Comparison between Plato and Aristotle; similarities and differences
Plato (c.428 - 347 BC) and Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) are two of the most influential Philosophers in history. Socrates was also seen as a great philosopher and, as his pupil, Plato was greatly influenced by his teachings. Plato then became the teacher of Aristotle who, although a long term pupil, was able to find many faults in Plato’s theories and in fact became a great critic of his teacher. Despite his criticisms though Aristotle was influenced by Plato and so their works are easily comparable as they target the same aspects of philosophy even if the majority of points are contradictory.
Both Plato and Aristotle based their theories on four widely accepted beliefs of the time; knowledge must be of what is real, the world experienced via the senses is what is real, knowledge must be of what is fixed and unchanging, the world experienced via the senses is not fixed and unchanging. These points led to a sceptic point of view which both philosophers’ wished to target as both agreed knowledge is possible. In order to overcome this prevalent contradiction in the argument it became necessary that each philosopher choose a point to disregard and prove to be unnecessary. Plato chose to reject the claim that the world experienced through the senses is what is real; while Aristotle rejected the claim that knowledge must be of what is fixed and unchanging. This presented problems to be over come by each philosopher: Plato had to give an account of where knowledge could be found while Aristotle had to account for how to have knowledge of that which is undergoing change.This is what leads to the philosophers’ overwhelming differences.
Plato and Aristotle both use their definitions of ‘form’ to overcome their relative problems with knowledge. Form for both philosophers is able to classify all things; chairs are chairs because they reflect the form of a chair. However, their precise definitions of form do differ. Plato claims that Particulars’(objects) are only crude representations of their Form. For example, a Beauty Particular such as Helen of Troy is physical and accessible to the senses. Her beauty is also only temporary and relative to the observer, aging and individuals opinions will alter how her beauty is observed. Her beauty being combined with non-beautiful parts and non-beautiful perspectives, such as organs, mean that she cannot contain the permanent Form of Beauty within herself. Rather, Plato claims the Form of Beauty is not accessible to the senses and is not physical, existing outside of time and space, and so can only be understood through reason. The Form of Beauty (being pure beauty) also differs from the Beauty Particular as it is eternally and irrefutably beautiful no matter who experiences it and at what time.
Aristotle refutes Plato’s definition believing it to be unclear and illogical in claiming that a chair can be understood to be a chair due to its relationship with a form existing outside of time and space. Instead Aristotle’s method of defining an objects form is through the objects purpose which has been given to it by the designer, so a chair is a chair because it has been designed to have the function of a chair. That which the chair is made of could have been given a different form if it had been arranged differently. This way the form of an object exists within the object and all similarly designed and purposed objects so it is unnecessary to disengage from this world in order to understand a form as it can be observed and understood on earth. This also enables him to have knowledge of an object whilst it undergoes change as its change is contained within it’s purpose. For example, an acorn has within its form the potential to become an oak tree if not interfered with; the change which it is to undergo is contained within the knowledge of it’s form. This becomes the basis of Aristotle’s teleology (study and explanation of functions). Aristotle proposed that ’nature does nothing in vain’ as everything has a purpose perhaps given to it by a God. With this Aristotle looks not only at human artefacts but also nature; eyes have different structures and methods of operation between species yet all share the form of an eye as they all exist for the purpose of seeing. Even though both philosophers use form to understand objects only Plato believes it is required to gain knowledge. Plato also thinks it essential to disengage from this world to discover an objects form whereas Aristotle believes we need only study the objects and discover its function (teleology).
allegory of the cave - Plato
The Human Condition
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave contains his view on the human condition. In this allegory the human condition is likened to being trapped in a cave facing the back wall only able to see shadows; unaware that there is anything else in the world. The world beyond though contains the truth of reality and acts as a higher plain of reality which must be accessed in order to gain knowledge. One of these people though is set free and forced to climb a steep hill representing the struggle and effort it takes to gain knowledge and learn as a philosopher would. However it is also portrayed as a worth while act as the person freed now knows reality and not merely the shadows of it. The people remaining in the cave represent the ignorant, uneducated majority of society and these people, when the philosophically enlightened person returns, are unwilling to believe him and would rather cast him out of there world that accept his truth. This allegory displays Plato’s feelings about how his teacher, Socrates, had been treated for attempting to enlighten his pupils. It also though reveals Plato’s own feelings towards gaining knowledge which would have been inspired by his teacher. Plato was a transcendentalist meaning he believed that to understand truth we must transcend beyond this world in to a higher reality where true concepts exist. In this reality beyond the senses the knowledge found is unchanging. This makes it necessary to use asceticism to find the truth. By doing this Plato is able to ignore the sensory distraction of the body in which he is trapped while also minimising the distractions of the appetites of the body such as food and sex. Plato uses Mathematics as the paradigm of knowledge as it’s truth exists beyond sensory perception.
Aristotle does not agree with this idea of the human condition and so uses biology as the paradigm for knowledge. This encompasses his view that knowledge need not be of the unchanging but can be gained by observing the world around us. Aristotle becomes the leading forefather of the naturalist thought in philosophy which studies natural occurrences in the world and nature in order to gain knowledge. He did not see the human condition as a trap distracting the mind from truth, instead Aristotle believed we could use the body as a tool to aid learning. His view of everything having a purpose would suggest that the human body had itself has a purpose which allows it to accommodate what humans should be able to have knowledge of. If learning where to require asceticism then it would suggest that humans were not meant or did not have the capacity to know or learn these things. In observing natural occurrences Aristotle is able to discover a lot about how it develops in nature and for what reasons it acts as it does. Use of our natural senses were all Aristotle required in order to learn.
The differences between Plato and Aristotle’s theories outweigh the similarities. However, both philosophers do leave holes and questions in their arguments. Plato is often criticised for being too elitist in his views as he requires a great amount of time devoted to asceticism in order to learn. He also sees the mass public as ignorant and incapable or at least unwilling to accept the truth of a reality beyond our own. Aristotle though is much more grounded and includes everybody in being able to learn. He also criticises Plato for suggesting that forms exist outside of time and space as they are non-physical entities. Aristotle raises the question of how something which existed beyond time and space can have a connection with those particulars which exist within time and space. However, Aristotle’s belief that everything has a purpose also leaves doubts as there are examples of things in nature which do not have a purpose such as the human appendix. Both fail to account for the possibility of chance happenings, each believe that there is an ultimate truth and explanation to everything. Both have ultimately left large gaps in their theories which leave them open to criticism. However, their theories led to two of the greatest philosophical views, transcendentalism and naturalism, which has enabled future philosophers to build upon their original views and revise them to accommodate new information and discoveries since Plato and Aristotle’s original era.