Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

If I wanted to write a treatise on the pre-Socratics, I would now have to deal in this blog post with the so-called pluralists and atomists such as Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Leukipp and Democritus. But I do not want to give an outline of the philosophy of the pre-Socratics here. This has happened often enough elsewhere, and certainly after a much more detailed study of the literature of the past millennia than I can show. I am essentially interested in the thoughts of the pre-Socratics, in which one can discover the precursors of the way of thinking of modern physics, mathematics and logic.
There it is without doubt the three basic ideas which have been expressed so aptly and so early in the history of ideas by the school of Miletus, by the Pythagoreans and by Xenophanes: In nature there is such a thing as a causal connection, the regularities in nature can be formulated in the language of mathematics, and knowledge can be attained by “finding the better by searching”. But there can be no ultimate knowledge.
The first tentative steps of the pre-Socratics towards basic concepts such as ” motion ” are also remarkable. The long history of the clarification of this concept over the millennia clearly shows how much effort it takes to gradually move from the darkness of the first reflections to a clear idea with which one can argue reliably.
If I now follow the development of the “logos” in the history of philosophy, I will be even more selective. I will concentrate on the highlights, i.e. the works where substantial progress has been made. Of course, one often recognizes these only by looking back from today’s standpoint. The focus will be on such developments in logic, mathematics and physics that have become significant for the present state of the art in terms of both methods and the formation of concepts.
So, if one begins to look at the development in the time after the pre-Socratics, one must first speak of the three greats of Greek philosophy: Socrates (-469 to -399), Plato (-428 to -348) and Aristotle (-384 to -322). As already mentioned in the first blog post, Socrates introduced a new topic into philosophy: Ethics. But it was not only this new topic that led to a new era in philosophy. Anaxagoras from Kleizomenai ( Ionia ) had moved to Athens in the year -462 and had made the thoughts of the Milesians and other pre-Socratics known there.
Where more people can come together, it is also more likely that people with the same interests will meet and talk about them. In addition to teacher-pupil relationships, communities can now also emerge in which discussions can take place on an equal footing. Dialectics came into fashion. Already Zenon of Elea had been her great friend, Aristotle had later even praised him as their inventor (Mansfeld & Primavesi, 2011, pp. 361, No.4). Attic democracy flourished, it was an early type of democracy in which the “people of state” ruled, where the people of state consisted of the full male citizens of the city of Athens who had reached the age of 30. These full citizens could also turn to matters which were not directly necessary to daily life; for such work there were enough slaves, women or immigrants. Especially in political meetings and in court, eloquence and the art of dialectics were in demand, i.e. to find the right reasons for opinions and to spread those that could be applauded by listeners. Sophists taught for money to master this art, even to be able to skilfully involve the opponent in a contradiction in discussions.
About Socrates we know some about Diogenes Laertius (Laertius, 2015, pp. 67-90), in particular he is supposed to have said: ” I know nothing except that I know nothing” (DL 83). And “the good is nothing small, but start with small things” (DL 83). But we don’t know any of his writings. Plato, however, puts a lot into his mouth in his works. These works always represent dialogues that Socrates conducts with a wide variety of dialogue partners and in which it is always a matter of clarifying a concept or a question.


After the death of Socrates, Plato, in his years of teaching and travel, first stayed with a follower of the philosophy of Parmenides, “travelled to Cyrene to the mathematician Theodoros and from there to Italy to the Pythagoreans Philolaos and Eurytos; from there to Egypt to the prophets” (Laertius, 2015, p. 141). Thus he collected various impressions and combined them to a grandiose mythical thought building, which is still effective today and continues to inspire many people.
He must have been a great storyteller. In his works he described in the form of a dialogue the effort to find concepts and answers to the question of correct behaviour or a good life. Who first chose this literary form is controversial. “It is said that Zenon, the Eleate, was the first to write dialogues, but Aristotle names as such […] Alexamos from Styra […]. I, on the other hand, think that Plato, through his strict treatment and training […], has secured himself the right to first place […]”. Dialogue is “a question-and-answer execution of a philosophical or political theme”, but dialectics “is the art of persuasion, through which we prove something void or right on the basis of the question-and-answer procedure of the undermentioners” (all quotations: (Laertius, 2015, p. 159)).
Diogenes Laertius says of Plato’s works: “TIMAIOS belongs to the field of physics, to the logic belongs POLITIKOS, KRATYLOS, PARMENIDES and SOPHISTES” (Laertius, 2015, p. 160).
When he, as in TIMAIOS, came to talk about the ideas of the pre-Socratics about the cosmos, he did so in mythical form or tied to Pythagoras and saw the world built up from geometric forms. At that time, logic was still predominantly understood to mean the work on terms, i.e. the uncovering of the relationships between related terms, e.g. their classification as superordinate or subordinate terms. A clearer definition was expected from such a division of terms, called “dihairesis”. One could already see, however, that a definition often required definitions of the determinants, thus leading to an infinite regress.
Aristotle grew up in the Academy with this method. Thus, in his logic, which he was soon to develop, the concepts were also at the centre. This thus became a so-called term logic. Modern logic, on the other hand, is a propositional logic. In the next blog post I will work out the difference exactly.
Plato mainly used induction, i.e. the conclusion from special to general, for a demonstration of evidence, “which through some true cases opens up the same truth for other cases in an appropriate way”, as Laertius (Laertius, 2015, p. 161) says. For a long time this conclusion was considered “appropriate”, only David Hume stressed that this conclusion is not mandatory, thus not always “appropriate”. In modern logic there is no place for this conclusion either.
Plato’s central theme, however, was the human soul and how it can express itself in language, ethics, art and politics. He adorns existing myths, redesigns them or invents completely new stories.

The Platonic Academy

For the development of the “logos” all this does not give much. It is interesting in this context, however, that he also promoted training in analytical subjects, probably motivated by the impression that Pythagorean mathematicians made on him. He was not only a great narrator, but also a good organizer and designer. He founded a school where young people were taught philosophy and science. For this he acquired, probably in -387, a plot of land near a grove called Akademeia, because it had been dedicated to the Heros Akademos. In addition to metaphysics, ethics, dialectics and the doctrine of the soul, physics and especially mathematics were studied there, which soon became part of the basic education of every student of a philosopher. The academy remained, with interruptions, over many centuries, it was closed only around 530.
The Platonic Academy became a model: since Augustine (354 to 430) and Martianus Capella, a Roman encyclopedist from the 5th or 6th century, a canon of seven subjects had become established for the schools of late antiquity. This was divided into a trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic or logic) and a quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory). These subjects were called the seven liberal arts because they were “worthy of a free man,” and “free” was a man when he was free from the necessity of earning a living.
In the Middle Ages this study of the liberal arts was regarded as preparation for scientific studies in theology, jurisprudence and medicine. In the universities, the liberal arts were soon taught within the framework of a separate faculty, the Facultas Artium. The “Liberal Arts”, which we know from the USA e.g. as “undergraduate studies” and which are introduced nowadays also e.g. in Germany, try to continue this tradition. However, dialectics is more in the foreground here than any of the mathematical disciplines.


Aristotle, a pupil of Plato’s, had particularly fertile ground for his rigorous training at the Platonic Academy. Born into an educated and wealthy family in Stageira (Chaldidike) in the year -384, he was sent to Plato’s Academy in Athens in the year -367 at the age of 17. The mathematician Eudoxos von Knidos (ca. -395 to ca. -350) played an important role there.
Aristotle, on the one hand, loved to argue and discuss with dissenters. On the other hand, he showed – as with people who have not passed a mathematical education without consequences – a tendency to work systematically and to collect the doctrines of former philosophers such as Pythagoras or Democritus (Schupp, I 256).
Aristotle became such a great systematist, attentive to the methodical in a thought process and vigilant for connections. He was the first of this kind, and he was also to establish a completely new kind of philosophy, which is no longer a poiesis, a “production” of doctrines in a poetic manner. Instead, the focus is on analysis and methods, reasons are required and the results are checked for conclusiveness.
It is probably plausible that one feels the urge for such things when one has a large corpus of doctrines before one’s mind’s eye and at some point wonders why the respective philosophers can so firmly hold their views. But you also have to live in a stimulating environment and, above all, have the talent to make such a new start. So Aristotle soon went his own way in the academy. According to Diogenes Laertius, Plato is said to have said: “Aristotle beat me like young fillings do against their own mother” (Laertius, 2015, p. 225).
In the list of Aristotle’s writings, Laertius lists 146 titles and speaks of a total of 445 270 lines. According to him, the work on logic is “very clearly marked as a tool for all sub-areas.” These writings were later combined into a collection of six books entitled “Organon” (gr. ὄργανον = tool).

The Organon

The titles of the six books in the Organon Collection are as follows:
1. the categories,
2. on the interpretation (peri hermeneias),
3. the doctrine of the logical conclusion (analytika protera, first analysis),
4. the study of evidence (analytika hystera, second analysis),
5. the topics and
6. the Sophist Refutations
The books 3,4 and 5 are particularly important for the development of logical thinking, i.e. the doctrines of the logical conclusion and the proof as well as the topics. Here the so-called Aristotelian logic is developed. This is therefore the fruit of a time in which dialectics occupied a high position in society. Even in discussions about more fundamental questions such as those about a good life or “reasonable” morals, it was soon more a question of the power of the arguments than of authoritarian settlements, and finally it could not fail to be thought about directly which forms of argumentation possess such power that they are incontestable, i.e. must be accepted by every sensible person.
The new era of philosophy, with its emphasis on dialectics, has therefore by no means allowed the idea of the logos to recede into the background or hindered its dissemination. On the contrary, dialectics was precisely the field in which this idea could prove to be a particularly useful and valuable tool for thinking. The idea took shape in Aristotelian logic, which was to become a model for a science that today plays a significant role within the framework of artificial intelligence. In the next blog post I will deal explicitly with Aristotelian logic.

Aristotle and the System of Sciences

Aristotle’s talent for analytical thinking and systematic work, as well as his passion for collecting the doctrines of earlier philosophers, showed other fruits. He establishes a systematics of all sciences known at that time. It divides the sciences into practical and ethical sciences, into poetic (manufacturing) sciences such as medicine or craftsmanship, and finally into theoretical sciences. In the latter he distinguished mathematics, natural science and “first philosophy”, to which he added theology, ontology and logic. Theology at that time consisted essentially in a study of the unchangeable “divine” stars.
This division of Aristotle is, so to speak, the first “cashing down” of knowledge of a time and subsumes everything that creates knowledge under science. Probably he also counted the theoretical sciences of mathematics and natural science among philosophy, albeit not among the “first”. About 500 years later Diogenes writes of Laertius:
As for the parts of philosophy, there are three: physics, ethics, and dialectics.(Laertius, 2015, p. 10),
whereby dialectic here also stands for the doctrine of thought principles, i.e. for logic and more generally for epistemology. Ethics had thus immigrated into philosophy and mathematics had been eliminated. There could no longer be a thinker like Pythagoras, who practiced mathematics but also represented a certain world view with religious fervour. Important ancient mathematicians, such as Euclid of Alexandria or Archimedes of Syracuse, do not appear in the work of Diogenes Laertius on the lives and opinions of famous philosophers – except for Eudoxos of Knidos, who was a member of Plato’s Academy for a time.
But physics, too, was to emigrate from philosophy, albeit only about 2,000 years later, when Galileo Galilei overcame the Aristotelian theory of motion. By demonstrating how to describe regularities in nature in the language of mathematics, he discovered a “new science”. Natural science became a modern physics. The consequences of this discovery will be discussed in detail.
Finally, at the end of the 19th century, logic in the form of mathematical logic emigrated from philosophy. It is now a branch of mathematics and computer science. Nowadays it is even observed how epistemology is becoming an area of cognitive science that not only deals with our ability to think, but also with all conscious and unconscious processes in our brain such as perceiving, learning or remembering.
Cosmology, the theme of the pre-Socratics and the first theme of philosophy ever, is today an area of modern physics. A history of cosmology from the pre-Socratics to Hawking would be highly interesting: the “question of the whole” has arisen in mythical thinking and in this form is still present in all religions, and the pre-Socratics already began to look for physical reasons for their ideas. But only for about 100 years has there been a physical cosmology in which the logos rule strictly. This cosmology is a reconstruction of the history of the universe with consistent consideration of physical theories. The development of the cosmos could only be convincingly told after the phenomena of nature had been understood on the grounds of reliable theories. Because this knowledge was just the necessary guidelines for a history of the universe, which no longer wants to be a mythical but a logical one.

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Joseph Honerkamp (6. Mai 2019). Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The nature of physics. Abgerufen am 14. Juli 2024 von

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