Good Phi 101, Spring 2015 Term Paper Example
Aristotle Vs Plato: Or, the Varieties of Philosophical Idealism and Realism
In this paper, the metaphysical worldviews of both Aristotle and Plato will be examined and discussed. Plato’s metaphysical worldview is that there is a more perfect world than the world we live in now. Aristotle’s metaphysical worldview is that this is the real world, the world of our immanent reality. Plato’s idealism is that reality exists dependent on the mind’s ability to understand reality as a unity. Aristotle’s realism is simply that reality exists independently of our capacity to understand it, but we can know reality the way that it is through reason and empirical means. Largely speaking, Aristotle and Plato’s view represent two major metaphysical schools of thought. Idealism places emphasis on the mind and less emphasis on the material world. Realism places emphasis on the external world — however, both views have in common the problem of the observer. In this paper, it will be argued that Aristotle’s realism is superior to Plato’s idealism.
What Plato and Aristotle have in common is that they depend on a notion of unity to account for the world the way that really is. The difference is how they construct a unified framework to understand deeper metaphysical principles. Plato imagines reality to have levels, like the steps of a ladder. At the bottom of the ladder is mere sense perception, or what he calls opinion (478a). While opinions can sometimes be true, it is not knowledge in the strict epistemological sense. The world we live in, the world we perceive through our senses is constructed like what Plato analogizes in his story of the cave in Republic (514-517). The world we live in is like a dark cave, and what we see on the wall of the cave are really carbon copies of objects cast by an artificial fire. In this allegory, we cannot know reality for what it is just by relying on common sense or our senses. To understand reality as the way it truly is requires the philosophical use of reason. In this way, for Plato, deeper reality is dependent upon the use of what he calls the soul. The soul, for Plato, is something like the activity of the mind. As we climb the step ladder, out of the cave, the prisoner who was once chained to the walls of the external world, finds the truth outside of the cave illuminated by the sun. The sun is the symbol for the light of reason. In the light of reason, the prisoner can see objects for what they are in their formal reality.
The forms are what give objects their shape, the identity, and their unity. Only through the mind, and the rigorous use of reason, can the soul understand the forms. Moreover, the forms are separate from this world and exist on a transcendent plane over and above our corporeal existence. The only part of the human person that is connected to the “world of the forms” is our soul, for we come from this world, and our soul is merely trapped inside of a body. The body, since it is of this world, stunts our vision of ultimate reality. If we could be truly free of the body, and its constraints, we would know reality more clearly and abundantly than through the vicissitudes of a finite and limited body.
In Plato’s vision, the forms are like the ultimate sense of what things are in the world. Through our everyday experience, we see trees in the park as different shades of green, of different gradients of bark, and of different sizes and varieties. But in all of these multiplicities our mind can make sense of “tree”. This is possible, Plato argues, because we know the form of the tree. There is in reality only one tree — and in this way the form of the tree is what gives all trees their “treeness”. While in the world of sensory experience we see a multiplicity, in the world of the form there is only a oneness. The unity of the forms is what makes the reality we live even possible. So, it is not that Plato thinks this world is an illusion, but that this world is an imperfect copy of a perfect world. In this way, reality as we know it is dependent on the forms to give its shape and its ultimate purpose. The world is always in a constant state of becoming. Becoming is a byproduct of reality’s dependence on the world of the form. Trees grow old, wither and die, water dries up, and winds move the sands on the desert. The moon revolves around the earth, and both earth and moon rotate on their axis. But the ultimate reality is a pure being. The highest form for Plato is the form of the Good, which suggest that reality as we know it is governed by an organizing principle that makes everything subsumed by it dependent of it for its existence. If reality were like a video game, mere mortals would be on the lowest levels of the game, and to advance to different levels, the hero would need to understand deeper realities.
Aristotle agrees with Plato’s system of the forms, but he rejects the idealist view that the forms are separate from this world. Aristotle takes away the idea that reality is dependent on a transcendent set of universals to make reality the way that it is. Instead of a universal tree that gives all trees their treeness, Aristotle does something ingenious and claims that the reality of the tree is independent of a formal tree. In Raphael’s famous painting of the “School of Athens” Plato points upwards toward the sky to represent his formal idealism while Aristotle points his hand towards the viewer to represent immanence. Aristotle argues that particular things in the world achieve a unity by having a built-in formalism that is entirely separate from our ability to perceive them. Aristotle brings Plato’s theory “down to earth” (Salmieri 56).
Aristotle’s picture of reality makes the most sense because his view better represents a scientific view of the world. While Aristotle understands that to perceive reality, one must use one’s senses. However, the senses do not present a false picture of reality, but rather, the world itself, the external reality, imprints itself on the mind like hands imprint a shape in a sandbox. Aristotle’s view is based on a curious wonder of the external world, and a scientific ambition to understand how things work by examining their function, their place in the greater order of things. The human being in Aristotle’s view is not superior to nature, but human beings can understand nature by examining it more closely. It is safe to say that since Aristotle was the student of Plato, he does not reject outright everything his master taught him. Like any great genius of thought, he incorporates Plato’s ontological story and resizes it into a worldview that makes sense by examining reality in the way it can be observed.
Aristotle retains the best parts of Plato’s theory, which is one other reason his realist picture of reality is superior. Aristotle does not reject reason. Instead of seeing the world as a copy of a perfect world, the advantage of Aristotle’s thought is that he sees the world as one of potential and action (192a). In a way similar to how physicists describe energy, as either like the pencil on the edge of a desk (potential energy) or the pencil rolling down a hill (kinetic energy), Aristotle sees reality in a similar way. All objects have potential, and all objects have an end to which they reach. The acorn strives to be an oak tree, while the human embryo strives to be a virtuous human being (at its end). Just as the organs in the body, while particular things, have an organic unity that give them purpose — to keep the body as a whole in check and in gear.
In conclusion, a metaphysical system must be judged by a less is more approach. Plato’s ontology is too busy, and his reliance on a perfected world to make everything happen is too busy. While idealism in the sense that we need our brain to perceive reality is true, it is not true that reality depends on our brain’s ability to parse the exigencies of reality. Aristotle’s system of realism is agreeable because it both aligns with the common sense notion that “what you see is what you get” while not throwing away the use of reason.
Aristotle, , and Richard P. McKeon. Basic Works. New York: Random House, 1941. Internet
Plato, , John M. Cooper, and D S. Hutchinson. Complete Works. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub,
1997. Internet Resource.
Salmieri, Gregory. Aristotle and the Problem of Concepts. S.l.: Bibliobazaar, Llc, 2011. Internet
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