Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was an Ancient Greek philosopher who together with Socrates and Plato laid much of the groundwork for western philosophy and science. Aristotle wrote on a broad range of topics encompassing what we would now call physics, ethics, biology, theatre, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, logic, zoology, metaphysics, and aesthetics. Those topics most relevant to issues of scientific change are his theory of causation, theories on metaphysics, and his method of science, which was based on intuition schooled by experience.
- 1 Historical Context
- 2 Major Contributions
- 3 Criticism
- 4 Publications
Aristotle was born in Stagira, Chalkidice in central Macedonia in 384 BCE. His father was the court physician to the king of Macedonia, and his interest in the empirical study of living things is thought to derive from this source.1 At the age of 17 or 18, he was sent to Athens to pursue a higher education at Plato's (427-347 BCE) Academy, then the premier Greek learning institution. Plato had been the student of the renown Socrates (469-399 BCE). Aristotle was an outstanding scholar and remained at the Academy for twenty years.23 When Plato died, he did not, as he expected, receive the directorship of the Academy. He returned home to Macedonia, and became a tutor to King Philip II of Macedon's son Alexander. Upon succeeding his father as king, Alexander won the appellation 'Alexander the Great' for his military conquests.23 After conquering Aristotle's former home; Athens, for Macedonia, Alexander helped him found the Lyceum there as a school and library.3 The pro-Macedonian government of Athens was overthrown in 323 BCE. Because of his ties to Alexander, Aristotle was forced to flee to Chalcis on the Greek island of Euboea where he died a year later at the age of 62.
Aristotle drew on a preceding Greek tradition of inquiry which he saw as dating back to Thales of Miletus (circa 620-546 BCE) more than 150 years previously. We know of this tradition from surviving fragments of text, and its mention by subsequent authors, including, particularly, Aristotle himself. Aristotle distinguished between a group of thinkers which he called 'inquirers into nature' or physiologoi as distinct from poetical 'myth-makers'. The latter, such as the Greek poet Hesiod (circa 750-650 BCE) explained the world primarily by positing divinities who behaved like super-powerful versions of human beings, with human-like genealogies and conflicts. These gods intervened in all aspects of the world, rendering it beyond mere human understanding. By contrast, physiologoi saw the world as an ordered natural arrangement, or Kosmos potentially comprehensible to the human mind. Plato and Aristotle used the term philosophy to refer to this latter line of inquiry. Beginning in the eighteenth century this group of thinkers, who were active before, or contemporaneously with Socrates came to be referred to as the pre-Socratics.4
The pre-Socratics developed a variety of ideas about the nature of reality and cosmology. The Pythagorean tradition, founded in the sixth century BCE by Phythagoras of Samos, maintained that mathematical order and harmony is the reality that underlies nature.45 Leucippus (5th century BCE) and Democritus (460-370 BCE) were pre-Socratic atomists (although they were actually contemporaneous with Socrates). They maintained that all things are composed of assemblages of invisibly small, solid, indivisible particles called atoms. These atoms exist within a void space and interact mechanically by contact. All things and processes in the world, they supposed, could be explained in terms of the arrangements, movements, and mechanical interactions of atoms. Although it may seem that there are colours, tastes, and smells, in reality, they supposed there are only atoms and void. They denied that any teleology exists at this fundamental level. Democritus distinguished two kinds of knowledge, that obtained from the senses, and that garnered through the understanding. Reason, applied to sensory experience in the proper way, yielded atomistic understanding.46758
The ideas about knowledge which most directly set the context for Aristotle's work were those of his teacher Plato.
As one of the first writers on method, Aristotle’s ideas on method are found mostly in a body of texts known as Organon. The most important of these ideas to philosophy of science come from Analytica Priora and Analytica Posteriora. In the former, Aristotle discusses deduction, while in the latter, he discusses induction. Out of the two, Analytica Priora forms the basis of most systems of logic found up until the late 19th century, while Analytica Posteriora forms the basis of empirical science to around the same date.9 The philosophies in Analytica Priora worked particularly well in taxonomical frameworks within biology. Beyond mentioned works, the Organon comprises 4 other works, Categoriae, Topica, De Sophisticis Elenchis, and De Interpretatione).
Most of Aristotle’s works on logic can be seen as a direct response to Plato’s views. As his predecessor and friend, Plato formed the foundational questions Aristotle would work from to create his framework of formal logic. Particularly, Plato was interested in raising questions about the nature of definition, the nature of connection between valid arguments and conclusions, and what properties could be called true or false.
Aristotle also stands out as a famous writer on causation. His work on causation is also in response to Plato’s views. Plato had a teleological view of causation perpetuated by his idea of forms. Similarly, Aristotle writes on the teleological account of causation in Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2.9 Aristotle’s account of causation is made pertinent by forming the basis of all of his sciences. Each Aristotelian science consists of an investigation of causes within reality – in which an appropriate science would have knowledge of relevant causes. Aristotle’s teleological account of causation was the preferred account until Rene Descartes’ corpuscular mechanicism.10
Aristotle’s writings on the scientific method encompass the entire Organon, however, the works forming the basis of most empirical science are Analytica Priora and Analytica Posteriora.
Generally, Aristotle’s method takes heavily from intuition and experience. It implements the requirement to grasp the nature of a thing, a requirement which is abstract in nature. As such, his method acts as an illustration of the capacity of methods to implement different abstract means of assessment. His method can be phrased as “a proposition is acceptable if it grasps the nature of a thing through intuition schooled by experience, or if it is deduced from general intuitive propositions.”11
In his work Analytica Priora, Aristotle essentially forms the foundation of syllogisms. Before he begins, he defines a few important terms: major premise, minor premise, and conclusion. The major and minor premises act as the antecedents of an argument and should logically follow to form a consequent, the conclusion. If the conclusion follows from the premises, in that it is a logical valid consequence, the logical structure is known as a syllogism (see the first figure for a common example).
It should be noted, Aristotle’s syllogisms draw on modifiers of certainty, e.g. ‘some’, ‘all’, ‘might’, ‘must’, ‘no’. As such, syllogisms can have different forms.
As a consequence of syllogisms Aristotle recognizes an infinite regress of premises cannot provide a foundation of knowledge for science. Additionally, in this work, Aristotle identifies himself against apriori foundationalists, stating apriori knowledge can never form the foundation of knowledge. Instead, Aristotle opts the scientist to look towards observation and memory to form the foundation of their knowledge.
In contrast to Prior Analytics which defined syllogisms with respect to their forms, Aristotle deals with syllogisms’ content in Posterior Analytics. The reason to take a look at the distinction is much akin to why checking the validity of an argument is not enough to ascertain it as a good argument. The form of a syllogism lies in the connection between the premises and conclusion. However, even when there is no problem with the form, the matter of the premises or the conclusion may be problematic. To clarify what type of content is problematic, Aristotle explains what good content looks like.
What Constitutes Knowledge
Primarily, all knowledge must be formed on existing matter. Anything formed outside the scope of what is already known is not useful information.12 Knowledge is not opinion and one cannot hold knowledge about something while holding an opinion on it simultaneously.12 Furthermore, the existing matter or principles on which information is founded must be demonstrable, and if not demonstrable then they must be self-evident.12
Rules of Demonstration
To explain proper demonstration, Aristotle provides some principles and guidance as to how demonstration should be conducted.
- Demonstration should follow the figures of syllogism. When the figures are followed, they assert conclusions as universally affirmative.12
- Demonstrated affirmative propositions hold more value than demonstrated negations.12
- Content which demonstrates other content cannot be further asserted through that which it demonstrates; if α is used to demonstrate µ, then µ cannot be used to demonstrate α.12
- There cannot be an infinite number of premises between the principle which forms the foundation of our knowledge and the conclusion.12
- The foundation of knowledge, the premises which follow from that foundation, and the conclusion must all be necessarily true. Anything purely contingent or coincidental cannot be used within a syllogism because it can never be consistently demonstrated.12
- The foundation on which knowledge is demonstrated should always be more certain than the conclusion.12
Explanatory vs Descriptive
Aristotle also makes the value distinction of explanatory theories and descriptive theories. Explanatory theories explain why something happens the way it does, while descriptive theories explain that it happens. Per Aristotle, explanatory theories should be valued more than descriptive theories.12
Aristotle concludes Posterior Analytics with a comment on foundationalism. While dissatisfied with apriori foundationalism, at his core, Aristotle is an aposteriori foundationalist. Knowledge claims cannot infinitely regress, and they must not be formed from apriori principles.
- The material cause: that which an object is made of.
- The formal cause: the form of an object.
- The efficient cause: the primary source of change.
- The final cause: the final reason for why something is being done.
An object may encompass all causes in its production. A statue for example, has all four causes through its production. As someone begins to create a statue, they melt down some metal. Metal is the material cause of the statue as it is what makes up the statue. As the metal is molded into the shape of a statue the shape it takes becomes the formal cause. Simultaneously, since the metal is being molded, the efficient cause is the molding of the metal into a statue. Aristotle makes the distinction here that the efficient cause is not relevant or connected to intention or desire; the artisan making the statue is solely responsible for manifesting specific knowledge. Finally, all the processes which the metal is undergoing are for the sake of producing a statue, the final cause.
In discussing the causes, it seems that Aristotle has provided a teleological account of causation in that the explanation for an object makes reference to the goal or end of the process. It is also of note that this process ignores intentionality and desire.
Due to the philosophical influence of Aristotle, he is very popularly debated and criticized, thus his critics are too numerous too list. Here, however, are some famous arguments against Aristotle.
First and foremost, numerous critiques of Aristotle appear through religious reconciliation of his views. In Christianity, Thomas Aquinas attempted to reconcile Aristotle’s views to form a stronger foundation for his religious beliefs. More specifically, Aquinas adopted Aristotle’s analysis of physical objects, cosmology, time, motion and place, and his views on the prime mover. Aquinas, however, rejected Aristotle’s views on sense perception and intellectual knowledge opting to create his own notions of both.14
In the Islamic world, Al-Kindi was one of the first philosophers to introduce Greek and Hellenistic philosophy into their world. Al-Kindi was particularly interested in applying metaphysics to theology but seemed to conflate the two in his works. Still, the influence of Aristotle is evident in his work.15
An expansion and perhaps some moderate qualms with Aristotle’s syllogisms come from Boole. Boole was very enticed by Aristotle’s logic and in his Laws of Thought sought to re-establish the foundations of Aristotle’s work by giving it a mathematical base. However, despite his enticement Boole had some disagreements with Aristotle. Boole was concerned with what Aristotle had left unsaid in his Analytica Priora. These concerns can be seen in his revisions to Aristotle’s logic. Firstly, Boole did not like that Aristotle’s work was not mathematical, so he converted it into equations. Secondly, Aristotle had never laid out rules for equation solving, thus Boole did this too. Finally, Boole did not like that Aristotle’s logic was limited to only dual term propositions, so he expanded it to allow for more.16
Perhaps a problem with the Scientific Method can arise from its empiricism. External world skepticism, perpetuated most famously by David Hume, definitely hurts Aristotle’s method. However, rather than any individual critic, the largest problems with the method were its limitations in scientific fields such as physics, chemistry, and most prominently, cosmology. Aristotle’s earth centered cosmology was called into question by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, and his scientific methodology by Descartes, Locke, and Hume. Focusing primarily on intuitive and demonstrable claims, Aristotle’s method did not allow for theories positing unobservable entities nor post hoc explanations. Granted the significance of Rene Descartes claims on the cosmos, and his ideas on rationalism, the inductive method was adopted in place of Aristotle’s method. Herein the biggest hit to Aristotle’s method is not any singular critique but the overall replacement of his method by the scientific community.11
Here are the works of Aristotle included in the bibliographic records of this encyclopedia:
- Aristotle (1963): Aristotle. (1964) Categories and De Interpretatione. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1983): Aristotle. (1983) De Generatione et Corruptione. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1983a): Aristotle. (1983) Physics Books III and IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1984): Aristotle. (1984) Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume 1: The Revised Oxford Translation. Princeton University Press.
- Aristotle (1984b): Aristotle. (1984) Physics Books I and II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1988): Aristotle. (1988) Metaphysics Books M and N. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1992): Aristotle. (1992) De Partibus Animalium I and De Generatione Animalium I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1992b): Aristotle. (1992) Eudemian Ethics Books I, II, and VIII, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1993): Aristotle. (1993) Metaphysics: Books gamma, delta, and epsilon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1994a): Aristotle. (1994) Posterior Analytics, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1994b): Aristotle. (1994) Metaphysics Books Z and H. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1996a): Aristotle. (1996) Politics: Books III and IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1996b): Aristotle. (1996) Politics: Books I and II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1997): Aristotle. (1997) Prior Analytics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1998): Aristotle. (1998) Politics Books VII and VIII. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1999a): Aristotle. (1999) Physics, Book VIII. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1999b): Aristotle. (1999) De Anima II and III. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1999c): Aristotle. (1999) Politics, Books V and VI Animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (1999d): Aristotle. (1999) Nicomachean Ethics, Books VIII and IX. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (200): Aristotle. (2000) Aristotle: Metaphysics Books B and K 1–2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (2002): Aristotle. (1992) On the Parts of Animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (2006): Aristotle. (2006) Metaphysics Theta. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (2006b): Aristotle. (2006) Nicomachean Ethics, Books II-IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (2009): Aristotle. (2009) Topics Books I and VIII. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle (2015): Aristotle. (2015) De Anima. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
To add a bibliographic record by this author, enter the citation key below:
Citation keys normally include author names followed by the publication year in brackets. E.g. Aristotle (1984), Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen (1935), Musgrave and Pigden (2016), Kuhn (1970a), Lakatos and Musgrave (Eds.) (1970). If a record with that citation key already exists, you will be sent to a form to edit that page.
- Anagnostopoulos, Georgios. (2009) Aristotle's Life. In Anagnostopoulos (Ed.) (2009), 3-13.
- Biography.com Editors (2017)
- Shields, Christopher. (2016) Aristotle. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/.
- Curd, Patricia. (2016) PreSocratic Philosophy. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/presocratics/.
- Losee, John. (2001) A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Oxford University Press.
- Berryman, Sylvia. (2016) Leucippus. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/leucippus/.
- Berryman, Sylvia. (2016) Democritus. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/democritus/.
- Berryman, Sylvia. (2016) Ancient Atomism. In Zalta (Ed.) (2017). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/atomism-ancient/https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/atomism-ancient/.
- Falcon, Andrea. (2015) Aristotle on Causality. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/.
- De Pierris, Graciella. (2006) Hume and Locke on Scientific Methodology: The Newtonian Legacy. Stanford University.
- Barseghyan, Hakob. (2015) The Laws of Scientific Change. Springer.
- Aristotle. (1994) Posterior Analytics, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle. (1993) Metaphysics: Books gamma, delta, and epsilon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Mclnerny, Ralph and O'Callaghan, John. (2015) Thomas Aquinas. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aquinas/.
- Adamson, Peter. (2015) Al-Kindi. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/al-kindi/#GreInf.
- Boole, George. (2003) The Laws of Thought. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.