Aristotle and Descartes

Philosophy uses the human faculties of observation, analysis, interpolation and criticism to help us understand the mystery of our existence.  It does not claim to have all the answers, or all the right answers for that matters, but attempts to provide us with a better understanding of our relationship with society and other individuals.  It establishes and tests our standards of justice and inequity, and determines the scope and direction of most of our social activities.  But above all things, it tries to unravel the relationship between our thoughts and our actions. (Santas, 2001)

Aristotle (384 BC  322 BC), Platos student and Alexanders teacher, was one of the Greek worlds eminent philosophers, whose writings covered subjects as diverse as philosophy, arts, rhetoric, natural sciences, and politics et cetera.  Aristotle was one of the ancient worlds earliest philosophers to undertake an extensive study of logic, resulting in his writings on analytics  commonly referred to as Aristotelian logic.  It was based on Aristotles concept of syllogism, combining empirical observation and the application of logic to determine the relationship between any two objects or ideas. (Rorty  Williams, 2008)

Basing his study of logic on his famous four causes, Aristotle sought to establish the criteria for observing an object and analyzing it.  The four causes were material cause (what is an object made of), formal cause (its form), efficient cause (its origin) and final cause (its purpose).  While realizing the dichotomy of the first two causes  matter and form  in his concept of hylomorphorpism, Aristotle also conceded that a state of interdependence could exist between any of his four causes with one or more being the result of the other.  He also mentioned that such a relationship could either be proper or accidental in nature, and could be spoken of in terms of existing or having the potential to exist. (Rorty  Williams, 2008)

Furthermore, while Platos concept of reality was represented by dualism of the world of ideas, based on Socratic concept of eternal and immutable, and the world of sensible things, signified by Heraclitean concept of fluent reality, both living in isolation of each other, Aristotle could not conceive it so.  He felt that if the world of ideas was the substance and the world of sensible things its ever-changing outward form and shape, then they could not exist on two separate plains and surely the direction and flow of one was guided by the other.

The greatest advantages of Aristotles philosophy were the importance it attached to observation and analysis on the basis of logic, and its ability to bridge the gap between Platos two separate worlds of ideas and sensible things.  Unfortunately, his philosophy was not without its disadvantages.  Firstly, he placed too much emphasis on observation with application of logic  a failing signified by his geocentric conception of the universe.  Secondly, his method of deductive reasoning from the general to the specific was not without its share of failings, and more or less scuttled the progress of scientific logical reasoning for ages to come.  (Gaukroger, 2002)

Despite all this, Aristotle is still considered one of the worlds greatest philosophers for his contributions to the study of logic, medicine, arts and sciences.  Interestingly, his most outstanding contribution was his studies in the field of marine biology that he conducted near the Greek island of Lesbos with his writings on aquatic mammals, Torpedo fish, angler-fish and cephalopods having stood the test of time till today.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650), French mathematician and philosopher, based his theory of philosophy on the concept of doubt.  Unlike his predecessors and contemporaries, he did not seek to rehabilitate Aristotles ideas in his theoretical framework.  He instead sought to destroy the very importance that Aristotle had attached to the faculty of observation.  Noting that our sensory faculties are very much capable of misleading us, as exemplified by illusions, mirages and hallucinations, he felt that reason alone should be used to judge the nature of things.  In doing so, Descartes felt that there was nothing that he could not doubt, except that he is able to doubt and so he certainly must exist. (Cottingham, 1986)

Descartes philosophy of doubt and reason is based on accepting nothing as true, except certain immutable ideas.  He believes that if even a shred of doubt exists about something then we should treat it as false, dividing it in smaller parts to comprehensively test each component individually until its true nature has been established.  Fascinated by the world of mathematics, he felt a degree of certainty could also be achieved in the world of philosophy by application of pure reasoning.  This was to usher in the era of rationalism one day.

The greatest advantages of Descartes philosophy were his emphasis on doubting anything which could be doubted, and his emphasis on reason and not sensory perceptions to arrive at a solution.  This profoundly affected the development of scientific thought, and this is certainly his greatest contribution to humanity.  Paradoxically, the biggest disadvantage of his philosophy was his over-emphasis on reason and reason alone, robbing philosophy of its soul and beholding it to the world of mathematical certainties.  The second biggest drawback of his philosophy was his belief that while our knowledge of our own existence was a gift by God, the perfect being, the deception of our senses was the work of a powerful and evil demon  something that modern-day rationalists still find hard to explain in his otherwise rational discourse.  (Gaukroger, 2002)

Through their extensive works, both Aristotle and Descartes have made significant contributions to the study of philosophy.  While their theoretical frameworks are not without their share of individual failings, the importance that they attached to observation and reason had a profound bearing on the study of philosophy and natural sciences.  And even today, we continue to view the world around us through the lens of their thoughts and in the light of their teachings.


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