What is Aristotelian Philosophy? Exploring Aristotle’s Intellectual Legacy: From Metaphysics to Aesthetics


What is Aristotelian Philosophy? Dive into the profound insights of Aristotle, the polymathic philosopher and scientist. Uncover his contributions to metaphysics, physics, biology, psychology, ethics, political science, and aesthetics.

Aristotelian Philosophy

Aristotelian Philosophy; To Aristotle the scientist and philosopher may be attributed several innovations in the examination and analysis of natural phenomena and human behavior. In the organization of his analysis, Aristotle divides the sciences into three classes: (1) theoretical or speculative philosophy (theological, physical and metaphysical, and biopsychological); (2) practical philosophy (ethics and political science); and (3) productive philosophy (rhetoric, aesthetics, and literary criticism). Plato sought to reconcile physical and moral phenomena with transcendental or idealized forms of nontemporal, nonspatial being; Aristotle, on the other hand, drew on the experience of the senses as interpreted by the emotions and the intellect and saw the universal residing or inherent in the particular object or state. Thus for him the particular object or state participated in the universal, and the universal provided a criterion of value for the particular. The universal and the particular are inalienably associated, and this affinity of participation underlies most of Aristotle’s approach to the problem of causation. His teleology and epistemology are largely determined by this examination of reality and nature. Reality consists not of transcendental ideas but of individual, observable phenomena, with the application of the human intellect upon them. Motion and movement, deriving ultimately from what Aristotle calls the Prime Mover existing in the universe, cause the development from one form of existence to another and the transformation of matter. To motion may be assigned the transition from potentiality to actuality, for each object or state of being in nature has a potentiality of development that may be actualized or realized, in the course of time, in its growth.

In logic, Aristotle employs both the categories and the syllogism to define more precisely the essence of matter and form. An extension of the dialectic method displayed by Plato in his later dialogues, this analysis by deductive logic provides a basis for exploring the essentials of being. The syllogism attempts to separate one judgment from another by means of a middle term (for example, the original notion, the judgment on this notion, and the logical conclusion).

Since Aristotle maintains that all knowledge is gained from perception by the senses, he effects a close association between mind and soul on the one hand and body on the other. The soul may be identified with the principle of life, everywhere present in the human body. Through experience the mind develops in its capacity to govern action and choice. The chief good for man is said to be happiness, consisting of rational activity pursued in accordance with virtue. The virtues, as they are manifested by the individual man, may be divided into two groups, moral and intellectual. In discussing the several virtues Aristotle proposes the ethical mean, and each virtue is shown to occupy a middle position between the extremes of excess and defect (for example, courage is the main state between the extremes of rashness and cowardice). Character is determined by choice, and choice is governed by experience and the intellect or by the interrelationship of the two. In the field of government, Aristotle posits the constitutional democracy as the most effective type of state, since it aims at the greatest good for its citizens, the majority of whom, in turn, excel in virtue. Productive art is considered by Aristotle to be the result of reason, but it is conditioned by (1) the morality that it may convey to human beings and (2) the validity of the representation that it achieves. Thus, in imitating or representing facts and states of nature, art can be a strong determinant in the virtue and happiness of man.



Aristotle has written very fully in the area that has come to be identified as logic. His expressed purpose here is to define a method for the isolation and criticism of substance insofar as such isolation and criticism are pertinent to his scientific investigations. Logic is not properly a science in and by itself but an epistemological procedure whereby reality may be described accurately in language. It is an introduction to the pursuit of science. Perhaps the most basic isolation of being is provided in Aristotle’s 10 categories. While Aristotle does not insist on analyzing matter in each of these categories, it will be observed that these 10 qualifications serve amply to identify the full nature of an object or being. Taking Socrates as the subject of his definition in the categories, Aristotle would make the complete analysis as follows: (1) substance (man), (2) quantity (five feet tall), (3) quality (white), (4) relation (married), (5) place (in the Athenian Agora), (6) date (400 b.c.), (7) position (sitting), (8) state (is sober), (9) action (drinking hemlock), (10) passivity (is convicted).

The relation of language as thought to material reality and being is conveyed further by the Aristotelian examination of the proposition. In the proposition, Aristotle analyzes the expression of judgment, notably the association between noun and verb. Thus he cites the distinction of meaning in the proposition: “man is” versus “man is not” versus “not-man is” versus “not-man is not.” With the addition of a predicate adjective, such as “good,” to the original proposition “man is,” the variety of identification and analysis is increased.

In his treatment of inference Aristotle advances the syllogism. This he defines as an argument that produces a conclusion different from the assumptions employed in reaching that conclusion (for example, A is true of B; B is true of C; therefore, A is true of C). Aristotle was aware, however, of certain weaknesses in the combination of terms a syllogism employs, and subsequent logicians have supplemented his version. One difficulty that he recognized is the question of probability regarding the assumption used in developing the syllogism. There are certain basic principles that must be accepted as postulates, and from these is deduced the proof. Whereas the syllogism proceeds from the universal to the particular, Aristotle proposes induction as the method to reach the universal from the particular.

Finally, as it were to introduce his works on essence and being and to clarify his manner of approach, Aristotle effects the relationship of logic and science through a consideration of those premises that are not analyzed by means of demonstrative proof. It may be asked how man knows them and what validity they possess that makes them knowledgeable. Perception and experience are described as potentials that are actualized within the life of man; these enable him to move into the realm of universals, into the area where intuitive reason illuminates all universals.

Aristotelian Philosophy

Physics and Metaphysics

In the area of theoretical, or speculative, philosophy Aristotle explores the meaning and properties of being and of nature. He himself never employed the term “metaphysics,” which arose from the analysis of what he called First Philosophy. The 10 books of his study of causation, which have come to be known as the Metaphysics, were placed by an early editor after (Greek meta, after) the works on physical phenomena. Physics may be described as the science that has for its subject the study of phenomena that are changeable, insofar as they possess a source of movement. These phenomena, such as are found in the study of the biological and natural sciences, may increase and decrease in growth, may come into being and pass away; yet they all are subject to certain established laws in the universe involving matter and motion. Motion that is to be found in natural objects effects the transition from potentiality to actuality. Motion, therefore, along with the actualization of potentiality in matter, defines the natural universe into a great scale of being, ranging from the most inorganic substance to the most highly developed being or form of reality. While this is not to be conceived of as a scale of evolution, it does provide an effective analysis of scientific phenomena in a universe that is forever changing. The responsibility of the scientist or the philosopher is the evaluation of matter within this scale with regard to the teleological questions: “What is the purpose of a physical phenomenon?” “What is its end?” “In what form will its development occur?”

Like most ancient philosophers, Aristotle was concerned with causation. He attempted to identify causation with the substance of matter itself. In First Philosophy, Aristotle seeks to isolate a principle of causation, and this he defines as a universal that is real and that is the formative principle of being. This principle may exist apart from motion, for motion presupposes a moving cause. The First Cause in the universe Aristotle calls the Prime Mover, which may be identified with God; in the isolation of other causes the Prime Mover serves as the norm. Motion is eternal because the Prime Mover is eternal; a degree of perfection may be observed in the material universe because this is communicated by the Prime Mover, who is perfect. In nature Aristotle enumerates four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. Thus a work of art as well as a phenomenon in the natural universe can manifest cause in these areas: the substance is the material, the architectural plan is the formal, the execution or creation is the efficient, and the purpose is the final. The physical world, then, for Aristotle represents an intermediate being between the Prime Mover, who is perfect form, and the formless substance of matter. In the development of this explanation of causation and being, Aristotle places the greatest emphasis on the mind of man as an interpretative and creative principle, but the reasoning of this interpreation derives largely from the principles of his logic. His concept of the Prime Mover has been severely criticized, for without this First Cause the regress into the rationalized universe would be endless.


Biology and Psychology

Aristotle considered psychology a form of biological inquiry, and hence for him biology and psychology were inseparable. Within the field of biology his greatest contribution was the observation and classification of animals, their component parts, and their behavior. To classify animal life he effects an arrangement and classification by the form of reproduction (for example, viviparous like man, oviparous like birds, vermiparous like insects, and self-generative like mollusks), although another form of classification, distinguishing animals with blood from those that are bloodless, may be cited in broader terms. Each biological specimen may be considered according to its manner of reproduction, its feelings, and its actions and behavior. On the subject of reproduction Aristotle is concerned not merely with sex and heredity, but also with environmental factors and the fight for survival. He thereby analyzes the various functions and behavior in the light of the particular organs and parts as well as the classificatory nature of the animals themselves. In addition to analyzing generation, he examines the locomotion, growth, and nutrition of the human being. He always keeps before him the final cause or the purpose of life and reproductive creativity, which is the responsibility of the biologist to determine as he studies organic life.

Aristotle affirms the purpose of psychology to be the exploration of the nature, essence, and pertinent associations of the soul. Unlike Plato, he does not conceive of the soul as a spiritual entity. Rather it is inalienably associated with the organism of the body, and while it may be a source of motion and of knowing and is incorporeal in substantial form, it derives its growth from the function of the body’s organs of sensation. Since the senses nourish the mind and the intellect of the body, the soul is the receptacle of experience in growth. Thus, of all the potentiality with which each body is endowed, it is the soul that becomes the first actuality of the body. The soul prominently actualizes other forms and aspects of potentiality. Through the function of the soul the moral and intellectual aspects of man are developed, and in this sense the soul provides the link between the bodily organism and the virtues, which the soul engenders in man through his conduct and behavior. The fourfold classification of functions of organic life—growth, sensation, motion, and thought—is maintained in Aristotle’s dicussion of the soul.

As he discusses the soul, Aristotle always effects the distinction between man and the lower animals. All animals react to sensations, which affect the mind and fashion the intellect, with reflection and memory as results. Man, however, is able to exercise judgment based on experience, and this judgment represents the impact of the sensations on the soul, with the mind as the agent of interpretation for the activity of life. In associating the soul of man with the physical being of man, Aristotle contributes three outstanding attitudes toward psychology in the history of science: (1) he removes much of the mysticism previously associated in Greek science with the soul and its function; (2) he provides a method for dignified investigation of a scientific matter; and (3) he anticipates the psychosomatic interest of modern science.

Aristotelian Philosophy

Ethics and Political Science

Whereas knowledge is the end of such speculative sciences as physics and metaphysics, Aristotle construes the practical sciences, such as ethics and the art of government, according to their end, which is conduct, particularly good conduct. Ethics and politics are considered as two areas within the same science because both represent means of actualizing the potential that the speculative sciences have demonstrated to be inherent in man. Ethics has as its subject the study of virtue, with the purpose that the individual may identify and attain the supreme good both for his life and behavior and for his communal associations. In his own words Aristotle maintains that the study of ethics seeks not to impart information but to influence conduct. Political science, on the other hand, is concerned with man as a part of the living organism of the state, and this demands an analysis of the composition of government, including the citizenry, the relative merits of, constitutions, the need for and the institution of laws, and the nature of living.

Aristotle defines the good for man as happiness, which may be interpreted variously as pleasure, honor, wealth, and contemplation. Within the individual he cites two kinds of virtues, moral and intellectual. Liberality, temperance, justice, courage, friendship, magnanimity, gentleness, and truthfulness are examined as moral virtues that are reckoned as mean states between the extremes of excess and defect. Similarly, the intellectual virtues in man—science, art, practical wisdom, intuitive reason, and theoretical wisdom-are also mean states and have a peculiar significance in that they illuminate the nature of the supreme good for man. Through these virtues and their pursuit, man arrives at the life of contemplation of truth, which is pronounced his highest activity.

Since man is by nature a political animal, conditioned by his associations with his fellow men under some form of government, man’s actualization of his full potentialities occurs as he participates in a community or society. Just as in the speculative sciences and ethics Aristotle has observed growth toward a well-defined end or purpose, so he shows the state in its development toward the promotion of the noble life and the happiness of all its citizens. Thus he considers the family, the community, and the state as vehicles for morality and for the good life for man. In examining the various kinds of government, he finds virtue in monarchy, aristocracy, and what might be termed constitutional timoc-racy. For each of these forms of polity he cites a corruption: monarchy can develop easily into tyranny; aristocracy into oligarchy, where wealth becomes a qualification for office; and constitutional timocracy into disorganized democracy. Mob rule is one of the unfavorable features of democracy, although, with an enlightened citizenry and good educational opportunities, constitutional democracy may qualify precisely for the ideal form of government. Basically, however, the best state is the one that comes into being and achieves its end through the highest good as manifested by the citizens individually and collectively.

Aesthetics and Literary Criticism

Two treatises, the Rhetoric and the fragmentary Poetics, provide ample evidence of Aristotle’s aesthetic theories or, more pertinently, of his examination of the productive imagination of man. Art seeks not merely to supplement nature, but also to imitate it by some form of representation. Artistic creativity, therefore, may be considered a natural function of man, because in the act of artistic creation man fulfills a natural desire and also participates in the universal. Through participation or activity in the productive sciences of the arts, man’s life is enriched and ennobled morally and pleasurably, and his communal associations are enhanced.

At the base of Aristotle’s discussion of rhetoric is a psychological implication, for he conceives rhetoric to be the ability to determine and to practice the possible ways of persuading men in any given subject. Rhetoric as an art of persuasion may function in three distinct categories : it may ( 1 ) indicate that some plan for the future is useful or harmful, (2) signify the legal implications of a previous action, and (3) illuminate the character or nature of an action in the present. The methods of persuasion, however, are divided into (1) the impact of the speaker’s character upon his audience, (2) the arousing of the emotions, and (3) the advancement of pertinent arguments. Aristotle places great emphasis on style in this consideration of rhetoric, stressing the importance of the arrangement of words and arguments, lucidity, and choice of appropriate words and sentiments. Much of the Rhetoric has lost its significance with the increasing ease of communications, but this work is not without usefulness in formal debating or in any study where propaganda and the molding of public opinion are implicit.

The portion of the Poetics that discusses tragedy has survived. Aristotle observes several aspects of epic poetry, lyric poetry, and comedy insofar as these literary forms are related to tragedy, and from this discussion it is possible to discern his theory of imitation as well as several fundamental artistic principles. Poetry originates in man’s desire to imitate and to represent the world about him. This is true of all forms of poetry, and it is only the varying degrees of emphasis in the act of representation and in the objects imitated that account for the distinction of the several forms of poetic expression. In drawing a distinction between poetry and history, Aristotle maintains that poetry has greater philosophical value because it deals with universals, while history states particular facts. Plot, character (in this connection, Aristotle introduces the concept of the tragic hero and discusses the tragic flaw), philosophical content, spectacle, and choral music are examined as the component parts of tragedy. However, it is in his analysis of the purpose and function of tragedy that Aristotle’s most significant and most discussed contribution to poetic criticism is to be found. Tragedy is said to be the imitation of an action with the end of arousing in the spectator the emotions of pity and fear, thereby effecting the catharsis of these emotions and a concomitant feeling of pleasure.

Thus it may be seen that in the productive sciences Aristotle maintains that interest in the biopsychological aspect of man that characterizes all of his philosophical system. In an even larger sphere his aesthetic theories figure characteristically in his concern with the phenomena of the world of which man is a part.


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