Key Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy

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Aristotle deservedly called “The philosopher” by Thomas Aquinas stands at the epitome of ancient Greek philosophy. He was a polymath and made contributions to various scientific fields like logic, ethics, politics, mathematics, theater, medicine etc. Even these classifications of various sciences was made by him. He was born in Macedonia in 384 BCE and came to Plato’s academy he was 18 years of age. He was most interested in study of nature and this can described as his philosophical project.

Aristotle supposedly produced over 170 titles over which 47 are preserved. The titles that are preserved are largely lecture notes and hence they do not demonstrate his prose style which was admired by many of his followers.

It is quite interesting to note that even though Aristotle spent around 20 years in Plato’s academy his thought is quite different from his teacher’s. Aristotle believed that Plato had a mythical world picture and that he confused human imagination with the real world.

Some key concepts -

A. Ideas and forms

Aristotle, unlike Plato believed that there were no innate ideas. For him, ideas and forms had no existence of their own. They are developed by humans through seeing and experiencing a certain number of objects that consist of those ideas and forms. They are the characteristics of the things being observed. They are, just as inseparable from the object as body and soul. Thus Aristotle rejected Plato’s thought that the idea or form of the object came before the object itself.

Aristotle laid importance to sensory perceptions. For him reason (which according to Plato was more important) was empty until something has been sensed. He agreed with Plato that reason is innate but still nothing could exist in consciousness unit it has first been experienced through the senses. Thus, again, according to Aristotle, humans have no innate ideas.

B. Nature’s Scale

Aristotle was interested in the changes in nature. So, Aristotle categorized nature. His criterion of dividing natural things is based on the object’s characteristics or in other words what the object does and can do. He divided natural world into two main categories: living and non-living. For this he discussed the “form” and “potentiality” of the objects. Non living things such as stones, wood, water, soil had no potentiality for change. This means that they cannot change themselves and have to be influenced externally. Living beings on the other hand have the potentiality for change.

Aristotle subdivides living things into two categories — plants and living creatures that are not plants. These ‘living beings other that plants’ were further divided into categories namely animals and humans. All the living things (plants, animals and humans) absorb nourishment to grow and to propagate. Animals and humans have an advantage over plants due to the fact that they can perceive and experience the world. Also, they can move around. Humans further take an edge over animals and plants through their ability to think rationally.

C. Causality

Aristotle discussed causality by referring to the cause of the phenomenon or object and the purpose behind it. He held the opinion that there are different types of cause in nature and in the end he classified them in four categories — the material cause, the efficient cause, the formal cause and finally the purpose. If we discuss the “causes” of rain here is how Aristotle would classify them. ‘Presence of moisture at the moment when air cools’ is the material cause. ‘Cooling of moisture’ is the efficient cause. The formal cause is that the nature of water droplets is to fall to the earth. And finally the “purpose” is this — it rains because living things (plants and animals) need rain in order to sustain and grow themselves.

Aristotle’s views on causality can be critcised as it is against the nature of scientific reasoning of today. What this reasoning says unlike Aristotle’s opinion is that, because it rains, we are existing and thus are able to ask this question. However still, there are many communities who believe in a “higher” power or God and whose explanation seem to similar to Aristotle’s. However, what they are talking about is God’s purpose and not the actual purpose or cause of the object in itself.

D. Logic

It is self-evident from the concepts discussed above that Aristotle liked organizing things and he did it meticulously. Aristotle founded the science of logic. Aristotle’s logic is based on correlation of objects. To be exact, Aristotle uses the term “logic” as equivalent to verbal reasoning. Aristotle classifies words as : substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, situation , condition, action and passion. They are arranged according to the thought process we have when we try to discern objects. For example, we first ask, what the thing is (substance), then how great it is (quantity), then what kind it is (quality) and so on.

According to Aristotle, notions when isolated do not in themselves point toward truth or falsehood. Only through the combination of ideas in a proposition, that truth and falsity are possible. The elements of such a proposition are noun and verb. A combination of words gives rise to rational speech and thought. These thoughts can take many forms but logic considers only those forms which express truth and falsehood. This truth and falsehood is determined by their agreement and disagreement with the facts they are trying to represent.

Now when it comes to classifying things, Aristotle opined that first of all a definition must be established. A definition for Aristotle is a statement that shows the essential character of the object. Further another term is introduced which is — genus. Aristotle defines genus as the thing which differentiates the species from the objects in general. This is similar in nature to what the term means in biology now. The genus definition must be so formed that it doesn’t exclude any species. All in all, qualities within the genus must be wider than those possessed by the object but when the genus is taken together with “species” and other sub categories it must be exactly possess the same characteristics as the object under observation. From the above discussion we can see that the distinction between “form” and “substance” plays an important role in Aristotle’s way of discerning things.

E. Ethics

When talking about ethics, Aristotle asks two questions: ‘How should we live ?’ and ‘What does it require to live a good life’. A quick answer to that is: Man can only achieve happiness by using all his abilities and capabilities.

For Aristotle there are three forms of happiness. The first form of happiness is a life of pleasure and enjoyment. The second form of happiness is a life as a free and responsible citizen. The third form of happiness is a life as a thinker and philosopher. All three forms must be present at the same time and in balance for a man to find happiness and fulfillment. Aristotle believed in a life of balance, living one end to the extreme would mean missing out on a significant portion of human life.

The same applies for human relationships which Aristotle advocated as the “Golden mean” and also for eating. It seems that the Aristotle’s ethics are derived from that of Greek medicine which also advocates balance and temperance to live a harmonious life.

F. Politics

Aristotle describes man as a “political animal”. He pointed out, that without society, we are not real people. Family and community satisfy our primary needs of food, warmth, marriage, and child rearing. Also, Aristotle believed that the highest form of human fellowship is only to be found in the state.

Now, since state is of utmost importance, a question naturally arise as to how a state should be organized. Aristotle describes three forms of constitution with a distinct warning to each of them.

The first is monarchy or kingship. For monarchy to be good, it should not become a tyranny (when one ruler controls the state for self-aggrandizement). Second is aristocracy, in which there is a group of rulers. The warning here is that, it should not degenerate into oligarchy (group of rulers acting in self-interest at the expense of the general public). The final classification is polity or democracy. The negative aspect of this form of constitution is that it can develop into a mob rule.

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