Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Aristotle
Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher who contributed the foundation of both symbolic logic and scientific thinking to Western philosophy. He also made advances in the branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, moving away from the idealism of his mentor Plato to a more empirical and less mystical view of the nature of reality. Aristotle was the first philosopher to seriously advance a theory of Virtue Ethics, which remains one of the three major schools of ethical thought taken most seriously by contemporary philosophers. With all these contributions, he may have been the single most important philosopher in history until at least the late 18th century.
Aristotle's Philosophy Through History
As a young man, Aristotle studied at Plato’s school and remained there until Plato’s death. Afterward, he served as a tutor to Alexander the Great, a fact about his past that hurt his standing with many people once Alexander began to conquer the majority of the known world. Like his mentor Plato, most of Aristotle’s work was lost initially. Unlike Plato, his actual works were never recovered and instead we only have class notes from his students to give us an idea of what Aristotle’s views and beliefs actually were. During the Medieval period, his work was initially shunned by contemporary philosophers because of their primary concern with theological questions. The views of Plato and the later philosopher Plotinus were judged more compatible with Christianity then the scientific and essentially pagan views of Aristotle. That changed when St. Thomas Aquinas synthesized Aristotle’s views with his own Catholic theology, reintroducing Aristotelian philosophy to the world and establishing the foundation for the scientific advances of the Enlightenment.
Science, Metaphysics, and Logic
Aristotle rejected the idea of Plato’s “Theory of the forms,” which stated that the idealized essence of an object existed apart from that object. Plato thought that physical things were representations of idealized perfect forms that existed on another plane of reality. Aristotle thought that the essence of an object existed with the thing itself. In this way, he also rejected the idea of a soul that existed outside of the physical body, instead believing that human consciousness resided completely with the physical form. Aristotle thought simply that the best way to gain knowledge was through “natural philosophy,” which is what we would now call science.
Despite this belief, many of the theories that Aristotle put forth have not held up to the passing of time and scientific advancement. This is to his method’s credit, since science constantly examines hypothesis through experimentation and gradually replaces claims that cannot hold up with stronger claims. Aristotle initially claimed that everything was made up of five elements: earth, fire, air, water, and Aether. Aristotle is also famous for his “four causes,” which explain the nature of change. A thing’s material cause is what it is actually made of; its formal cause is how that matter is arranged; its efficient cause is where it came from; and its final cause is its purpose. When it came to biology, Aristotle proposed that all life originated from the sea and that complex life came from a gradual development of less-complex life forms. This hypothesis would later be proven true by Charles Darwin and a huge number of biological observations and experiments.
Aristotle believed that when trying to determine the fundamental nature of reality the only place to begin was with basic axioms. One such axiom was the principle of non-contradiction, which states that a substance cannot have a quality and not have that same quality at the same time. Aristotle would use this concept not only as an important beginning point for natural philosophy and metaphysics but for the basis of symbolic logic, which he was the first to establish. Even though an axiom can’t be proven, it is something that we assume to true because it seems to be self-evident, and this allows us to move forward in establishing an argument.
Through symbolic logic with Aristotle, we had our first attempt to evaluate validity in reasoning. If for instance, “all insects are invertebrates” is our first premise and “all invertebrates are animals” is our second premise, then our conclusion that “all insects are animals” is a valid conclusion because it follows from the premises. This has nothing to do with the truthfulness of the premises. If we substituted the first premise for “all birds are invertebrates” and the conclusion “all birds are animals,” the logic is still valid regardless of the fact that the first premise is false. In this case we still get a true conclusion even though we have a false premise, and in this way Aristotle had proven that reasoning is separate from the truthfulness of the premises being considered. A logical argument could have false premises and a true conclusion, but true premises would always lead to a true conclusion.
Aristotle’s ethics do not deviate greatly from Plato’s in that they are agent-centered ethics, in which the moral agent determines the right moral action. Aristotle thought that no rules or appeal to consequences could possibly give a person correct guidelines in which to respond to all situations. His ethical viewpoint was largely disregarded in the medieval period where it was assumed that ethics had their basis in the will of God, and in the early-modern period more materialistic views of ethics began to compete with religious concepts. After debates in the 19th and 20th centuries could not resolve the conflicts between Immanuel Kant’s Deontological ethics and John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian viewpoint, many philosophers began to go back to Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics as a good alternative.
Aristotle thought that the goal of human beings in their search for happiness was to reach Eudemonia, or a state of flourishing. He agreed with Plato that Virtue did not necessarily lead to a better life, but he did think that in order to achieve a true state of Eudemonia, aiming for virtue was necessary. Aristotle thought that the way to identify a virtue was that it was a middle ground between too vices in opposite directions. For instance, Temperance was identified by Aristotle as a virtue and the very definition of this term implies taking things in moderation. While Virtue Ethics has come back in vogue, it is under contention what exactly key virtues are. Aristotle’s virtues are temperance, justice, fortitude, courage, liberality, magnificence, and magnanimity. Some philosophers might simply replace a term that they find too vague, such as justice, with a term they find more specific, like fairness. Others might insist on replacing certain virtues with entirely different ones.
There are a number of objections to Virtue Ethics, like there are to any ethical theory. One comes from St. Thomas Aquinas, who while an adherent to Aristotle disregarded Virtue Ethics in favor of Natural Law Ethics. Aquinas considered chastity to be an absolute virtue, and while he acknowledged that it was not achievable by everyone, and that it was necessary for some to fail to be chaste in order to continue the human species, he still thought that absolute chastity was the goal that everyone should shoot for. While not everybody would not necessarily agree with Aquinas, it does bring up the fact that Aristotle often has little justification to say that the mean between two supposed vices is the virtue that should be aimed for, and that this is a universal criterion that everyone should use.
A more common objection that modern philosophers use is that what may be considered a virtue in one society may not be considered a virtue in another. In this way they accuse Virtue Ethics as being nothing more than moral relativism. While Deontological and Utilitarian theories have their flaws, these philosophers argue that Virtue Ethics is merely a side-stepping of the ethical problem and is simply an endorsement of the moral norms of a given society rather than a normative ethical theory based on reason. Proponents of Virtue Ethics argue that since ethical theories proceed from shared moral intuitions in the first place, universal rules or criteria are not only ineffective but unnecessary to the person who wishes to achieve a morally virtuous life.