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Reviewed by:
  • Aristotle's Science of Matter and Motion by Christopher Byrne
  • Graeme Hunter (bio)
Christopher Byrne. Aristotle's Science of Matter and Motion. University of Toronto Press, 2018. x, 196. $55.00

It is fitting that this lucid and provocative account of Aristotle's physics by Christopher Byrne should be published by the University of Toronto Press because it exemplifies the approach to the history of philosophy for which the University of Toronto was once renowned. The author's focus is on a single philosophical figure, Aristotle. He exhibits an unostentatious mastery of the [End Page 123] Greek language in which Aristotle wrote and magisterially expounds the texts dealing with the part of natural philosophy that is under consideration (physics). The language of exposition is non-technical as far as possible, and where technical terms are necessary, their meaning is explained.

Byrne begins with what is obvious: perceptible objects. If nothing were perceptible, there could be no physics. And unless physical contact was possible among physical objects, none of them would be perceptible. Physics itself would not exist if we could not, through our senses, enter into physical contact with perceptible objects. It is through this contact that we become aware of the sublunar array of bodies surrounding us and the celestial ones above.

From this starting point, Aristotle's Science of Matter and Motion slowly introduces and motivates Aristotle's ideas of the "natural place" of physical objects and the "natural motion" that inclines them towards that place. The possibility of motion in general, so pre-supposed, entails the three-dimensionality of physical bodies. Locomotion (motion from one place to another) is introduced as the "the first and most fundamental kind of change, even more important than generation and destruction" because all physical objects are capable of motion from place to place, but not all can be generated or destroyed.

A little more than half of this concise book – roughly, chapters one to six – is devoted to an analytic development of the whole web of concepts necessary for understanding Aristotle's physics. A great deal of what is required for that purpose involves the nature of causality, which produces the motion and change that is the chief purpose of physics to explain. Byrne, therefore, must explain material, formal, and final causality and the role that efficient causes play in each. In addition, he must look at the operation of the four terrestrial elements and the fifth (celestial) one, along with the underlying material substratum of them all – "prime matter." There are further subtle points that must also be acknowledged in presenting these terms and their use. Byrne never loses the narrative thread nor fails to weave it into his plain-spun account. The last four chapters and the conclusion are devoted to showing how Aristotle's conceptual framework enables him to develop a physics that saves both terrestrial and celestial phenomena. It is astonishing that this task can be performed so lucidly in so few pages. There could be no better secondary text for an undergraduate or graduate course on Aristotle's physics.

These words of praise may give the impression that Aristotle's Science is exclusively a work of popularization suitable for readers venturing for the first time into Aristotelian natural philosophy. And, indeed, it is difficult to imagine a secondary work that would serve them better. But Aristotle's Science will also be read with surprise, and perhaps a little vexation, by scholars who are wed to any of a number of widespread commonplaces in Aristotle scholarship. In the course of his systematic exposition of Aristotle's physics, Byrne offhandedly dismantles several parts of what might be called the conventional view of Aristotle's physics today.

Here is a book that ought by rights to function not just as an introduction to Aristotelian natural philosophy but also as an invitation to all who [End Page 124] are expert in Aristotelian thought either to reassess some of their long-unexamined assumptions or to defend them in terms as lucid and balanced as those of Aristotle's Science of Matter and Motion.

Oh, and one more thing, the next edition ought to have an index.

Graeme Hunter



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pp. 123-125
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