Notion Of Change And Permanence In Aristotle

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The sense of wonder is the mark of the philosophers.  Thus, according to Aristotle, “all men by nature desire to know”1.  On the same note, philosophically and otherwise, man has to give meaning to the mysteries befogging his finite nature.  Therefore it is not out of place that we are dragged into the concepts and facts of change and permanence.

To the philosophers then, this omnipresent fact of change and permanence offered a paradoxical challenge stretching from the ancient Greek philosophy, through the medieval and modern, down the contemporary period.  Succinctly put, the problem of change and permanence is as old as philosophy itself hence according to Popkin, R.H:

Greek thinkers were impressed with the two basic features of the world, the occurrence of natural change and the continuance of certain apparently permanent conditions.2

The earliest Greek thinkers attempted to work out explanations of reality by asserting that underlying all the apparent changes; there is real, unchangeable element.  The motive behind this inquiry as highlighted by Mullin E. was that,

…If the many could be seen in some way as instances of one, it would then be sufficient to grasp the one.3

Thus reality is one thing, which however, appears in different guises at different times.

Against this background, some thinkers proceeded by way of action and reaction and delved into formulating theories in view of the enigma of change and permanence.  The problem they grappled with was prompted by fact of material change, and the principle they posited were arrived at through observation and thought. “For Thales, reality was water, for Anaximander, it was the ‘boundless’ or the infinite; and for Anaximanes, it was air.”4 In the history of Greek thought these earliest thinkers were called the pre-Socratics.  Referring to them, Copleston observed that,

…We can already discern in them the notion of unity in difference and of difference as entering into unity.5

Hence, Heraclitus consolidated change at the expense of permanence while Parmenides argued that, “absolute change is impossible and unthinkable and by nature things are permanent.”6 So for Heraclitus, all things flow; nothing abides, thus, “one cannot step twice in the same river”.7  Whereas Parmenides states that change, becoming or motion is impossible, because they would involve both non-being and being which being contradictories, cannot both be.  Thus, according to Parmenides, “Being is; non-being is not.”8 The position of these two champions gave rise to the great controversy on change and permanence, which arose as to how things can change and yet remain the same.  It was in an attempt to solve this ‘excruciating’ problem in philosophy that Aristotle came up with his principles of act and potency, Hylemorphism and categories (substance and Accidents).

However, in change what takes place is neither annihilation nor creation but transition of being from one state to another.  Wherever there is change, it presupposes the reality of that which changes.  Therefore, there is permanence and there is change.


The philosophical debate as to whether change or permanence will take the upper hand over the other is a problem that cannot be over looked in philosophical discipline at all times.  Hence, the problem at stake here is how true is it that what we call change really takes place? And why things will remain the same despite the occurrence of change?  This central question provoked many others, thus how can one and the same entity turn into that which it previously was not? If everything changes all the time, could there actually be any permanence, real, unchanging feature of the universe? And if reality were actually unchanging and unchangeable, how could it have any thing to do with the apparent world of change and how could it explain the world of change.

Commenting on this, Egbeke Aja states that,

As early philosophers explored these problems, it seemed to them that change and permanence were incompatible, and that reality had to be one or the other, either ever changing or completely permanent.9

This originated because of the conflict between our sense perception and that made by the intellect.  The intellect sees reality as one while the senses grasp reality as many and always in flux.  But how can we reconcile this apparent contradiction between our sense perception of reality and that given by our intellect?

In all, two basic problems could be deduced from this topic, namely

1.                 Must we take seriously both multiplicity and the oneness of being or can we affirm one aspect and dissolve the other as mere appearance, illusion, or projection of the mind?

2.                 If we take both aspects seriously, how are they co-possible? What kind of unity is involved? How can the unity and diversity be harmonized?

Confronted with this philosophical problem of change, Aristotle posited his doctrine of act and potency, Hylemorphism and categories as a solution.  Thus, these doctrines arose as an attempt by Aristotle to provide a lasting solution to the problem of change and permanence, which had challenged philosophy for a century and a half.  But did he actually succeed? This is actually the problem that motivated this research.

1.3               PURPOSE OF THE STUDY

It is the answer to these arrays of thought provoking questions that this paper is geared to find.  It is the search for the most fundamental truth about this world.  Truth about reality never completely manifests itself at an instance but through a process of gradual unfolding.  This paper inquires into the origin of the problem of change and permanence, and then will investigate the views offered by two great philosophers of timeless repute, Heraclitus and Parmenides. Further, it studies in a more detailed manner the solutions offered by one of the greatest genius, Aristotle.  Lastly, the tremendous impact of his thought on practical life will be viewed.

1.4               SCOPE OF THE STUDY

Cognizance of Aristotle’s vast contribution and discussion in philosophy, the scope of this study is based on his mediation on the problem of change and permanence.  His key concept to this realization is the unification of the Parmenidean and Heraclitean positions.  His notion of Act and potency, Hylemorphism and categories should be highlighted though in relation to Parmenides and Heraclitus’ perspectives.  To make the study scholarly and easy to comprehend, the nature of change and permanence are to be discussed.

1.5                METHODOLOGY

The work is expository and analytic. Heraclitus’ and Parmenides’ concept of change and permanence shall be exposed with their views and reasons.  Then, in the light of these expositions, the notion of change and permanence in Aristotle’s perspective shall be analyzed.  In approaching this topic for a better apprehension, it is divided into four chapters.  Chapter one explicates the background, aim, scope, problem and method of the study.  In chapter two, the concepts of change and permanence, which will focus simply on the etymological derivation of the two terms and on their elucidation and explication, will be discussed.  The historical perspective of Parmenides and Heraclitus who were extremists in their treatment of the subjects of change and permanence will be viewed in the same chapter.  Chapter three deals with Aristotle’s mediation between the two positions with his doctrine of Act and Potency, matter and form (Hylemorphism), and substantial and accidental change (Categories).  In chapter four, the whole exposition will be evaluated which will also touch on the influence the resourcefulness of Aristotle’s philosophical mind had on the practical life.  This will be followed by a general conclusion

1 Aristotle, “Metaphysics”, in J., Barnes, (tr.), The complete works of Aristotle, vol.2, (U.S.A: Princeton press, 1985), p. 1552.

2 R.H., Popkin, Philosophy made simple, (London: Heinemann, 1993), 100.

3 E., Mullin, “Matter”, in New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.9, (New York: McGraw-hill Books, 1967), p. 475.

4 “Change”, in P. Edward (ed), Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol.2, (London: Macmillan Publishers, 1975), p. 75.

5 F.A., Copleston, History of Philosophy, vol. 1, (London: Image Books, 2003), p. 21.

6 Parmenides in J.B., Archie, Metaphysics: An introduction, (New Mexico: Barnes and Noble Books(ed), 1986), p. 245.

7 Cf.,,‘Notes on Early Greek Philosophy’.

8 Parmenides, as cited by R, H., Popkin, op.cit.p.101.

9 Egbeke, Ajah, Metaphysics: An Introduction,  (Enugu: Donze press, 2001), p. 16.

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