Aristotle vs. Empedokles on change and generation

Ritzi asked:

Do you agree with Aristotle’s criticisms, in ‘On Generation and Corruption’, of Empedocles’ account of change?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Purely on their own terms, the pre-Socratics did a respectable job, considering that they were the first to get to grips with such problems as you refer to. By the same token, it is clear that Aristotle’s acumen on these matters went far beyond them. Accordingly (in terms of your question) one cannot but agree with Aristotle’s criticism, as Empedokles did not stick to some of his own principles or, perhaps, did not notice that he fell into self-contradiction when he changed his angle of vision.

To start with, his four elements are described as “simple”, meaning they have no parts. When therefore they aggregate in bulk, it involves stacking or chaining identical element together, i.e. water is simply a mass of them. From this it is clear that Empedokles is pluralist and committed to differentiating between coming-to-be and going-through-change. In fact he says that there is no coming-to-be at all, but only mingling in the inception of material substances, followed by further accretion and avulsion. So a certain amount of water and earth mingling make mud; and now the air may conspire to deprive the mud of some moisture and change its material constitution, and vice versa for rain.

So far so good, and it still conforms to Aristotle’s criterion that change is an observable. We see the mud changing under the impact of rain or sunshine. But what is changing is the quality of the object. The constituent elements may increase or decrease, but in themselves remain unaffected. Water cannot become earth, nor earth turn into water.

This is the point at which Empedokles gets caught talking double-dutch. Aristotle says, coming-to-be entails a change in the substance, i.e. “When nothing perceptible persists in the substratum and the thing changes as a whole, such an occurrence is no longer an alteration.” Aristotle cites the conversion of a seed into blood, which is plainly the coming-to-be of one substance at the expense of the other, which creases-to-be concurrently. Empedokles did not consider this aspect of his four roots, that they all had to come out of the One of Parmenides; moreover this process must also be considered in light of “Love and Strife still fighting with one another… so presumably his roots had no distinctive existence at all while merged in one” (315a). Empedokles then compounds the error by insisting that every further thing coming-to-be also emanates from the One. But this implies that e.g. water must emerge twice, from two sources, once as a substrate and then again as a mass.

These are the tribulations of pioneers!

Aristotle goes on to praise Demokritos and Leukippos for their courage in taking the final step towards monism, which eliminates the possibility of falling into these types of self-contradiction. This tells us something about himself as well — that he could quite possibly have announced Occam’s Razor 1700 years before Occam did it!

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