CwtC Session 3: Aristotle

Wednesday, October 7: This week we looked at excerpts from two of Aristotle’s treatises: Physics and On the Heavens.  To read these works is to watch intellectual history in the making.  After all,  Aristotelian physics held sway for centuries before being challenged by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and others.

In Physics II.3, the philosopher lays out the four ways in which the word “cause” is used.

Material Cause: What a thing is made of.

Formal Cause: The form or pattern a thing takes.

Efficient Cause: Who or what caused the thing to exist.

Final Cause: For what purpose or end the thing exists.

In On the Heavens (or De Caelo in Latin, as it is titled in our reading packets)Aristotle reasons through why the earth could not possibly be in motion, why it must be the center of the universe, why it must be spherical, and why it cannot be very big.  As we did the reading near Columbus Day, one sentence about the size and shape of the earth stood out: “Hence one should not be too sure of the incredibility of the view of those who conceive that there is a continuity between the parts about the Pillars of Hercules and the parts about India, and that in this way the ocean is one (Book II, Chapter 14; translated by J.L. Stocks).”

From these readings and our discussion, we gained a small picture, at least, of how Aristotle viewed Nature.  One way he differed from his forbear Plato is that he saw no need to look beyond the Natural world to explain things.  In fact, this is what made Aristotle different from the pre-Socratics we read two sessions ago: he relied on observation by the senses, whereas thinkers such as Heraclitus and Parmenides believed that the senses could not be trusted to give an accurate picture.

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