Aristotle's empiricism

The significance of Aristotle

Without Aristotle, modern philosophy would have been – quite literally – unthinkable. So too, for that matter, would modern science. It was Aristotle who first realized that, if you thought things through systematically enough, you could draw general conclusions about the universe by considering particular objects and events.

Aristotle at the Academy

AristotleAristotle was born in 384 BCE, in Macedon, a kingdom in northern Greece. His father was the court doctor to King Amyntas. As an intellectually-restless teenager, Aristotle went to Athens to enrol at Plato's Academy. There, over the next 20 years, as student and then as teacher, he developed his own way of approaching things.

Plato had thought that ‘reality' was no more than the imperfect embodiment of ideal forms: the thinker's task was to see past immediate perceptions to the truth beyond.

Aristotle eventually came to disagree: rather than speculating on how things should be, you had to concern yourself with how they were. His empiricist view was that we can only know what we can see and test by observation.

Though Aristotle was as yet only feeling his way towards a fully worked-out formulation of this view, it would be the basis for the whole system of modern scientific thought.

A range of interests

Aristotle's many books show the extraordinary range of his interests. Subjects like biology and physics obviously lent themselves to his ‘empiricist' cast of mind. But Aristotle wrote on everything from literature to psychology. Common to all his studies, however, was a tendency to avoid idealizing theories about how things ought to be and concentrate on how they actually were. His Politics, which set out to consider what constituted a well-run city or kingdom, made a point of examining real states to see how they had attempted to deal with the various potential problems.

More on the works of Aristotle: We know of almost fifty different books by Aristotle – though strictly speaking none were actually authored by him: his students wrote up their lecture-notes after his death in 322 BCE.

Everyday ethics

Aristotle's avoidance of ideal theories did not mean a cynical scorn of morality. One of his greatest books, the Nichomachean Ethics deals specifically with what it means to lead a ‘good life'. But here too, Aristotle's empiricist assumptions show: in his view, it was no use being a ‘good' person in some vague essential way. People could only really be good if they did good things.

His down-to-earth realism led to his insistence that what we would call ‘real-world' considerations had to be recognised. How a person should behave had to depend in part upon the context. It was all very well setting out absolute moral laws which would hold in all circumstances, but life was not really like that, Aristotle argued. Too much virtue could become a vice, he thought (gluttony was bad, but then so was self-starvation): he was a great believer in finding a middle way.

The golden mean

Aristotle used the term the ‘golden mean'. By this he meant that middle way between one extreme and another. He believed moderation was best in all things.

These ideas linked into the classical desire for symmetry and balance, which was seen in the Greek sculptures of perfectly proportioned nude bodies. It is evident too in the view that human health was dependent on the four humours being maintained in a perfect balance.

Rather than laying down rigid codes of behaviour, Aristotle wanted individuals to develop the ability to negotiate the moral challenges they would actually encounter as they made their way through life.

More on the reaction to Aristotle: Despite his scrupulous care for finding the right way to live, Aristotle was accused of leading the youth of Athens astray with his ideas. He had to leave the city in a hurry around 346 BCE. He went home to Macedon, where by now King Philip II was on the throne. Aristotle was well received. He was even taken on as tutor to the young Prince Alexander, the future Alexander the Great. After about six years, he was able to return to Athens and resume his teaching.

An ironic inheritance

Thomas AquinasMuch of the learning of classical times was lost when, in the early centuries after the death of Christ, barbarian armies sacked the cities of Greece and the Roman Empire. In the end, ironically, Aristotle's thought was reintroduced to Christendom towards the end of the first millennium by the Islamic scholars of the Arab world. More ironic still, while his works were taken up with great enthusiasm by thinkers like St Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–74), their sceptical spirit seems to have been ignored by the mass of medieval scholars. Rather than emulating his attitude of continually questioning and testing-out his findings, they saw him as an ‘authority' whose word was law and simply accepted the conclusions he had come to, however mistaken they might be.

Related topics

Impact of classical literature: Plato

Other cultural references

Aristotle Detective, Margaret Anne Doody

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