Selon cette voie de recherche, l’individu constitué ne pourrait apparaître comme un être absolu, entièrement détaché, conforme au modèle de la substance, comme le σύνολον pur. L’individuation ne serait qu’un des devenirs possibles d’un système, pouvant d’ailleurs exister à plusieurs niveau et de manière plus ou moins complète; l’individu comme être défini, isolé, consistant, ne serait qu’une des deux parts de la réalité complète; au lieu d’être le σύνολον il serait le résultat d’un certain événement organisateur survenu au sein du σύνολον et le partageant en deux réalité complémentaires: l’individu et le milieu associé après l’individuation; le milieu associé est le complément de l’individu par rapport au tout originel. L’individu seul n’est donc pas le type même de l’être; il ne peut pour cette raison soutenir de relation en tant que terme avec un autre terme symétrique. L’individu séparé est un être partiel, incomplet, qui ne peut être adéquatement connu que si on le replace dans le σύνολον d’où il tire son origine. Le modèle de l’être, c’est le σύνολον avant la genèse de l’individu. Au lieu de concevoir l’individuation comme une synthèse de forme et de matière, ou de corps et d’âme, nous la représenterons comme un dédoublement, une résolution, un partage non symétrique survenu dans une totalité, à partir d’une singularité.

L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information by Gilbert Simondon, Grenoble: Millon, 2005, p. 63.

A word about translations

Simondon’s discussion regarding the σύνολον (sunolon) appears in the first part of his thesis, chapter 1, section III-2. This first part was published separately in 1964 at the Presses Universitaires de France, under the title L’individu et sa génèse physico-biologique. The second part was published 25 years later as L’individuation psychique et collective (Paris: Aubier, 1989). However, all the quotes used here come from the first complete edition of his thesis, published in 2005: L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information (Grenoble: Millon; hereafter ILNFI). It is worth noting that this 2005 edition of ILNFI was republished in a slightly re-organized way in 2013.

An English translation of ILNFI (that is the complete thesis) has been forthcoming at University of Minnesota Press since the summer of 2013. An English translation of L’individuation psychique et collective was said to be forthcoming back in 2009 (see Parrhesia, 7: “Editor’s Introduction”). See Monoskop for an exhaustive bibliography of currently available translations.

At the time of writing, there isn’t any English translation of the quote displayed above. However, the σύνολον is also mentioned once in the general introduction Simondon wrote for his entire thesis (ILNFI, 2005: 24). An English translation of this introduction is available online: “The Position of the Problem of Ontogenesis” (trans. by Gregory Flanders, Parrhesia, 7, 2009, pp. 4-16).

The sunolon in Aristotle’s Metaphysics

In the context of a discussion of individuation, form and matter –which are the topics of the first chapter of Simondon’s thesis– the σύνολον refers to Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Although the word is also used in Plato, it does not have the same meaning and it is not developed as systematically. In the available literature, both the transliterated form synolon and sunolon are commonly used.

The word σύνολον is given the most attention in Book VII of Metaphysics (Zeta) where it appears in various declensions: τὸ σύνολον, τῆς συνόλου, τῇ συνόλῳ , ἡ σύνολος (at the end of this post are listed excerpts from all the occurrences I could find). It is the name given to the unity of form (μορφή or sometimes, like below, εἶδος) with matter (ὕλη):

  • οὐσία ἐστὶ τὸ εἶδος τὸ ἐνόν, ἐξ οὗ καὶ τῆς ὕλης ἡ σύνολος λέγεται οὐσία (Metaphysics, Book VII, 1037a30-32, ed. W.D. Ross. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1924)

  • the substance is the indwelling form, of which and of the matter the so called concrete substance is composed. (Metaphysics, Book VII, 1037a30-32, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989)

  • Car la substance est la forme immanente, dont l’union avec la matière constitue ce qu’on appelle la substance composée. (Métaphysique, tr. J. Tricot, Paris: Vrin, [1933]1991, pp. 285-286)

The word σύνολος is itself composed of “σύν” (with, together) and “ολος” (everything), meaning “everything-together” (see Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon). It is translated in a variety of ways. In his translation of Metaphysics, Tredennick uses alternatively “concrete thing” (III, 995b), “concrete substance” (see above) and “concrete whole” (VII, 1033b, 1035b; XIII, 1060b). I have also seen elsewhere “compound”, “composite”, “whole-together”, “concrete individual thing”, “individual compound”, “substantial individual”.

In so far as the σύνολον is, for Aristotle, the inseparable, but sensible and independent composition of form with matter, it could be cautiously understood as an “individual” (from individuus). This in-dividual being cannot be divided further and, as such, it is the fundamental being. It represents therefor one way to Aristotle’s “first philosophy” (πρώτης φιλοσοφίας), or the science of being for itself (being qua being; τὸ ὂν ᾗ ὂν), which is exposed in his Metaphysics.

In the “Introduction” he wrote for the edition of L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, Jacques Garelli clearly adopts this perspective:

Le premier présupposé est de caractère ontologique, dans le sens où il pose, comme allant de soi que l’individu est la réalité essentielle à expliquer. Cette conviction vient du primat accordé par Aristote à l’Individuel, le σύνολον, à l’égard de la question de l’Être en tant qu’Être. (ILNFI: 11)

Following Simondon, Garelli argues that regarding the question of “Being qua Being”, Aristotle gives priority to the σύνολον: he takes for granted that being as the individual is the ultimate objective of the ontological explanation.

It should be noted just how peculiar this perspective is. Although it is not wrong, it is not quite standard either. A more common way of describing Aristotle’s Metaphysics would be to say that it is concerned with the meaning of being as οὐσία –often translated as “substance”–, which in some specific circumstances is identified with the σύνολον. Compared to οὐσία however, the discussion about the σύνολον in Metaphysics appears marginal. Furthermore, the nature of Aristotle’s principle of individuation has been and still is subject to debate. Traditionally, the principle of individuation is said to be provided either by the form or by the matter, depending on how the problem of individuation is framed (either as a problem of quiddity or as a problem of unity). In some special cases the principle of individuation is said to be provided by the union of both. Finally, there are those who argue that there is no principle of individuation in Aristotle1. In all of those cases, the σύνολον never play a central role in the argument.

This does not make Garelli’s remark wrong, but it suggests that his lecture may be atypical from the perspective of Aristotelian studies. The question of determining just how much importance the σύνολον played in regard to the question of “Being qua Being” would certainly worth further exploration. A good start can be found in Giovanni Reale’s book A History of Ancient Philosophy II: Plato and Aristotle (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990).

The following is a brief attempt to outline this problem.

The sunolon in regard to the problem of ousia in Aristotle

With his study of individuation Simondon is clearly pursuing a long tradition of inquiry about the fundamental nature of being (l’être). At the very beginning of her first study on Simondon, Muriel Combes suggests: “It is possible to read all of Simondon’s work as a call for a transmutation in how we approach being.” (Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual, tr. by Thomas LaMarre, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013: 1).

Simondon is trying to bring improvements to previous models, which he finds imperfect. In doing so, one could argue that he is fully engaged in what has been called from Plato to Heidegger the “γιγαντομαχία […] περὶ τῆς οὐσίας”: the battle of the gods and the giants concerning the problem of being (Plato, Sophist: 246a).

In the first chapter of his thesis, Simondon is mostly concerned with the limits of Aristotle’s model. One common way of presenting this model is to point out how it was itself proposed as a correction of two previous models. On one hand, the Presocratic philosophers argued that being has first and foremost to do with what is material. Aristotle calls them “τῶν φυσιολόγων” (Met., I, 986b) for they were mostly concerned with “φύσις”, which is often translated as “nature” (in English, the “Physiologues” are also called the “Naturalists”).

For Plato, what really is (i.e. fundamentally, essentially) cannot be seeked in the material, for it is constantly transforming. One could say that material things are how accidents appear to our sense. To know what something really is, one must reach beyond this flux of changes –beyond what is sensible– in order to grasp what is permanent in it. To really know what a vase is means to understand what is common and invariable in all vases, and not what is proper and temporary to that vase in particular. For such a universal form, Plato gave the name εἶδος (see Met., I, 987b). Thus, in clear distinction from the Naturalist, posterity largely remembers him as an “idealist”.

For Aristotle, “being” (τὸ ὂν) has multiple meanings: τὸ ὂν λέγεται πολλαχῶς (Met., VII, 1028a). This certainly does not facilitate any attempt to summarize Aristotle’s thoughts. The list of meanings contained in the Metaphysics encompasses common meanings, candidates for a more precise meaning, and finally Aristotle’s own conclusions, which are not always clear, nor definitive. Indeed, to this day, this problem remains a matter of dispute.

For the moment, it will suffice to say that for a thing “to be” means primarily that we can grasp what makes it what it is, and not something else. In other words, the being of a thing is first and foremost its quiddity or, as it is often interpreted but not without additional difficulties, its “essence” (if one accept to see in this term something distinct from Platonic essence). In Greek, Aristotle uses various expressions for this particular meaning: τί ἐστι καὶ τόδε τι (Ibid.), τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι (Met., VII, 1029b13-14), but more often he uses οὐσία (substance).

This does not solve all of the interpretation problems, far from it, since Aristotle also uses οὐσία in various senses. In his History of Ancient Philosophy, Giovanni Reale observes:

We must point out immediately that substance [οὐσία] is the most delicate, the most complex, and in a certain sense, the most enigmatic problem –all who wish to understand Aristotelian metaphysics must reject summary solutions to which the systematizing textbooks have habituated them. (Volume II: Plato and Aristotle, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, p. 277).

While keeping Reale’s advice in mind, it is generally understood that Aristotle provides οὐσία with two main meanings: on one hand, οὐσία is an actualized, existing, particular subject; and, on the other hand, οὐσία is the grounding, universal essence (for a more detailed analysis of the distinction between the primary and the secondary meaning of οὐσία in Aristotle, see Miguel de Beistegui’s Truth and Genesis: Philosophy as Differential Ontology, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004: 39-48).

Regarding the two previous models –that of the Physiologues and that of Plato– one can see how Aristotle’s views distinguish themselves: being, it seems, is neither simply material, nor strictly ideal. The essence of being is instead to be found in this somehow ambivalent substance: οὐσία.

In a way, with Aristotle, we are faced we two contradictory tendencies. On one hand, there is clearly a continuity with Plato in the will to separate the fleeting appearances of being –its mere presence–, from its necessary nature: its essence. We see this in the separation between the two meanings of οὐσία. On the other hand, there seems to be a struggle to overcome the distinction between presence and essence in the ambivalent understanding of this single term οὐσία. This struggle, in turn, could be said –although cautiously– to represent a point of continuity between Aristotle’s views and more recent efforts at understanding being, including –but not limited to– Simondon’s own work. One may think for example of Heidegger’s famous formulation according to which “The essence of Dasein lies in its existence.” (Being and Time, H.42). As de Beistegui remarks, following the path of Aubenque, we have in Aristotle’s aporetic conception of being

an attempt to open up philosophical discourse to a mixed reality, one that is a mixture of necessity and contingency, universality and singularity. (2004: 47)

Regarding the nature of this crucial substance that allows for a thing to exist as itself and by itself (and for us to grasp it in its “whatness”), there is another important precision to highlight, one that brings us back to Simondon’s own analysis. Indeed, alongside everything that has already been said, οὐσία can be further understood as either form, matter or a composite of both. This composite, as we have seen, is precisely what Aristotle calls the σύνολον. It is informed matter, not in the sense of a simple addition or juxtaposition of form and matter, but in the sense of a being-together of form with matter:

(…) all sensible things are whatever can be considered in their form, in their matter, in their composition; and substance (ousía) is in different respects […] both the form and the matter and the synolon. (Reale, 1990: 279)

In discussing Aristotle –alongside Simondon’s work or not– one must be careful to distinguish between substance (which is often used to translate οὐσία) and matter (ὕλη)2. For Aristotle substance is not necessarily reducible to matter. For example, suprasensible entities such as celestial bodies are pure immaterial forms: therefor, there can be substance (οὐσία) without matter (ὕλη). As Giovanni Reale puts it: “matter is substance in the weakest and most improper sense of the term” (1990: 280, emphasis in the original).

As an expression of οὐσία, the σύνολον inherits a number of important characteristics, some we have already seen: it subsists as an autonomous being (it is not constantly changing), it is a determined thing (τόδε τι), it is unitary, and it exists in actuality (ἐντελέχεια).

However, and more importantly for the present discussion, in Aristotle’s configuration of the σύνολον, the form has the upper hand. Matter acquires determination through the form: it depends on the form to actually acquire a “whatness” or a “quiddity”. Therefore, the form is hierarchically superior to it.

Regarding “being” (τὸ ὂν) then, and among all the meanings of οὐσία, this particular understanding of the σύνολον –the composite of form and matter– as a quiddity essentially determined by the form has, in the end, the ontological primacy. This is Aristotle’s view, his choice regarding the problem of being. In other words, when it comes to being, Aristotle has made an “ethico-ontological decision” in favor of understanding οὐσία as being one (not many), the same (not changing), determined (individuated), and present (not a platonic ideal) (de Beistegui, 2004: 38).

This model, put forward by Aristotle, is also known as the hylomorphic scheme (where “hylomorphic” is composed of ὕλη and μορφή). As we have seen, it is neither strictly materialist, nor strictly idealist, but it represents instead a problematic effort to bridge the difference between existence and essence. “This”, writes de Beistegui, “is the discourse in the wake of which much of Western metaphysics will come to be engulfed.” (2004: 48).

In “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935-1936; in GA5) Heidegger had already brought attention to the significant historical legacy of this particular way of understanding the conjunction of form and matter:

The distinction between matter and form is the conceptual scheme deployed in the greatest variety of ways by all art theory and aesthetics. This indisputable fact, however, proves neither that the matter-form distinction is adequately grounded, nor that it belongs, originally, to the sphere of art and the artwork. Moreover, the range of application of this conceptual pairing has long extended far beyond the field of aesthetics. Form and content are the commonplace concepts under which anything and everything can be subsumed. If one correlates form with the rational and matter with the irrational, if, moreover, one takes the rational to be the logical and the irrational the illogical, and if, finally, one couples the conceptual duality between form and matter into the subject-object relation, then one has at one’s disposal a conceptual mechanism that nothing can resist. (emphasis in the original; tr. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 9)

Later, in his Beiträge (GA65, 1936-38), he made a similar observation:

Thereby is posited that distinction (formamateria, form–content) which, incipiently and in the sense of the dominant, guiding question, prevails in all metaphysical thinking. It does so most strongly and surely but at the same time most inflexibly, in Hegel. (Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event), trans. by Richard Rojcewicz and Daniela Vallega-NeuIndiana, University Press, 2012, p. 150).

Simondon’s sunolon

Simondon also acknowledges the scope of this legacy when he writes, twice, about the the “logical force” of Aristotle’s model (“La force logique de ce schème…”), which allows even for the relationship between the soul and the body to be thought according to its structure (ILNFI: 39). Simondon’s effort to engage in the revision of the hylomorphic model should be measured against the significant scope of this powerful tradition.

But why a revision in the first place? What is Simondon’s problem with Aristotle’s model? This question is very well covered both in the general introduction to ILNFI (23-36), which is also available in English (“The Position of the Problem of Ontogenesis”) and in the first chapter of ILNFI as well (“Forme et matière”, 39-66). All I want to do here is quickly sketched two of the main points of contention examined by Simondon in order to distinguish between Aristotle’s σύνολον, and the way Simondon would rather understand the everything-together.

I will tentatively argue, for the purpose of the present comment, that the problems Simondon sees have something to do with both with the teleological and the ideological aspects of Aristotle’s hylomorphic model.

In being teleological, the hylomorphic model is mostly concerned with final terms and final ends: it is more interested in the ontology of the given product –the σύνολον as οὐσία– than it is in the fleeting process by which this individuation occurs or is generated (this in spite of Aristotle’s theory of potentiality and actuality). In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel observes that the actual form is

closely characterized as entelechy (ἐντελέχεια) or free activity, which has the end (τό τέλος) in itself, and is the realization of this end. (Vol. II, tr. E.S. Haldane, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1894, p. 138)

Aristotle’s “principle” relies, among other things, on the coming together of two already-defined terms –that is form and matter– in an association that is complete or whole, and that can stands for itself: the σύνολον as an individual. Simondon argues that the hylemorphic model actually assumes –in the being of both form and matter– what it is supposed to explain in the first place. It is thus exposed as a petitio principii (“pétition de principe”, ILNFI: 39; Garelli prefers to use the broader category of paralogism in his “Introduction”)2. Basically while the hylomorphic model sets to correct the atomist model of the Physiologues –where the being of any individual is explained by the aggregation of already-individuated atoms–, it remains in effect crippled by the same flaw.

Linked to this teleological perspective is the fact that the hylomorphic model, as we have seen, grants a privilege to the stable, individuated being. It does so both in term of what ultimately constitutes reality –being, what is–, and in terms of what any kind of inquiry should ultimately seeks to explain. In doing so the hylomorphic model also grants a privilege to the form over the matter. It is the form, in Simondon’s reading of Aristotle, that determines the matter, and not the other way around. Those privileges could be said to be ideological in the precise sense that they promote a set of values in the shadow of which part of the reality remains to be explained.

This is surely too short of summary of the contentions Simondon holds against the hylomorphic model. Other problems arise, for example, when one uses a model that comes from a physical paradigm (form and matter) to explain social individuation. The dualism of soul and body is an enduring witness of this issue. That is why Simondon’s effort will encompass not only “physical individuation” but also “psychic and collective individuation”.

Nevertheless, it gives a basic idea as to why Simondon went on to developed his own views of how individuation works. Instead of proposing another ontology of the individual being, Simondon concentrated on what could be called a co-ontogenesis: the process by which being actually emerged, with different order of realities, from a dynamic system of relations.

In doing so, he did not reject the concrete, determined individual, but made it one aspect of a broader “system of reality in which the individuation occurs” (ILNFI: 4). Therefor, this process should not be understood as a third term added to the hylomorphic model in order to correct it: it does not take place in-between form and matter, nor does it follows from their relation. It is a larger system of which the hylomorphic model explains only a moment. It is a means with no end, a continual “becoming of being, that by which being becomes, insofar as it is, as being” (Ibid.: 5). Consequently, Simondon’s individuation does not replace the individual anymore than his understanding of information replace form. In each case, those processes point to different, but equally important, modes or dimensions of the individual, which themselves are only parts of the general problem of being. The privileges are revoked.

We can now go back to the quote that opens this post in order to draw a provisional conclusion. In his understanding of being as a complete reality, Simondon opens and broadens Aristotle’s σύνολον to the point of making it its own. Simondon’s σύνολον –his understanding of everything-together– actually embraces much more than the individual, concrete thing. The reality of being is widened well beyond the unitary, unchanging, and determined substance. This approach neutralizes a dialectic principle which authority and legitimacy is solely based on the resolution of oppositional terms into a synthetic unity (form and matter, presence and essence, etc.).

Without a doubt, more would be needed to clearly distinguish between a dialectic of form and matter, and an “allagmatic operation” in which “transductive” unities, along with their “associated milieu”, come to find a provisional degree of metastability through “disparation”. Gilles Deleuze, who was himself deeply influenced by the work of Simondon, nonetheless saw in this new effort a different kind of dialectic where “the problematic replaces the negative” (Desert Islands, 2004: 88). But at the very least, it is possible to grasp Simondon’s work as a significant contribution to the still ongoing “battle of giants” concerning the question of being.

• • •

Below are all the occurrences of the various declensions of the word σύνολον I could find of in Book VII of Aristotle’s Metaphysics:

  • Now in one sense we call the matter the substrate; in another, the shape ; and in a third, the combination of the two. By matter I mean, for instance, bronze; by shape, the arrangement of the form; and by the combination of the two, the concrete thing [τὸ σύνολον]: the statue. Thus if the form is prior to the matter and more truly existent, by the same argument it will also be prior to the combination. (Met., VII, 1029a)

  • It is obvious, then, from what we have said, that the thing in the sense of form or essence is not generated, whereas the concrete whole [σύνολος] which is called after it is generated; and that in everything that is generated matter is present, and one part is matter and the other form. (Met., VII, 1033b)

  • And bronze is part of the statue as a concrete whole [συνόλου], but not of the statue in the sense of form. We may speak of the form (or the thing as having a form) as an individual thing, but we may never so speak of that which is material by itself.[…]

    For even if the line is divided and resolved into its halves, or if the man is resolved into bones and muscles and flesh, it does not follow that they are composed of these as parts of their essence, but as their matter; and these are parts of the concrete whole [συνόλου], but not of the form, or that to which the formula refers. (Met., VII, 1035a)

  • (…) therefore the parts of the soul are prior, either all or some of them, to the concrete animal [συνόλου ζῴου]; and similarly in other individual cases. But the body and its parts are posterior to this substance, and it is not the substance, but the concrete whole [σύνολον], which is resolved into these parts as into matter. Therefore in one sense these parts are prior to the concrete whole [συνόλου], and in another not; for they cannot exist in separation. A finger cannot in every state be a part of a living animal; for the dead finger has only the name in common with the living one.Some parts are contemporary with the whole: such as are indispensable and in which the formula and the essence are primarily present; e.g. the heart or perhaps the brain, for it does not matter which of them is of this nature. But “man” and “horse” and terms which are applied in this way to individuals, but universally, are not substance, but a kind of concrete whole [σύνολόν] composed of this particular formula and this particular matter regarded as universal. But individually Socrates is already composed of ultimate matter; and similarly in all other cases. A part, then, may be part of the form (by form I mean essence), or of the concrete whole [συνόλου] composed of form and matter, or of the matter itself. (Met., VII, 1035b)

  • But when we come to the concrete thing [συνόλου], e.g. this circle—which is a particular individual, either sensible or intelligible (by intelligible circles I mean those of mathematics, and by sensible those which are of bronze or wood)—of these individuals there is no definition (Met., VII, 1036a)

  • And “Socrates” or “Coriscus” has a double sense, that is if the soul too can be called Socrates (for by Socrates some mean the soul and some the concrete person [σύνολον])[…]

    We have stated, then, in a general account which covers all cases, what essence is, and how it is independent; and why the formula of the essence of some things contains the parts of the thing defined, while that of others does not; and we have shown that the material parts of a thing cannot be present in the formula of the substance (since they are not even parts of the substance in that sense, but of the concrete substance [συνόλου]; and of this in one sense there is a formula, and in another sense there is not.There is no formula involving the matter, for this is indeterminate; but there is a formula in accordance with the primary substance, e.g., in the case of a man, the formula of the soul; because the substance is the indwelling form, of which and of the matter the so called concrete substance [σύνολος] is composed. E.g., concavity is such a form, since from this and “nose” is derived “snub nose” and “snubness”—for “nose” will be present twice over in these expressions);but in the concrete substance [συνόλῳ οὐσίᾳ], e.g. snub nose or Callias, matter will be present too. (Met., VII, 1037a)

  • Since substance is of two kinds, the concrete thing [σύνολον] and the formula (I mean that one kind of substance is the formula in combination with the matter, and the other is the formula in its full sense), substances in the former sense admit of destruction, for they also admit of generation. (Met., VII, 1039b)

• • •

1. See Edward Regis’s “Aristotle’s ‘Principle of Individuation’” for an overview of those positions. The author provides an argument for the latter position, i.e. that there aren’t any “principle of individuation” in Aristotle (Phronesis, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1976, pp. 157-166). ↩︎︎

2. Heidegger was notoriously not very keen of the use of “substance” to translate οὐσία for a variety of reasons, preferring instead to use “beingness” (Seiendheit; see GA 9: 259-260/199). ↩︎︎

3. The peculiarity of the accusation should not go unnoticed: it is Aristotle himself who first identified, classified, and explained this kind of argumentative fallacy in his Prior Analytics (that is not to suggest that Aristotle was impervious to argumentative fallacy: he was not). Simondon’s main argument however is less about a detailed critique of Aristotle than it is about proposing an alternative model for the hylomorphic principle of individuation. ↩︎︎


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