“Aristotle discovered all the half-truths that which were necessary for the creation of science” – Alfred North Whitehead.
Aristotle is best known for developing basic rules of logic into a methodology that is similar to modern “critical analysis” and close to what we would now know as “The Scientific Method”. The importance of the methodology was that it provided testing for hypotheses to provide legitimate “proofs”, that could not be refuted, unless further evidence was tendered.
Aristotle was born in Chalcidice in northern Greece and lived between 384 and 322 BC. At the age of 17 years old Aristotle moved to Athens to study under Plato, and remained at the Academy for nearly 20 years, until Plato’s death. In 335 BC, Aristotle founded his own school; where he worked for 12 years before being accused of impiety by the Athenians. He fled in exile to Chalcis in 323, where he died the following year. He married twice, and had a son, Nicomachus, by his second wife.
Aristotle’s philosophical interests varied widely, and he composed major works on logic, ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, physics, biology, meteorology, dynamics, mathematics, psychology, rhetoric, dialectic, aesthetics, and politics. All of his texts present topics which are studied through careful weighing of arguments and considerations, acute insight, a sense of what is philosophically plausible, and a desire to separate and classify distinct issues and phenomena. Most of his texts read more like notebooks for discussion rather than completed rhetoric or stylistic affectations. Logic, philosophy of science, ethics, and metaphysics are the four areas which are most central to his philosophy.
Logic and Metaphysics
Aristotle was the first to develop the study of deductive inference. He defined syllogism as a ‘discourse in which certain things have been stated, something else follows of necessity from their being so.’ Syllogisms are thus arguments which are deductively valid. Aristotle was highly interested in how a logical system and explanation led to a true conclusion. For example, if the conclusion states that trees of a given type are deciduous, then the premise will state that this is so because their sap solidifies. If no further explanation can be given as to why their leaves fall, then this premise will be considered as the basic nature of their shedding leaves.
Aristotle also outlined an account of the nature of valid inference, namely what each thing’s essence is, how things should be defined, and of the ideal of a complete science in which a set of truths is represented as a sequence of consequences drawn from a few basic postulates or common principles. These ideas, which underlie his Analytics, determined not only the course of logic and philosophy of science, but also, to some extent, science for two millennia. As with every pioneering system, his treatment of syllogistic required supplementation.
Aristotle’s logical project was directly connected to his metaphysical goals. His aim was to develop a logical theory for a natural language capable of describing the fundamental types of object required for a full understanding of reality. His aim was to have a logical theory ‘of a piece’ with his philosophical conception of what exists in the world and how it can be understood.
Aristotle’s metaphysical proposals have a number of different sources. Firstly, his logical system required metaphysical underpinning entailing an account of species, substances and essences. According to his view, names signify substances with essences. ‘Man’ has the significance it does because it signifies the same species on all occasions when it is used. What makes this the same species is that it possesses a distinctive essence which it cannot lack. The essence is the fundamental feature which makes the substance what it is, and explains the other properties of the substance.
Aristotle was also highly interested in natural organisms, and believed that in order to study them a teleological explanation was the key. What determined a thing’s nature was how good it is in achieving what is good for it to achieve. The distinctive goal of each biological kind is what determines its respective essence. Some goals are extrinsic, for example the goal of an axe is to cut wood, and this explains the arrangement of the metal in the axe. But the teleological goal of man is to live a life of a given kind and the rest of his nature is designed so as to achieve this intrinsic goal.
Morality and the ‘Good Life’
Aristotle’s Ethics aims to give a reflective understanding of well-being or the good life for humans. It suggests that well-being consists of excellent activity, such as intellectual contemplation and virtuous actions stemming from a virtuous character. A person with practical wisdom would choose virtuous action, and the practically wise are those who successfully seek well-being. This is often referred to as the Aristotelian circle, as the key terms well-being, virtue, and practical wisdom appear to be interdefined.
In Ethics, Aristotle also develops a study in moral psychology and epistemology. His theory of virtue (arête) aims to explain that what is good seems so to the virtuous. He examines the roles of desire, goals, imagination, emotion, and intuition in the choices and intentional actions of the virtuous, and explains in these terms how virtue differs from self-control, incontinence, and self-indulgence.
Aristotle’s own viewpoint is unclear, sometimes it appears that self-sufficient contemplation by the individual sage constitutes the ideal good life, but elsewhere man is represented as a ‘political animal’ who needs friendship and other-directed virtues if is he is to achieve human well-being.
Intellectual contemplation manifests well-being and everything else that is an element in the good life is in some relevant way like intellectual contemplation. Practical wisdom is akin to theoretical activity: both are excellences of rational intellect and both involve a proper grasp of first principles and the integration of relevant psychological states, as well as a grasp of truth in their respective areas. Intellectual contemplation is the activity which exemplifies what is good for humans; anything else which is good for us in some way resembles it.
In the Politics, Aristotle holds that a state has a central goal of well-being, and the ideal constitution is one in which every citizen achieves well-being. In practice, democracy is preferable to oligarchy because it is more stable and its judgments are likely to be wiser since individuals when grouped together have more wisdom than a few. The practice of slavery, with regard to both ‘natural’ and ‘non-natural’ slaves, required to till the soil was seen as justifiable as it is a necessary part of maintaining the state. Aristotle here also condemns Plato’s ‘communist’ society of guardians because it leads to social disturbances, and undermines private property and friendship ‘which is the greatest safeguard against revolution’, and is unobtainable.
How did Aristotle Influence Western Philosophy?
Aristotle’s philosophical influence extends from his death to present day. It has led to a wide range of different philosophical viewpoints, and his thought influenced the terminology of philosophy itself: ‘syllogism’, ‘premiss’, ‘conclusion’, ‘substance’, ‘essence’, ‘accident’, ‘metaphysics’, ‘species’, ‘genera’, ‘categories’, ‘dialectic’, and ‘analytic’. Many contemporary philosophers claim that their views are influenced and even derived from Aristotle’s ideas, and there are others who define their own position by rejecting Aristotle’s own writings. Aristotle not only initiated philosophical discussion but provided a framework within which much contemporary work can be located and understood.
Article submitted by Ivalena Dineva
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Cornell University Press Continental Philosophy, Oxford University Press The Republic of Plato, Basic Books Aristotle on Happiness, VDM Verlag Dr. Mueller e.K