Mr Aristotle

Aristotle (Ancient Greek ὁ Αριστοτέλης) was a leading philosopher of AncientGreece?. He probably became the most influential philosopher in WesternCivilization after his writings were reintroduced into Europe by the Arabs around 1100~1300.

Aristotle disagreed with MrPlato's view that all the stuff that really mattered was changeless, perfect, and beyond the world that we perceive through the senses. Aristotle was the down-to-Earth philosopher, the Father of Empiricism. He did things like break open eggs at different points in their gestation to see how a chick was formed. His idea of the good life was neither the asceticism nor hedonism that you get from most philosophers, but rather an urbane participation in civic life, where you have wealth and leisure enough to enjoy the good things of this world. As depicted in Raphael's painting TheSchoolOfAthens?, Aristotle gestures toward the ground while arguing with MrPlato, who gestures toward the heavens.

Unlike the empiricists of later times, Aristotle's thinking was not anti-theoretical. Aristotle was a subtle thinker, whose ideas are perhaps untranslatable into modern philosophical concepts and categories, but his views seldom oppose anything that most people find obvious. For example, Aristotle thought that numbers were quantities in the abstract - you know, like "how much" something is. The Platonic view is that numbers exist in an ethereal dimension outside of time and space, and the modern view is that numbers are meaningless symbols. In these opposing views, you can probably sense a great divide - between styles, temperaments, and perhaps purposes.

Aristotle's extant writings are probably mostly lecture notes taken by students. They're almost unreadable. Some say that he was not one person, but many, or rather that his writings are the collection of an evolving school of thought and nowhere contain a definitive statement of a settled, unified philosophy.

http://www.rit.edu/~flwstv/aristotle1.html


Can you provide examples of the modern view of numbers being meaningless symbols? I think of them as quantities in the abstract and I would be surprised if anyone else thought otherwise. Of course, you have to distinguish between the label '2' (a meaningless symbol) and the number to which the label is attached but few laypeople make such a distinction. Or are you talking about the difference between the ordinals and the cardinals? Mathematics uses both. -- RichardKulisz

If you talk to mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists, a lot of them will tell you that mathematics is a bunch of arbitrary rules for manipulating meaningless symbols, that and nothing more. (This is also said of logic.) This leads to the view, expressed by AlbertEinstein among many others, that we should be dumbfounded that mathematics applies so well to reality. (On the view that numbers are concepts of quantity, it's no surprise that they refer to quantities.)

The "meaningless symbols" view is actually not as dumb as it sounds. The idea is that there is nothing more or less to the integers, or real numbers, or any other branch of mathematics, than the rules that define the "formal system". I believe this grew out of a great many strands of thought in mathematics, but most especially the variations on Euclidean geometry first studied in the 19th century. One could ask which geometry is "true" - the one where for a given line, there's always one parallel line through a given point not on that line, the one where there are an infinite number of these parallel lines, or the one where there are none? One soon senses that the question is fruitless. But then what is left of geometry? The symbols and the derivation rules, stripped of content.

By the way, the English language actually distinguishes between the label '2' and the quantity for which it stands, without anyone noticing. The squiggle is a "numeral" and the abstract quantity is a "number". Notice that we say "Arabic numerals" and "Roman numerals"; "Arabic numbers" and "Roman numbers" would sound bizarre, as if different cultures had different, well, numbers. -- BenKovitz

The symbols for numbers are not meaningless, they can be mapped one-to-one to physically existing things. -- AndyPierce

I disagree. Can you show me a 2 in the wild? From what raw materials are 4s manufactured? I agree that numbers have a 'real' existence, but 'mapped one-to-one to physically existing things' suggests either that your physically universe is vastly different from mine, or that one of us is missing a point somewhere. Try counting your hands.

'"The Phantom Tollbooth", an English youth's book, investigates this problem in a diabolical manner, similarly to the twistings present in the poem"Jabberwocky".

No problem. Show me any group of 'real' things, and I'll tell you the number that maps to the group appropriately. The issue is not whether numbers exist, but whether they have meaning. You can't show me green or cold or noisy in the wild either, but the terms still have meaning.

In set theory, 2 is usually defined as {{},{{}}}. -- AmirLivne

That a conception is merely the product of assumption does not make that conception meaningless. Numbers, the conception, are distinct from numbers, the symbols. The idea of numbers, whatever you choose that to be, is not meaningless. It does not rely in any way on the world in which the symbols exist, as the symbols are merely how the idea is communicated, no the idea itself.

Our language does not allow the communication of every unique element of a continuum. However, this is irrelevant to the idea, the assumption, of a continuum. The Real Numbers exist, theoretically, as we may assume that they exist. Assumption is the basis of mathematics.

That an idea is assumed does not make it false, or unproven. The basis for all knowledge is elementary assumption, from which more may be deduced. Change such assumptions, and knowledge itself is altered. A theoretical system based on assumption has its own truth and knowledge.


Isn't the fact that the derivation rules (logic, which MrAristotle so graciously introduced us to) are always the same a sign of something? -- JoshuaGrosse

Here are two answers. (1) In modern philosophy, the derivation rules are not always the same. Today you often see the word "logic" used in the plural. On the meaningless-symbols theory, multiple "logics" is ok, since they're all just arbitrary games.

Sure, but is it that simple? In order to push meaningless-symbols around, you have to arrange them into strings. Talking about theorems and non-theorems then relies on properties of strings and sets thereof, which then form a kind of BaseLogic? that you're working with.

I think the "meaningless symbols" and "arbitrary games" comments are a gross mischaracterization of modern philosophy as I've seen it (which I will grant is limited to those works that are of interest to linguistic theoreticians). The purpose of having multiple logics is that one can develop model theoretic analyses of real phenomena. A good (and extremely useful) example of this is RichardMontague?'s IntensionalLogic? for English semantics. I think I would like to see an ActualReference to a respected modern philosopher who believes that logics are arbitrary games. I'm not saying such a philosopher doesn't exist - I'm sure you'll dig up someone - but let's name names rather than lump a whole field together with one off-hand remark.

(2) I'm no Aristotle scholar, but I suspect that MrAristotle's conception of logic was very different from the modern one taught in symbolic-logic courses, and not well represented by the notion of "derivation rules". MrAristotle's logic is mostly about relationships between things called "universals" - abstract things (like properties) that MrAristotle said inhered only in concrete things, and that MrPlato said existed separately from concrete reality. MrAristotle's logic also includes much more than just deductive inference, including extensive theories of stuff like ways to classify things and how to frame definitions. All these elements of traditional logic were united by the basic goal of getting your thoughts to sync up with the universals - a very different job from mechanically deriving true sentences from other true sentences. Also, I don't think MrAristotle's approach was so much to give instructions to carry out in order to think logically, but to shed light on the process of coming to know. Maybe someone else can explain it better. -- BenKovitz

MrAristotle is impossible to read, so I can't give any firsthand evidence either, but what I meant was that he introduced the idea of reasoning according to certain specified rules, like syllogisms - a concept by no means as obvious as it seems.
his views seldom oppose anything that most people find obvious

Like his view that the natural tendency of an object in motion is to slow to a stop. Like his view that heavy objects fall more rapidly than light ones, etc. etc. Aristotle's empiricism was always heavily adulterated by Aristotle's profound belief in the genius of his own intuition about the world, rather as is that of the developer who just knows the bug isn't in that method. It wasn't until much, much later that folk started to look at the world with open eyes and open minds.

Tests show that until they are educated otherwise, most people find significant parts (at least) of Aristotle's physics obvious. Especially things like heavy objects falling faster than light ones. Remember, obvious doesn't mean true.

"Obviousness" isn't a good guide to physics. Look at quantum mechanics. Intuition only works in the enviroment it was developed. I have some intuition for computer problems, but I know that it is only experience and knowledge playing some tricks in my mind. I wouldn't try to extrapolate this intuition into the real world.
The above is a terribly easy crack to make. Just because we've come up with even better ideas about how things move than Aristotle's doesn't mean that Aristotle was an arrogant jerk who didn't have open eyes and an open mind. Being wrong doesn't mean you weren't curious! The central conflict between Aristotle and Plato was over just this sort of empirical curiosity. MrSocrates and MrPlato said that we should figure everything out by pure reason and that the senses are corrupt and deceive and that no part of the world that we see with the senses could even possibly be an object of knowledge. MrAristotle said that the senses gave us knowledge and that what we learned through them was pretty interesting and the whole process was lots of fun. Scholarly folk have told me that the first paragraph of Metaphysics A (http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.1.i.html#1) was put there specifically to summarize the difference in style with the Platonic camp. -- BenKovitz

Additionally, Aristotle was and is correct in the above observations. Heavier objects DO fall faster than lighter ones and moving objects DO tend to slow down and stop. Just because those observations are not particularly useful for deriving a simplistic physical model of the universe does not make them incorrect. -- AndyPierce

Was he also correct about women having fewer teeth than men? (ActualReference: The History of Animals, book 2, part 3)

No, and that was part of a deeper misconception about how gender worked. But let's be fair. First, it's not like that's something that would have been easy to study - given how often people brushed, how many do you suppose had a full mouth? Second, when you write that much material on that many things, and do so much original work, you're entitled to make a fair number of slips before you've done something seriously wrong.

How many slips? Males have more teeth than females in the case of men, sheep, goats, and swine; in the case of other animals observations have not yet been made... Did women have fewer teeth because they were sitting around eating bonbons while their husbands were off fighting the Spartans? Did ewes, nannies, and sows not brush as often as their male counterparts? While his mistake of repeating what was probably an ancient urban legend without really checking and making it sound like he did does not detract from the valuable contributions MrAristotle did make, a discussion of MrAristotle that fails to mention such things can hardly claim to be objective.

Well, I didn't mean that men would have more teeth than women on average, just that verifying maxima would be hard. But sure, Aristotle makes a number of mistakes of varying degrees of seriousness, and an improper insistance on his authority has been a major stumbling block for a few different fields, fron physics to drama. Still, the idea of him suggested above is placing disproportionate weight on a small portion of his works. And I'm not sure why we should have to be objective here.


After MrPlato founded the Academy of Philosophy at Athens and made MrAristotle its star pupil, they disagreed on Empiricism. When Plato died, Aristotle was not appointed head of the school. Aristotle left in a snit.

In 343 BC, he went north to Macedonia, to serve as tutor to the 13-year old prince, Alexander. He proceeded to mess with his head (and body) and fill him up with notions of geography, and acquisition.

When Alexander turned twenty, he set out to conquer the world.

Because Athens was the first stop, Aristotle returned with the conquering army, then founded his own school, the Lyceum.

AlexanderTheGreat? kept going until he had killed millions of people (including, of course, tens of thousands of his own troops) in useless wars conquering lands all the way to India. After conquering them he then proceeded to ignore them and not rule over them effectively; they all eventually fell away from Macedonian rule - Not true. Alexander died young, on the trail, of some weird rare tropical disease that paralyzes you and keeps you alive for a long time.

So the next time you think of the philosophy of Aristotle, think of an international terrorist mastermind, like OsamaBinLaden, capable of inspiring others to suicidal missions. He put his own petty ambitions ahead of the lives of everyone around him. Ahem. A present day incarnation of Godwin's law has just appeared.

That sounds awfully questionable. To start with, are you sure Aristotle had that much influence over Alexander? If I remember correctly the second, though he probably did gain some appreciation for Greek culture, was not exactly a star pupil nor especially fond of his teacher. I think Aristotle's son was one of those tried executed for treason along the way. Moreover, conquering Asia was already an ambition of his father, right in line with the sort of man he was reputed to be and the sort of ideals he had, so I'm not even sure he would need that sort of input, even if he would have accepted it.

My source is the Cartoon History of the Universe, whose source is Alexander the Great by W. W. Tarn.

And I really think the idea Aristotle glommed onto the nearest ambitious warlord, who happened to be raising a son at the time, is tenable. Considering the kind of child abuse warlords showered on their sons at the time A. could instead have counseled and rehabilitated the kid. But I was not there ;-) -- PhlIp

I couldn't find a hardcopy of Tarn, so haven't checked it, but everyone seems to place him in the pro-Alexander camp, so he certainly did not say anything like the above. Aristotle it would seem was appointed specifically to prepare Alex for his up-and-coming role as king or conqueror, and as such probably had more to say about how he should act then what he should do. In fact you will recall that Aristotle believed man was a political animal - one that is happiest in a polis - and so was opposed to empire, and he advised that the Greeks and barbarians should be kept separate, which is definitely not at all like the policy Alex later pursued. It would seem there is no question that Aristotle tended to curb rather than spur on his pupil's ambitions. Relationships were chilly between the two on account of this and the execution of Callisthenes (nephew, not son) but apparently not completely frosted over because Alexander did rebuild Stagira, Aristotle's hometown. As for Aristotle's motive in accepting the position I would guess it was simply to put his political theory, namely that rulers should take advice from philosophers, into practice - and who better for the greatest ruler than himself - much as MrPlato tried to do with Dionysius of Syracuse. -- JoshuaGrosse

So Aristotle was like OsamaBinLaden and all about petty ambitions. I see. Tell me, what is the appeal of this sort of remark? Isn't this the intellectual equivalent of spray-painting graffiti on subways and defacing beautiful works of art? Even if it is, I think it can be countered in better ways than just trying to shame the person who said it. I would be delighted to learn from a demonstration. Currently, it seems to me that the level of cheap wisecrack and accusation shown above is little more than announcement that one is interested in humiliating the great because it's great (like vandalism) and not in learning or sharing knowledge or any other constructive behavior. To "counter" it by reasoned argument would just play along with the game, leading only to more wisecracks and accusations to be "countered" and on and on. There are few things easier to make than an accusation. In any event, one doesn't debate with vandals.


I deleted the notion "not very popular" from the beginning because of the current strong interest in Aristotle, cf. Martha Nussbaum and other Neo-Aristotelian philosophers.

-- MikkoMantysaari


Contributors: BenKovitz

See also: ThreeOldGreeks
CategoryPhilosophy CategoryLogic

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