Aristotle's System of the Physical World

Aristotle's System of the Physical World: A Comparison with His Predecessors

Friedrich Solmsen
Volume: 33
Copyright Date: 1960
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 482
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Aristotle's System of the Physical World
    Book Description:

    Examining in detail Aristotle's treatment of physical, cosmological, chemical, and meteorological questions, this learned study compares his arguments and conclusions with those of his precursors in order to assess his debt to them and at the same time to show clearly the nature of his own new contributions to the body of scientific thought. It also examines the interrelations of the major topics included in Aristotle's scientific work and the relations between his theology and his science.

    Describing his work as "a study in continuity and transformation," Friedrich Solmsen writes, "The scientific endeavors of the Presocratics have a sequel. . . . Aristotle did not discover the subjects with which he deals in his physical treatises. In the questions which he takes up he is neither as free nor as arbitrary as some students of his thought appear to believe, and in the answers which he provides he is not as invariably original as he himself in the course of his arguments may lead us to think."

    With constant reference to its historical antecedents, Aristotle's system of movement is analyzed and studied, as are his doctrines regarding time, place, matter, and the infinite. In connection with his concept of cosmic order, special consideration is given to the relation between the lower (sublunary) and the upper (celestial) Cosmos in his scheme. Solmsen's mastery of the relevant texts (not only Aristotelian, but also Platonic, Presocratic, and Epicurean) is evident on every page.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6673-1
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
    F. S.
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Part One Historical Introduction

    • 1 Presocratic Legacies
      (pp. 3-19)

      PARMENIDES’ conception of unchanging and eternal being heralded a crisis for the vigorous cosmological speculation which had developed in Ionia. If there was no place for becoming in the realm of truth, how could physical thought survive as anything better than an assemblage of “opinions” and a “deceptive order of words”?¹ The rigor and merciless logic of his reasoning allowed no ignoring or evading, and those thinkers who fully accepted his conclusions ceased indeed to concern themselves with the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the Cosmos. Others, as is well known, accepted only a part of his conclusions and...

    • 2 Topics of Plato’s Later Philosophy
      (pp. 20-66)

      BEFORE and after Parmenides the Presocratics built their systems around eternal and indestructible principles; yet the later generations also took care to make their principles unchanging and employed them in such fashion that genesis could nowhere make its disturbing appearance. There is no evidence that Plato ever shared their prejudice against this concept. In definite contrast to Empedocles and Anaxagoras he had never subscribed to the Parmenidean doctrine that “becoming is extinguished and passing away unknown.” His own eternal and unchanging principles are as a matter of course exempt from both, as they are also strangers to movement and to...

  6. Part Two Aristotle’s Physics

    • 3 Introductory Remarks
      (pp. 69-73)

      IT was decisive for Aristotle’s philosophical future that he participated in the life of the Academy during a period in which the problems of movement and becoming acquired greater philosophical interest.¹ This was a development to which he felt able to make contributions; here he saw a possibility of laying firm foundations for his own philosophical outlook. As far as we know, none of Aristotle’s fellow workers in the Academy responded to this phase of Plato’s philosophy with the same productive energy and the same enthusiasm.

      Genesis and movement were by now in all probability subjects of good standing; yet...

    • 4 Genesis
      (pp. 74-91)

      AS we know that genesis after a long period of disgrace had finally been rehabilitated by Plato, we may wonder whether Aristotle’s discussion still reflects the problematic status of this concept. We shall see that it does so in a certain degree, yet perhaps it is characteristic that Aristotle in the Physics sees no need for a frontal attack on this delicate question. What must be settled in the Physics, and in fact at the very beginning of it, is the nature of the basic physical principles. But soon enough it becomes clear that this subject and the controversial reality...

    • 5 Physis
      (pp. 92-117)

      IF in the case of genesis Aristotle seeks to reduce its metaphysical mortgage, he is a priori likely to approach the central concept of physis with similar intentions. To make physics, in Aristotle’s sense of the word, possible, nature itself must be brought down to the physical level. In some respects the conditions for this attempt were more auspicious than in the parallel instance of genesis. Plato had built up a doctrine oí physis which did not emphasize the relations between this concept and the Forms. For though the true and ultimate physis of things is the Forms, physis also...

    • 6 Matter and Place
      (pp. 118-143)

      OF all the problems that arise in connection with Aristotle’s scheme of four causes the most tantalizing is certainly whether Plato approximated the conception of a material cause. Neither the receptacle of the Timaeus nor the Infinite of the Philebus is an exact equivalent of Aristotle’s matter or substratum. Of the latter it is at least correct to say that it receives Form,¹ whereas of the receptacle not even this could be asserted, at least not in a sense that would help us in our inquiry. Still, there is a good deal of common ground, and a passage toward the...

    • 7 Time
      (pp. 144-159)

      WE have seen that Aristotle studies place without allowing the contrast between things that are and those that are not in place a decisive role in his inquiry.¹ The same elimination of metaphysics and the Platonic realm of being characterizes his investigation of time. To be understood and defined time need not be related to eternity.

      Plato’s famous definition of time in the Timaeus bears the imprint of the dichotomy which is basic for his system. Time is at once related to and contrasted with eternity, and the factor of movement which enters into the definition gets its point from...

    • 8 The Infinite
      (pp. 160-173)

      LIKE place and time, the Infinite is one of the fundamental concepts that must be clarified and defined before the details of a cosmological and physical system can be worked out. And again, as in the case of the two other concepts, the question is not only what the Infinite is but “whether it is.”¹ Is there any reality at all that corresponds to this notion, or is the favor which it has found with earlier physicists the result of false reasoning and rash assumptions?

      Aristotle’s own decision about the reality of the Infinite is negative as far as the...

    • 9 The Doctrine of Movement
      (pp. 174-221)

      IN contrast to the first half of the Physics, the latter half is entirely concerned with the investigation of one large subject. Because of its history, the concept of movement had a strong claim on such an exhaustive discussion, and this claim had become particularly acute since Plato had made movement the general denominator of all physical changes. Plato had studied movement both as physical fact and as concept; he had defined its status and philosophical significance, had identified the source of its existence in the Cosmos, and had concerned himself with the physical as well as with the logical...

    • 10 The Unmoved Mover
      (pp. 222-250)

      THROUGHOUT most of the Physics Aristotle gives us the impression that he regards the nature and the properties of movement as worth studying for their own sake. Yet the source of movement had with Plato become the first cosmic principle, and Plato’s pupil, knowing that the right understanding of movement furnished a clue to the structure of the Cosmos, would not lose sight of this ulterior objective. Sooner or later¹ he would make the turn from the physical theory of movement to its cosmological implications. Book VIII of the Physics presents Aristotle’s version of the first cosmological principle, a Platonic...

  7. Part Three The Cosmology of the Books On the Heaven

    • 11 Natural Movements as First Assumptions
      (pp. 253-265)

      IN spite of the prominent place which Plato had conceded to movement his theory of the physical elements as set forth in the Timaeus pays little heed to this concept. On the whole it is an essay in becoming and in “forms.” Now becoming (genesis) is a Protean concept, yet to some of its phases the elements are so closely linked that Aristotle too is bound to take this connection into account. In the treatise On the Heaven he accepts this situation and in fact makes an attempt to define with some precision the relation of the elements to genesis....

    • 12 Natural Places and the Eternal Cosmos
      (pp. 266-274)

      IN Aristotle’s cosmology some other equally simple propositions are closely bound up with those relating to the natural movement of the elements. As the elements have by nature the tendency to move in one particular direction, either to the center or away from it, so they also have their natural places in the Cosmos. It is natural for fire to be in the upper regions of the Cosmos, and natural for earth to be in the center.¹ In what sense this principle applies to the other elements (including Aristotle’s cherished fifth or “first”) is a question which we must postpone....

    • 13 Heavy and Light
      (pp. 275-286)

      TO associate each of the elements per se with a specific movement and to study them under this point of view was a bold, new idea which implied a break with the traditional approach. Tirelessly and with a certain radicalism Aristotle exploits its potentialities, pushing on to further conclusions. Of these conclusions some, like the equation of our Cosmos with the natural order of things, are startlingly novel; others amount to a reaffirmation, and new justification, of the traditional pattern, embodying as it did the stratification of the elements. What separates Aristotle’s cosmology more than anything else from the earlier...

    • 14 The “First Body”
      (pp. 287-303)

      IT is time that we turned to Book I and gave attention to the most important doctrine of our treatise.

      Up to this point it has been possible to ignore the aether, since the propositions so far considered are independent of its existence. Still, whether the aether was from the outset an integral part of Aristotle’s system or whether he once was satisfied with four elements, it is certain that the new element is the coping stone of the system in which all emphasis lies on the movement, none on the material substance of the elements. In De caelo the...

    • 15 The Subjects of Book II
      (pp. 304-318)

      AS the aether fills the entire heavenly region down to the sphere of the moon, one might expect Aristotle in Book II, where he deals with the phenomena of this region, to bring his new element to bear on as many individual problems as possible. But this is not the case. Not a few problems can be solved without recourse either to the first element or to the first assumptions. Others are entirely outside the competence of the physicist, and as they had been settled in masterly and authoritative fashion by contemporary astronomers, Aristotle’s hands are tied and his own...

  8. Part Four The Nature and Formation of Physical Objects

    • 16 The Philosophical Status of Genesis
      (pp. 321-335)

      THE aspects of the elements that in the books On the Heaven are treated as secondary and in the end fade from sight assert themselves all the more vigorously in the treatise On Coming to Be and Passing Away. Assuredly the function of the sublunary elements does not exhaust itself in realizing certain movements and thereby contributing their share to the structure of the Cosmos. These elements are also involved in less permanent formations. They must explain the changes and processes that come to pass in the physical world; and in their nature must be found a clue to the...

    • 17 The Derivation of the Elements
      (pp. 336-352)

      TO all appearance Aristotle enters upon the genesis of the elements with his mind not yet made up as to their number and identity. He asks: what factors operate in the formation of perceptible bodies¹ (of which the elements are the prototype)? It seems that when the relation between the substratum and “perceptible bodies” is settled it will also be clear what bodies qualify as elements and how many of them there are. For the rest Aristotle’s procedure is determined by two basic considerations. Since it has been established that becoming is a passing from one contrary to the other,²...

    • 18 “Acting” and “Suffering”
      (pp. 353-367)

      AS we have seen, Aristotle uses the concepts of “acting” and “suffering” to select the qualities which, suitably combined, constitute the nature of the sublunary elements. Yet as long as a particular element is in existence and shows no tendency to change, the qualities which form it live peacefully together and show no inclination to act upon one another.¹ The subjects for which Aristotle really needs “acting” and “suffering” are the intermutation and the mixture of the elements. To these subjects he turns as soon as he has said all that is necessary on the nature of the elements.² The...

    • 19 Mixture
      (pp. 368-378)

      EVEN thinkers like Empedocles, who posited unchanging elements, would think of them as mixing and by their mixture creating all other physical entities. Where genesis is not a valid concept, mixture takes its place; where it is admitted, mixture is one of its principal forms. Given this close connection, it was almost inevitable that a treatise on coming to be should include a discussion of mixture. The question was not whether this subject should be treated but whether genesis and mixture were identical and coextensive; for there were systems in which even the elements came into existence through mixture.¹ This,...

    • 20 The Moving Cause of All Genesis
      (pp. 379-390)

      MATTER and qualities which inform and modify matter are surely indispensable for the explanation of becoming, and throughout the first book of our treatise and in the larger part of the second book Aristotle’s interest is monopolized by these aspects of genesis. But in Chapter 9 of the latter book the whole orientation changes; suddenly our attention is directed to causes and principles of genesis that had so far been completely neglected. The beginning of the chapter reminds us that Aristotle’s system of causes includes more than matter and form.¹ The two other kinds of causation would be the teleological...

  9. Part Five Meteorology

    • 21 Place and Purpose of the Meteorologica
      (pp. 393-440)

      ARISTOTLE’S Meteorologica may go far toward bridging the gulf between the two large bodies of doctrine into which his theory of the four terrestrial elements had split. Having in one of his previous treatises studied the movements of these elements and in another explained their nature, origin, and mutual transformations, Aristotle now comes to deal with transformations that result in movements—as a matter of fact, in movements identical with those discussed in the latter books of On the Heaven. If parts of an element are changed into another, they evidently must go to the cosmic region which is their...

  10. Part Six Conclusion

    • 22 Summaries and Perspectives
      (pp. 443-454)

      THE results of our chapters cannot easily be synthesized. Aristotle himself does not investigate each topic of his physical system with his mind focused on a final synthesis of all major conclusions. Between the different phases of his work there prevails an attitude of mutual, though by no means uncritical, respect. The findings of one inquiry are often accepted in another; but if they interfere with the legitimate interests of the latter subject, they are modified or disregarded. Not rarely problems examined in one treatise do not arise again elsewhere; in such cases the answers remain valid but—on the...

  11. Indexes