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The Wax Tablet in Aristotle's De Anima

In Book II.1 of De Anima, the meaning behind Aristotle’s metaphor of the wax tablet, is that it is unnecessary to separate the being-at-work-staying-itself of a soul from an object’s form1 (412b7). In the context of the wax tablet, there is no reason to question whether its potential to inscribe writings is separate from the form of a wax tablet. The potential to inscribe writings is the soul of the tablet by its form on the other hand, is a ratio and appearance by which the tablet is defined. Or least of all, it is not necessary to separate the wax tablet from its potential to inscribe writings just like it is not necessary to separate an object’s form from the object’s soul, or an object’s being-at-work-staying-itself-ness.

The reason why the form and soul cannot be separated from a thing or an object is stated very clearly in the following passage where Aristotle explains why a thing becomes “ambiguous” once its potentiality is removed from its form (412b16). Just like the example with an axe, the potentiality of a wax tablet becomes “ambiguous” when its capacity to inscribe is removed from itself. If the wax tablet where to be a human being, the capacity to inscribe would be its soul. In this case, if the soul of a human being where to be removed from its form, the body of the human being becomes dead. For the soul is also the process of being-at-work-staying-itself by which a living being sustains its life and, if the same was to be removed from a wax tablet, then it would cease the potential to inscribe things.

In Book II.12 of De Anima, the context of the wax tablet metaphor takes a different direction since it does not question the tablet’s capacity of inscribing, but rather the potentiality of whatever is inscribed on it. Just like the example where the tablet is used to inscribe the appearance of a golden ring without the ring being golden (424a22); the ring in this case, does have certain attributes of a form which allows it to have certain attributes of a ring, but not the same attributes as a real golden ring. If a ring was to be inscribed on a wax tablet, it would have a form of ring but not the capacity of being-at-work-staying-itself-ness of a ring. Therefore, such an inscribed ring will lack a soul of a golden ring, forcing it to exist ambiguously.

The key differences and comparisons that Aristotle makes with the example of a wax tablet is that in Book II.1, Aristotle claims how objects can exist ambiguously if their soul were to be removed. In Book II.12 however, Aristotle specifically explains how an object or a living being can exist ambiguously when their form is inscribed on a wax tablet. The inscription of an object on a wax tablet can also be applied to any other way of representing and object other than itself. For example, imagination allows us to think of a ring in the same way that a wax tablet is capable of inscribing a ring. Both, the ring that is inscribed and the ring that is being thought of, have a similar lack in potentialities if compared to a real golden ring. This lackness of potentiality is an evident question that Aristotle contemplates when he describes the senses, imagination and eyesight.

  1. Form being a certain ratio and appearance that allows an object to be assigned a category based on other objects with similar ratios and appearances.