Mixture, Powers, and Reality in Empedocles and Aristotle

Joshua Gulley, Purdue University


Both Empedocles and Aristotle say that the mixture of earth, water, air, and fire can produce our world of complex living things. Both their theories of mixture, however, are difficult to understand. A major reason for confusion is a too-rigid adherence to the idea that, for Empedocles and Aristotle, the basic structure of the physical world is stuffy – that, ultimately, everything is composed of qualitatively differentiated bodily masses. Instead, I propose that we look at the idea of a power to see how these ancient theories of mixture can work. Empedocles’ metaphysics of mixture follows Parmenides in (1) providing a list of basic ingredients for fundamental mixture (earth, water, air, and fire), (2) providing forces to organize mixtures (Love and Strife), and (3) treating both the basic ingredients and the forces as fundamental beings in the Parmenidean way – ungeneratedly, incorruptibly, indivisibly, unchangeably, completely what they are. In short, Empedoclean basic ingredients and forces cannot change in their natures. In working out this Parmenidean reading, I argue moreover that Empedoclean mixing is nothing but rearrangement of the immortal basic ingredients among different mortal mixtures and masses of stuff. This Parmenidean background and the account of mixing as rearrangement both show that interpretations of Empedoclean mixture on which there is transformation of the ingredients cannot be sustained. While Empedocles’ Parmenidean background might be taken to support the idea that Empedoclean mixture is just juxtaposition, juxtaposition interpretations but struggle in the face of (1) the possibility of homogeneous mixture, such as the Sphere, and (2) the possibility of perspectivally neutral mixture. Instead, I propose a power-based account, which can allow basic ingredients to remain what they are in mixture (insofar as they have a powerful aspect) and can allow there to be homogeneous, perspectivally neutral mixture (because multiple, compresent powers can generate a single manifestation that depends just on the powers in it, not on any perceivers). In addition, I have argued specifically for thinking of the basic ingredients as power-stuffs rather than as powers because I think that this captures better the idea of a real thing that was at work in the background of Empedocles’ thought. The difficulties with Aristotle’s theory of mixture stem from Aristotle’s commitment to the homoiomerity of mixtures. This means that Aristotle needs to explain (1) how mixtures have the same overall inner powers everywhere and (2) how all the ingredients can be recoverable from every part of the mixture. Aristotle says that ingredients are in mixture in dunamis, but it is not clear how this allows Aristotle to explain how homoiomerity is possible. I argue that the ingredients’ presence in dunamis is the presence of the basic powers that compose them. Since the basic powers are not bodies, but rather are the structures that underlie the whole material world, they can be in the same place at the same time, allowing mixtures to have the same composition through-and through. As part of this solution, I also argue that dunamis in mixture is second potentiality (which is identical to first actuality – the actual ability to do something), where the second potentialities in question are just the natures of the basic powers. In this way, then, ingredients can be in dunamis in mixture. Finally, I argue that Aristotle perhaps underestimates the extent to which teleological activity is involved in Empedocles’ world in the intelligent work of Love and Strife in presiding over mixture. Even so, there remains a deep philosophical gulf between the internal self-ordering of Aristotelian primary substances and the external ordering accomplished in mortal things by Love and Strife. Looking then at mixture, I argue that Aristotelian mixtures in living substances are maintained by and indeed really are the whole substance all the way through, while Empedoclean mortals are really the parts in and the forces organizing their mixture. Thus, despite its resemblance to Empedocles’ theory, Aristotle’s theory of mixture is designed to serve a metaphysical and biological perspective on which whole living things are more real (more independent, unified, and causally significant) than their parts.




Curd, Purdue University.

Subject Area


Off-Campus Purdue Users:
To access this dissertation, please log in to our
proxy server