aristotle & agamben: on potentiality & actuality

stephan krophf

Abstract: We often misunderstand the primary importance of metaphysics, imagining that the manifestation of the world is only a matter of facts. Philosophy shows us that this is not the case, since the seemingly simple relationship between what is potential (δύναμις) and what is actual (ενέργεια) immediately exposes the illusion that our understanding of the world is only a matter of facts. In this paper I wish to do three things: define Aristotle’s potentiality, actuality, and privation, beginning with their relation to substance; investigate Giorgio Agamben’s reading of these concepts to define and conceptualize his position in the essay “On Potentiality” from his book Potentialities; and lastly, determine where Aristotle and Agamben meet, to help reveal the importance of metaphysics as held within our understanding of potentiality and actuality.

I. On Aristotle’s substance: Aristotle writes about potentiality and actuality in Book Θ of the Metaphysics. At this point in the Metaphysics he has just covered his conceptualization of substance (οὐσία). Here, I offer a quick synopsis of Aristotle’s idea on substance, because potentiality and actuality are prefigured into how substances come to be. The concept of substance consists of both a quality and a quantity of something that is in existence. To exist is what it is to be. Substance describes being. Being predicates everything that is a substance.[1] Inquiring into what the being of something is, includes what something becomes through time. Substances are fire, earth, water, air, plants, animals, humans, manmade things, etc.[2] Substances are compounds of form and matter. Substance involves four components: essence, the universal, the genus and the substratum.[3]

Substance is a something to point to that is in existence, since a substance is something that exists. Substance is ontological because it describes what something is. To be in existence, a thing is a composite, a synchronicity of matter and form.[4] Matter is the material, regarded as potential for Aristotle. Form is the shape and action the material takes, and this is regarded by him as actuality. The matter of a thing corresponds to potentiality. It is what a thing is capable of doing. What something is, in its capacity, is interlocked with its form. The precise form of anything determines what it is capable of doing. Form is the kind of thing matter becomes. Form is the species of the matter in question. If a particular form is human, animal, or plant, its potential is self-contained, and self-generated. If the object is made by a person, the potential of matter is actualized by the artisan. Wood is sawn for a boat. The formal material of wood gives it the potential to float on water. Stone is carved for a statue. The formal material of certain stones allows their potential to take a precise cutting.

A. Aristotle’s Potential: What is the source of change within the potential matter of an inanimate thing, or a living thing?[5] With Aristotle such a question brings us into the existence of life. What it means for a living thing to contain both its own potential for growth, and its actualization is certainly a question of what it means to express life, what it means to exist.[6] With the wood of a tree, the kind of potential that wood has to become to be a bed is reliant on an agental potentiality—the wood’s potential needs an agent to bring the wood of the tree into its actuality as a bed. On the other hand, humans have originative potential held within our capacity for life.[7] A wooden bed cannot fabricate itself, yet a baby can become an adult, and an adult has potential within to practice skills. This is a different type of potentiality, when an adult has the capacity, due to her knowledge to create, or to cause a change in something, her potential has the capacity to be fulfilled or to not be fulfilled. The ability to change in this second type of potentiality comes from within the capacity of the agent.[8]

The arts and knowledge are also potentials, since it is from these that art and knowing come to be.[9] These potentials operate under a rational or irrational principle for Aristotle. The rational is determined by its logical form and the irrational is often determined by accident.[10] The difference here is one of privation (στέρησις). Take for example a doctor who practices the art of medicine which has the potential to heal. Her rational potential to heal can falter, thus becoming a lack of healing. The potential to heal contains within it the potential to do harm, and in this example, doing harm is irrational.[11] I’ll return later to the notion of privation with Agamben.

B. Aristotle’s actuality: As for Aristotle’s actuality, let us sustain the notion of potentiality and actuality as inextricably conjoined. To define one, is to consider the other as one progression. We cannot consider the thought of anything as potential unless we somehow account for anything becoming actualized. Potential is preceded by actuality. The actual world brings about potential. If the actual is akin to energy, then energy is what creates potential. Actualization also is akin to work. Matter is working itself out as it is formed. When a house is becoming actualized from raw materials, the potentiality of the bricks, wood, and labor become actualized in the fabrication and construction of the house. Work reveals the potential of the raw materials that become a house to live in. A house cannot be actualized without the architects, carpenters, and stone masons who work to build it.

If substance is being, its existence is actualization. What is not in existence is potentiality. What is potential has not become thought yet. It is incomplete, and when it becomes thought, or rational knowledge, it becomes actualized. Whatever becomes actualized is happening or has happened. We are at our best when our minds are actively engaged in the world. The activity of the mind and of the intellect is bringing things and ideas into being and into existence. For Aristotle, thought and the objects of thought are inseparable. On this fascinating point Aristotle prioritizes the actual above the potential (as mentioned earlier). We might imagine that what is potential precedes the actual, since a progression from one to the other is implied, yet for Aristotle this is not the case, since thought itself is eternal. That is to say, if thought is eternal, according to Aristotle, then it cannot be merely potential because potentiality is incomplete. Therefore if the actual is complete (i.e. it is no longer a potential), only that which is eternal is actualized.[12]

The kinetic (κίνησις) relationship between potentiality and actuality can be thought of as the movement of substances which play a central role in Aristotle’s philosophy.[13],[14]

C. More on Aristotle’s Potentiality and Actuality: Even within the act of thinking we confront the unknown of our intellectual capacity so as to increase our ability to further our actual knowledge into future potential. Recall where Aristotle writes in De Anima, that the intellect “has no other nature than that of being potential, and before thinking it is absolutely nothing” (429a 21-22). This means that thought cannot be nothing, it cannot be simply thinking about things, and then not thinking about things. Thought has to allow for things to come together in potentiality as they become known so as to make things and thinking actual.[15] That the mind is receptive to the world—i.e. it contains what it knows while it receives new thoughts—positions the intellect as potentiality. We might imagine that the potentiality of thought is foundational for all knowledge.[16] In the Metaphysics, Aristotle writes “…it is obvious that actuality is prior in substantial being to potency, and as we have said, one actuality always precedes another in time right back to the actuality of the eternal prime mover” (1050b 2-5). Also back in De Anima, where Aristotle makes the case for the inseparability of thought and object, he emphasizes that our individual potential knowledge seems to be prior to actual knowledge: “but in the universe as a whole it is not even prior even in time” (430a 20-23). If knowledge is said to be actual, then it cannot be prior to potential because everything that is potential must come from something that is actual. The prime mover, as representative of pure thought, is eternal, and for Aristotle, the prime mover is also known as the unmoved mover. All motion originates from the prime mover and motion is the coming to be of actuality.[17]

Sometimes the tangible product of actualization is only an actualization of a visual sensation, as with the actuality of sight. We have the potential to see and actually seeing is the work of sight.[18] Actuality and potentiality as metaphysical concepts are easily relatable to sensation. In Book II of De Anima (417a 5-8) Aristotle writes on the potentiality of sensation. Sensation requires the sensual world to be what it is. We cannot speak of sensation without speaking of that which brings sensation to the fore of actuality. Aristotle questions what it means to experience sensation without an impetus to bring it about. The faculty of sight is a potential for sight, while seeing something is the actualization of potential. Having the faculty to do something is not the same as actually doing it. This encapsulates the idea that potential includes the ability to not be.[19] This leads to privation.

D. Aristotle’s Privation: Then there is the idea of privation (στέρησις).[20] Privation, or doing without, is a potentiality as it is not happening. Aristotle writes of it in four senses.[21] A privation is a simple lack of any particular thing, any negation serves as an example. A privation is the lack of capacity a thing under normal circumstances would have. For instance, someone is blind now who once had the capacity to see. A privation can also mean having the capacity and not using it, e.g. although we see we are sometimes blind to certain things. Also, a privation can be the removal of a capacity, e.g. a criminal is held in chains to curb her potential for violence. Agamben is primarily interested in this third type of privation.

D. Agamben: Agamben does not wish to revive Aristotle’s potentiality and actuality, because actuality and potentiality never went away.[22] When we give thought to potential, we also give thought to power, and power that resides in potential does not have to become actualized in all cases. For instance, humanity possesses political (defensive/military) power it does not have to use. We are free to not use our potential. Having the potential to do something speaks to the ontology of power: where power comes from, and that certain types of political power reside in not using what is potential. Because we have the power to destroy others does not mean we always have to act on such a power. Agamben wants to get at the root of what we mean when we make use of the verb ‘can.’[23] He takes seriously a philosophical line of questioning that asks: “what do I mean when I say: ‘I can, I cannot’?”[24] When we utter the words ‘I can, I cannot,’ we proclaim our potential and ability to do something. We take faith that our potential to perform an act is actually within us. Freedom resides in our choice to act on our potential. While at the same time, when our potential is tested, we wonder if we can we make good on a promise to do something. We do not always know the outcomes of any venture till it becomes actualized. To say ‘I can or I cannot’ does so in the face of uncertainty. Political power does not always know the promise of its actualization till its policies are actualized.

Including Aristotle’s idea of privation, Agamben goes in deeper, since privation is a fundamental part of grasping potential. He identifies this privation as the “existence of non-being.”[25] Privation is a kind of “potential not to be.” Agamben identifies this in Aristotle’s Book Θ of the Metaphysics, where Aristotle writes: “that, then, which is capable of being may either be or not be; the same thing, then, is capable of both being and of not being” (1050b 10). This “not to be” is held within the potential even when it is actualized. To ‘not be’ is potential, yet it is not a simple absence of the actual. That is to say, all potential is not exhausted while it is being actualized. Actualization also contains the ability to not be actualized. The word for this privation is impotence (αδυναμία), Aristotle’s word for a type of privation (στέρησις).

Agamben wants us to take notice of the distinction Aristotle makes concerning potential. As mentioned above (re: “Aristotle’s Potential,” pp. 2-3), there are two types of potentiality for Aristotle, one kind of potentiality is the kind attributable to a child who can learn, or who can gain knowledge. This type of potential is potential in a general sense of the word. The child learns this or that, while the child until she learns it, does not hold that ability yet. The child does not possess the same kind of potential that an architect does. This is the second type of potential. When we say a child can become an architect, it is different than saying an architect has the potential to put a building into action. In the second type, the architect has the know-how and expertise already at hand—she can put a building into action, whereas the child does not possess the skill. This type of potentiality is already in existence within the expertise of the architect. The architect has the ability, so she possesses the potential for a building within her. The potential is within her hexis (ἕξις), her possession.[26]

Now it becomes easier to conceptualize the difference between a mere lack of potential and the Agamben’s “existence of non-being.” Basic lacking is a general privation, whereas having the expertise to do something is the special kind of privation that Agamben and Aristotle are interested in. As this special privation of potential is brought to the fore, thoughts of what cannot happen become evident. The possibility to enact a building also becomes the possibility for the building to not happen for an architect. In politics, and in everyday life, we can easily suffer the results in the name of activities we don’t do. Passivity and quietism hold the power of inactivity. We enact the freedom to not do things we are capable of doing. Problems with passivity are ecological, as much they are political and philosophical. Not doing something is a strategy born from conviction, obstinacy or ignorance. Again, for Aristotle, to have potential in privation, means to have potential in existence. He writes in the Physics, “for the privation is in a way a form” (193b 19-20). Privation means to possess potential whether it is utilized or not.

Our faculties, e.g. the faculty for speech, vision, and even our ability for death, are within the domain of potentiality.[27] To think of someone’s potential is to think of what she is without an actualization of her potential—actually taking place. To inquire into such problems, like what it means when I say ‘I can or cannot’ do this or that, is to inquire into what it means to have a faculty to do something. For Agamben, this is the “originary problem of potentiality.”[28]

From Aristotle’s De Anima, Agamben illustrates more subtleties on potential as the existence of non-being rather than mere lacking.[29] His reading of Aristotle speaks of a transparency of vision. Something that is transparent is also something that is visible. This is a special way to think of transparency rather than the transparency of a clear glass of water. Transparency (διαφανής) of vision is made possible with light. To see a thing’s color, is to see it in the light. When light is removed, vision is taken to darkness (σκότος). Yet when we are in darkness, we see the darkness because we are not blinded by the absence of light. Light, as the provider of color, is actuality. Darkness, as the absence of light is potential. “What is sometimes darkness and sometimes light is one in nature” is how Agamben reads Aristotle’s position.[30] If light presents itself as the actuality of color, then darkness is the potential for light, and its privation: darkness is the potential for color’s absence. Light, in this case is akin to our action in motion. Darkness represents our inaction.

Human privation lacks color when action is nullified and we choose to do nothing.[31] Suddenly we intuit the moral/ethical implications for potentiality as privation. Privation is a lack of action held within potential, when our ability to act is possible. The privation of potency is impotence. A problem of evil is not always one of actively seeking out and enacting evil deeds. As implied, evil can also be the privation of action, the choice or faculty to do nothing, the choice to ignore the suffering of others.

Potential in privation is non-being (i.e. doing nothing) for Agamben. When we bring ourselves to action, the potential for non-being is always at the fore. Every circumstance admits to the range of possibilities that can, or cannot happen. We are constantly in a relationship with our inability to act. What can be is limited by what is. Still, privation need not always be an active choice to be passive. It is feasible that the privation of our potential is something to embrace. Inaction can bring about safety in danger, as much as it can be a measure of humility against the hubris (ὕβρις) of grandeur. Because we have the potential to commit crimes does not entitle us to actualize a criminal act. If someone commits a violent act on us it may not always be the wisest choice to retaliate, depending on the circumstances. Still, we often must come to terms with our limitations in order to surpass them. I often don’t know what my capacity for brave action is, till I’m required to act under duress, exhaustion, or the threat of death.

E. Last Thoughts: Metaphysics in philosophical study has to do, but is not limited to, questions on the basic structures of reality and being. Outside of philosophical questioning we are more accustomed to imagine that the manifestation of our world is only composed of a multitude of facts thrown together. The ontological relationship between what is potential and what is actual shows that any conception of reality has to take into account what can be, and what cannot be. Also, what cannot be, as a privation of potential, an impotence, must be considered in light of what we are capable of. Agamben is sharp to distill this from Aristotle’s genius. Agamben pulls impotence out to show that freedom is not always about action. Possessing the freedom to not do things shows that the metaphysics of potential and actuality go beyond a simplistic positive negative opposition. So much of political power is a privation of military and economic potential. Impotence resides near potential, yet at the same time, it cannot be described as actual. Agamben and Aristotle meet in an act of scholarship. Agamben mines his conclusions from the quarry of Aristotle’s lithic notation. The aporia (ἀπορία) of Aristotle’s potentiality has not been lost, and Agamben demonstrates this suspended when we say “I can, I cannot.” When I can, and do, perform a task, what I cannot do suspends or withholds itself from the task at hand. The suspension of what cannot be must be understood residing at this borderline of coming to be. Every action spells out what has not been. This must be considered as action’s metaphysical coeval, i.e. that the impotence of privation is never a mere absence.

We relate to the world and to people in these terms without knowing how inactivity affects the existence of our being. If potential is born from the actual then all that has not happened relies on what has happened. New paths are forged from what has been, to be transformed into what will be, and to be made manifest in perpetuity. Humans grasp their originative potential taken with our capacity for life. At the same time, we reject the wide range of possibilities forfeited in the name of performing a single task. Not doing something establishes the possibility of impotence concealed by action. Actuality distracts us from what is hidden. Privation discloses itself without ever needing to be put into action. We want to recoil from these observations, they seem too simple. Somehow they are made too obvious once they become evident. Philosophy discloses these relationships and now our work is to contemplate (θεωρία) their value in thought and in practice. To tap into our potential entails that we access what is already there, but has not yet been acted upon, ready to be actualized, reserved, overlooked or ignored.[32]

Aurelio Madrid

[1] Aristotle writes [note: all following quotes belong to Aristotle’s unless otherwise noted]: “We have now outlined the nature of substance, showing that it is that which is not predicated of a stratum, but of which all else is predicated.” Metaphysics, (1029a 7).

[2] “Those generally recognized are the natural substances, i.e. fire, earth, water, aire, &c., the simple bodies; secondly, plants, and their parts, and animals and the parts of animals; and finally the physical universe and its parts; […]. Metaphysics, (1042a 6-10).

[3] “The word ‘substance’ is applied, if not in more senses, still at least to four main objects; for both the essence and the universl and the genus are thought to be the substance of each thing, and fourthly the substratum.” Metaphysics, (1028b 33-36).

[4] “And in one sense matter is said to be of the nature of substratum [substance], in another, shape [form], and in a third, the compound of these” Metaphysics, (1029a 3-4).

[5] “But all potencies that conform to the same type are originative sources of some kind, and are called potencies in reference to one primary kind of potency, which is an originative source of change in anything or in the thing qua other.” Metaphysics, (1046a 10).

[6] “[…] these so-called potencies are potencies either of merely acting or being acted on, or of acting or being acted on well […]” Metaphysics, (1046a 15).

[7] “[…] for the one is in the thing acted on; it is because it contains a certain originative source” Metaphysics, (1046a 22).

[8] “But the other potency is in the agent, e.g. heat and the art of buiding are present, one in that which can produce heat and the other in the man who can build.” Metaphysics, (1046a 25-28).

[9] Jonathan Lear writes: “Man [for Aristotle] is not born with knowledge, but he is born with the capacity to acquire it.” In Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 2.

[10] “[…] for the rational formula to one object in virtue of that object’s nature, and to the other, [the irrational] in a sense, accidentally. […] Now since contraries do not occur in the same thing, but science is a potency which depends on the possession of a rational formula, […]” Metaphysics, (1046b 10-17).

[11] “[…] but the medical art can produce both disease and health. The reason is that science is a rational formula. and the same rational formula explains a thing and its privation […]” Metaphysics, (1046b 6-10).

[12] “Actual knowledge is identical with its object: in the individual, potential knowledge is in time prior to actual knowledge, but in the universe as a whole it is not prior even in time. Mind is not at one time knowing and at another not. When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears just as it is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal […] and without it nothing thinks” De Anima (Book III, ch. 5, 430a 10-25).

[13] Kalpana Seshadri quotes Walter Brogan writing on Heidegger’s 1931 lecture Aristotle’s Metaphysics Θ 1-3: On the Essence and Actuality of Force, “For Heidegger, the fundamental horizon of Aristotle’s philosophical questioning is the problem of movement, and it is in the Physics that Aristotle most explicitly addresses this issue…Heidegger reads the Metaphysics in such a way as to highlight the centrality of the concepts of dunamis and energeia as ontological notions that take up the problem of movement at the very heart of Aristotle’s notion of ousia and his understanding of being.” Kalpana Seshadri “Agamben, the Thought of Sterēsis: An Introduction to Two Essays.” Critical Inquiry 40, no. 2 (Winter 2014): 471.

[14] In Part II, Chapter 2, §26 of Martin Heidegger’s 1924 lecture course on the Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, Heidegger discusses an “Interpretation of the Cultivation of the Concept of κίνησις as a Radical Grasping of the Interpretedness of Being-There.” He is trying to get an understanding of kinesis from Aristotle’s Physics, Book Γ, Heidegger writes: “For the understanding of the following considerations of κίνησις, one must be clear as to: 1. The fact that previously the decisive categories were not yet familiar, For us, the concepts δύναμις, ἐνέργεια, ἐντελέχεια, are so worn out that one is not capable of seeing what is at stake in the fundamental meaning of these concepts. We must work to insert ourselves around into the time when the concepts of δύναμις and ἐνέργεια were cultivated.” Martin Heidegger, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, translated by Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B Tanzer (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009), 198-199.

[15] Elizabeth Balskus cites the scholar Leland de la Durantaye’s comments on this “If thought were merely the sum of things which it has thought, not only would be inferior to its object, but it would also leave unexplained thought’s most singular feature: its ability to reflect upon itself.” Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” 163. Balskus cites this from de la Durantaye’s book Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction, Stanford University Press, 2009.

[16] Elizabeth Balskus writes, “Therefore, the potentiality of the intellect not only allows for thought to maintain a supreme position ontologically, it is also the foundation of thought in general.” Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” 163.

[17] “But since there is something which moves while itself unmoved, existing actually, this can in no way be otherwise than it is. For motion in space is the first of the kinds of change, and motion in a circle the first kind of spatial motion; and this the first mover produces.” Metaphysics, (1072b 5-10).

[18] “[…] the actuality is in the thing that is being made, e.g. the act of building is in the thing being built […] but where there is no product apart from the actuality, the actuality is present in the agents, e.g. the act of seeing is in the seeing subject […]” Metaphysics, (1050a 30-37).

[19] Elizabeth Balskus brings this to clarity with “the potential to not be is easiest to understand in an example that both Aristotle and Agamben utilize: possessing a faculty.” Elizabeth Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” 161.

[20] I will return to the all important notion of privation for Agamben. Meanwhile, Kalpana Seshadri notes, “The conversation about Agamben’s place in the history of philosophy, merely in terms of his work thus far, cannot begin without considering the directionality he gives to the Aristotlian notion of dunamis. If it is the case, as Heidegger suggested in his course on Friedrich Nietzsche, that ‘each thinker only gets one single thought,’ then surely Agamben’s is that of the sterēsis (or privation) that determines the force or the power that defines living being.” Kalpana Seshadri “Agamben, the Thought of Sterēsis,” 471.

[21] See Metaphysics 1022b 22-33.

[22] Agamben writes, “…I think the concept of potentiality has never ceased to function in the life and history of humanity, most notably in that part of humanity that has grown and developed its potency (potenza) to the point of imposing its power over the whole planet.” Giorgio Agamben, “On Potentiality,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 177.

[23] Elizabeth Balskus reminds us that the significance of the concept of potentiality “plays into all aspects of existence,” for Agamben. Agamben’s quote from “On Potentialities” is “I could state the subject of my work as an attempt to understand the meaning of the verb ‘can’ [potere].” She writes “It would seem, therefore, that before we can begein to truly understand Agamben’s political or moral philosophy we should first attempt to grasp this potentiality that lies at the foundation of Agamben’s thought.” Elizabeth Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” Macalester Journal of Philosophy 19, no. 1 (2010): 158-180.

[24] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 177.

[25] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 179.

[26] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 179.

[27] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 178.

[28] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 178.

[29] Agamben cites Aristotle’s passage from De Anima, “…if to perceive by sight is just to see, and what is seen is color (or the colored), then if we are to see that which sees, that which sees originally must be colored. It is clear therefore that ‘to perceive by sight’ has more than one meaning; even when we are not seeing, it is by sight that we discriminate darkness from light, though not in the same way as we distinguish one color from another.” De Anima, (425b 15-25).

[30] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 181.

[31] Agamben writes, “The greatness—and also the abyss—of human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential for darkness.” Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 181.

[32] Agamben writes: “The greatness—and also abyss—of human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential for darkness. (In Homer, skotos [σκότος] is the darkness that overcomes human beings at the moment of their death. Human beings are capable of experiencing this skotos.)” Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 181.


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