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Aristotle's "Physics" and "Metaphysics"­ (repeated at 1:00 PM)

There is a direct line of influence linking Greece’s most famous philosophers: Socrates taught Plato who in turn taught Aristotle. In addition to extolling the virtues of reason, what they shared in common was a belief in Universals, or Forms, that are embedded in all things. Socrates and Plato believed objects of sense perception or human abstractions (such as Justice or Wisdom) were imperfect representations of the perfect forms, forms which existed independently on another plane. For Plato the Forms had the same truth value as that of mathematics: both were a priori. Aristotle’s position was more moderate. He agreed that forms had material existence but rejected any claims of their transcendence. The example he gave was that of a bronze statue. The statue’s matter initially was shapeless; the artist takes the bronze and, aided by imagination, transforms it into a likeness of some famous god or person. Without form the bronze would have remained amorphous. Another way of looking at this is through the lens of one of Aristotle’s most important concepts, that of potentiality and actuality: all things, with the exception of god, are in a state of being or becoming. The potentiality of the bronze was actualized in the production of the statue.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle’s background was empirical. Where Plato used dialectic to determine the truth or falsity of propositions, Aristotle–-son of a physician–-relied on observation and experimentation. In many ways he was the father of the scientific method. Probably the greatest polymath among philosophers, he made contributions in numerous disciplines, including biology, psychology, astronomy, geology, logic, and literature (he also made famous errors, such as claiming that objects in motion needed an ancillary force to maintain the motion, or that women had fewer teeth than men). If one were to identify one important theme linking most of his work, it would be teleology: Aristotle believed that all motion, all events, all biological differentiations were purposeful and fulfilled specific functions. To explain how they occurred he developed a four component theory of causation: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause. The building of a house can be used as an example:

●   Material Cause: that which the object is made of (wood, brick)

●   Formal cause: the form in which the object appears (ranch house, colonial house)

●   Efficient Cause: what agent is creating the object (a single person, sub-contractors)

●   Final cause: why the object was created, its function (shelter against the elements; an investment)

If all objects require a cause, the question arises as to what caused the first cause. To avoid an infinite regression, Aristotle appropriated from the Presocratics and Plato the concept of an Unmoved Mover. The Unmoved Mover, god, is the cause that needs no cause; god is perfect, unchanging, hence pure actuality. Aristotle's god, however, is more like Spinoza’s god than the monotheistic god of the Abrahamic religions or the polytheistic gods of Greece: the Unmoved Mover does not intercede in human affairs but is responsible for orchestrating movement in the cosmos.


Our first reading of Aristotle was three years ago, with the Nichomachean Ethics. In this session we will shift to natural science, concentrating on his Physics and Metaphysics. Any edition of Aristotle’s works is acceptable. In a survey of courses teaching Aristotle, I found three editions that were often used as texts: The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. Modern Library, 2001 (reprint); A New Aristotle Reader. Ed J. J. Ackrill. Princeton University Press, 1987; and Aristotle: Selections. Eds Terence Irwin and Gail Fine. Hackett Publishing Company, 1995. All of these works are available on for under $15.00 (used). For those who prefer free public domain copies of them, click here and here.

The McKeon edition has the complete texts of these works, totaling over 400 pages. Because we are devoting only one meeting to Aristotle, the other editions, which have substantial excerpts, are preferable for our purposes. I will be using the Ackrill edition.

The following resources provide analyses, bibliographies, lecture notes, and videos.

Wikipedia: “Aristotle”, “Physics (Aristotle)”, "Aristotelian Physics”, “Metaphysics (Aristotle)”, “Hylomorphism”, "Universal (Metaphysics)", “Problem of Universals”, “Aristotle’s Theory of Universals”, "Moderate Realism", “Four Causes”, "Teleology", “Potentiality and Actuality”, “Essence”, “Accident (Philosophy)”, "Law of Noncontradiction", “Unmoved Mover”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Aristotle”, “Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy”, “Aristotle’s Metaphysics”, “Aristotle on Causality”, "Aristotle on Non-contradiction”, "Essential vs. Accidental Properties", "Aristotle's Account of Substance"

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:  “Aristotle”, “Aristotle: Metaphysics”, “Aristotle: Motion and Its Place in Nature”, "Aristotle's Treatment of Zeno's Paradoxes", "Universals"

Encyclopædia Britannica Online: Sir Anthony Kennedy. “Aristotle.”

Dictionary of Scientific Biography Online: G. E. L. Owen. "Aristotle".

Aristotle Quotes: Wikiquote and The Quotations Page.

"A Basic Aristotle Glossary" (brief, clear definitions; author unknown).

Tuomas E. Tahko. “Metaphysics as the First Philosophy.” In Aristotle on Method and Metaphysics. Edited by Edward Feser. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013: 49-67.

Brad Vezina. “Universals and Particulars: Aristotle’s Ontological Theory and Criticism of the Platonic Forms.” Undergraduate Review 3.1 (2007), pp. 101-103. (at time of publication author was a senior English major at Bridgewater State University)

Jon McGinnis. “Positioning Heaven: The Infidelity of a Faithful Aristotelian.” Phronesis 51.2 (2006), pp. 140-161.

Stephen Makin. “Potentiality in Aristotle’s Physics and Biology.” In Handbook of Potentiality. Springer, 2014.

Michael Chase. “Teleology and Final Causation in Aristotle and in Contemporary Science.” Dialogue 50 (2011), pp. 511-536.

Susan Sauve Meyer. “Aristotle, Teleology, and Reduction.“ The Philosophical Review 101.4 (October 1992), pp. 791-825.

Julia Annas. “Aristotle on Substance, Accident and Plato's Forms.” Phronesis 22.2 (1977), pp. 146-160.

Edwin Hartman. “Aristotle on the Identity of Substance and Essence.” The Philosophical Review 85.4 (October 1976), pp. 545-561.

Alan Code. “Aristotle on the Matter of Corpses in Metaphysics H5.” (Author is Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University)

Tuomas Takho. "The Law of Non-Contradiction as a Metaphysical Principle." Australian Journal of Logic 7 (2009), pp. 32-47.

Karen Bell. “Causation, Motion, and the Unmoved Mover.” KU Scholar Works 8.2 (Summer 1981), pp. 157-173.

Theo Gerard Sinnige. "Cosmic Religion in Aristotle.” Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies 14.1 (Spring 1973), pp. 15-34.

Enrico Berti. “The Contemporary Relevance of Aristotle’s Thought.” Iris 3.6 (October 2011), pp. 23-35.

Lecture Notes

“A Brief (Very Brief) Overview of Aristotle” by Dept of Philosophy, Minnesota State University Mankado.

“Aristotle’s Metaphysics” by Professor G. J. Mattey, Dept. of Philosophy, University of California at Davis.

“Aristotle’s Metaphysics” by Professor Brandon C. Cook, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Kentucky.

"Plato vs Aristotle in The Arena of Truth" by Professor Tom Drake, Dept. of English, University of Idaho. (summarizes the key differences between Plato's and Aristotle's philosophies)

“Aristotle’s Criticisms of Plato’s Theory of the Forms” by Prof. Ralph Baergen, Dept. of Philosophy, Idaho State University.

“Notes on Aristotle’s Four Causes” by Prof. Sally Haslanger, Dept. of Linguistics and Philosophy, MIT.

"The Four Causes" and "The Unmoved Mover" (excellent, detailed analyses appearing on the University of North Carolina web site; author unknown).

“Coming-To-Be: Change: Cause and Explanation” by Professor Jacques A. Bailly, Dept. of Classics, University of Vermont.

“Aristotle’s Proof of a First Mover” by Michael R. Baumer, Professor Philosophy, Cleveland State University.

Videos and Podcasts

“Aristotle’s Metaphysics” (audio of Chapter 19 of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy).

“Aristotle's Metaphysics” by Wayne Miller (appears to be a philosophy professor but can’t verify that; useful distinctions between Platonic and Aristotelian Realism).

“Aristotle on Actualization and Potential” by Professor Jason Campbell, Dept of Conflict Resolution & Philosophy at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Aristotle podcasts by Peter Adamson, Professor of Philosophy at the LMU in Munich and at King's College London: "Let's Get Physical: Aristotle's Natural Philosophy", "Down to Earth: Aristotle on Substance", "Form and Function: Aristotle's Four Causes", "God Only Knows: Aristotle on Mind and God", "Aristotle on Plato" (most of these are about twenty minutes).

“Aristotle, Causation and Theism" by Dr. William Large, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire, UK.

“Third Man Argument” (Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s ideal forms; lecturer unknown ).

"The Ideas of Aristotle" (lecturer unknown; video focuses on Aristotle's theory of motion).

Join or login to comment.

  • A former member
    A former member

    I will be running slightly late, but I will be there for the 11 am meetup.

    July 19, 2014

  • Adam W.

    Your preoccupation with how many people should attend irks me. It seems nervous, unopen.

    July 6, 2014

    • Scott

      I think we need to limit attendance or the discussions will become unmanageable. Can you imagine 30 people competing for speaking time? No one would be able to speak more than once or twice, or have the time to expand on an argument. That's one of the reasons I created a second session--so more people who wanted to talk about philosophy would have that opportunity.

      July 6, 2014

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