Aristotle’s Concept of Change

Published 28 Jul 2016

Aristotle was the last of the famous Greek Triumvirate. The first one was Socrates probably the most enigmatic figure in the history of philosophy. The second was Plato, a poet who was regarded as Socrates’ brightest students. And the last was Aristotle, the most famous student of Plato. Aristotle was born at Stagira, in Thrace, in 384 B.C. His father was a physician which is an indication that science was his main philosophic background. He was also the famous tutor of Alexander the Great.

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The Pre-Socratic Philosophers

Every famous philosopher in the history of philosophy wanted to provide a solution the prevailing problems of his time. Aristotle was no exception. He wanted to correct the problems involving the metaphysical speculations of the philosophers before him, even that of his teacher, Plato. Aristotle thought that the previous philosophers, including Plato, grossly failed to appreciate the nature of reality in saying that there is no change and neither is their motion. It bears stressing that though he was Plato’s student, they disagreed about almost anything.

Parmenides and the Eleatic Philosophers were the first Greek Philosophers who attempted to provide an answer to the problem of change. (Wesley Wildman) They thought that everything that exists, in reality, had always existed. It is not capable of changing or moving. For them, only our reason should be trusted and that senses should not be relied upon because they may be deceiving us. Thus, they thought that “What is cannot come to be (since it already is), while nothing can come to be from what is not (because it is not possible)” (191a28-29)

For Parmenides, there are only two ways by which something can change. Either from what already exists or from what does not exist. But what already exists cannot come into existence because it already exists. On the other hand, what does not exist cannot come into existence because from anything comes nothing. It is also not possible for something that exists to become nothing. The premise of this argument is quite simple. The basis of change is that things must involve a pair of opposites such that change may happen only if a subject loses what it presently has and gains what it does not have.

Plato, on another hand, was particularly interested in the difference between what is real and what is not real. He thought that change does not exist. He thought that change is not real. For something to be real it must have the qualities of permanence and immutability. (Marc Cohen, 2004) He did not deny that this world we live in changes. It is also imperfect and mutable. Despite this, however, Plato noticed that we still have knowledge of concepts such as permanence and immutability. He concludes that perhaps there is another world different from the world that we have now. This world exists independently of our world which is not only permanent and immutable but is also the source of our knowledge of permanence and immutability. On the other hand, our present world is a mere reflection of the real world.

Aristotle’s Philosophy of Change

If the past philosophers before him rejected the changes that are happening around them, Aristotle, the scientist that he is, embraced the concept of change. He thought that everything is subject to change. In fact, change is the only thing that is permanent and immutable in the natural universe. If Plato thought that there are two worlds that exist, one is real while the other is a mere reflection or shadow of the other, Aristotle thought that there is only one world and that is our own world, the real world. If Plato thought that the “form” or “idea” horse is what is real and the “actual horse”, the one that we see, hear and touch, is the illusion, Aristotle thought otherwise. He argued that the actual horse is the real horse while the “form” or “idea” horse has no independent existence apart from the actual horse.

Aristotle offered an example of change that avoids the dilemma presented by Parmenides that either you exist or you are not. He cites as an example, a man who was unmusical suddenly becomes musical or a block of stone which was initially shapeless becomes a horse. According to Aristotle, the concept of change should not presuppose the existence of opposites e.g. light and dark, nothingness and being, good and bad. There are only three essential ingredients for change to take place and they do not involve the existence of a pair of opposites. These are a subject of change, a form or his positive character and a privation. In the previous example, the subject is the man; the form is musical and the privation is unmusical. In the second example, the subject is the block of stone, the form is the horse and the privation is its shapelessness.

In response to Parmenides’ theory of change, Aristotle declared that the problem with Parmenides’ theory is that it treats the subject of change as either it exists or it does not exist. And so for him, it is not possible for something to come out of nothing or from nothing to become something. He, Aristotle thought, oversimplified things.

Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that it is possible for the subject of change to be both. This means that the subject of change could be a being but at the same time not being. It could both be something that is but at the same time it is, in a way, something that is not. In the first example, a subject is a man who in one sense is a being because it exists. In another sense, however, it could also be a not-being because it lacks the quality of being musical. Thus, the subject man has both the qualities of being and in a way not-being. The same is true for the block of stone which has both the qualities of being and not being. In a way, it has the qualities of being since it exists e.g. we can touch it, see it and feel it. In another sense, however, it is in a way not-being since it lacks shape. Thus for Aristotle change is possible so long as the subject of change has a particular form and a privation.

Change, for Aristotle, is, therefore, the actuality of that which exists potentially, insofar as it is potentially this actuality.” To explain this concept, a distinction must be made between form and substance. Aristotle believed that every creature in this world constitutes a unity of form and substance. The ‘form’ is the thing’s specific characteristics, while the substance is that which a thing is made up of. It is the substance of a thing that contains the potentiality to realize a specific form. For example, the form of a block of stone is that it is hard, heavy and it has a rough surface. Its substance is its potentiality to become a statue of a man or an animal.

Thus, in our former example, the unmusical man always had the potentiality to become musical. When the unmusical man changed and became musical it only realized its potentiality and so there is change. In the case of a stone, it always had the potentiality to become a horse. When it realized its potentiality to become a beautiful statute, then there is change.

Having delved into the concept of change we now go to the reason why things change. Aristotle was also interested with causality in the natural universe. He thought there must be a cause on why things in the universe keep on changing and moving. We wanted to answer these questions: a) what causes things to come into existence? b) what causes things to pass into existence. Aristotle outlined the four causes of things in the universe – the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause and the final cause. (Richard Hooker, 1999) Thus, if Aristotle will be asked about what causes plants to grow, the answer he will provide us is that plants grow because the seed that was planted in the ground. This, however, provides a limited answer as it only answers the formal cause. The material cause is that the plant has certain qualities that make it grow when planted in a good soil. The efficient cause is that plants grow because the farmers purposely planted the seed for it to grow. The most important cause is the final cause which answers the goal and purpose on why plants need to grow. Although the teleological purpose or the final cause of a thing is the most unscientific of the causes, it is considered as the most important cause of a thing.

Thus, Aristotle thought that the changes that are happening in the universe, the constant motion and movement, all happen for a particular purpose. The remarkable thing about Aristotle’s Philosophy of Change is that the despite being a scientist he did not limit himself to a scientific explanation of the natural processes that happen in this world. He gave a sense of purpose and reason to every living being that exists in this world. It is as if everything has been planned such that nothing happens in this world for no reason.

Incidentally, Aristotle found a way to prove that God exists because of the teleological purpose. According to him, there is only one thing that can give us reason and purpose for our existence. If there should be a cause for all these changes and motions in the universe who himself is not caused and moved that could only be God.

In sum, Aristotle has provided an answer to the problem of change that confused his contemporaries. Change is real. Change is that only that is permanent in this world. There is change because every being in this world has the potential to become something new. We all have the capacity to change. Change is also inevitable because they happen for a particular reason and purpose.

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