Study Guide

Aristotle Introduction

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Aristotle Introduction

Not Your Ordinary Grad Student

If you want to see Aristotle get really mad, try introducing him as "the student of Plato."

Dude's got a reason to feel annoyed. After all, this is the guy who presented the first comprehensive philosophical system in the Western world. This is the guy who invented formal logic, an area of knowledge that remained virtually unchanged for more than 2,000 years. This is the guy whose thinking had a profound and enduring influence not only on philosophy, but also on physics, biology, and zoology—and even Christian theology.

Heck, Aristotle was a central figure for so long that in the Middle Ages, he was simply referred to as "the philosopher." And you're going to suggest that his main claim to fame was having once studied with some other guy? Like he's no more than Plato's grad student? That would be like saying that Mary Shelley was just Percy Shelley's wife.


In any case, Aristotle deserves a medal for the sheer quantity of his writing alone. If you pick up The Complete Works of Aristotle, you'll be struggling to hold up a massive 12-volume book of some 2,500 pages. And that's estimated to be only 1/5 of the total writing that he produced (most of which has been lost). If you published all of his work, it would reach to the moon and back 14 times. (Don't quote us on that.)

But what's really impressive isn't just the amount of writing that he produced, but the scope of his thinking. Aristotle wrote on pretty much every topic under the (very hot Greek) sun: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, logic, mathematics, physics, biology, rhetoric, botany, astronomy, zoology—excuse us while we catch our breath. And until we got to the Scientific Revolution, pretty much all of it was taken as gospel.

Still, we have to be honest. While Aristotle is said to have been a great prose stylist, what has survived are only his lecture notes. Sure, they're very detailed lecture notes, but they're—how shall we put this delicately?—a bit on the dry side.

Okay, fine: Aristotle's writing makes the Sahara desert seem like a cool, refreshing dip in the ocean.

The point is: you don't read Aristotle for his scintillating prose. You read him for what he has to say. And yes, Aristotle, once we begin to understand all your glorious ideas, we see that you truly are more than just the student of Plato.

We know this is supposed to be a nutshell, but if you're itching for more, here's a little glimpse into the dude's expansive mind.

Look Within, Grasshopper

No doubt this will bother the A-man, but the easiest way to approach his work is to contrast his views with Plato's.

For Aristotle's illustrious teacher, transcendence is the key: the basis of reality lies, in some (hard to determine) sense, outside of or beyond reality. Plato's forms, as the essence of all phenomena, are not themselves part of the world around us.

To all that, Aristotle nobly replies, "Bull—er, I mean hogwash! There is nothing beyond the world around us!" Of course, that doesn't mean he gives up on the idea that there is an ultimate basis to reality. Not at all. Instead, for him, this basis is immanent: whatever is responsible for making a thing what it is—its essence—is part of that thing. (Ke$ha's lovely voice doesn't exist apart from her songs, but still defines them as what they are. After all, who else could sing "I'm talkin' 'bout everybody gettin'"—actually, wait. This is a PG-13 site.)

This notion of immanence informs nearly all of Aristotle's thinking.

Example: suppose we ask ourselves how we might determine Socrates' real identity (go ahead, ask yourself). There are lots of things we could say about him—he is pale, he has a snub nose, his feet smell pretty bad—but none of these make Socrates who he really is. Such properties are, in Aristotle's terminology, mere accidents. After all, you can get rid of his foot odor, but he'll still be Socrates (the only difference is that you won't have to hold your breath any more when he takes those sandals off).

But what is essential to Socrates, as Aristotle argues in the Metaphysics, is that he is a human being. The species he belongs to (and the word Aristotle uses, eidos, is the same word Plato uses for "form") is thus crucial to characterizing Socrates' identity. But rather than existing off in some woo-woo transcendent realm, that species is inherent in or part of Socrates himself.

Now, in other contexts, like when talking about artifacts, Aristotle will suggest that it is the shape (eidos or morphe) of a thing that tells us what it is essentially (source). But again, that shape is a feature of the object and cannot exist apart from it.

But Aristotle does more than simply give the essence of each phenomenon an internal rather than an external home. No, he says that forms or essences do not even count as "substances" in the primary sense—as the most basic or fundamental existents (…things that exist). Instead, what exists most basically for the A-ster are concrete, particular objects: particular plants, animals, rocks, chairs, and so forth. Form, species, and all other abstract notions are understood only by reference to substance in this very down-to-earth, commonsensical sense (source).

He really is the anti-Plato.

Knowing Is Believing

This same immanent view governs Aristotle's understanding of knowledge.

While Plato sees a fundamental division between the highest kind of understanding—philosophical insight—and the rest of what we know, for Aristotle, all of our knowledge forms one seamless whole.

That shouldn't give you the impression that there is no distinction between different areas of knowledge (in fact, this dude just loves to draw distinctions and to categorize different fields of inquiry). The point is that Aristotle doesn't allow for any special, transcendent type of insight. For the A-man, in other words, knowledge is knowledge: there is no fundamental difference between science and philosophy. (Tell that to organic chemistry majors.)

So, says Aristotle, we need to look at scientific/philosophical knowledge as a whole. And when we do, we see that what characterizes it most importantly is that it is systematic. Oh yes. As Aristotle's Posterior Analytics suggests, in the ideal case, every area of knowledge would be presented in the manner of Euclidean geometry, with all the particular truths or theorems logically derived from the axioms.

Geometry rules!


Now it's true that Aristotle never actually presents his thinking in this form (hey, it's a great idea—you don't expect him to actually carry it out himself, do you?). But it's important at least to have the model of knowledge not as a bunch of scattered truths, but as a single system, where all the interrelations between the claims are clearly set forth.

To put it differently, we could say that for ol' Aristotle, the key to knowledge is explanation. We know that some given claim is true by showing how it logically depends on some other, more fundamental truth. But that means that all the particular truths of any area of knowledge are ultimately dependent on the truth of the axioms.

So…how do we know that the axioms are true? Easy, he tells us: they are intrinsically more knowable than anything else, and we have a special faculty of Intellect that can recognize them (source). (If you think that's a fair answer, we hear the Aristotle Die-Hard Fan Club may still have a few slots open.)

Okay, so not every account that Aristotle presents is convincing. But, hey, he was too busy churning out the books and lecture notes to worry over every little detail. And the fact is we've still barely scratched the surface, Shmoopers. Among other things, we haven't even touched the A-man's account of change in the Physics , his discussion of aesthetics in the Poetics, and his logic, all of which have been hugely influential. Plus there is the Nicomachean Ethics, which, 2500 years later, remains one of the most central works of moral theory.

All in all, not bad work for a grad student.

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