Aristotelian concepts.
Readings: no set readings. A hand-out will be provided.

Tuesday: Aristotelian science. Demonstration and definition. Principles and explanation. Introduction to metaphysics, or, first philosophy.
Reading: excerpts from Posterior Analytics, Topics and Metaphysics.

Wednesday: The ontological aporia I. Exploring the problem. Individual and universal being.
Reading: excerpts from Metaphysics and Categories.

Thursday: The ontological aporia II. Grappling with problem. The limits of language.
Reading: excerpts from Metaphysics.

Friday: Aristotle and Aristotelianism. Introduction to the Aristotelian tradition and the ‘systematization’ of Aristotle’s thought. Review.
Readings: TBC

Recommended Reading:

A PDF reader will be provided to students, along with handouts. As our aim is to provide an ‘encounter’ with Aristotle’s thought, only primary texts will be examined.

If students so wish, they can familiarize themselves with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Categories and Posterior Analytics before the course commences. Aristotle’s style of writing and argumentation is often the greatest stumbling block for his first-time readers, so prior familiarity will help. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on Aristotle are useful also (

Level of Difficulty: Introductory to intermediate.