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The Key Philosophical Concepts in Aristotle's Metaphysics

Aristotle on metaphysics

 Are you curious about Aristotle's Metaphysics? This guide breaks down the essential philosophical concepts from one of history's most influential texts.

Aristotle's Metaphysics is a fundamental work in the history of Western philosophy. This piece of writing focuses on the study of reality and deals with abstract questions about existence and causality. In this guide, we will explore the core ideas presented in Aristotle's Metaphysics, providing insight into his unique perspective on life, knowledge, and being.

what is metaphysics according to Aristotle ?

Aristotle's metaphysical philosophy stands as one of the most influential and important philosophical traditions of antiquity. This comprehensive guide will cover all aspects of Aristotle’s metaphysics, from his concepts of form and substance to his theories on the nature of being and causation. We'll explain how these core elements still inform our modern understanding of the world today.

The Key Philosophical Concepts in Aristotle's Metaphysics

Aristotle's metaphysics, roughly speaking, may be described as Plato diluted by common sense. He is difficult because Plato and common sense do not mix easily. When one tries to understand him, one thinks part of the time that he is expressing the ordinary views of a person innocent of philosophy, and the rest of the time that he is setting forth Platonism with a new vocabulary. It does not do to lay too much stress on any single passage, because there is liable to be a correction or modification of it in some later passage. On the whole, the easiest way to understand both his theory of universals and his theory of matter and form is to set forth first the common-sense doctrine which is half of his view, and then to consider the Platonic modifications to which he subjects it. What was the Aristotle theory of universals and  matter and form ?

The 4 causes identified by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle provide an important foundation for understanding many aspects of his thought. These four causes explain why things happen and are comprised of material, formal, efficient and final causes. Discover more about these causes and trace the philosophy of Aristotle through history here.

Aristotle's four causes explaine - According to Aristotle, every phenomena in the universe has four causes. The Four Causes are the Material Cause (what something is made of), Formal Cause (its structure and shape), Efficient Cause (the process by which something comes into being) and Final Cause (the purpose or goal of a thing). These concepts have become enormously influential in philosophical thought and provided us with valuable tools for understanding our world.

Motion in nature 

Aristotle proposed that all natural phenomena arise from four causes or explanatory processes. According to this view, nothing happens without a cause and the four causes provide an understanding of how and why changes happen in nature. The material cause maintains that in order for something to exist, it must comprise certain components or materials. The formal cause explains what sort of thing something is with regards to its form or structure. The efficient cause focuses on energy and the force which brings a change in motion while the final cause outlines goals, purposes or ends that naturally occur. These four causes offer us insight into why events take place and allow us to understand the metaphysical foundation of nature.

Aristotle theory of universals

Up to a certain point, the theory of universals is quite simple. In language, there are proper names, and there are adjectives. The proper names apply to "things" or "persons," each of which is the only thing or person to which the name in question applies. The sun, the moon, France, Napoleon, are unique; there are not a number of instances of things to which these names apply. On the other hand, words like "cat," "dog," "man" apply to many different things. The problem of universals is concerned with the meanings of such words, and also of adjectives, such as "white," "hard," "round," and so on. He says: "By the term 'universal' I mean that which is of such a nature as to be predicated of many subjects, by 'individual' that which is not thus predicated."

what is substance according to Aristotle  ? What is signified by a proper name is a "substance," while what is signified by an adjective or class-name, such as "human" or "man," is called a "universal."  A substance is a "this," but a universal is a "such" it indicates the sort of thing, not the actual particular thing. A universal is not a substance, because it is not a "this." ( Plato's heavenly bed would be a "this" to those who could perceive it; this is a matter as to which Aristotle disagrees with Plato.) "It seems impossible,"  Aristotle substance examples, "that any universal term should be the name of a substance. For . . . the substance of each thing is that which is peculiar to it, which does not belong to anything else; but the universal is common, since that is called universal which is such as to belong to more than one thing." The gist of the matter, so far, is that a universal cannot exist by itself, but only in particular things.

 Superficially, Aristotle's doctrine is plain enough. Suppose I say "there is such a thing as the game of cricket," most people would regard the remark as a truism. But if I were to infer that cricket could exist without cricket-players, I should be rightly held to be talking nonsense. Similarly, it would be held, there is such a thing as parenthood, but only because there are parents; there is such a thing as sweetness, but only because there are sweet things; and there is redness, but only because there are red things. And this dependence is thought to be not reciprocal: the men who play cricket would still exist even if they never played cricket; things which are usually sweet may turn sour; and my face, which is usually red, may turn pale without ceasing to be my face. In this way we are led to conclude that what is meant by an adjective is dependent for its being on what is meant by a proper name, but not vice versa. This is, I think, what Aristotle means. His doctrine on this point, as on many others, is a common-sense prejudice pedantically expressed.

But it is not easy to give precision to the theory. Granted that cricket could not exist without cricket-players, it could perfectly well exist without this or that cricket-player. And granted that a person can exist without playing cricket, he nevertheless cannot exist without doing something. The quality redness cannot exist without some subject, but it can exist without this or that subject; similarly a subject cannot exist without some quality, but can exist without this or that quality. The supposed ground for the distinction between things and qualities thus seems to be illusory.

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Dark ages

Anaximenes philosophy

 Aristotle substance and essence 

There is another term which is important in Aristotle and in his scholastic followers, and that is the term "essence." This is by no means synonymous with "universal." Your "essence" is "what you are by your very nature." It is, one may say, those of your properties which you cannot lose without ceasing to be yourself. Not only an individual thing, but a species, has an essence. The definition of a species should consist in mentioning its essence. 

Substance Theory: According to substance theory, objects in the world are composed of matter and form. Matter refers to the physical substance of an object and its properties, while form refers to its structure and shape.

Substance Theory is a central concept in Aristotle's Metaphysics, which explains that everything in the world is made up of matter and form. Matter refers to the physical substance of an object, while form refers to its structure and shape. Aristotle believed that each substance has a unique essence, which determines its identity and properties. According to this theory, objects are not just a collection of parts, but something more fundamental - they have their own independent existence as individual substances. Understanding Substance Theory provides key insight into how objects relate to one another and how they exist in the world around us.

what is the main difference between Plato and Aristotle ?

Here, again, there is a common-sense basis for Aristotle's theory, but here, more than in the case of universals, the Platonic modifications are very important. We may start with a marble statue; here marble is the matter, while the shape conferred by the sculptor is the form.  what is form according to Aristotle to take Aristotle's examples, if a man makes a bronze sphere, bronze is the matter, and sphericity is the form; while in the case of a calm sea, water is the matter and smoothness is the form. So far, all is simple.

Aristotle matter theory

The next  point in Aristotle's metaphysics is the distinction of "form" and "matter." (It must be understood that "matter," in the sense in which it is opposed to "form," is different from "matter" as opposed to "mind.")

Aristotle rejected Plato's theory of form. Plato's theory of forms ideal world was without change, material world was a world of change. 

what are the virtues according to Aristotle  

He goes on to say that it is in virtue of the form that the matter is some one definite thing, and this is the substance of the thing. What Aristotle means seems to be plain common sense: a "thing" must be bounded, and the boundary constitutes its form. Take, say, a volume of water: any part of it can be marked off from the rest by being enclosed in a vessel, and then this part becomes a "thing," but so long as the part is in no way marked out from the rest of the homogeneous mass it is not a "thing." A statue is a "thing," and the marble of which it is composed is, in a sense, unchanged from what it was as part of a lump or as part of the contents of a quarry. We should not naturally say that it is the form that confers substantiality, but that is because the atomic hypothesis is ingrained in our imagination. Each atom, however, if it is a "thing," is so in virtue of its being delimited from other atoms, and so having, in some sense, a "form."

Aristotle on soul

We now come to a new statement, which at first sight seems difficult. The soul, we are told, is the form of the body. Here it is clear that "form" does not mean "shape." I shall return later to the sense in which the soul is the form of the body; for the present, I will only observe that, for aristotle soul is  what makes the body one thing, having unity of purpose, and the characteristics that we associate with the word "organism." The purpose of an eye is to see, but it cannot see when parted from its body. In fact, it is the soul that sees.

It would seem, then, that "form" is what gives unity to a portion of matter, and that this unity is usually, if not always, teleological. But "form" turns out to be much more than this, and the more is very difficult.

Aristotle prime matter

The form of a thing, we are told, is its essence and primary substance. Forms are substantial, although universals are not. When a man makes a brazen sphere, both the matter and the form already existed, and all that he does is to bring them together; the man does not make the form, any more than he makes the brass. Not everything has matter; there are eternal things, and these have no matter, except those of them that are movable in space. Things increase in actuality by acquiring form; matter without form is only a potentiality.

The view that forms are substances, which exist independently of the matter in which they are exemplified, seems to expose Aristotle to his own arguments against Platonic ideas. A form is intended by him to be something quite different from a universal, but it has many of the same characteristics. Form is, we are told, more real than matter; this is reminiscent of the sole reality of the ideas. The change that Aristotle makes in Plato's metaphysic  is, it would seem, less than he represents it as being.

The final explanation of Aristotle's want of clearness on this subject is, however, to be found in the fact that he had only half emancipated himself, as we shall see, from Plato's tendency to hypostatise ideas. The 'Forms' had for him, as the 'Ideas' had for Plato, a metaphysical existence of their own, as conditioning all individual things. And keenly as he followed the growth of ideas out of experience, it is none the less true that these ideas, especially at the point where they are farthest removed from experience and immediate perception, are metamorphosed in the end from a logical product of human thought into an immediate presentment of a super-sensible world, and the object, in that sense, of an intellectual intuition.

 Aristotle's view, be unknowable, whereas it is of the essence of his metaphysics that, as there comes to be more of form and less of matter, things become gradually more knowable. This is only consistent with the rest of his views if the form can be embodied in many particular things. If he were to say that there are as many forms that are instances of sphericity as there are spherical things, he would have to make very radical alterations in his philosophy. For instance, his view that a form is identical with its essence is incompatible with the above suggested escape.

Aristotle on change

The doctrine of matter and form in Aristotle is connected with the distinction of potentiality and actuality. Bare matter is conceived as a potentiality of form; all change is what we should call "evolution," in the sense that after the change the thing in question has more form than before. That which has more form is considered to be more "actual." God is pure form and pure actuality; in Him, therefore, there can be no change. It will be seen that this doctrine is optimistic and teleological: the universe and everything in it is developing towards something continually better than what went before. He rejected Heraclitus philosophy. 

The concept of potentiality is convenient in some connections, provided it is so used that we can translate our statements into a form in which the concept is absent. "A block of marble is a potential statue" means "from a block of marble, by suitable acts, a statue is produced." But when potentiality is used as a fundamental and irreducible concept, it always conceals confusion of thought. Aristotle's use of it is one of the bad points in his system.

Aristotle's theology

Aristotle's theology is interesting, and closely connected with the rest of his metaphysics--indeed, "theology" is one of his names for what we call "metaphysics." (The book which we know under that name was not so called by him.)

for aristotle soul is- There are, he says, three kinds of substances: those that are sensible and perishable, those that are sensible but not perishable, and those that are neither sensible nor perishable. The first class includes plants and animals, the second includes the heavenly bodies, the third includes the rational soul in man, and also God.  

aristotle motion theory- which Aristotle believed to undergo no change except motion and things are in motion.

Aristotle and God  and  - The main argument for God is the First Cause: there must be something which originates motion, and this something must itself be unmoved, and must be eternal, substance, and actuality. The object of desire and the object of thought, Aristotle says, cause movement in this way, without themselves being in motion. So God produces motion by being loved, whereas every other cause of motion works by being itself in motion (like a billiard ball). God is pure thought; for thought is what is best. "Life also belongs to God; for the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God's self-dependent actuality is life most good and eternal. We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God"

"It is clear then from what has been said that there is a substance which is eternal and unmovable and separate from sensible things, It has been shown that this substance cannot have any magnitude, but is without parts and indivisible. .But it has also been shown that it is impassive and unalterable; for all the other changes are posterior to change of place"

The conception of an unmoved mover is a difficult one. To a modern mind, it would seem that the cause of a change must be a previous change, and that, if the universe were ever wholly static, it would remain so eternally. 

 Aristotle's metaphysics the four causes

Aristotle's most famous metaphysical concept is that of the four causes. These causes represent the various ways in which something can be explained and understood. The first cause, material cause, speaks to a thing's composition; that is, of what a thing consists. The formal cause is Aristotle's way of speaking about the form a thing takes and how it relates to its purpose within the world. The efficient cause refers to the actions which lead up to any given event; in other words, what caused or contributed to causing an event or phenomenon. Lastly, final cause speaks to an object's purpose  what role does it serve in its environment?

To understand what Aristotle means, we must take account of what he says about causes. There are, according to him, four kinds of causes, which were called, respectively, material, formal, efficient, and final. Let us take again the man who is making a statue. The material cause of the statue is the marble, the formal cause is the essence of the statue to be produced, the efficient cause is the contact of the chisel with the marble, and the final cause is the end that the sculptor has in view.

Prime Mover Interpretations of the Unmoved Mover Concept.

Aristotle's Unmoved Mover concept is the idea that there must be some unmoving, eternal being that is the ultimate cause behind everything. Some people have interpreted this as a Prime Mover, or God, while others have seen it more in a metaphorical sense. Regardless of your interpretation, understanding this fundamental part of metaphysical philosophy can provide insight into the world and how we interact with it.

terminology term - In modern terminology, the word "cause" would be confined to the efficient cause. The unmoved mover may be regarded as a final cause: it supplies a purpose for change, which is essentially an evolution towards likeness with God.

The Unmoved Mover: At the top of Aristotle's metaphysical hierarchy lies the concept of an unmoved mover - a prime mover that sets everything else in motion without itself being moved by anything else. The idea of an unmoved mover is central to Aristotle's metaphysical views. He believed that there had to be some force or being that set the entire universe into motion, but this prime mover itself had to be unaffected by any other movement in order to preserve its perfection and eternal nature. In his view, this unmoved mover was responsible for initiating all other motion in the universe and maintaining its overall coherence and order. This concept has been highly influential in many areas of philosophy and theology, and continues to be studied and debated today.

Does Aristotle believe in god

God exists eternally, as pure thought, happiness, complete self-fulfilment, without any unrealized purposes. The sensible world, on the contrary, is imperfect, but it has life, desire, thought of an imperfect kind, and aspiration. All living things are in a greater or less degree aware of God, and are moved to action by admiration and love of God. Thus God is the final cause of all activity. Change consists in giving form to matter, but, where sensible things are concerned, a substratum of matter always remains. Only God consists of form without matter. 

The world is continually evolving towards a greater degree of form, and thus becoming progressively more like God. But the process cannot be completed, because matter cannot be wholly eliminated. This is a religion of progress and evolution, for God's static perfection moves the world only through the love that finite beings feel for Him. Plato was mathematical, Aristotle was biological; this accounts for the differences in their religions.

This would, however, be a one-sided view of Aristotle's religion; he has also the Greek love of static perfection and preference for contemplation rather than action. His doctrine of the soul illustrates this aspect of his philosophy.

To understand Aristotle's doctrine of the soul. we must remember that the soul is the "form" of the body, and that spatial shape is one kind of "form." What is there in common is hte conferring of unity upon a certain amount of matter. The part of a block of marble which afterwards becomes a statue is, as yet, not sparated from the rest of the marble; it is not yet a "thing," and has not yet any unity. After the sculptor has made the statue, it has unity, which it derives from its shape. Now the esential feature of the soul, in virtue of which it is the "form" of the body, is that it makes the body an organic whole, having purposes as a unit.

The three types of souls of Aristotle

Nutritive soul 

This is the part responsible for nutrition and growth, Rational soul – This is the part responsible for reason (logos), Appetitive soul – This is the part that governs desire.

A single organ has purposes lying outside itself; the eye, in isolation, cannot see. Thus many things can be said in which an animal or plant as a whole is the subject, which cannot be said about any part of it. It is in this sense that organization, or form, confers substantiality. That which confers substantiality upon a plant or animal is what Aristotle calls it "soul." But "mind" is something different, less intimately bound up with the body; perhaps it is a part of the soul, but it is possessed by only a small minority of living beings . Mind as speculation cannot be the cause of movement, for it never thinks about what is practicable, and never says what is to be avoided or what pursued.

Aristotle vegetative soul 

A similar doctrine, though with a slight change of terminology, is set forth in the Nicomachean Ethics. There is in the soul one element that is rational, and that is irrational. The irrational part is twofold: the vegetative, which is found in everything living, even in plants, and the appetitive, which exists in all animals . 

Aristotle philosophy of happiness - The life of the rational soul consists in contemplation, which is the complete happiness of man, though not fully attainable. "Such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him; and by so much as this is superior to our composite nature is its activity superior to that which is the exercise of the other kind of virtue (the practical kind).

Aristotle human soul -
If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life in accordance with it is divine in comparison in human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve ot live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything".

metaphysics Aristotle sparknotes

In Aristotle's account of the four causes

Substance - The underlying formless matter of which things are made.

Form - The essence, idea and shape that takes.

The 4 causes Aristotle

1. Material cause - Determined by the material which the thing is made of.

2. Formal cause - Determined by the form (arrangement, shape, essence) which the thing is made of. 

3. Efficient cause - Determined by the external agent or force.

4. Final cause - Determined by the aim or purpose that is serving.

Teleology - Purpose behind everything in nature. 

The unmoved mover (God) - God is not definable. God can move everything but nobody can move him.

A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, rev. edn, ed. H. Tredennick and Jonathan Barnes, trans. J. A. K. Thomson, London: Penguin Classics, 2004
Barnes, J. (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle. Available online:
Ackrill, J. L., Aristotle the Philosopher, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981
Anagnostopoulos, G. (ed.), A Companion to Aristotle, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2009 Barnes, J. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1995 
Ross, W. D., Aristotle, London: Methuen, 1923
Shields, C., Aristotle, 2nd edn, London: Routledge, 2014

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