Metaphysics: Philosophy Begins in Wonder

Aristotle said “All men by nature desire to know.” It is intellectual curiosity that drives people to wonder about the nature of reality and the origin of the universe. His statement might have applied to the pre-Socratics (discussed in Chapter 1), with their quest to find the ultimate principles and origins of the universe.

That the love of knowing is what drives metaphysical knowledge is made clear early on in Aristotle's Metaphysics:

That it is not a science of production is clear even from the history of the earliest philosophers. For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and stars, and about the genesis of the universe.

Even if there is no material reward in wondering, these men “philosophized in order to escape from ignorance,” Aristotle asserts. They were “pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end.”

Metaphysical knowledge is the science of first principles, or first causes. The earliest philosophers wanted to know the explanation of the things they saw, and so philosophy arose out of the desire to understand. Aristotle thought that the true philosopher is one who desires knowledge about the ultimate causes and nature of reality and desires that knowledge for its own sake, not for any practical use.

Aristotle declares at the beginning of Book IV that metaphysical science is concerned with being as such or being qua being. But Aristotle differs with his teacher Plato on the kinds of being there are. Plato had argued for a transcendent world of forms, which existed apart from the world of sensible things that people inhabit. This disagreement brings out their different approaches to knowledge. Plato was the rationalist, claiming that all knowledge could be arrived at using reason and intellect. By contrast, Aristotle was an empiricist, who claimed that all knowledge comes from experience, beginning with sense experiences.

Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Theory of the Forms

Aristotle's most celebrated difference with his former teacher is his attack on Plato's Theory of the Forms. You will recall from Chapter 3 that Plato argued that besides this phenomenal world of sights and sounds and objects that we live in there is a transcendent world of absolute, perfect, unchanging ideal forms or eternal essences. Since there can be no knowledge of this changing world of material objects that are revealed to your senses (you can only exercise “belief” and “opinion” about it, as he shows in his Divided Line schema), Plato argues that knowledge can only be of unchanging ideas or forms.

Aristotle makes several objections to his mentor's prized theory. His disagreements stem from Plato's assertion that the forms exist in a separate, transcendent world, outside of the very things that they were supposed to be causes of. This leads to three problems:

  • If forms are essences, they cannot be outside of things; they must be “in” the things of which they are the essential nature. In other words, Aristotle is asking how the essence of a triangle or a beautiful statue can be outside the entities themselves. By contrast, Aristotle insists that the forms of objects are in the objects themselves, as the form of this baseball — its spherical shape, roughly two-inch diameter — is connected to the matter of the ball; that is, its horsehide cover, stitching, and cork center. In sum, form is always coupled with matter — there is no such thing as unmattered form or unformed matter.

  • If forms are static, unchanging entities, as Plato asserts, then, Aristotle asks, how can they be used as “causes” to explain change in the phenomenal world of changing entities? More simply put, how can unchanging entities impart change — for example, motion or change in substance — to phenomenal things?

  • According to Aristotle, it is unclear what it means for the particular objects or things sensed in this world to “participate” in the Forms, or imitate the Forms, as Plato maintains they do. “To say that they (i.e., sensible things) are patterns and the other things share in them, is to use empty words and poetic metaphors,” Aristotle replies.

In sum, Aristotle has claimed that Plato's forms are but a purposeless doubling of visible thing. The forms are useless for our knowledge of things. “They help in no wise towards the knowledge of the other things.”

According to Aristotle, form is always married to matter. There is no unmattered form, nor is there unformed matter, as Plato thought. The water bottle in front of you has matter of plastic, paper, and ink. It also has form or shape, however, since it is cylindrical in nature. It is impossible to talk about either matter or form without talking about the other.

The high-level exchange shows Aristotle's greater interest in the visible universe. Plato was not really concerned with the things of this world for their own sake, but only as stepping stones to the Forms. Aristotle's training was in biology. As such, he saw that form and matter were “in things” and so he placed Plato's doctrine of transcendent forms with his idea of “immanent” forms.

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