Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Modified: 2010-01-31


Aristotle was born in Stagira, a town north of Athens and near Macedon. His father was the physician to the king of Macedon. At the age of 17 Aristotle left Macedon for Athens and soon became a student at Plato’s Academy. He remained there for 20 years or until Plato’s death in 347 BCE. Speusippus, Plato’s nephew took over the leadership of the Academy and Aristotle left Athens for several years, marrying Pythias, his first wife, relatively late in his own life. They lived near the Aegean Sea and that was when Aristotle developed an interest in the natural world. He classified animals and plants and his dissections laid the foundations of scientific biology. This period of this life ended when Phillip II summoned him back to Macedon to serve as tutor to his son, Alexander. Aristotle served in that position for around three years or until Alexander became king. Aristotle returned to Athens where he founded his own school, the Lyceum. There, in a grove near the temple of Apollo, Aristotle lectured while walking up and down a covered walkway (peripatos); his habit gave rise to the English word “peripatetic” that is used to describe Aristotle’s philosophy still. Neither Plato’s Academy nor Aristotle’s Lyceum should be thought of as being like modern universities. However, the subjects discussed at the Lyceum went beyond philosophy and included topics ranging from biology, physics, and theology. When Alexander died, Aristotle fled Athens fearing for his life, famously saying the city “must not be allowed to sin twice against philosophy.” He moved to Chalcis and died a year later after complaining about a stomach pain.

Nearly nothing remains of Aristotle’s early writings composed during his years at the Academy. Those were mostly dialogues, presumably in the style of Plato. Most of his known works seem to have been his lecture notes originally, which may account for their terse style. Aristotle was one of the first scholars to collect his own personal library. After his death, it passed to his student, Theophrastus. According to ancient lore, Theophrastus gave the works to his nephew, who buried them near Scepsis. Two hundred years later, Andronicus, an Aristotelian scholar living in Rome, edited what he could of that collection, and that formed the basis of Aristotle’s surviving works known today (Barnes, 1995a).

Unlike his mentor Plato, Aristotle took a much wider view on what the subject matter for philosophy should be. Where Plato began with the Forms, Aristotle began with observing nature itself. For Plato, understanding the Forms was the ultimate goal of philosophy. Aristotle, on the other hand, sought to understand nature first and, subsequently, understand the relationship between the observed particular to the more general essence behind the particular, that essence being more fully understandable through the application of reason. For Aristotle, understanding what a cat is did not come from thinking about an ideal cat. Instead, that understanding came from observing a great number of cats over a long period. Eventually, one came to realize what a cat was and to put together a mental notion of “cat.” This long series of exposures to particular cats was, of course, the process of induction. Aristotle argued that the universal, ideal cat had existed all along, but only potentially for any given person. The movement from the actual observations of a multitude of particular, real cats to the understanding of the universal concept of “cat” required experience plus intellect. Unlike Plato, Aristotle never claimed that anyone, including a philosopher, could ever fully understand the ideal cat, the Platonic Form. Instead, Aristotle maintained that experience, combined with intellect, allowed people to come closer and closer to an understanding of the universal cat.

FYI-Aristotle assumed that his God, the Unmoved Mover, could understand everything, including the universal concept of “cat.” Humans, however, could never completely approach such understanding.

Aristotle approached knowledge via three fronts: practical, productive, and theoretical. Ethics and politics fell under the category of practical. For Aristotle, the guiding principle for an ethical life was true happiness, which he maintained came from a lifetime of rational thought combined with its expression in virtuous behavior. Moral behavior was learned and subject to moderation. Aristotle composed a list or virtues and argued that pursuing or engaging in too much or too little of any of them led to problems. Like the older Greek philosophers, Aristotle believed that happiness was found in moderation, not in excess. Politics was an extension of ethics for Aristotle. Again, he disagreed with Plato as to the nature of the ideal form of government. In place of Plato’s single totalitarian republic, Aristotle presented six types of governments: monarchies, aristocracies, constitutional republics, democracies, oligarchies, and tyrannies. He thought that constitutional republics were the best possible form of government. Here again, was another difference between their approaches toward knowledge. Plato conceived of his ideal state by looking inside his own mind. Aristotle and his students, on the other hand, compiled an analysis of 158 Grecian constitutions. They, unlike Plato, collected data, thus they were empiricists. This early and now lost empirical example of political science (of the 158 constitutions, only the Athenian constitution has been found) is not how Plato would have proceeded.

The arts were productive. Under the arts, Aristotle included poetry, painting, sculpture and drama. In all of these, artists created or produced objects or actions that imitated life. For Aristotle, successful imitation of life was what determined the worth and quality of the arts. In his Poetics, Aristotle commented on drama and its importance. His analysis of comedy and tragedy are the oldest known to survive. Although both used the same methods, comedies imitated the positive side of life while tragedies imitated the baser, darker side. Also in the Poetics, he wrote about painting and sculpture. He viewed visual art as another method of imitating nature and related it to drama and poetry. The quality of paintings and sculptures, too, was directly related to how well they imitated life. Most likely, Aristotle would have been a severe critic of modern art because it does not imitate nature.

Under his theoretical category were biology, psychology, physics, and metaphysics. Aristotle studied hundreds of species. Supposedly, on Alexander’s orders his game wardens sent back many specimens for study. Whether that is true or not is beside the point. The fact remains that Aristotle was one of the first to carefully describe the structure and development of many species. His biological studies led him to study psychological topics as well. In his De Anima (On the Mind or On the Soul), he investigated psychological topics such as memory, learning, sleep and dreams, sensation and perception, and motivation. Moreover, he connected these to biological explanations. All animals were governed, to one extent or another, by nutritive, perceptive, and locomotor functions. Meaning they had to eat, engage the world with their senses, and to move. Humans, along with some other animals, had an additional function, a rational one. Humans possessed more of that function than did animals, but Aristotle noted that elephants were rational too because they knew to bow before kings. Aristotle, however, did not experiment as modern scientists do. Instead, he was a skilled and careful observer but stopped short of applying experimental manipulations and gauging their effects.

Aristotle’s physics are well known. As we will see in chapter 6, much of the early progress in modern science came as scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton revised or rejected Aristotelian physics. By the late Middle Ages (see chapter 6), the Roman church had elevated Aristotle’s ancient physics to nearly the level of Holy Scripture. Thus, the church taught Aristotle’s beliefs such as that the earth was the center of the universe, that heavier objects fell faster than light ones, and that projectiles traveled in only straight lines. Not only did the church teach those “facts,” it also punished those who dared to contradict them.

Metaphysics, or what Aristotle called Analytics, was the term coined by later editors who, when ordering his works, placed it after physics; metaphysics in Greek literally means “after physics.” The irony of that placement is that Aristotle thought of metaphysics as the beginning or base of all theory. Barnes (1995b) describes metaphysics by saying it is, “ The science of first principles, the study of being qua being, theology, the investigation into substance” (p. 69). All of these are relatively easy to understand except for “being qua being.” There, Aristotle’s intent was to study things as they were in of themselves. Today, we would call this effort philosophy and call its questions philosophical. Thus, questions such as how can we know anything, in general, would be metaphysical. Aristotle’s ten categories were also metaphysical, meaning they could be used to describe anything. Those categories were: substance, quality, quantity, relation, place, time, position, state, action, and affection. Read this sentence: “One (quantity) real (substance), white (quality), horse was standing behind another grey horse (relation), in the barn (place), yesterday (time), near the trough (position), saddled (state), drinking water (action), and enjoying it (affection).” Aristotle’s passion for categorization of the real world was another difference between him and Plato.

Aristotle also proposed four types of cause and effect. He used a bronze statue to describe them. Material causes refer to the substance making up the statue. In this case, it was bronze. Formal causes refer to the fact that the bronze had been made into something by somebody, the sculptor. It was now a statue not just a volume made of bronze. Efficient causes described how the statue was actually made. Meaning, the sculptor melted the bronze, poured it into a prepared mold, and later finished it by sanding and polishing. Final causes described the goal, in this case the statue itself. It is this last cause, the final cause, which makes Aristotle seem unscientific to modern eyes. The problem is that final causes are circular or teleological. Modern science avoids using final causes and substitutes efficient causes. Follow this train of thought: the paper this text was printed on was made in order to teach you psychology because, observe, it is teaching you psychology. Does that sentence bother you? Unless you are a 21st century Aristotelian, it should. The efficient cause is that this piece of paper was manufactured in order to make a profit for the company that produced it. It was chance, not purpose that led to these words appearing on this particular page. The fact that you are learning psychology from them should not be interpreted as proof of the paper maker’s intent. Final causes died a slow death in science as we shall see several times in this text.

Marginal definition-teleology: explaining something by appealing to its final use as the reason for its creation.

Only in one field, logic, did Aristotle claim intellectual priority. In all other areas but it he acknowledged that he was following in the footsteps of his predecessors. As Smith (1995b, p. 27) notes, “he was the first to conceive of a systematic treatment of correct inference itself. As such, Aristotle was the founder of logic.” Aristotle’s writings on logic are widely scattered throughout his books. He divided logic into two parts, induction and deduction. Induction was discussed above, and consists of coming to a conclusion based on repeated observations of an event. However, induction is logically weak because it only takes one exception to render a conclusion invalid. The main form of deductive logic is syllogistic. Syllogisms, are composed of three parts: a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. Thus:

Deductive logic leads to provable conclusions based upon a small number of premises. Aristotle developed deductive logic so completely that it stood basically unchanged until the 19th century. His work on logic also influenced his theology. Aristotle’s contribution there was his notion of God. The nature of his physical theory demanded an unmoving center and a first mover. The “Unmoved Mover” or God, fit that role. His God was the first essence, perfect, unmovable, and all knowing. Because he viewed motion as necessary in his physical system and because he could not logically allow himself to construct a system that moved itself, he needed the Unmoved Mover. He placed the Unmoved Mover in the outermost sphere of the universe, the sphere of the fixed stars.

Aristotle, thus, stands at the beginning of many modern disciplines, including psychology. However, he cannot be properly called a psychologist because of his methodology. While he was an excellent observer, he never developed methods that would have yielded data acceptable to modern psychologists. Also, his insistence on final causes made his thinking incompatible with modern science. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that Aristotle took the first steps toward the eventual rise of science and with that, the rise of psychology. In between however, much intervened and conspired to delay the onset of modern science.


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