On the Principles of Reality


  • Edward Halper University of Georgia




Aristotle, Principle, Cause, Laws of Nature, Problem of Location


This paper proposes a framework through which to understand the difference between ancient and modern approaches to the principles of being and knowing, it shows how the limitations of the ancient approach led to modern approaches, and it explores some of the difficulties with modern approaches.  Taking Aristotle as exemplary of the ancient approach, the paper argues, first, that he takes an individual ousia to be the unit of knowledge and being and that that allows him to locate principles within individual ousiai and, thereby, to explain what it is to be a principle.  Although this Aristotelian synthesis is quite attractive, the paper argues, second, that it faces difficulties in accounting for relations between ousiai because such relations cannot properly belong to a single ousia but are, nevertheless, important for understanding the cosmos as a whole.  Thomas Aquinas overcomes some of these difficulties by, as it were, strengthening the unity of the cosmos to allow the reality of proportions, but he retains ousiai as fundamental units.  Third, the paper argues that it was philosophers from the modern period who overcame Aristotle’s limitations by taking relations rather than ousiai to be the principles of knowledge and being.  These relations are the laws of nature.  However, since these laws must themselves have some sort of reality, modern philosophers then faced what the paper calls “the problem of location”: How can these principles be located in the world?  What must be the nature of the world if the laws of nature belong to it?  The paper shows that a number of arguments made by modern philosophers become intelligible when we see them as solutions to this problem.  However, the paper proposes, in the end, that neither the ancient nor the modern approaches to principles yield adequate solutions to the questions of what it is to be a principle and what the fundamental unity of knowledge and reality is.