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Phronesis Volume 17 Issue 1 1972 [Doi 10.2307%2F4181872] William E. Abraham -- The Nature of Zeno's Argument Against Plurality in DK 29 B 1

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Source: Phronesis, Vol. 17, No. 1 (1972), pp. 40-52

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TheNatureof Zeno'sArgument

AgainstPluralityinDK 29 B I

WILLIAM

E. ABRAHAM

Simplicius has preserved (Phys. 140, 34) a Zenonian argument purporting to show that if an object of positive magnitude has parts from

which it derives its size, then any such object must be at once of

infinite magnitude and zero magnitude. This surprising consequence

is based upon a construction which Zeno makes, but his argument is

widely thought to be grossly fallacious. Most often he is supposed to

have misunderstoodthe arithmetic of his own construction. Evidently,

any such charge must be premised on some view of the particular

nature of the sequence to which Zeno's construction gives rise. I seek

to develop a view that Zeno's argument is in fact free from fallacy,

and offer reason to fear that his real argumenthas usually been missed.

For ease of reference, I reproduce a translation of Simplicius in

DK 29 B 1.

(He showed the infinity of) size earlier by means of the same reasoning, for

having first established that if a being did not have a size, it would not even

be, he proceeds: if then it is, each must have some definite size and bulk,

and have one (part) of it extend from another. Concerning a' projecting

part, the same principle holds, for that too will have size, and part of it2

will project. Indeed, to say this once is equal in force to saying it forever;

for no such part of it will be the last, and there will not be a part not

extending from another. Thus, if it consists of many parts, it must be both

small and huge - so small as not to have size, so huge as to be infinite.

In order to impute the usual fallacy to Zeno, it is held that his construction is of a series of continuously decreasing quantities. The

charge then is that Zeno mistakenly thought that the sum of such a

series approaches infinity.

It is irrelevant to this charge whether the terms decrease geometrically or not. Vlastos3 has however offered persuasive considerations,

1

Tt to be a partitive

genitive, rightly. See Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

48 (1913), p. 724.

3 G. Vlastos in "Note on B 1" (p. 3), one of several papers offered to the Institute

in Greek Philosophy and Science meeting at Colorado Springs, Summer 1970.

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terms, he probably intended them to decrease geometrically. Vlastos

cites our knowledge "of the severe norms of symmetry in archaic

thought", the fact that the operative ratio in the paradox of the

stadium is 1: 2, and the fact that the Porphyry text (apud Simpl.

Phys. 139, 27-32) relates the use of the method of dichotomy. Indeed,

the use of t-epov in the present text would, as DK surmised,4 suggest

a division into two parts, and not three as Frinkel prefers.5 At any

rate, given that the sequence is of continuously decreasing quantities,

then whether the terms decrease geometrically or not, it would be a

blatant fallacy to suppose that their sum, if there is one, could be

infinitely large.

That Zeno should have committed the above fallacy is regarded as

inexcusable, since, even if he did not know that the sum of the

arithmetical progression E (n) does not exceed 1, only wilful fatuity

n-

1, 2,3,...

could blind him to the fact that all the quantities in his own sequence

are supposed to be parts of the one given finitely large object, and so

could not in sum exceed their matrix. And yet it hardly seems that

Zeno had any such amnesia concerning the source of the parts; on the

contrary, he makes it a corner-stone of his argument that the sum of

all the derived parts would not differ from the original finite existent.

This indeed is why he makes the original existent assume an infinite

size if the sum of its parts is an infinite magnitude, and zero size if

the sum of the parts is of zero magnitude. What is lacking is the proof

that the parts would add up to an infinite magnitude and to zero

magnitude. As to the equivalence of the parts with the whole, Zeno's

B 3 paradox may even seem to formulate precisely this.6

The standard exposition varies as to the ratio in which the given

finite existent is continuously divided. While most accounts suggest a

bipartite division, some (e.g. Frankel's) have proposed a tripartite

division. All of them, however, make certain suppositions which give

rise to the imputed fallacy. For the purpose of the following discussion,

it is simpler to refer to the bipartite division.

4 Diels/Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsohratiker (Dublin/Zurich 1966) I 255,

footnote to line 16.

b Hermann Frankel, "Zeno of Elea's Attacks on Plurality" in American Journal

of Philology, 63 (1942), 1-25, 193-206.

6 DK I 257 f: "If it consists of many parts, they (the parts) must be just as

many as they are, neither more nor fewer, and if they are just as many as

they are, they must be limited".

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to the repeated division, that it proceeds from left to right, and therefore that the division is reiterated at each step, only upon the right

hand term resulting from the preceedingdivision. Thus, let the original

object be A, let A be divided into two parts, a, and a2; let a2be divided

into b, and b2; and similarly ad infinitum. Zeno's sequence would

thereforesupposedly be representedby the expression (a, + b, + cl +

... ad inf.). This reading of Zeno's construction yields an infinite

number of parts not further divided themselves. Obviously, such an

note here is: even if there is a direction or sense to Zeno's sequence,

that the direction would be fromleft to rightwould only be an assumption made natural by our own direction of reading. A Japanese translation may suggest a downwarddirection, and a Hebrew translation,

a right to left direction. Indeed, Simplicius himself may even seem to

have assumed that Zeno's sequence moved not from left to right, but

from right to left (npo' ro5Xaotuovo~tievou

.eLrL

elvoaL3C

-'V E'

&7rtpoV

A second thing to note is that it is, in fact, only an assumption that

there is a particular direction or sense at all. What Simplicius does

report (DK 29 B 1) is that given an existent has a positive size and

another part (meaning,

bulk, a part of it must stretch from (CX&exsLv)

doubtless, that it is divided into two). Zeno adds that this same

principle is true of a projecting part (7tepl 'oi 7pouxov'oq). What the

standard exposition has done is both to translate this last phrase to

mean "concerningthe projecting part", and to identify this projecting

part with the right hand segment. And yet, at the first division, neither

part can be described as the projecting part to the exclusion of the

other, for either part stretches away from the other. The relation

is symmetrical, renderingeach part a projecting

expressed by &.7XeLV

if there is one, would thus be,

part. The contrast with "ro npo?'Cov",

not the left-hand part, but rather the whole object, especially as Zeno's

stated reason for reiterating the partition is that resulting parts too

will have a size (xax yap 'xsZvo tere 0'y?oq XMl npo6ei autoiux) whether

this clause is taken to be epexegetic or argumentative. Since either

part in the bipartite division would have a size, it would follow that

the principle is to apply to both parts, and, indeed, any part with

positive magnitude resulting from the reiterated subdivision. The force

of rxe-voabove is thereforeto introduce a generalrather than a singular

'ropV1nv)7

7 DK I 257 2,3.

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not be a part which does not abut another (ou'e &TEpOV 7pOq gTepov

oux eacrL)8for this does not seem to make any exception of left-hand

or right-hand parts. If this is so, the form of Zeno's sequence cannot be

represented by the expression E

terms are successive undivided left-hand (or right-hand) parts. Accordingly, in the remark

"7ZpOTO

Xa4 vo[ivou

a LEttvacL

8atr FfvV

left-hand and right-hand, but is saying that "by reason of the infinite

division, there is always something (jutting) from any part you take".

The construction I am suggesting will be seen to depend on a reading

of 7eP?.TOU7rP0UX0vT0q

in B 1 which denies the article its individuating

role; but this is not contrary to Greek grammar. In Greek,the article

with the participle can have a generic or a particular force. When it

assumes a generic force, the substantive which governs the participle

&7?cLpov -opiv"

with the article may be suppressed; and just as 'o r3oux6,svoq would

mean "anyone who wishes," so sLo7rpoC'Xov

could mean "any projecting

is now seen to be consonant with the grammar of Greek (e.g., Smyth,

GreekGrammar 1124, 2050, 2052).

easier to reconcile both the Philoponus passage and the 'Porphyry

text' with that of Simplicius. In the Philoponus passage (Phys. 43,

11-13), the following sentence occurs:

s6 yap atvx EX t eLV

7V?Ntay' 't'o

auvexq

&'Ct 8Laxpv.ov

?a'tv

Ciai 'To

7tXeCoVX.

sub-division to some but not others of the products of the division.

The Porphyry text (apud Simpl. 139, 27) turns out to be even more

felicitous in this respect, for Porphyry's understanding of the argument he is reporting is that the process of division is through and

through, and is reiterated for every product of each application:

7tcavtfl OLLo6)&a'

M<r4raxL;ttpeov &X' ov rn Fev, 'r] 8a oV (15-16). Second, he

indicates the same paradox as in DK 29 B 1, for the thorough division

yields either an infinite number of mutually equal parts which are

minima of positive magnitude, or are of zero magnitude. The original

zero magnitude. As to Porphyry's attribution of his version to Parmes

DK I 255 20,21.

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argument. Vlastos9 has even drawn attention to the stylistic parallel

o'u7n ptv, T- 8? ov" and Parmenides' own

between Porphyry's "(X?X'

"rnn" (DK I 239, 45). It is not necessary to deny the possibility of

the attribution; what must be emphasized, however, is that such an

attribution does not preclude Zeno from having pressed the argument

home. Indeed, the close relationship between the two men claimed by

Plato (Parm. 127 e) and repeated by Eudemus (Simpl. 99.7 8-11),

would make this natural.

One objection may seem to stand against the suggested interpretation of Zeno's premises. In the concordance on Zeno, the verb

occurs only three times, twice in Simplicius (DK 29 B 1, 17, 18)

7rpoeyXLv

the verb, it would appear, cannot carry the same construction as that

here suggested for it in Simplicius, whereas according to the interpretation questioned in the foregoing, the verb has the same meaning

in all three occurrences.To this, it can be said that the construe of the

verb cannot just depend on homonymy but must be guided by the

context. Now, the basis of the suggested interpretation is that TO

which is symmetrical. Hence,

tpo0uo,vresults from the relation &7tsrxzev

each product resulting from &7tXScLVwould answerto 7repOr7rGupoXovTo0.

On the other hand, in the Achilles, the pursuit is not symmetrical. The

quicker runner is pursuing the slower runner, the latter does not in

turn pursue the former; hence Aristotle can only say:

Me[ TL 7rP0eZXEV

xvCyxaouV

ro ppot&YSpov.

against plurality, he did not seek just any infinite division but only

one which is through and through. It is obvious that given such

a division of a being with a size, Zeno can proceed to develop his

paradox. The products of the thorough division, it is assumed, would

be parts of the given being. None of these parts can however be larger

than any other, or else the division would not be thorough. Hence

the parts must be equal to one another. On the one hand each of these

parts has positive size, otherwise they could not constitute an object

with positive size, and so would not be the parts of such an object.

Zeno's argument for this thesis is essentially stated in Simplicius (DK

29 B 2 10-15). If then each of the equal parts has positive size, since

there is an infinite number of them, their sum would be infinitely

* G. Vlastos, "Note on the 'Porphyry Text'," (p. 2), paper offered to the Institute in Greek Philosophy and Science, meeting at Colorado Springs, 1970.

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large. As they must at the same time be equal in sum to the given being,

that being would now be infinite in size. On the other hand, these

parts cannot possibly have positive size, or else the division is not

through and through. Hence since the given being is thoroughly

divided, these parts, while remaining mutually equal, must now have

zero size each. In sum, they will still have zero size. Since in sum they

must be equal to the given being whose parts they are, it follows now

that that being would have zero size.

Even though Zeno's argument does not commit the fallacy of

making a decreasing geometrical progression infinite in sum, there

still are features of it which may not have commanded acquiescence

in his day, and certainly merit discussion in ours. The following

propositions are important to his argument:

i) a being with positive magnitude is divided through and through;

ii) a through and through division as in (1) is an infinite division;

iii) the products of any division of a being with positive magnitude are parts of

that being;

iv) the products of a through and through division of a being with positive

magnitude cannot have positive magnitude;

v) the parts of a being are together equivalent to that being (formulated by

Zeno himself in B 3).

conclusions. Those of them referring to a through and through

division have found much disfavour since ancient times, for it is said

to be impossible either on the supposition that it evaporates a being

into non-existence (e.g., Aristotle, De Gen. et Corr. 316 a; and Epicurus,

Letter to Herodotus 56, 5-8) or on the supposition that an infinite

division simply cannot be supposed to be complete (i.e., to have been

completed).

For Zeno's argument, however, it is still essential to insist that he

envisaged a through and through division. Indeed, unless this is done,

it would become a wonder that a crude arithmetical fallacy concerning

the sum of a geometrically decreasing progression could be committed

by Zeno and sustained by thinkers of similar acumen, like Eudemus,

Sextus, Simplicius, and Epicurus. In the case of Eudemus, it would be

particularly flabbergasting since this man appears to have compiled a

History of Geometry and composed an essay on The Angle. It is probable

that in complaining that we would be forced in our conception of totals

to make things go to waste in the non-existent if infinite division

were permitted, Epicurus had in mind the Zenonian argument in

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and through in the stipulated sense. Clearly unless Epicurus had a

through and through division in mind, his fear would be blatantly

groundless, for otherwise an indefinite number of sizable chunks of the

being would survive the division. Epicurus' further thought (57, 1-5)

seems to be that if nevertheless someone obstinately proposes the

thorough division into parts (which, as was seen with Zeno, have to

be equal, whether they be of zero or of positive size), then however

small he may make these parts, the divided being will now be infinitely

large, taken (as before) in total. Epicurus' own way out appears to

have been to exclude infinite divisibility, that is, to postulate that a

being could be thoroughly divided without being infinitely divided,

thereby yielding atomic parts.10

If this reading of Epicurus is correct, then it would be futile to have

drawn his attention to properties of convergent series, for these are

not in question. It is therefore unnecessary to regret that Aristotle

failed to convince Epicurus, as there is a temptation to do. Indeed, it is

probably too generous to say that the Aristotelian passage in question

(Phys. 206 b 7-9) really formulates a theorem concerning decreasing

geometrical progressions. What he seems to do is instead to call in

question the notion of a complete infinite division ("we shall not

traverse the given magnitude").

As for Eudemus, he is reported by Simplicius (Phys. 459, 25-26) to

have argued: "to assert of something that it is an infinitely numerous

0OpaL8ekcomes to the same as asserting that it is infinite as to size".

respect to positive size for Eudemus' mathematics to be vindicated.

The connection with Zeno is obvious. It would now appear that the

suggested basic reading of the Zenonian fragment similarly restores

the logic of Zeno, Eudemus, Epicurus, and others. It would seem

besides that any attempt to find a background for the atomists in

Eleatic thinking must regard infinite divisibility in Zeno as infinite

through and through divisibility.'1

The atomist answer to Zeno, as illustrated in Epicurus, is to deny

10 Letter to Herodotus ? 56.

11 Compare Heidel (loc. cit. in n. 2, p. 723) who affirms his belief that the

Epicurean doctrine of partes minimae owes its origin to Zeno's argument, and

that (724) Zeno's criticism "made it necessary that there should be a limit to the

number and the divisibility of the parts of which a revised atomism might

concede that it was composed".

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division, and also to deny that the products of a through and through

division would yield indivisible parts. This atomist view would seem

to be behind Owen's complaint that Zeno assumed without argument

that the conjunction of size with theoretical indivisibility would be a

contradiction.'2

the notion of infinity may be grouped according as they involve a

static infinity or a dynamic infinity. The Achilles would be said to

involve a dynamic infinity, for there is a chase which never ends.

Similarly, the Stadium involves a dynamic infinity, for there is a race

which cannot be completed (apparently can't even be started); and

it would seem that in each case the hub of the argument is that each

programcalls for the undertaking of an infinite number of tasks which

must be complete in an ordinal fashion - something that Zeno argues

cannot be achieved. It would be piquant if by a volteface Zeno should

assume in other arguments that an infinite number of tasks could be

after all completed ordinally. The argument against plurality in

Simplicius does not in fact make any such assumption. The objection

to the effect that Zeno assumes an infinite division could be completed

appears to be unjustified. Neither the race across the stadium nor

Achilles' pursuit is given as a completed whole, while the divided

being is. When Zeno uses the argument of the dichotomy as he in

principle does in the present argument against plurality, he does not

propose the use of a hatchet, but rather draws attention to a relation

that is hereditary in the sense that its terms themselves contain the

same relation. To assume the division to be complete is here not to

assume it to have been completed. Thus having said that a given being

(since it must have size and bulk) has two complementary parts, he

asserts that this would be true of the complementary parts themselves

and so on without end, for no complementary part could be final or

could terminate the relation. Indeed the intransitive verbs o&7r&eLV,

7rpoeXyevthemselves suggest that no task or activity is proposed.

and whenever the question arises, he is anxious to argue that it cannot,

as can be seen in the case of Achilles and the Stadium. If his argument

against plurality requiredthe ordinal completion of an infinite task, he

would have no argument, for there would now be exactly the same

reasons as at any other time against the requirement. The fact that

12 G. E. L. Owen in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 1957/58 p. 210.

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hardly show that he envisages the ordinal completion of an infinite

task. Consideras follows.

The objection that Zeno assumes the completion of an infinite task

assumes that, when he postulates that the being is divided through and

through and so infinitely, he is introducing end-products which logically cannot be further divided, or he is assuming a last division beyond

which there is no other, and so, a last part. Now even though there is

an actual infinite number of points in a line at any of which points the

line may be divided, the finite line does have terminal points, both a

first and a last point. (This, of course, is made possible by the fact that

there is no point next to either terminal point). But it would be a

howler, committed by Johann Bernoulli, and decried by Leibniz, that

a terminal point would be "the infinitieth point" on the line. Of

course, if there were an infinitieth point on the line, there would be

an infinite number of "infinitieth points" on the same line. Leibniz's

observation was that points are not elements of lines, and if this

means that points are not themselves members of line intervals, he is

right. Zeno, of course, regarded the products of through and through

divisions as membersof the aggregate which is the given being, indeed

the only parts which are membersof the aggregate without being

included in it, i.e., without themselves having members. This is the

logical import of the thoroughnessof the division. On the other hand,

parts which are not end-products, i.e., all other parts, are includedin

the aggregate. That there must be end-productsis truly a consequence

of the supposition of through and through division, and no less truly

through and through division is a consequence of the tenet that every

being with positive size is divisible, for, as even Aristotle appreciated,

every such being must be divisible at every point.'3 To say that it is

infinitely divided is no more than to say that it actually has an infinite

number of points at everyone of which it is divisible. The point to note

is that the infinite divisibility means not an infinite number of points

of alternativedivision (such that the alternatives are inexhaustible), but

rather an infinite number of points of simultaneous division. The

points of division, being points on the being, belong to it not alternatively, but simultaneously. It is this simultaneity (and not a process)

which is articulated by the postulate of the complete division. It is

clear that if Zeno's complete division is thus a cardinal completion

rather than an ordinal completion, the infinite division of the given

18

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being does not imply a last division or last part, any more than the

simultaneity of the points on a line imply an infinitieth point. That

there are end-products implies neither that there is a last division not

that there is a last product. That division which involves the endproduct is distinguished from all the other possible divisions in that it

is the only division of which it is true that every one of its products is

related to the given being (now regarded as an aggregate) not by

inclusion but by membership.

It should be evident now that any part with positive magnitude

would be includedin the aggregate. To say that such a part could be

theoretically indivisible would mean at most that it is non-fissile in

relation to physical theory, not that it has no segments. It is not

necessary to Zeno's argument against plurality that the parts of a

being should be fissile parts. The verb 47eXeLv does not require this; it

calls only for segments. Solomon Luria14 accurately perceived the

when he saw that Zeno rested on an addition principle for an infinite

number of equal magnitudes. Two cases are distinguished:

i) if the addends are of positive magnitude their sum is of infinite magnitude;

ii) if the addends are of zero magnitude their sum is of zero magnitude.

yet the analogy whereby he hopes to confute Zeno is in fact only

helpful in drawing attention to a crucial difference between Zeno's

principles and those of dimension theory, but fails entirely to disclose

any fallacy in Zeno's reasoning; for the crucial difference is that

whereas in dimension theory the unextended entities belonging to

aggregates which make up a line are included in the aggregate but are

not members of it, those parts of zero magnitude (the end-products of

a through and through division) are members of, and are not included

in, the aggregate constituting the being. It is only upon a reversal of

this crucial relation (which Gruinbaumhimself notes)15that it seems

to Griinbaumthat Zeno has at last been refuted.

I wish to pass on now to Aristotle's strictures. In De Generationeet

14 S. Luria, "Die Infinitesimallehre der antiken Atomisten", in Quellen und

Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Astronomie und Physik, vol. 2 (1932-33)

pp. 106-185.

16 A. Griinbaum, Modern Science and Zeno's Paradoxes (Wesleyan University

Press, 1967), e.g. 119-23, 129f.

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of the genre of Zeno's. In it, he points out that its proponents have

misunderstood the concept of infinite divisibility. His opinion is that

an infinitely divisible magnitude is only potentially so divisible, and it

makes no sense to say: let it have been been (so) divided (wAT[JaT

his belief that even though a magnitude may be divisible anywhere

within it, its points of division are alternative and not simultaneous

points of division. The magnitude is infinitely divisible only because

these alternative points of division are everywherewithin it. It appeared

to Aristotle that if one were to treat these points as though they were

points of division simultaneously, then given any one such point there

would have to be another point of division next to it. Since this is an

impossibility the points could not simultaneously be points of division.

It should be observed however that if this reasoning has any force at

all, its force would be against the concept of a through and through

division, and not that of a simple infinite division, for with the latter

a next point of division need not be an immediate successorpoint in a

dense manifold.

It is not clear what should be made of Aristotle's comment to the

effect that should a through and through division be supposed to be

complete, any point of division would have another next to it. That

there is no such thing as a point "immediatelynext" to a given point was

well known to Aristotle (De Gen. et Corr.317 a 1-14); he fails to make

it clear however why the supposition of a through and through division

would dissect the given magnitude at every point conjointly,and so at

every point along with its neighborswith which it would now be given

simultaneously. Aristotle appears to have believed that the only way

to avoid the howler of juxtaposed points would be to insist that at any

one time there could be at most only one point (op. cit. 317 a 8)

anywhere within a given magnitude. In this there is a misapprehension

for the simultaneity of all points within a given magnitude would not

make them consecutively well-ordered, such that each point has an

immediate successor.

There is however another objection which Aristotle might well have

considered. Two assumptions are associated with his reasoning concerning infinite divisibility, namely:

i) that every positive magnitude is divisible;

ii) that every dividend part of a positive magnitude is itself a positive magnitude.

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iii) that dividend parts are discrete parts;

iv) that discrete dividend parts are well-ordered consecutively.

would certainly involve dividend parts articulated seriatim and whose

points of articulation are everywhere.At the same time, if each dividend

part should have positive magnitude, then given any one point of

articulation, the body could not be said to have been divided at any

point next to this, for there would be other points within the magnitude

of each dividend part. He might consequently also say that no conceivable division into parts could be a division at every possible point

conjointly. The truth seems to be that a complete through and through

division is non-intuitive, and there is hardly any reason to suppose that

whatever it yields could be regarded as parts in a homoeomerous

manner. Zeno, at least, was well aware that it would yield only

degenerate "parts".

There is one question concerning Aristotle's treatment which raises

the possibility that he was committed to an actual infinite. Aristotle,

as can be seen from the foregoing, was against dense manifolds, and

preferred to hold that the points at which a positive magnitude is

infinitely divisible are alternative points of division, rather than

simultaneous points of division. How, however, does Aristotle know

that a positive magnitude is infinitely divisible? The answer which is

available in his present discussion, seems to be that there is a point of

division anywherewithin the magnitude, and its points are everywhere

within it (op. cit. 317 a). Evidently he supposes for one thing that

there is an identical cardinality for the points of possible division as

for the points everywhere within the magnitude; for another he must

suppose that the latter points are infinitely many. Since, however, the

magnitude is itself given as a complete whole, it would seem that the

points everywhere within it are themselves given as a simultaneous

manifold, for if they only arise in consequence of being points of

alternative division, they could not as such make the points of alternative division infinitely many. In other words, Aristotle claims that

the alternative points of division, by reason of being everywhere

within the magnitude, make the points of alternative division potentially infinite. But they themselves cannot be potentially infnite merely

or this would mean that they arise in consequence of the alternative

divisions, and so could not guarantee the potential infinitude of the

51

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

divisions which give rise to them. It would seem that they would have

to be actually infinitely many.16

MacalesterCollege,St. Paul, Minnesota

"6 The Greek texts have been verified by Jeremiah Reedy, of the Department

52

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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