Greek Philosophy Boiled Down - Part VI - Lucille Turner Greek Philosophy Boiled Down - Part VI - Lucille Turner
As a young man of 17 or 18 years, Aristotle was sent to Plato’s Academy to learn from the great master himself, who by now had become almost a legend in his own right with his Dialogues based on the Socratic method of posing a rhetorical question and answering it. Aristotle must have been the brightest star of Plato’s academy, and he remained there right up to the time of Plato’s death around 347 BC. But despite thinking at such close quarters, theirs must have been a strained relationship since Aristotle did not always share Plato’s views. Plato was a man of his generation, but Aristotle wanted more. You can almost picture an older Plato rolling his eyes at a younger Aristotle as he patiently tried to explain the merits of abstract concepts. Even though Aristotle was certainly influenced by Plato, he had his own way of seeing things, less abstract, more concrete, and it is testimony to the power of Greek democratic debate, so essential to human evolution, that the two men could remain together for so long with such opposing views. What, then, was the sticking point, and why has it stuck for so long?
Aristotle’s thinking took him in several directions, but ultimately he moved away from Platonic thought in one important respect: he abandoned abstract concepts in favour of real ones — he was a realist rather than an idealist, an empiricist rather than a theorist. In this way he provided the important stepping-stone that led from Plato to modern science. ​​Plato believed we needed to reach beyond our reality to gain knowledge, while Aristotle thought that we needed to find our place within it; where Plato asked why a thing existed, Aristotle asked how it worked, which was a relevant question indeed, since once you discover how something works, you can normally deduce why it is necessary in the first place, and why it exists at all.
Aristotle’s work covered both physics and metaphysics. To boil down these two terms, physics at the time referred to things that change, while metaphysics was about things that don’t change or the first causes of things. Both these subjects were about how we know things, and how we understand them. And both were relevant to fuelling later scientific questions about our understanding of reality, whether through perception (the senses) or the physical being of things (properties), not to mention how we communicate what we understand through language (semantics). Aristotle’s work was important because it led to a new way of seeing things – a rational way, through observation. That is not to say that Aristotle ever shook off the Platonic systems of thought he had inherited, because he didn’t, not entirely. In fact, after Aristotle and Plato, the whole of Western thinking seemed to stumble and stall. Rational thinking was clearly the way ahead — and yet the old Platonic ghost lingered. If taken to its ultimate end, would rationality efface the individual, and how far could we go with it? As Bernard Russell says in his History of Western Philosophy, for Aristotle, ultimate rationality was “the highest virtue” — but it demanded too much: “the irrational separates us, the rational unites us”. ​​Would we be in danger of losing ourselves entirely?
It would be another 2000 years before anyone managed to see beyond Aristotelian metaphysics to grasp an even more radical reality, one that would shed new light on the concept of rational realism, as far as observation was concerned. If observation was essential to understanding, so was the observer, whose preconceived understanding of the world coloured everything. Psychology became important, and eventually the discipline of quantum science threw an even more startling light on the concept of observation with the observer effect discovery.
Still, there was one subject that preoccupied Aristotle every bit as much as it fascinated those that came after him. It did not connect as much with the metaphysical world as with the physical one, but it was one of the most fundamental questions that science has ever had to answer: how do things move?
To answer it, Aristotle would have to wade back into the mud-pool of theological debate, since everyone knew that God moved everything, didn’t they? ​​It would take the power of another Greek thinker to contradict that, and more specifically since we are talking about the heavens, it would take the power of an astronomer to resolve it.
Read Part VII next week…
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