How did Aristotle fundamentally change philosophy and science

Figure 1. Bust of Aristotle.

Aristotle's contributions to science, philosophy, and thought were remarkable for his time. Even though most of the scientific theories were inaccurate, they played a role in developing the sciences both in his world and Europe after they were reintroduced to Europeans by Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages. He is considered the founder of the field of philosophy and to some the first scientist, where his work has continued to influence modern thought and ideas. Aristotle also wrote about many fields and sciences that have influenced these studies to this day. Despite his fame, there is a lot that is not known about him. We know he was also the tutor of another famous figure and contemporary, Alexander the Great, where he taught him many subjects. Here, we examine some of his ideas and thoughts that have impacted our modern societies.


Work in Philosophy

Although several well known Greek philosophers lived and even taught Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Aristotle's views on ethics and morality were the most influential of any scholar to modern philosophy. While many of Aristotle's works have not survived, he likely authored well over a hundred large works, his surviving works influenced Greek and Roman thought, with this philosophy coming down to our societies particularly in the West.[1]

One major area where he contributed was in logic. In fact, his contributions in logic were still the main form utilized in Western philosophy at least until the 19th century AD. Most of what we term as logic deals with word analytics, where word structure and order are analyzed and interpreted in forming a conclusion. Reasoning was something derived from the order and presentation of an argument.

Aristotle's key compiled work, or a work put together by later followers and scholars, is Organon, which compiled Aristotle's works that eventually formed the key parts of Aristotelian logic.[2] Deduction developed in the syllogism is perhaps his most significant contribution, where a premise is deduced into a conclusion. He also discusses induction, that is from a case to understanding larger phenomenon about the universe or world. These two forms of thinking, induction, and deduction, are the foundations of modern scientific thought and form the primary way in how many arguments are created in logic discussions.[3]

Ethics was also a key area of Aristotle's works, where he saw ethics as central to well-being and the key component to a human's life. Concepts of justice, courage, temperance, and others are central to developing good virtues and living a well-balanced life.[4] What Aristotle does is make ethics an autonomous field that is divorced from the sciences and focused on developing and living a life of virtue and happiness. Ethics is still a distinct field today and, although there are many philosophies or views on ethics, has been heavily influenced by Aristotle's works.

Aristotle also saw the centrality and importance of politics to humans. He even quipped the famous line that man is a political animal by his nature.[5] Rationality were crucial aspects of humanity, and that had to be central in successful politics according to Aristotle. He saw the city as a critical place where humans can live and prosper; in fact, the city was more central than the individual, as the greater good was seen above the individual. A town was also a place where beauty should be found, and art should be made to flourish in such areas according to his belief.

Work in Science

Aristotle had a profound influence on the sciences. This impact includes his ideas of deduction and induction, and he also heavily emphasized the ideas of empirical research or observation. While earlier scientific philosophers were more theoretical and less observation oriented, Aristotle tried to make observations around him, including organizing trips to places, such as Lesbos or dissecting animals to understand how they functioned. For instance, he observed that dolphins were not fish and appeared to be much more similar to land animals.[6] He created a classification system for animals that eventually became a predecessor for our concepts of classifying animals into distinct categories or what can be called a type of species.

His classifications were based on shared features, which is more similar to our form of classification. He successfully identified more than 600 species of wildlife. [7] Aristotle also noted how geological features are changing and they are difficult to observe because the timescales are often longer than human life.

However, by noting that lakes and landforms are constantly changing, these ideas do influence famous geologists such as Charles Lyle, who ultimately helped develop modern geology.[8]

Aristotle also sought to create a theoretical foundation in areas such as sleep, psychology, physics, astronomy, and other fields. Often, his views were wrong, but that often had to do with the fact he lacked means to observe events. [9] Nevertheless, Aristotle's ideas were so influential, because many of his concepts were adopted and held for centuries or even millennia. For instance, his belief that the Earth was the center of the universe was eventually adopted as a core belief by the Catholic church. Thus, his ideas also began to be adopted by later religious authorities.

Impact on the Modern World

Aristotle's philosophies and ethics have been very influential. Many logicians state that Aristotle produced the definitive work on logic and there is no sense of even changing it, although this has now changed. Nevertheless, his ideas of logic and ethics are now central to many philosophies that subsequently formed the foundations of Western ideals.[10] Modern philosophy developed later by Kant often sees Aristotle as a core foundation for their thinking, particularly as it placed such emphasis on ethics and virtue and the tenants that are required to develop these.

Today, in the sciences, relatively few ideas held by Aristotle are still utilized in the sciences; however, his key understanding of logic used to create a scientific theory, particularly through induction and deduction, have influenced the sciences the most. His emphasis on empirical research was also new and becomes another key tenant of modern science.

Because Aristotle was so prolific in his lifetime, he also influenced other fields such as poetry and tragedy.[11] Aristotle wrote about how poems and tragedy should be composed and key components that they should have, including epic poems and tragedies having the great spectacle that Greek literature is so well known for.

Few people have been both famous during their lifetime and influential for millennia as Aristotle has been (Figure 1). Aristotle and his earlier and later colleagues were also influential in establishing what eventually became the concept for universities. For instance, the idea of a school, such as Athens' famous Lyceum, where Aristotle taught, as a place to discuss and teach, while pursuing one's own research and discovery, were later adopted in the early Medieval period to become the foundation in which universities in the West developed.[12] Although Greek society still often meant that participation was often limited to free men, women had begun also to be involved in science and philosophical thought. Aristotle's wife Pythias worked along with her husband and probably helped him develop some of his philosophical and scientific understanding. She likely accompanied him on his field trips as well where he made important observations related to Biology and Geology.

Conclusion

Few thinkers directly known to us have so influenced the modern world as Aristotle. While in many ways he was a flawed character who did hold beliefs we may consider racist or ethnocentric, he did create the foundations of what would ultimately become modern philosophy and science. Aristotle in his lifetime was a famous figure who taught not only Alexander but Ptolemy and famous figures within Greek society who went on to impact the world in different ways. While some of his thoughts, such as the idea of four key elements to the universe, are not held by the modern sciences, his understanding that perception and observation are critical to understanding our world became the foundation of modern scientific thinking and understanding.

References

  1. For a biography on Aristotle, see: Natali, C., & Hutchinson, D. S. (2013). Aristotle: his life and school. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  2. For more on Aristotelian logic, see: Abed, S. (1991). Aristotelian logic and the Arabic language in Alfārābī. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press.
  3. For more on induction and deduction as seen by Aristotle, see: Spangler, M. M. (1998). Aristotle on teaching. Lanham, Md: University Press of America, pg. 7.
  4. For more on Aristotle's ethics, see: Miller, J. (ed. ., & Miller, J. (2015). The Reception of Aristotle’s Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. For more on Aristotle's politics and political thinking, see: Aristotle, & Sinclair, T. A. (1981). The politics (Rev. ed). Harmondsworth, England New York, N.Y: Penguin Books.
  6. For more on Aristotle's approaches to science, see: Leroi, A. M. (2014). The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science. New York, New York: Viking.
  7. For more on Aristotle's contribution to Biology, see: Lennox, J. G. (2001). Aristotle’s philosophy of biology: studies in the origins of life science. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  8. For more on Aristotle's contribution to Geology, see: Green, J. (2013). Geology: investigating the science of the Earth (1st ed). New York: Rosen Central, pg. 9.
  9. For more on areas Aristotle impacted, see: Byrne, P. H. (1997). Analysis and science in Aristotle. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  10. For more on Aristotle's long-term influences, see: Sgarbi, M. (2016). Kant and Aristotle: epistemology, logic, and method. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  11. For more on Aristotle's view on poetry and tragedy, see: Sifakis, G. M. (2001). Aristotle on the function of tragic poetry. Herakleion: Crete University Press.
  12. For more on how the concept of the university developed and Aristotle's lifetime and history, see: Höffe, O. (2003). Aristotle. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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Updated January 19, 2018