Why I’m an Aristotelian

About the time I was starting my degree in philosophy, I had heard that Roman Catholics are Aristotelian and Reformed are Platonists. My husband never stated it that way, but he’s a Platonist because things exist outside our material world and a priori knowledge is true. Since I believe both of these things and certainly not a Roman Catholic, I must be a Platonist too. That was my thinking pattern when entering school, and like all beginning students I was woefully naïve.

Brief Explanation of Platonic Forms

Plato’s epistemology is centered around his understanding of Forms. According to Plato, Forms are abstract properties that exist permanently and independently of the objects to which the properties are assigned. In dealing with the conundrum of how the world appears to be in constant flux and the understanding that we could have no knowledge of truth and permanence unless the world we perceive through our minds is unchanging, Plato determined that existence is made up of two realms—the material world we view through our senses and the transcendent world of universals, which he called Forms.

Forms are single properties that exist apart from the object itself and would continue to exist even if all objects in the material world containing that property ceases to exist. For example, if all green things ceased to exist, the property, or Form, of the color green would continue to exist apart from the objects it once inhabited. Since Forms are transcendent and exists independently of its objects, then unrelated objects can take on the same single property, like the Form of beauty in mountains and women.

This seemed to make sense. and if the alternative is nothing can be known except through experiential senses, then it appeared to be a no-brainer to adopt rationalistic epistemology, But I had quibbles with his belief that the material world is a mere copy of the world of Forms, plus how could pure ideas be known to exist if there were no material copies of the Form?

Introduction to Aristotelian Logic

When I took a class on Aristotle, I discovered that he was not a pure empiricist, at least not in the sense that all that we experience is all that can ever be known. According to Aristotle, senses are innate, which is how we know things before experiencing them. He also taught that deductive (syllogistic) and inductive arguments illustrate pre-existent knowledge. The syllogistic assumes the audience accepts the premises, which is based on axioms, and the inductive exhibits the universal as implicit in a known particular. Syllogisms are based on indemonstrable proofs, meaning they are universally known and are self-evident. Example:

  • All men are mortal
  • Socrates is a man
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal

With inductive reasoning, we infer general principles using specific propositions. It’s only ever probabilistic, but what it shows for my purpose in explanation is that it can shed light on the existence of universals. For example:

  • Here is a tree
  • Here is another tree
  • Therefore, we can infer from these two particular trees that there is a universal category of trees

When I learned this, I found it somewhat enlightening, at least in terms that Aristotle is not a pure empiricist. But I still had far to go before I would ditch Platonic rationalism. Besides, I needed something a little sexier to be convinced, and syllogisms and inductive inferences are not sexy, maybe to a logician but not to me.

Potentiality and Actuality

What first grabbed my attention was something I wrestled with just to understand, but when I did, I developed a zeal for philosophy that I didn’t have before.

In Metaphysics, Aristotle discussed his philosophy of cause from which he applies the idea of substance to form and matter. He also made the distinction between matter and form, in which matter is the stuff a substance is composed of while form is the way the substance is put together. Aristotle also established the relationship between form as actuality and matter as potentiality. In doing so, he argued that actuality precedes potentiality.

Aristotle defined substance as “that which is neither predicable of a subject nor present in a subject.” Simply put, a substance is its own being, like an individual man or an individual tree. Substance can undergo transmutation, such as the case of an acorn becoming an oak tree, and retain its fundamental distinctiveness. According to Aristotle, “it is because they change, that they are able to receive contraries.” This ability to receive contraries while remaining continuous is what determines a substance. Substance is able to remain constant despite subjection to forces of potential and change. Substance, in the Aristotelian framework, can be understood as the bridge between actuality and potentiality.

According to Aristotle, “the whole is something apart from the parts,” but concludes that there is a cause of unity. To describe this cause, Aristotle examines matter and form. In describing matter as a subject, he equates matter with potentiality and finds that matter is that which is “potentially but not actually this.” A block of wood could potentially be carved into a bowl but is not actually a bowl. This definition of potentiality seems clear, but what remains less clear is the nature of actuality. Aristotle saw form as the source of actuality, as that which is predicated of matter. He posited that “each different sort of matter has a different actuality.” Going back to the block of wood, while it has the potential of recognizing its actuality as a bowl, it also has the potentiality of becoming a table. In each case, the potentiality contains a different actuality.

Book VII of Metaphysics argues that actuality is prior to potentiality. This appears to be counter-intuitive because a block of wood precedes the bowl it is made from. In the Aristotelian account of substance, actuality is given priority over potentiality. Aristotle made two arguments to support this. In one argument, he wrote that “the actuality is the end, and it is for the sake of this potentiality is acquired.” Because the final cause of a block of wood is to be a bowl, this makes actuality the final cause of a substance. Secondly, because anything that has potentiality is material and that which is material is not eternal, and what is eternal can never be potential. This train of thought leads to the Aristotelian view of that which is eternal precedes material substances; therefore, actuality precedes potentiality.

When studying Aristotle’s epistemology through his understanding of both logic and metaphysics, I found it to be both more sophisticated and more in line with reality than Plato’s rationalism. As to Reformed Christians, I quickly learned that while I’m in the minority, I am not alone.

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