Workshop in Ancient Philosophy (Week 5, HT18)

Ancient Philosophy

The School of Athens

Speaker: Ana-Laura Edelhoff (Hamburg)

Title: 'Aristotle on Ontological Priority in the Categories'


In this paper I analyze Aristotle’s account of ontological priority (what he calls “priority in substance” [proteron kata ousian] or “priority in nature” [proteron tēi phusei]), which he conceives of as asymmetric ontological dependence between two beings (onta). In offering a detailed reconstruction of the passages on ontological priority in the Categories, I hope to demonstrate that Aristotle’s theory on ontological priority, while problematic, is more profound and more sophisticated than previously thought. 

Until now, two understandings of Aristotle’s account of ontological dependence have been predominant: one in terms of asymmetric existential dependence and the other in terms of asymmetric essential dependence. My reading shows that the debate about whether Aristotle has an existential or essentialist account of priority has been based on a mistaken presupposition, namely that Aristotle employs “einai” univocally. By showing that within a single statement on ontological priority and simultaneity Aristotle often uses the notion “einai” in different ways, I show that no unified account is adequate.

My reading provides a less unified picture of Aristotle’s account of ontological priority than previous readings. Although it is somewhat unsatisfactory to not have a unified account, my reading is closer to the text and establishes its results on a broader textual basis than previous interpretations that attempt to develop a unified reading. In particular, I argue for a disjunctive account consisting of the following two sufficient conditions that are disjunctively necessary:

(1) A is ontologically prior to B, if necessarily B’s being implies A’s being, but, not necessarily, A’s being implies B’s being.

(2) A is ontologically prior to B, if necessarily, A’s being implies B’s being, and necessarily, B’s being implies A’s being; and A’s being is a cause of B’s being. 

I argue that “implication of being” can be understood either existentially or predicatively (whereby I subsume the veridical reading under the predicative reading), and that we even have “mixed” readings (in which case two different uses of “einai” are employed in the same statement about priority). How one is to read the “implication of being” must be decided on a case-by-case basis.


Convenors: Dr Karen Margrethe Nielsen, Prof Ursula Coope, and Dr Luca Castagnoli

Webpage: Workshop in Ancient Philosophy