Aristotle’s Metaphysics of Modality

Citation with persistent identifier: Aimar, Simona. “Aristotle’s Metaphysics of Modality.” CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020).

The Project

We often know what has to be the case in the world for a claim to be true. For instance, we know that the claim

(1)  It is raining in Washington, DC.

is true just in case it is raining in Washington, DC. Thus the fact that it is raining is Washington, DC is the truthmaker of (1): it is what makes (1) true. But there are a class of claim for which things are less straightforward: modal claims, such as necessity-claims and possibility-claims. In ordinary talk, we seem to have a good degree of confidence about whether claims like

(2)  It is possibly raining in Washington, DC.

(3)  It is necessarily raining in Washington, DC.

are true or false. But what has to be the case in the world, if anything, to make (2)-(3) true? What facts, if any, make claims like (2)-(3) true? For instance, what has to be the case out there in the world for it to be true that it is possibly raining in Washington, DC? Call this the issue of the metaphysics of modality.

This issue of the metaphysics of modality is highly debated within the contemporary philosophical debate. Some scholars think we should take modality as primitive. Others try to account for it further. In my research project, I investigate Aristotle’s metaphysics of modality. I ask him: ‘What are the truthmakers of modal claims?’. I thus tackle the issue of the metaphysics of modality by asking the question of what makes modal claims true. I call the truthmakers of modal claims modal truthmakers.

My research raises the question of modal truthmakers in Aristotle for the first time. It reconstructs the answers he has to give us and considers whether and to what extent they bear relevance upon the contemporary metaphysical debate on modality.


The project of reconstructing Aristotle’s metaphysics of modality requires a holistic approach towards his work. This is so for two reasons. First, the question of what the truthmakers of modal claims are is not raised by Aristotle directly. Part of my task is to show how, by putting together different aspects of Aristotle’s system, it emerges that the system implies a commitment to a sophisticated view on the metaphysics of modality. Thus in order to reconstruct this view, my methodology has to be that putting together passages from different philosophical works of the corpus Aristotelicum. More specifically, I closely investigate and put together the views of parts of Aristotle’s metaphysics (from his Metaphysics), philosophy of science (from his Posterior Analytics), philosophy of language (from his De Intepretatione), logic (from his Prior Analytics), and philosophy of nature (from his Physics and biological works).

Research Findings and Future Directions

During the fellowship, my research has been centered on individuating Aristotle’s truthmakers of possibility claims. I have worked on substantiating the notion that for Aristotle there are truthmakers and supported the idea that Aristotle is able to distinguish between different notions of modality. He does so partly thanks to his sensitivity to the different contextual constraints of ancient Greek modals.

Additionally, I have looked into the different notions of power (dunamis) that Aristotle distinguishes within his philosophical system. After clarifying Aristotle’s core notion of dunamis, I developed its implication for truthmakers of possibility-claims. The question I raise is new, since both the fact that Aristotle has truthmakers and the fact that modal claims have truthmakers in his view has not been noticed before.

The more my project develops the more its findings prove to be directly relevant for questions that are hotly debated in the contemporary debate on modality, powers, and causation. In my monograph, I relate my findings to the work of authors such as Fine (1994), Vetter (2015, 2017), and others. In the future, I also plan to develop neo-Aristotelian metaphysical views that preserve some of Aristotle’s intuitions within a contemporary framework directly.

One of the broader issues looming in the background of my project is that of how Aristotle sees logic and metaphysics interact – if at all. The results of my project have important implications for settling this issue. In my view, for Aristotle the relationship between logic and metaphysics is not a one-way street (in either direction). It is not the case that logic constraints the metaphysics, but not vice versa. It is also not the case that the metaphysics constraints the logic but not vice versa. Rather, on the one hand for Aristotle there are reciprocal constraints between these two areas of investigation. This is both because for Aristotle the two disciplines are always as separable as they are taken to be nowadays, and because they both rely on principles that are independently motivated and yet inter-dependent. I envisage to work on this broader issue further upon the completion of the present monograph.

Expected Publications

The bulk of my research will be published as a monograph, titled “Aristotle’s Metaphysics of Modality.” I also envisage two papers on, respectively, Aristotle’s Metaphysics Theta 3 and Aristotle’s Metaphysics Theta 4, as well as a broader piece on the connection between the notion of potentiality (dunamis) and causation within Aristotle’s system.

Talks and Professional Contacts

During my fellowship, I have presented some of the results of my work at a conference in Campinas, organized by Lucas Angioni. I was also given the golden opportunity to present my research directly at the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies. While at the centre, I have especially benefited from discussions with Gregory Nagy, Richard Martin, Rachele Pierini, Emilio Rosamilia, and Mark Shiefsky. I hope that this research stay will only be the first step of a long-lasting dialogue and collaborations.

Select Bibliography

Ackrill, J. 1981. “Aristotle’s Theory of Definition: Some Questions on Posterior Analytics II.8-10.” In Aristotle on Science, ed. E. Berti, 359-384. Padua.

Beere, J. 2009. Doing and Being: An Interpretation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics IX. Oxford.

Bronstein, D. 2016. Aristotle on Knowledge and Learning: The Posterior Analytics. New York.

Charles, D. 2000. Aristotle on Meaning and Essence. Oxford.

Collins, J., N. Hall, and L. Paul, eds. 2004. Causation and Counterfactuals. Cambridge.

Edgington, D. 2011. “Causation First: Why Causation is Prior to Counterfactuals.” In Understanding Counterfactuals, Understanding Causation: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology, ed. C. Hoerl, 230-241. Oxford.

Fine, K. 1994. “Essence and Modality.” In Logic and Language, ed. J. Tomberlin, 1-16. Atascadero, CA.

Hume, D. 1902. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Oxford.

Lewis, D. 1973. “Causation.” Journal of Philosophy, 556-567.

Lloyd, A. C. 1981. “Necessity and Essence in the Posterior Analytics.” In Aristotle on Science, ed. E. Berti, 157-171. Padua.

Mackie, J. 1974. The Cement of the Universe. Oxford.

Malink, M. 2013. Aristotle’s Modal Syllogistic. Princeton.

———. 2016. “Aristotle on One-Sided Possibility.” In Logical Modalities from Aristotle to Carnap, ed. M. Cresswell, 29-49. Cambridge.

Ramachandran, M. 1997. “A Counterfactual Analysis of Causation.” Mind 19:263- 277.

Sorabji, R. 1980. Necessity, Cause and Blame: Perspectives in Aristotle’s Theory. Ithaca.

Stein, N. 2008. The Metaphysics of Aristotelian Explanation. D.Phil Thesis, Oxford University.

Strevens, M. 2003. “Against Lewis’s New Theory of Causation: A Story with Three Morals.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 398-412.