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Understanding the Life and Philosophy of Aristotle

05 Aug 2016History Essays

This research paper discusses the life and philosophy of Aristotle. This research paper has been broken down into five parts. The first part is the Introduction which discusses the particular philosophical problem which Aristotle was interested in. The second part is the Life and Works of Aristotle which briefly discusses Aristotle’s family and his interest in the natural sciences. It is also mentioned that Aristotle was chosen to become the tutor of one of the most important persons in history – Alexander the Great. The third part discusses the concept of epistemology and the two main schools of thought which differed in their ideas about the role reason and sense-experience play in obtaining knowledge. A short discussion is also made on Plato’s epistemology for the purpose of comparison with that of Aristotle. The fourth part is a discussion of the epistemology of Aristotle wherein he affirmed the role sense-experience plays in acquiring knowledge. The fifth part is the conclusion wherein I attempted to harmonize these two concepts of rationalism and empiricism and emphasized that both these concepts should not be in conflict with each other since they are in fact both needed in the acquisition of knowledge.

Philosophers have always sought to find a solution to a particular philosophical problem. For Socrates, the problem was whether there existed absolute moral norm or standard and whether the relativist philosophy of the Sophists is tenable. Plato, on the other hand, was concerned with the immutability of nature. Aristotle was no exception. He inherited from his predecessors the difficult question of “what is the nature of reality?” and “what is the source of knowledge?” He thought that he needed to provide a solution to this question so that he could liberate the people from the erroneous metaphysical speculations of his predecessors.

Life of Aristotle

Aristotle was the last of the famous Greek Triumvirate. The first two were Socrates and Plato. Aristotle was born in 384 B. C. in Macedonian town of Stagira. His interest in the natural sciences started when he was still at a very young age which can be attributed to the influence of his family. His father was a physician who was a member of the Asclepiad family, which claimed to be descendants of Asklepios, the Greek god-physician. It is said that his parents trained him and his siblings in medicine.

He eventually entered the Academy where he became one of the best students of Plato. It must be stressed however that despite being one of the best students of Plato, Aristotle differed from his teacher’s philosophy in many aspects. Aristotle stayed in the Academy until the death of Plato. Several years after, King Philip of Macedon, chose Aristotle as the official tutor of his son Alexander who at that time was 13 years old. The latter will eventually be known in history as Alexander the Great.

Aristotle was also a prolific writer whose works ranged from the natural sciences, logic, politics, theology, and even the metaphysics. His works include: “The Athenian Constitution”, “Nicomachean Ethics”, “On Dreams”, “Metaphysics”, and “Virtue's ad Vices.”

Concept of Epistemology

One of the main differences between Plato and Aristotle is their philosophy on epistemology. Epistemology is that branch of philosophy that deals with the source and limits of one’s knowledge. It came from the Greek word Episteme which means Knowledge. The issue on the source of knowledge is perhaps one of the most debated topics in the history of philosophy. No less than Plato and Aristotle represented two conflicting views about epistemology. These two major schools of thought are Rationalism and the Empiricism.

Rationalism came from the Latin word ‘ratio’, which means 'reason'. Rationalism is defined as “Philosophical theory that knowledge about the nature of the world can be obtained solely by reason, without recourse to experience” (“Rationalism”). On the other hand, empiricism is defined as a “philosophical doctrine that all knowledge is derived from experience.”

Plato was considered as the earliest Rationalist. According to Plato, we have the innate knowledge of certain things as part of our rational nature. For example, we have the innate knowledge of the concepts such as beauty, justice, fairness, courage, and strength. From the moment we were born these concepts are already part of us. For Rationalists, the innate reason is the only source of knowledge without which no knowledge is possible. Some rationalists attribute this knowledge to an earlier existence while some attribute man’s innate knowledge to God. The point is that sense experience takes a backseat to the role reason plays in acquiring knowledge.

Aristotle’s Epistemology

Aristotle, the earliest known Empiricist, disagreed with Plato. He denied that reason is a source of knowledge. He also denied that reason gives superior knowledge than knowledge gained with the use of sense-experience. For Aristotle, there is no such thing as innate knowledge or knowledge that has been with us since we were born. In concrete terms, Aristotle said that our senses are the primary source of knowledge. When we say that the table is hard or that a burger is delicious or that the man is tall it is because we have sensed them either with the use of our sense of sight, sense of touch, sense of smell, sense of taste, and sense of hearing. Nothing is in the mind without being in the senses first.

Aristotle added that the mind processes the ideas that we have gathered with the use of our senses. With man’s innate power of reason, man is able to categorize and classify things by defining hard objects, delicious food or tall people. It is not our innate ideas which tell us that an object is hard or the food is delicious or that a man is tall.

Aristotle’s theory on epistemology answers the question on the nature of the natural world. Concepts such as beauty, fairness, justice, blackness, hardness or brightness do not have the independent existence. Contrary to Plato’s theory, these concepts cannot exist independently of the mind rather these concepts were formed only after man utilized his power of reason and classified things according to their characteristics. The concept of beauty is only an idea that we formed after we have seen a number of beautiful things. For example, we say that something or someone is beautiful because we have had the opportunity to see many people or many objects that enabled us to compare these persons and objects and make a classification of them. Another example is the concept of blackness. We know that something is black not because we were born to have knowledge of the difference between the white and black but because we have seen black objects in the past and we have become familiar with the characteristics of blackness.

At first glance, it may appear that Aristotle’s epistemological philosophy is in sharp contrast with Plato’s philosophy. Plato’s philosophy is more poetic while Aristotle adopted a more scientific approach and used language that is concise and clear. It does not mean however that empiricism and rationalism should always be in direct conflict with each other. I think it is erroneous to conclude that their philosophies on the source of knowledge and on the nature of the material world are irreconcilable.

On one hand, Plato is correct in saying that there are things that can be known only with the use of reason. For example, Mathematics is knowable a priori. It is not necessary for us to actually count physical objects to know that one million plus one million is two million. In addition, the concept of God can not be known with the use of senses. But with the use of our reason, we know and we are certain that there exists a God and that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent.

However, it cannot also be denied that there are some concepts that are knowable only by our senses. For example, gravity, or the concept that there is a force that pulls things down to the ground, is a concept that we have known after observing objects fall to the ground and conducting experiments. The concept of pain is knowable only with the use of sense-experience.

Thus, I think reason and sense-experience are two essential components and are two important sources of knowledge.

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