The Eye of the Bat: Truth in Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Jonathan M. Wright

The poet W.H. Auden (1907­–73) once quipped, “What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.” Though Auden was merely voicing the disillusionment and skepticism of his age, he hit upon a perennial quandary of philosophy: what is truth, and where is it found? Is truth primarily found in the outside world or in the mind? Such questions cannot have a simple answer. Interestingly, the great classical philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) would seem to agree with the frustration of Auden and countless others over the sheer elusiveness of these questions.

Though Aristotle considers everyone who has common sense to be able to grasp some semblance of the truth, he also contends that when it comes to distinctly seeing the answers to the most important questions, man is blind as a bat: “as the eyes of bats are to the light of day, so is the intellect of our soul to the objects which in their nature are most evident of all.[1]

Aristotle with a bust of Homer, Rembrandt, 1653 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle presents a subtle account of truth, which develops as the work progresses. Like the winding tunnels leading out of a cave, the twists and turns it takes may condemn the reader to wander indefinitely throughout the lower portions of the inquiry, never making it into the sunshine of understanding. Indeed, the principal barrier lies in the mature formulation of truth in Book 9 (Section 10, 1051b–1052a14), which seems flatly to contradict its initial treatment in Book 6 (Section 4, 1027b17–1028a6); faced with such a discrepancy, it is easy to fall back on Aristotle’s more basic account of truth. But, with close attention to the larger argument of the later books, one just may flee the cave and see Aristotle’s doctrine of truth, mind, and matter for what it really is.

Aristotle’s preliminary description of truth in 6.4 undoubtedly favors the outside world over the mind’s machinations. It comes at the end of an inquiry into which of the senses of being are most prior. With accidental being and privation already ruled out, the question comes down to substantial being and being as truth.[2] The latter, he begins, is fundamentally about a

combination and a division… for in the case of truth, affirmation is of objects which are combined, and denial is of objects which are divided, but in the case of falsity, affirmation is of objects which are divided and denial of objects which are combined.”[3]

“Aristotle’s army for destroying the Tower of Falsehood”: illustration to a summary of Ramon Lull’s Ars (written late 13th cent.) (Badische Landes-bibliotek, Cod. St. Peter perg. 92, 6v, decorated c.1321).

That is, truth occurs when what is combined in the mind is actually combined in reality, and falsity occurs when the mind is mistaken about such a combination. Further, “as for the simple things and the whatness[4] of them, not even in thought is there truth and falsity of them.”[5]

By “simple” he means the bare grasp of a certain kind of thing before a definition is formed. As he believes man is built by nature to receive these intelligible form[6] infallibly from sense experience, truth is relegated only to the combination or division of various simple notions in one’s own mind. Therefore, Aristotle resoundingly rejects being as true as the primary sense of being, for truth, as he describes it here, is only a mere “affection of thought,”[7] which relies completely on the outside world for its validity.

Bust of Aristotle, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippus of 330 BC (National Roman Museum, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, Italy).

In Metaphysics 9.10 however, Aristotle seems to reject this rejection when advancing a more developed description of truth. He immediately contradicts his former assertion, claiming now that “being in the most proper sense is the true and the false”.[8] To make matters more confusing, the reasons he gives for making this claim are roughly the same as those he formerly gave in rejection of it. Truth and falsity are still a matter of the mind’s adequation with reality,

so that a man thinks truly if he thinks that what is separated is separated and what is united is united, but falsely if his thought is contrary to the way in which things exist.[9]

Further, it is not the mind which produces the truth, but the outside world:

Now it is not because we think truly of your being white that you are white, but it is because you are white that we speak truly in saying that you are white.”[10]

llumination to the start of Aristotle’s Metaphysics in an incunable edition (printed by Andrea Torresanus & Bartolomeo de Blavis, Venice, 1483; Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, 21194-5, vol. 2, 1r).

The section on “incomposite truth” also seems to be largely the same, though he clarifies that one can have truth and falsity about such simple concepts by apprehension or assertion,[11] which apply words to them in some fashion. Overall, there seems to be no apparent reason that the same qualities he had earlier ascribed to truth could produce an entirely opposite result. How could it be, then, that the intellectual conception of being to which the mind attains can be at once prior and posterior to substantial being?

One may begin to unravel this paradox by taking into account the context of 9.10. In Book 7, Aristotle has already scrutinized substantial being and found that substances can be not only composite “this” substances (which make up all sensible things), but also non-composites (that is to say, pure matter or pure form). In the earlier chapters of Book 9, Aristotle applies to these the language of act and potency.[12] While “prime matter” hypothetically exists in pure potency, the most “primal” cause exists in pure act, for if this cause were at all “composite” there would have to be something prior to it: for it would not be pure act, and would thus have to be moved to act by something else.

Aristotle, Francesco Hayez, 1811 (Accademia, Venice, Italy).

Later, in Book 12, this “uncaused cause” assumes much greater importance. It has already been established that this cause is immaterial (i.e. not made of matter), but in 12.7 Aristotle meditates on how such a cause can set all things in motion without itself being moved. The only principle he can think of with the power to do this is the intellect, which moves in virtue of the truth it beholds. He thus develops the concept of the Uncaused Cause as “God”, or “Thought-thinking-itself”. The pure activity of this Being is like man’s own contemplation, but altogether more perfect.

In light of all this, many considerations in 9.10 begin to make more sense. First, in his paragraph on the primacy of reality, Aristotle places extraordinary stress on immovable and eternal substances which cannot be otherwise; unlike other substances, a substance such as this “does not become true at one time and false at another time, but it is always true or always false.[13] Since they will never go out of existence, these substances will never be at odds with the mind’s supposition that they are. Further, he relates non-composite substances to simple “objects of cognition”. Both, he says, are able to be grasped without any possibility of error, by virtue of their simplicity.

Illustration to Canto 30 of Dante’s Paradiso in a copy of La comedia di Dante Aligieri, edited by Alessandro Vellutello (Francesco Marcolini, Vinegia, 1544; Columbia University Library B85DL B44, p.109).

The First Cause, then, can be permanently and infallibly grasped by the human intellect. But, as Aristotle brings out, this First Cause is not a material body. In fact, it is an immaterial Being, which exists over and above the natural world; it is not itself a “this” substance, but rather that universal and architectonic cause of actuality in all composite substances. Thus, it is beyond the senses, and cannot be directly perceived by human experience. It can only be known after a lengthy and tedious line of reasoning and demonstration, what Aristotle would call combined thought – the realm of truth.

Nonetheless, this Being can be known without possibility of error. This is so in a similar way to “sensible substances”, which are intelligible by virtue of their immanent perceptibility, or likeness to the sensitive faculty. The Uncaused Cause, the reader finds out, is a Divine Intellect, and would thus only be intelligible to a mature intellectual faculty. Therefore, the primary Being is not known directly through substances in the outside world, but by pure intellectual grasp. In this way, then, can truth, in the form of the most noble Intelligible Object, be the primary sense of being.

“Quid Est Veritas?” (“What is truth”, Pilate jests with Jesus), Mihály Munkácsy, 1881 (Hungarian National Gallery, Buda Castle, Budapest).

In the end, Aristotle’s elaboration upon his doctrine of truth does not contradict his earlier ideas, but instead further enlightens them. Truth may become more primary than substance when the First Mover is considered, but for the rest of reality, substance remains most important, as no one can come to an understanding of the first mover without first gaining extensive material experience. All such experience, however, changes character once it is seen in light of the First Cause; the mystery of why the mind can grasp things at all is finally solved in the apprehension that all things are intelligible because they are caused by the Divine Intellect. If only thinkers like Auden would stop and read Aristotle, they too would forget their pessimism and embrace the primacy of truth.

Jonathan Wright is Resident Director at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is an ardent student of the Humanities and the Great Books, with interests across the disciplines of philosophy, theology, history, and literature. His scholarly research centers around the ancient and medieval conception of the human person as a composite of body and soul, and the implications of this conception for human flourishing. His popular writing seeks to engage this and similar Classical ideas with contemporary thought and culture.


1 Aristotle, Metaphysics 933b11–13, trans. G. Apostle (Peripatetic Press, Grinnell, IA, 1979).
2 These four kinds of being (ὄν, i.e. what is) may seem arcane, but they are actually rather intuitive. In the preceding passage Aristotle considers what about a thing is most fundamental to it. He then identifies four aspects of things that are. First, he identifies being as accident (συμβεβηκός, sumbebēkos), by which he means not a mistake but a part of a thing which can change without making that thing different. Next, being as privation (στέρησις, sterēsis) denotes those parts of a thing which are otherwise than they should be. These two being clearly insufficient, he moves on to being as substance (οὐσία, ousiā) and being as truth (ἀλήθεια, alētheia). The former represents the character of a thing as it is incarnate in the material world, and the latter represents its essential and abstract character as it is grasped by the mind. Thus, the question of mind and matter arises.
3 Ibid. 1027b19–22.
4 “Whatness” (τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, to ti ēn einai) denotes the account of a thing’s essential character.
5 Ibid. 1027b27–8.
6 Form (εἶδος, eidos) is here meant to signify the universal quality of a thing from which its whatness can be derived.
7 Ibid. 1028a1.
8 Ibid. 1051b3.
9 Ibid. 1051b3–5.
10 Ibid. 1051b7–9.
11 Again, these are abstract words for relatively intuitive concepts. Apprehension is the logical act of grasping an individual term, such as “dog”, and assertion is the act of saying something true about it, such as “all dogs are animals”.
12 “Act,” (ἐνέργεια/ ἐντελέχεια, energeia/entelecheia) and “potency” (δύναμις, dunamis) are the crux of Aristotle’s whole metaphysical theory, and too subtle to capture in a single footnote. A thing is in act inasmuch as it fulfills its purpose, or teleology. The extent to which a thing is in act is the extent to which that thing is that thing. The contrary is also true; the failure of a thing to achieve the potency it has to fulfill its purpose is an existential failure.
13 Ibid. 1051b16–17.