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Aristotle and the Masculinization of Phusis
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Neither bound by law nor easily identifiable with the realm of necessity, neither easily unveiled nor separable from the realm of the gods, phusis in Greek antiquity, is—to coin a phrase—said in many ways. From its hapax legomenon in Homer’s Odyssey, referring to the mysterious pharmacological properties of the Moly plant (10.305), to its concealed flowering in the peri phuseōs writings of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, it arrives in a systematic elaboration in the works of Aristotle for whom it designates a realm of movement, and becomes coterminous with teleology. There are also the determinations of phusis in the medical works of Hippocrates and Galen, its use by Herodotus to designate national character (“the Persians are by nature [phusin] hubristic and lack money” [1.89.2]), to say nothing of the way it refers to the order of birth and kinship in tragedy: across texts and genres, then, phusis moves in ambiguous ways both in itself and in its relation to human life. And there is the field of that which phusis opposes: nomos, custom or law, and technē, craft or art, the doings and makings of man as opposed to the productions or generations of nature. Phusis is the noun form derived from phuō, ‘to grow, to be born.’ It is often used in vegetal contexts, indicating growth and rootedness in the earth, but may also refer to one’s natural origins—relations of kinship or blood—and points toward something like an incontrovertible yet fugitive inner essence, the phusis that “loves to hide,” as Heraclitus reminds us in one of his most resonant fragments (B123 DK). Empedocles boldly declares phusis to be merely a name given by men to the “mixing and interchange” of the elements (21/8). One might say that it designates those processes into which and by which we are thrown, that realm of being over which we have little or no control, and yet it is to be sharply distinguished from moira, lot or fate. As phusis emerges in the discourses of the phusikoi, the ancient philosophers of nature, it also comes to bear the metaphysical significance of being as such, and perhaps, as Gerard Naddaf has argued, may also indicate the totality of the process by which the current situation (the human world of ethics and politics, as well as the natural world) of the Greek writers investigating it came into being. My concern in what follows is not, however, to uncover a determinate field of meaning or a precise denotation for phusis, nor to write a definitive genealogy. Rather, I want to trace the profound and decisive shift phusis undergoes in Aristotle’s thought relative to its earlier life in pre-Platonic philosophical and literary discourses, one in which the problematic of sexual difference takes center stage.

I begin by turning to Martin Heidegger’s 1939 essay, “Vom Wesen und Begriff der Φὐσις: Aristoteles, Physik B, I.” Heidegger’s interest in Aristotle’s Physics, which he calls the “hidden, and therefore never adequately studied, foundational book of Western philosophy” (185), stems in the first instance from its attentiveness to the problem of motion, kinēsis, as ontologically primary. Heidegger quotes a sentence from Physics A 2 to illustrate: Ἡμῖν δ’ ὑποκείσθω τὰ φύσει ἢ πάντα ἢ ἔνια κινούμενα εἶναι· δῆλον δ’ ἐκ τῆς ἐπαγωγῆς (185a12–14). A precise and prosaic translation is given by Apostle: “We, on the other hand, make the assumption that things existing by nature are in motion, either all or some of them; and this is clear by induction”; but Heidegger’s more distinctive version runs as follows: “But from the outset it should be (a settled issue) for us that those beings that are by φύσις, whether all of them or some of them [those not in rest], are moving beings (i.e., determined by movedness). But this is evident from an immediate ‘leading toward’ (that leads toward these beings and over and beyond them to their ‘being’)” (186). Here, then, Heidegger is claiming that beings that are by phusis have “movedness” not just as a matter of fact. That is, natural things don’t just happen to be in motion or at rest, but motion is part of their way of being in a way that is ontologically decisive...

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