Who was Aristotle? - Definition & Philosophy

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  • 0:01 Defining Aristotle
  • 1:06 Aristotle's Legacy
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Considered to be one of the most influential thinkers of Western culture, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle merged science and philosophy to develop a logical and virtuous means of understanding and living in our world.

Defining Aristotle

Born in northern Greece in 384 BC, Aristotle was a Classical Greek philosopher who did much to shape Western thought. As a student and later a teacher in Plato's school, The Academy, Aristotle developed an inquisitive spirit and a love of knowledge that would lead him to philosophize on multiple topics, including rhetoric, science, psychology, politics, and morality. Philosophy, to Aristotle, meant applying reason to observation as a means of understanding the riddles of our world and making the most of our lives.

Sculpture of Aristotle
Sculpture of Aristotle

Before he died in 322 BC, Aristotle impacted the intellectual environment of his time by tutoring Alexander the Great in 342 BC and opening his own school, called The Lyceum, around 335 BC. The Lyceum and Aristotle's ideas waned in influence after the fall of Rome. But in the Middle Ages, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian philosophers rediscovered Aristotle and even incorporated Aristotelian ideas into their respective religious beliefs. Aristotle has been a staple in the study of philosophy ever since.

The remains of The Lyceum
Picture of the remains of The Lyceum

Aristotle's Legacy

About a third of Aristotle's possibly 200 philosophical works survive, and many of these works are likely lecture notes taken by his students. Aristotle wrote on diverse subjects, but in all of them, there is a unifying theme of using sound logic and scientific inquiry to understand the world and our place in it. Many scholars divide Aristotle's work into four categories:

(1) logic

(2) theoretical works on metaphysics and science

(3) practical works on human nature and society

(4) works about artistic pursuits

We'll examine each category in more detail below.

Logic

In order to discover the mysteries of our world, Aristotle first had to establish a means of knowing our universe. Aristotle does this in Organon, which is a collection of six treatises detailing a system of logic for collecting, categorizing, and interpreting data and forming valid arguments. Aristotle relied on empirical data, and he argued that if we apply reason and logic to our experiences, we can discover the truth of our world.

Aristotle developed the concept of the syllogism, which is a three-part argument containing two premises (or reasons) and one conclusion (a claim that can be deduced from the premises). The classic example of a syllogism is:

Premise 1 - All men are mortal

Premise 2 - Socrates is a man

Conclusion - Therefore, Socrates is a mortal

A well-crafted syllogism occurs when the truth of the premises can guarantee the truth of the conclusion. Aristotle was really the first person to establish the building blocks of formal logic and deductive reasoning in this way.

Metaphysics and Science

In works like Physics and Metaphysics, Aristotle approaches deep metaphysical questions of existence from a scientific perspective. Aristotle argued that such abstract ideas revealed themselves in physical objects, and the only way to accurately access these truths was to study physical things. For example, Aristotle at one point studied and categorized animals in an effort to understand how life works and how life manifests itself in different forms. Some of his observations -- like a primitive differentiation between vertebrates and invertebrates -- later proved to be accurate!

In his metaphysical/scientific works, Aristotle also discussed the concepts of cause and purpose as they reveal themselves in the natural world. According to Aristotle, there are four causes for everything in the universe:

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