Differences between Plato and Aristotle

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 31 October 2016

Differences between Plato and Aristotle

?The current understanding of knowledge and the universe by man today stems from many centuries ago when philosophers attempted to understand the seemingly chaotic world around them. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle are responsible for some of these major early discoveries and are a big reason as to where we are today due to their endeavors to understand various philosophical topics.

In this essay, I am going to explain Plato’s views on knowledge and science, Aristotle’s views on change and science, and ultimately how although both contributed to man’s understanding of philosophy today, Aristotle started a departure from the views of Plato and into an entirely new era. Many philosophers before Plato had conjectured many ideas and theories about the definition of knowledge. However, many of them proved to be inadequate when scrutinized by their peers. The most notable of these pronouncements is “I know that I know nothing”, said by Socrates (Plato, Apology, 21d).

Plato’s dialogues and endeavors to seek out “what is knowledge” proved to be different from his predecessors and are primary instigators and sources for the origins of the theory of knowledge. As part of Plato’s philosophy, Plato thought of knowledge as an objective property of human beings. Plato’s view, one probably adapted from Socrates, is that when an attribute is applied to an individual, the individual possesses some sort of universal criteria and thus the attribute can be applied to the individual.

Thus, Plato looks for universal criteria that are applicable to all examples of knowledge. To begin his journey to seek what is knowledge, Plato tries to give conditions for knowledge. In Thaeaetetus, Plato offers three analyses of knowledge: perception is knowledge, true belief is knowledge, true belief plus a rational explanation is knowledge (Plato – Knowledge). However, Socrates rejects all of these claims through a multitude of examples and in the end of this dialogue, the reader only has a better understanding of what knowledge isn’t rather than what it is.

In Plato’s other two works, Meno and Timaeus, a more satisfactory answer to the definition of knowledge can be found. In Meno, Socrates establishes a key fact that Plato will use later for his own theories: all knowledge is pre-contained within an individual; it simply must be elicited from their memory. He illustrates this to Meno by having an uneducated slave spontaneously solve the proof for the Pythagorean Theorem. Plato believed that in order to achieve true knowledge, there were three main steps to be taken sequentially.

An opinion must form, the opinion must turn into a belief, and finally the belief must be able to comprehend things as to why they are the way they are in order to achieve (or remember) the knowledge. Later in Meno, in order to avoid confusion between belief and knowledge, Socrates and Plato have a discussion as to the value of knowledge and whether it is more useful or not than true opinion. Socrates uses the example of “If a man knew the way to Larisa, or anywhere else, and went to the place and led others thither, would he not be a right and good guide?

” and “a person who had a right opinion about the way, but had never been and did not know, might be a good guide also, might he not? ” (Plato, Meno, 97a). The concept is that although true opinion sometimes proves to be right, it does not withhold scrutiny if circumstances or ‘worlds’ are changed while true knowledge will always persist in any ‘world’. Thus, knowledge is stable while true opinion is unstable. Plato’s theory of the forms plays a significant role in the development of his theory of knowledge as Plato wanted to use this theory in order to give a rational explanation as to how the concept of knowledge was possible.

Forms are timeless entities that cannot be perceived by man, they are the essence of everything. The theory of forms can be summarized as a way of distinguishing two worlds – the world of being and the world of becoming. The world of being is defined by the forms and encompasses knowledge while the world of becoming is everything perceived by man and is constantly changing. Plato states, “[…] just as Being is to Becoming, so is truth to trust” (Plato, Timaeus, 29c).

Thus, Plato uses the theory of forms in his theory of knowledge by saying that knowledge is derived from the world of being, since it is timeless, and beliefs are derived from the world of becoming, since it is constantly changing. Plato never truly settles on what exactly is knowledge, however, he does come up with new conclusions. Plato says that the human body is akin to the state of becoming but the soul is attributed to knowledge; thus, knowledge only applies to timeless, unchanging truths.

Given what I have explored about Plato’s theory of knowledge, including his basis on the theory of forms, I will now explore Plato’s views on the methodology of natural sciences. As an example and justification to his theory of knowledge, Plato applies the theory of forms in order to explain the origin of the natural sciences and the world as a whole. According to Plato, science is timeless and therefore it can be associated with the forms. However, when man tries to observe for scientific reasons, he can only use his perceptions.

This causes observations that are based on something that “seems” to be rather than what it truly is. This idea stems from the fact that the human perception of the physical world is constantly changing and consequently, any observation of experimentation through these perceptions would result in a belief rather than true knowledge since it is not the truth. Therefore, Plato says science of changeable things is absurd since it necessarily isn’t knowledge; the methodology of science needs to be based on reason and as a result, study the underlying nature or ideas of objects.

In addition to science, Plato explores mathematics and says that it is immutable. Mathematics will always be true, not just based on the circumstances. Likewise, he is looking for a science that is akin to mathematics, universal and based on reason. One science which he believes to satisfy this requirement is astronomy. Plato believed the objective of astronomical science was to find the imperfections of the seemingly ordered objects in order to break through a perceived unreality and instead find the underlying knowledge behind it.

This idea stems from Plato’s statement that the forms are responsible for true scientific knowledge. According to Plato, the forms are the model that the Creator used to construct the cosmos and everything else and this is seen when Timaeus says, “So one must go back again and investigate the following about the all: to which of the two models the builder looked when he fashioned it – to the one that’s in a self-same condition and consistent, or to the one that has come to be…Now it’s clear to everyone that it was to the everlasting…” (Plato, Timaeus, 29a).

With the creation of this new universe, the Creator has introduced time and heaven into this world as well. Plato accounts for this as well by saying that time and heaven are made to be in sync and complement the everlasting nature in order to replicate the original model as accurately as possible. However, in order for time and heaven to not be forgotten, Plato says, “the Sun and Moon and the five other stars … have been born” (Plato, Timaeus, 38c). With the start of the genesis of these celestial objects, more celestial objects were created in order to create a complete celestial system.

Plato then proceeds to say that “people scarcely know at all that the ‘wanderings’ of these bodies … are time” (Plato, Timaeus, 39c-d). However, the science of astronomy is working to get away from this statement by constantly trying to decipher all the celestial objects and their attributes in order to find this knowledge – that they are time. Plato concludes that the methodology of natural sciences should be based on reason rather than perceptions. This way, the findings will be based on the immutable, rather than the ever-changing world and perceptions of humans.

A perfect illustration of this is how astronomy can be used to find the true knowledge behind the celestial system – it was created to guard time. Similar to how mathematics is immutable, Plato says science can also be immutable if the methodology of it focuses on the underlying ideas rather than perception of the subjects under study. After Plato contributed significantly to the origins of the theory of knowledge in his endeavors to seek out what is knowledge, Aristotle brought about a change from the views of Plato through his views about the nature of change and science. In Aristotle’s mind, motion and change are very closely related.

Aristotle’s conception of motion involves the change between potentiality and actuality. For example, if I moved from position X to position Y in a few seconds, in actuality, I was at position X and I had the potential to go to position Y. Once I was at position Y, I was actually there while I still had the potential to go back to position X. Thus, motion will always involve at least two states/boundaries/etc. and is the change between the two. Aristotle defines change as the process of something that has potentiality to actually become the final product of that potential (Istvan).

In the example I gave, I changed from position X to position Y because originally I had potential to move to position Y and I ended up actualizing that potential. Although change is characterized as a vector in this case, it can also be definite and not continuous like it was in my example – I stopped changing once I reached position Y. Aristotle also perceived motion as not only the change from potentiality to actuality of an abject, but also its interactions with its surroundings, especially the direct medium it is in contact with (Istvan).

In my example, my motion would also include the air that I was breathing and the ground I was touching because both of those mediums were partly responsible for my motion. As Aristotle garnered and generated new ideas and thoughts, he grew more and more distant from his mentor, Plato. Aristotle and Plato still agreed on two main ideas: “knowledge in the strict sense is irrefutable” and knowledge has a universal aspect to it (Lloyd 101). However, one big point of conflict in their ideologies was the interpretation of the theory of forms.

Aristotle felt that Plato’s idea of two separate worlds, one of being and one of becoming, was very counter-intuitive. In Aristotle’s opinion, the forms exist in the objects that embody them, opposite to Plato’s idea that the forms are an independent system altogether. In Aristotle’s view, natural objects “have a capacity for change or movement in themselves” and the objective of the physical sciences is to understand these principles (Lloyd 104). His conception of motion and natural objects was a big factor in his views and understanding about not only the natural sciences, but also the global features of the universe.

Aristotle believed the world was composed of five elements: earth, water, air, fire, and aither (found only in celestial bodies). These elements all had their own potentialities and actualities, meaning they had their own motion, and it was the objective of the natural sciences to understand the laws and interactions between these five elements in the world. In addition, Aristotle considers each and every object to have both form and matter. To decipher this, the matter in one dog differentiates it from a different dog while the form of that dog is the universal characteristic(s) that this dog shares with all the other dogs in the world.

Based on this, Aristotle distinguishes each natural science based on the characteristics of what they encompass. This is a huge step in departing from the views of Plato since Aristotle believes there to only be one world (based on the five elements, motion, etc. ) and he believes observation and experimentation are a key aspect of science and give true knowledge of this world. As part of this emphasis in observation and experimentation, a more qualitative mindset was set forth rather than a primarily quantitative one used by Plato.

Now that Aristotle’s views on change and science are understood a little bit better, I can now go more into depth as to how Aristotle’s views represent a departure from Plato’s views. I already briefly discussed some of the differences between Aristotle’s views and Plato’s views regarding the sciences but I want to talk more about their conflict over the theory of forms. According to Plato, there are two worlds and the world of becoming is a metaphor of the world of being since it is supposed to be modeled after it.

However, Aristotle says that this model fails to withhold scrutiny. In theory, the forms are supposed to be timeless while the world of becoming is constantly changing, therefore either the forms cannot be attributed to material objects or material objects cannot be attributed to the forms. In addition, Aristotle says, “form and matter are distinguishable in thought … not distinguishable … in the world around us” (Lloyd 124). Thus, the forms cannot accurately explain reality and the world of becoming while being independent from the world of becoming.

Some of Plato’s theories are beginning to fail under scrutiny and the direct cause of this is Aristotle and his ground-breaking new ideas; a shift in ideas has begun to occur as Aristotle’s views represent a departure from Plato’s views. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle created major early stepping stones through their philosophical endeavors in nearly all aspects of life – including metaphysics, astronomy, and psychology just to name a few – that are responsible for man’s current knowledge of the universe today.

In this essay, I have attempted to decipher and explain Plato’s and Aristotle’s views on knowledge, change, and science and even how Aristotle ultimately digressed from Plato, signifying a start of a new era in philosophy and hopefully you have a better understanding of how significant Plato and Aristotle are in relation to where we are today. Works Cited Istvan, Bodnar. “Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy. ” Stanford University. Stanford University, 26 May 2006. Web. 09 Oct.

2013. Lloyd, G. E. R. Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle. New York: Norton, 1970. Print. “Plato – Knowledge. ” ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation, n. d. Web. 11 Oct. 2013. Plato, Anastaplo, George, and Laurence Berns. Plato’s Meno. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub. /R. Pullins, 2004. Print. Plato, and Kalkavage, Peter. Plato’s Timaeus. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub. /R. Pullins, 2001. Print. Plato, and St George Stock. The Apology of Plato. Oxford: Clarendon, 1961. Print.


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  • University/College: University of California

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  • Date: 31 October 2016

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