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Aristotle's Theory of Material Substance: Heat and Pneuma, Form and Soul

by Gad Freudenthal

Buy the book: Gad Freudenthal. Aristotle's Theory of Material Substance: Heat and Pneuma, Form and Soul

Release Date: April, 1999

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Gad Freudenthal. Aristotle's Theory of Material Substance: Heat and Pneuma, Form and Soul

Scholarly and Informative

This is a slender, enjoyable book from Oxford University Press's Clarendon imprint. Gad Freudenthal (CNRS, Paris) sets out to explain Aristotle's conception of material substance in his various works. Bluntly stated, the problem (according to the author) is that while Aristotle speaks rather clearly about coming-to-be and passing-away he doesn't offer an immediately intelligible account of the persistance of things. Obviously, form (eidos) plays a large role in this but there are other factors as well and Freudenthal endeavors to uncover them. More accurately, Freudenthal states that it is "vital heat" or "pneuma" which plays the very important role of imparting form to substance. Needless to say, Aristotle is not always very clear on how vital heat does this or, even, if it does this on all occasions so it is up to intrepid commentators like Freudenthal to compare and contrast the various passages in the Aristotlean corpus in an attempt to render something like an accurate account of the role of vital heat. The author is quite up to the task as he does a lovely job of discussing the various accounts Aristotle gives us as well as advancing the provocative thesis that, with the discover of vital heat, Aristotle was trying to give a physiological account of all psychological phenomenon except for the highest type, nous (which is the priviledged possession of man among terrestrial creatures). This is not without it problems, as the author well acknowledges, and it is not without its share of controversy. The journey, however, is well worth making.

Why, then, is this only a 4-starred review? I found this work to be stimulating and accessible while still being quite intelligent and faithful to the spirit of scholarship. It was relatively "jargon-free" and light on the polemics. There are certain peculiarities, however, in the author's explication which seem to indicate that a very modern prejudice is ruling his commentary. For example, he likes to speak of Aristotle's discussion and investigation of "vital heat" as a "research programme" (182) as if Aristotle were a scientist at the NIH or a biologist at Columbia University. He tends to assume that philosophy in Aristotle's time is supposed to "systematic" ie. that all facets are supposed to dovetail with one another to reveal a comprehensive picture of the cosmos. This assumption leads him into the thicket of "developmental" interpretation where he proceeds to associate the less-coherent elements of Aristotle's vital heat with an early, immature form of Aristotle's philosophy. As there is little evidence that Aristotle changed his mind ala Wittgenstein it is problematic to assume that such must have been the case. There is a very real possibility that each one of Aristotle's works was written to address a specific problem or set of problems and it is that areas which he concentrated upon. This would mean that each work was written for a specific audience or reader and idiosyncratic statements are localized within that work, as opposed to being attributable to a garbled understanding of the world. This is not to dismiss the difficulties inherent in Aristotle's explanations but to view them as deliberate instead of unconscious or the product of an ever-changing view of the matter. I do agree whole-heartedly with the author when he states, "[a]t times, identifying Aristotle's problems may be more revealing than recording his solutions" (144). This statement is equally relevant to Freudenthal's own work, and it is well worth the effort to read this commentary slowly and carefully.

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