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τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

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τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby frankathl » Mon Oct 11, 2010 10:37 pm

What force does the imperfect tense have in Aristotle's phrase for what something is in itself (καθ’ αὑτο), τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι , usually, though not entirely uncontroversially, translated "essence"? (See, for example, Metaphysics, 1029b 13-14).
Thanks,
Frank
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby modus.irrealis » Tue Oct 12, 2010 5:50 pm

Since there doesn't seem to be a scholarly consensus on the issue, I'll give my own opinion, which is based on things like εἶδος δὲ λέγω τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι 1035b, so it looks like Aristotle means the "form" by τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι. So I think imperfect is simply due to the formal cause being thought of in terms of being anterior in time. I'm thinking of things like the example with the acorn and oak tree, so the "essence" of the acorn/oak was that which was there to make it be what it is. So basically I think it's just a normal past tense.

I was looking for similar usages and found a reference to a passage De Partibus Animalium that says φανερὸν ὅτι τὸ αἷμα ὡδὶ μὲν ἔστι θερμόν, οἷόν τι ἦν αὐτῷ τὸ αἵματι εἶναι, where again I just think it's natural to think of the formal cause as being prior in time.

But I'm analyzing the phrase so that εἶναι goes with ἦν and I'm not sure on that point. The one suggestion I saw is that τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι corresponds to things τὸ ἀγαθῷ εἶναι with τί ἦν representing the dative in this construction, but then I don't know what the imperfect would mean. I find lots of references to the "philosophical imperfect" but even if this is a legitimate category, I don't really see how it applies to Aristotle's phrase.
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby Lavrentivs » Thu Oct 14, 2010 6:26 pm

What about the τί, isn’t that surprising too? Why not τὸ ὃ ἦν ἐἶναι?
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby NateD26 » Thu Oct 14, 2010 6:33 pm

Lavrentivs wrote:What about the τί, isn’t that surprising too? Why not τὸ ὃ ἦν ἐἶναι?

Edit: Sorry. My answer was irrelevant so i deleted it.
Nate.
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby NateD26 » Fri Oct 15, 2010 5:17 am

I cannot comment on the philosophical meaning -- I wish I could. But I think that if it were an articular infinitive,
being what (=that which) it already was, the relative pronoun would be more common as Lavrentivs suggested, wouldn't it?

In p.23 of Basic concepts of Aristotelian philosophy
they give at the beginning only a superficial definition "what-being as it was already" but I don't understand how it goes with the phrase's syntax.
In p.26 they conclude the meaning of the imperfect usage.
Nate.
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby modus.irrealis » Fri Oct 15, 2010 10:52 am

NateD26 wrote:But I think that if it were an articular infinitive, being what (=that which) it already was, the relative pronoun would be more common as Lavrentivs suggested, wouldn't it?

I think you're right.

I took the phrase as having the same overall structure as things like τὸ τί ἐστιν = "what it is".
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby Nolmendil » Fri Mar 22, 2013 9:14 pm

Honestly, I do not know why there is such a controversy about this phrase, when it makes a very simple and clear literal sense. "τὸ" is a definite article that does a "substantivising" job here - or perhaps we could compare it to enclosing a phrase into quotes or italicising it, to mark that it belongs together. The head of the phrase is the infinitive verb "εἶναι". So, we have so far "τὸ εἶναι" "the being", or perhaps better "the 'to be'". Now the infinitive is further determined: to be what? "τί ἦν"! That is: "to be the 'what [it] was?'" - similar to the "τί ἐστιν", but in the past: not "present whatness", but "past whatness". So the meaning of the phrase is "the 'to be what [it] was'", or "the to keep one's hitherto whatness", so to speak. Everything has various "εἶναι" - e.g. to be philosopher, to be in Athens, to be sleepy... And one of these "εἶναι" is the elementary "to be what it was", "to be oneself", to continue in possessing one's identity. So the phrase refers to the the intrinsic principle of diachronic identity, to that which makes the thing remain the same thing it was a moment before, despite any changes it might have undergone. So the Aristotelian "essence" is not just "the 'what is it?'" (τὸ τί ἐστιν), but it has a dynamic, diachronic aspect: it is the principle in virtue of which identity is preserved through time.
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby Paukum » Thu Oct 31, 2013 7:55 pm

I am not sure I agree that «to be what it was» can be a literal translation of the phrase. In that case Aristotle would have written τὸ ὃ ἦν εἶναι, as suggested above, but in this case the ὅ would be a simple relative pronoun functioning as such, not a substitute for the indirect interrogative pronoun. Similarly, in the English phrase «to be what it was», the «what» must be a substitute for «that which», not an indirect interrogative. «What» functions differently in the two sentences «I ask what you are» and «You are what you are». In the latter one may substitute «that which» for «what» without altering the sense, in the former one may not.

If τό qualifies the whole phrase τί ἦν εἰναι in the same way as in the formula τὸ τί ἐστιν, the literal translation would be «the 'what was it to be'» or «the 'what was being'».

If τό qualifies only εἶναι, producing an articular infinitive, there are two possible literal readings, as far as I can see, depending on how you construe τί ἦν with τὸ εἶναι:

(1) τί ἦν is the predicative in the verbal phrase where εἶναι is the head: «to be 'what was it?'»

(2) τί ἦν is a dative attribute of the noun-phrase τὸ εἶναι, functioning in exactly the same way as πελέκει in the phrase τὸ πελέκει εἶναι. Since τί ἦν is not a declinable noun, but a substantival subordinate clause, the dative case does not show in the morphology. The use of the dative must in my opinion be possessive. If accordingly we are entitled to paraphrase the ax-phrase as «the being of the ax», we should be allowed to paraphrase the other phrase as «the being of 'what was it?'».

None of these literal readings give me a satisfactory answer for why Aristotle would use the interrogative clause τί ἦν if what he meant was «to be what(ever) it was» or «the being of what(ever) it was». If that is what he meant, I would expect him to write τὸ ὃ ἦν εἶναι or τὸ ὅτι ἦν εἶναι, where both ὅ and ὅτι function as relative pronouns, not interrogatives.

I won't speculate on the reason for the imperfect, but it may well be that it is supposed to convey diachronic identity.
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby mwh » Sat Nov 02, 2013 1:37 am

I find Aristotle's hard-core philosophical Greek incredibly difficult, and avoid it like the plague, but I think Nolmendil nails this. τί not ὃ because it's not relative (that would be much too simple!) but properly interrogative, as Nolmendil explains, as intelligibly and and cogently as is possible with Greek like this. So Paukum, your construal #1 is correct.
Unless of course I've misunderstood everything, as is entirely possible.

I once joined a couple of philosophers who set about reading Metaphysics gamma (in Greek, needless to say). One was Swiss-German and the other American, and their respective interpretations were so far apart that I found myself in the position of having to try to explain each one's interpretation to the other as we went along, since neither could understand what the other one meant. (The problem was not English, but their different philosophical mind-sets.) My head has never recovered, and I have not looked at the Metaphysics since.
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby cb » Sun Nov 03, 2013 9:59 am

hi, this topic has always interested me and i once wrote an essay on this phrase during my philosophy degree, but over a decade later and with more reading of aristotle, my thoughts on the meaning have changed.

i used to be quite convinced that the imperfect meant what others above had said, that it refers to identity/unity through time.

i spent a lot of time at that time reading the metaphysics, and i haven't read it closely for years and so my current thoughts may be worse than before rather than a positive development.

but i now wonder whether the imperfect was chosen for some syntactic reason in the articular infinitive that i don't fully understand than for a semantic reason (i.e. to show unity through time), because:
- in my quick searches the imperfect only seems to be used in the articular infinitive, and outside that construction there are many references to "τὸ τί ἐστι" etc. where the imperfect doesn't appear
- in aristotle's texts diachronic unity isn't to my memory singled out as the key property of this concept, things like being able to accept contraries etc. come more quickly to mind

there is an allure about finding in the imperfect the meaning of the whole expression, but when i take a step back i remember that trying to understand a concept through its etymology/breaking down its elements is often deceptive (e.g. someone trying to understand what "sweetmeats" in english means may be misled if they started from a breakdown of the elements of the word, and then would be baffled if they read elsewhere that sweetmeats are appropriate for vegetarians...)

and so similarly for this phrase, if i had time to pick up this analysis again, i would instead focus more on exactly how it is used in the metaphysics (its frequent coupling with ἡ οὐσία, how it figures in the τὸ ὑποκείμενον in 1013b, how it is expressed by ὁ λόγος in 983a, etc) rather than focusing on the elements of the word itself. we simply don't know whether aristotle built this word himself to express something critical about the concept, or took it over from someone else at the academy or elsewhere, or built it but on analogy from another concept where the imperfect made sense and where aristotle retained the construction, etc.

i haven't had a chance to investigate any of the above but thought i'd tack my unfinished thoughts on to the end of the discussion, to ask this one question: has anyone been looking at the commentaries on this and seen whether anyone speculates that the imperfect may have been used for syntactic rather than semantic reasons? thanks! cheers, chad
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby Paukum » Mon Nov 04, 2013 12:15 pm

mwh: I agree that τί must be interrogative, and I agree with the first part of Nolmendil's explanation, but then he/she suddenly slips from "to be the 'what [it] was?'" to "the 'to be what [it] was'" seemingly without recognising that these are two different constructions. In the first, the interrogative is kept, in the second we get a relative. If the relative is what Aristotle meant, why did he use an interrogative? It is my impression that a lot of people in explaning the phrase make this transition without accounting for it, thereby making it too easy for themselves, in my opinion. Also, if it is indeed an articular infinitive, it is precisely not construed similarly to the τὸ τί ἐστιν phrase. If it where the same construction, the article would qualify the whole phrase, with ἦν as head.

cb: Could you elaborate on what you have in mind as a syntactic reason for the imperfect?

By the way, I just found an article that seems very promising (it is in German). I have just skimmed parts of it, but my first impression is that he tries to explain the imperfect by connecting it to the use in a phrase of ordinary conversational language, illustrated by Aristophanes. He also compares the syntactical function of the τί ἦν with the so-called cognate accusative (πήματα πάσχειν etc.). This would be a third possibility besides the two possible constructions with the articular infinitive that I proposed above. The article includes a summary of earlier attempts to interpret the phrase.

The link to the article on philpapers.org did not work for me when I tried it now, but the name of the author is Sonderegger and the title is "Die Bildung des Ausdrucks to ti en einai durch Aristoteles". It showed up as one of the first hits when I searched for the phrase on google.
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby cb » Mon Nov 04, 2013 3:28 pm

hi, there's not much more i can helpfully add unfortunately - what i meant was that, since the imperfect in this phrase has been puzzling many for a long time, and since the theory that it's used to show unity through time doesn't really fit cleanly with the rest of the text and especially the use of "τὸ τί ἐστι" with a similar meaning, for these reasons i was wondering whether the imperfect was not used for a semantic reason - i.e. used to signify past/progressive etc. or some other category of meaning expressed by the imperfect -- but instead because the verb figures in that particular syntactic context (embedded in a clause within an articular infinitive), the same way that the "subject" of an articular infinitive kicks into the accusative etc.

but as i said if this is the case, i.e. if the usage of the imperfect here is for a syntactic reason (because the verb is used in that syntactic environment) rather than a semantic one (i.e. to express one of the things that the imperfect can signify), it's happening for a reason that i don't fully understand because i'm not aware of a "sequence of tenses" like this working in greek, and in any event investigating this would be tricky because in a way the phrase is a black box - we don't know whether aristotle "built" it himself or was using it as a pre-packed expression inherited from someone else to explain his philosophy...

for that reason i'm not posing a non-semantic reason for the imperfect as the more likely reason, but just as another train of thought for this old puzzle. the best way to take that forward, if someone had time, would be to look at the usage of embedded clauses within articular infinitives, at that particular point in the development of the articular infinitive, and see if any conclusions could be drawn... i'm hoping someone has already done this work and so was wondering what other explanations for the imperfect (other than semantic explanations) that people have explored in the literature on this. cheers, chad
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby mwh » Tue Nov 05, 2013 12:38 am

I'm totally unqualified to say anything at all about this, but it's an intriguing question, and a quick TLG search of the phrases turns up Anal.90b-91ab. That looks at least potentially helpful: first in distinguishing τὸ τί ἐστι from ὅ(τι) ἐστί, for those who were puzzled by this, and then, more significantly, in separating τὸ τί ἐστι from τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι. 91a.25 (re syllogism of τὸ τί ἐστι): εἰ δὴ τὸ τί ἐστι καὶ τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι ἄμφω ἔχει, ἐπὶ τοῦ μέσου ἔσται πρότερον τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι.

This seems to show that the distinction is in fact semantic rather than merely syntactical (cb). As to the εἶναι, which at first sight seems redundant (at least to me), I'd guess it makes τί ἦν functionally dative, as in e.g. τὸ σοὶ εἶναι; this seems to make the distinction intelligible, too, or at least less unintelligible?--different, at any rate. I see this suggestion was reported in modus.irrealis's post of Oct.12.

Paukum, I have to accept the points you make. It was impertinent of me to jump in before, and particularly to endorse your earlier suggestion #1 (τί ἦν simple predicate) when now that I've read some actual passages (but still not anything else) I'd favour your #2. No less impertinent to jump in again now, for I'm way out of my depth in this territory and incompetent even to give an opinion. I merely offer the Analytics passage in case it's useful.
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby cb » Tue Nov 05, 2013 6:50 am

hi, many thanks for that reference. it definitely suggests there's a difference between τὸ τί ἐστι and τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι. i'd still love to find out whether the imperfect is used for a semantic or non-semantic reason. one day i'll come back to the metaphysics, in the meantime this discussion above is v helpful! thanks, chad
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby mwh » Thu Nov 07, 2013 5:05 am

I'm no philosopher, but I think we can be sure the choice of tense is exclusively determined by semantic considerations.
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Re: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

Postby Cheiromancer » Thu Feb 27, 2014 11:54 pm

In the end I decided that τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι means "primary being". I read τί ἦν not as "what was" but as "what is prior in time". When Aristotle talks about priority, temporal priority is the first and main definition: it can thus stand for all forms of priority. In Metaphysics Zeta he argues how οὐσία is primary in every way, and this discussion links up nicely with the discussion of "essence" (the traditional translation of τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι) if the latter expression refers to primacy.

You might think he would use an expression like τὸ πρῶτον or something, but he has to use forms of the verb "to be" to express his claims about being being primary, or else some other concept would turn out to be even more basic and primary.
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