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The metaphysical science of Aristotle's 'Generation of Animals' and its feminist critics.

HOW DOES LIFE BEGIN? How is it and why is it that a child comes into being? To answer these questions about life and its origins requires a system of presuppositions about a great many metaphysical matters, such as causation and its modes of operation, relations of identity and difference, and, perhaps above all, the transition from not-being to actualized existence. In his treatise, Generation of Animals (GA), Aristotle takes up the theme of the origins of animal and human life. His treatment of the subject is both empirical, offering descriptions of how the process occurs in nature, and metaphyical, pursuing the deeper how and answering questions about why it is that offspring are generated and how this phenomenon is meaningfully connected to the cosmos as a whole.

In recent years, feminist critics of the history of philosophy have been severe in their condemnation of Aristotle as a chief spokesman, if not founder, of sexism in the philosophical tradition: "We have become accustomed to regarding Aristotle as the fountainhead of one long tradition of western misogyny."(1) The theory proposed in GA, which in outline reads that in generation the male parents contributes the form and the female parents contributes the matter, is adduced by some of Aristotle's critics to show that he regards females as inferior to males in the process of reproduction and that this view of female inferiority can be seen to be carried into other, if not all, areas of his philosophizing.(2)

Despite Aristotle's current status as defecteuex from as feminist point of view, his treatise is worthy of renewed exposition for several reasons. First, his path to understanding how and why life begins-- his his very ability to ask how and why together--is richer and more fruitful than our modern view of reproduction, which is constructed for the most part of materialistic presuppositions. It is largely a modern materialist view of reproduction that feminism has inherited. From the start, the phenomenon Aristotle is studying is generation rather than reproduction, and the method he adopts for apprehending his expanded phenomenon is empirical-metaphysical rather than strictly mechanical or medical. Aristotle's ability to integrate metaphysical considerations with scientific ones offers modern readers a model for a rationally enlarged conception of generation.(3) In anticipation, we may say at this point that the results of his analysis show generation to be entwined with multiple dimensions of the natural world, not merely the sexual partners who are the parents of the offspring.(4)

Second, one reason that the feminist critics fail to appreciate the virtues of Aristotle's metaphysical science of generation has to do with the differing aims of classical metaphysics and modern feminism. Aristotle's intentions in taking up generation are metaphysical; he asks, What is generation? and looks to see how the phenomenon accords with the principles he has laid down in the Metaphysics and the Physics. The feminist, on the other hand, asks about reproduction, Who controls it? That is, the question is one of power and the aim is political: the altering of perceived unfair power and politics, it tends to have little use for metaphysics and little patience with it. This impatience is apparent in the methodology of some feminist criticism of Aristotle, in the quoting of offensive sentences out of their context as evidence in the sexism case against him. This practice neglects the overall form and much of the content of Aristotle's treatises, and inevitably leads to misreadings of these complex and difficult texts, in particular to misconstruals of the very gender issues to which Aristotle's feminist critics wish to draw attention.

Third, when reading Aristotle's offensive comments without the benefit of a knowledge of his historical context, his feminist critics generally have failed to notice the ways in which Aristotle's theory of generation has the effect of elevating the female role in generation, when compared to another view that prevailed in his day. "Preformation," according to which the mother does not significantly contribute to generation, had wide currency in Aristotle's time (and was still holding its own into the nineteenth century). Aristotle argues against this approach on metaphysical grounds and states emphatically from the beginning of GA that male and female together are the principles of generation. In this respect, his treatise is worthy of our attention because it represents an advance in biology and, contrary to the usual feminist interpretation, an advance also in the appreciation of the maternal contribution to generation. As this exposition of GA proceeds, the three foregoing points will be shown in greater detail.

This is not to say, however, that the feminist criticism is simply to be dismissed. To begin with, there appears to be a long history of the use of Aristotle's treatise against women.(5) The text is complex and is liable to be misunderstood and misused. In GA Aristotle devotes greater attention to the male contribution to generation, and it may appear to modern readers that the female contribution is less active and important than that of the male. The association of the male contribution with the superior "form" and the female contribution with "matter," along with the appearance of a preponderance of causal power in the male, is what feminists have noticed and is what has led, in part, to their objections against Aristotle's unfairness. A feminist critic, whose aim is to avoid any devaluation of the maternal contribution to reproduction, might insist that Aristotole be judged by a standard which at the very least makes the female and male equally active, and which guarantees that their contributions are of equal value by seeing them as the same in kind.(6) This implicit or explicit demand is, however, another instance of feminism's inattention to Aristotle's metaphysical aims. In fact, what imbalance there is in his treatment arises not from misogyny or sexism, but from particular philosophical problems Aristotle is addressing in the treatise.(7)

Examination of the philosophical problems involved in the subject of generation is what is required to move beyond accusation toward understanding the extent and the source of the perceived sexual imbalance that develops in this work. Let us now consider what those philosophical problems are how they emerge within the original thinking that Aristotle brings to bear on the phenomenon of generation.


The work whose title is translated Generation of Animals is in the Greek peri zoion geneseos, "on the coming into being of living creatures." Geneseos, from the verb gignomai, is used primarily to refer to the "origin" or "source" or "beginning" of a natural entity. The root gen- concerns family, offspring, creation, birth, decent. What should be noted from the outset is the contrast between modern concepts of "reproduction," leaning on metaphors of production and manufacture of artifacts, and the ancient focus on procreation and begetting of living things as a process which occurs in a larger natural nexus.(8)

The expanded meaning available in the Greek title serves as a reminder that Aristotle raises his scientific questions regarding generation in a philosophical context; that is, his scientific questions are metaphysically informed and they are raised within a long lineage of attempts at understanding genesis, the transition from not-being to being.

It is worth paying particular attention to the opening of GA to determine what Aristotle's own aims are in this treatise. The subject, announced in the title, is the generation of animals. But how does this subject itself arise? The very first lines of the treatise answer this question. Aristotle explains that with one exception, he has already spoken of all the parts of animals, and of the various causes of these parts. Thus, in respect to generation of animals, a part remains to be described and a cause explained. He does not make it plain why this subject was saved for a separate work. It is, however, the final, culminating treatise of his zoological works. This is a series of books which, according to traditional dating, begins with History of Animals--Aristotle's general observations and descriptions of animal life--and proceeds thence to consider, first, the material parts and functions (Parts of Animals), and then those parts and functions which involve both matter and psyche (Movement of Animals, Progression of Animals, and ultimately Generation of Animals).(9) The progression of this series of investigations follows Aristotle's general principle of learning: We first study that which is closest or most available in our experience (thus, in this case, the initial record of observations of nature and inquiries into the material parts) and work from there toward that which is first in the order of being. So at the start of GA we have with Aristotle, as it were, already gone through virtually every other part and principle of these creatures as preparation for the investigation of generation. Those studies lead to the present one, that is, back to the source of the "coming to be" of animal life.

From the first lines of the treatise Aristotle speaks of causes, indicating that generation, governed by causes, is an ordered, intelligible process. By contrast, generation is not to be viewed as mere effluence, nor as a mere rearrangement of parts, nor as a divine dispensation. That is, generation is not to be understood poetically, or artistically, or religiously. He delineates the four basic causes: (1) the final cause, "'that for the sake of which' a thing exists, considered as its 'end'"; (2) the formal cause, "the logos of the thing's essence" (715a4-5). Together, the final and formal causes determine a distinctively metaphysical trajectory for the discussion of generation, involving universal characterization of nature's mode of operation and a vision of nature working not only in accord with the forces of necessity but also for the good.(10) (3) The material cause is "the matter for the thing" (715a6). As Aristotle says in the Physics, it is "material for the generating process to start from" (194b24). In GA, the female parent provides the material cause. (4) The moving cause is "that from which comes the principle of the thing's movement" (715a6). In speaking of the moving cause in the Physics he says, "There must be something to initiate the process of the change or its cessation" (194b30). In GA Aristotle singles out the moving cause as most germane to the phenomenon of generation; he is particularly interested in determining how life or the principle of motion arises.

The inclusion of formal and final causes in a scheme explaining the origination of an organism presents a chief point of difference between classical and modern scientific outlooks. Eliminating formal and final causes from scientific explanation proper was an explicit goal of some early modern empiricist philosophers, such as Francis Bacon and John Locke.(11) In their battle with the Aristotelian outlook, they insisted that only the material and moving causes be used as instruments of scientific investigation. They intended, ultimately, to eliminate Aristotle's concept of substance altogether from scientific analysis and thereby, from their point of view, eliminate subjective elements from scientific study.

For different reasons, but with some similar results, contemporary feminists have targeted essentialism--in the relevant sense, the position that human beings possess an original nature which determines or structures development in significant ways prior to social conditions--as a concept which must be eradicated. Feminist theorists oppose above all essentialism's deterministic consequences. For example, feminist critics might point to some passage in GA itself as evidence of the way in which Aristotle conceives of a woman's nature as biologically determined and hence unchangeable, inescapable. It is true that in GA Aristotle defines female and male biologically, in terms of their differing generative roles. He says, "By a 'male' animal we mean one which generates in another, by 'female' one which generates in itself" (716a14-15). Beyond this simple statement of fact, however, Aristotle presently does not venture. His essentialism has no necessary consequences here for differing valuations of the female and male roles in generation. Indeed, Aristotle makes the important declaration that "the male and the female are the principles of generation" (716a5-7).(12) Aristotle's statement at the opening of the treatise that male and female are the archai of generation functions as the principle thesis in his theory of generation. The remainder of his discussion is intended to display both how male and female function as archai and the physical and metaphysical considerations that derive from this basic thesis. Aristotle not only does not depart from this basic commitment, but the entirety of GA should be regarded as the working out, scientifically and philosophically, of the basic observation that male and female together are the principles of generation.(13)

As evidence that female and male are both principles of generation, Aristotle mentions that they both secrete sperma, generative fluid.(14) Even when, several lines later, he asserts that female and male differ with respect to their logos, "in that the power or faculty possessed by the one differs from that possessed by the other" (716a18), Aristotle's explanation of the differing powers concerns, once again, the differing generative functions of the female and male and only those: the power to give rise to offspring either within oneself or within another. Clarifying further his understanding of the two sexes he states, "Male and female are indeed used as epithets of the whole of the animal, [but] it is not male or female in respect of the whole itself, but only in respect of a particular faculty and a particular part" (716a28-31). That is, male and female do not differ substantially, but differ only with respect to their separate capacities to give rise to young, and with respect to the parts of their bodies which serve this function.(15)

Essentialism need not be a source of gender problems, as many feminist critics contend. Rather, conceived along Aristotle's lines it can provide the outline of a solution to a variety of practical and theoretical difficulties relating to the two sexes. As we will see in detail, Aristotle's understanding of the four causes permits the distinctions in female and male anatomy and physiology to be acknowledged as far as they go, and allows for him to retain a way of indicating the dimensions, both physical and metaphysical, in which female and male are the same.

For the remainder of GA 1.1, Aristotle directs his attention to the phenomenon of two sexes. He observes, to begin with, that all the kinds of animals which possess two sexes come into being from the union of male and female. There is a regularity to the generative process which is productive of further regularity. After acknowledging the exceptions--such as some bloodless animals which originate not from a union of the sexes but from rotting earth and excrement, and whose offspring are neither male nor female (so that sexual generation is impossible)--Aristotle again observes that all animals produced by union of the male and female themselves generate offspring of their own kind. Animals that arise from decaying matter, in contrast, "generate, indeed, but produce another kind and the product is neither male nor female" (715b5). But production of another kind, generation after generation of different kinds, would amount to irregularity ad infinitum, and, Aristotle insists, "nature flies from the unbounded; the unbounded is imperfect and nature always seeks an end" (715b14-16). The way of infinite variation and novelty, as in a modern evolutionary model, a materialist view, is not nature's way, according to him. What is striking and important to Aristotle is the ability of almost all animals almost all of the time to generate creatures of the same kind as themselves. This regularity among animal species has its sources in the archai of generation, namely, male and female.(16)

Natural regularity will serve as a generalized theme throughout the rest of the treatise, first as a phenomenon which itself requires an account (GA 1.2-GA 2), and then as a basis for and background against which Aristotle will investigate related matters: the regular development of the embryo, along with the species variations in embryonic development which are also apparent (GA 2.6-3.11). Aristotle then returns (in GA 4) to a further consideration of male and female, this time inquiring into the origination of these two regulating principles of genesis themselves, including in later sections of book 4 a discussion of various irregularities in generation (for example, the occurrence of monstrosities, superfetation, and miscarriage). He ends book 4 with brief discussions of some regular features of reproduction (for example, lactation and normal gestational periods). Book 5, which closes the treatise, examines regular natural variations (for example, eye and skin color, hair color and its changes over time) and their causes. In the closing lines of GA Aristotle speaks again about causes, just as he did at the opening of the treatise, reminding his readers once again of the physical and metaphysical lawfulness of generation. GA as a whole is an expression of Aristotle's philosophical concern with nature's regularity and order, that is, with intelligibility, and the physical and metaphysical lines of explanation that are required to make sense of this. He displays an open-minded awareness of the numerous variations and exceptions that nature produces as he moves back and forth between discussion of things that are so for the most part and things that are so only exceptionally. In Aristotle's vision of nature, regularity is supreme, but it is productive of degrees of difference--indeed, it requires sexual differentiation in order that productive sexual union can take place.

In GA 1, male and female are coprinciples of generation and therefore stand as the principles of the orderly unfolding of nature. Aristotle supports this initial thesis first with descriptions of the generative anatomical parts of the two sexes in a variety of species, followed by a discussion of the more controversial subject, the generative fluids. So in GA 1.3-16 Aristotle examines the arrangement of the testicles or seminal ducts in fishes and serpents, lizards and tortoises, birds and dolphins and man; as well as the placement of the uterus or uterus-like organs in crustacea and cephalopods, insects and octopuses. He develops ideas, regarding the variations in generative anatomy of different species of animals, which rest on nature's operating principles: what happens does so because it is necessary or because it is better. The anatomical forms serve the functions of copulation and of gestation, either because copulation and gestation must take place in a particular way for a class of animals, or because it is better that it occur that way.(17) Then, having described those anatomical parts that serve generation (that is, having shown that female and male are both principles of generation in this respect), in GA 1.17 Aristotle leaves behind the anatomy (or the "instrumental parts") and begins his discussion of the generative fluids, the spermata. The discussion of sperma bears crucially on the correct understanding of Aristotle's view of the role of female and male in generation.


Somewhat surprisingly, the question that first occupies Aristotle regarding sperma is, Is sperma drawn from the whole body? Two different theories had currency in his time: Hippocractic "pangenesis," the notion that sperma comes from all parts of the body and thereby provides the parts of the body for the offspring; and the "preformationist" or "homunculus" theory, that the sperma contains an animalcule or a little human already formed and waiting simply to grow.(18) Aristotle is trying to contend with these on his way to establishing his own claims about the nature of the generative fluids. He presents a variety of reasons for objecting to pangenesis and preformation.(19) All of his reasons argue against what he regards as the real problem: the materialistic reduction of oversimpliccation that those two theories represent. Both theories fail to explain what principle organizes the many parts of the body. Generation, after all, produces a substantial entity, a unified and coherent creature. In the case of pangenesis it would be absurd, of course, to suppose that the many parts of the body come together in their ordered, regular way merely by chance; nor can it be imagined that the parts actively arrange themselves. Something above and beyond the parts alone must be operative in order to explain the regular generation of animals. For Aristotle, this something is psyche, soul, "the first actuality of a natural body which potentially has life."(20) In his view, body is aimed at soul from the very beginning. This is a principle which the materialisms, pangenesis and preformationism, do not comprehend. His conclusion to the problem at hand, then, is that pangenesis must be rejected; sperma is not drawn from all parts of the body but rather goes to all parts of the body. In this way, he emphasizes final causality over what he regards as ultimately unworkable mechanical explanations (725a23).(23)

Aristotle will have more arguments to offer in book 2 against preformationism, the view that an animalcule or homunculus is transferred from the father and planted in the mother's body, with her functions being strictly incubation and feeding.(23) His mention of it at this point (722b5), however, permits us to note that preformationism had been employed in Greek cultural life to deny women any role in generation, and consequently to deny them any significant connection with their children and any connection of their children with them. A stunning example of this can be found in Aeschylus's Eumenides, when Apollo defends Orestes' murder of his mother in this way:

The mother of what is called her child is no parent of it but nurse only of the young life that is sown in her. The parent is the male, and she but a stranger, a friend, who, if fate spares his plant, preserves it till it puts forth.(23)

Aristotle's opposition to preformationism is not founded on the grounds that it demeans women's part in generation. Rather, it fails to make sense on its own terms because it cannot explain how female offspring could be produced: how could the female generative parts arise from a male body? (see also his arguments at 734a11-12). Against this historical background, Aristotle's alternative theory, by establishing the female as a principle of generation, represents an important elevation of the woman's role in generation. Furthermore, political assumptions and considerations are notably absent in Aristotle's treatment of this subject. That is, his aims at this point, in distinction from the feminist critique which itself is already directed toward the politicization of sexuality, do not include the demotion or the elevation of women and their role in the process of generation. Instead, arguments are assessed by him one by one, on theoretical grounds or on observational grounds or on both, and conclusions are drawn about the phenomenon itself.

Some of Aristotle's feminist critics have misread him on this fundamental issue, mistaking Aristotle's theory for a version of preformationism, and hence they have assigned to him the sexist consequences of that theory. The claim frequently made is that Aristotle reproduces and enlarges a model in which the female body serves only passively in generation as a source of warmth and nourishment for the growing embryo whose source is strictly the male parent.(24) But his effort in book 1 of GA, as we have begun to see, is to reject preformationism, which these critics confse with Aristotle's own view, and to establish the validity of his own initial thesis that male and female are both archai of generation.(25)

Other feminists criticize Aristotle's theory as inferior to the other of his rival theories, pangenesis.(26) Pangenesis, in Empedocles' version, holds that male and female both make contributions of the same sort,(27) and so this theory appears more acceptable by general feminist criteria. But proponents of pangenesis fail to take seriously Aristotle's stated objections to Empedocles' theory, namely, that the parts torn apart from each other (in the female and male parents, prior to being fitted together) would be in such an incomplete and imperfect state that they could not stay alive and healthy. On the other hand, if each separate part of the body had a vital principle of its own to maintain its life and health, then it would remain to be shown what organizes or coordinates all these separate vital principles and how they merge to form one unified organism. Aristotle's objections to Empedocles here (and explicitly later in GA 764a1-765a4) are in keeping with the other arguments he has made against excessively materialistic theories of generation: these theories, Empedocles' included, which rely for their explanations exclusively on a thing's material constituents, simply cannot account fully for the regularity and ordered nature of generation. Thus, Aristotle's rejection of Empedocles' approach is not motivated by an unwillingness to allow the female a fuller share in generation, as these feminist critics believe. His end here is to establish a metaphysical point: the necessary inclusion of nonmaterial explanatory principles (in this case, the soul or form of the body as organized, and the whole, unified, mature animals as the telos or final cause of the process, along with the action of the eternal and divine).

Returning to the progress of the discussion in GA, we can, in fact, make some sense of why Aristotle's discussion of the generative fluids should begin as it does, with what sounds like a subordinate and somewhat technical question about whether or not sperma derives from the body as a whole. This question allows him at the outset to display the current rival theories of generation and to critique them in terms of their reliance on limited materialist presuppositions. Having explained the insufficiency of these approaches and stated in a preliminary way his own alternative--that is, a generative theory which fully includes physical causal components as well as nonmaterial organizing and directing principles whose aims and mode of operation differ from material causal principles--Aristotle can pursue his examination of the working of both physical (material and moving) causes and the metaphysical (formal and final) ones, along with the ways in which these causes cohere.

We might note, then, the way in which Aristotle's discussion is shaped by rival theories against which he defines his own. His determination to establish the metaphysical dimension of generation against both the Presocratic materialists and the Hippocratic medical establishment leads to special highlighting of form over matter in books 1 and 2, perhaps in part to make form more readily evident to his opponents. In the treatise, the special attention to form, later to be identified as the male's contribution to generation, may seem to some modern readers to be one more instance of Aristotle's concentration on the male at the expense of the female. Read in its historical context, however, we see that the chief point of difference between Aristotle's theory and other theories concerned the concept of form, and so it naturally required fuller explication. On the other hand, another rival theory which remains within Aristotle's range of vision is Plato's, in which eternal Forms remain at some removal from material things. Aristotle wants to be sure that no mistake is made in this direction either. In his own theory, form is united with matter fundamentally to produce substantial entities. It is this very union which Aristotle is challenged to demonstrate in GA.

Next Aristotle examines the general nature of sperma and says, "Now the aim of sperma is to be, in its nature, the sort of stuff from which the things that take their rise in the realm of Nature are originally formed" (724a17). Analyzing the meaning of the "from which" in his definition of sperma, he shows that the two senses of "from which" that are relevant for generation are the matter from which and the movement from which a living creature derives. The question whether sperma is one or the other, or perhaps both material and moving cause, is raised and then temporarily set aside while a more precise determination of sperma and its derivation is pursued. Aristotle concludes that sperma is derived from a healthy residue, what remains from the body's useful nourishment (725a11). He then raises a crucial question:

Does the female discharge sperma as the male does, which would mean that the object formed is a single mixture produced from two spermations; or is there no discharge of sperma from the female? And if there is none, then does the female contribute nothing whatever to generation, merely providing a place where generation may happen; or does it contribute something else, and if so, how and in what manner does it do so? (726a31-32)

The question reveals why Aristotle is concerned about the claim that the female discharges sperma as the male does. If the female's sperma is the same as the male's, the fetation resulting from copulation might appear to be (merely) a mixture; that is, each of the two parents would contribute the very same thing, and then somehow when they are added together a living creature comes into being. On such a view, the appearance of a new substance would depend entirely on the accumulation of a sufficient quantity of material being. According to Aristotle, however, such a "mixture" view leads to impossible results. Primarily, if the contribution to generation by the male and the female were identical, there would be nothing to prevent each from generating on its own, without the other, or for that matter for females to generate together by mixing menstrual blood, or for males to mix their fluids to produce offspring.(28) But this is manifestly not the way nature operates. Male and female, together, constitute the archai of generation, as Aristotle has already established. Their separate insufficiency indicates, for him, that their contributions must be of different kinds.(29) Furthermore, Aristotle's dissatisfaction with a strictly materialist reading of generation reveals why he would be unwilling to accept a "mixture" theory of the phenomenon, a view to which he would be committed if the female fluid were the same sperma as the male's. Either (a) there is no organizing principle, which is inadequate; or (b) there are two organizing principles, which is one principle too many. If (a), the material mixture has no organizing principle, then there is no possible explanation for how a unified, coherent, highly complex and directed creature is formed or forms itself from the body's residual food. But if (b), the male and female sperma are identical and so both contain organizing principles, one is then left with the daunting task of explaining how these independent principles could unite, as they must, to create a single principle to direct the unified development of the particular creature.

Here is what Aristotle decides on the question: menstrual fluid is a residue of healthy nourishment and it is "the analogous thing" in females to the male fluid. (The generative fluids of both male and female are blood or are derived from blood.) He demonstrates the status of menstrual blood as healthy (it is not a colliquescence, he explains), as a residue (which has been distilled from the body's nourishment, as has semen), and above all as generative or spermatic, that is, as playing a causative role in generation. In Aristotle's scheme, menstrual blood is not a waste product, nor is a woman's body regarded as simply a warm environment for the growth of the fetation. Despite the feminist claim that for Aristotle the female makes little, if any, genuine contribution and functions only as a container for the developing embryo, his determination that the menstrual fluid is spermatic is exactly what we would expect, since it is perfectly consistent with the initial thesis that male and female are both archai of generation.

Aristotle must now, for the reaons mentioned above, find a way of differentiating menstrual fluid from semen. Thus to his original question, Does the female discharge sperma as the male does? the answer must be yes and no. The female contributes sperma but not as the male does; she does not contribute semen. Her contribution is less fully heated or concocted than the male's semen. Misogyny does not direct Aristotle's analysis and lead to his yes and no conclusion. On the contrary, Aristotle here is rejecting the identification of generative fluid with the male semen, and establishing instead a fuller conception of sperma that includes both male and female contributions, contributions that do differ in kind. Each is unique; both are necessary.(30)

What we have here, then, is the outcome of his continuing endeavor to accomplish two aims: (1) to take the evidence seriously, in this case, that male and female are both involved most basically in generation, that they do differ anatomically, that the fluids produced by each do in fact have different features, and that separately each sex is insufficient to generate offspring; and (2) to develop a philosophical scheme that will permit the metaphysical dimensions of the phenomenon of generation to be exhibited.

From the opening of the treatise this scheme is being prepared, as Aristotle reminds his readers of the basic four causes. Two of these causes, the material and the moving, are components of causality physically understood; and the other two, the formal and the final, are components of causality metaphysically understood. Having established in GA 1, both by way of empirical scrutiny and theoretical considerations, that male and female are coprinciples of generation and that they differ with respect to their contributions to generation, Aristotle begins to assign causal efficacy to the male and female parents according to his scheme of the four causes.

Aristotle makes his first assignment seem easy. The menstrual blood, the katamenia, being heavier and bulkier, looks like a material contribution. Aristotle could also draw upon the evidence that during gestation the developing fetus must be nourished; the female parent can generally be said to be the source of nourishment for growth, so the association with material might seem obvious on these grounds as well. So Aristotle declares that "the contribution which the female makes to generation is the matter used therein" (727b30); the katamenia, then, is the material cause of the offspring. There is, of course, nothing commonplace about the material the female parent provides; rather, it is specialized and highly refined for generation. Unlike ordinary material, it contains all the parts of a body, potentially (737a23). Furthermore, it is specialized for generating just the kind of animal the female parent is. Aristotle soon takes an opportunity to make his second and third assignments on his list of philosophical causes: "The male provides the 'form' as well as the 'principle of movement,'" that is, the male provides the moving and formal causes (729a10). The analogy he offers to justify associating both the moving and the formal principles with the male is the coagulation of milk when rennet is added to it. Just as the rennet initiates a reaction in the milk such that the fluid is set in motion and begins to coalesce, so the semen imparts a motion to be generative material of the female which causes it to set.

However unsatisfactory this analogy is, since animals and human beings decidely do not begin simply by being "set" like cheese or custard--and Aristotle himself would reject any materialistic explanation of substantial generation by means of chemical or other strictly physical reaction--the analogy is illuminating in at least one way. After having assigned the first sort of physical principle, the matter, to the female, Aristotle looks to assign the second kind of physical principle, the moving cause, to the male. This he will do (with a good deal of the explanation of how still to come in book 2), thereby providing full physical accountability, via female and male, for the generation of the offspring. But the physical dimension, while distinguishable, is not separable from the metaphysical one, as Aristotle's example about the rennent setting the milk shows. When the rennent and milk react, setting up a motion in the milk, the motion is not arbitrary, but is already ordered; it is motion toward the form. It might better be said that the motion is the forming. (Additionally, we can observe that the fully actualized form functions as that for the sake of which, that is, as the final cause.) With this analogy of rennet and milk which he calls upon several times in GA (739b21-34, and at 772a22-25, where he notes the disanalogy), Aristotle indicates the linkage between physical and metaphysical levels of explanation, and why it is in his system that the moving and material causes of the physical level are especially bound to the metaphysical. Living motion is always directed, always ordered, and its order and direction can be properly understood only in terms of form and telos.(31)

In elaborating his ideas about semen and its causal powers, Aristotle moves as far as possible away from the materialisms of pangenesis and preformation. His idea is that the semen does not contribute in any way to generation by its material (729b1-22), but rather produces a specific effect by way of "some disposition, and some principle of movement" (726b21). Aristotle is emphatic that the male's contribution in nonmaterial; instead, he says, the semen is a tool which Nature uses to impart motion (730b19).

Aristotle certainly makes his point against the materialist philosophers and physicians by regarding semen in this way. He also furthers his own philosophical mapping of generation by way of the four causes; in terms of physical causality, he now has the two necessary components, matter and motion, which together in his scheme are adequate to provide a physical explanation of the phenomenon of generation. But he has yet to explain how the semen, a material fluid, could convey form or soul.(32) This is a philosophical problem, to which Aristotle develops a startling answer in book 2. But in book 2, the linkage of moving cause with the male, and material cause with the female, as it is developed in terms of act and potency, has furnished further evidence in the sexism case, and this also needs to be examined.


Aristotle's move from the level of physical causality to that of metaphysical causality is apparent immediately at the start of GA 2. If we were to express the central question of book 1 as, How does generation occur? and see Aristotle's answer to be that generation occurs through the archai, male and female, then his metaphysical deepening of that initial question is presented at the beginning of book 2: How are these archai themselves generated? Aristotle takes note of the route of physical explanation available for answering the question about the source of the sources, but he postpones that exploration (until book 4) and instead offers a commentary on how the two archai arise: not out of the forces of necessity but because of "what is better [to beltion], that is, on account of the final cause [the cause 'for the sake of which']" (731b23). Aristotle declares that, viewed in this metaphysical way, the determining principle of generation has its source in the upper cosmos. He seems to realize that his readers might wonder about such a statement, and he explains that there are some things which are eternal and divine, other things that admit both of being and nonbeing. The things that are eternal and divine reside in the upper cosmos and they act "as a cause which produces that which is better in the things that admit of it" (731b26-27). As he explains in the Metaphysics, the final cause "causes motion as being an object of love" (1072b4). Living creatures like ourselves, who come into being and pass away, are acted upon by the divine and the beautiful to the extent that we are capable of being affected.(33) The divine and beautiful give rise in us (by means of final causality) to that which it is better to have or be: it is better to be ensouled than to be only a body; it is better to be than not to be; it is better to be alive than dead. This is the metaphysical "why" of the generation of animals: generation occurs for the sake of actualizing a good. The good is not actualized absolutely in this way, since it is impossible for individual creatures to exist eternally; but it is accomplished specifically, Aristotle says, that is, by way of the eternal perpetuation of the species.(34) Thus, male and female as such serve generation, and generation serves the end of actualizing the good (eternal, beautiful, divine being) that resides in the most elevated domain of the cosmos.

In his thoroughness Aristotle wishes to give not only the metaphysical explanation for the existence of male and female but to explain as well the fact that these two principles for the most part are separate in the animal world. He states that because that which possesses the form is better and more divine than that which possesses the matter, "it is better also that the superior one should be separate from the inferior one" (732a5). In this instance, as in some others in GA, we have evidence of the infusion of Aristotle's commonplace views into his more careful philosophical thinking. There is, after all, no reason he has given to hold that those whose generative fluid transmits form are superior as a kind or class to those whose generative fluid transmits matter. It is true, of course, that within Aristotle's metaphysics form has preeminence over matter, but neither Aristotle nor his reader is entitled, on the basis of what has been established so far in GA, to conclude that this preeminence accrues to male creatures qua male. Recall from book 1 that organisms are male or female not as a whole but only with respect to their generative roles; he establishes further that both male and female are fully members of the same species, one implication of which is that both male and female individuals possess the same "substantial formula" of matter and form (see 730b34-5, for example; and Metaphysics 10.9). There is no philosophical justification, then, for this remark about the superiority of the male.

Returning to the progress of the discussion in book 2, Aristotle's next task is an embryological classification of animals. The metaphysical outlook of the opening of book 2 can be seen to dominate here as well when Aristotle makes the "perfection of the young" the basis for his classificatory system. That is, offspring are perfect in this case when they are brought forth, not as eggs or larvae, but as "similar to" the parents. Viviparous animals whose offspring are born in this state are themselves more perfect than oviparous or larvae-producing creatures. It appears to be more demanding for nature to produce young viviparously; animals that do so possess a more highly developed capacity for respiration and are able to generate a higher degree of needed body heat. Using the criteria of breath and vital heat, Aristotle describes the regular arrangement with which nature brings about generation in various classes of animals (733a35-b16). At the top of this series is man and then the other mammals, followed by birds, scaly fishes, and so forth. Near the bottom of the scale are those animals which begin as larvae.(35) Finally there are those, too, which do not arise from sperma and the union of the male and female archai.

Mention of these exceptional nonspermatic animals leads Aristotle's attention back to sperma. It is "no small puzzle," he states, to determine how any animal is formed out of the sperma. He analyzes the process of forming into three components: (a) out of something, (b) by something, and (c) into something. The "out of something" is the "material out of which," supplied by the mother.[36] But the question Aristotle says he is interested in pursuing at this point is not, Out of what? but, By what? This "by what" is analyzed as something either external or internal to the fetation. He acknowledges that he is confronted with a problem: it is hard to see how something external could be in a position to act to form the fetation, for what is in close enough contact with it to form it? On the other hand, if there is something in the fetation from the start that forms it, Aristotle is then dangerously close to the pangenesis and preformation theories which hold that the miniaturized creature or the parts of the creature are already in the generative fluid. Aristotle opts for a more subtle dichotomy than internal-external, and switches to the concepts of "actual" and "potential" to solve the dilemma.(37) The "something" by which the fetation is formed is declared to be soul; this must be so since the fetus is living and growing, and all living things possess soul, the first actualization (or perfection, entelechia) of a living body (De anima 2.1). Aristotle takes the opportunity to repeat that none of the physical properties alone can explain the logos or the highly organized nature of the organism (734b32-33).(38) The logos derives from the parent who imparts movement. This parent is in actuality (that is, a living animal of a specific kind) what the offspring is potentially.(39) With the conjunction of material and moving causes, the newly formed organism has separate identity, and one part develops which can direct the rest of the new animal's growth. As Aristotle puts it, "Nothing generates itself, though as soon as it has been formed a thing makes itself grow" (735a14).

What are we to understand happens here? The generation of a new creature is, within Aristotle's conceptual scheme, the actualizing of a potential. The two specialized potentialities contributed by the female and male archai actualize in conjunction with one another. The offspring is the actualization of the union of the two potentials. His theory has been read by feminist critics and other commentators as maintaining that in the act of generation the passive, potential female matter is bestowed with life by the actualized and soul-bearing form of the male. This, however, is not Aristotle's view. Rather, the dynamic of generation which he develops in GA is subtle and at the same time is perfectly consistent with principles he lays down in both the Physics and Metaphysics regarding potency and act. Instead of associating the female and her contribution with passive potentiality and the male and his contribution with activating actuality, Aristotle sees both adult parents as actualities, both female and male fluids as potentialities, and the offspring resulting from their conjunction as an actuality.(40) Even though the male parent's sperma bears the form which, in Aristotle's system, has preeminence over matter, that preeminence is minimized by virtue of the potential status of both the female and male sperma and the actual status of the female and male parents. Thus male and female continue to be regarded by him as coprinciples of generation.

Aristotle's discussion of act and potency in connection with movement in Physics 3.3 is illuminating in this regard. There he explains that the two potentialities, mover and moved, actualize together, and that the result is singular: "The actualizing of the two potentialities coincides" (Physics 202a19). In the passage in the Physics mover and moved together give rise to motion.(41) Correspondingly, in GA the conjunction of mover (male fluid) and moved (female fluid) gives rise to generation. Moreover, because in the generation of animals the moving cause is also bearing the formal and final causes (that is, the structure for and aim of the animal's development), once the conjunction of the material and moving causes occurs all four causes are really at work and the necessary and sufficient conditions have been met for (the beginning of) the realization of the new offspring. Everything it needs is available. So, Aristotle states, "Nothing generates itself, though as soon as it has been formed it makes itself grow" (735a14); and he repeats and develops this conclusion (735a16-17) that once a creature is formed--in the coactualization of the female and male principles--it must grow. The parallel case of motion is again pertinent since, for Aristotle, nothing moves itself, just as nothing generates itself. But having been generated, being a natural creature now possessing its own internal principle of motion, it must move, or, biologically speaking, it must grow.

At the start of GA 2.2 Aristotle returns to the topic of sperma and of semen in particular. It being the work of semen to contribute motion, and in some way logos and soul, from an actual adult parent to matter which is an animal potentially--and in an active state of desire for form and what it offers (see Physics 1.9)--he undertakes a close examination of semen which will try to answer the question of how this transmission takes place. Based on descriptions of its physical properties, especially its foaminess, and its behavior, Aristotle determines that semen is composed of water and pneuma, heated air. Now Aristotle has already committed himself to the notion that the male's semen does not provide material input of any kind into the fetation. So two questions arise for him: (1) What becomes, then, of the material stuff of which the semen is composed?; and the more crucial question, (2) Is soul in the semen and/or in the fetus to begin with? (736a27-28). He first addresses the second of these questions and decides as far as nutritive soul is concerned, the basic faculty of self-growth by which a living thing persists, that spermata (of the male and female parents) and fetations possess this aspect of soul potentially. He continues by saying that sentient soul, the perceptive dimension of soul unique to animals, is possessed potentially by semen. The most elevated dimension of soul, reason, possessed only by human beings, cannot, however, arise from some potential in the stuff of the semen or menstrual fluid or the developing body of the fetation: "Reason alone enters in, as an additional factor, from outside, and ... it alone is divine, because physical activity has nothing whatever to do with the activity of reason" (736b28-29). Reason is divine, but all soul, Aristotle continues, has a connection with a physical substance "which is different from the so-called 'elements' and more divine than they are" (736b30-33). In other words, for Aristotle, soul is naturalized or physicalized to some basic degree (in distinction from Plato), but its material is highly rarefied and unique (in distinction from the physicians and the Presocratic materialists). There is a scale of substances, he says, concerned with levels of psychic transmission. In all cases, semen contains pneuma, and the pneuma contains enclosed within itself a substance that "is analogous to the element which belongs to the stars" (736b37). This element, unnamed in the text but evidently aether, Aristotle sometimes calls "the first of the elements." It is the material of which the stars are made and is unlike the four earthly elements--earth, air, fire, and water--in that it is eternally existent, indestructible, and divine, moving forever in a circular motion in the celestial domain. It is never found naturally in this earthly region.(42)

Aristotle immediately emphasizes that the vital heat which supports this "complex" by means of which soul is transmitted has nothing to do with fire (that is, a common, earthly element favored in the theories of some early naturalists) and should not be confused with it. Rather, the heat for the pneuma, which in turn is the source of the movement imparted by the male generative fluid to the female generative fluid, which in turn is the source of life for the new fetation--this heat has its own original source, not in the father's body or in some element occurring naturally in the environment, but in the region of the stars (see also 777b30-31). Aristotle does not say how this sublime element, this link between body and soul, between earth and stars, between the physical and the metaphysical, establishes itself in both these worlds. The absence of an explanation of the link may indicate that for him no explanation is required. Nature itself is a coherent whole; no fundamental division exists in nature which would be in need of philosophical repair.

Having, so it seems, answered the question about how semen provides motion, soul, and logos for the menstrual material, Aristotle returns to the more mundane level of his two earlier questions, that is, What becomes of the stuff of the semen after it has done its job? An explanation is required here to meet the suspicions of the partisans of pangenesis and preformation. That the semen cannot all be recovered after copulation is taken by them as evidence that the substance of the semen has been used up materially in the creation of the fetation. Now Aristotle can make short work of this question. He states as a general rule that the soul principle for which the semen is a vehicle is partly separable from physical matter (especially in those animals which possess a divine element) and partly inseparable from it. Here, once again, Aristotle stakes out his own position, distinct from the materialists and from Plato. The physical part of the semen, as fluid, "dissolves and evaporates." Semen has conveyed something indispensable to the fetation, but this something is the soul principle, neither an animalcule nor unassembled anatomical parts, as Aristotle's rival theorists contend. He closes these questions by reiterating his position that spermata and fetations have soul potentially but not in actuality (737a17-18).

The semen is a residue, and, Aristotle says,

The female's contribution, of course, is a residue too, just as the male's is, and contains all the parts of the body potentially, though none in actuality; and "all" includes those parts which distinguish the two sexes. Just as it sometimes happens that deformed [peperomenon] offspring are produced by deformed parents, and sometimes not, so the offspring produced by a female are sometimes female, sometimes not, but male. The reason is that the female is as it were a deformed male; and the menstrual blood is sperma, though in an impure condition; i.e. it lacks one constituent, and one only, the principle of soul. (737a22-30)

Aristotle's comment that the female is "as it were a deformed male" is no doubt the one most frequently quoted by his feminist opponents. It is on the face of it a disturbing remark. We find, however, in the immediate context of the comment, confirmation that Aristotle regards both semen and menstrual fluid as spermatic residues. We also have seen through the course of this discussion that in order to maintain that both are truly generative and to avoid simultaneously a materialistic theory of generation, Aristotle has had to differentiate the two fluids, and the differentiation turns on the conveyance of sentient soul by the semen. His unfortunate comment about the female as a deformed male is prompted in this passage by a specific difficulty encountered earlier: to the extent that Aristotle's theory of generation includes a material component, and to the extent that is associated exclusively with the female, he must explain how it is that the material for the formation of a male body is available in a physical female body which does not possess male anatomical parts. Recall that he rejected preformationism on just such grounds: How could the father's body supply the sex-specific body parts for female offspring? His comment here about deformity is intended to anticipate and counter an objection to his theory; his crude-sounding analogy is meant to show that females can and do produce male offspring because they do possess (potentially) the "extra" male organs. But they themselves, as females, do not manifest them and so might be said, in this way only, to be like those who are deformed or underdeveloped in that they possess parts which are of no use to them.(43) Aristotle is not in this passage offering a philosophy of woman as a deformity of nature or as an underdeveloped human but rather he is trying to solve some technical difficulties facing his theory. He overcomes them by positing an extended potentiality to this generative material of the female, potential to generate what the female herself does not exhibit.

Aristotle really has had two problems to overcome, one relating to each sex, in this portion of his discussion in book 2. The first, regarding how semen could be a vehicle of soul, he has tried to solve by way of the potentiality of the sublime, celestially connected element. The second, regarding the capacity of the female body to produce offspring which differ from her, has led Aristotle once again to a widened potential of the menstrual fluid, widened beyond the body features specific to females--and widened again, we might say, beyond the potential attributed to it within preformationism or other contemporary theories.

Apropos of Aristotle's penchant for expansion, if we return for a moment to book 1, we find that in attributing the material cause to the female, Aristotle makes the following remark: "The natural substance of the menstrual fluid is to be classed as prime matter" (730a32). Prime matter comes up for discussion in the Metaphysics and in the Physics. He explains there that "prime" means "primary in general," that is, that out of which the four elements arise, the most fundamental stuff of the cosmos, and also "primary in relation to the thing," the very first material of a particular entity (Metaphysics 1015a8-9). It has been suggested that the remark about menstrual fluid as prime matter should be interpreted as "primary in relation to the thing."(44) But considering Aristotle's comment now in connection with his celestial move in book 2 where he tells of the tie between semen and the element of the stars, aether, there is reason to suppose that Aristotle has in mind both the particular and the cosmic meaning of "primary." What he posits in his remark that the menstrual fluid is prime matter, therefore, is that it serves as a highly specialized basic material out of which the new entity will arise, and also that there exists a tie between the generated creature and the most primordial stratum of the natural world. What is produced, then, in the first two books of GA is an "axis" that stretches from the bottom to the top edges of the universe, along which the appearance of the new creature must be understood. The primordial, preelemental power that inheres in prime matter expresses itself (as potentiality) in the adult female's generative material. The active, moving power that is unique to the heavens expresses itself (as potentiality) in the male generative material. Viewed on a cosmic scale, then, the generated offspring is the outcome of the meeting of a vast scale of forces as these are embodied in the archai of generation, the female and male.(45)

Aristotle turns his attention next to the different patterns of embryological development found among the creatures in his classificatory scale (the scale of GA 2.1 based on the creatures' perfection). Consideration of this topic and the others he studies later in the treatise is beyond the scope of this paper. In assessing the course of the discussion in book 2 up to this point, however, it is evident that Aristotle has provided a deepened and more thorough metaphysical analysis of generation and its sources in the female and male. This is precisely what he indicates he will do in the first lines of book 2:

I have already said that the female and male are archai of generation and I have also said what is their dynamis and the logos of their essence. As for the reason why one comes to be formed and is female and another male, . . . insofar as this occurs on account of what is better, i.e. on account of the final cause [the cause "for the sake of which"], the principle is derived from the upper cosmos [anothen echei ten archen]. (731b18-24)(46)

In these lines Aristotle offers the thesis developed in the discussion that follows: the principle of generation, the female and male archai, are themselves generated according to the direction of the better, that is final casuality as it affects nature as a whole. This direction has its ties to the upper cosmos, he says, th system of concentric spheres whose movement is continuous and eternal.(47) After explaining the working of this causality, that thing are affected by the noble and eternal to the extent that they are able to be, Aristotle moves immediately to the classification of animals in the natural world. Having supplied the details of the distinctions among the animal kinds in his hierarchy he observes, "We should notice how well nature brings generation about in its several forms: they are arranged in a regular series" (733a35-b1). We are now in a position to see that Aristotle regards the female and male as the means for this orderly unfolding of nature's series according to the direction of the better. This is what it means in his system to be a principle of generations, rather than a tool or machine. The principles of generation are themselves tied to all four aspects of casuality as it operates from the particular individual case to the universal. The female and male archai generate particular offspring, and they stand at the head of the ordering of the animal species. At the same time they themselves stand on an extended axis of cosmic causal influence, actualizing more remote potentialities.

It is evident now why Aristotle's discussion turns to potenct and act in book 2 (734b). It is not, as sometimes supposed, that he turns to these concepts because there is no other solution available to the aporia about the formation of the fetation by an internal or external agent. A solution is needed for this technical problem, to be sure; but by introducing potency and act Aristotle shows, first, that the process of generating offspring requires the application of the same physical and metaphysical concepts as other phenomena require in order to be understood. The action involved in giving rise to offspring is consistent with the way nature moves and changes always and in all respects (the potency of the spermata becoming actualized), and thus generation is an intelligible process. He also shows, second, that generation, understood on the full natural scale, beyond the capacities and activities of the individual parents, is itself the actualization, insofar as it is possible, of nature's ultimate aims.(48)


In book 1 Aristotle accomplishes his aim of demonstrating that male and female ar both principles of generation. He shows there that they are both, clearly, anatomically fitted for the works of generating offspring, and he also establishes the more controversial point that both contribute generative fluids so that male and female must both be regarded as causally effcacious in generation. He studies their coeffectiveness, however, primarily at the level on which material and motive causality operates, that is, the physical level where necessarily is the dominant factor. In book 2 Aristotle deepens his reflections on metaphysical causality in generation in his effort to give full reckoning of generation in terms of all four causes stated at the outset of the treatise. He does this, as we have seen, both with respect to generation of individual offspring and to generation understood as the coming into being of nature itself as an ordered whole directed by final causality.

In our examination of these sections of books 1 and 2 we have seen Aristotle's complex philosophical elaboration of his initial thesis that female and male are both archai of generation. Contrary to the feminist claim, then, that in his system only the male parent effects generation, it is now clear that for Aristotle both are causally effective. In establishing his thesis Aristotle critiques rival theories, demonstrating that among their shortcomings, they become unworkable because of the sexual imbalance upon which they are premised. Indeed, it is Aristotle's theory in which the female and her distintive contribution is recognized and integrated. Methodologically, the necessity for a full and detailed reading of Airstotle's text has become evident; excerpted sentences or passages can neither convey the intellectual context within and against which he worked nor represent accurately the intricacies of his thinking on this subject. Above all, a close reading of the text provides us with a glimpse of a theory quite unlike the reproduction theory bequeathed by modern science: Aristotle's metaphysical science of generation ties the offspring meaningfully to the parents, and the parents and offspring together to the whole of nature.(49)

(1) Eve Browning Cole, in a review of Page DuBois, Sowing the Body, in American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Philosophy and Feminism 89 (Fall 1989): 88-9.

(2) As evidence of Aristotle's sexism, Mary Mahowald offers, without comment, passages from Generation of Animals in her book, The Philosophy of Woman (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), 266-72. Caroline Whitbeck speaks of Aristotle's "flower-pot" theory of pregnancy in her article, "Theories of Sex Difference," in Women and Philosophy, ed. Carol C. Gould and Marx W. Wartofsky (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1976), 54-80. Lynda Lange holds that Aristotle's sexist views on sex difference are not separable from his general philosophical thought, that they are interwoven with and may, she proposes, be the basis for ideas he develops in his political, metaphysical, and logical writings; see her "Woman is Not a Rational Animal: On Aristotle's Biology of Reproduction," in Discovering Reality, ed. Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1983), 1-15. Prudence Allen's thesis in her book, The Concept of Woman: the Aristotelian Revolution 750 B.C.-1250 A.D. (Montreal: Eden Press, 1985), is that Aristotle systematically devalues women, with long term effects both for women and for the history of philosophy. Page DuBois offers a similiar assessment of Aristotle in her book, Sowing the Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). "Aristotle's Views on Women," by Rhoda Kotzin (in American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Philosophy and Feminism 88 (1989): 21-5) lists Aristotle's offensive assertions in the biological and political treatises. Kotzin believes not only that "it is beyond dispute that Aristotle was wrong about women" (p.21), but also that Aristotle is not entitled to make the claims that he does and that they are inconsistent with other elements of his philosophy.

(3) The promotion of fertility goddess worship, for example, by some feminist writers must be regarded at best as an attempt to imaginatively infuse a desiccated modern notion of conception and pregnancy with some meaning.

(4) As Peck remarks in the Preface to his translation of Generation of Animals: "... for in reproduction, as understood by Aristotle, not only the individual is concerned but the cosmos at large: it is a business in which the powers of the universe are concentrated and united."; (Aristotle, Generation of Animals, translation and introduction by A.L. Peck (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1979), p.v. Translations of Generation of Animals in this article are for the most part those of Peck, although occasionally I make modifications.

(5) See Maryanne Cline Horowitz, "Aristotle and Woman," Journal of the History of Biology 9 (1976): 183-213.

(6) The demand that male and female contributions be the same in kind follows along the lines of ancient theories such as those of Empedocles and Hippocrates (as will be seen later in this essay), as well as of modern genetic views of reproduction. In both the ancient theories cited and the modern scientific one, strong materialist assumptions are at work. Feminist critics (for example, Allen) who endorse this criterion of acceptability may, wittingly or not, adopt a materialist framework along with it.

(7) Other commentators have responded to the apparent sexism in GA. Johannes Morsink sees Aristotle not as a sexist but as a scientist involved in a battle of scientific theory with Hippocrates and his school; see his "Was Aristotle's Biology Sexist?" Journal of the History of Biology 12 (1979): 87-8. Anthony Preus sees Aristotle making the mistake of linking matter and form exclusively with female and male respectively; see his "Science and Philosophy in Aristotle's Generation of Animals." Journal of the History of Biology 3 (1970): 4. Montgomery Furth sees the source of the sexism in Aristotle's reluctance to divide form; see his Substance, Form and Psyche: An Aristotelian Metaphysics, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 137-41.

(8) Aristotle explains the distinction between natural generation (genesis) and artificial production (poiesis) in Metaphysics 7.7. He distinguishes nature and things natural from art and things humanly produced in Physics 2.1.

(9) Peck, Generation of Animals, p. vii.

(10) This line of thought is termed "metaphysical" here because in the Physics Aristotle declares that the formal cause and its nature is the work of first philosophy, or metaphysics, to determine (192a34-36). In the Metaphysics he says that the form is a cause because "the question 'why' is ultimately reduced to the logos, and the primary 'why' is cause and principle" (983a28-29). Thus, the formal cause and the ultimate meaning of an entity should be regarded as metaphysical--or should be regarded metaphysically. Joseph Owens cites both of the above passages; see his The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1978): 176-7.

(11) See Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1966): 33-4.

(12) See also the preliminary justification at 716a11-12. See also 716b10-12, 731b18, 732a1-3; and at 732a12: "Thus things are alive in virtue of having in them a share of the male and the female." We may note that in the Metaphysics too, in defining arche as a source from which come motion and change, Aristotle adds "as the child comes from the father and mother" (1013a8-9).

(13) On this particular sort of structuring of the argumentation in Aristotle, where the thesis is stated first and the remainder of the discussion in a given Book secures that thesis, see Helen Lang, "Aristotelian Physics: Teleological Procedure in Aristotle, Thomas, and Buridan," Review of Metaphysics 42 (1989): 569-91. Lang demonstrates the teleological structure of argumentation in the Physics, where Aristotle posits his thesis at the start, and the discussion that follows in that book supports rather than extends or alters the initial thesis. Also see Joseph Owens' observation, regarding the first sentence of the Metaphysics, "All men by nature desire to learn." Owens writes, "This one short sentence, as will as seen . . ., contains the whole motif of the Aristotelian Metaphysics"; Owens, The Doctrine of Being, 158, n.5. On the philosophical importance of Aristotle's form of presentation see also Werner Jaeger, Aristotle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948), 6; and Owens, The Doctrine of Being, 72.

(14) In the translation of GA by Peck in the Loeb edition, sperma is routinely translated as "semen." Platt also translates sperma as "semen" in the Oxford edition; A. Platt, Generation of Animals, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 1, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984). Translating sperma in this way gives the wrong impression that Aristotle regards only the male discharge as authentically generative, and completely obscures an important question raised in GA 1: whether the female parent contributes sperma, that is, generative fluid, to the process. It can be noted in advance that Aristotle's answer is that the female does contribute sperma, although it differs from that of the male parent, that is, it is not semen. Sexism here has its sources, not in Aristotle, but in his nineteenth-and early twentieth-century translators. In my discussion I will simply transliterate sperma when it appears in the text, rather than follow Peck's translation of the term.

(15) See Metaphysics 10.9, where Aristotle states that male and female do not differ substantially. They possess the same human form and their differences are only with respect to matter. Also see GA 730b34-35, where he states that male and female "are identical in species"; and GA 741a6: "Granted that the female possesses the same soul [as the male] . . ."

Aristotle's view of female and male difference is not, however, a simple functionalist one. He recognizes the ways in which the generative parts have complex ties to other aspects of an entity's life. The extensiveness of these ties is what leads Aristotle to regard femaleness and maleness as each a "principle," rather than a natural variation on the order of hair or eye color. That is, he notes that in general it is when a principle changes, even in a small way, that numerous other dependent things are affected. He has observed, for example, that castrated animals undergo extensive changes after the generative organ alone has been destroyed. He concludes, based on the frequency of this observation, that femaleness and maleness are on the order of "principles."

(16) For Aristotle's discussion of the regularity of nature see Physics 1. In Physics 2.5 he explains that things which always happen in the same way or do so for the most part cannot come about by chance. See also his comments in Parts of Animals 641b27-28: "For a given seed does not give rise to any chance living being, nor spring from any chance one; but each springs from a definite parent"; Parts of Animals, trans. W. Ogle, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 1.

(17) For an example of the necessary anatomy-better anatomy distinction see 717a16-17.

(18) Of interest on the subject of ancient embryological theories is chapter 1 of Joseph Needham, A History of Embryology (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1959) (although Needham is not always a careful reader of Aristotle). Also see Preus, "Science and Philosophy," 5-7.

(19) See the extended discussion which begins at 721b12.

(20) De anima 412a27.

(21) See Preus, "Science and Philosophy," 7. Also of interest is the Hippocratic treatise, "The Seed," in Hippocratic Writings, ed. G.E.R. Lloyd (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 317-23; and Needham's comments on Hippocrates' "mechanical approach" to viewing generation in Needham, A History of Embryology, 33.

(22) See Peck, Generation of Animals, 372-3, n. a; and Preus, "Science and Philosophy," 6, n. 6. Needham discusses "Denials of Maternity and Paternity," in Needham, A History of Embryology, 43-6.

(23) Eumenides 658-9; quoted from Needham, A History of Embryology, 43. (Peck and Preus also cite this passage from Eumenides.)

(24) Caroline Whitbeck, describing Aristotle's view as "the flower pot theory" of pregnancy, believes that Aristotle holds that "the woman supplies the container and the earth which nourishes the seed but the seed is solely the man's"; Whitbeck, "Theories of Sex Difference," 55. Page DuBois writes, "The great scientific work of Aristotle, read and accepted as truth for centuries, takes up the metaphorical system . . . that the female body is a container, like an oven, to be filled up with the semen, which provides soul and form to the material container"; DuBois, Sowing the Body, 126. Maryanne Cline Horowitz regards Aristotle's theory as "an extreme position in the process of the masculinization of procreation"; Horowitz "Aristotle and Woman," 186. She states, "Unlike the medical school of Hippocrates, Aristotle taught that sperma, in its narrow sense as the seed from which an embryo grows, is secreted only by males" (p.192). Prudence Allen says, "Borrowing the use of hot and cold from Empedocles and Hippocrates Aristotle developed a theory of sex identity that argued that the female provided no seed in generation because she was by nature colder than the male"; Allen, The Concept of Woman, 34.

(25) At 728a25, near the close of these considerations, he states, "Hence, plainly it is reasonable to hold that generation takes place from this process: for, as we see, the menstrual fluid is sperma, not indeed sperma in a pure condition, but needing still to be acted upon." In addition, at 730a35 he says, "The male and female both deposit together what they have to contribute in the female." Preus's careful reading of the text leads him, too, to the conclusion that for Aristotle the menstrual contribution of the female is spermatic: "Given Aristotle's notion that the 'menstrual fluid' is the female sperma of the mammalia . . . "; Preus, "Science and Philosophy," 8. And also, "The menstrual fluid should be that spermatic contribution which serves as matter for generation" (p. 9).

Among Aristotle's feminist critics, the misinterpretation seems to arise from a failure to appreciate the importance of the material cause in Aristotle's metaphysics, and from reading "matter" in a post-seventeenth-century sense. This might be particularly the case in Whitbeck's criticism ("Theories of Sex Difference," 55-7). Horowitz, in "Aristotle and Woman," notices that Aristotle calls both semen and menstrual blood sperma, but she does not notice or find it significant that he also calls them both the principles of generation. Her attention is directed exclusively at the higher degree of concoction of the semen, and this leads her to exaggerate the subordination of the material principle in Aristotle's scheme, making that principle almost worthless.

Other commentators on GA have read the text in this way as well. John M. Cooper writes, "The menstrual fluid is also a 'seminal residue' (spermatikon perittoma), less concocted and less pure than sperm, and so not capable of generating anything, i.e. not capable of coming alive by itself or making anything else come alive (I.20.728a18, 26[sic.]; II.3.737a27-30; II.7.746b26-9)"; John M. Cooper, "Metaphysics in Aristotle's Biology," in Biologie, Logique et Metaphysique Chez Aristote, ed. Daniel Devereux and Pierre Pellegrin (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1990), 57. Nothing, for Aristotle, comes alive by itself ("nothing generates itself"; 735a14), so this is not a legitimate criterion for determining the spermatic status of menstrual fluid. The capacity "to make something come alive," which as a way of describing generation sounds a bit magical rather than Aristotelian, is a potential that can only be exercised in concert with specialized material which itself has a potential capacity to be formed as a particular kind of creature. See also Cooper's note on symmetry, where he explicitly denies that "there is any kind of interaction between the two factors, in the sense of a joint working together by two independent but proportionately coordinated agents with a view to a common product" (p. 59, n. 6). What Cooper eloquently denies is very much the same thesis that Aristotle is developing in GA.

(26) Allen, The Concept of Woman, 33-4, 84-6.

(27) Note that these contributions may not, in his theory, be equal ones. See 722b12-13, where Aristotle says that Empedocles postulates a tally, that is, broken pieces of a whole. The broken pieces fit together but need not be of the same size.

In a different vein, we might notice Empedocles' use of the word symbolon, "symbol," as Aristotle quotes him, and its connection with modern genetic theory which relies upon the interpretation of symbolic or coded information.

(28) For Aristotle, the puzzle appears not so much to be generation out of the union of the same sexes, but independent generation by the female: "Why does not the female accomplish generation all by itself and from itself?"; 741a4-5. Note that his first answer to this question depends on what he has already argued: that the fetation will be alive only on acquiring sentient soul, and this is what the male contributes. But, almost recognizing that this answer begs the question, he pursues the puzzle to arrive at a metaphysical explanation, in keeping with the tenor of book 2. His explanation relies on the concept of telos: "The female [by herself] is unable to generate offspring and bring it to completion; if it could the existence of the male would have no purpose, and nature does nothing which lacks purpose"; 741b3-4.

(29) It is useful to recall that the egg cell was not discovered until 1827. The principles for the discovery of the unique character of the germ cells (egg and sperm), each possessing only one half the ordinary complement of genetic material in readiness for fertilization, was not established until the middle of the nineteenth century. See Anthony Preus, "Science and Philosophy," 8, n. 11.

Aristotle's theory of generation resembles modern genetics and reproductive science in that he, too, sees the necessity for the union of two complementary components, which he believes to be matter and form rather than egg and sperm or--in the case of human beings--X and Y chromosomes. Scientifically, his is an advance over ancient "double seed" theories in which the female and male contributions are identical. Even if, in genetic engineering, it is possible to produce offspring without the union of the male and female cells, cloning of this sort is replication and not generation in Aristotle's sense: the production of a new and unique substantial creature.

(30) It appears to have been Hippocrates' theory, sometimes termed the "double seed theory," that both male and female contribute semen. Aristotle may have Hippocrates in mind when he argues against the suggestion that both female and male contribute semen to generation; see "The Seed," and Morsink's discussion of GA in relation to it in Morsink, "Was Aristotle's Biology Sexist?" Aristotle's argument at 727a26-30 is that no one animal produces two spermatic fluids, and since the female contributes the menstrual fluid, she does not contribute semen (gone) as the male does.

There is a difficulty with the Greek terms which undoubtedly has aided the misunderstanding of Aristotle's intentions. He does not restrict the designation sperma to semen, as has been shown, but often enough when referring to semen he simply uses the broader term sperma. Sometimes it is plain from the context and his description which of the two spermata he has in mind; sometimes he seems to distinguish "generative fluid" from "semen" by use of sperma and gone respectively, but this usage is far from consistent (for example at 729a21-23: "The foregoing discussion will have made it clear that the female, though it does not contribute any semen [gone], yet contributes something, namely, the substance constituting the menstrual fluid"). While the lack of clear and consistent terminology easily can lead to confusion and support the sexism charges against Aristotle, it is plausible that the difficulty he has maintaining a clear distinction in the text by means of the language then available is, on the contrary, evidence of the conceptual advance that he is attempting in regarding both fluids as spermatic.

(31) Matter is always "formed," too, to some extent (see Furth, Substance, Form, and Psyche, 84-7: matter is that which is capable of further formation, and so it too is linked to the metaphysical dimension). See also Peck's note on prime matter and on matter at its highest degree of formation being equivalent to form; Peck, Generation of Animals, 110-11, n. e.

(32) At 730b56 he offers a preliminary analogy to house building to help explain this at 730b5-6.

(33) See also his statement in Parts of Animals 1.5: "Absence of the haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in nature's works in the highest degree, and the end for which those works are put together and produced is a form of the beautiful"; 645a23-25.

(34) See also De anima 415a25-26.

(40) Regarding the maternal contribution, he speaks of ". . . the generating parent, who is in actuality what the material out of which the offspring formed is potentially"; 734b35. Regarding the paternal contribution he says, "It is clear that sperma [in context, "semen"] possesses soul, and that it is soul, potentially"; 735a9; see also 734b18-19. In Metaphysics 9.7 he says, "We must, however, distinguish when a particular thing exists potentially and when it does not . . ., e.g. is earth potentially a man? No, but rather when it has already become sperma, and perhaps not even then"; 1048b37-1049a5. In Parts of Animals he says, "Moreover, the seed is potentially something, and the relation of potentiality to actuality we know"; 641b36. In De anima he says, "So seed sperma] and fruit are potentially bodies [which have the capacity to live]"; 412b26.

(35) Aristotle's higher animal types almost always correspond to Darwin's "later" types.

(36) Notice again that the material contribution is considered within the topic of the working of sperma, indicating once more that Aristotle regards the maternal fluid as generative.

(37) For Aristotle's fuller exposition of these concepts see Physics 3.3

(38) See also 735a13: "The cause of this process of formation is not any part of the body."

(39) This holds true, of course, for the mother as well. She is in actuality what the offspring is only potentially.

(40) Regarding the maternal contribution, he speaks of ". . . the generating parent, who is in actuality what the material out of which the offspring formed is potentially"; 734b35. Regarding the paternal contribution he says, "It is clear that sperma [in context, "semen"] possesses soul, and that it is soul, potentially"; 735a9; see also 734b18-19. In Metaphysics 9.7 he says, "We must, however, distinguish when a particular thing exists potentially and when it does not . . . , e.g. is earth potentially a man? No, but rather when it has already become sperma, and perhaps not even then"; 1048b37-1049a5. In parts of Animals he says, "Moreover, not even then"; 1048b37-1049a5. In Parts of Animals he says, "Moreover, the seed is potentially something, and the relation of potentially to actuality we know"; 641b36. In De anima he says, "So seed [sperma] and fruit are potentially bodies [which have the capacity to live]"; 412b26.

(41) With respect to the mutuality posited in this interpretation, Aristotle, speaking of body and soul, makes the following comment in De anima: "For it is by this association [koinonian] that the one acts and the other is acted upon, that the one moves and the other is moved; and no such mutual relation is found in haphazard combinations"; 407b18-20. The partnership of matter and form is emphasized, the partnership whereby the one can move and the other can be moved.

Regarding Aristotle's theory of the initiation of movement, as Frederick Woodbridge explains, "Motion strictly is not a transfer of movement from one body to another, but the change from rest to movement or the change from what can happen into an actual happening"; Frederick Woodbridge, Aristotle's Vision of Nature (New York: Dell Publishing, 1965), 13-14. There must be contact between the two bodies; but according to Aristotle, movement cannot be grasped as a mechanical collision. Some of Aristotle's commentators seem to assume a mechanical model when considering his explanation of the moving cause in generation--a model characteristic of modern science rather than Aristotle's physics. It is the modern model which involves one body in motion and one inertly at rest. For Aristotle, on the other hand, matter actively desires form, as he says in Physics 1.9; its potentiality is its orientation toward form. Thus, matter is not just the passive recipient of an external, haphazardly arising force.

On this subject Helen Lang writes, commenting on Physics 1.9: "Here we reach a key issue: for Aristotle, to be moved does not imply a passive principle. Matter (or potential), which is moved by form (or actuality), is moved precisely because it is never neutral to its mover: matter is aimed at--it runs after--form. Because of the active orientation of the moved towards its mover, no third cause is required to combine matter and form. They go together naturally: form constitutes a thing as natural and matter is aimed at form"; Helen Lang, Aristotle's Physics and Its Medieval Varieties (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 26.

(42) See Peck, Generation of Animals, 170-1, n.1; and Friedrich Solmsen, "The Vital Heat, the Inborn Pneuma and the Aether," Journal of Hellenic Studies 77 (1957): 119.

(43) Peck offers "underdeveloped" as an alternate translation for peperomenon: "underdeveloped," then, relative to the full range that is available to the female. See, too, Aristotle's statement that "the female's contribution... contains all the parts of the body potentially, though none in actuality; and 'all' includes those parts which distinguish the two sexes"; 737a24-25. Compare this with the comment in the Hippocratic treatise, "The Seed": "The children of deformed parents are usually sound. This is because although an animal may be deformed, it still has exactly the same components as what is sound"; Hippocratic Writings, 323. This comment can be read in keeping with the interpretation of Aristotle offered here, that is, that Aristotle holds that the female parent has all the anatomical components (male as well as female) potentially, even though she herself does not exhibit them. She is not, therefore, a deformity; it is only the principle that applies analogically. It is possible that the Hippocratic passage influenced Aristotle's statements, but Aristotle does not mention Hippocrates by name in GA.

(44) Preus, "Science and Philosophy," 9, n. 14.

(45) At the start of the treatise, just after Aristotle has stated his thesis that the female and male are the archai of generation, he makes this remark about cosmology: "This is why in cosmology too they speak of the nature of the Earth as something female and call it 'mother', while they give to the heaven and the sun and anything else of that kind the title of 'generator' and 'father'"; 716a15. Aristotle does not himself subscribe to this mythic way of speaking, but it is suggestive, perhaps, that he thinks of earth and heaven directly after establishing his thesis.

(46) In the Greek, Aristotle mentions "the female" before "the male" twice in this passage, although both Peck and Platt render these lines with "the male" first. The adjustment in Peck's translation above is mine. Platt translates the last phrase as follows: "That they exist because it is better and on account of the final cause, takes us back to a principle still further remote"; Platt, The Generation of Animals, 1135-6.

(47) Peck, Generation of Animals, 568.

(48) As one immediate indication that in book 2 Aristotle's interest has expanded beyond that of book 1 and the working of generation in the case of particular male and female mates, to the consideration of generation with regard to classes of animals, see his statements at 732a1-2. He explains that since "the better" cannot be brought about in and for each individual creature, "there is always a class of men, of animals, of plants; and since the principle of these is 'the male' and 'the female' . . ." That is, Aristotle now takes up male and female as the principles of the classes, not just of the offspring of individual acts of generation.

(49) I would like to thank Helen Lang for her helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
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Author:Tress, Daryl McGowan
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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