When Aristotle gives the example that the letters of a syllable are the material cause of the syllable, what does he mean by "syllable"?

IMPORTANT: Imagine the following is written on a real physical piece of paper (and not just a digital picture):

enter image description here

Does Aristotle understand syllable like in

On the left and on the right somebody wrote the identical syllable.

("syllable" means an abstract type)

or like in

The syllable on the left is written in blue, the syllable on the right is written in green.

("syllable" means a concrete material instance of a certain kind)

  • In other words: Can syllables be individuated?
    – Geremia
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 20:37

1 Answer 1


Aristotle refers to letters as the cause (his word aitia) of a syllable in Metaphysics BK 1 and Physics book 2 part 3. He doesn't specifically say material cause (but you're not the first to draw the inference by a long shot).

I'm not entirely following the dichotomy you propose but I would suggest the following interpretation I take to be Aristotleian.

In general, letters are the causes of syllables insofar as need the letters to say the syllables that are the words. (This may be bad linguistics but give a 2500 year old scientist a break). I take him to mean by syllable a type of uttered sounded made up of the letters in the alphabet.

In your example, you seem to be looking at two samples of [digital] writing in different colors and asking whether he sees syllable as a concrete instance or abstract type.

I think there's two different things going on that should be looked at separately here and mixing them makes the difficulties. First, there's a computer image [or if you prefer physical piece of paper]. Second, there's words made of letters.

Prefacing claims:

  1. Actual material causes themselves are by definition non-abstract.
  2. Actual things are things that exist.

I would say green pixels [or ink or graphite] and blue pixels [or ink or graphite] respectively are the material causes of readable words within images [or on the sheet of paper]. These pixels (plus that background color of pixels) are the images material cause.

At the same time, there's a word "bam". the writing of b, a, and m as letters are the material causes necessary for the existence of a syllable "bam." But blue ink or green ink respectively is necessary for the existence of a readable image as an existing thing.

Are the written syllable and readable image identical? Not in every single respect -- as is clearly demonstrated in that we can produce the same syllable differently. But that's just a feature of the general discernability of materially different things.

So I take it that no material cause is an abstraction. But there can be material causes of different things (words vs. images) in the same overall object.

  • You didn't read my question that carefully (the "imagine the following is written on a real physical piece of paper" part) ;-)
    – viuser
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 19:43
  • That won't substantially change the answer.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 23:04

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