SEGALERBA, Gianluigi. Semantik und Ontologie: drei Studien zu Aristoteles. Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2013. Resenha de: CARRARO, Nicola. Philósophos, Goiânia, v. 23, n. 1, p.179-190, jan./jun., 2018.

The book is a collection of three independent exegetical es-says on Aristotle’s theoretical philosophy. The common el-ement that unifies them is the contrast between Aristotle’s own ontology, which Segalerba (S.) qualifies as a “typologi-cal ontology” (“typologische Ontologie”), and Aristotle’s inter-pretation of Plato’s theory of Ideas, which he labels as a “gradualist ontology” (“stufenartige Ontologie”).

As S. declares in the preliminary remark (p. XIII), his focus lies mainly on the theory of Ideas as understood and criticized in Aristotle’s writings, including On Ideas, a lost work on whose content we are indirectly informed thanks to a long digression in Alexander of Aphrodisia’s Commen-tary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. However, this theory is con-sidered not so much for its intrinsic merits, but mainly to bring into sharper focus Aristotle’s own position on the on-tological status of universals.

According to S., the Platonic theory that postulates the existence of eternal models that exist independently from the perceptible individuals that are their copies can be characterized as “gradualist” because it asserts that percep-tible individuals are to a lesser degree what eternal models are to a higher degree. Thus, the only thing that is perfectly human according to a Platonist is the Idea of “human”, while perceptible individuals like Socrates and Plato are on-ly human to a certain degree. By contrast Aristotle’s ontolo-gy is “typological” since he conceives universals as types of entities of which individuals are instantiations. In S.’s view, he thinks that being a type is incompatible with being an instantiation: therefore, it is incorrect to say that the prop-erty of being a human being is a human being. And while he admits that some types (such as hotness and coldness) can be instantiated to a higher or lower degree, he denies this of the types whose instances are “primary substances”, i.e. concrete individuals like Socrates and Plato. This allows him to claim that the most basic entities are not universals, but rather individual primary substances.

The first essay (“Aspekte der aristotelischen Theorie der zweiten Substanzen als Universalien”) contrasts the typological ontology of Aristotle’s Categories with the gradualist ontolo-gy criticized in On Ideas, and particularly in the section de-voted to the so-called “third-man argument”. S. stresses that Aristotle is committed to the existence of universals. He ar-gues that, contrarily to what some interpreters have con-tended, the difference between Platonic Ideas and Aristotelian universals does not consist exclusively in the fact that Ideas can exist independently from perceptible in-dividuals, but also in the fact that they are conceived as paradigmatic instantiations, while Aristotelian universals are not instantiations of themselves. He goes on to claim that the same ontology is also recognizable in a passage of On Interpretation, and that it lies behind Aristotle’s solution of the third-man argument at Sophistical Refutations 22, 178b36-179a10 and his criticism of Ideas at Metaphys-ics M.9, 1086a31-b16.

In the second essay (“Aspekte der Substanz bei Aristoteles”), S. compares Aristotle’s treatment of substance and univer-sals in the Categories and in the Metaphysics, claiming that, for the most part, his stand on these matters is coherent be-tween the two works. He argues against interpreters who think that, in the central books of the Metaphysics, Aristotle gives up his commitment to the objective existence of uni-versals, or that he abandons the idea that the most basic en-tities are concrete individuals living beings, in favour of an ontology in which forms play the role of basic entities. On the other hand, he individuates some claims that Aristotle makes in the Metaphysics and elsewhere and that are absent (or, at least, not explicit) in the Categories: most notably, the view that the form of each individual substance is a particu-lar, which S. takes to be an implication of some passages in Metaphysics Z, and the view that universals exist only poten-tially unless somebody is thinking about them, which he considers as one of the results of the treatment of thought in On the Soul.

The third essay (Synonymie in der Kategorienschrift gegen Nicht-Homonymie im Argument aus den Bezüglichen) has a more limited scope. For the most part, it consists of an analysis of Aristotle’s description and criticism of the so-called “argument from the relatives” in On Ideas (Alexan-der, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, 82,11–83,17). S. argues that the position of the proponent of the argument can be identified with what he calls “gradualist ontology”, and that Aristotle’s rejection of the argument is based on his rejection of a Platonising analysis of the notion of syn-onymy that he replaces with his own account from the Cat-egories.

The three essays are preceded only by a very short pre-liminary remark, which concentrates exclusively on S.’s pol-icy when it comes to dealing with Aristotle’s interpretation of Plato (apart from bibliographical indications on transla-tions and commentaries). Each essay consists of several chapters, many of which are devoted to the analysis of short passages from different works in the Aristotelian corpus: from the Categories to the Metaphysics, and from the Sophisti-cal Refutations to On the Soul. A glance at the preliminary materials might therefore give the impression of a study on Aristotle’s understanding of Plato, or of a miscellaneous work mainly concerned with the solution of local interpre-tative issues. However, these impressions could not be more misleading. S. is not writing history of reception, and (with few exceptions) he is not focusing on details. Rather he aims to solve what might well be the most contentious among the countless exegetical problems that have in-flamed interpreters of Aristotle since Antiquity: his views on universals and the exact reasons for his rejection of Pla-to’s theory of Ideas. The main virtues and the main weak-nesses of the book can all be traced back to this extremely ambitious goal.

A positive feature of the book lies in its focus on Aris-totle’s works and on global exegetical questions concerning his philosophy, rather than on debates in the secondary lit-erature. Many studies on Ancient philosophy have the ten-dency to give too much weight to disputes among other interpreters. At times this can generate artificial questions that have little to do with the texts themselves, but rather arise from the internal dialectic of the debate. S., by con-trast, always concentrates on what Aristotle thinks, rather than on what others think that he thinks. Another virtue of the book lies in its clarity: S. chooses his words carefully, and he is explicit in the definition of the terms that he uses. He also has an appreciable tendency to privilege precision over style, and he does not shy away from reiterating his point one more time when he deems it useful to make his argument more understandable. A special care is given to the translations, which are always elegant and precise. When the text can be constructed in more than one way, this is often indicated and discussed in a footnote.

The most valuable feature of the book, however, lies in the interpretation itself. S. provides a promising counter model to two traditional, diametrically opposed, and prima facie plausible ways to interpret Aristotle’s reaction to Pla-to’s theory of Ideas. According to the first of these readings, Aristotle sees Ideas as universals that can exist independent ly from concrete individuals. This interpretation stresses the continuity between Plato and Aristotle and holds that, in spite of the polemical tones of his criticism of ideas, Aristo-tle agrees with Plato more than he cares to admit: their dis-agreement concerns not so much the existence of Ideas, but rather their metaphysical status as “separate” entities. On the second interpretation, Aristotle rejects Ideas because he does not think that universals exist independently from the human mind, and he adopts a conceptualist stance on uni-versals, while their role as essences of concrete individuals is taken over by particular forms.

S.’s most important move consists in questioning the main premise on which these interpretations are both based: the view that Aristotle regards Plato’s theory of Ideas as a theory of universals. S. claims that, when he argues against Platonists, Aristotle does not aim to either modify or reject an already existing theory of universals, but rather to “introduce” for the first time universals into western phi-losophy. This conclusion is based on the hypothesis that Platonic Ideas (at least as they are understood by Aristotle) are not universals, but rather paradigmatic individuals, which have a certain property to the highest degree, where-as perceptible objects are copies, which have the same property to a lower degree.

According to S., Aristotle criticizes this gradualist on-tology by noticing that the talk of “degrees” is only mean-ingful for certain properties: while an object can be darker than another, it would be meaningless to claim that Tiger instantiates the property of being a cat to a higher degree than Felix. For this reason, he abandons the Platonic view that the primary objects of knowledge should be conceived as ideal models that are copied by perceptible objects, and argues instead that they should be seen as types that are in-stantiated by the particulars. Whereas Plato’s models differ from their copies mainly because of their perfection and eternity, Aristotelian universals differ from their instantia-tions mainly because they have a different logical status: while particulars instantiate universals, universals do not instantiate themselves. Saying that the universal “cat” is a cat would be a category mistake.

One could, of course, question whether this is a fair representation of Plato’s theory of Ideas. S. recognizes this, and is careful to distinguish Aristotle’s representation of the theory of Ideas and the views held by the historical Pla-to, on which he appropriately remains agnostic, given the focus of his study. His goal is not to argue that Aristotle’s understanding of Plato is correct, but rather to show that the opposition between “gradualist” and “typological” on-tology provides the framework that is needed in order to understand what Aristotle thinks of himself as doing when he criticizes Plato and other Platonists.

Establishing whether S.’s interpretation is correct is a task that would go beyond the limits of this review. Howev-er, I find it a clear and appealing reading, which has the merit of explaining both Aristotle’s polemical tone when he argues against Plato and his apparent commitment to the objective existence of universals as a condition for the pos-sibility of thought and knowledge.

While the broad and ambitious scope of S.’s book is what makes it interesting, it also threatens to make it over-whelming and, at times, perplexing in its argumentative strategy, methodology, and structure. One sometimes gets the impression that S. is trying to cover too much ground and that, for this reason, his arguments end up being un-convincing even though his position is interesting and in-trinsically plausible. My criticism will concentrate on the following five points, in decreasing order of importance. 1) S. often does not contextualize passages within the book or work in which they appear. 2) He often fails to adequately discuss possible objections against his interpretations, or to consider evidence for alternative readings. 3) He sometimes omits to highlight and discuss internal tensions in the thought of Aristotle, or in the views that he attributes him. 4) The structure of the book makes for some repetitions. 5) Some sections are inessential to the overall argument.

1) S. takes a global approach to Aristotle’s text. He em-phasizes the continuity between supposedly early works like the Categories and On Interpretation and supposedly mature works like the Metaphysics. He also stresses the affinities be-tween the works that we possess through direct transmis-sion and the information on the lost treatise On Idea that we have thanks to Alexander’s commentary to the Metaphys-ics. What is often absent from the picture, however, is the role of a passage within the argumentative strategy of a work. S. tends to treat passages almost as if they were isolat-ed fragments, without explaining their connection with what precedes or follows them.

This approach is especially questionable when dealing with books whose argumentative structure is intricate and opaque, such as Metaphysics Z. It is notoriously difficult to untangle what the different sections of this treatise are do-ing. In many cases, it is not clear whether Aristotle is argu ing ad hominem against an opponent, raising possible objec-tions against his own position, or giving his considerate opinion on the matter. In S.’s exposition, these distinctions often get blurred, under the assumption that every passage contains Aristotle’s final word on a given issue. By contrast I think that we should at least entertain the possibility that chapters such as Z. 13 (pp. 270–284) are aporetic to a cer-tain extent, and that not all of the premises used in their arguments are unconditionally endorsed by Aristotle.

Another instance in which the lack of contextualization threatens the cogency of S.’s arguments is the analysis of Aristotle’s theory of perception and thinking in On the Soul (pp. 285–310). One of the main upshots of this discussion for S.’s argument is to provide further corroboration for the view that universals have objective existence independently from the human mind (p. 295). S. argues that, since Aristo-tle holds that the intellect thinks by acquiring universals, rather than by creating them itself, these universals must have “an autonomous existence”. It seems to me that Aris-totle’s main concern in the passages analysed by S. is not with the ontological status of universals, but rather with the way in which thinking as a psychological activity takes place. Even a philosopher who is not committed to univer-sals as independently existent entities could agree with the idea that concepts are not freely created by the intellect. The claim that thinking happens in that the intellect is ac-tualised by the universals could just mean that concepts are produced by extracting common elements from repeated experiences, and does not in itself commit Aristotle to uni-versals that exist independently of the mind.

2) I have already mentioned that S.’s focus on Aristotle rather than debates in the secondary literature can be re-garded as a positive feature of the book. However, I also think that he brings this approach too far. While the bibli-ography runs for eleven pages and includes well over 200 ti-tles, S. mentions the overwhelming majority of these works only as further reading. Instances in which he directly voic-es major disagreement with other interpreters are much more limited. The most notable examples are arguably his rejection of Gail Fine’s diagnosis of Aristotle’s criticism of Platonic Ideas (see esp. p. 19)3 and of Michael Frede and Günther Patzig’s4 view that, in Metaphysics Z, Aristotle elim-inates universals from his ontology (see esp. p. 280). Even in these instances, however, S. does not directly engage with his opponents’ arguments, and he rests his case almost ex-clusively on textual support for his own reading. Given the importance that S.’s rejection of these interpretations has for his overall argument, a more thorough discussion would have been advisable.

3 Gail

3) One instance in which S. fails to highlight an inter-nal tension within the view that he attributes to Aristotle concerns the issue of whether forms are universal or partic-ular, which is, of course, one of the central choices that face any scholar that deals with these topics. S.’s answer in ecu-menical but somewhat difficult to grasp. He thinks that, for Aristotle, forms are both universal and particular. On the one hand, he holds that the essence of an individual can only be universal (p. 282), since it is not a concrete entity, but a “biological program” that can be instantiated in sev eral individuals. On the other hand, he believes that each instantiation of this biological program is a particular (p. 275). At the same time, S. also attributes to Aristotle the be-lief that not only concrete individuals like Socrates, but also their essences must be particulars (pp. 274–275): “Socra-tes’s essence cannot be common to other people, because it already constitutes a concrete instance of the essence taken generally” (p. 275).

To me, this answer sounds arbitrary: once we allow universal forms into our ontology, I do not see a compel-ling reason to identify the essence of Socrates with a partic-ular rather than with the universal form: why not simply say that Socrates’s essence is the “biological program” that he has in common with Plato, etc.? And why identify instantia-tions of this biological program with individual forms ra-ther than with the concrete individuals (Socrates, Plato, etc.) themselves? I should stress that I am not necessarily criticizing S. for attributing to Aristotle this position: after all Aristotle can, at times, hold strange views. Rather, I am saying that the position itself is rather weak. It seems to me that, if S. is correct in arguing that Aristotle is defending this theory, he has the responsibility of either acknowledg-ing its awkwardness, or proposing some strategy to fix it.

4) As already mentioned, the book tends to support a single theory, but it is formally constituted by three inde-pendent essays. At times, this can produce some repeti-tions. For instance, the two analyses of the meaning of “substance” in the Categories (pp. 24–41 and pp. 124–189) contain many common elements, such as the claim that secondary substances work both as classes of individuals and as features that are common to many individuals, the claim that the Categories are at least in part a response to Platonic ontology, or the contrast between Aristotle’s own ontology in the Categories and the one he criticizes in On Ideas. These redundancies represent a disturbance to the general flow of the argument, and the readability of the book would have been improved had the three essays been unified into a single monograph.

5) Occasionally, the book also contains some superflu-ous material. The most evident example is the chapter de-voted to Aristotle’s views on immaterial substances in Metaphysics Λ (pp. 311–318). It is not hard to see why S. deems it appropriate to discuss this topic: after all, Plato’s Ideas are immaterial entities, and it might therefore be im-portant to stress that Aristotle’s rejection of them does not translate into an overall ban on immaterial entities. How-ever, this chapter is too short to provide an original contri-bution on such a heavily studied topic, and its relevance to the economy of S.’s argument is far from obvious.

In conclusion, the book offers a clear, ambitious, and convincing interpretation of a central point of Aristotle’s philosophy. However, it would have highly benefitted if S. had selected a narrower corpus of texts, paid more atten-tion to the context of the passages that he analyses, and en-gaged more thoroughly with his opponents’ arguments.


1 Gail Fine, Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Theory of Forms, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

2 Michael Frede, and Günther Patzig, eds., Aristoteles: Metaphysik Z, München: Beck, 1988


SEGALERBA, Gianluigi. Semantik und Ontologie: drei Studien zu Aristoteles. Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2013.

Nicola Carraro – UNICAMP. The research for this paper was financed thanks to a FAPESP postdoctoral fellowship at Unicamp and a Junior Thyssen Fellowship at the Central European University in Budapest. Nicola Carraro obtained a PhD from the University of Munich in Germany, and held teaching and re-search positions in Germany, the US, France, Brazil, and Hungary. He has published on Aristo-tle’s conception of the soul and on his reception of Presocratic thinkers. His main research interests are Aristotle’s metaphysics, his conception of nature, and his philosophy of biology. E-mail: [email protected]

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