Plato and Aristotle

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Plato and Aristotle

Plato the great Greek classical philosopher lived between c. 427 and c. 347 BC. Plato together with his mentor, Socrates, and Aristotle (384-322 BC) are credited with helping lay the foundations of Western philosophy. Plato was a student of Socrates and the unjust death of Socrates by execution is thought to have profoundly affected influenced him. Plato would later write in his dialogues the teachings of Socrates. Besides philosophizing, Plato was also a mathematician who helped show the distinction between pure and applied mathematics.

Plato also founded what is thought to be the first institution of higher learning in Western world, the Academy, in Athens. Plato was a sophisticated writer and this is evident in the dialogues. The dialogues have continued to be used to teach philosophy, logic, rhetoric and mathematics. Indeed Plato’s philosophy has influenced so many, but not necessarily likeminded individuals and they include Plato’s student and his greatest critic, Aristotle, Plotinus, Philo, St. Augustine, Avicenna, St. Bonaventure, Hegel, to name just but a few.

The Christian Church was highly inspired and informed by Platonism. The Cambridge Platonists were so named because of the indelible mark Plato had left in their scholarly lives. Some other philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche together with his followers would attack Plato teachings. The list is endless. Plato wielded so much influence and this drove Alfred North Whitehead to observe famously: “All Western philosophy consists of footnotes of Plato. At the heart of Platonism is the theory of forms, which will you find with much surprise that Plato only deals with it almost in passing in his dialogues.

Nevertheless the theory has come to be a tool that can help us understand Plato’s approach to ethics and metaphysics, aesthetics and epistemology. Plato developed the theory in his middle-period dialogues like Phaedo, Symposium, and Republic and then later criticized it himself in Parmenides (Brickhouse and Smith, 2008). The theory is an explanation of Plato’s belief that there exists an immaterial Universe of ‘forms’, or perfect aspects of everyday things such as table, bird, ideas/emotions, joy, action, etc (uororegon. edu/plato. html, par. 3).

This means that the objects and the ideas in our material world are mere shadows of the forms. To be able to understand the theory of forms better we first need to understand what forms as Plato viewed them. A form is a conceptual property or quality. If you can take an object and then separate that object and consider it by itself then it is form you are contemplating. If we could use the example of a basketball, separate its roundness from its color, its weight, and perhaps its texture and then think just of its roundness, this is the form of roundness.

And as Plato put it the roundness exists apart from the basketball and in a different mode of existence than it. Form is not only the idea of roundness you have in the mind, form exists independently of the basketball and also independently of whether someone thinks of it. This applies to all round things, not just basketball. They participate or copy the form of roundness. Forms differ from material objects because of the properties they have. The first property of forms is that they are transcendent and unlike material things do not exist in time and space.

A basketball exists at a particular place and at a particular time. The basketball’s roundness form does not exist in space and this would explain why they are unchanging. A form like roundness will never change and it does even exist in time. It remains the same at all times and at all places. You can instantiate a form in any different place or time and it will still be the same. Even if all objects that are round are destroyed the property of roundness would still exist. The other property of forms is that they are pure i. e. hey are properties separated from all other properties (Ryle, par. 7). To use the example of basketball still, we will notice that it is composed of many properties apart from the roundness and this include ballness, orangeness, elasticity, etc, and all are put together to make one basketball. Therefore there are many forms existing by themselves, apart from time and space. Roundness is just pure roundness and so is orangeness. Forms are different from material objects because they are transcendent and pure. Forms can also be understood as being archetypes.

This is means that they are the perfect examples of the property they represent, they are the perfect demonstration upon which all material objects are based. Forms are also Ultimately Real entities. Every material object is a copy of a collection of forms. The other thing to note about forms is that they are Causes meaning they give explanations of why things are the way they are and they are also the source or origin of the being of things ( Banach, par 11). The last aspect of forms is that they are Systematically Interconnected.

This is to say that forms encompass a system starting from the form of the Good moving from more general to more particular – from more objective to more subjective The general structure Plato’s argument goes like this: we do believe that the more objective a concept is, the more real the thing it represents. This we do by using objectivity to distinguish appearance from reality. So the more objective you get, the more real you get. Plato’s second premise is that forms are more objective than material objects.

This leads to the conclusion that forms are more real than objects. Plato says that the world we perceive with our senses often deceives us, a phenomenon that would not be present if the world and the objects we perceive with our senses were real. It appears that all the objects we perceive are simply images or experiences of our mind. They are subjective points of view for real things. The world we see is not the real world but its image and it is difficult to ascertain at what level of observation we get in touch with the real objects that make up the world.

So we are forced to assume that the more objective the concept of description is the more real the object it describes. Through what is called dialectic process we combine many different points of view to achieve a more objective description that accommodates all the other common points of view. For Plato therefore real objects cannot be the subjective images we perceive. The everyday material objects like chairs, tables, trees, are different in that they take into account all of the subjective images we form of a single object.

But we should not take this as the real object because: we can only get in contact with these objects through subjective image. They also contain many different properties that are combined. Lastly, these objects are always changing. As such the only level that things really exist is at the level of single properties removed from particular objects. What we perceive of the world are subjective perspectives and unless there are forms, it would appear that some aspect of relativism is true.

Relativism holds that every thing in existence is subject to a subjective view of truth, beauty, truth and justice. Plato disputed relativism saying most of the times we objectively discuss and argue about concepts like beauty, truth and justice and as such this dialectic process helps us understand them better. So if there forms of beauty, truth and justice then it is possible to objectively criticize subjective points of view about these things. Plato writes that forms approximate forms. As such the form of beauty is perfect beauty and the form of justice is perfect justice.

Conceiving of Forms in this way was important to Plato because it enabled the philosopher who grasps the entities to be best able to judge to what extent sensible instances of the Forms are good examples of the Forms they approximate (Philosophyprofessor. com, 2008) Theory of forms can aid an individual make judgments of good and bad, better or worse by participating or copying the attributes of the all the good practices around us. If we understand the concept of something we can also tell if the concept is one that we should aspire to.

Teleology is the study of goals, ends, and purposes. Telos means “end” or “purpose”. A person holding a teleological world view believes that the end of things provides meaning for all that has happened or that will occur. If one holds that history has a timeline with a beginning and end, in a teleological view of the world, then the meaning and value of all historical events is derived from their ends or purposes. Aristotle, Plato’s student, is the leading proponent of the teleological view (Hooker, par. 1).

In giving his four causes (aitia) for things, Aristotle lists the end/purpose for which the thing was made as the most important. Aristotle conducted a causal investigation of a specific department of reality which result in causal knowledge. Causal knowledge is the knowledge of appropriate causes. Aristotle emphasized the concept of cause and this explains why his theory causality is sometimes referred to as the doctrine of four causes. According to Aristotle, what cause is, and how many types causes there are, is what is key to a successful investigation of the world around (plato. tanford. edu/entries/aristotle-causality, 2008) Aristotle says that we can deduce that we have knowledge of a thing if only we have grasped its cause, or its why.

Aristotle provides a general account of the four causes. It is a general account because it is applicable to everything requiring an explanation and even includes artistic productions and human actions. In Aristotle theory of causality, there are four types of causes that can be used to answer a why-question. These are: 1. The material cause, or “that out of which”, the bronze of a statue . The formal cause, or “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, the shape of a statue 3. The efficient cause, or “the primary source of the change or rest”, the artist, the art of bronze-casting the statue. 4. The final cause, or “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”. (plato. stanford. edu/entries/aristotle-causality, 2008) The four causes can all explain something. The start of the making of the bronze statue until it is finished can be explained by all the four causes.

The efficient cause in the production of the statue requires to be elaborated in that Aristotle thought the art of bronze-casting should be picked over the artist who has mastered the art as the appropriate specification for the efficient cause. Aristotle chooses to do this because he is trying to provide an explanation of statue production which does not make reference to the desires or beliefs or intentions of an artist. The four causes all offer a teleological explanation for the production of a bronze statue.

The type of teleological explanation provided above does not depend on such psychological concepts as desires, beliefs and intentions. This is because Aristotle wanted a model that could also be used to investigate nature. Some people have tried to point out that Aristotle tries to explain nature using an inappropriate psychological model, a model that has a purposive agent that is sensitive to the end. But this assertion can be countered by saying that Aristotle does not “psychologize” nature because his inquiry is a teleological model free from the psychological factors.

Aristotle does not always disqualify the beliefs and desires. In the case of the production of the bronze statue, one may be interested in a particular bronze statue because it could be the great achievement of an artisan who has mastered the art and applied it distinctively. In this case it is in order to include the beliefs and desires of the artist. Aristotle causal theory is not only used to explain nature but can to explain many other areas that make up the human existence. It certainly can help us make good judgments concerning the good and bad.

This is true if we can think up the four causes before we do or say anything. The four causes can act as guide to all we do and say, we can also use the four causes to determine the usefulness of something. If every time we think of the purpose or the goal of something we can certainly be able to tell if it is a good idea or a bad one before we do it. As such we will be in a position to make sound judgments. When we compare Plato’s theory of forms and Aristotle theory of causality what possibly is the difference or the similarity of the judgment that one can make?

Plato’s theory is based on concepts that we do not see but are in existence; as such we should aspire to these qualities. In instances where we need to make just judgments we should be guided by what we know as perfect justice. It would appear that Plato’s theory of forms would be problematic in dealing with many problems of the world since we are required to transcend it. Aristotle’s four causes on the other hand seems more suited to us. It is easy to grasp and it is easy to determine the causal reality.

Plato’s theory of forms is good only in as far as it is being handled by person with better understanding of how it really works. This is then means it cannot be used by everybody except those schooled in philosophy. Aristotle’s teleological explanation of the world is very applicable in the world today and in fact almost every in the society can use it. It is a just a matter of thinking what an action will achieve, the end. So the Aristotle’s teleology is more or less available to the general population than Plato’s theory of forms where they will have to conceptualize things.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 22 November 2016

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