Aristotle’s Reality: How Was It Different From His Teacher’s Theory?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

How was reality placed in life sciences at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century? According to Aristotle’s reality, biology is the study of potentialities, forms, and properties common to all species. How was it different from his teacher Plato’s findings?

A painting depicting a scene where a blind Oedipus is commending his children to the Gods.
A blind Oedipus commended his children to the Gods. Aristotle used the tragedy as an example of how the perfect tragedy should be structured. (Image: Bénigne Gagneraux/Public domain)

If we want to see how reality in biological sciences was redefined owing to technical and scientific progress, we need to know how, in the first place, this reality was originally defined. Just like physical sciences, the roots of biological sciences can also be traced back to Aristotle. This was done first through Aristotle’s reality. It can be remembered that like all other Greek thinkers of that time, Aristotle’s perspective regarding reality was also largely theological. It meant that when a thing changed, every change in it emanated within it only and was regulated towards achieving some goal of that thing. And in the case of earthly chemical elements, it meant seeking their proper place in the universe and they did it by moving towards it in a straight line. However, as per Aristotle’s reality, for living things, this goal was a little more hypothetical.

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Plato-Aristotle: Differing Thoughts

Painting shows Plato and Aristotle discussing their theories of realism.
Aristotle’s reality was different. He did not subscribe to Plato’s theory. (Image: Raphael/Public domain)

It must be remembered that Aristotle was Plato’s student. Plato had said that we could not find reality in the material world because material objects were not perfect. And for Plato also, change was theological. According to him, if something was changing, it meant it was trying to reach its aim and that meant it was imperfect. He said if a thing was perfect, there was no need for it to change because it had reached its goal. So as per him, what we found in the material world was not what was real but its perfect idealized perception. These were called forms by Plato and according to him these forms did not live in the world that people see with their eyes, rather they lived in the world of forms that remained unchanged forever and which could only be seen with the mind’s eye. But Aristotle’s reality was different. He did not subscribe to Plato’s theory.

A table maker gains more expertise with time as he keeps making tables. And as time passes, he makes better tables because of his experience and experimentation done over the years. But those tables are never perfect because nothing in the material world is perfect. With the passage of time, the table maker starts making tables with his mind instead of his hands. He develops his own perception of a perfect table, sees its form, and starts making better and better forms of the table according to what he thinks is a perfect table as he has perceived in his mind.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

What Is Aristotle’s Reality?

As per Aristotle’s reality, this world was the real world but when it came to the understanding of this world, he did not include the view of his teacher, Plato in it. All material things were flawed depictions of those ideal unchanging forms which were taken out from the beautiful world of forms and were filled into the living things. There was a capability and a spirit in all living beings that existed in them from their earliest state of being and the path of their lives was nothing but a history of them trying to realize that capability. Like an acorn seeking to become the mighty oak has an idea of the oak within it is a good example of Aristotle’s reality.

According to Aristotle, everything was made of matter, shape, substance, and structure and the changes in them were the results of the organism trying to reach its potential. This potential was the part of the thing itself and every member of that species had the same potential. When it came to the reproduction process, Aristotle’s reality said that the potentiality was concealed within the organism. Like, for humans, who reproduce sexually, what mother gives is the matter, that is she provides the material that would form the body, but what father gives is the soul, the spirit of humankind for that matter to absorb.

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Aristotle’s Reality of the Soul and Christian Concept

Aristotle believed that the soul is just a source of development and change. For him, everything that undergoes some change has a soul. And because all changes are aimed at some goal, there must be something that is giving it direction – and for Aristotle’s reality, that thing was soul. Since animals grow and they move too, so they must have more complex souls, and maybe some plantlike parts guide their growth with another part describing their more complex relationship with the environment around them. We humans also have souls that have both plantlike and animallike parts, but then we also have a unique human part in our souls because there is an intellectual aspect also to us.

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The picture shows reproductive hectocotyl arm of the octopus as described by Aristotle.
Aristotle described the reproductive hectocotyl arm of the octopus which is at the bottom left. (Image: R. L. Hudson/Public domain)

Biology, According to Aristotle

Therefore, as per Aristotle’s reality, biology is the study of such capabilities, such forms, and such key properties that are unique to every species and the study of those properties that are common to all the species. So there are two steps of biology. The first step is to research and document the anatomy of the organism. And after that, the scientist should observe and find out the spirit of the species, the goal of the species. The second step is that scientists should build a catalog of all species and include the goal of that species in it. Groups of species are formed based on the common elements in their essences.

When the Church found out about Aristotle’s reality and his beliefs and took his views on science as the official principle, it did not have any problem in accepting the biological parts – just like physical parts – for theological purposes. It adapted them easily. So it was no longer believed that the plants and the beasts had souls but it was accepted that they had plans. These plans were placed inside based upon the greatest design for creation.

Common Questions about Aristotle’s Reality

Q: How does Aristotle describe reality?

According to Aristotle, it is only when the mind processes the reality that it has some meaning. He says that things keep moving until they reach their full potential and then stop.

Q: What was Aristotle’s view of the world?

Aristotle’s worldview was that the form of every object was within it only. In other words, we can perceive the form of an object using our senses.

Q: What was the disagreement between Plato and Aristotle?

While Plato believed that the objects had universal and perfect forms, Aristotle believed that it was not necessary that forms were always attached to the objects and every object had to be analyzed individually.

Q: What was Aristotle’s philosophy?

Aristotle’s philosophy stressed more on biology, unlike Plato who was more inclined towards mathematics. Aristotle believed that the world was built of substances which came in fixed natural kinds called species.

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