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Natural Things and Body: The Investigations of Physics

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Chapter Summary

Efforts to date Aristotle’s writings generally turn to their content, e.g., notions such as matter or actuality. This turn leads to the identification of this notion as early and that notion as late and so Aristotle’s writings can be dated and his development identified. I suggest that there is a better way to think about this problem. Ancient Greece witnesses the development of writing and, consequently, the shift from oral culture to a “book [or scroll] culture” and I argue that considering the material conditions of writing reveals the structure of ancient texts. Against this background, I turn to Aristotle’s Physics as a sequence of topics. Aristotle himself distinguishes “common and universal” topics, i.e., motion, the continuous, the infinite, place, void, and time, and “special attributes” that must be investigated after “common and universal” topics. The remainder of the Physics considers these topics. Although Aristotle never identifies an investigation of “special attributes”, a case can be made that the De Caelo and the De Generatione et Corruptione provide this investigation. And so we can understand the organization of the Aristotelian corpus as reflecting the organization of physics as a science: first the investigation of common and universal topics, and then the investigation of “special attributes”. But there is a problem with this view: body is common to all natural things but absent from the list of universal and common topics. In the Physics, Aristotle mentions but never examines body, as he investigates “things that are by nature”. In the De Caelo, he defines physics as the science of body and investigates body. Either this construal of Aristotle’s writing is wrong, or body is an anomaly within the ordering of topics, or body is a “special attribute”. This paper considers this question, concluding that body is in fact a “special attribute” (a point supported by analysis of the structure of Aristotle’s writing) and that it functions as a generic for physics only when abstracted from natural things.



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