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The Grounds for Aristotle’s Critique of Plato, Essay Example

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Essay

Introduction

As a former student n Plato’s famous Academy, Aristotle got to know very closely Plato’s theories and ideas, and was expected to become Platonist himself, similarly to the manner in which, having studied with Socrates, Plato drew heavily from the ideas expressed by his former teacher and even made him a character n his stories. Yet, Aristotle took a different path and became Plato’s critique, proposing his own theories to replace those of his teacher in many areas, such as politics or ethics. Their divergent views started from each one’s philosophical theories, particularly in regards to the notions of the state of being, and what being supposed. Plato developed a theory of Forms to account for his understanding of the world. This fundamental theory was countered by Aristotle, who found many flaws inherent to it, and opposed his own theory to that of his former teacher.  The present paper aims to determine what the grounds were of Aristotle’s opposition to the Theory of Forms and to explain Aristotle’s own position as compared to Plato’s. The paper argues that Aristotle rejection of Platonism identifies him as a different kind of thinker, and that Aristotle’s own genius led him to consider a different explanation when Plato’s theory failed to answer all his questions.

Plato’s Theory of Forms

Plato had been the pupil of Socrates when he had to witness the trial and death of the latter.  At that time, Plato was considering a career in politics, but probably in an attempt to honor his former master, Plato left politics in favor of philosophy, and opened his own Academy in Athens, in which he aimed to spread Socrates’ teachings. Plato’s Academy was credited as the first University in the West and it passed Plato’s teachings to the next generations for centuries to come.  Plato’s most important contribution to philosophy which allowed him to gain a reputation independently from Socrates was his theory of Forms. This theory represents Plato’s most influential legacy, which gave birth to both a current that bears the thinker’s name, Platonism, and to an opposite movement called Anti-Platonism, which, which included Aristotle and which still has representatives among post-modern philosophers. He elaborated and refined this theory in time, mostly through his dialogues and by using Socrates as his mouthpiece.

Plato’s Theory of forms had a major impact on the entire Western philosophy and is even credited with having introduced the idea of immateriality in the western thought and of an immaterial soul (Welton, 2002). This theory consists in defining the world as split in two, a world of Forms and a world of substances. Forms are, as Welton (2002) explains, “the mysterious pattern to which all things of a certain kind must relate in order to be things of that kind, i.e. the pattern constitutes the nature of that kind itself” (p.4). Therefore, Plato’s Forms are the essences of all things and represent the objects as they really are. These essences which correspond to a superior reality are mimicked in the physical world by the objects made of substance.

As an ultimate reality, Plato’s forms were universal and unchangeable. Unlike the world of substance, which is subject to change and error, forms are eternally perfect and universal. One example taken from Solomon and Higgins (p.120) is that of a triangle drawn on a piece of paper. No matter how hard one tries, and no matter what instruments one uses, his triangle will never be perfect, because its lines will still have some thickness and the angles will still not be error free, so it is impossible to draw an ideal triangle. Moreover, it is based on the ideal triangle, or the Form triangle that geometry is based, and not on one’s material representation of the triangle, no matter how adequate.  Plato also believed that the Form triangle existed in reality, in a world of its own, as did all over Forms, correspondent to all things on Earth worthy of having one. (It was according to him absurd to believe dirt, for example, had a Form).

Plato’s understanding of philosophy was a search for understanding the world of pure forms, believed to be more real than the ordinary world of material things. The world of pure Forms is called by Plato the World of Being, whereas the material world, the world of substance, where everything changes and disappears is called the World of Becoming.  People who spend their lives contemplating the material world will never know the superior world of pure forms. This idea is represented in Plato’s Allegory of the cave, in which prisoners watching shadows on the wall for all their lives believed that these were the real people, whereas the real people were passing by behind them and in front of a fire due to which the shadows were projected on the wall.

Aristotle’s Idea of Substance

Aristotle did not agree with Plato’s Theory of the Form and instead proposed his own theory, which draws however from his teacher’s idea of the two dimensions, but he rejects the idea of the existence of two worlds in which objects exist. Welton (2002) explains in this regard that, “Aristotle forged his own contribution to the science of Being, the discipline he called “first philosophy”, and that was to become known as metaphysics, in constant dialogue with and opposition to the theory of forms as he understood it”. Thus, Aristotle’s most important philosophical work cannot be separated from that of his teacher, and for that matter, rom the philosophy of his predecessors, from which he drew his fundamental philosophical concepts.

He argued that each object is formed of both matter and form, in which the matter is that of which the object is composed, whereas the form is the shape the object takes.  While the form might change, the matter remains the same. Also, as Solomon and Higgins (2010) explain, Aristotle’s view was that “the forms of things are in the things themselves and have no separate existence” (p.122). Therefore, what defined an object was its form, whereas the matter, the material o which it was made could belong to multiple objects at the same time. In explaining this theory, Banach (2009), gave the example of a child playing with blocks. He can build a house and then, break it down and make a wall instead.  The shapes of the wall and of the house are different, but the matter remains the same.

Aristotle therefore believed that the form of an object rests within itself, and there is no need for another world to explain it. He defended his theory in many of his works, but in particular, in his famous Metaphysics. In this work, the concept of substances as the essential elements from which the world is formed appears:

“Substance is thought to belong most obviously to bodies; and so we say that not only animals and plants and their parts are substances, but also natural bodies such as fire and water and earth and everything of the sort, and all things that are either parts of these or composed of these (either of parts or of the whole bodies), e.g. the physical universe and its parts, stars and moon and sun” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book VII, part 2).

However, Aristotle does not say what substance is, but what it belongs to. In fact, the origin of the substance and what it really is remains an open problem.

Aristotle’s Critique of Plato

Aristotle did not believe in Plato’s division of the two worlds. This was because Aristotle’s thinking was fundamentally different than that of Plato. Solomon and Higgins (2010) explain in this regard that he was a commonsense philosopher, who believed that the reality in which we lie every day must be the true reality, and not a kind of existence that people do not actually live I, nor they ever perceive.  Therefore, Aristotle’s own character and personality forbid him from assimilating Plato’s philosophical ideas, which stood against his own pragmatism. However, he was also not convinced by Plato’s theory because of the flaws he perceived in his theory.

Aristotle identified what he perceived to be errors in his teacher’s reasoning, particularly in his ideas concerning the separation of essence and substance in two separate worlds. He  tried to show that Plato’s theory of the existence of two separated worlds did not actually manage to prove how permanence is achieved in the world of matter, and how people could know what was true reality and what was merely perception, or imitation(Banach 2006). He objected against Plato’s idea that the universal was superior to the particular. For example, in some of his dialogues, Plato’s Socrates argues that, “Beauty itself is beautiful, Piety is pious and Largeness is large (in Welton, 2002, p. 5). In saying this, Plato therefore implied that instances of beauty or of piousness only exist because there is a universal form of Beauty or Piety that informs them. Unlike him however Aristotle considered each beautiful thing or pious person contained the idea within. Aristotle’s own view was that by studying the particular, one will be able to understand the universal, and not the other way around.

Aristotle’s main arguments against Plato’s Theory of Forms were the Third Man Argument and the inconsistent concept of imitation (Banach 2006). The concept of imitation supposes the fact that the objects in the material world imitate the ones in the world of Forms. The ambiguity of the imitation concept is used by Aristotle to illustrate how unlikely it is for a world of Forms to exist. The philosopher explains that none of the properties used by Plato in relation to the theory of the Forms, meaning, permanent unchanging, and eternal (Banach 2006), actually define material objects. Moreover, the material objet cannot be a mere imitation of a Form, because without a material object, there could not be a Form at all; for example, if there is no object of a certain color in the world, how can the color exist? (ibid.)

Third Man Argument, which was also used by Plato, although his purpose remained unclear to critics to this day (Welton 2002), was that, if the object in the material world imitated a Form in the world of Being, than there must be another object to which both resemble, and so on, into an ever regressive paradigm. Aristotle referred to this problem by giving the example of a man: If the man from the material world resembles the Form of a man, than another man is required to explain the similarity between the two, according to the above mentioned notion of imitation. This example gave the name of the argument.

Therefore,  Aristotle’s grounds for rejecting  Plato’s Theory of Forms is not in the division between realities, but in the idea of the existence of two separate worlds in which these realities exist. Solomon and Higgins, (2010) also see their conflict as one that has its fundament in the distinction “between Plato’s view that reality is something else than our everyday world and Aristotle’s view that the ultimate realities are the substances in our daily life” (p. 122).  Therefore, the distinction between their theories resides ultimately in the manner in which the conceive reality and existence itself. Plato believes in the existence of an immaterial world beyond our own, which is even truer than the material one, and in which the pure essence of everything resides. These essences, which he calls Forms, are eternal and unchangeable, they are unbreakable and without end. Like him, Aristotle believes that all objects comprise two elements, matter and form.  The form of an object may change, but the matter remains unchanged in time and space. Matter also is formed of a shape and a matter and so on.   Also, Aristotle believes in the existence of an essence that represents the ultimate reality. However, he does not believe that this essence exists in a different world than our own, but rather, the essence exists in each particular thing of the world.  Both theories are very important and are able to account for separate visions of the world, which are not entirely opposed one to another. In fact, as Solomon and Higgins (2010) argue, they both are integrated in the earliest ideas of Christianity.

Conclusion

This paper tried to account for the differences in Aristotle and Plato’s lines of thought with the purpose of explaining the grounds on which Aristotle built his critique of Plato’s Theory of Forms. Aristotle was Plato’s pupil and studied at his Academy and therefore, his criticism necessarily had to be strong enough to resists judgment. He elaborated his own understanding of the relationship between appearance and essence, and managed to build strong arguments against Pluto’s theory, arguments which are still studied today. His most important arguments are against the notion of imitation, and the Third Man argument, both of which prove that there is no need for a different world in which real objects to exist. Finally, he proved by these arguments that the Forms are not able to explain anything about the things of the world and and indeed, that the existence of Forms cannot be proved at all.

Reference List

Aristotle. Metaphysics. [online]. Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.7.vii.html. [Accessed: 26 February 2013].

Banach, D. 2006. Some Points of Aristotle’s Thought. [online].http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/arist.htm. [Accessed: 26 February 2013].

Solomon, R. and Higgins, K.M. 2010. The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Welton, W. 2002. Plato’s Forms: Varieties of Interpretation. Oxford: Lexington Books.

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