Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Aristotle

Updated on November 4, 2019
Robephiles profile image

I've been writing about fiction and philosophy online for over 6 years. I am also an enthusiast of politics and art.

Aristotelian thought contains many critical theories and concepts that shaped western ethics and philosophy.
Aristotelian thought contains many critical theories and concepts that shaped western ethics and philosophy. | Source

Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher who contributed to the foundation of both symbolic logic and scientific thinking in 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.

What Is Metaphysics?

Metaphysics is the study of abstract philosophical concepts such as time, space, being, knowing, cause, mind and matter, potentiality and actuality.

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 than 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, he believed 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.

The Five Classical Elements and the Four Causes

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 in an object.

  • Its 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.
  • 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 also 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 be 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.

Eudemonia and Virtues

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 two 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.

Objections to Virtue Ethics

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 everyone would necessarily disagree with Aquinas, it does bring up the fact that Aristotle often has little justification for saying 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.

© 2011 Robephiles


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image

      Ian Kluge 

      2 months ago

      There's a difference between what philosophers think and what they actually do. Philosophers - like all living things - act according to the Aristotelian rules of logic: the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle even if they reject these laws or develop 'alternative' systems of logic. Nagarjuna for example, knew whether he had eaten breakfast or not and knew he could not have done both.. His tetralemmas reject classical Aristotelian logic, but in actions he followed Aristotle to the letter. Otherwise he would have starved. A newborn also follows classical logic: it 'knows' that it can't have been fed and not been fed at the same time. Classical logic is the natural logic of life at this level of reality. No one drives through rush hour traffic by following Nagarjuna's tetralemmic 'logic.'

    • profile image

      noah cha 

      5 months ago

      great resource

    • profile image


      5 months ago

      anything not real cant be figured out or explained ?

    • profile image

      Edrisa Mballow 

      8 months ago

      Good and educative site to follow

    • profile image

      atomic bomb 

      9 months ago

      they had nothing to do in bce so this is what they made up to keep them busy until they die. and find out they were right

    • profile image


      20 months ago

      Nothing “makes” them think logically. They do it because they really enjoy it I assume or perhaps they want to make a difference and think that practicing philosophy will be beneficial to the human race.

      This is to Ayanda, by the way :)

    • profile image

      Ayanda Ncube 

      20 months ago

      What makes philosophers think logical ?

    • profile image

      Eric :) 

      2 years ago

      This was a great breakdown and sum up of Aristotle. On his views and life. Thank you. I did not know that Aristotle's works were never recovered like Plato's and that all of the knowledge and beliefs we have from his beliefs are from his students notes. Very, interesting......

    • kimquy2301 profile image

      Pham Thi Quy 

      3 years ago from vietnam


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)