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Aristotle's Contributions to the field of Psychology: A Student Lecture

Updated on January 22, 2019
Jessie L Watson profile image

Psych Major - Purdue University Global. Writer. Philosopher.

“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is over self.”

― Aristotle



The following essay was an opportunity for me to learn more about the ancient underpinnings of my field (psychology) by discussing the ideas of Aristotle. In each section, I do my best to revive various concepts that may, or may not be familiar to all of you and tie it all together into something that resembles a coherent piece of writing.

Aristotle – Bio

Aristotle was born in 384 BCE along the Chalcidic Peninsula of Macedonia (Northern Greece). After the death of his father in 367, Aristotle joined the Academy of Plato in Athens (Amadio & Kenny, 2018). It was there he would become one of the most prolific thinkers of his time. Most of his writings were written in dialogue form and he would compose some of the greatest works that we now understand as the “systematic treatise of formal logic” (2018), Aristotle used logic as one of the primary tools for discovering the truth about things that exist in nature. Very few people in history have been brave enough to confront the complexity that exists around us – including ourselves. Aristotle is undoubtedly one of these sages but even he would contend that logic can only take us so far…

Dealing with Complexity

Contemporary biologist David Krakauer aptly describes the complexity of life in a compelling (2016) interview with Sam Harris:

“Can you please describe a mouse to me, David?” And I said, “Well, it’s a sort of weird tubular thing, and it’s got hairs at one end, it’s got this long appendage at the other, and etc.” It would take an awfully long time to describe. Complexity is essentially proportional to that description. It turns out that mathematically, the complex phenomena live somewhere between the regular and the random. Their hallmark signature is that their mathematical descriptions are long, and that’s what has made complex science so hard. Einstein could write down a beautiful equation like e=mc2 that captures the equivalence between energy and mass and has all these beautiful implications for special relativity in less than a line. But how would you write down an equation for a mouse, which seems like a much more boring thing than energy and matter? You can’t.”

This type of incomprehensible equation was asserted by Aristotle as the “structural-functional organization” or logos (Vervaeke, 2016) which in classic Greek philosophy could be described as the rational organization of the whole universe. This was, of course, about two thousand years before we discovered the less optimistic and more entropic principles of the cosmos. i.e. second law of thermodynamics (Klyce, 2018).

We do see the term logos come up again sometime after WWII in the writings of existential psychologist Viktor Frankl (1984). The logos is also thought to be closely related to the German word “gestalt”, translating roughly into the “wholeness of things”. You may be familiar with “Gestalt” therapy which was a widely popular form of counseling throughout the mid- 20th century and focused largely on helping clients achieve deeper insight into their lives (Ciccarelli & White, 2015).

Seeing as though Aristotle was an avid student of Plato, it would be worth mentioning Plato’s original notion of the human soul as being threefold (Ferrari, 2007). The first is our unique human component – our capacity for reason and emotion. The third being the appetites of the body which are generally depicted as a multi-headed snake monster while the middle force is the inner logos represented as a lion. The logos of the soul is basically that which finds relevance in the world. It is the conscious element of our being that mediates between the opposing demands of our appetitive and rational faculties. By now, this image should begin to resemble Freud’s discussion of the ego as constantly being crushed between our primal drives (Id) and the annoying judgment of our conscience (Superego) (Ierodiakonou, 2011).

I would argue many have taken for granted how powerful such a simplistic model of the human soul can be. Pre-Aristotelian accounts of human behavior typically required invoking a pantheon of Greek gods where each god was an exemplar (Glăveanu, 2005) of specific human traits and motivations like sexual drive, anger, love, mercy, etc. Regarding these motivations as mythical deities suggests that these forces were viewed as being ultimately out of our control - that we are merely the puppets of single minded beings…

Soul, Matter & Form

Aristotle brought these larger than life concepts back down into the realm of rationality where individual substances and their influences could be isolated and analyzed. In his famous De Anima, Aristotle poses to himself the question of “whether all affections are common to what has the soul or whether there is some affection peculiar to the soul itself” (Stanford, 2016) In other words, he wants to know whether all mental states are also material states of the body or if mental states somehow exist apart from those systems. Aristotle went further to discuss the basic properties of substance as either matter, form or a combination thereof (Cohen, 2004). Among these properties were qualities that he divided into two categories: primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities were the minimum necessary attributes that an object had to possess before we could properly identify it as such. For example, an apple has a particular shape, it’s round, it’s red but sometimes different colors, it has a stem, and thus are what Aristotle considered primary. Secondary qualities, he would argue, are the subjective elements such as the flavor of the apple. Such qualities cannot be quantified, proven or taught. The mind, in this case, is a secondary quality of the body that is perhaps the most distinct yet difficult to measure.

Side Note

If, today, you ask a behavioral neuroscientist what they think about the soul, they will likely oblige with "there is no place in the brain for the soul to be hiding". True as that may be with our most sophisticated brain imaging technology, it still doesn't resolve the unclarity of the subject.

In a related dialogue, Aristotle attempts to grasp comparing the soul to the essential property of a candle. We have this universal form (or pattern) of “candle” in our mind. Can we say what a candle is will remain true whether or not a candle is physically present? Does a candle cease to be a candle after it has melted away and the form is lost? What “candle-ness” remains if the wax is altered or the shape changes? All of which is to ask: in what way is the soul discoverable apart from the structure that it appears to inhabit? These are the kinds of questions that have sparked intense debate among philosophers ever since.

Actuality and Potentiality

Aristotle had some general yet very complicated theories about the nature of reality and the movements within it. In short, he believed that physical objects and organisms spiraled inexorably from states of pure-potential up to what he would regard as their most “real” or “actualized” states (Cohen, 2004). I find this noteworthy for two reasons. The first is that this sounds a lot like the theories of “self-actualization” put forward by the Humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow (Ciccarelli & White, 2015). Secondly, it closely resembles pre-Darwinian conceptions of evolution like that of the 18th-century zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who argued that all organisms are driven upward by nature from simple forms to more complex or "perfect" forms (UCMP, 2013). Darwin would, of course, later conclude that changes in species didn’t imply some universally “better” position. Instead, he saw the evolution of organisms as a persistent state of adapting to changing context. i.e. things don’t improve, they just become “different”. Having said that, we have to figure out what everyone means by “progress” or “evolution” and there may be crucial differences in the references I’ve made. My point is: in modern psychology, we have to develop concepts of what constitutes an “optimal state” for something as complex as a living organism. It’s almost as if we don’t have a choice but to think of a new client as being in some position of potential recovery, while our job is to help them move from that potential to a more actualized state of well-being. We think of this abstract motion as a movement upwards to something – whatever that something is. At the bottom, it’s almost a religious way of thinking but these ancient ideas have structured the way we look at the world and formulate solutions to the problems we face as a species.


In summary, we can clearly see how Aristotle, those before and after, continue to influence the language and concepts that we use every day in the field of psychology. It wasn’t so much what he had accomplished in his career as a philosopher in Athens, but the way he changed how we think about our place in the universe and all the mysterious elements within it. Before I depart, I must confess that my title was a bit of a misnomer. There isn’t enough time in the world to fully encapsulate Aristotle’s contributions to psychology and humanity as such. Thank you, all the while, for joining me in sampling among just a few of the most potent ideas from history.


Ierodiakonou, C. S. (2011). The Psychology of Aristotle, The Philosopher : A Psychoanalytic Therapist’s Perspective. London: Routledge. Retrieved from

Cohen, M. (2004) Aristotle on the Soul. Retrieved from

Ciccarelli, S. & White, N. (2015) Psychology. 4th Edition. Chapter 1. William James and Functionalism. Pearson Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ

Glăveanu, D. (2005) From mythology to psychology: an essay on the archaic psychology in Greek myths. Retrieved from

Klyce, B. (2018) Second Law of Thermodynamics. Retrieved from

Krakauer, D. (2016) Complexity & Stupidity. Retrieved from

Ferrari, G. R. (2007) The Three-Part Soul. Retrieved from

Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man's search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Stanford University (2016) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Aristotle’s Psychology. Retrieved from (2017). Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Retrieved from

Vervaeke, J. (2017) Cognitive Science & Buddhism. Retrieved from

© 2019 Jessie Watson


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