The First Crisis in First Philosophy

"The First Crisis in First Philosophy," Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 18, No. 1 (1995: 237-248, 1999. Reprinted in The Argument of the Action, 2000.


Virtually everyone knows that Aristotle sometimes lies. His account of the pre-Socratics in the first book of the Metaphysics leaves out of account everything that does not suit his scheme, the gradual disclosure of the four causes, compelled, as he says, by the truth itself. Heraclitus’ fire is there, but not Heraclitus’ logos. Parmenides’ Eros is there, but not Parmenides’ mind. This triumphant progress, however, comes abruptly to an end at the end of Book I, and Book II begins the crisis of first philosophy. It is the very triumph of Book I that brings about the crisis of Book II, and it is Book II that is first philosophy: it consists of nothing but questions. These seventeen questions could not have been formulated had not Book I preceded it and confirmed that wisdom was the theoretical knowledge of cause. The knowledge of cause, however, does not establish first philosophy; it merely discloses what still must be known, being. Being emerges as the problem of first philosophy through the nonproblematic status of the four causes. The emergence of being as the problem is not adventitious to the four causes. There lurks within the four causes one cause that is now at an answer but a question, What is? Formal cause is the only cause that appears among the categorical predicates, and of these it is the only one that is a question, and whose formulation includes in itself that which the question is about. To ask about being is to acknowledge belatedly that it has come to light as a question about which one asks questions. If, then, first philosophy is first only the second time around, where are we to begin?