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Bulletin platonicien IX
Platon et ses prédécesseurs

André Motte et Pierre Somville (éds.), Ousia dans la philosophie grecque des origines à Aristote

Francisco Gonzalez
p. 225-231
Référence(s) :

Motte, A. and P. Somville (éds.), Ousia dans la philosophie grecque des origines à Aristote : Travaux du centre d’études aristotéliciennes de l’université de Liége. Aristote : traductions et études. Louvain-la-Neuve : Peeters, 2008. 493 p. ISBN 9789042919839

Texte intégral

1This is without question an extremely useful and even indispensable study. As the preface acknowledges, the focus on the word ousia at the cost of the other terms in Ancient Greek for being does indeed prevent this volume from pretending to offer a history of the different Greek theories about being. One can also add that such a focus makes a certain Aristotelian bias inevitable, as the term ousia appears not at all in what survives of the pre-Platonic philosophers, appears only sporadically in Plato’s works and with no special privilege among competing terms for being, and becomes a truly central and indispensable philosophical term only in Aristotle. One might even fear that this focus could lead to a distorted view of Aristotle’s own metaphysics, since ousia in the technical sense he introduces refers only to one ‘category’ within one of the meanings of being (in addition to accidental being, being as truth, and being as energeia/dunamis). Yet even within these limitations the current study succeeds in revealing much of philosophical importance. In what follows I will focus on what I take to be the most philosophically significant results as well as indicate where the approach of the study becomes more misleading than helpful.

The ‘economic sense’ of ousia.

  • 1 See, e.g., Grundbegriffe der aristotelischen Philosophie, Gesamtausgabe 18 (Frankfurt am Main: Vitt (...)

2One issue the study must confront from the outset in exploring the early history of the word ousia is its split into what are called its ‘economic’ and ‘philosophical’ or ‘ontological’ senses. A. Motte insists that in the first of these senses ousia refers not to property as some abstract right nor to the notions of possession and belonging, but to the material goods themselves that one possesses as one’s own (16-17). Yet here the emphasis has to be put on ‘one’s own’. If I call my material goods my ousia this is because they belong to me in such a way as to be inseparable from who I am, as to constitute my being, my own being. Motte notes in his Bilan that “Dans la mentalité antique la plus commune, les biens que l’on possède en propre ne sont pas ressentis comme étrangers à l’être que l’on est” (42). It appears, therefore, that if a word derived from the infinitive ‘to be’ is used to refer to my material goods, the reference is not to the being of these goods themselves, but rather to my own being and thus to the role of these goods in constituting and defining my own being. It therefore seems simply wrong to claim, as Heidegger notoriously does,1 that their use of the word ousia to refer to external goods and property shows that the Greeks took these to be the ‘exemplary beings’ and accordingly interpreted being as being-present-at-hand and being-available-for-use. It must be said instead that they took their own being as exemplary, called their property ousia because it was their own, and accordingly interpreted being as what belongs to one, what is most one’s own, what is distinctive of one and defines one. We will see that this translates quite easily into the ‘ontological’ sense of the word.

Relation of ‘economic sense’ to ‘ontological sense’.

3There is a tendency to treat the ‘economic sense’ as ‘earlier’ and therefore the ‘ontological sense’ as somehow derived from it. This tendency is found in this very volume: P. D’ Hoine, in his entry on the Timaeus, claims, in taking the economic sense of ousia there to mean the material goods that constitute the value and identity of a person, that the ontological sense is derived from it and is thus later: “C’est de cette signification que dérive le sens proprement ontologique que le terme prendra plus tard : ce qui determine l’être de quelque chose, ou encore ce qui en constitue l’être veritable” (177). Motte concludes that the economic sense is ‘le plus anciennement attesté’ (196); but the evidence provided by the study does not support concluding that it was in fact the most ancient sense. Among the Pre-Platonic philosophers ousia is to be found in neither sense (32), which does not rule out its having been used by them (34; see also 40-41). It is in the Hippocratic corpus (where the term occurs four times) that ousia in the sense of ‘reality’ is found prior to Plato (towards the end of the fifth century) and in a context that interestingly treats ousia as the object of vision (36); but there is no indication that this use of the term ousia is at the time something novel and unprecedented. If the economic sense is attested earlier than the ontological sense because found in the poets, historians and orators, it is not attested much earlier (the middle versus the final quarter of the fifth century) and gives us no reason to believe that the ontological sense, which would not have been appropriate in these contexts, did not already exist. Since the examination of the Pre-Platonic use of ousia shows it to have been deployed in both senses, the economic and the ontological, during the same general period, Motte himself concludes that it would be pointless to ask which sense is derived from which (41). And, as the volume also shows, the ontological meaning never displaces the economic, both continuing to co-exist in the works of Plato and Aristotle (even if Aristotle appears to keep the two uses further apart in his works than does Plato; 446).

4But this co-existence of the two senses makes the question of their relation all the more pressing. If one sense is not simply derived from the other, what do they have in common that allows authors to use the same word to express both? Do we have a simple homonymy here? Most interesting in the context of such a question are texts in which the two senses seem to merge. Motte makes much of a passage in Euripides (Ion 1288) in which Ion opposes his having been born (supposedly) of a mortal father to the relation to Apollo that is now his ousia, his own proper being (18-20). As Motte notes, ousia has thus gone from meaning materials goods that I possess as my own to meaning my own being. (20) Is this then the ‘missing link’ between the economic sense and the ontological sense? I refer to my goods as my ousia because what I have constitutes who I am. But then I can call ousia whatever defines my true proper being, including a special relation to Apollo, implying thereby a distinction between what is only a contingent fact about me (my having at one time been born of a particular man) and what is truly essential to what I am. But then is it really a leap, requiring some process of derivation and an altogether different degree of abstraction, to use the word ousia to refer to the proper being of anything, to what makes something truly what it is?

5There are also some passages in Plato in which one sees the two senses merge. A. Lefka points to a very interesting use of ousia in the Gorgias where the distinction between the economic and ontological senses is at least blurred. Socrates accuses Polus of seeking to expel him from tês ousias kai tou alêthous (472b5-c3). While translations and commentaries take ousia here in the economic sense as property or proper good, Lefka rightly insists that the ontological sense must also be intended, as the connection here of ousia with alêthes shows (65). Lefka explains that the truth concerning the nature of beings is the proper good of the philosopher (67). Surprised to find the use of the word ousia in an economic sense in a dialogue as technical as the Theatetus (144c7, d2) (p. 133), S. Delcomminette suggests that there may be in this economic sense an allusion to the philosophical sense: having lost his ousia in an economic sense, Theaetetus will progress towards the discovery of ousia in a philosophical sense. One can add that what he will discover is that it is a particular relation to the ousia of things that constitutes his own veritable ousia. D’Hoine significantly finds at Tim. 52c4-5 an ontological sense that nevertheless plays on the economic sense, concluding that the philosophical sense has not simply displaced the economic sense (185). All of these texts serve to show that the ‘economic’ and ‘philosophical’ senses are not as unrelated as might at first appear and that the term ousia is not simply being used homonymously when it has these two meanings. I call my goods my ousia because they belong to and define who I am; when I pursue a philosophical inquiry into a thing’s being and into what makes it what it is, I can quite naturally and without equivocation employ this same word ousia.

Ousia in Plato

6One clear general result of the study of the term ousia in Plato’s dialogues is the absence of any strong distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ (see, e.g., 73, 190). This absence, furthermore, receives an explanation: for Plato, to be is always to be a determinate something or other, so that what we would call the ‘complete’ and ‘incomplete’ senses of being coincide. With regard to the meaning of being in the Republic Delcomminette thus makes the following important point: “Être, pour Platon, ce n’est jamais simplement exister de manière indéterminé: c’est au contraire toujours être quelque chose, être determiné d’une certaine façon” (106, see also 110; and he makes the same point in his examination of the Theaetetus, p. 141). The two senses of ousia one finds in the Republic, ousia as ‘essence’ and ousia as ‘mode of being’, are therefore concluded not to be opposed (111).

7Three different senses of ousia in Plato are nevertheless identified: 1) reality or being as a whole (in the Republic, for example, no sharp distinctions can be drawn between the expressions ousia, to einai and to on, as Delcomminette notes [104-5]); 2) a particular mode of being, i.e., the being of what is permanent and unchanging as opposed to becoming or genesis (B. Collette-Ducic finds this sense predominant in the Phaedo); 3) the outcome and aim of the process of genesis. With regard to this last sense, according to van Riel, in expressions in the Philebus such as genesis eis ousian (26d8) and gegenêmenê ousia (27b8-9), ousia is no longer opposed to becoming as belonging to a different class of being, but rather is treated as the result or outcome of the process of becoming. In this way, “le Platon du Philèbe semble biffer—ou au moins mitiger—la ligne de partage entre le monde du devenir et le monde de l’être” (169);“Il ne s’agit donc plus de l’οὐσία transcendante du monde des idées, mais d’une chose réellement obtenue dans le monde concret” (170).

  • 2 Back in 1997 John Cooper, in his introduction to the latest Complete Works of Plato in English tran (...)

8Because many contributors appear to subscribe to a dogmatic and precise chronology of the Platonic dialogues and to take as given the ‘developmental’ hypothesis regarding Plato’s thought (and this despite the assurance by Motte that the order in which the dialogues are presented “n’implique pas évidemment que nous adhérions sans réserves au classement chronologique ainsi présumé”, p. 5, n. 5), they tend to see these senses as following one another in time. Yet the developmental hypothesis, and the chronology on which it is based, have been seriously brought into question in the last couple of decades and have become themselves at least dated, if not dead.2 In reading the volume’s contributions on Plato one gets the impression that the question has not advanced since the work of Vlastos. C. Steel, for example, in his account of the Parmenides takes it as a fact that the Sophist was composed after the Parmenides (p. 126) and that the Parmenides is Plato’s self-critique.

9Furthermore, the need for a developmental hypothesis is undermined by the recognition in the study itself that the different senses are not incompatible and indeed coexist in Plato’s works and that the dominance of one or the other in a particular dialogue can be explained by the context and aim of the dialogue. For example, any suggestion of a ‘development’ from sense 1) to sense 2) is undermined by Delcomminette’s conclusion that in the Republic ousia can refer to the mode of being not only of the intelligible but also of the sensible (111). Likewise, in the Politicus Delcomminette finds a use of ousia (283d7-9) that, rather than simply opposing it to becoming, uses it to refer to that aspect of becoming that is stable and intelligible (161). Finally, while claiming that the third sense is unprecedented in the dialogues that precede the Philebus, and thus committing himself to a particular chronology, van Riel does not think that the existence of a transcendental ousia is thereby ruled out (173): such a transcendental ousia, he asserts, is simply not relevant to the concerns of the dialogue. What emerges is therefore a picture of Plato emphasizing different aspects of ousia according to the context of a particular inquiry.

Ousia in Aristotle

10As noted frequently in this study, Aristotle introduces one new sense of the word ousia: the subject of which other things are predicated but which is not itself predicated of anything else. This has led to the common use, especially in English, of the word ‘substance’ as a consistent translation of the term ousia. With a couple of exceptions (G. Fiasse, who appeals mostly to convenience [228], and R. Bodéüs, who oddly appears to think that ‘substance’ is the only French term that can preserve the ambiguity of Aristotle’s ousia [334]), contributors to this volume, however, reject this practice, both because there are other senses of ousia in Aristotle not caught by the term ‘substance’ and also because this translation loses the connection to being so clear and important in the Greek; as A. Stevens rightly claims, ‘substance’ is not a faithful translation of ousia as it denotes not the fact of being but the fact of being a subject (453). Even where the translation ‘substance’ might seem to recommend itself, it proves problematic. For example, Collette-Ducic finds at On Generation and Corruption 318b14-18 the suggestion that one ousia is more ousia (mallon) than another; and what makes it ‘more’ ousia is its being more of a tode ti, its having more positive content (248). The ideal ousia would accordingly be pure positivity and pure eidos: the unmoved mover (248-249, n. 13). The emphasis here is therefore not on ousia as ultimate subject but rather on ousia as form (249-250).

11A translation that receives more support is ‘essence/essentia’, the translation chosen by the Romans on account of the parallel between the relation of ousia to einai and the relation of essentia to esse. L. Bodson thus prefers for ousia the Latin translation essentia, pointing out that substantia is not introduced in Latin as a translation of ousia or of any other Greek term (294-5). Yet some contributors reject the use of any one translation. Stevens, despite deciding in her recent French translation of the Physics to employ the neologism ‘étance’ throughout—a decision with which Fiasse takes issue (213)—nevertheless in her own article on the first half of what is doubtless the most important text for the Aristotelian reflection on ousia, the Metaphysics, refuses any universal translation and instead distinguishes from the outset between four senses and uses a different French word or phrase to translate each. The senses are: 1) reality; within this sense Aristotle is described as playing on a ‘double signification’: essence and existence; 2) “l’être au sens premier”; this is distinct from the senses that follow because ‘premier’ can refer to chronological priority, epistemological priority or separability and no thing, Stevens maintains, unites all three forms of priority (352); 3) substance; 4) essence.

12This approach, which begins with a sharp distinction between four different senses and then simply groups passages under one sense or another, seems misguided. First and foremost, it simply avoids the aporia of ousia that motivates the reflections in the Metaphysics: an aporia that arises from the need to think all of these senses together. To understand reality we must understand what is ‘real’ in the primary sense; to understand what is real in the primary sense we must bring together and reconcile ontological priority with epistemological priority. Stevens writes as if Aristotle simply failed, for contingent reasons, to make explicit the distinctions between the different senses. Furthermore, this approach simply breaks down since Stevens herself must cite passages in which the word ousia has several of the above senses in the space of a few lines (see 372). Is Aristotle simply confused? Careless? Oddly, despite what she says on p. 352, Stevens concludes by recognizing something in the texts that brings together the senses of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’: the ‘substantial form’ (382).

13In his entry on the second half of the Metaphysics, C. Rutten unfortunately adopts Stevens’ approach. Citing other passages in which ousia has several of its different senses within a very short space, Rutten tells us that here Aristotle is “jouant manifestement sur la polysémie” of the word ousia (401). Again, this assumes that the senses are unproblematically and sharply distinct at the outset. Rutten concludes that on account of this polysemy one cannot always translate ousia with the same word. But imagine how incomprehensible the whole project of the Metaphysics would become if we translated ousia with a different word every time we decided it had a different sense! What perhaps comes to the fore here is a tension, if not even contradiction, between the task of the lexicographer and the task of the philosopher. The task of the lexicographer is to keep as many different senses as possible separate so as to avoid ambiguity, doubt and perplexity. The task of the philosopher is to think through a phenomenon in all of its complexity and ambiguity, thereby blurring simple distinctions. Aristotle would not have claimed that ousia has always been and always will be an object of aporia (1028b2-4) if he imagined that its ambiguity could be solved by simply distinguishing between different meanings and assigning each one a different word.

14One must therefore be rather dismayed when Stevens, in her general conclusion to the volume, treats ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ as simply different senses and wonders why Aristotle did not use different words for them (454); the way in which she asks the question even appears to assume that what we have here is a simple homonymy. She even claims it to be a point of agreement between the different collaborators (not entirely accurately) that this distinction must be made and that different translations (’substance’ versus ‘essence’) must be used to convey it (455). The cost of such an approach is made clear in Stevens’ suggestion that Aristotle uses this ambivalence of the term ousia in order better to refute Plato’s theory of Forms (455). If this were in fact what Aristotle’s refutation amounted to, it would be no better than sophistry.

15Ironically, the last sentence of the volume is the following: “Si la philosophie est invention de concepts, la philosophie grecque se distingue sans doute de la philosophie contemporaine par sa tendance à conserver les memes mots en multipliant leurs sens plutôt qu’à créer un nouveau mot pour chacque nouveau concept” (457). In this case, the present volume, to the extent that it adopts the approach championed by Stevens (which fortunately is limited), is not faithful to the Ancients. And to describe the latter as simply ‘multiplying senses’ rather than as unfolding the richness and complexity of the phenomenon expressed by a word is already to adopt the modern perspective. We in our study of the Ancients must indeed analyze the different meanings and uses of key terms such as ousia: and in this task the present study is a success. But we must not lose sight of the fact that such an analysis is a preliminary tool that must ultimately be dispensed with as we strive with the Ancients to think through the complex but unitary phenomenon to which the term gives expression. Distinctions between the senses of ousia do not solve what both Plato and Aristotle saw as the problem of ousia but instead, in their appearance of clarity and euporia, can prevent us from truly understanding the problem and thus making headway through it. If this study does us the useful service of disentangling the threads, it is our job to re-entangle them with, we must hope, a better sense of where the knots are.

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1 See, e.g., Grundbegriffe der aristotelischen Philosophie, Gesamtausgabe 18 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2002), 24-27, 345-6.

2 Back in 1997 John Cooper, in his introduction to the latest Complete Works of Plato in English translation noted that “no hard data support the customary division of the dialogues into chronological groups, except with respect to the last of the three—the ‘late’ dialogues Timaeus, Critias, Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, and Laws” ([Hackett, 1997], xiv); and even with respect to this last group, Cooper notes that the internal order cannot be determined and suggests that “it is better to relegate thoughts about chronology to the secondary position they deserve and to concentrate on the literary and philosophical content of the works, taken on their own in relation to the others” (xiv). Some have challenged even Cooper’s position, rightly pointing out that the postulation of the ‘late’ group hangs on a very thin thread: that an anecdote in Diogenes Laertius to the effect that the Laws was left unwritten is true and that one can legitimately infer from this that the Laws was the last work Plato wrote and that he began it only after all of the other dialogues had been completed. As Catherine Zuckert has recently noted, “an inference from a centuries-old rumor that Plato must have left the text of the Laws unfinished does not provide a firm basis for determining the order or dates at which the dialogues were written” (Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues [University of Chicago Press, 2009], p. 4). Rather than reproduce all of it here, I refer the reader to Zuckert for the extensive literature challenging the chronology assumed in the present volume.

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Francisco Gonzalez, « André Motte et Pierre Somville (éds.), Ousia dans la philosophie grecque des origines à Aristote  », Études platoniciennes, 7 | 2010, 225-231.

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Francisco Gonzalez, « André Motte et Pierre Somville (éds.), Ousia dans la philosophie grecque des origines à Aristote  », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 7 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2015, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL :

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