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Plato’s Epistemology and Metaphysics

14 Feb 2017Literature Essays

The philosophical investigation of human knowledge and science were the fore front of Grecian philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato's ideal of human knowledge is we are born with knowledge, but have to investigate through our lifetime in order to remember. Interestingly, Plato also found that forms are real, but the material objects around us are not through his scientific studies. Although Aristotle completed some studies with Plato, his views on the nature of change and his concept of the physical universe differ.

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Plato's Epistemology

Plato's epistemology thought contained that we could only have genuine knowledge of things that are perfect and unchanging. We can have knowledge about the forms, but not about material objects. We can have only beliefs or opinions about the material world. Part of Plato's belief dealt with the soul. The Platonic school of thought set forth that before we are born our souls live in a realm of forms and have complete knowledge of the forms. When we are born, we still have this knowledge but we do not realize it. We can recollect this knowledge only with difficulty. This leads to the Socratic method of teaching which consists in asking the right questions so that the student recovers his or her knowledge of the forms as illustrated in the Meno.

From the Meno, "Socrates: And if the truth about reality is always in our soul, the soul must be immortal, and one must take courage and try to discover –that is –to recollect –what one doesn't happen to know, or more correctly remember, at the moment"(Jowett). Socrates feels this demonstration gives us hope that we can find knowledge through the Socratic method and that the Eristic Dilemma, or puzzle of knowledge, is mistaken because knowledge goes through stages rather than being only two options; there is more to it than either knowing or not knowing

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Plato's Metaphysics

Plato's principal work touching on scientific questions, the Timaeus, bluntly states the world, "in very truth is a living creature with soul and reason."(Jowett). To this viewpoint Plato accords an unconditional primacy even in matters of detail. Thus when he discusses the working of the human eye, he deplores the fact that "the great mass of mankind regards …the sole causes of all things.

" Against this he opposes the classification of causes into two groups: the accessory or mechanical causes that are "incapable of any plan or intelligence for any purpose," and those that "work with intelligence to produce what is good and desirable."(Jowett).

A great observation of Plato's theory in science was the metaphysical study of forms. Plato's theory of form was intended to answer the following 3 questions: Why do objects have the properties they do? How should objects be classified? What makes an object good of its kind? The answers Plato proposed were based on his theory of forms. Plato‘s theory was a form is an ideal object. Forms are perfect, eternal, and unchanging. There is a form for each property or characteristic an object could have. There are also forms for abstract objects and concepts; for example numbers. Forms are real, but the material objects around us are not.

This lead to the following answers to Plato's questions: An object has a characteristic because it participates in the form for that characteristic; for example, an object is round because it participates in the form of roundness. Objects belong together in a category when they participate in the same form; for example, all round things belong together because they all participate in the form of roundness. An object is better of its type because it participates in a relevant form to a greater extent; for example, an object is more round than other things because it participates in the form of roundness to a greater degree.

Aristotle's Concept of Change

Change is a fact that all observe. While Plato wanted to go beyond the world of change to the unchangeable ideas, Aristotle studied change itself. Change has a pattern that we can understand. There are four causes of motion or change. First is the material cause the matter out of which something is produced. Second is the efficient cause or the active, producing cause. For example, Aristotle used the illustration of parents who produce children where the seed is the material cause. Third is the formal cause, or the technique or way of doing something. The fourth is the final cause. In other words the goal or purpose intended. For Aristotle, everything in nature had an end or purpose. There is a goal toward which everything is moving; for example, a kitten to become a cat, or an acorn to become an oak. The final cause is the cause of causality in the other causes. As with human beings, nothing in nature is done without a purpose. For Aristotle purpose was immanent, not transcendent.

An example given by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is the four causes seen in the work of a sculptor: the marble on which he works is the material cause; the sculptor himself is the efficient cause; the pattern for the statue is the formal cause; and the purpose for which the work is undertaken is the final cause Aristotle comes close to Plato when he considers the underlying factor responsible for the movement of all things. This factor is their form, or eidos, which is the mover. Everything has in itself a power. Only in the act it's self is the thing perfect. The goal toward which the activity moves is the complete rarity of that thing. The perfection of things is immanent in them, and they move toward actuality.

Aristotle's Concept of Motion on the Universe

According to Science World Aristotle held that the universe was divided into two parts, the terrestrial region and the celestial region. In the realm of earth, all bodies were made out of combinations of four substances, earth, fire, air, and water. Heavy material bodies like rocks and iron consisted mostly of earth with small parts of the other elements. Less dense objects were thought to contain a larger mixture of the other elements along with earth. For instance, humans consisted of a complex mixture of all the elements: earth, which gave material strength and weight; fire, which provided warmth; water, which accounted for blood and other bodily fluids; and air, which filled the lungs and provided the breath of life.

Aristotle's theory holds that the sun, planets, and stars were made of quintessence, a pure, perfect substance, quite unlike the elements found on Earth. The Moon, marking the boundary between the sublunary earthly region and the superlunary heavenly region, was mostly quintessence, but because of its proximity to Earth it was contaminated with a small mixture of earthly elements, which accounted for the visible imperfections on its surface.

Science World establishes the fundamental assumption in Aristotelian physics was that the natural state of sublunary matter is rest. Earth, air, and water must seek their natural place at rest in the center of Earth unless stopped by an impenetrable surface like the ground or a table. The natural place of rest of the element fire is somewhere above us, but well below the Moon. The air we see around us is a mixture of the elements air and fire, so its behavior is complicated by the competition between the tendency for fire to rise and air to fall.

Aristotle's model provided a simple, compelling explanation for falling rocks, rising flames, and the circulation of the air. However, it was less successful in explaining "violent motion" such as when an object is hurled from a catapult. To see why this would be a problem for the Aristotelian worldview, imagine the following experiment as defined by The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Find a cat, and put it from a siege machine. You would observe that the cat continues to travel through the air (before landing safely on its feet) even after it was no longer being pushed by the arm of the machine. If the natural state of motion of the cat is rest on Earth, why didn't the cat drop to the ground immediately on leaving the pult? (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Here, Aristotelian physics had to say that this kind of motion is different because it is "violent," and had to invent some mechanism to keep the cat in the air during violent motion. All of the mechanisms fall under the technical description "hand waving." One of the most popular explanations was that the air in front of the cat became disturbed by the movement of the cat and swirled behind the cat and pushed it along. Thus, in Aristotelian dynamics, there was a distinction between "natural" downward motions. For example, a rock falling to the ground when dropped and unnatural violent motion not directed toward the center of earth, such as that resulting from a catapult.

In concluding, to review the variances in Plato and Aristotle's designated schools of thought one may find the following: Plato was a man of reasoning, due to he believed we had knowledge before birth, but through question in life remembered the knowledge we were born with. Plato and Aristotle differed in their ideas of change due to Plato believed that for were unchanging and Aristotle's view was a form changed to meet its end purpose. For Aristotle the motion of the universe was a contrast to earthly motions. In the superlunary regions of the heavens the natural state of motion was circular, because circles were considered to be the perfect geometric figure. Thus the planets would travel forever in circular orbits without the intervention of any force.

Works Cited

  • Jowett, Benjamin. "Meno". The Internet Classics Archive. 2007. 2007, June 4.
  • Jowett, Benjamin. "Timaeus". The Internet Classics Archive. 2007. 2007, June 4.
  • Science World. "Classic Metaphysics". Science World. 2007. 2007, June 3.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Plato's Timaeus". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2007. 2007, June 3.
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