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Leonard Peikoff - History of Philosophy - Summary 🔗

This is my summary of the playlist, mostly quoting the slides, from the beginning to Aristotle, plus Aquinas.

Introduction to the History of Western Philosophy 🔗

Today’s Culture (c. 1972) 🔗

Bad art, music, literature, theater, education, religion, science.

The results of this irrationality 🔗

A philosophic barometer of the state of a culture 🔗

Good & Rational Things in Western Culture 🔗

Where will we look for an explanation of it all? The History of Philosophy.

Example: therapist guiding a patient.

To do this, the crucial thing you would have to do is probe the patient’s past, because his present can be fully understood only as a development and result of his past.

You would have to reconstruct the main points of the man’s intellectual development from childhood on.

This analogy applies to an entire culture.

To fight for your values in a world such as ours, you must regard yourself as the psychotherapist of an entire culture.

Its present state at any given time cannot be understood except as an outgrowth of its past.

To understand:

You have to reconstruct the intellectual history of the Western world.

The Purpose of This Course 🔗

The history of philosophy is a precondition to understanding, and therefore changing, the nature and present course of civilization.

That’s the first and primary purpose of any course on the history of philosophy.

There is a second purpose:

The history of philosophy properly deals with living, fundamental issues, perennial issues of philosophy.

In a proper history of philosophy, you have presented to you all the main positions on all the main questions.

Consequently, it is valuable as an introduction to the whole subject of philosophy.

If you are to fight the errors, you have to know the main arguments advanced for them. You have to know each issue:

If you don’t know this, you are not in a position to fight successfully against the errors.

Philosophy & Its Branches 🔗

Philosophy: philein (to love) + sophia (wisdom) = “the love of wisdom”

At the very beginning, it was the subject you were in if you were in anything.

The ancient philosophers, therefore, all had views on things we would not now regard as philosophy, but as science (physics, mathematics, biology, etc.).

What is “philosophy” as we use the term today?

It consists of five main divisions:

  1. Metaphysics: studies the nature of the universe as a whole
  2. Epistemology: defines the nature and means of human knowledge
  3. Philosophical psychology: the application of metaphysics and epistemology to a philosopher’s view of the nature of man
  4. Ethics: defines a code of values to guide human choices and actions
  5. Politics: defines the proper nature of society, and particularly the proper functions of government
  6. Esthetics: defines the nature and purpose of art, and the standards by which it is to be objectively evaluated

Philosophy really consists of three basic questions:

An overall definitions of philosophy 🔗

“Philosophy is the subject which studies the nature of the universe, and of man’s means of knowing the universe, and which on this basis provides a code of values to guide human actions and institutions.”

Key Historical Periods 🔗

The history of philosophy is divided into three broad periods:

Ancient Philosophy 🔗

Medieval Philosophy 🔗

Modern Philosophy 🔗

Two famous schools of thought:

Thales of Miletus & the Birth of Greek Philosophy 🔗

Why do we say that philosophy and science started with the Greeks in the 6th century BC?

There had been flourishing civilizations long before this time.

But none of them except the Greeks had anything like what you would call philosophy.

Philosophy (as a self-conscious discipline, a rational phenomenon) began in the 6th century BC in Greece.

What prevented these other civilizations from developing philosophy?

  1. They believed that nothing in this world was intelligible. This world was a series of events operated by the gods behind the scenes in another dimension.
  2. They held that this life and this earth are not only unintelligible, but also evil.

The result was a complete stultification, or failure, to develop philosophic ability.

Greece was an exception 🔗

What about the Greeks made it possible?

  1. The Greeks had achieved a comparative degree of political freedom, and in that climate philosophy and science could develop.
  2. The Greeks had a peculiar religion.

The gods were not creators of the world; nor its rulers or director.

The Greeks believed that the universe had always existed; it was a natural phenomenon.

The gods could not interfere in any major way with the operation of the universe; they were not omnipotent, nor omniscient.

As a result, the Greeks held that this world is intelligible, and a good place in which to live.

They believed in a shadowy immortality, but they didn’t yearn for it. The typical Greek attitude was very pro-this-life.

For these reasons: because knowledge was possible, because it was worthwhile – the Greeks developed a love of knowledge, and we had for the first time a civilization of thinkers.

What did they think about?

The first two things that interested them: Change & Multiplicity.

By “change”, we mean anything that happens – any occurrence, event, motion, activity.

What interested them about change?

How do we make sense of this?

Multiplicity 🔗

There are a great many things making up the world. What is the relationship between all of these different things?

The Father of Philosophy: Thales of Miletus (fl. 585 BC).

He put forth the idea that there is one fundamental stuff which makes up the entire universe: a “world stuff”.

This view that there’s only one stuff = “monism”.

Thales’ reasoning:

If there was one stuff, we could explain how everything is related; all the many things will just be many different forms of the one stuff.

Change will be one form of that stuff becoming another form of that stuff, and therefore we’ll have a common denominator tying everything together.

Thales’ approach was of incalculable importance.

It’s the essence of the scientific approach – the attempt to find unity amid diversity – common denominators to enable us to integrate a wealth of disparate observations.

Thales was looking for the one in the many – the permanent amid the changing.

Thales held that the “world stuff” was water.

Water was the one thing that he could observe which could take on solid, liquid and gaseous form.

Water dries up, and sometimes you find little wriggling living creatures, which suggests a central connection between water and life.

The importance of Thales is the question and the category of answer, not the specific answer.

He established a naturalistic approach to the world.

He dispensed with gods as explanatory principles.

He introduced the idea that there are natural laws governing what takes place, and that we can account for all the phenomena that we observe by reference to one logical reality.

He also suggested that the precondition of it all was sensory observation.

Of course, all of this is simply implied from the four sentences that survive, but it was essentially there.

Science and philosophy, although very primitive, was nicely started.

Heraclitus of Ephesus: A World of Change and Contradiction 🔗

Heraclitus (fl. 500 BC) is the first enduringly influential philosopher.

In retrospect, we can say that the essence of what Heraclitus was getting at, and what his followers promptly made explicit, is an all-out attack on the law of identity and the law of contradiction.

The law of identity: everything which is, is what it is; everything which exists possesses a nature, and identity, it is something, and is nothing else. A is A.

The law of contradiction: nothing can be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same respect.

Aristotle claimed that these laws were the basis of all logical reasoning, the basis of science and sanity.

Heraclitus’ point: the phenomena of change is incompatible with the laws of logic; change requires the existence of contradictions – things which are and are not at the same time.

Says Heraclitus, a burned match is the same as it was at the beginning, and yet it has changed; so it is not the same as it was at the beginning.

It is and is not – it’s the same and not the same – it’s A and not-A at the same time, which is a contradiction.

Remember the baby you once were.

Are you the same as that little baby? Obviously, yes.

On the other hand, your mental content is completely different. Every cell in your body changes every seven years. So you’re completely different mentally and physically.

So, you’re the same and you’re not the same – you’re A and non-A.

Wherever there is change, at the end of the change we have the same thing; that’s involved in it being change, rather than substitution.

But wherever there is change, at the end of the change we have a different thing, that’s inherent in it changing.

Therefore, at the end of the change, we have the same and not the same thing; change necessarily involves a contradiction.

But change is the most obvious fact. No one could possibly deny it.

The only conclusion can be: the world is riddled with contradictions – filled with things which are and are not.

Heraclitus’ view 🔗

“The law of contradiction is afflicted with falsity. It says nothing can both be and not be. But anything that can change defies it – it can both be and not be with the utmost ease.” (F.C.S. Schiller, 1937)

“… life consists before all just in this: that a living creature is at each moment itself, and yet something else. Life is therefore also a contradiction, present in processes, continually occurring and solving itself. And as soon as the contradiction ceases, life also ceases and death steps in.” (Frederick Engels, 1895)

Everybody at this time was looking for the world stuff: the one in the many.

There is, he said, only one thing that I can find everywhere without exception – the process of change itself.

The essence of reality is change (or “Becoming”).

Everything is changing, in every respect, at every instant.

And therefore nothing remains the same for two consecutive instances.

“You can’t step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are always flowing in.”

What would a follower of Heraclitus do with such a thing as this lectern?

Actually it’s a whirl of activity, and it’s simply the crudeness of human senses that makes this activity undetectable to us.

Everything, even the most apparently stationary things, are constantly changing.

Heraclitus observed that if you accept his principle that everything is changing in every aspect at every instant, then there are no entities.

Heraclitus summarized this thesis in two famous aphorisms:

“Nothing is; everything is becoming.”

“Everything flows and nothing abides.”

" … all things flow. No man can ever step twice into the same river. How could he? The second time he tried to step, new waters would have flowed down from upstream: the water would not be the same. Neither would the bed and banks be the same, for the constant erosion would have changed them too. And if the river is the water, the bed, and the banks, the river is not the same river. Strictly speaking, there is no river."

“Worse yet, you cannot step into the same river twice, because you are not there twice. You too change, and the person who stepped the first time no longer exists to step the second time … Persons do not exist.”

“… when anyone says that something exists, the meaning is that something does not change, [at least for a short time]. An object that is real must be an object that stands still.”

“Suppose a clever sculptor takes a lump of children’s modeling clay and begins to work it rapidly. It shortly takes on the appearance of the child’s teddy bear, and if the sculptor should stop, we could call it a teddy bear. But he doesn’t stop; his nimble fingers keep working and the momentary bear turns into a small statue of Zeus, only quickly to disappear into the form of the Empire State Building.”

“What is it? we ask. The answer is not that it is a bear, or a god, or a building. Under these circumstances, all we could say is that it is modeling clay. And we call it clay because the clay remains the same throughout the changes. But if the clay itself never remained the same, if it changed from clay to wax to papier mache and so on and never stopped changing, we could call it nothing. Nothing; that is, it does not exist, it is unreal. (Thales to Dewey by Gordon Haddon Clark)

This sort of philosophy is called a process philosophy because it holds that process, activity, motion, change is reality.

Heraclitus, in an attempt to get a metaphor to capture this, picked fire – the closest he seemed to be able to get to motion without an entity.

And therefore, he said the world stuff is fire – but he did not mean a material substance, but rather, sheer process or activity.

Cratylus 🔗

Cratylus was a disciple of Heraclitus and a teacher of Plato.

He drew an apparently obvious conclusion from this principle – he stopped talking on principle, on the grounds that there is no way to give words meaning.

The only way you can give words meaning is by giving them a reference, and there’s nothing for words to refer to. Therefore, words are simply noise.

Heraclitus was the first man in the history o f philosophy to regard the senses as invalid.

The reason is simple: by the evidence of our senses, it appears that there are permanent, motionless, unchanging things.

And yet, we know that’s not true – everything is changing – and so, our senses are deceptive.

Reality vs. Appearance 🔗

Reality is that which really exists. On the other hand, there is the world as it appears to us.

Reality is known by reason – reason apart from the senses, reason in contradiction to the senses.

The world of appearances is the world as given us by the deceptive senses.

This duality between reality and appearance and between reason and the senses runs all through Greek philosophy with one or two exceptions. And Heraclitus is the first in which you find it.

Anyone who says that reason is what we should follow, reason as opposed to the senses, is called, philosophically, a rationalist.

Heraclitus can be regarded as the first Greek rationalist.

Heraclitus believed (quite inconsistently with the rest of his philosophy) that change was orderly, lawful, intelligible. He was a good, rational Greek in this respect.

Unfortunately, the good element in him was not nearly as influential.

Anybody who says “there are no absolutes” or “everything is relative” is a full-fledged Heraclitean.

Because “absolute”, in such a context, means invariant, unchanging in time or place. And of cours, for Heraclitus, there is no such thing.

What it would be like to live in a Heraclitean world:

Children living with irrational parents whose behavior is characterized by constant switching, so that nothing holds true from one moment to the next.

Businessmen in regard to the antitrust laws – interpretations change from moment to moment, and you never know what’s coming next. Everything in that world is and isn’t.

Parmenides of Elea: Logic Demands a Changeless Universe 🔗

Let us turn to a philosopher who flourished about 20 years after Heraclitus, about 480 BC: Parmenides of Elea.

Parmenides is the first to support his convictions with reasoned argument.

He is profoundly opposed to Heraclitus’ philosophy.

His entire philosophy derives from one basic principle:

“What is, is, and what is not, is not, and what is not can neither be, nor be thought about.”

“Come now, I will tell thee, and do thou harken to my saying and carry it away – the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that what is, is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other, namely, that what is, is not – that I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all, for thou canst not know what is not; that is impossible, nor utter it.”

This is an unmitigated repudiation of Heraclitus.

In regard to the Heracliteans, he has very pointed words:

“… mortals knowing not, who wander two-faced. Helplessness guides the wandering thought in their breasts, and they are born along stupefied like men deaf and blind, undiscerning crowds who hold that it is and is not, the same and not the same, and that all things travel in opposite directions.

For this shall never be proved, that the things that are no, are, and do thou restrain thy thought from this way of inquiring.”

Existence Exists 🔗

His basic principle is the earliest formulation of what Ayn Rand formulates as: “Existence exists.”

It is impossible to think about what is not, or to know what is not.

As soon as you think, you think about something, you think about what is.

“Thou canst not know nor utter what is not.”

This is what ultimately appears in Galt’s speech as the view that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists.

If thought is always about reality (about what is), then it is untenable to hold a concept of sheer nonexistence.

All concepts must be formed within existence, and refer to existence.

Any theory which requires a concept of sheer nothing, according to Parmenides, is invalid on that grounds.

Systematic Deductions 🔗

On this basis, Parmenides drew a number of systematic deductions.

  1. The universe must be uncreated; it could never have come into existence.
  2. The universe must be indestructible; it could never go out of existence. The universe is therefore eternal.
  3. Can there be such a thing as a vacuum – as an empty space? Absolutely not. The universe is a plenum – i.e., solidly packed, completely full.

Parmenides drew another deduction from his basic principle – which, in his opinion, was just as obvious – and that’s where all the trouble comes in.

4. Change is impossible – change of any kind. 🔗

Take a simple example of change: a seed growing into a flower.

At the beginning, the seed represents what is, and the flower what is not.

At the end of the change, what happened to the seed? It’s what is not; the flower is now there – it’s what is.

And that is true of every change – something goes away, and something comes to be.

Change is a double violation of his principle: every change is a simultaneous passage from what is to what is not, and from what is not to what is.

But there is no “what is not”.

Therefore, there is no change at all. The world is completely motionless in every respect.

Parmenides and Heraclitus agree: change implies a contradiction – a violation of logic.

Heraclitus: at the end of a change, a thing both is and isn’t what it was. Parmenides: at the end of a change, you have what is not becoming what is, and vice-versa, and that’s a contradiction since “what is not” is not.

Heraclitus says: change is obvious, so down with logic. Parmenides says: logic is obvious, so down with change.

The common denominator is: it’s either logic or change, either identity of change.

Multiplicity 🔗

Having denied change, Parmenides went on to deny multiplicity.

He believes that the world is a plenum – one solid, undifferentiated slab of one stuff, which has no empty spaces in it. Therefore, multiplicity is an illusion.

There’s just one entity – everything, which he called “the One”.

So the world is simply a motionless, changeless, undifferentiated ball, but this is not the way that it appears to our senses.

Parmenides’ answer is the same as Heraclitus’: the senses are deceptive; they give us only the world of appearances, not true reality.

True reality is the motionless One, and it’s arrived at by logic, not by the senses – by reason.

Therefore, again, we have rationalism epistemologically.

People are in a dreadful position philosophically now:

What are we going to do to reconcile these two philosophers, and somehow make sense of it all? That was the task of subsequent philosophy, and the question was never properly answered until the time of Aristotle.

Parmenides had a famous follower: Zeno (430 BC) 🔗

He is famous for devising a series of paradoxes which purport to prove two things:

  1. Motion is impossible.
  2. Multiplicity is impossible.

It’s impossible to cross a room.

To cross a room, you first have to cross half of it. But to cross half of it, you have to first cross half of that (a quarter), etc.

But you can subdivide any distance infinitely.

But how can you possibly cross an infinite number of distances, no matter how tiny they are?

To cross any distance takes some time, no matter how little.

Crossing an infinite number of distances would take an infinite amount of time.

Therefore, you obviously couldn’t cross a room, or any distance, for that matter.

Therefore, motion is an illusion.

The world cannot be a whole composed of parts.

Imagine that the universe is a whole with parts. What would the size of the universe be, and how many parts does it have?

It will end up with an infinite number of parts, because:

What will be the size of the ultimate parts of the universe?

So, if there is multiplicity, we must have:

  1. An infinitely big universe, which has endless parts.
  2. An infinitely small universe, which has sizeless parts.

And that’s an impossible contradiction.

Therefore, the premise must be wrong, there is no multiplicity.

Pythagoras: Mathematics and the Mysticism of the Orphic Religion 🔗

Pythagoras (fl. 530 BC) – right after Thales and prior to Parmenides and Heraclitus.

Pythagoras founded an enormously influential school – it had overwhelming effects on Plato, and therefore later on Christianity.

The early Pythagoreans were a mystic sect; they lived communistically, without private property.

Orphic mystery religion 🔗

The Orphics preached tenets like these:

We are destined to go through a series of reincarnations – what they call the “Wheel of Birth”, until the soul can escape from the body and this earth permanently, reunite with God, and thereby achieve true happiness and salvation.

How do you get to escape?

Man is a dual creature. His soul is a fragment of Dionysus, his body a heritage from the Titans.

Salvation consists of freeing the divine within from the bondage of the body.

This, historically and philosophically, is the primary source of the soul-body opposition in Western civilization.

The Pythagoreans subscribed to Orphicism. They believed in two different worlds (the world of god and this world) and the soul-body conflict. They yearned for immortality and escape from the body; they believed in reincarnation.

The Orphic religion involved a whole series of typical taboos.

How did this get into the history of philosophy? 🔗

The answer: Pythagoras had a scientific side - he and his school.

Their scientific discoveries and their mystic Orphicism were propagated together as a kind of package-deal – and the combination became very influential.

What is the essence (or nature) of the universe? What is the world stuff? 🔗

The pythagoreans were the first to discover that mathematics is somehow everywhere. They did a lot of work in mathematical theory.

They discovered:

Wherever they looked, they found a fact that had not been known:

The distinctive character and action of things is governed by numerical relationships.

They did what Thales did when he thought water was the key – by a gigantic leap, they generalized, and said: “All things are numbers.” Numbers are the world stuff.

Commentators have worked for centuries to try to figure out what this could have meant.

Some people point out that the Pythagoreans represented numbers by physical things, and so six for them meant six dots or six pebbles arranged in a certain way.

In other words, they confused numbers with the physical entities which represent them.

In part, the explanation is their errant mysticism – they were real numerological mystics.

This is the Western source of those skyscrapers that have the thirteenth floor blanked out.

The crucial point is the vital importance of mathematics in discovering the laws of the world.

Modern physics would have been impossible without the discovery that physical laws have to be formulated in mathematical terms.

In this sense, modern science is, in part, a development of this discovery of the Pythagoreans.

However, it did not bear fruit until the Renaissance, when it was combined with other theories.

What is important is what the later Pythagoreans did to make sense out of the theory that “all things are numbers”.

They took the line that numbers, or numerical relations, somehow governed the behavior of things, and they took this in a very literal and still quite primitive sense.

Two dimensions 🔗

When they said that numbers governed the things of this world, they apparently believed that there were two dimensions: a world of numbers, and this world, which was formed in accordance with the world of numbers.

The world of numbers can’t be grasped by the senses; numbers you have to grasp by reason. But this world is a world graspable by the senses.

The world of numbers is immutable, but the world in which we live is constantly changing.

So we have a Metaphysical Dualism – two realities – and the true one is the world of numbers.

Heraclitus: true reality must be constantly changing.

The Pythagoreans: “In this world, you are right – everything is flowing.”

Parmenides: true reality has to be unchanging.

The Pythagoreans said, “You’re right, too. True reality is the world of numbers.”

This attempt to solve the Parmenidean-Heraclitean dilemma, by apportioning two worlds, one for each, was picked up from the Pythagoreans by Plato.

One legacy in epistemology of Pythagoreanism is the view that, to be true knowledge, something must be mathematical.

In regard to ethics, the major legacy left by the Pythagoreans was:

Why didn’t they commit suicide if they were so anxious to escape the body? Because you belong to God – it’s up to Him to decide whether or not to let you come home.

While on earth you should purify yourself by withdrawing from the physical.

How are you going to do that?

Three types of men who come to the Olympic games:

  1. The lowest is most directly involved with the physical – the guy who comes to make money.
  2. Above the lovers of gain, there are the athletes who are motivated by something somewhat more spiritual – honor, fame, triumph, glory.
  3. The third (and highest) type is the type most detached from the physical – the spectators, who simply want to look out and see what’s happening, and to acquire knowledge in a completely disinterested way.

The Pythagoreans preach the supreme importance of knowledge, but it had to be disinterested knowledge, divorced entirely from any physical, practical consequences, or action regarding life on earth – knowledge as a religious rite – a soul-purifying rite.

This is the earliest severing in Western philosophy of knowledge from life – the idea of knowledge as an end in itself.

The Pythagoreans are the first two-reality school that we’ve met in a major way.

The mind-body opposition, the yearning for an otherworldly immortality, the scorn for this life on earth: it all goes back to the Orphic Pythagoreans.

The Pluralists, the Atomists and the Birth of Determinism 🔗

The first attempts at complete systems.

We’re going to look at three kinds of philosophy that were formulated in Greece and endure to this day: materialism, skepticism and idealism.

Materialism: Reality is basically matter in motion; all so-called nonmaterial, or mental, phenomena, are to be explained entirely in physical, material terms.

Skepticism: No objective or certain knowledge of anything is possible – what we call “knowledge” is really a guess, a hunch, a subjective feeling, a probability, but not true knowledge.

Idealism: Reality is basically nonmaterial; the material world is simply a byproduct or expression of something nonmaterial in character.

These three are derivatives of the early philosophers that we looked at.

Materialism is implied by Thales’ view that everything is water. Materialism’s major Greek spokesmen are the Atomists.

Skepticism is primarily a derivative of Heraclitus. Its major exponent is the Sophist school.

Idealism, in Greece, is a derivative of the Pythagorean viewpoint. Its major exponent is Plato.

Of these three movements, the idealism of Plato was incomparably more influential than either materialism or skepticism alone, or in combination, has ever been.

One of the great attractions Plato offered was that his approach to philosophy enabled them to escape the materialist or the skeptic approaches.

The Atomists 🔗

The Atomists are the outcome of a very different kind of attempt to reconcile Parmenides and Heraclitus – a general approach called Pluralism.

The pluralists agreed with Parmenides that the stuff that makes up reality has to be uncreated, indestructible, eternal, unchanging – nothing really new can ever come into or go out of existence.

But they agreed with Heraclitus that there is such a thing as change, process, action, motion, becoming.

How will we reconcile these two views?

What if we abandoned monism?

What if we say that there are many different stuffs which make up the world – each of them is unchanging, eternal, indestructible?

But we’ll allow locomotion as the only type of change permitted.

Locomotion doesn’t violate Parmenides’ principle, because it doesn’t require anything new to come into existence or to go out of existence.

Locomotion involves simply a rearrangement of the stuffs that always exist.

We will explain all change as merely a process in which these eternal stuffs constantly shift around and rearrange themselves.

What are these many stuffs?

The first advocate of this approach was a man called Empedocles (435 BC).

He said there were four basic kinds of stuff – earth, air, water and fire – and everything else is merely combinations and rearrangements of these four.

Anaxagoras (500 BC) said to Empedocles, in effect, “You say there is supposed to be nothing new coming into existence, but, as far as I can tell, you are violating Parmenides’ basic principle all the time.”

If there are truly to be no new qualities in reality, there has to be way more than four stuffs.

There has to be an indefinite number of stuffs, as many different stuffs as there are types of things.

Each of these will have to be regarded as irreducible, as a basic ingredient of reality.

Little tiny bits of all of these stuffs are actually in everything – little “seeds”, as he put it.

Your senses are too gross to detect them; you only see the dominant stuff.

Suppose that little bits of everything were in everything, then change would really only be a rearrangement, and nothing new would ever come into existence.

This was a total dead end of the task undertaken by Thales.

Thales wanted to find unity in the midst of diversity – and here we end up with diversity as absolutely irreducible and inexplicable.

It’s a hopeless theory which would be the end of science.

Leucippus (500 BC) and Democritus (360 BC) 🔗

They were also pluralists: (a) the world is composed of many elements, each by itself too tiny to see, and (b) change is merely the mixing and unmixing of these elements.

Anaxagoras’ theory is hopeless.

We have to distinguish two kinds of characteristics: qualities and quantities.

Qualities include things like colors, sound, odors, tastes, temperatures, textures, etc.

Quantities include size, shape, motion or rest, and number.

There is only one way out of Anaxagoras’ dilemma – strip qualities from the things in the world altogether – say that the things in the physical world only have quantitative characteristics: size, shape, motion, and number.

If you say that qualities (like colors, odors, tastes, temperatures) are real, you’ve got two choices:

  1. Some qualities are real, but others come into existence and go out of existence (and that’s forbidden by Parmenides).
  2. All qualities are real, equally basic, and eternal (and that’s Anaxagoras’ position, which is hopeless).

Our only alternative is to say no qualities are real.

The various stuffs that make them up have only size, shape, motion, number.

What we call “qualities” is simply the way that what’s really out there affects us; they are merely subjective effects on human beings.

We will now be able to explain change without violating Parmenides. 🔗

The appearance of new qualities is simply taking place in our minds, as a result of different rearrangements of purely quantitative particles out there in the world.

Reality consists of a huge (actually infinite) number of tiny stuffs, or particles, possessing only these quantitative features.

Each of them is a little, tiny Parmenidean One – solidly packaged and therefore completely uncuttable.

Since the Greek for “uncuttable” is atome, it came out that these little particles are “atoms”.

Change is nothing but spatial change of atomic position.

What makes one atom, one atom, and separates it from another? 🔗

There must be empty space between them.

There are two constituents that make up reality: atoms and the void – the empty spaces which separate atoms.

Of course, the void is a violation of Parmenides’ principle – a blatant “what is not” out there as a constituent of reality.

Atoms operate exclusively as a result of physical pressure and impact from other atoms strictly according to the laws of mechanics.

“Billiard ball metaphysics”: everything that happens, happens exclusively according to the laws of mechanics.

Nothing ever happens by chance or for a purpose, end or goal.

Atoms move simply as a result of the forces operating upon them – i.e., the laws of mechanics.

You may think, “Billiard balls move that way, but the man who wields the cue, he had a purpose”.

But, if you are an Atomist, you say the man wielding the cue operates on exactly the principle that the billiard balls do.

A metaphysics such as this is called Mechanistic Materialism. 🔗

Materialism: Matter is the fundamental reality; anything nonmaterial is simply a derivative to be explained entirely in physical terms.

Mechanism: Everything happens according to the laws of mechanics; it is contrasted with teleology – the idea that purpose is operative somewhere in the universe.

Man is governed by strict, rigid determinism.

Determinism is implied by materialism, because there’s no mind to make any choices, and it’s implied by mechanism, since everything happens according to the laws of mechanics.

The Atomists are the first systematic, principled, self-conscious determinists in philosophic history.

They say: We believe in a soul, but the soul is made of soul atoms, and it’s the presence of those particular atoms that give rise to life and consciousness.

They also believed in gods, but the gods are also made of atoms and indifferent to men. So for practical purposes, Atomists are atheists.

The soul atoms are completely physical – and they are diffused throughout the world.

Consciousness is nothing but a quivering of the soul atoms.

There is no such thing as immortality in this philosophy; death is disintegration.

Heraclitus thought the senses were invalid, and distinguished between reality and appearance; so did Parmenides and the Pythagoreans.

The Atomists hold the identical view.

“Convention”: anything which is a product of man’s subjective constitution, as against the actual facts of reality.

“By convention, sweet is sweet. By convention, bitter is bitter. By convention, hot is hot. By convention, cold is cold. By convention, color is color. But in reality, there are atoms and the void.”

The Atomists subscribe to the same dichotomy between reality (known by reason) and appearance (known by the senses). They, too, therefore, are rationalists.

This distinction of the Atomists between “quantities” and “qualities” was picked up in the Renaissance.

John Locke gave it its modern name: “primary” vs “secondary” qualities.

What is wrong with the distinction between primary and secondary qualities?

Atomism’s metaphysics, in more sophisticated form, is enormously common today – particularly among psychologists.

They agree with the Atomists that we can explain all human behavior without reference to mind or consciousness.

What’s wrong with mechanistic materialism?

As a theory of physics, mechanistic materialism was a brilliant idea.

But as a metaphysics, it’s completely invalid because it denies the existence of mind and, as such, it’s self-refuting.

The Skepticism of the Greek Sophists 🔗

The Sophists were a professional class in the 5th century BC.

They taught how to win friends and flatter the multitude, and thereby gain political power.

Protagoras (410 BC) and Gorgias (375 BC).

The Sophists are the first avowed skeptics in history.

Skepticism is the view that no objective or certain knowledge is possible to anyone, about anything.

Primarily, they base their skepticism on an all-out attack on the senses.

The “argument from illusion”.

The “argument from hallucinations”.

The essence of their case was that every sense perception is wrong, not just that we can be taken in by the occasional illusion or hallucination.

The Main Argument 🔗

Whenever we perceive, what we perceive depends upon two factors:

  1. the object being perceived, and
  2. the nature and condition of your sensory apparatus.

So whose perceptions are right?

Nobody is right, because nobody can perceive reality except as processed by his particular sensory apparatus, and the kind of apparatus you have affects what you experience.

All we ever can know is the way reality appears to us because of our senses. We can never say what is the case objectively, in reality.

There’s no way of knowing how things really are. All we know are our own subjective experiences – the private effects on each of us of the world out there.

This is the most influential argument ever advanced against the validity of the senses.

And therefore, it is urgently important that you know what is wrong with this argument.

It is true that:

Protagoras draws the conclusion, “You can never perceive reality”.

Couldn’t reason give us knowledge of reality even if the senses deceive us? 🔗


Reason depends upon the evidence of the senses.

The mark of a Sophist in today’s world is anybody who puts the word “for” after the word “true”.

The argument from disagreement: Everybody disagrees about what is rational; who is to say what’s really true?

A third thing against reason: Everything is constantly changing so nothing is an absolute.

“Man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.” (Protagoras)

Gorgias (330 BC):

  1. Nothing exists.
  2. If anything existed, you couldn’t know it.
  3. And if you could know it, you couldn’t communicate.

The whole history of philosophy is in cycles like this: a constructive era which collapses into total skepticism, and then the beginning of a new one, collapsing into a still deeper skepticism; that is when a new philosopher of great importance always appears, because he is the one that tells mankind what to do now.

Can ethics come from reason? – Obviously not; reason is deficient.

Can it come from God? – Obviously not; the Sophists are agnostics.

So where does ethics come from?

Their answer: There is no objective ethics.

They are complete ethical subjectivists and complete ethical relativists.

If you say: “Shouldn’t your desires be rational?”

Their answer would be: “What’s rational for you isn’t rational for me.”

And so we have an ethics of avowed whim-worship.

What if your desires conflict with somebody else’s desires?

Brute physical force.

Thrasymachus is famous for this view: “Might makes right.”

Suppose you could put on a veneer of virtue and at the same time live a subterranean life of roaring vice.

You would have the best of both worlds: the rewards of virtue (social approval) and the pleasures of vice.

People secretly lust after just this kind of life, but they’re afraid.

So they compromise strictly out of fear, cowardice and hypocrisy, not out of conviction.

Every man would run riot if he thought he could get away with it.

The Ring of Gyges 🔗

The Sophists say, if you had the ring of Gyges, you could do anything you wanted, satisfy all desires, and you would be in a perfect state.

“Men do right only under compulsion. No individual thinks of it as good for him personally.” (Plato)

This viewpoint is given a philosophic name: egoism – but it is egoism which is thoroughly relativist, skeptical and subjectivist.

One of the worst tragedies of Western philosophy is that egoism, at its inception, was tied to whim-worshipping and brutality, which is all that’s left when you abandon reason.

The Life and Teachings of Socrates 🔗

Socrates and Plato 🔗

The two philosophers who set out to answer the Sophists – to ground objective knowledge and objective morality.

They founded the first complete philosophy – the first complete system.

Socrates (400 BC) left no writings; he is known primarily through Plato’s dialogues.

Socrates’ interest was basically in ethics.

He was the first major moralist in the Western world, a champion of absolute, objective ethics, and an arch-opponent of the Sophists.

Socrates’ Method 🔗

Socrate’s Motive: Socrates felt he had a divine mission – to be a gadfly, a philosophical gadfly, to rouse people from their unthinking complacent slumbers.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The result of his method: He was arrested – charged with corrupting the youth and worshiping false gods. The court voted for death by hemlock.

Socrates is the first philosophic martyr. His story is contained in three dialogues of Plato:

The question is, What did he find in his philosophic method that was so crucial?

The reasons that people were so confused, so unclear, so chronically in disagreement and collapsing into subjectivism and skepticism, was that their concepts were unclear and undefined.

Socrates is the Father of Definition 🔗

What do you want when you ask for a definition?

You want a statement of the characteristics that are common to some class – those characteristics possessed by every member of the class, in virtue of which they’re members of that class and not some other.

You concentrate, when you want a definition, on universals.

By “universal”, we mean that set of properties which is common to every member of a class and which is the basis of a classification.

I point to one book, and another book, and another book – those are three particulars.

The universal is that set of properties common to all books on the basis of which we call them “books”.

What Socrates established was that the crucial problem of human knowledge was the knowledge of universals.

Wherever we have a word, we have a universal, except for proper nouns (e.g., “John Smith”).

Socrates believed that the thing that made man distinctive derived from his ability to grasp universals.

Socrates really discovered for the first time in the West the importance of conceptual, as distinct from perceptual, knowledge.

If we can validate knowledge of universals, said Socrates, then the Sophists would be answered.

Human beings have to rise to the conceptual stage.

Plato’s Metaphysics: The Perceptible World and the World of Ideal Forms 🔗

Plato (347 BC) is one of the two most influential philosophers of all time.

He is the first great philosophic genius in human history in three ways:

Metaphysics 🔗

Plato agreed with Socrates that the crucial knowledge was the knowledge of universals.

However, Plato drew metaphysical conclusions from this that Socrates did not – and this is the most crucial part of his philosophy.

Universal must be knowable.

If universals must be knowable, they must actually exist.

Where do they exist? How do they exist?

This was later called the problem of universals.

You probably think that universals exist in particulars – that “manness” is merely a name for the similar characteristics possessed by individual men.

Plato says universals and particulars have radically different characteristics, and therefore must be radically different kinds of things.

How do you know that Smith and Jones are two different people? You make a list of all the different characteristics, and you say they have to be two completely different entities because they have completely opposite characteristics.

Plato proposes to do exactly that with universals and particulars.

There must be two worlds – a world which has the characteristics of particulars and another one which has the characteristics of universals.

How do universals and particulars differ?

  1. There is one universal per category, but many particulars.
  2. Particulars change, but universals go on unchanging.
  3. Particulars are primarily material; universals are abstract, nonphysical.
  4. Particulars are known by means of our senses; universals are known by reason, the intellect.

Plato says the conclusion is inescapable.

How can we deny that there are two different worlds?

one per categorymultiple
known only by the mindsensory

There must be two worlds: the world of universals and world of particulars.

That’s Argument 1: the Argument from the Differences between Universals and Particulars.

Argument 2: The Argument from Perfection 🔗

Where do we get our concepts and standards of perfection?

There is no such thing as perfection in this world.

  1. Things in this world change. If a thing changes, it couldn’t be perfect. If it was perfect, it would simply stand still, it would lack nothing.
  2. Even in mathematics, the Platonists say, you’ll never find perfection.
  3. We criticize things as imperfect; this presupposes that we know what perfection would consist of – and we couldn’t have got it from this world.

Notice that whenever we think of a universal, we usually have a perfect, unblemished representative in mind.

Plato concludes that the world of perfection is precisely the world of universals.

There must be a world of perfect universals which we contemplated prior to this life, thereby gaining our standards and knowledge of perfection.

We’ve not only established by this particular argument the world of universals, but two other things.

  1. Innate ideas – i.e., knowledge possessed in us at birth.
  2. The soul must be independent of the body – the groundwork to establish the immortality of the soul.

Argument 3: The Argument from the Order of Knowledge 🔗

Which, in logic, would you have to learn first: universals or particulars?

Plato says, it’s impossible to know particulars – to classify them, to categorize them – unless you knew universals in advance.

The advocate of the view that you arrive at universals by abstraction from particulars says, if you want to define “justice”, you collect before your mind the particular instances of justice and then abstract and see what they have in common.

Plato says this is impossible. If you didn’t know what justice was in advance, how would you know what was a particular instance of it? How would you know what things to collect together?

To define a universal, we have to assemble the instances and grasp what’s common.

But if we knew in advance what was common we would never have to inquire.

If we don’t know in advance, then we have no idea how to inquire.

Solution: there must be a realm of universals independent of this world which we knew before this life.

But, the knowledge is unconscious when we’re born, and you have to go through a special process to unearth it.

Argument 4: the Argument from the Possibility of Knowledge 🔗

Knowledge must be possible; that’s Plato’s basic premise. What must reality be like if knowledge is to be possible?

  1. You can’t know a world of flux, but this world is a world of flux. If reality is to be knowable, it must be immutable – that means another world.
  2. If a world is changing, it’s contradictory, and you can’t know the contradictory. If a world is to be knowable, it must be made of consistent entities, entities which don’t change.
  3. Knowledge acquired by the senses is invalid. Knowledge of reality must be acquired by non-sensory means; and thus it must be a non-material object.
  4. The crucial thing to know is universals, and universals have all the characteristics that the world that’s knowable has to have – they’re immutable, self-consistent, motionless, non-material.

Conclusion: if there’s to be knowledge of reality at all, it must be of a world of universals, and not of this world.

True knowledge is knowledge of the other world – the world of universals, which includes numbers and everything else that has instances, actual or possible.

Two Worlds 🔗

Universals are independent of the particulars in this world, and they are independent of our thoughts.

Universals are to be thought of, for Plato, as not thoughts and not particulars, but as actual entities – things, real, external objects. Only, of course, they’re not physical.

For every class of particulars, there are corresponding universals.

knowable by thought“known” by the senses

Of these two worlds, which do you think Plato regarded as really real? Obviously, the world of Forms.

Plato gives four tests:

Test 1: To be real, a thing has to exist. 🔗

For a thing to exist, it can’t be contradictory. But to be non-contradictory, it has to be motionless, because change involves a contradiction.

The things in this world are contradictory. They are therefore not real.

Test 2: A thing is real when it’s knowable. 🔗

If knowledge is of reality, and knowledge is only of the world of Forms, then the world of Forms is reality, not this world.

Test 3: The real is the perfect – the ideal. 🔗

So, on that count also, the world of Forms comes out as reality.

Test 4: The real is the original, as against imitations. 🔗

The world of Forms is the original; the world in which we live is just an imitation, derivative, or projection of the world of Forms.

What then is the status of this world, in which we live? 🔗

It’s like a byproduct, derivative, projection, or reflection of true reality.

The single, motionless, perfect, non-material reality projects itself outward and assumes the illusory appearance of a world of imperfect, multiple, moving images.

This world is the world of Forms reflected, or projected, into a medium.

What does he think that the world of Forms projects into? 🔗

This world must be a union of what is and what isn’t, a union of reality and unreality.

The Forms represent the element of reality.

So this world has to arise from a union of the Forms with a principle of non-being which somehow is.

What could it be? Empty space.

Space is the medium which enables the Forms to take on physical location.

This world is really the Forms shining out into empty space.

If we took away empty space and wiped out this world, the Forms would go on untouched.

But if we did anything to the Forms, this world would vanish in the same way that the image in the mirror would if you went away.

Plato did not believe this world was created ex nihilo (out of nothing).

But he tells a story which is the forerunner of many religious views – the story of the so-called Demiurge. This is another myth.

The ancient Greek word demiourgos means “craftsman” or “artisan”.

The Demiurge is a sort of godlike, but very limited, soul that wanders freely in the universe.

With one eye on the perfection of the world of Forms, he shaped and organized the matter like an architect to produce as much order, harmony, symmetry, perfection as he could.

This is the most primitive form of what later became the Argument from Design for the existence of God.

The Demiurge is not all-powerful, and this world had a very recalcitrant element in its constitution, and that is: nothing.

Consequently, there was a certain imperfection that had to remain in this world that is beyond anyone’s power.

Now you know the basis and the essence of Plato’s metaphysics.

The Climax of Plato’s Metaphysics 🔗

The Forms are not disconnected grab-bags of universals; they are logically related to each other – bound together into one integrated system.

Every scientific law and mathematical theorem is merely a statement of how certain specific Forms are logically interconnected.

Sciences are for Plato attempts to discover the structure of the world of Forms.

Each science starts with certain basic premises – statements of how the Forms in its particular field are related.

It then proceeds to deduce a host of consequences from these basic premises.

Unless we can validate the basic premises in each science, all of our knowledge remains hypothetical.

We need some foundation from which we can deduce the axioms of the various individual sciences.

Imagine you could find one fundamental Form which was self-intelligible, and having grasped this one Form, we could see that absolutely everything else followed from it.

If we could do that, we would have put every science on absolutely firm ground, and tied all the areas of human knowledge together into one whole.

So we are embarked again on a quest for the one in the many – the one supreme Form uniting the many Forms.

Plato gives no argument to prove that the supreme Form must be single in nature, that there must be only one. On this point, he is simply reflecting the monism which was characteristic of most Greek philosophy.

What could the nature of this fundamental Form be? 🔗

It’s to be the explanation of everything.

Plato is a “teleologist” – every event has to be explained in terms of the purpose it serves – in terms of goals, ends, a good of some kind that everything is aiming at.

The Atomists, at best, tell us how things happen.

If we want to know why, and not just how – explanation, not just description – it must be in terms of purpose.

Plato adopts this pattern of explanation for the entire universe.

Consequently, he called the ultimate Form “the Form of the Good”, since the good is that which everything is aiming at.

The Form of the Good has two fundamental functions:

  1. Metaphysically, it is the purpose of all existence and the source of existence.
  2. Epistemologically, it is the source of all intelligibility – it’s what makes anything understandable.

In Christian philosophy, God is the source of reality and the ultimate source of intelligibility.

But Plato’s Form of the Good is not a god – it is simply abstract universal goodness. It has no plan, no will, no awareness.

Plato compares the Form of the Good to the sun.

The sun, in a certain sense, enables everything to exist on earth and makes everything visible.

What is the Good?

The Form of the Good is ineffable – outside the power of human conceptualization, language, logic, discussion, concepts.

To grasp the Form of the Good, you must transcend the intellect and have an intuition or a vision – which when you have it, is completely blindingly self-illuminating.

This is mysticism – the view that knowledge is obtainable by means other than reason or the senses.

Plato believed there was a definite course of action you should take to have this special vision – a rigorous period of mathematical training across decades and becoming progressively more abstract.

To sum up Plato’s metaphysics:

There is a world of forms, presided over by the Form of the Good, all of it reflected into space, thereby generating this half-real reflection that we call the physical world.

Plato’s Epistemology: From Innate Ideas to a Grasp of the Forms 🔗

One main purpose of Plato’s philosophy was to answer the Sophists – to show that objective knowledge is possible.

But how can we ever come to know the Forms?

We must have been in contact with the world of Forms prior to this life.

What we call “acquiring” knowledge is really a process of digging out from your subconscious or unconscious what is really already there.

Knowledge is a process of remembering, of reminiscence.

The senses are not means of getting new knowledge.

We need the sense in the early stages of knowledge to serve as a stimulus – to jog our memories.

But after an initial period of stimulating your memories, knowledge thereafter is a matter of looking inward – of introspection.

This view of knowledge is called rationalism.

How does reason operate if it doesn’t base itself on sensory data?

His answer: we are born with innate ideas.

From the time of Plato on, “rationalism” became the epistemological theory that knowledge is acquirable solely by reasoning from innate concepts, and that sense perception is in principle dispensable (except as a stimulus).

The general argument for innate ideas:

Does Plato offer any proof of the immortality of the soul, which is an essential ingredient of this theory?

In the dialogue The Phaedo, he gives four famous proofs for the immortality of the soul.

To recollect and reawaken all of your knowledge, you must pass through four stages, which he illustrates by a famous divided line, which has four segments.

Stage 1: Imagining 🔗

This is the stage in which you are wholly ignorant, confused and unenlightened.

You take all superficial appearances at face value. You can’t even tell the distinction between images and physical things.

Stage 2: Belief or Opinion 🔗

You can now tell the difference between physical objects and dreams or images. You’ve made scattered empirical observations and some crude generalizations.

But you do not know why any of these facts or generalizations hold true, and you have no capacity to be certain that they will continue to hold true.

Stage 3: Thinking 🔗

The stage where science begins; where we turn away from the physical world and focus on the Forms.

As soon as we grasp a Form, that explains why the rules we simply empirically observed are true.

This is true of every level – every stage explains the preceding stage.

The abstract, the universal, the general, always explains the particular; it gives you the reason for the particular.

In the stage of thinking or science, we are almost at the stage of certainty, but not yet. The axioms of the various sciences themselves at this stage are not yet validated, so our whole structure is precarious.

Stage 4: True Knowledge 🔗

Here we grasp the pinnacle: the Form of the Good.

And we are able to show that everything we discovered ascending follows deductively from the Form of the Good.

  1. Imagining (images)
  2. Belief (physical objects)
  3. Thinking (the lower Forms)
  4. Knowledge (the Form of the Good)

These four stages were illustrated by Plato in a famous parable, or allegory, which captures the essence of the whole Platonic philosophy.

The Myth of the Cave 🔗

The people caught in the cave are the masses of mankind. The few who can escape and see true reality are the philosophers.

What does it illustrate?

  1. Knowledge requires you to leave this world, to turn your intellect away from the physical, to reorient your whole soul, disposition and interests.
  2. The crucial knowledge is the Form of the Good.

Notice that it is a painful process because you have to turn away from everything familiar and achieve a vision, which takes years of abstract preparation.

Most men never reach it; they spend their lives in the shadows.

Political Implications 🔗

Mysticism leads to dictatorship.

If you were to say to Plato, “Well, I don’t believe in your world of Forms; I believe in physical objects that I can see, hear, taste and so on; that’s what I take as real”, that answer gives away everything. That answer is the proof that you are one of the ignorant masses caught in the Cave, and that it is therefore hopeless to try to reason with you.

Plato’s Ethics 🔗

What will be the goal of the moral man? To escape the Cave – to reach the higher world of beauty, truth and sunlight.

His attitude to this world will be disdain, a yearning to get out.

The ultimate goal of such an ethics is death – escape from this world, freeing the soul from the body.

“Those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death … true philosophers make dying their profession.”

Why not commit suicide?

Plato’s answer is the same as the Orphics before him and the Christians after him – suicide is prohibited. God giveth, God taketh away.

What you can do during life is free the soul as much as possible from domination of the body.

Plato has a legion of followers on this point, from the early Christians to the late hippies in their anti-materialism.

Just as the bodily senses deceive us in epistemology, so the bodily desires corrupt us in ethics. True virtue is thus anti-physical.

Both knowledge and virtue require leaving the Cave (i.e., this world).

Plato’s Ethics: virtue and the Health of the Soul 🔗

Socrates’ views on ethics 🔗

Socrates was a champion of an absolute, objective, universal code of ethical principles. He was an arch-opponent of the Sophists.

The parallel between the soul and the body:

The body has a definite nature, and therefore definite conditions have to be fulfilled to keep it healthy.

The principles of bodily care are mandatory. If you disobey them, you have a diseased, sick body.

For Socrates, the same is true of the soul – i.e., the psychological or spiritual element in man.

The soul has a definite nature, and there are definite conditions required for it to be healthy deriving from the nature of the soul.

You must live a certain way if you are to have a healthy soul – you have to live virtuously.

By “virtue” the Greeks simply mean “excellent performance of function”.

Ethics, for Socrates, is the science of achieving health in the soul.

There are objective principles in ethics, just as in the case of the body.

The achievement of happiness is not a matter of acting on any desire you happen to have.

Happiness has objective, universal conditions.

It is not true that the way to achieve happiness is to have any arbitrary desire and then simply satisfy it. The proof of that is endless.

Misery is the consequence of a diseased or unvirtuous or unjust soul.

No man can really be harmed by anybody else because the crucial determinant of his soul is up to him; nobody can make you unhappy in this fundamental sense.

Conversely, they cannot give you happiness in any basic sense.

The crucial thing is to have a healthy soul, because evil is like poison – it brings only suffering and self-destruction.

One more crucial Socratic point:

Virtue requires knowledge – knowledge of the proper end and of the means to it.

Thus Socrates’ famous principle: “Virtue is knowledge.”

What did he mean by “Virtue is knowledge”?

  1. Knowledge is a necessary condition of virtue.
  2. Knowledge is a sufficient condition of virtue – if you know what is right, you will automatically and necessarily do it.

How did he claim to prove that knowledge guarantees virtue?

The idea that knowledge is sufficient to guarantee virtue has had a very negative effect.

It wipes out the distinction between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality. There is no volitionally immoral behavior, simply involuntary ignorance.

Criticisms 🔗

  1. It assumes that all men are rational egoists, which is demonstrably false. To become a rational egoist is an achievement, not an innate endowment.
  2. The fact that you know something does not mean that you will automatically apply that knowledge.

You can know that something is good for you, and yet refuse to allow that knowledge to come into focus.

Essential to free will is that you have to summon your knowledge and concentrate on it in any given situation by consistent acts of focusing.

Apart from certain errors, his general view is sound.

  1. Man has a nature.
  2. Happiness depends on living in accordance with your nature.
  3. Sophistic whim-worshiping is the means to guaranteed misery.
  4. Knowledge of man’s nature and requirements is indispensable to virtue and happiness.

Plato’s Psychology 🔗

(The nature of the soul and the nature of man)

There’s a sharp dualism between the world of perfect Forms and the world of Heraclitean particulars.

Man is a creature who has ties to both worlds.

Man’s higher nature is his reason, his mind, the part that studies the Forms and acquires knowledge.

His lower nature is the irrational element in him – feelings and emotions for things in this world.

These two are fundamentally independent and, in fact, opposed components making up the essence of man’s soul.

The Argument from Conflict 🔗

If a man is urged in two opposite directions at the same time, there must be two opposite parts at work, two independent motivating sources, one pushing one way, and one the other.

If you held a one-reality metaphysics, you could account for conflicts without taking emotions as irrational elements severed from reason. You would do it by reference to contradictory ideas, contradictory premises, which a person holds.

But, if you come to man with a metaphysics of dualism and conflict, you will find that conflict in man also.

For Plato, therefore, in every man’s soul, there is a basic conflict of reason vs. emotion.

Plato subdivides the lower emotional element into two parts.

The lowest element the calls the appetites – the desires for physical things like food, shelter, wealth, money, sex.

The higher part of the lower part, he calls the spirited element – the passionate, more violent part of your emotional life.

Plato’s analogy is that inside every man, there are three creatures – a little man (reason), a raging lion (the spirited element), and a many-headed, slobbering beast (the appetites).

For Plato, there is a tripartite soul – three autonomous sources of behavior, so that man is inherently in conflict.

This psychological theory sets the problem of ethics: how to achieve peace and harmony among these parts.

How will you achieve harmony of the soul and therefore happiness? 🔗

Each of these three parts of the soul has a specific function.

If we grasp the function of each, that will guide us as to how to use each properly.

The function of reason is to acquire knowledge of the Forms and rule the other parts since only reason can see the consequences of an action and plan long-range.

When a man’s reason has acquired knowledge and is ruling his life, the man has the virtue of wisdom.

The Greeks recognized four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice.

Plato will show how he can accommodate these four according to his particular scheme.

The spirited element is the part that incites you to action. Its proper function is to let itself be guided by reason.

If so, a man will have the virtue of courage.

The appetitive element performs the life-promoting functions – concern for food, sex, sustenance, physical goods.

This is the most dangerous element – we must never indulge in appetites as ends in themselves.

If you do this, you have temperance.

Assume that these three parts are acting properly – each is doing what it is suited for and not interfering with the others, then the man has the virtue of justice.

Injustice, or evil, would be a lower part of the personality gaining control and growing cancerously out of all proportion.

[Vice] is cancer of some part of the soul.

Why shouldn’t you live the way the Sophists say? 🔗

Because you are killing yourself spiritually, undermining your soul, instituting a civil war which will lead to your destruction.

Plato’s answer to the Sophists amounts to this:

Turn away from the concerns of life on earth, repress your passions and appetites, and concentrate on another super-reality.

The choice these two schools offer you is whim-worshiping subjectivism or otherworldly asceticism.

Effects of Plato’s view of human nature:

  1. A certain type of determinism – you have no control over the content of your emotions, likes, dislikes, feelings, passions. Consequently, you’re helpless to change your character.
  2. Since the passions in general are bad, and all men necessarily feel them, there is an Achilles’ heel in human nature, and the ground is prepared for the theory of Original Sin.
  3. Emotions are basically antithetical to reason, and they demand some expression, and therefore a completely rational man would have to be a man without emotions, which is impossible.
  4. The grading of careers depending upon which part of the soul is most involved. Businessmen, industrialists, producers come out as very low types, as against philosophers, or “pure” scientists.

(The word “pure” is a Platonic legacy – i.e., uncorrupted by crude physical concerns.)

  1. The idea that the love of money is the root of all evil.
  2. The Platonic view of sex.

In the Symposium, Plato gives you instruction on how true love should operate.

An individual’s body => An individual’s soul => The beauty of that body and soul => The beauty of art, scientific discoveries, laws, etc. => Beauty as such (the Form of Beauty)

Platonic love is the love of the Form of Beauty – for all practical purposes, love of the Form of the Good – a completely otherworldly love.

All of Plato’s philosophy is a series of ladders.

Just as the senses awaken the remembrance of the Forms, the perception of physical beauty revives the memory of the perfect Beauty contemplated in a former existence – and that inspires in you a yearning for the higher life associated with the world of Forms.

Sexual love and the yearning for the Form of Beauty derive from one basic impulse.

Proper love should be for the ineffable pinnacle of the world of Forms (which later became the view that the supreme virtue is love of God).

Plato’s Political Philosophy: Collectivism and the Philosopher-King 🔗

Three Classes of Men 🔗

  1. Men in whom reason is dominant: Philosophers
  2. Men in whom the spirited element is dominant: Soldiers
  3. Men in whom the appetites are most developed: the Masses

The Myth of the Metals 🔗

Three types of men – innately determined by the kind of spiritual metal that makes them up.

Plato does not hold that it’s hereditary, but that it is innate.

The question of politics for Plato is:

Who should rule? 🔗

Answer: The philosophers – they are the only men of reason, the only ones who know the Form of the Good, who know what’s right and how to act.

Just as reason has to rule in the soul, so the men of reason (the philosophers) have to rule in the state.

Just as reason must have unlimited power in the soul, philosophers must have unlimited power in the state.

Ruling is a specialized art.

How can we open this up to untrained, uneducated, ignorant masses? 🔗

Virtue is knowledge. The masses don’t have virtue and don’t have knowledge and, therefore, can’t conduct themselves virtuously.

Is it safe to trust philosophers with absolute power? 🔗

Yes, because they have absolute knowledge, and therefore, they cannot misuse their power – knowledge guarantees virtue.

Why not let each man rule his own life by his own reason? 🔗

Because, in Plato’s view, it is impossible for most men to live their own lives rationally.

  1. This world is unreal; true knowledge is otherworldly.
  2. Most men are this-worldly – they’re incapable of a mystic vision.

Conclusion: Most men are incurably irrational and helpless to live by themselves.

Therefore, we need a rule by an authoritarian few who have specialized knowledge.

Mysticism leads to dictatorship; irrationalism leads to statism.

A three-class society, exactly parallel to the individual soul.

  1. The philosophers: when they are in charge, the state has the virtue of wisdom.
  2. The military: when they have properly performed their functions, the state has courage.
  3. The masses: their primary virtue is temperance, which in this context means obedience.

When the three classes are following their proper functions, the state will have the right division of labor and the right harmony, and that will be the virtue of justice.

Since these philosophers know the good, they have lost interest in everything that could tempt them to abuse their power.

But, just to make sure, we’ll deprive them of all private property.

Suppose we had constructed such a Platonic state – have a whole entity unto itself, with all the parts of an individual human being – all together functioning as one entity.

This view is known as the organic theory of the state – the view that the state collectively is a separate and distinct organism, and that the individual has the same relation to the state that a cell has to the body.

Metaphysically, individuality is not real. We are all simply varying reflections of one entity.

In politics, the collective is real; the individual is illusory.

This is the philosophic basis of collectivism in politics – full collectivism being the view that the group is the unit of reality and of value.

What is your political obligation according to Plato? 🔗

You must live for the welfare of the state as a whole.

As a Greek, Plato is not exclusively an altruist.

But, qua Platonist, Plato is an advocate of the view that individuals should live to serve the state and should systematically sacrifice themselves and their personal happiness.

What is the ideal? 🔗

That “the private and individual be altogether banished from life, and the things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common.” (Plato)

What is Plato’s attitude toward private property and private concerns? 🔗

“… disunion comes about when the words ‘mine’ and ’not mine’ and ‘another’s’ and ’not anothers’s’ are not applied to the same things throughout the community. The best-ordered state will be the one in which the largest number of persons use these terms in the same sense, and which accordingly most nearly resembles a single person.” (Plato)

“They will not rend the community asunder by each applying that word ‘mine’ to different things and dragging off whatever he can get for himself into a private home, where he will have his separate family forming a center of exclusive joys and sorrows. Rather, they will all, so far as may be, feel together and aim at the same ends.” (Plato)

Now, that is a formal and explicit advocacy of the exact view of man and of society that Ayn Rand dramatizes in Anthem.

The idea is for men to form one unit with all goods in common. In this respect, Plato is the Father of Communism.

Plato regarded communism as ideal, but as impractical applied to the masses, because the appetites are simply too strong.

Nevertheless, the true philosophers live that way. They have all property in common, and all wives and children in common also.

There will be yearly mating festivals among the philosophers. The oldest, most senior philosophers will mate the ones that are eugenically best to produce the highest breed.

Won’t the guardians, the philosophers, be unhappy living this manner of life? 🔗

“… our aim in founding the commonwealth was not to make any one class especially happy, but to secure the greatest possible happiness for the community as a whole.” (Plato)

You see the complete collectivism of the Platonic mentality – individuals are simply unimportant; what counts is the group.

What areas of man’s life are the guardians to control? 🔗


Education must be thoroughly controlled by the state. We must have a thorough going censorship of literature, music, philosophy and science.

We will tell people lies – so-called noble lies – lies that are for the good of the people, as and when it turns out to be necessary.

All careers are to be controlled completely.

The board of philosophers assigned to vocational guidance will determine your ability and assign you to the job where you best fit the state, regardless of your desires.

In general, it’s complete totalitarianism.

Plato’s philosophy has been the blueprint ever since for dictatorial totalitarian schemes of every variety.

People who don’t like totalitarianism, but accept the altruist-collectivist viewpoint to say, “We shouldn’t have this kind of society; it would be good, but it wouldn’t work.”

True, it wouldn’t work, because of the ethics and the metaphysics underlying it.

It’s based on an anti-life, otherworldly ethics.

Plato was the first one who said it wouldn’t work.

What’s good in theory doesn’t necessarily work in practice.

When we theorize, we are focusing on the world of Forms. We couldn’t expect that our theories are going to work perfectly down here in this world.

That dichotomy between theory and practice has led to two kinds of men:

  1. The self-declared practical men, who despise theory and the intellect.
  2. The self-declared theoretical men, who despise practice and the physical world.

Both sever the intellect from life, and that is a fundamental Platonic contribution.

The truth is that it would not work in practice, because the theory on which it is based is defective, opposed to reality. But for that you need a different metaphysics and epistemology.

A fundamental similarity 🔗

What about the possibility of a philosophy that would provide the foundation for a third alternative? Neither subjectivist skepticism, nor otherworldly mysticism.

Was there one? Yes.

Aristotle: A Philosopher for Living on Earth 🔗

Heraclitean-Sophist approachPythagorean-Platonist approach
No objective realityTwo realities
Knowledge is impossibleObjective knowledge, gained mystically
Whim-worshiping subjectivismAn objective, but otherworldly, ethics

Heraclitean-Sophist approachPythagorean-Platonist approach
No realityTwo realities
Whim-worshiping subjectivismAscetic supernaturalism

There is one reality – this one.

Objective knowledge is possible, of this world.

There is such a thing as an objective ethics; its standard is man’s happiness on earth, to be achieved by being rational here on earth.

Aristotle 🔗

A great philosophic genius:

Aristotelianism is philosophy as a rational science versus philosophy as a rationalization for subjective whims or mystic trances.

Whenever and to whatever extent Platonism was dominant, the results on earth were mysticism, regression, brutality, suffering. Whenever and to the extent that Aristotelianism was dominant, the results were reason, progress, freedom, human happiness.

Aristotle (322 BC) studied under Plato for about twenty years until Plato’s death. During most of those years, Aristotle was a whole-hearted Platonist.

But he came gradually to question and to reject Plato’s views, developing finally his own philosophy in fundamental opposition to Plato’s.

He was one of the very few universal geniuses in human history.

His works encompass physics, metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, psychology, biology, rhetoric, theology, politics, esthetics, etc.

Much of his writing has been lost; only a fraction of his work remains.

Almost all of his works that he wrote for the general public have been lost. What we have today is largely notes which we conjecture he made for himself and his pupils, and had not intended for publication.

The works are terse, telegrammatic, highly technical and difficult to read.

Metaphysics: The Primacy of Things 🔗

Our first subject will be Aristotle’s epistemology. But as a preface, I must acquaint you with the essentials of his metaphysics as a base to understand his epistemology.

The essentials of Aristotle’s metaphysics:

As for Plato’s world of Forms, his works contain a repeated polemic against them.

Argument 1: The Forms are a useless theory because they do not explain this world. 🔗

This world is a world of particular things, which move and change and develop. How are we going to explain the events of this world by reference to another world which is defined as static, motionless universals?

The Forms are a useless duplication. Down here we have shoes, ships and cabbages, and Plato’s idea of making sense of it is to say, “And besides that, there’s another world of shoe-ness, ship-ness, and cabbage-hood.”

You say that the Forms project out into space or that somehow this world “imitates” or “shares in” or “participates in” the Forms, but it’s completely unclear what the actual relationship between the worlds is.

Argument 2: The “third man” objection. 🔗

Plato says that whenever you have two or more things that are similar to each other, then the common denominator exists separately, and the things are similar because they all share in or reflect the same common denominator, the same one Form.

The theory of Forms leads to an infinite regress. There must be a Form for what particulars have in common, and a Form for what particulars and the first Form have in common, and so on.

Argument 3: Plato’s world of Forms is self-contradictory. 🔗

By a particular, we mean a self-contained, self-enclosed thing – a thing which exists in itself.

A universal, however, is what is common to a number of particulars. It, therefore, can’t exist in itself.

To say that the universal is a separate thing, existing as an entity in itself, is to make it a particular thing, which is directly self-contradictory.

What was Plato’s error? 🔗

Says Aristotle: Plato confuses abstractions with entities.

We can separate the common characteristics running through a group of particulars as a mental process, as a process of thought.

This does not mean, says Aristotle, that this common denominator can exist in reality apart from its particular accompaniments. It is simply an abstraction – a result of selective awareness on our part.

Plato thinks that because we can separate different elements in thought, they can exist separately in reality.

This is, says Aristotle, the fallacy of reification (literally “thing-making”); he makes a thing out of what is simply an abstraction.

It’s true that the universal is one and the particulars are many, but that is because we are focusing on the one identity running through the class.

Universals are unchanging and particulars are changing. But that merely means we are abstracting mentally away from all the changes in the particulars; we are focusing our attention on the permanent, enduring element which gives them a certain character.

Conclusion: Only particular, individual, concrete things exist in reality.

What is Aristotle’s own position on universals? 🔗

He holds that universals are, in a way, distinguishable from particulars, and universals are real; they are the basis of conceptual thought – to that extent, Plato was right.

Aristotle’s answer: Universals are real, but they exist only in particulars.

Each thing which exists is a metaphysical compound comprised of two elements.

Everything is an individual, particular concrete; it is what Aristotle calls a “this”; it has something unique about it.

It also has a certain nature; certain characteristics it shares with other things on the basis of which we can classify it; it is not only a “this”, it is a “such”, a certain kind of thing.

Everything is a “this-such”, a particular of a certain kind, an individual which belongs to a certain class.

So there are two elements, what is sometimes called the universalizing element and the particularizing or individuating element.

For the universal element, he uses the word “form”. For the particular, individuating element, he uses the term “matter”.

“Matter” stands for those aspects of a thing which make it unique; “form”, those aspects of a thing it shares with other things.

In these terms we can, says Aristotle, formulate a philosophic law: You never can have matter without form or form without matter.

Form without matterMatter without formNo matter without form
Universals without particularsStuff with no natureNo form without matter

Aristotle’s own position on universals is given the technical name Aristotelian realism.

Universals are real, but they exist only in particulars.

Categories 🔗

Aristotle, in a famous work called the Categories, gives you an inventory of the most fundamental categories of reality.

The fundamental constituent of reality is the entity – the individual thing.

“Change”, “action”, “motion”, are simply names for what entities do; wipe out the entities, you wipe out the action. The same principle applies to quantities – quantities are quantities of entities.

The fundamental constituents of the world are entities, which Aristotle calls “primary beings” or “primary substances”.

There are many derivative types of existence which are not entities, such as actions or quantities or qualities or relationships.

But his main point is that these are all derivative forms of existence. None of these categories can exist apart from entities.

To summarize: the world consists of primary substances (individual entities), each a particular with a certain nature, engaged in various actions, possessing various qualities, bearing certain relationships to each other. In other words, reality is the world of common sense.

Aristotle is the true author of the principle of the primacy of existence, as against the principle of the primacy of consciousness.

The primacy of existence:

The primacy of consciousness:

Every fundamental approach opposed to Aristotle’s represents the primacy of consciousness, either explicitly and nakedly (as was primarily the case in the modern post-Kantian world) or else implicitly and indirectly (as was true largely in the ancient world).

An explicit example of the primacy of consciousness in the ancient world would be the Sophists – man’s arbitrary feelings and opinions are the measure of all things. Truth or facts are whatever any individual arbitrarily chooses them to be.

The most influential father of the primacy of consciousness is Plato.

The forms are actually abstractions. But Plato erects them into separate entities which shape and control this world.

Plato’s Demiurge: How do we account for order in this world, says Plato? A soul – a consciousness – wandered by and desired order and perfection, and shaped the physical world in accordance with its wishes.

Plato’s starting point is the demands of man’s methods of acquiring knowledge.

Plato’s approach to philosophy: What must reality be if it is to satisfy, fulfill, live up to man’s need of a certain kind of knowledge?

Consciousness needs something; therefore, reality must have such and such a nature.

Aristotle is the exact opposite of Plato on all these points.

Not only does he dispose of Plato’s Forms and Demiurges, he refuses to endorse Plato’s approach to the whole subject of philosophy.

First comes reality, and then and on the basis of its nature, we turn to the question “What processes of knowledge are suitable for acquiring knowledge of such a reality?”

In this profound sense, it was Aristotle who first discovered the primacy of reality.

Aristotle refuses to endorse any dichotomy between reality and appearance. Reality is what we observe, and any theories which go counter to it are simply wrong.

In this sense, he is preeminently the realist in philosophy.

Aristotle is not a fully consistent representative of the primacy of existence. There is always a vestigial, contradictory Platonic element in him. But that is unimportant to him qua Aristotelian, which is our primary concern.

Aristotle’s Epistemology: Concepts, Explanation and the Nature of Science 🔗

We have no innate ideas. To know reality, you have come in contact with it. At birth, we are like a blank table.

All knowledge must start with sense experience.

This viewpoint is often called empiricism and contrasted with rationalism. Empiricism, in this sense, is the view that all knowledge is based on and derived from the evidence of the senses.

However, since the 18th century, empiricism became synonymous with subjectivism and skepticism; it became the view that we can acquire knowledge only by the senses and there is no such faculty as reason at all.

But if you use “empiricism” in its pre-Humean sense, you can call Aristotle an empiricist.

Knowledge, for Aristotle, is looking out to discover the facts of the world, not introspecting, not reasoning from constructs.

If you ever reach an allegedly rational conclusion which contradicts the evidence of the senses, you simply know you’ve made a mistake.

You cannot write off the evidence of the senses as a deception, because that’s where knowledge begins. The senses are valid; they give us an awareness of reality as it is.

Aristotle was the first influential philosopher to say, in regard to illusions, that we must make a distinction between what the senses contribute and the interpretations supplied by the mind.

If you look at a bent stick in water, all the skeptics moan: “You see, our senses deceive us because it looks bent and it’s really straight.”

Aristotle says the senses do not deceive you; they give you the actual evidence of the facts. The error comes in the conclusion that you make and the theory you put forth to interpret the data.

The senses are simply the beginning of knowledge. To this extent, says Aristotle, Plato is absolutely right: We must come to grasp universals.

But Plato thought that you had to have concepts in advance in order to be able to group particulars.

Aristotle says this is all wrong. Concepts can be grasped by a process of abstraction from particulars without any antecedent knowledge.

The process, he says, is simple.

  1. You start with the sense experience.
  2. You remember past sense experiences – i.e., you retain your percepts.
  3. After a number of similar percepts are repeated, you can detect common denominators among them and abstract, and concentrate selectively on the common denominators, ignoring the differences.

And that is how we form concepts.

We don’t need to know concepts in advance. All we have to postulate, says Aristotle, is the basic ability to be able to recognize similarities when they hit you in the face – to grasp them when they confront you and then abstract and ignore the differences.

Once you have formed a given concept, this permits you to recognize and identify new instances of it when you encounter them. And this process continues on progressively more abstract levels, when you abstract from your abstractions.

In other words, we build up our conceptual apparatus by a process of successive abstraction, which enables us to classify facts that we observe, bring order out of the sensory chaos, identify facts now conceptually.

Aristotle’s answer to Plato’s Argument from Perfection 🔗

Plato says we never encounter the perfect in this world, and therefore we must have gotten our knowledge of it from another world – e.g., all the beds in this world have something wrong with them, for instance, a lump.

Aristotle says: why can’t you just abstract away from the lump and say a perfect bed would be just like this, but without the lump? Why did you have to meet it in another dimension?

The same thing is true of lines which have a wiggle.

The goal of knowledge is to understand, to explain, to find out why things happen as they do – to see their necessity.

To get to the stage where you know the two crucial things: the “that” and the “why”, the facts and the causes which explain them.

That raises the question: What would you take as an explanation?

What, in fact, are the causes of the actions of things; what makes things act as they do?

Aristotle denies any supernatural realm. Things act as they do because of what they are, because of their nature.

What a thing basically or essentially is determines its characteristics and its behavior. And to explain any particular thing, therefore, we must know to what class does it belong; what are its essential characteristics?

But how will we discover the essential characteristics, the essence, of each class of things?

By asking how to find the essence, we have reached another theory of Aristotle’s – his theory of definition.

Aristotle’s definition of “definition” is “the statement of the essence of a class” – i.e., the statement of those fundamental characteristics which make the class what it is and differentiate it from all other types of thing.

For Aristotle it is urgent, vital and crucial to discover correct definitions of every concept, because these definitions tell you the essence of something, which permits you to understand why it behaves as it does.

How do you arrive at correct definitions?

All definitions must have a certain structure; they must consist of two parts:

  1. The general kind of thing something is – the wider, general class – known as the genus
  2. A further element specifying how the thing we’re defining differs from everything else within the genus – called the differentia

If you have these two, and if you have chosen them correctly, says Aristotle, you must have reached the essence of the class.

The genus guarantees that you are stating the basic, fundamental kind of thing it is; the differentia guarantees that you’ve stated something that’s true only of this class – differentiating it from all others.

It is important to choose the correct genus and differentia.

Rule 1: Your definition must be commensurate with the class you are defining – i.e., it must be true only of members of the class and of all of those members. 🔗

You can go wrong in two ways on this rule: either your definition might be too wide or too narrow, take in too much territory or not enough.

Wide: Man is a member of reality. Man is a social animal. Man is a featherless biped. Narrow: Man is an American living in the 20th century. Man is an Aryan. Man is the entity who feels compassionate, benevolent, self-sacrificial love for the sufferer.

Rule 2: The definitions must state the fundamental characteristics of the class to be defined. 🔗

There are such things as commensurate but derivative characteristics – characteristics true of all and only members of a certain class, but which are not basic, which are results of something deeper which is basic.

Consequently, says Aristotle, we must make a firm distinction between the essence – i.e., the fundamental commensurate characteristics – and the derivative characteristics.

These derivative characteristics Aristotle called “properties” – i.e., those commensurate characteristics which are not fundamental, which are simply results or effects of the essence of the class.

What we do when we want to understand a fact is learn the connection between the essence of things and their properties.

The essence of a class determines its properties and its behavior. Things with the same essence will behave the same way.

Thus there are general laws in reality governing how things behave. And these laws, according to Aristotle, always take one form – a thing of such and such a nature has such and such properties – a thing of such and such an essence behaves in such and such way.

Aristotle’s theory of explanation 🔗

Explanation consists in seeing the particular events that we observe as instances of a general principle which relates the nature of some class to its mode of action.

How do we discover these general principles?

You don’t observe general principles; all we observe is particulars.

There must, says Aristotle, be a process of acquiring the knowledge of the general principle by observing the particular facts, and this process he calls induction – i.e., “the process of passing in thought from particulars to a general principle.”

According to Aristotle, induction is a fundamental procedure of human knowledge, because it is the ultimate source of all of our general principles.

All the principles by which we explain particulars must, says Aristotle, come ultimately from generalizing from the particulars that we observe.

There’s an exact parallel between concept-formation and arriving at general laws: we go from percepts to concepts or from individual facts to general laws, in both cases not by recollection or mysticism, but by being able to abstract.

Aristotle wrote very little about induction. And like all the Greeks, he had a primitive concept of induction.

He did not know about controlled experimentation, whereby on a few instances you could with assurance validate a general law. Consequently, he did not think that by induction alone you could prove the truth of a law.

In Aristotle’s opinion, the best you could get by induction was the suggestion of a law, which you then had to validate by some other means.

Let’s assume that we’ve arrived at general laws by induction and have validated them. Now we can take our laws and apply them to new particular cases.

That process of starting with the general principle and applying it to a particular case is, of course, deduction.

Induction gives you the basic general laws; deduction uses these laws to explain and understand particular instances.

And you do not stop with your first inductions. By a process of broader induction, you find a more general law from which you can deduce the law that you first arrived at by induction.

The process of knowledge is a systematic, integrated employment of induction and deduction, going progressively deeper into the laws of reality, finding more and more basic ones by wider and wider inductions, each new induction permitting you to deduce the preceding level.

Aristotle: The Father of Logic 🔗

If Aristotle had little to say about induction, he had a great deal to say about deduction; this is what wins for him the title of the Father of Logic.

For the first time in human history, he asks this question: What do we actually do when we defend a conclusion by stating premises? What is the actual structure of human reasoning when we engage in deduction?

All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Socrates is mortal.

There is a connection between those two, “Socrates is mortal.” Somehow our premises justify that conclusion, but how?

What we do, says Aristotle, in reasoning, is discover such a linking term, what he calls the middle term, which relates the two terms that we connect in the conclusion.

Every argument will have three terms 🔗

This is the type of argument that he called a “syllogism.”

A modern (but legitimate) definition of “syllogism”:

“A syllogism is a deductive argument with two premises. It contains only three terms, two of which are linked in the conclusion as a result of the linking of each of them with the third or middle term in the premises.”

Reasoning and explanation and, ultimately, science, according to Aristotle, is always a quest for the right middle term – the term that explains and proves the conclusion.

For example, suppose you want to show that price controls are wrong.

What is the middle term that explains and proves this?

Price controls are a form of compulsion. Compulsion is wrong. Therefore, price controls are wrong.

But why is compulsion wrong? What is the middle term between “compulsion” and “wrong”?

Compulsion is anti-mind. The anti-mind is wrong. Therefore, compulsion is wrong.

The middle term does not always function correctly. So when does it and when doesn’t it?

This Aristotle answered exhaustively for every possible type of syllogism. The work in which he did this is the Prior Analytics.

He had to define, therefore, all sorts of fallacies which could be committed in reasoning syllogistically. Aristotle formalized and systematized the rules of reasoning.

Aristotle actually carved out the entire subject of logic for the first time. He identified the most common and crucial type of reasoning. He defined for the first time what it means to prove something – to prove it or explain it – objectively. This was “the birth of reason” – reason as an explicit, conscious, defined, objective method.

Now says, Aristotle, there cannot be an infinite regress. Obviously there must be starting points for all human knowledge, basic axioms.

The alternative would be that knowledge is impossible. Either (a) we’d have to have an infinite regress, which is impossible, or (b) our starting points would have to be arbitrary, in which case our conclusions would be equally arbitrary.

There must, therefore, be basic self-evident truths (archai).

These are the foundation of human knowledge. Of these, it is improper to ask for proof because they are the ultimate foundation of everything else.

All proof consists of deriving from these archai their consequences. Deny them, and you wipe out the very concept of proof.

“To demand a proof of everything argues want of education.” (Aristotle)

Aristotle distinguishes two general types of axioms 🔗

  1. Those at the base of just one science or one branch of knowledge
  2. Universal axioms – axioms which you have to know to know anything (e.g. the laws of logic)

In each science, there are special axioms unique to it, basic laws of its particular genus or area of study. The ultimate goal of a science, since its purpose is to understand, is to find these ultimate first principles.

When you reach these, you will grasp them to be self-intelligible; they will not require explanation or proof by reference to anything outside of themselves.

And thus we reach the ultimate axioms at the end of our quest.

Notice the influence of Plato’s divided line. But there are two crucial differences between Aristotle’s version and Plato’s.

  1. The basic definitions are, for Aristotle, abstracted ultimately from sense experience and must be objectively defined; there is not a mystical Goodness that you reach at the end.
  2. There is no one ultimate principle from which every subject is deducible.

In this theory, Aristotle carved out for the first time the idea of a specific science. Prior to his time, there was only sophia – wisdom.

Therefore, Aristotle is not only the Father of Logic, but of Science – of the very idea of a specific science, both from the aspect of a specific delimited subject matter and of an objective scientific methodology.

I said that there were universal axioms presupposed by all knowledge, no matter what the subject matter. The most famous are the laws of logic – which, in a way, is Aristotle’s supreme achievement.

The Laws of Logic 🔗

The laws of logic are laws of all of reality. They are laws of everything which exists insofar as it exists – they are laws of being qua being.

A knowledge of these laws is the precondition of any acquisition of knowledge on any level, in any field.

How do we arrive at them? 🔗

Obviously, not by reasoning.

The only way that we can arrive at them is by direct abstraction from self-evident sensory facts.

In the translations of Aristotle, the faculty which grasps the self-evident is given the forbidding and misleading name “intuitive nous”. Nouse is the Greek word for “mind”.

“Intuitive nous” simply means the human mind in its capacity to grasp self-evident principles, as opposed to the deductive or reasoning nous which draws conclusions from these principles.

Aristotle also had to deal with skeptics – people who said: “Well, it might be self-evident to you, but it’s not self-evident to me. I don’t accept these laws.”

In a very famous chapter of his Metaphysics, Aristotle offers a classic refutation of such opponents of the laws of logic.

His reasoning was like this: if the laws of logic are truly the foundation of all human thought, then we should be able to demonstrate that even the objector has to rely upon them.

Even the man who denies the laws of logic must count on the laws of logic even to utter his denial.

This technique is called “reaffirmation through denial”.

Reaffirmation through denial 🔗

Aristotle says, tell the skeptic to say something meaningful or significant, not simply gibberish.

If it’s meaningful, it has to mean what it means; it has to exclude its opposite – i.e., it has to adhere to the law of contradiction.

If the law of contradiction weren’t true, you couldn’t utter an intelligible word or sentence. Your words wouldn’t mean what they mean; you wouldn’t be saying what you’re saying.

“And at the same time our discussion with him is evidently about nothing at all; for he says nothing. For he says neither ‘yes’ nor ’no’, but ‘yes and no’; and again he denies both of these and says ’neither yes nor no’; for otherwise there would already be something definite … one who is in this condition will not be able either to speak or to say anything intelligible; for he says at the same time both ‘yes’ and ’no’.”

“And if he makes no judgment, but ’thinks’ and ‘does not think’, indifferently, what difference will there be between him and a vegetable?” (Aristotle)

By the same token, such a man can take no action at all.

“It is in the highest degree evident that neither any one of those who maintain this view nor anyone else is really in this position. For why does a man walk to Megara and not stay at home, when he thinks he ought to be walking there? Why does he not walk early some morning into a well or over a precipice, if one happens to be in his way? Why do we observe him guarding against this, evidently because he does not think that falling in is alike good and not good?

Evidently, then, he judges one thing to be better and another worse. And if this is so, he must judge one thing to be a man and another to be not-a-man, one thing to be sweet and another to be not-sweet. For he does not aim at and judge all things alike, when, thinking it desirable to drink water or to see a man, he proceeds to aim at these things; yet he ought, if the same thing were alike a man and not-a-man. But, as was said, there is no one who does not obviously avoid some things and not others. Therefore, as it seems, all men make unqualified judgements …

And if this is not knowledge but opinion, they should be all the more anxious about the truth, as a sick man should be more anxious about his health than one who is healthy; for he who has opinions is, in comparison with the man who knows, not in a healthy state as far as the truth is concerned.” (Aristotle)

“The most certain principle of all is that regarding which it is impossible to be mistaken; for such a principle must be both the best known … and non-hypothetical. For a principle which every one must have who understands anything that is, is not a hypothesis; and that which every one must know who knows anything, he must already have when he comes to a special study. Evidently then such a principle is the most certain of all; which principle this is, let us proceed to say. It is, that the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect.” (Aristotle)

Aristotle was the first to give a formal definition of “truth” that is valid.

His definition has subsequently come to be called the “correspondence theory of truth” – viz., an idea is true if it corresponds to the facts.

“To say of that which is, that it is, or of that which is not that it is not, is true. To say of that which is that it is not, or of that which is not that it is, is false.”

Aristotle was the first to organize and define, in a systematic way, a great many common and widespread fallacies of reasoning.

This has been the basis ever since for the classification of fallacies taught in logic courses.

Aristotle’s epistemological achievement 🔗

But that is only what he did in epistemology.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics: Matter, Form and Causality 🔗

So there are two elements comprising each thing – a particularizing or individuating element, that which makes it a “this” (which Aristotle called “matter”), and the common or universalizing element (which he called “form”) – two aspects which are separable in thought, but not in reality.

Aristotle asks, in effect, can we specify more clearly what we mean by “matter” and “form”?

In general, says Aristotle, everything is made of some stuff, and that material is organized, structured, formed in some particular way.

The form (now synonymous with the structure) is what gives the thing its character; the material or stuff is what’s unique to it, what makes it this particular instance of its class.

Aristotle identifies the universal-particular distinction with the structure-stuff distinction.

What’s universal comes from structure; particularity from stuff, and so form and matter come now to mean structure-stuff.

If this is the basis of all universals, then obviously the concepts of “stuff” and “structure” must mean more than just physical stuff and spatial structure.

“Matter”, for Aristotle, is going to mean any content, any stuffing.

“Form” is going to mean any structure, organization, or pattern imposed on that filling or stuffing, in virtue of which the thing has some specific nature.

Take a non-physical example: two syllogisms.

Each is a particular syllogism, and each is a syllogism. What makes it a syllogism? – the structure of the terms. What makes this syllogism this one, as against that one? – the particular terms.

To this day, Aristotelian logic is called formal logic because Aristotle’s discovery was that the validity of your reasoning depends exclusively upon the form, upon the structure.

Take a different example: a sonnet.

A definite form is required to be a sonnet – a certain number of lines, rhyme scheme, etc. What makes this sonnet this one rather than that? – its particular content or subject matter.

For Aristotle, “matter” is used in a much broader sense than physical matter. “Matter” means the stuffing, the filling, the ingredients, the raw material, whether it be:

In every case, matter of whatever type will always be organized, put together, structured in some way or other, giving us a certain kind of product owing to the kind of structure imposed on the matter.

So, for Aristotle, the following statements all mean essentially the same thing:

This is the basic concept of Aristotle’s metaphysics – this form-matter, structure-stuff distinction.

A good deal of the rest of Aristotle’s metaphysics consists of applying this basic distinction – showing how, if you grasp this distinction, we can answer many hitherto unsolved dilemmas.

The Problem of Change 🔗

Heraclitus has said change implies a contradiction because at the end, it’s the same thing, but it’s not the same thing.

Aristotle says true enough, it’s the same and it’s not the same, but in two different respects.

When the match changes, it’s the same individual match at the end – its matter is the same – but it has new qualities at the end.

That simply means the matter has taken on a new form; the matter is now different in respect of its organization.

So there is no contradiction. Change is simply the process of the same matter taking on new forms.

Parmenides said how can there be change? Change involves a miraculous appearance out of nothing, and a miraculous disappearance into nothing.

Aristotle says, the material, the basic material, has always existed, it merely changed form.

Therefore, Aristotle draws the conclusion: change does not involve a contradiction. A changing world is an intelligible, understandable world.

As for the idea that change conflicts with the law of identity, he says the truth is the exact opposite: change presupposes the law of identity.

Change is change from something to something – from one identity to another. If there were no identity, then you can’t have change. Change of what? From what? To what?

His conclusion: You are right that it is a changing world, he says to Plato, but change is perfectly logical and rationally understandable.

Aristotle devoted a great deal of time to an analysis of the phenomenon of change, to try to carve out the conceptual categories in terms of which change would be fully intelligible.

Change is the process of matter taking on new form.

We can start to speak of a thing as being matter relative to a latter state of development.

Relative to the future house, the bricks themselves are simply matter. In themselves, they are matter and form.

And the house, relative to the bricks, is simply form; it is the new form imposed on that matter.

An acorn is a combination of form and matter, like everything else.

But relative to the oak tree, the acorn is simply matter; it’s matter for the oak. And the oak relative to the acorn is simply form – it is the new form given to the acorn.

Potentiality and Actuality 🔗

There are these two senses: the so-called static sense, in which a thing is always matter and form, and the so-called dynamic sense, when you think of a thing as matter relative to the next form, as a form relative to the preceding matter.

To avoid confusion, Aristotle carved out a new set of terms, a new set of concepts: the terms “potentiality” and “actuality”.

Bricks, we can say, are matter for a house, but it’s clearer to say bricks are potentially a house. And the house, when it comes, is the actuality of the bricks, the actualization of their potentiality – the thing which contains, in full reality, what had earlier existed only potentially.

The acorn is potentially an oak, and the oak is the fulfillment or actuality of the acorn’s potentialities.

In this sense, matter is any material which has potentialities for reorganization, any material which can become or do something else. And form is any structure in which these potentialities are actualized.

This terminology survives today in an attenuated sense:

So if we use the potentiality-actuality terminology, we can say that change, for Aristotle, is the passage from potentiality to actuality. And so we have another way of putting the answer to Parmenides.

Change is the passage from one form being to another, from potential to actual, all of it taking place within the confines of reality and “what is”, at no point depending upon what is not.

Leaving aside the exceptions, everything is the form of some preceding matter (the actualization of earlier potentialities), and at the same time it is matter for a future form (potentialities for a yet future actualization).

The universe consists of entities constantly realizing their potentialities, passing from matter to form, which is matter for a future form, and so on.

And you get a whole chain here, or a whole hierarchy, where each step is successively more formed than the one before.

What is the significance of these chains? It is the metaphysical foundation for the view that reality is lawful and orderly, because what a thing is matter for depends on its nature, on what it is actually.

Law of cause and effect 🔗

It is not true that anything is possible.

It is not true that anything could happen.

What a thing can do (its potentialities) depends on and derives from what it is (its actualities).

Actualities determine potentialities – a fundamental law of Aristotelian metaphysics.

This is the basis for a formal proof of the law of cause and effect.

If you combine this premise with the law of identity, you simply say: a thing in a given set of circumstances can act only in one way, the way dictated by its nature – in other words, same cause, same effect.

Anything else involves a contradiction of the nature of the entity – the ascription to it of a potentiality conflicting with its actuality.

The importance of this discovery is that it represents the primacy of existence approach to the law of cause and effect, as against both the mystic and the skeptic approach to that question.

The mystic derives causality, law and order from the activities of a supernatural designing being. That’s the primacy of consciousness approach to causality.

The skeptic denies causality altogether.

A truly Aristotelian point of view is to say that both of these points of view imply a contradiction – they imply the possibility of an entity acting in contradiction to its nature.

Change is matter taking on new forms, or alternatively, potentiality being actualized. But now Aristotle wanted to know: How does this actually happen? Surely potentiality cannot actualize itself.

How many factors are there involved in any change, if we’re to understand it fully? 🔗

Aristotle answers, in a famous doctrine: four – four factors, which are called the four causes of a change.

“Cause”, for Aristotle, means any factor that is necessary for a change to occur – any answer to the question “Why?”.

And he says there are four possible things you could mean, and only four possible answers. And the sum of those four answers is the complete answer to the question “Why?”.

Suppose that a man starts with some clay and molds it into a statue of Aristotle – can we isolate the four factors?

  1. The clay we started with – that’s the material factor, what Aristotle calls the material cause.
  2. The statue at the end – i.e., the new form we have imposed on the matter, that will be the formal cause.
  3. The molding actions of the sculptor are what Aristotle calls the efficient cause – i.e., the source of the motion which brings it about.
  4. The sculptor’s purpose, end or goal is the final cause.

To understand a change fully, you have to know four factors:

  1. The material you started with
  2. The form it ended with
  3. The agent which effected the transition
  4. The end or goal of the process

Change is a change from something, to something, by some means, for some end goal.

Aristotle’s Teleology: Motion, Goal-Directed Action and the Unmoved Mover 🔗

Metaphysics 🔗

Reality is this world – the world in which we live.

Each particular is comprised of two elements: a universalizing element (form) and an individuating element (matter).

Change is the process of matter taking on new form, or the passage from potentiality to actuality.

Every change involves four causes:

Is this four-cause analysis of change put forward by Aristotle as applicable to all changes?

What about unconscious biological change, e.g. an acorn changing into an oak. What about non-biological change, e.g. upsetting a bucket of water and the water flowing downhill. How do the four causes operate in these areas?

The first three causes (the material, formal and efficient) still apply.

The big question is: What about the final cause? Does it apply to such processes also? According to Aristotle – Yes.

Why did he hold this?

Can you explain this progress as simply a blind reaction to outside forces which has no inherent aim?

It seemed to him obvious that living things aim at an end, a goal that they strive for, and their goal is to develop, to grow, to reach their full form or actuality.

A blind mechanistic mixing of atoms might produce a few cases of acorns becoming oaks, but why does it happen regularly?

Such regularity, he says, implies an aim inherent in the process to keep it on track.

Therefore, Aristotle is a teleologist – a universal teleologist; he believes that everything that exists, every change, has a final cause.

In his view, the inanimate world is ultimately reducible to four basic elements: earth, water, fire, air.

Each of these elements has its own natural place, and that location represents its true form or actuality. Therefore, the final cause of each mechanical change is reducible back to the aim of the elements to reach their natural place.

Everything has an end or goal; and the ultimate natural goal of a thing is to reach its form. In this sense, the formal cause and the final cause of every change become the same thing.

You call it the “formal cause” when you regard the form as already attained. You call it the “final cause” when you regard the form as being aimed at but not yet attained.

Objections 🔗

  1. It’s very difficult to know what exactly it would mean to talk of an “unconscious goal-directed action”.
  2. Many people have argued that you can give an alternative explanation of the apparent purposiveness of biological phenomena.

It’s possible to interpret Aristotle’s teleology as in no way implying any unconscious striving or yearning for a goal on the part of non-conscious entities. This, however, is a technical question beyond the scope of this course.

Aristotle’s teleology prevented him from grasping explicitly the idea of a universe run by absolute natural laws. Although Aristotle laid the basis for cause and effect, he seemed to have no clear idea of a universal reign of cause and effect.

Sometimes the teleological process seems to be interfered with or break down. And consequently what happens in the physical world is not absolutely necessary.

Consequently, for Aristotle, laws are always expressed in the form “such and such happens always, or for the most part”. And the exceptions cannot be scientifically understood.

What is his explanation for such accidental or chance phenomena? Characteristically, he says that in those cases the form was thwarted in its development by matter, by the resistance of the material element.

Aristotle’s teleology is known as “immanent”: each thing is striving to reach its own fulfillment, actualize its unique potentialities, reach its own form. This is often referred to as the “metaphysics of self-realization” – and that becomes the metaphysical basis of Aristotle’s ethics.

Motion & The Prime Mover 🔗

What is the cause of motion? By “motion” we mean any change, any happening, any occurrence.

For Aristotle, motion always existed; motion is eternal.

Consequently, the cause of motion is not something which starts motion at a particular point in time; it’s the eternal factor which underlies all motions and explains why there is such a phenomenon as motion.

Let us call this factor (whatever it is) that is responsible ultimately for motion “the Mover”.

What can we infer about it?

How does such a Mover cause motion?

To understand Aristotle’s answer you have to know something of his astronomy, which he simply took over from the scientists of the time.

There is, according to Aristotle, a soul of intelligence connected to each of the spheres.

And the various revolutions of these spheres are responsible for the motions we observe, which are communicated along the axis.

The problem of motion therefore reduces to the problem of getting the outermost sphere moving – the sphere in which the fixed stars are embedded.

The intelligence connected to the outermost sphere is capable of awareness; it is eternally aware of the Prime mover and it is aware of the perfection of the Prime Mover. It wishes to emulate this perfection – to do the most perfect thing that it can do – viz., engage in circular motion.

This is the best motion because that’s the only eternal motion.

What is the nature of the Prime Mover?

We must think of it as a mind. Minds think. But this must be a very special kind of thought process, because no motion is allowed.

Motionless contemplation, that’s what the Prime Mover does.

What is the object of its contemplation?

The Prime Mover thinks, or is conscious, only of Himself.

He describes it as “thought thinking about itself”.

This eternal, immutable, perfect, self-absorbed mind responsible for the motion of the universe Aristotle frequently calls theos, “God”.

The idea of a pure, immutable, perfect form is a pure Platonist idea. And it represents the Primacy Consciousness in an obvious way.

But, this God would not do a religious person very much, if any, good.

It’s sometimes said that God, for Aristotle, is simply a footnote to physics, not a central concept.

Criticism 🔗

The question “How do you explain motion?” in the sense Aristotle asks it is an illegitimate question. Motion must simply be regarded – the fact of motion as such – as an irreducible primary.

If you attempt an explanation of motion, Aristotle’s is the only one. The only explanation of motion would have to be in terms of an unmoving thing. And consequently, his’ is a perfectly logical answer, if the question is permitted.

We’ve seen in what ways the concepts of “form” and “matter” are central to Aristotle’s metaphysics.

Let’s see how Aristotle used the concepts of “potentiality” and “actuality” to answer Zeno.

Zeno’s paradoxes depend on the idea that there can actually exist an infinite number of subdivisions of a distance.

Aristotle says this is impossible. Nothing can actually be infinite.

The infinite is that which is greater than any particular quantity, which means it is no quantity in particular – i.e., it is a quantity which has no identity, which means it is forbidden by the law of identity.

Whatever actually exists will always be finite, limited, specific in its amount.

In what sense, then, can we speak of infinity? Only as a potentiality.

For instance, we can keep dividing a line further and subdividing and subdividing, and as a potentiality, there are no limits.

But no matter how much we keep subdividing it, we will always actually have only a finite number of parts.

In a word, there is no such thing as the actual infinite, and therefore Zeno’s paradoxes collapse.

Aristotle’s Psychology: The Nature of the Soul, Sense Perception and Thought 🔗

What is the nature of the soul? Remember psuche is Greek for “soul”, and therefore psychology is “the theory of the soul”.

Consistent with his basic approach to philosophy, Aristotle wants to give a this-worldly account of the nature of the soul, not a supernaturalistic account. And he starts with the ordinary Greek meaning of the term psyche, or “soul” – vi., “the principle of life”.

So “soul”, for Aristotle, is that which makes a living thing, living.

What makes a thing the kind of thing it is? Its form.

Soul is the form of a living thing; the body is the matter of a living thing.

We can express the same point in the potentiality-actuality terminology.

Aristotle defines soul as “the actuality of a natural body having life potentially in it”. So soul is to body, as form is to matter, as actuality is to potentiality.

The soul, therefore, is not a thing, not an entity, but simply an aspect of a living entity. It is the name for those vital capacities which derive from organizing matter in a specific way.

What is the form of a living body?

Aristotle’s answer is: a specific set of biological powers or capacities – essentially, the power of nutrition, of growth, of reproduction. When an entity has these powers, it is alive.

This doctrine has major consequences.

Three Basic Types of Soul 🔗

Vital CapacitiesPossessorType of Soul
Nourishment, Growth, ReproductionPlantsThe Nutritive Soul
Sense PerceptionAnimalsThe Sensitive Soul
Mind / ReasonManThe Rational Soul

Aristotle investigated each of these souls, each of these sets of vital capacities, in detail in his work the De Anima (“On the Soul”).

In his account of the senses, how did Aristotle answer the Sophists? 🔗

Sometimes he seems to agree with the Sophists that if the human senses contribute to the kind of perception we have, that would invalidate the perception. So part of the time he asserts that the qualities we experience exist in things themselves, independently of human perception.

This view is frequently called naive realism.

His best attempt on this question is as follows:

The process of sensation, Aristotle says, is a process – a type of change – a passage from potentiality to actuality.

It is a dual actualization – one which occurs in the sense organ, and one in the object being sensed.

Aristotle observed, or at least thought he did, that when you perceive, the appropriate sense organ comes to possess itself the particular quality being sensed.

So, on the side of the perceiver, sensation is a process in which the quality being perceived is actually reproduced in the perceiving organ.

The organ, priori to the perception, has the capacity (the potentiality) to be characterized by quality x, and sensing is the process in which that quality becomes actualized in the organ.

There is an equivalent process taking place in the object which you are perceiving.

Before you perceive a red object, in itself it is not actually red. To this extent, the Sophists are correct.

But, the object in reality has a certain potentiality – the potentiality of being perceived in a certain way by a human perceiver.

In the process of sensation, says Aristotle, this potentiality of the object is actualized.

Those of you who are familiar with the Objectivist theory of sense perception will be able to see that Aristotle’s heart here is certainly in the right place.

However, as Aristotle himself formulated this answer, it is not fully satisfactory. It wouldn’t and didn’t stop the Sophists.

“Of course”, the skeptic says, “we perceive things as we perceive them. But what we want to know is, are things in themselves actually the way we perceive them, or is this just the way we see objects, but who knows what they really are in themselves apart from us?”

Aristotle thought of the process of thought on the model of the process of sensation. Just as, in sensation, your organ actually acquires itself the quality being sensed, so it is on the level of abstract thought.

In thought, you receive the forms of things, the abstract essences or universals, into your mind.

In thinking, you take in the forms of things, but the matter is irrelevant, so you discard or ignore it.

Now, says Aristotle, the mind must be capable of receiving all forms; nothing in the universe is closed to it.

What, then, must be the nature of the mind if it is to be able to receive, without any distortion, the forms of everything? 🔗

Answer: the mind can have no structure or nature of its own.

If the human mind had a distinctive nature of its own, wouldn’t we always be open to the objection, “Well, we are just grasping the world as we, as human beings, have to grasp it, given our particular kind of thinking mechanism, so our knowledge would just be subjective, true only for human beings”?

Apparently to escape this conclusion, Aristotle seems to have drawn the conclusion that the human mind – the abstract conceptual faculty – in itself has no nature or identity at all. In itself, the mind is simply potentiality, the capacity for receiving the forms.

The mind, in effect, is like Plato’s empty space – a nothing which can receive all Forms.

This is a very dubious doctrine on Aristotle’s part. If the mind is nothing in itself, how can it think? What about the law of identity, which decrees that everything, including the mind, has an identity?

But as soon as you say that, the skeptics rush in and say: “If the mind has a specific nature, you can never know things as they are, only things as they are thought by the human mind.”

The mind is sheer potentiality – simply the capacity to acquire or take in the abstract forms of things. But potentiality cannot actualize itself.

So there must be another aspect of mind, which operates on the potentiality, bringing it to actuality.

Mind in its potential sense, Aristotle calls “passive reason”. Mind in its capacity as actualizer, he calls the “active reason”.

The active reason is a kind of spark which operates to actualize our potential to know and bring it to fulfillment. There is nothing personal about this active reason.

And he seems to suggest that it’s independent of the body, that it existed before the body, and will survive the death of the body.

Even granted this doctrine, Aristotle didn’t believe in any personal immortality; there was no you that survived, only this abstract spark plug.

Aristotle: Universals, Individuation and an Overview of His Metaphysics 🔗

Individuation & Conceptualization 🔗

A Major Problem:

Remember, everything was comprised of two elements: matter and form (stuff and structure). Matter was the principle of individuation – what makes a thing this. Form was the principle of universality – what made a thing a such.

So, whenever we are applying an abstraction (a universal term), we are referring to the form of a thing. Let’s follow out this analysis and see where we end up, because we end up in big trouble.

All characteristics come from form – form the way the matter is organized.

The basic matter in itself, apart from the organization it has, has no characteristics; in itself, it must be indeterminate. This ultimate matter Aristotle calls “prime matter”.

If prime matter has no identity, it must be unknowable. And Aristotle says precisely that.

But if so, how can you know individuals? If what ultimately makes them individuals is an indeterminate unknowable stuff, then all you can know about individuals is their non-unique characteristics – i.e., their forms. All you can know is universals.

So Aristotle seems driven to a Platonic solution: only forms or universals are knowable.

This problem indicates a basic error in his whole approach to the question of universals. His basic error is to erect universals and particulars into two distinct elements within things.

Objectivism holds that it is a basic error to attempt to divide things into two such elements, and that it is an invalid question to ask: “What makes a thing a particular?” That is, it is an invalid attempt to try to find some special element in things metaphysically responsible for particularity. And the task is hopeless at the outset.

An indeterminate element cannot individuate and a determinate element cannot individuate. The only rational conclusion is there is no such thing as the principle of individuation, and it is a mistake to look for one.

Individuality (or particularity), according to Objectivism, is an irreducible attribute of all existents: to be is to be particular.

In this sense, you cannot get beneath particularity metaphysically and try to find out what is responsible for it.

A proper theory of universals will remove universals from metaphysics and make them an issue of epistemology – it will construe universals not as elements in things, but as a human method for organizing and integrating perceptual material.

While Objectivism agrees with Aristotle on the crucial point that universals have an objective basis in reality, and a non-supernatural basis, Objectivism does not construe that basis as being that universals are distinct elements or structures in particulars. And in this sense, there are fundamental differences between the Objectivist and Aristotelian theory of universals.

Metaphysics: An Overview 🔗

Since Aristotle was a teleologist, he held that everything strives in some way for the good, for the perfect; which, in his terms, meant that everything strives for form, for actuality. In other words, actuality is better (closer to perfection) than potentiality.

From this aspect, Aristotle adopts the view that form is the good metaphysically, matter the source of imperfection and deficiency – an obvious Platonic legacy.

Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics: happiness, Reason and the Ideal Society 🔗

Aristotle’s Ethics 🔗

Aristotle’s ethics is neither of the mystic nor the skeptic variety.

As opposed to Plato, his ethics attempts to be naturalistic, this-worldly.

As against the Sophists, Aristotle’s is not a subjectivist ethics.

However, Aristotle did not know how to implement this general approach in the form of a rational, scientific, proven code of ethics. In ethics, he thought, you can only formulate rules that are true in a rough way and for the most part.

Science has to begin with facts.

And what are the facts in ethics? What is the data to start with?

We have to start with the way people actually behave, with what they actually value.

Ethics rests ultimately on our perceptions of how wise and noble Athenians behave. We observe them and then generalize.

But there are many fluctuations even among wise men, many situations where our accepted general rules have exceptions. So, at best, all we’ll have at the end is a more systematic account of the moral principles governing the best Athenians, not a formal science. And this is all Aristotle attempts to provide.

How should we go about systematizing an ethics? 🔗

Aristotle observes that values are hierarchical. Everyone pursues some things for the sake of other things.

And some ultimate end, some final goal, says Aristotle, must exist which we want for its own sake and not simply as a means to something else.

And when discovered, it will serve as the standard in terms of which we evaluate all other goals and values.

So what is the end, and how do we achieve it? 🔗

The ultimate goal must be an end in itself; it must be self-sufficient; and it must be attainable by man on earth.

We must, therefore, take as our given the facts of human nature.

You can’t condemn man for anything which is his nature.

By this Aristotelian approach, the doctrine of Original Sin is impossible. If something is inherent, it cannot be sin.

Ethics must prescribe values and virtues based on the facts of human nature, capable of attainment by man here on earth.

Man, at birth, is neither innately bad nor innately good; he is morally neutral.

What is the ultimate goal which fulfills these traits? 🔗


The Greek word for happiness is “eudaimonia”.

The word “eudaimonia” does not literally mean “happiness”.

Eudaimonia implies successful living on all levels; not merely emotional enjoyment, but successful action, unimpeded thinking; in general, living, functioning and acting successfully.

Eudaimonia requires not just inner happiness; it requires a certain amount of money, a few friends, freedom, even a decent appearance and well-behaved children.

It’s perhaps best translated as “a full, rich, happy, prosperous, unimpeded life of thought and action on earth”.

Aristotle accepts Socrates’ basic idea that virtue leads to happiness. The moral man has no conflict between his desires and his moral obligations.

The moral man recognizes that if something is right, it will make him happy. And he gladly wants to do what is right – to do it for the sake of his own happiness.

How is happiness to be achieved? 🔗

Aristotle agrees with Socrates: happiness requires living a certain way.

Here’s where Aristotle’s metaphysics enters: everything acts to achieve, to realize, to actualize its distinctive potentialities.

If so, what can the good life (eudaimonia) for a thing be, except to act as reality and its own nature require?

Man has unique potentialities, and the good life (eudaimonia) consists of realizing it.

To be true to his own nature and to the nature of reality, man must actualize his distinctive potentiality: reason. The life of reason is thus the life of happiness.

Aristotle distinguishes two different uses of “reason” 🔗

Reason which is used to guide life, to regulate the emotions, to tell us how to act, he calls “practical reason”.

Reason which is used to acquire knowledge as an end in itself, he calls “theoretical” or “contemplative reason”.

If there are two uses of reason, the life of reason will have two departments: the exercise of the practical reason and the exercise of the theoretical reason.

The excellent use of practical reason will give us the “moral virtues”.

The excellent use of contemplative reason will give us the “intellectual virtues”.

Practical reason is used to guide or regulate man’s actions, emotions and desires.

Aristotle does not believe in a metaphysical soul-body clash.

He doesn’t believe there is an inherent war between reason and emotions.

What is the proper use – the virtuous use – of practical reason? 🔗

To this question, Aristotle thought he detected a general principle. Whatever we do or desire, we can do or desire in different amounts: too much, too little and just right – the Golden Mean.

Virtuous behavior will always be the Golden Mean between the two extremes: the too much (the “excess”) and the too little (the “defect”).

Pride 🔗

Pride, for Aristotle, is the crown of the virtues. The man of pride is his ideal man in terms of the moral virtues.

His description in the Ethics is the liveliest passage in his Ethics. It will give you an idea of the type of man Aristotle admired and recommended.

“Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them; for he who does so beyond his deserts is a fool, but no virtuous man is foolish.”

“The proud man, then, is an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, but a mean in respect of the rightness of them; for he claims what is in accordance with his merits, while the others go to excess or fall short.”

“Now the proud man, since he deserves most, must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most. Therefore the truly proud man must be good. And greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of a proud man.”

“Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them. Therefore it is hard to be truly proud; for it is impossible without nobility and goodness of character.”

“The proud man does not run into trifling dangers, nor is he fond of danger, because he honors few things; but he will face great dangers, and when he is in danger he is unsparing of his life, knowing that there are conditions on which life is not worth having.”

“It is a mark of the proud man also to ask for nothing or scarcely anything, but to give help readily, and to be dignified towards people who enjoy high position and good fortune, but unassuming towards those of the middle class; for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter.”

“It is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honor, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back, except where great honor or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, i.e. to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part).”

“He must be unable to make his life revolve around another, unless it be a friend; for this is slavish.”

“Further, a slow step is thought proper to the proud man, a deep voice, and a level utterance. Such, then, is the proud man; the man who falls short of him is unduly humble.”

This is one of the few man-worshiping passages in all of philosophy, and it is fitting that it comes from Aristotle.

And this is one of the great kinships between Aristotle and Objectivism.

Let’s go back to the Golden Mean.

Virtue is an issue of moderation, of not going to extremes.

The particular virtues that he’s in favor of are generally sensible, and even noble. But as a principle of ethics, the Golden Mean is unsatisfactory and invalid.

Objections 🔗

  1. The trinity of attitudes which Aristotle ranges on a continuum do not fall on a continuum at all. The vices are differentiated from the virtues in kind, not just in degree, as Aristotle’s doctrine requires.
  2. If it were just a difference in degree, there would be no argument in favor of the Mean. The mere fact that some attitude is in the middle, between two other attitudes, doesn’t show that it’s therefore desirable.

His virtues are not in fact derived from the theory of the Mean at all; rather from, as he says, the observations of the wise Athenians.

3. How do you know what the mean is in a particular case? 🔗

He says: I don’t mean the arithmetic mean; I don’t mean the exact halfway point. I mean the just right amount for a given person, and this varies from person to person.

The Mean, he says, is relative to a particular set of circumstances.

Aristotle says, in effect, if you take into account all of the relevant factors in a given situation, and if you’re well brought up, you will just know.

But, to be “well brought up” presumably is to be brought up via the Golden Mean, and the Mean is what a well-brought-up person would choose. So, it’s inexorably circular.

Let’s look at the intellectual virtues, i.e., the virtuous use of contemplative reason – essentially science, mathematics and philosophy.

Knowledge on this level is not a means to anything, but an end in itself.

For Aristotle, this life of contemplation is the highest embodiment of the life of reason – superior to the exercise of reason in practical affairs.

This brings us to another error in his ethics – the idea that knowledge is an end in itself, as against a means of human action and life.

Why did he commit this error? 🔗

No Greek grasped the relationship between knowledge and life, between reason and life.

At this stage of civilization, the skills needed to sustain life were manual and seemed to be obviously unintellectual. And the knowledge which seemed pleasurable and demanding of a man’s full intellectual powers seemed to have no practical value.

Consequently, Aristotle, along with the rest of the Greeks, concluded that knowledge was not ultimately justified by its utility in life.

In this life of contemplation, Aristotle says, you get as close to the divine life as you can, because that’s all God does, is contemplate.

He even declares that human beings are too imperfect to live this perfect life. It’s not, he says, insofar as they are human that they can live thus, but only insofar as they have an element of the divine.

This whole doctrine of knowledge as an end in itself has the effect of making Aristotle’s ethics impracticable for most men.

Most men, as Aristotle recognizes, have to work, they have to act; and they have therefore neither the time, the wealth, nor the ability, for this sort of life.

Rational Egoism 🔗

Aristotle is a thorough egoist in ethics. He believes that each man should be primarily concerned with the attainment of his own happiness, which is to be achieved by the exercise of his own practical and theoretical reason.

In contrast to Plato, there is nothing in Aristotle advocating self-sacrifice.

In contrast to the Sophists, Aristotle says that the true egoist is the man of reason, not the whim-worshiping brute.

In this sense, Aristotle is a consistent champion of rational egoism.

The good man “wishes for himself what is good and what seems so, and does it, and does so for his own sake; for he does it for the sake of the intellectual element in him, which is thought to be the man himself. And he wishes himself to live and be preserved, and especially the element by virtue of which he thinks. For existence is good to the virtuous man, and each man wishes himself what is good, while no one chooses to possess the whole world, if he has first to become someone else.”

“And such a man wishes to live with himself; for he does so with pleasure, since the memories of his past acts are delightful, and his hopes for the future are good, and therefore pleasant.”

By contrast, “wicked men seek for people with whom to spend their days, and shun themselves; for they remember many grievous deeds, and anticipate others like them, when they are by themselves, but when they are with others, they forget. And having nothing lovable in them, they have no feeling of love for themselves.”

“Such a man would seem more than the other a lover of self; at all events he assigns to himself the things that are noblest and best, and gratifies the most authoritative element in himself, and in all things obeys this … and therefore the man who loves this and gratifies it is most of all a lover of self. Therefore, the good man should be a lover of self.”

You see how this ties in with Aristotle’s advocacy of pride as the crown of the virtues.

Aristotle had a remarkable theory of friendship, egoistic friendship.

Aristotle’s ethics is very mixed in its merits. Much of the time he is on the right track: his advocacy of happiness on earth, his emphasis on reason, egoism and pride.

But these points are embedded in a framework, streaked with hangovers from Platonism, and which is avowedly not scientific or proven.

As such, Aristotle’s ethics was not strong enough to combat the Platonic and Sophistic rivals in the field.

When a philosopher’s ethics is weak, no matter how many good points he has in metaphysics and epistemology, his influence on men will be significantly less, because men feel the influence of any philosophy primarily through its ethics. That, after all, is the primary purpose of philosophy – to teach men how to live.

Aristotle’s Politics 🔗

Aristotle was not a political revolutionary with fundamentally original ideas in politics.

His politics, therefore, is less interesting or important than any other part of his philosophy.

He objected vigorously to Plato’s communistic and totalitarian views; but Aristotle himself was certainly not a major individualist either.

He objected to Plato’s view that the few ideal philosophers should have absolute power – he objected to rule by Platonic experts. This would be ideal, only it’s impractical and utopian because there’s too much risk of it degenerating into tyranny.

He also objected to rule by experts on the ground that we must have a government of law, not of men; that is a central Aristotelian idea.

We do not want a government by arbitrary decree.

On the other hand, like Plato, Aristotle has no concept that all men have individual, inalienable rights, or that the function of government is only to protect these rights.

For Aristotle, as for Plato, the important issue of politics is: What group should have ruling power in the state?

The best state is a cross between rule of the rich and of the poor, rule of the few and of the many; a state ruled neither by the mob nor by an elite of experts, but by an intermediate class – what we today call the middle class.

A state such as this Aristotle called a “polity”, and he advocated it as the best, most practical constitution.

Aristotle objects to Plato’s communism, but in very mixed terms. Plato objected to “mine” and “thine”. Aristotle says, “mine” and “thine” are inherent in human nature, and you only create conflicts and resentments if you try to communize property and families. It’s better to leave people private property and encourage them to develop a community spirit voluntarily so they’ll share with others voluntarily.

Even though Aristotle allows the citizens of his state to have much more say than Plato does, Aristotle’s state inclines in the direction of being an aristocracy run by a comparative few.

For instance, Aristotle and Plato (and the Greeks, in general) advocated slavery. They had no concept of inalienable rights.

Aristotle argued that there were natural slaves, men who had the capacity to understand rational argument but not to exercise reason independently, who were in effect living tools; and, he said, it would be to their own benefit and to the benefit of a master if they serve and work a natural master.

The slave gains the benefit of contact with a fully rational man to direct him, and the rational man, exempt from the need for menial work, has the leisure for contemplation.

The Greeks never really grasped (at least not until the time of the Stoics, a later school), that human beings – all human beings – are metaphysically equal.

Aristotle also excluded women from citizenship in his state on the grounds that they were metaphysically inferior.

On this one point, Plato was ahead of Aristotle – he recognized the metaphysical equality of women with men, Aristotle did not.

In looking at his overall philosophy, you can point out many errors and many bad points.

But in the process of inventorying his bad points, I ask that you not forget what he did achieve, and in what context.

Aristotle’s Achievements 🔗

He laid down the principles of a naturalistic, this-worldly metaphysics.

And in ethics, the principles of a this-worldly ethics, according to which man’s goal is to achieve personal happiness and personal pride by exercising his intellectual powers to the fullest.

The pro-reason, pro-life, pro-this-world approach to philosophy, in its essence and at root, is the creation of Aristotle.

Now the best summary of Aristotle’s achievements – of his good points and of his errors - is given by Aristotle himself, at the end of what is now the final section of his works on logic. He is referring in this passage to his work in logic, but his remarks are applicable much more widely to his entire philosophy in all branches.

“That our program, then, has been adequately completed is clear. But we must not omit to notice what has happened in regard to this inquiry. For in the case of all discoveries the results of previous labors that have been handed down from others have been advanced bit by bit by those who have taken them on, whereas the original discoveries generally make an advance that is small at first though much more useful than the development which later springs out of them.”

“For it may be that in everything, as the saying goes, ’the first start is the main part’: and for this reason also it is the most difficult; for in proportion as it is most potent in its influence, so it is smallest in its compass and therefore most difficult to see: whereas when this is once discovered, it is easier to add and develop the remainder in connection with it.”

“This is in fact what has happened in regard to rhetorical speeches and to practically all the other arts: for those who discovered the beginnings of them advance them in all only a little way, whereas the celebrities of today are the heirs (so to speak) of a long succession of men who have advanced them bit by bit, and so have developed them to their present form.”

“Of this inquiry, on the other hand, it was not the case that part of the work had been thoroughly done before, while part had not. Nothing existed at all.”

“For the training given by the paid professors of contentious arguments was like the treatment of the matter by Gorgias. For they used to hand out speeches to be learned by heart .. and therefore the teaching they gave their pupils was ready but rough. For they used to suppose that they trained people by imparting to them not the art, but its products.”

“On the subject of reasoning we had nothing else of an earlier date to speak of at all, but were kept at work for a long time in experimental researches. If, then, it seems to you after inspection that, such being the situation as it existed at the start, our investigation is in a satisfactory position compared with the other inquiries that have been developed by tradition, there must remain for all of you, or for our students, the task of extending us your pardon for the shortcomings of the inquiry, and for the discoveries thereof your warm thanks.”

Thomas Aquinas: The Union of Aristotelianism and Christianity 🔗

Thomas Aquinas (1274) has a monumental, ingenious philosophic system, more thorough, more systematic, than any in all of philosophy prior to his time. In its key concepts, however, it is not very original; it is an attempted synthesis of Aristotle and Christianity.

I want to indicate some of the essentials by which he brought crucial Aristotelian views back onto the intellectual scene, and a rough indication of how he tried to reconcile Aristotelianism with Christianity.

Thomas Aquinas: Epistemology 🔗

In epistemology, the main problem was to reconcile reason and faith. Aquinas did so by distinguishing between philosophy and theology.

Philosophy begins with the evidence of the senses and proceeds strictly by reason and logic.

It is a completely natural subject, which man can pursue by the use of his rational faculty, without divine grace or illumination, and without any need for the dogmas of faith.

Theology, by contrast, begins with the dogmas of faith, with the revelations, and then tries to explore and explicate their full meaning.

Philosophy is primarily concerned with the facts of this world. Theology is primarily concerned with the mysteries of religion.

There will, however, Aquinas thought, be a significant overlap between the two branches of knowledge – i.e. things philosophy can prove rationally, but which have also been revealed by God.

Revealed theology: what is its relation to reason and philosophy?

Answer: revelation can in no way contradict reason; it can maintain nothing that can be rationally refuted.

Revealed theology simply supplements reason, by giving us information on subjects about which reason has nothing to say one way or the other.

Was the world created at a certain point in time, or did it exist eternally?

Aquinas claims there’s no way of knowing; so if you go simply by reason, you’d have to say “I don’t know”.

On that issue, therefore, theology may properly speak, and when scripture tells us the world was created out of nothing, we’re entitled to accept it, because it does not conflict with reason, it simply fills in a hole that reason couldn’t answer.

Philosophy and theology can’t conflict because God gave man both reason and revelation, and God wouldn’t give us contradictory faculties.

So if someone claims to give a rational proof that one of the dogmas of faith is false or contradictory, reason must proceed to prove that the objection is invalid.

If the dogma belongs only to revelation, reason can’t prove the dogma is true, but it should be able to refute the objections and leave it, from the point of view of reason, an open question, which we then appeal to theology to decide.

This view was a charter of liberty and liberation for human reason.

Reason now has its own domain – the world revealed to man’s senses, and whatever you can learn by reasoning about it. Reason is no longer just an appendage of theology.

Reason requires no special divine aid, grace or illumination 🔗

By describing revealed theology as that about which reason has nothing to say, Aquinas implies that faith is on the defensive.

Aquinas’ basic epistemological principle is: the rational is an absolute which you must subscribe to.

Aquinas never personally challenged the faith. But, given his formula, the way was open for others to say in the face of a conflict, “It’s the faith that’s wrong, not reason, let’s throw it overboard.”

In fact, soon after him, people found that reason had a great deal to say, most of which was inimical to Christianity and to the whole medieval viewpoint.

Aquinas is a great epistemologist if you strip off the theology, which is ever-present.

He makes many fascinating points on questions of detail, and on many questions, he is better than Aristotle himself – e.g., on the method, in detail, by which the laws of logic come to be known by human beings.

I’ve given you the broadest essentials of Aquinas’ distinctive contribution to Christianity in epistemology.

You’ve heard enough, however, to begin to appreciate Aquinas’ contribution to the release and salvation of the West – salvation in a rational sense – salvation from Plato and Augustine.

Thomas Aquinas: Metaphysics 🔗

Aquinas was never consistently Aristotelian in metaphysics.

Aquinas is not a pure Aristotelian; he is simply as close to an Aristotelian as it is possible for a devout Christian to get.

Let’s turn to the distinctive Aristotelian elements in his metaphysics – the new approach that he brought to the Christian world.

God and this world 🔗

The central problem confronting Aquinas in metaphysics is how to reconcile God and this world.

The Augustinian view was that there are two radically opposite dimensions: God, who is absolute reality and perfection, and nature, which is fundamentally unreal. This world, for Augustine, was a kind of gray, unreal, unsubstantial haze.

Yet Aristotle had said there was only one reality, and that it was fully real.

How did Aquinas reconcile these two views?

He took over from Aristotle the view that there is only one reality, but that it is hierarchical in nature – there are various levels of reality depending upon the extent to which form is actualized.

Reality is not irrevocably sundered into two opposite worlds: God vs. nature.

The universe forms one, single, real totality, but it rises in ascending levels of actuality to reach God as its climax, Who is at the top – pure actuality.

So it is right for a Christian to exalt God above the world because God is the top of the hierarchy.

But this does not imply that we must metaphysically despise or degrade the world of nature that we live in.

Nature is merely a lower level of the one continuous hierarchy, rising unbrokenly up the Aristotelian ladder to God.

This view is of enormous significance – it undercuts the metaphysical basis for despising this world.

It’s very hard to communicate how revolutionary this perspective is, but that’s Aquinas’ big contribution – this world is real, it is; everything is part of one integrated universe.

There are degrees of what Aristotle called “actuality”, but there are no degrees of reality in the Platonic sense.

Everything that exists, including the world of physical entities, is fully and equally there.

In this respect, Thomas agrees with Aristotle – what is, is. It can’t sort of be and yet sort of not be.

The result is that this world regains the solidity, the substantiality, the metaphysical stature, which had been shorn from it by the Platonizing Augustinians.

The things in this world are fit and proper objects for human study.

We are not in Plato’s Cave watching half-real shadowy reflections. We are in reality, and science is therefore a study of reality.

Moreover, the earth is a fit place to live in – it’s man’s natural home. It’s not a place of exile from reality.

Man too gains a real metaphysical dignity on Aquinas’ view 🔗

The angels and God are above man, but within the natural world man is the highest being.

Man is the only being who has a foot in both camps.

As a living, physical creature, he’s a member of this world. But as a creature with an intellect, and an immortal soul, man is destined to a life in the spiritual hereafter.

Man is the creature who closes the gap between the physical world and the world of God and the angels – the link which unites the two dimensions into one reality.

There is not only a supernatural man with an otherworldly destiny, but a natural man with a this-worldly destiny.

On this view of Aquinas, science is metaphysically possible again.

How is science possible? 🔗

For Aquinas, God created the world ex nihilo – everything happens as He ordains by His will.

How then can you have science?

An orderly, lawful, regular universe where entities act in accord with their natures is part of what God wills – a scientifically understandable universe is part of His plan.

So ultimately only God has causal efficacy, but He expresses it by endowing His creatures with causal efficacy.

God can intervene directly at any time – that will be a miracle.

But, on the whole, says Aquinas, we should try to explain events in terms of natural laws and causes.

This view also was a charter releasing man to attempt to discover order and law in the natural universe.

Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God 🔗

There are five famous arguments – none of them is original with him.

1. The argument from motion 🔗

The argument from motion literally restates Aristotle’s argument for the Prime Mover, arguing that motion implies a first mover.

2. The argument from efficient causation 🔗

3. The argument from necessity and contingency 🔗

This argument is based on the dichotomy between necessary and contingent facts.

Since that dichotomy is false, the argument can’t get off the ground.

Even if you were to grant that dichotomy, it proves nothing about a God because a Greek could answer, “Why don’t we say that the world stuff is the absolutely necessary thing, and what you call ‘contingent beings’ are merely different arrangements of the eternal necessary world stuff?”

4. The argument from degrees 🔗

The argument from degrees is the weakest of the five.

The premise that variation in degree implies a separate entity of the maximum amount causing the lesser degrees has no plausibility. It actually rests on the Platonic theory of Forms.

5. The teleological argument 🔗

Here the point to challenge is the Aristotelian view that order requires a final cause, and I criticized that in discussing Aristotle’s teleology.

God of Christianity 🔗

Aquinas, to his satisfaction, has proved the existence of God. Now he has to show that the God he has proved is the God of Christianity, not merely the Prime Mover of Aristotle.

The argument from motion proves (if it’s correct) the Unmoved Mover.

But how do you get from this God to the God of Christianity?

For example, “Does God know the world?”

Aquinas says that Aristotle’s right, God only knows His own nature, but God is the Creator of the world, and He contains the archetypes of everything in the world in His mind, and therefore, in knowing Himself, He indirectly knows the world.

In the last analysis, Aquinas’ view is that reason can prove the existence of God and can give us a few slender leads as to God’s nature, but the real essence of God insofar as man can know it on earth depends on faith.

Thomas Aquinas: Ethics 🔗

Here again he attempted to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity.

Ethics has a dual nature, just as man does. Because man is a natural being living on earth as his natural home, part of ethics will prescribe for that side of man.

But insofar as man is a being with a supernatural destiny, there will be a part of ethics for that side of him.

So there are two types of virtues: the “natural virtues” and the “theological virtues”.

These two sets of virtues do not conflict because, in fulfilling the natural virtues here on earth, we develop and prepare ourselves for our supernatural destiny.

Again, the theological elements supplement the natural elements, they don’t contradict them.

The natural virtues are Aristotelian 🔗

This whole side of ethics – natural ethics – is discoverable by reason alone, and to some degree man can achieve the natural virtues by his own efforts.

And we’re still obeying God’s will in following our reason in natural ethics, because God is the creator of the rationality of the universe, so in obeying reason, we are still obeying God’s will.

This naturalistic side of Aquinas’ ethics released Aristotelian this-worldly ethical values into medieval culture.

Even the virtues of poverty and chastity had to be modified, at least for most men, because virtue is the Golden Mean – you can’t go to extremes.

One touch, illustrating the charter of liberty for human reason that Aquinas introduced, following Aristotle, is his doctrine: The Erring Reason Binds.

The Erring Reason Binds 🔗

The Augustinian view was that you have to accept Chrstian dogmas whether they make sense to you or not.

Aquinas takes a diametrically opposite view. We cannot demand more of any man than that he honestly follow his own reason.

Suppose a man honestly thinks it’s rational to endorse a certain belief or take a certain action, but in fact he has made an error, and the belief or action is against the Church dogma. What should the man do?

Aquinas answered that you must follow your own reason – even if your reason has made a mistake, as long as that is your honest conviction.

“Every will at variance with reason, whether right or erring, is always evil.” (Aquinas)

Aquinas gives the most startling example: we know that belief in Jesus is necessary to salvation. Nevertheless, if someone honestly believes otherwise, he would be wrong to become a Christian.

While there is this whole Aristotelian side in Aquinas, the other side (especially in ethics) is always there; it’s often dominant.

Theological Virtues 🔗

Besides the natural, rational virtues, there are the theological virtues: faith, hope, charity.

These theological virtues, says Aquinas, cannot be proved by reason. They depend on God’s revelation for us to know that they’re virtues. And they cannot be attained by our own efforts, only by God’s grace.

Here Aquinas accepts the whole Augustinian viewpoint, which had been proclaimed official Church dogma:

All of this clashes constantly with the more Aristotelian side of his thought.

Politics 🔗

In politics, just as grace perfects nature, so the Church perfects the State; and just as God is supreme over nature, therefore the Church must be supreme over the State.

Recap 🔗

For our purposes, what is crucial about Aquinas is this:

This was in the 13th century. The 14th is the end of the medieval period, and the prologue to the Renaissance.

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Updated on 2022 Oct 13.

DISCLAIMER: This is not professional advice. The ideas and opinions presented here are my own, not necessarily those of my employer.