Aristotle – Part 1

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) who was a pupil of Plato who disagreed with his teacher.

Little is known of Aristotle before he joined Plato’s Academy in Athens, aged 17 or 18. What is known is that Aristotle came from Macedonia and his father was a physician.

When he traveled to Athens, Plato was 61 and unlike his teacher, Aristotle was interested in the study of nature. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of the Natural Philosophers and use human senses above reason to find philosophical truth.

This difference between pupil and teacher is clearly shown in their writing styles. Whereas Plato was poetic, Aristotle wrote like he was creating an encyclopedia.

Aristotle’s systematic and methodical writing of his observations in nature lead the way for how science classifies the world today. As such, Aristotle is regarded as the first great biologist.

No Innate Ideas

For Aristotle, he agreed with Plato that that the form of a snail for example is immutable and eternal.

Like the philosophers before him, Plato had wanted to find the eternal and immutable in the midst of all nature’s change. Plato had argued The World of Ideas were superior to the sensory world. Plato furthermore held that Ideas were more real than all the phenomena of nature. First came the Idea ‘horse,’ then came all the sensory world’s horses trotting along like shadows on a cave wall.

For Plato, the Idea ‘chicken’ came before both the chicken and the egg. Aristotle thought his teacher had turned the whole thing upside down.

Aristotle agreed with his teacher that the particular horse ‘flows’ and that no horse lives forever. He also agreed that the actual form of the horse is eternal and immutable. But, for Aristotle, the Idea horse was simply a concept that we humans had formed after seeing a certain number of horses.

The Idea or ‘form’ horse thus had no existence of its own. To Aristotle, the Idea or the ‘form’ horse was made up of the horse’s characteristics that define what we today call the horse species. To be more precise, by ‘form’ for a horse, Aristotle meant that which is common to all horses.

Aristotle did not believe in the existence of any such moulds or forms that, as it were, existed beyond the natural world. On the contrary, to Aristotle the ‘forms’ were in the things themselves – because they were the particular characteristics of these things.

The Chicken and the Egg

So Aristotle disagreed with Plato that the ‘idea’ chicken came before the chicken.

What Aristotle called the ‘form’ chicken is present in every single chicken as the chicken’s particular set characteristics – for one, all chickens lay eggs. The real chicken and the ‘form’ chicken are thus just as inseparable as body and soul. And that is really the essence of Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s Ideas.

But you should not ignore the fact that this was a dramatic turn of thought. The highest degree of reality, in Plato’s theory, was that which we think with our reason.

It was equally apparent to Aristotle that the highest degree of reality is that which we perceive with our senses. Plato thought that all the things we see in the natural world were purely reflections of things that existed in the higher reality of the World of Ideas and thereby in the human soul. Aristotle thought the opposite: things that are in the human soul were purely reflections of natural objects.

So nature is the real world. According to Aristotle, Plato was trapped in a mythical world picture in which the human imagination was confused with the real world. Aristotle pointed out that nothing exists in consciousness that has not first been experienced by the senses. Plato would have said that there is nothing in the natural world that has not first existed in the World of Ideas.

Aristotle held that Plato was thus doubling the number of things with one chicken being in the natural world and a second belonging to the World of Ideas.

But where does the Idea chicken come from?

Might there not even be a third chicken, which the Idea chicken is just an imitation of? Aristotle held that all our thoughts and ideas have come into our consciousness through what we have heard and seen. But we also have an innate power of reason.

We have no innate ideas, as Plato held, but we have the innate faculty of organizing all sensory impressions into categories and classes. This is how concepts such as ‘stone,’ plant,”animal,’ and ‘human’ arise. Similarly there arise concepts like ‘horse,’ lobster,’ and ‘canary.’ Aristotle did not deny that humans have innate reason.

On the contrary, it is precisely reason, according to Aristotle, that is man’s most distinguishing characteristic. But our reason is completely empty until we have sensed something.

So, for Aristotle, man has no innate Ideas.

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