Sunday, 05 February 2012 07:28

Aristotle - Men of Ideas

Written by 

We begin our review of seminal social scientists with Aristotle (384-322 BC) not because what Aristotle said could be construed as science by today’s understanding of what science is but because of his general approach to his studies. He self consciously determined to study things empirically, as they are, not as he wants them to be.  His teacher, Plato, emphasized finding out the essence of things and that inquiry led him to asking such questions that the nature of things as they are to our physical eyes were ignored and, instead, observers wanted to understand their essence before they manifested in physical phenomena.

Plato took folk to the realm of metaphysics where speculation abounded. Things were said to have archetypes whose manifestations in the empirical world were shadows of.

Aristotle, on the other hand, dispensed with efforts to understand the ideals of what exists in the objective world but, instead, studied them as he saw them to be in the here and now world.

What is a tree? Let us find out. Aristotle described a tree as we all could see it. Is a tree a poor shadow of something else, say, something spiritual? If you said yes you would be speculating, for the fact is that you do not know; what we do know for certain is the physical attributes of the tree that we all could see and verify.

A tree has leaves, branches, stem, trunk, roots; a tree is rooted on soil; the soil appears to nourish the tree for if the soil is not rich with certain nutrients the tree would die.  All said a tree appears to be a physical phenomenon rooted in the material world it finds itself.

Plato may well be correct in suspecting that there is another force behind physical phenomena but the fact is that the observable world seems only material. It seems a waste of time conjecturing on that which we cannot see and agree on.

Aristotle thus delimited his observations of phenomena to that which many observers could see and ascertain. In this sense he was a scientist if by science we agree with Francis Bacon and David Hume is that methodological approach to phenomena that limits itself to the observable world.

However, that does not mean that what Aristotle did say about anything is true, as we understand the truth to be today. We must remember that he lived over twenty three hundred years ago. What is salient is his methodological approach to phenomena not his findings in themselves. 

Science is not the findings of science but the approach to phenomena. Science is that approach to phenomena that delimits itself to the observable and verifiable (and, as Karl Popper added, falsifiable). Science does not address itself to what seems true that we cannot ascertain. For example, many religionists believe that a rational force must be behind the apparent world; that seems true but there is no way we can verify the god hypothesis hence it is not a proper subject for scientific inquiry.

Having resolved to limit his work to the material world (materialism, as opposed to the idealism of Plato), Aristotle carefully delineated and catalogued the world around him. His mind ranged all over the place; he was not a specialist as we are today but, instead, a generalist; he observed every aspect of phenomena around him. He observed and wrote on most of today’s branches of knowledge: physics, metaphysics, logic, history, biology, ethics, politics, and, yes, God.

There is no way that one man, even in the best of circumstances, could be an authority on the whole range of subjects that Aristotle wrote on. As expected, what he wrote on some of these subjects is not useful at all; in fact, most of them are not useful. Nevertheless, he did make some seminal contributions to knowledge. He was the first Western scientist to try to systematize knowledge.

Whereas what Aristotle said in many areas are not useful, his writings on Logic has stood the test of time. His syllogism still is the standard of logical thinking. Essentially, Aristotelian logic demonstrates that conclusions are based on accepted premises and are therefore not necessarily true. Consider.

All animals have four legs. (Major Premise)

A dog has four legs. (Minor Premise)

Therefore, a dog is an animal (conclusion).

Whereas, from the standpoint of the major premise this conclusion is logical, the conclusion tells us nothing about the truth of animals. To start with some animals have two legs and others have many more legs.

Logical inferences are limited to the premise on which they are predicated and do not tell us what is the truth. In this light, whereas science can describe physical phenomena it is only correct if we delimited our inquiry to physical matter; on the other hand, science does not tell us anything truthful of phenomena if we ask non-physical questions, such as why does physical matter exist?

When we ask why questions we leave the realm of science and enter another realm, a realm more fitted to Platonism. Are why questions useful? Should we limit ourselves only to how questions, the type of questions that science asks?

Let us see. Thirteen billion years ago, science tells us that there was an explosion that produced the physical universe. Science has described that explosion (Big Bang). Okay.

Why was there an explosion? What existed before the explosion?  Are those irrelevant questions? Of course not. Science simply does not ask questions its methodology cannot answer and that does not mean that those questions are not to be asked. It simply means that a different methodological approach to phenomena asks non scientific questions.

We all know that since the 1960s the physical sciences have, more or less, stopped producing new ideas. We have Newton’s mechanics, Einstein’s relativity and Bohr’s quantum mechanics. Since then all that the physical sciences have done is provide details on those subjects but essentially have not produced new ideas (Super Strings Hypothesis has not been demonstrated as true).

Now, if science has run into a rut is it possible that the reason is that it has reached the limits of its types of questions? Could it be that different types of questions have to be asked?

If a tree fell and there is no human agency to observe it fall (hear the sound of its falling, note that a tree existed and fell) did a tree fall? Does it take human agency to observe the existence of phenomena? If so do phenomena exist independent of human beings? Is the world outside human beings, as science says? Alternatively, is the world inside people, as philosophical idealism, such as George Berkeley’s views, says?

This conundrum has not been resolved despite what seems the triumph of Aristotelian descriptive science; descriptive science is not causal analysis.

Aristotle was a student of Plato, who, presumably, was a student of Socrates. Plato had built a school, the Academy, and Aristotle built his own school, Lyceum. At this first university in the Western world Aristotle systematically detailed the world he found himself in. As noted, his mind ranged on all sorts of subjects, some physical, others social. In as much as we are at the moment concentrating on the social sciences, let us delimit Aristotle to what is today called the social sciences. The aspect of social science that Aristotle wrote most on is Politics. Aristotle wrote extensively on politics; indeed, today, Aristotle’s Politics is still required reading for Western college students.

In his Politics Plato tried to figure out what constitutes ideal politics. What is the ideal of anything political? Plato and a group of Noble Athenians gathered and engaged in interminable dialogue trying to figure out what constitutes ideals in the world of politics. Consider justice, a focus of politics.

What is justice? There are many definitions of justice; whose definition of justice is justice? Is it the definition of the ruling classes that define justice to serve their interests? Is it the definition of the ruled classes that define justice from what they believe would serve its alternative interests?

If a poor person stole something and is arrested, tried and jailed is that justice? How so? What justice made it possible for some to be rich and others poor?

In a just world would there be rich and poor?  If not, why then do we jail the poor thief?

The problem that Plato is raising is that whereas in the real world we must define justice from a pragmatic point of view, what serves the greatest number of people, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that we have engaged in justice. Whereas we may arrest and jail the thieving poor person that does not mean that our behavior is just. Certainly, it does not seem just to the incarcerated poor person. If and when the poor person decides he kills those who jailed him. The fact that he could waste his detractors tells us that neither they nor him were just in their behaviors.

If the powerful decides they screw the weak. When the weak makes up its mind it kills the powerful. Neither of them is just. So what is just?

Plato wanted to figure out what is just. Alas, that takes infinite time to accomplish. In the meantime, Plato wanted a situation where philosopher kings pondered such matters before they made social policies that affected every one rather than the cavalier belief that what served our interests is just.

White Americans, for example, had military power and used it to serve their interests, which included enslaving Africans and or relegating them to second class citizenship. In their minds their society is just. But is it just? It is just from the ruling class’ perspective but not from the oppressed class’ perspective. Thus, if in the future the oppressed class overthrew the ruling class would any one be surprised?

Oppressors come and go, what Plato wanted to do is figure out a definition of justice that is self evidently true and that serves all persons interests.

Alas what Plato was engaged in is time consuming. It is a lot easier to simply do what Aristotle did: describe what is observable in the extant world. In his Politics Aristotle simply described extant society and said that as far as he knows that is what is verifiable as political behavior.

As Aristotle sees it, Politics is that aspect of human beings activities that attempt to govern people in the here and now world. In the extant political world some are rulers and some are ruled, some are slaves and some are slave masters. This is the way it is. Aristotle took the political realism of his time as the nature of politics. There would always be rulers and ruled, freemen and slaves (he saw nothing wrong with having slaves or for men ruling women).

The problem with Aristotle’s politics is really the problem of today’s social science. When this observer was in graduate school he was indoctrinated into behavioral social sciences. Here, folks simply observed the political behavior of a group without juxtaposing their own value judgment. For example, Americans voted in a certain manner. You described Americans voting behavior (patterns). Americans voted for fifty-something year old white males for their president. That is empirical and the way it is, so you describe it. But is this good enough?

Why do Americans vote for middle class and middle aged white males? Why don’t they vote for black folk, and for female folk? Where is it written that only white men should be voted for?

Aristotelian politics merely would describe how Americans voted without looking at the underlying racism and sexism behind such votes.

Plato would talk about ideal politics and the deviations from it that conceivably led to racism and sexism.

Thus, we must not cavalierly dismiss Plato as useless focus on the ethereal. Aristotle may lend itself to social science but in the final analysis he is not enough.

For our present purposes, Aristotle’s politics delimited itself to the observation of empirical politics and left it at that.

In Western nomenclature the term Aristocratic derives from Aristotle; it is the acceptance of the rule of a class of people deemed qualified by nature or education to rule others, not on democratic basis but on the basis of superiority.

Aristotle accepted that some persons are superior to others, that men are superior to women, that free men are superior to slaves (the slaves of Athens, by the way, were white men from what is now called Bulgaria etc).

Is it true that some persons are superior to other persons? Are men superior to women? Of course there is no shred of evidence supporting this hypothesis. In effect, despite his claim to empiricism Aristotle was really an ideologue; he was reflecting the prejudices of his class and calling what he was doing science.

As already observed, by today’s standard of truth, most of his observations are not true. He is only relevant in the sense that he was or claimed to be an empiricist and empiricism is today’s religion.

Our universities are said to be predicated on Aristotle’s empiricism. But are our universities empirical? Do folks ask all questions at our universities?

What did Thomas Kuhn tell us in his “Structure of Scientific Revolution”? In the university you have to ask questions that the gatekeepers of the institution deem appropriate, questions that would not rock the boat. If your questions would shatter the current paradigm of the truth, assumptions on which the self satisfied gatekeepers of academia rest their laurels, they would not encourage them and, indeed, would punish you for asking them.

Science asked certain questions and for a long while seemed very productive in its answers. But those questions are now not yielding productive results; science is now stagnant.

Obviously, different types of questions are called for to yield different answers, answers that would take mankind to a different level of civilization.

In the meantime, the majorities of scientists ask questions within the accepted paradigm of their discipline and do their work within the parameters of their disciplines. It usually takes a bold and courageous spirit to get folk out of the rut their cowardice puts them.

It takes a Copernicus and Galileo to challenge the Catholic Church’s earth-centric view of the universe, to tell us that the earth is a minor planet circling a sun, itself a minor star in a galaxy of billions of stars, which itself is one of billions of galaxies. It takes courage to lead mankind to a different direction.

With the fall of Rome in the fifth century AD, classical Greek learning, Aristotle included, was lost to the West. In the meantime, Arabs conquered the Mediterranean world of which Greece was a part of. Arabs in the seventh century conquered Spain and for seven hundred years ruled Spain.

Arabs, for all their religious fanaticism, accepted aspects of Greek learning (those compatible with their Islamic religion) and brought them to Western Europe.

In Europe total darkness reigned, for the Catholic Church had outlawed any system of learning that was not amenable to the Bible and its superstitions. Europe under the rule of the Bishops of Rome was a place of superstition. In this sea of ignorance it was a welcome relief when Arabs brought in Greek learning, including Plato and Aristotle.

Greek learning gradually found its way back to the European psyche. Medieval theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, tried employing Aristotelian logic in demonstrating the existence of God. (Aquinas Summa Theologica is Aristotle applied to Christian superstition.)

Plato and Aristotle reentered the consciousness of the West. Today the West prides itself on its Greek heritage. It is this pride in all things Greek, I suppose, that has led us to begin our discourse on the social sciences with a Greek scholar called Aristotle.

Aristotle’s legacy is that his name is associated with science, be it physical or social science; he is the symbol of any and all efforts to approach phenomena from a disinterested, impartial, impersonal, unsympathetic and objective manner.

Can we actually understand phenomena in an objective, non-subjective manner? Consider that despite their claim of disinterestedness scientists ask mainly those questions that serve their class interests.

In the end, despite the politics of self interest that characterize the scientific enterprise it is useful to read Aristotle and his predecessor, Plato. No education is complete without understanding of these two giants in human beings efforts to understand themselves and their world.


Aristotle, The Politics of Aristotle (there are many editions).

Plato, The Republic (there are many editions).

Read 6866 times
Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176