A Brief Critical Reading of Plato and Aristotle
Visual by Shivani Krishnakumar
The ideas of Plato and Aristotle continue to be diffused in our lives. They don’t remain restricted to the realm of philosophical discussion, and enter into various aspects of life such as politics, art, faith, etc. Moreover, the work of Plato and Aristotle can perhaps be said to form the bedrock of a large part of the western philosophical tradition. Even as philosophy has taken on more nuanced and varied forms, it has continued to interact with these two figures and their theories. So it is a fruitful activity to keep looking back at these theories and re-examine them from time to time. Very possibly, we might find areas of thinking that are worth pursuing in today’s time.
When it comes to Plato’s theory of Ideas or Forms, there is an obvious and strong sense of idealism that has since been rejected by a number of different critical and philosophical lines of thought. According to Plato, the real world is a mere and imperfect imitation of a more real and ideal world of ideas or forms. That is, the objects that exist on earth are merely concrete representations (and representations in the Platonist view always lose something of the “original”) of their abstract selves, which are the only “real” things. This reminds one of the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of maya, except that maya is believed to be the illusory power that conceals what is already there, that conceals the “true” world and transforms it into the earthly version that we as humans are able to perceive. For Plato, the “real” realm of Ideas seems to be removed from the material world. One senses here a yearning for Truth and for the Real, something in contrast with the multiplicity and uncertainty of the world one lives in. As one reads through Plato’s theory of Ideas and Forms, one senses a persistent essentialism too, that is a belief in the core or essence of things, and a constant privileging of that essence over any other aspect of these things. In The Republic, Plato tries to outline the figure of the perfect or true philosopher, and in doing so reveals his yearning for singular essences as opposed to multiple objects and representations.
“Then, besides other qualities, we must try to find a naturally well-proportioned and gracious mind, which will move spontaneously towards the true being of everything.” (Plato, Book 6, The Republic)
“...let me ask you to consider further whether the world will ever be induced to believe in the existence of absolute beauty rather than of the many beautiful, or of absolute beauty rather than of the many beautiful, or of the absolute in each kind rather than the many in each kind?
Then the world cannot possibly be a philosopher?
Impossible.” (Plato, The Republic)
Plato’s theories are hinged on this very basic binary of “original” and “copy”, one that has come to fuel a number of exclusionary doctrines and discourses.
Marxist and existentialist philosophers have come to reject different parts of Platonist philosophy, namely idealism and essentialism. While Hegel saw history as the unfolding of ideas towards an ideal (the mind of God), Marx saw history as the history of class struggles. He constantly privileged the contesting “reality” of class relations and the economic base over the pre-supposed “reality” of Ideas. What we see is a contest over the definition of the “real”, and a productive contest at that. Existentialism posited that existence preceded essence, which is a clear reversal of the Platonist privileging of essence or Forms. Existentialism might present an uncertain world, but in this world individual choices define one’s life. There can be no fixed archetypes that can dictate our lives; the theory of Forms became inadequate to help grasp human existence in the twentieth century. Then came post structuralism and deconstruction, which put into question the very binaries that were so far being adhered to or reversed. All in all, the Platonist theory of Ideas has been an interesting point of debate, discussion, and divergence. Today, perhaps, we need to be suspicious of structures that tell us to look forward to a more perfect world beyond daily life. These ideas can all too easily be used to justify systemic injustice that is all-too-real and taking place in the material world.
When it comes to the concept of substance, our examination gets a bit more complex. The word “substance” is commonly used in a variety of contexts, and so are “substantial”, “substantive”, etc. Philosophically, substance is first explicitly talked about in Aristotle’s Categories. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy identifies the following as characteristics of Substance:
“Substances are typified as:
i. being ontologically basic—substances are the things from which everything else is made or by which it is metaphysically sustained;
ii. being, at least compared to other things, relatively independent and durable, and, perhaps, absolutely so;
iii. being the paradigm subjects of predication and bearers of properties;
iv. being, at least for the more ordinary kinds of substance, the subjects of change;
v. being typified by those things we normally classify as objects, or kinds of objects;
vi. being typified by kinds of stuff.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Substance’, “Underlying Ideas”)
What is even more interesting about Aristotle’s conception of Substance is the distinction he makes between primary and secondary substances. Unlike in Plato, the individual here gets primary status. The individual is a primary substance, and the kind of individual they are belongs to the category of secondary substance (also called substance concept): “It is reasonable that, after the primary substances, their species and genera should be the only other things called (secondary) substance. For only they, of things predicated, reveal the primary substance.” (Aristotle, Categories) Without the substance itself, Aristotle’s other categories would cease to exist. Substances can have properties, but properties themselves cannot exist without the substances. When we apply the above outline of the Substance to Plato’s thought, we can see Forms as Substances, but not exactly. Forms are not exactly individuals, but underlying structures that dictate the existence of those individuals. However, the first of the six points given above fits the Platonist idea of Forms really well, whereas the fourth one does not at all (Platonist Forms do not change, in a contrast to the mutability of the material world).
However, even Aristotelian thought on Substance isn’t unidimensional or very stable. This is seen in Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
Form and Matter: Hylomorphism
This is where Aristotle’s famous theory of hylomorphism comes in. While Plato sees every physical object as an imperfect copy of an ideal Form that emcompasses that object and a number of others related to it, Aristotle posits in The Physics that every physical object is a combination of both form and matter. Here again we see a sort of essentialism, in that Aristotle sees forms as pre-dating matter. So forms can be seen to serve as essences in this framework. And forms are also posited as Substances, even though the individual would be a combination of form and matter. This seeming deviation as compared to Categories has been much discussed. There has been debate whether primacy belongs to form or matter within an individual. Once again, a binary is in play. Aristotle’s criticism of Plato is hinged on their differing conceptions of the relationship between forms and earthly objects. Aristotle argues that the world of Ideas or Forms cannot exist in independence from the world of objects or things. Interestingly, though, Aristotle also considers matter to remain constant in the process of change. The process of change involves three components, which are also posited as the basic principles of nature: matter (which undergoes change), form (which is the structure or idea towards which the change occurs), and privation or lack (the opposite of the form). But there is still, in Aristotle, a privileging of supposed fixity or essence over particularity.
So is Aristotle’s theory of hylomorphism yet another philosophical attempt to find fixity or permanence in an ever-changing world? Even if it is, Aristotle’s attempt is certainly more nuanced in that it fully acknowledges the process of change and tries to break it down.
In trying to examine the changes that take place in the world, Aristotle came up with his theory of causation or causality. In multiple explanations, his theory of causes has been simplified to a theory of explanations, so to speak. In Aristotelian thought, there are four types of causes as outlined in The Physics: material, formal, efficient, and final. The material cause relates to what something is made of (matter), the formal cause is related to the structure or shape something is supposed to take, the efficient cause is tied to whatever directly causes the process of change to begin, and the final cause is the ultimate, overarching reason for the change. Let's take a very common example. If you consider Michelangelo's David as the product of a process of change, then unsculpted marble is the material cause, the person of David is the formal one, Michelangelo's decision to work on the sculpture and his skill as a sculptor is the efficient cause, and the final cause is the collated form that the sculpture is about to take at the end of the process. It is also important to note that Aristotle also mentions that the formal cause often coincides with the final one, which again shows the primacy he gives to form.
Actuality and Potentiality
Aristotle's conception of form and matter finds further expression in that of actuality and potentiality, as found in The Metaphysics. Form is associated with actuality, and matter with potentiality. Potentiality is the ability of something to undergo change and become a certain form, or to attain an actuality. Going back to causality, one can see how this binary is connected to the idea of final cause. Something with potentiality is moving towards a final cause, a form, an actuality. Aristotle also argues that in any substance, actuality precedes potentiality. This is an interesting line of thought, because it creatively puts forth the idea that for anything to have the potential to become something else, that something else must already be in existence. But it could also be argued that if actuality were to exist without potentiality at any given point of time, the very existence of that actuality might be under threat. However, Aristotle's idea also carries considerable weight. In the end, it could be said that the relationship between actuality and potentiality is a lot more complex than he envisioned, and perhaps the two cannot be placed in variance to each other in terms of precedence. The privileging of form, of the eternal and transcendental, that Aristotle engages in, might not be enough to think fruitfully about the nature of existence and life.
While there are numerous points of criticism in the work of the two philosophers, some of which have been outlined in this article, their work remains exciting and refreshing to this day because of the way it can be reworked and engaged with. That is why I think we should keep reading these works even as we continue to challenge the basis of western philosophy and philosophy in general.
Shreya Ghosh is a recent literature graduate from the University of Delhi. She has a keen interest in literary theory and is working on building a strong foundation for her higher studies. Currently employed as a content writer, Shreya is also reading widely in the areas she would like to explore further, namely feminist theory, film and adaptation studies, and much more.
Plato, The Republic
Aristotle, The Physics