Ancient & Medieval Philosophy: Aristotle’s Life and Philosophy

History of Western Philosophy: Ancient Philosophy, Aristotle’s Philosophy (based on Greg L. Bahnsen’s lecture series)

Aristotle was born in 384BC in Stagara. When Aristotle was 17, his father wanted him to continue his education at Plato’s Academy. He was impressed by Plato’s insights and creativity, but he wanted to reformulate Plato’s philosophy and make it more relevant. Aristotle, as for Plato, there is a public objective and knowlable reality. We can also answer the question of what is the good life for man. We are not left with the Sophist’s relativism. He wanted to reformulate the traditional beliefs of the Greeks by putting them within a comprehensive metaphysical system to explain the world about us.

Aristotle stayed at Plato’s Academy until Plato’s death in 347BC. He was able to travel around the world and gain a lot of experience. In 343BC, he became a paid teacher to Alexander the Great, the son of King Phillip of Macedonian. Alexander the Great was his best student, but he didn’t adopt the outlook of Aristotle. In 345BC, he went back to Athens to set up his own school. While running the school, he wrote treatises on a large number of subjects including physics, biology and logic. In 323BC Alexander great dies and Aristotle somewhat threatened by Macedonians, withdraws from Athens.

The Milesians and Atomists wanted to find out what the material world was made of, but their answers had problems and they couldn’t give an adequate account for man as a moral creature. Plato attempted to give an account of reality that was immaterial. Plato gave an account of reality, but in the realm of forms apart from the physical world. Aristole wanted to establish a theory of reality that accounted for the sense objects of daily experience and the transcendent values of ethics. He wanted to account for the natural world around us without giving up the ethical dimension of man. He had to disagree with Plato about the transcendence of the forms and ideas and on the otherhand he had to disagree with the Milesians and Atomists about the exclusion of ethical values from which we study nature.

The major problem he thought that he needed to be resolve was the problem of change. Change seems to be irrational. If A changes into B, B is A and B, but if A changes into B such that it is no longer A, then why do we say it was in the first place? How do we have A changing into B without a contradictory account of what is taking place? Aristotle figured that human reason can’t explain change, then maybe human reason is not an adequate tool at all.

Aristotle then, attempted to give an account of change. Plato taught what is intelligible is forms– the idea of duckness or idea of triangularity. Aristotle agrees that what makes world intelligible is the universality of things not the particularity of them. Aristotle does talk about the forms of things, Plato and Aristotle didn’t use “form” in the same way. For Plato, “form” exists otuside of this world of time and space, but for Aristotle, “form” means that which is intelligble in the realm of time and space. There are no ideals outside of this world; all forms and ideas are embodied in particulars in the realm of time and space. He was against dualistic metaphysic. He though plato’s forms were less relevant for explaining world of day to day existence. Aristotle said you can distingsuih forms from matter but you can’t separate them. A cup has a particular shape, texture and size. You can’t separate shape from texture, but they are distinguishable. You can talk about the texture of the cup instead of the shape. Likewise, you can distinguish the form from the matter, but you can’t seperate them.

Reality consists of individual particular things like rocks, trees, and animals and each particular rock, tree and animal is a substance. Reality is made of substances. Every substance is made up of its “whatness” and “thisnness.” If you look at a particular object, you ask what it is. Let’s just say it is an apple. That particular apple is made up of what it is and that it is or “thisness.” The apple has commonality with other things and that’s what gives it its intelligibility, but it’s not enough to say what it is, you need to capture its full reality. I’m a human, but thats not a fully analysis of me; I’m a “this” particular human being. In speaking the classes in which things will fall, by saying I fall into the class of human being or baseball player, after defining the “what”, you still haven’t defined the individuality of me. To get to the individuality of something, you must find out its “thisness” or particularity. Let’s just say there is someone almost identical to me like a twin, we should still be distinguishable because my body is made of different matter and I occupy different time and space than him. The “whatness” is what makes things like other things is their form, but the ”thisness” is what gives them differentiation is their matter. Every particular substance that exists is formed matter, but why do things have the form that it does? Why does a knife have a form different than a spoon? They have different purposes and functions.

If forms serves as a purpose and aim, then matter stands for the opportunity to develop in the direction of the purpose. For example, clay is the matter of the brick; clay serves as the possibility/opportunity of the brick being made. Every particular substance, if you are going to understand it, you need to understand its potentiality and actuality. Its actuality is always looking forward to its use and purpose. The world has a hierarchy of purposes. Every particular thing that we analyze has its history and its future; we must look back at its matter and look forward to its form. Form corresponds to actuality and matter corresponds to potentiality. By differentiating between pontetiality and actuality in everything in the world, Aristotle felt he could give an account for how things endure through change. When we say how A changes into B, how can A still be A and yet not A, that is B? Aristotle thought he had given an account of this– matter endures and form changes. Identity endures through the process of change. When we look at an acorn, its form or its purpose which it will serve is an oak tree. The acorn has the potentiality to be an oak tree, but it doesn’t have the form of it just yet. The matter (potentiality) is the same, but the form (actuality) changes. What a thing is not yet, becomes its potential. The form of “oak treeness” is acting on the matter of acorn to shape and mold it to become an oak tree. The form arises out of the matter. When we think of the form as a driving force working its way to fulfillment in anything, Aristotle used the term, “entelechy.” The form guides the matter towards its purpose.

The acorn doesn’t automatically jump into becoming into an oak tree though, it goes through stages of changes. These steps of changes are controlled by the entelechy. When things grow, what gives them their pattern of development? The entelechy that is behind them, the driving force that gives them guidance towards their end. How about a non-natural table? Does a table grow into becoming a table? No, because that is not its nature, but it is made step by step by a carpenter. As the table is being made, the intelligence of the carpenter guides its development. There are natural and non-natural (artifacts) objects, but everything has its form and its matter. All of the steps of development for the objects are guided by its purposes that they will serve.

In order for us to understand any individual thing in the world, there are four aspects of them that we must be aware of, which will determine the nature of the object. He called the aspects, “causes.” The causes give an account for objects.
The material cause gives an account of what something is made of. The table is made of wood.
The efficient cause is the agent that brings the object about. The carpenter.
The formal cause is what determines what a thing is. The carpenter’s idea or plan to make a table.
The final cause is the purpose which a thing is made. The table serves to hold food and stuff on it.

Everything in the world has four causes. Aristotle doesn’t do well applying the four causes to the natural world. How do we account for the falling of rocks? Aristotle had to resort to a strange idea that there was an entelechy within rocks that moves them downwards. It is part of their final purpose to fall down. This is rather arbitrary though.

Both Plato and Aristotle said that the individual cannot be understood without transcending the individual. If you have an individual duck or human being, both would say you have to go beyond them in order to understand them. You must know their forms that would take. You must know the universals of those particulars. Plato looked outside of this realm of time and space to find the universals/form. He also looked beyond the universals/form to the Highest Good. Aristotle also wants to transcend the individual but he doesn’t want to be a dualist like Plato. For him the transcendence of the individuality goes back to the potentiality of the individual. You also must understand its four causes to get a fuller understanding of the individual thing. The potentiality and the four causes are immanent. The transcendence is a immanent/horizontal transcendence. To “know” an isolated particular is not to have any knowledge of the object, you must know things in context. For Plato, the context is the form, beyond time and space, which was “informed” into matter, and our souls are recollecting the forms. For Aristotle, the knowledge that is necessary here is in our present experience. We can’t know everything about the context of any particulars though. Plato realizes that we only have a vague recollection of forms, and all forms are related together by the Highest Form of the Good, but to understand the form of the good eventually you’ll need an irrational “flash” of insight. Both Plato and Aristotle attempted to give a rational scheme of reality, but in the nature of the case, what they say leaves them with irrationality. Aristotle can’t give a complete context (give a full account) of the particular and hence can’t know it completely. Plato resorts to an arbitrary mystical “flash” of insight.

For Aristotle, everything that exists is a particular substance made up of its form and its matter. The natural world is the total sum of sensible objects, which are capable of spontaneous change. Ducks, acorns, pine trees are natural and have changes brought about on the inside. Aristotle is not a dualist or a materialist because he believes that in addition to the matter, there is form and change.

There are people who would argue that the universe didn’t change. Aristotle thought this was silly. If there was a time when nothing changed but then at a particular point things started changing, there must have been something that was hindering things from changing up until that point. Since things started changing, then whatever was hindering things from changing, itself changed. If it didn’t change, the hindrance would still be applicable and we wouldn’t see any changes. The notion that something changed so change would begin demonstrates that there was already change because there was change. This is absurd. For Aristotle, change and motion is eternal; however, there does need to be some kind of explanation that moves the physical world of nature without itself being moved. There needs to be a way motion is transmitted by something which itself is unmoving. There must be an unmoved mover. What is the external mover to this world which is itself unmoved and has been moving the world for all eternity? A “god.”

The universe is a series of concenric circle, which cause one another to move. The last concencric circle needs something to cause it to move. Aristotle posits that a god causes the circle to move. This god must be eternal, perfect and unmoving. He said that there is motion that also arises from desire and love trying to emulate it. The greatest thing of all is thought, but it needs to have an object. The greatest object to think about is itself. Thought thinks about itself. Thought thinking thought is the cause of the universe moving, because it is the object of desire. Because the universe strives for perfection, it emulates it and causes motion on Earth. Thought thinking thought is pure form; it knows nothing of the world and doesn’t care about it; it is only aware of itself. Aristotle’s god doesn’t create the world; the world is eternal. It has always been. The natural world loves thought thinking itself and goes then moves round and round. Love makes the world go round. At one point, Aristotle wrote that there were unmoved movers for each of the 55 concencric circles.

Christian Response:
It is silly for Christian apologists to rely upon Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover argument, because he was not attempting to prove a personal god with characteristics. His god was impersonal and un-concerned about the world and nothing like the Christian God. The Cosmological Argument says that everything has to have a cause, but you can’t have a series of causes go back for infinity, so there needs to be a First Cause. If you accept this argument, you still haven’t proven that there is one first cause; there might be many. You also do not prove the god being the creator of heaven and earth with Aristotle’s argument, because for him the world is eternal.
Differences Between Plato and Aristotle
Aristotle represents and empricial approach to knowledge over a rationalist approach. The empirical approach uses the senses and observation to gain knowledge of the natural world. The natural world is the only world there is; he doesn’t want to take a dualistic approach to metaphysics. Both Plato and Aristotle were wrong in their over emphasis on the rationalistic approach or the empiricist approach. Their theory of knowledge tie in with their theory of reality. Give Plato’s dualism, what is intelligible is found outside of time and space, you would not expect him to find a lot of research in the realm of time and space. Likewise, given Aristotle’s view that what gives intelligibility to any particular is an immanent transcending of the particular putting it into its natural context, you wouldn’t expect Aristotle to be impressed with people who have these intuitive clear and distinct ideas. Their theory of knowledge and theory of reality go hand in hand. You’re not going to get someone who has a Platonic metaphysic using an Aristotelian epistemology and vice versa. Philosophers have worldviews, not just isolated particular insights about knowledge, reality or ethics. They have a total view by which they hope what they say about reality comports with what they say they know about reality. Since Plato and Aristotle represent two different pagan worldviews, why does one person gravitate towards a Platonic worldview over an Aristotelian worldview? W.T. Jones points out that in Plato, we find someone who is a perfectionist. He is looking for perfect ideals and a utopian society. Aristotle on the otherhand was not a perfectionist; he was a realist. He was oriented towards being practical and following our observations. Plato distinguishes between the world as we experience it and the world as it should be in its conceptual purity. Aristotle declines the existence of ideals outside of time in and space; instead, ideals should be embodied. The universals are found in the particulars of this world not outside of it.

How does Aristotle explain how we come to know forms? According to Aristotle, man’s soul has various functions. There is a soul within is that takes care of our biological needs. There is a sensitive soul within us that allows us to see things as objects within a certain class. There is also a rational soul within man which allows us to find what is intelligible in the world of sensation. What is intelligible is form. For Aristotle, there are no forms that exist seperate from the world of time, space and their particulars. For Plato, the particulars are participating in the universal and for Aristotle, you only have particulars. If we only have particulars, how are they intelligible? How does this empiricist approach to knowledge allow us to know anything at all? Aristotle had to understand the process by which the particular mind of man learns the intelligible form of that which is being studied. He called this process “abstraction.” When have an experience of something, we are able to remember that experience. After we had an experience of a number of things that have a similarity to one another, we are able to fuse together what we remember about them into a common concept of what we have experienced in the past. That which our mind is bringing together as the common concept amounts to the intelligible form/universal that is in the particular. We learn the generic character that is shared by the members of a class of things like dogs, trees and ducks. We learn that generic character through observation that enables us to abstract the form of “dogness”, “treeness”, “duckness” or what ever else. Aristotle would insist that the form that form that we are intelligibly in contact with is not seperate entity. The form is always embeded in the particulars and yet somehow the human mind is able to come to know that the form is distinct from the particular sense experience that introduces us to the dog, tree or duck in particular. You can think of it this way, when we have a sense experience of a particular duck, that sensation presses itself on our minds like a seal impresses itself on wax. We you take the seal and impress it on wax and pull the seal off, you see an imprint of the seal. This represents the form. When you see a tree, those sensations that are coming to you from the tree are impressing upon your soul the form of “treeness.” You don’t have a tree in your head; you have a form of a tree in your head. This is Aristotle’s account for how we can empirically know what is intelligible about the world. This is how we can know forms, although we are particulars using sense experience.

Christian Response:
1. I see a particular tree (A1), what I am seeing is not the general form of tree, it is capturing (A1). When I see another tree it doesn’t look like (A1), it is (A2). My sense experiences are of particulars not universals. How has Aristotle given an account of the intelligible form that I know? Where do we get the general idea of “treeness.” You can’t imagine that a particular tree stands for the general concept of a tree. It is particular and not universal.

2. does he mean the form is being pulled out of the particular? Does the form exist in the particular. Forms are universal, what sense does it make to say that a universal exists in a particular. If it exists in a particular, then it is particular. To find a universal form in a particular tree is contradictory. If its a particular tree, then it can’t be a universal tree. This leads to another problem. The Huey, Luey and Duey all have the universal of “duckness” inside of them, then there are three universals of “duckness” right? That makes no sense. It should be that there are three particulars that are instances of the universals. Aristotle’s account of the universals being in the particulars is a very strange notion.

3. If my mind somehow pulls out of the universals in the particulars and it is now embeded in my mind, then do I now have the universal of “treeness” in my mind? If we see a tree and abstract the universal of “treeness” then would it make sense that we all have the universal of “treeness” in our own seperate minds? Aristotle hasn’t solved the problem of the and and the many at all. The one universal concept of tree is just found in three different minds.

4. If all we know are particulars, then there is no basis to say that we know universals at all. If no knowledge of particulars and lead to knowledge of universals, can any empiricist give a basis for science, laws, generalizations, logic? Can any empiricist give universal laws of morality. We Christians should be empirical, but not all we know comes from sense experience.

Man unlike animals is able to look beyond the present experience and see the consequences of his choices. Eventhough man is an advanced animal, he lives differently than the animal by making choices contrary to present desires. Man can see alternatives laid out before him and now man needs a standard by which to choose one option and over the other. Aristotle doesn’t want an ethic by comes from supernatural revelation, because he is an empiricist. If we are going to find a standard of what is good or bad, it is going to come from experience. He believes that what we learn from experience will not give us precise answers in ethics. Precision is available through logic, but it is not available in ethics. If we are to find out what is really good, we need to look at the opinions of men and analyze them. This will still lead to some disagreement and certainty. Ethical conclusions and never be definitive, but he is not saying that ethics is relative and nothing can be nothing. There is a truth to be found about ethics, but that truth can’t be definitively stated. Every science needs to go through development and refining to be more accurate. We can know truths about ethics, but we are in a constant process of refinement. When we study ethics, we take a step beyond biology, physics and studies of the natural world. We are not simply studying what is the good, the nature of reality, we are also concerned to develop good habits and character. Ethics is practical and theoretical.

Because Aristotle is development a system of philosophy, it is not surprising that when he was reflecting on the nature of the good, he tried to relate his understanding to metaphysics. Aristotle’s metaphyic was a matter of finding the final form of things. As he studied ethics he tried to do the same thing. To know what is the good is to know the final aim and purpose of it. Everything in this world has a proper function. We say that something is good when it performs its function well. A knife is good when it cuts well; a spoon is good when it scoops well. Man also has a proper end and goal as well. When man performs his purpose efficiently, then we say that man is good. What is man’s function? What is unique to man is that he is a rational animal. A virtuous life for man is life accordance to a rational principle. If we try to live in rational way and not be carried away by our sensual desires, we are going to realize certain character traits that are marked by moderation. The most rational way to live is to not live in extravagance and excessively. If we are thinking about facing death, it will be excessive to be a coward, but it will also be deficient to not fear death enough. The golden mean is to be courageous in the face of death. Every virtue for man will have to illustrate man’s unique function as a rational animal and will thus be a means between two extremes of excess and deficiency. All of the virtues that ordinary citizens would have set forth as good for man, according to Aristotle operate as a mean between excess and deficiency.

Christian Response:
Aristotle talks about the virtuous man as a magnanimous man, but when he describes this man, he describes him as an egotist. How is this egotistical man a virtuous and moral person? What Aristotle calls the golden mean is culturally relative and individually relative. What he considers moderate, I might considered deficient or excessive. Aristotle thought that there was a right or wrong relative to each individual, yet he thought you could abstract something common from all of those relative right and wrongs for individuals, and it was that abstraction that he called the “golden mean.” The problem is that as Aristotle was defending the golden mean as his ethical standard, since it comes down to individual ethical relativism, he has no authority in his ethics. He said that man must live up to his character as a rational animal, but what if we have a different view of man than Aristotle did? What if instead of man having the feature of rationality, we look at man as the animal who can always compete. Man is sexual all the time. Instead of contemplating the life of the mind, man should be having sex all the time.

No man is sufficient to himself. If man is going to live well, he must live in community. Aristotle is a rational and political animal. If we are to know the good life, we should always ask what sort of community we should live in. Man is by nature a political animal; he can only realize his highest goal when he lives in a city-state. The Sophists maintained that every man is an autonomous individual who can realize his own good for himself. Aristotle disagreed and said we must live in community. What should be the kind of government that the city state should have? Every good is a mean between extremes. You also cannot know any ideal seperate from this world; you can only know ideals based upon your experience in the natural world. Aristotle gives an inductive research on the different kinds of government that he knew of in his day and age. He looked for the mean between the extremes of government. He recognized that you could have a relatively good form of government and a perverted form of the same government. A relatively good form of government is a monarchy; a perverted form of it is a tyrrany. You can have many rules, the relatively good form of that is polity and the perverted form is democracy. Polity is the best form of government, because it is the genuine democracy. It is the rule by the many in the interest of the state as a whole. The many rule looking for what is best for the state as a whole. This is a fusion of oligarchy and democracy. Polity gives a balance between the rule of the many and the rule of the few. Aristotle may have prefered a monarchy, but for practical purposes, the midlde class needs to rule. We must have a body of laws that make the rules of the state predictable. However, there will never be a body of laws that will cover everything perfectly. Even the best of laws are going to fall short for each moral situation.

He took philosophy to be an attempt to explain the natural world. The natural world is the fully real world. He did not like Plato’s idea that the world is a shadow world. Philosophies job is to explain the natural world, in order to do this sucessfully, it should not introduce any appeal to a myterious transcendent world of ideas. If we are to explain the natural world, we must remain in it. There are two things he retained from Plato’s philosophy:

1) he agreed that reality is found in the form of things and it what made it intelligible
2) he retained a general teleological view point that Plato had

Aristotle’s criticism of Plato is that is way of looking at things is no help in explaining change and motion in the natural world. Aristotle introduced two conceptions:

1) Immanent Form: form is not outside of this world; it is always embeded in particulars
2) Potentiality: everything in this world is in a process of moving from its potential to actual form

Only particulars have existence. Individual sensible things only exist. Forms are embodied in these sensible particulars. Every object in the world is a compound of form and matter. Matter represents potentiality, and form represents its actuality and purpose. How do we learn about these forms embeded in the particulars? Through a process of mental abstraction. The form of the thing is its end. What makes a natural object a natural object is that it has a principle of motion that makes it develop in a particualar direction. The for different aspects of something that must be known if you are going to understand it:
1. Material Cause
2. Formal Cause
3. Efficient Cause
4. Final Cause

When something comes to full possess its form, that is to say, it is properly functioning, God is pure form/actuality. God was thought thinking itself and because of that, God could be an umoved mover. The world loves perfection and finds it in thought thinking thought. This desire for perfection is what makes the world go round. Man should seek to realize his proper purpose as a rational animal and seek virtues which are always a mean between two extremes. To live well man must live in a well-ordered city-state which must be governed by the middle class. However, he did not really explain how universals were embeded in particulars, nor could he explain the precision and authority of ethics.


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