Aristotle’s Deep Thoughts of Science
Animals have always been a part of humanity’s culture and throughout history their roles in society have evolved. In today’s society, some people consider their animals to be family which differs greatly from prior norms that animals were beings placed on earth to be used as resources. Why have these norms changed throughout generations? Civilizations dating back to ancient Greece began to wonder about the universe and all that encompasses it. In doing so, the ancient Greeks particularly focused on the famous question of ‘why’, or rather understanding what our purpose is. In beginning to understand the purpose of a thing, one must first begin to understand said thing. Aristotle’s belief in teleology reflects this thought. Teleology is the idea that the structure and behavior of things can be understood in terms of their function, their purpose, or their end goal. This essay will evaluate Aristotle’s stance on themes such as science, nature, and in particular, his studies of biology. In understanding the historical context in which an Aristotelian society was placed, the reader can begin to understand the ways such beliefs have changed throughout an ever-evolving society. Aristotle’s core beliefs may not be valid today, but they have laid the foundation for future generations to question the condition, form and purpose of nature.
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First, to understand Aristotle’s mind one must review his background. Aristotle (384-322 B.C) is considered one of the great thinkers of his time due to his reflections and theories on philosophy and science. He trifled in thoughts of logic, ethics, politics, physics, metaphysics, biology, and mathematics. Aristotle was born in the ancient city of Stagira, Greece and lived with his father, the court physician for the Macedonian king. At age 17 he left to Athens to continue his studies at the Academy where he studied under the influences of Plato. Upon Plato’s death, Aristotle left Athens to tutor the son of King Philip II of Macedon, later to be known as Alexander the Great. He returned to Athens for the remainder of his life and founded the Lyceum; a peripatetic school. Throughout all his adventures, Aristotle made observations of biology (Shields).
Aristotle began his study of biology through observation. We can look at his various biological books to understand ideas based on his observations. Scholar Daryn Lehoux writes “Aristotle’s biology, it bears saying, relies heavily on observation claims about how one animal or another functions, how it moves, how it is constructed, how it compares to other animals, and much more.” Aristotle characterized the animals in the island of Lesbos, the marine life in the island’s lagoon at Pyrrha, and anywhere he went. In some of his book like Historia Animalium, it is clear that he did not make all the observations of these animals by himself, some even say that Alexander the Great had hire people to perform some of Aristotle’s observations. Aristotle wrote down various characteristics from different animals and tried to classify or put them in genres. He created a taxonomy of some sort, by sometimes organizing them as bloodless versus containing blood, as well as other characteristics. Of all his studies in biology, to this date, his most accurate observations are found in marine biology (Biography). Aristotle made theories that left little doubt to question his claims. For example, is his book Generation of Animals he states “Moreover, both male and female twins are formed at the same time in the same part of the womb often, and we have observed this sufficiently in dissections of all the vivipara, in both land animals and fish”. Aristotle is disconfirming the theory that male and female twins are born in different parts of the womb (Lehoux). Aristotle’s book Historia Animālium “History of Animals” “characterizes itself as establishing the attributes and the differences that belong to all animals, and claims that by carrying out this inquiry we are prepared to go on to search for the causes.” (Shields). He uses this observational method to be able to understand the differences of the animals in order to find their causes.
After observing the science of animals, Aristotle began to dig deeper and his biology merged with philosophical ideas. By observing details pertaining to function and matter, he dove into thoughts of causation and purpose. This idea of a being’s purpose stems from Aristotle’s theory of the four causes: the efficient, formal, material, and final cause. These causes served to describe the make-up of an organism and ultimately how their makeup influences the outcome of their purpose. The expert Falcon uses a bronze statue to explain how these four causes are used. The material cause is used to describe the components and how the components come together to make the bronze statue, though the “bronze is not only the material out of which the statue is made; it is also the subject of change, that is, the thing that undergoes the change and results in a statue” (Falcon). The formal cause is what the bronze statue gets it form, this cause can come after the material cause. In the case of it using the materials in order to form the bronze statue. The efficient or agent cause, would be the knowledge behind the making of the bronze statue. “For Aristotle, this principle is the art of bronze-casting the statue” (Falcon). Lastly, the final cause is “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done” (Falcon) or rather what is a thing’s purpose, function, and end goal. Aristotle did not specify that these four causes are an explanation of nature, but instead said that change in nature can be referenced to all of them (Falcon). His philosophical system was a coherent system that used logic with a backbone of core beliefs that connect the peripheral beliefs together. In a society that had long begun to think about purpose and existence, in creating religions such as Greek mythology that mimicked humanity itself, individuals began to wonder and search for a deeper knowledge and understanding. It would seem that Aristotle, tried to understand the purpose for things by meticulously understanding their make-up and behaviors. In the excerpt “while the matter of the body of organism was obvious enough, the form, which involved the defining properties of a natural object, was very special in the case of living things” readers see Aristotle’s dig deeper into the question of purpose (Gregory 11).
Furthermore, Aristotle’s impression of nature was teleological in the interpretation that nature has goals apart from those that humans have. He also believed that telos can be present without any form of consciousness and intelligence as explained in the quote “This is most obvious in the animals other than man: they make things neither by art nor after inquiry or deliberation That is why people wonder whether it is by intelligence or by some other faculty that these creatures work” Instead of believing that animals or plants were a lesser beings than humans, he categorized them into three different souls. The nutritive, sensory, and rational. He observed that plants had nutritive souls because they exist to grow. Animals have sensory souls because they react to the stimuli around them. Humans have rational souls because of our capacity to reason (Gregory 11).
Aristotle did not share the same understanding of the soul as the theologians did. The excerpt “The soul is the cause and source of the living body. But cause and source are meant in many ways [or are homonymous]. Similarly, the soul is a cause in accordance with the ways delineated, which are three: it is (i) the cause as the source of motion [the efficient cause], (ii) that for the sake of which [the final cause], and (iii) as the substance of ensouled bodies. That it is a cause as substance is clear, for substance is the cause of being for all things, and for living things, being is life, and the soul is also the cause and source of life” explains the merging of his ideas. (Shields). Considering Aristotle views of biology and his philosophical interpretations of causes and souls, we have to understand why he thought this way.
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Aristotle was influenced by the Macedonian court his whole life and also by Plato. Even though Aristotle did not agree with all of Plato’s theories. For instance, while Plato had little interest in the subject of biology, Aristotle had a lot to say about it. Aristotle was one of the earliest Greek natural philosophers whose work survived during the centuries. “He is properly recognized as the originator of the scientific study of life” (Coonen). The way he conducted and observe his work on animals was attempted until centuries to come. Aristotle’s views and beliefs made a lasting impression that lasted two thousand years. It is unknown if Aristotle’s observations were made by him or other people in the biological corpus, or how he came up with his own theories about the science.
Nevertheless, I believe that his ideas are incorrect and don’t hold up to current standards based on what we know about biology today. This is due to the fact that in ancient Greece, people did not have the resources that we have now. Aristotle conducted experiments solely by empirical observation because he believed if you conducted any sort of experiment you would be manipulating the nature of it. Which would contradict his philosophical views of causes. Today we know that experiments can aid in the discovery of new knowledge and testing hypotheses. But I do think that due to Aristotle’s way of questioning life and finding reasoning, made for a better understanding and concept of science. He created a path for many philosophers to come and question his beliefs.
In summation, Aristotle was surely a great mind, that continues to inspire and impact everyday thought. Even though some of his work has been disproven, it has been a pillar for later scholars to grow upon. Aristotle was a brilliant man from a primeval time period. Moreover, societies evolve out of necessity, and when functioning civilizations were formed, humanity began to wonder and create. One can only expect early rationales to be underdeveloped, but as with all beginnings there is unlimited room for growth.
- “Aristotle.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 10 Sept. 2019,
- Coonen, Lester P. “Aristotle’s Biology.” BioScience, vol. 27, no. 11, 1977, pp. 733–738. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1297678.
- Falcon, Andrea. “Aristotle on Causality.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford
- University, 7 Mar. 2019, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle- causality/#FouCauSciNat.
- Gregory, Frederick. Natural Science in Western History. Mass., 2008.
- Lehoux, Daryn (2017) Current Bibliography of the History of Science and Its Cultural
- Influences, 2017. Isis108:S1, i-191.
- Shields, Christopher. “Aristotle.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 28
- July 2015, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/#LivBei.
- The Complete Works of Aristotle Vol. I. The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes)
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