The origins of Aristotle’s natural teleology in physics II

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Abstract

Aristotle discovered natural science. Or so he believed, at any rate, as we can see most clearly from the opening book of his Metaphysics (A.3-7). There, in presenting the historical background to what he offers in the Physics, he argues at some length that none of his predecessors, not even those who by tradition were known as students of nature or naturalists, had any adequate or workable conception of the subject. The earliest of these physikoi, says Aristotle, were interested chiefly in the nature of matter or in the ultimate material constituents of things, those constituents from which other things come to be and into which they perish while they themselves, in their substance, persist unchanged (A.3, 983b6-18). They offered no proper or adequate account of why (dia ti) the ultimate material constituents are modified in the ways that they are, or of why and how they manifest regularity and order in their patterns of alteration (984a19-25, b11-22). Some, such as Parmenides, offered no account of the patterns of change in nature in so far as they denied the reality of change altogether (984a29-b4). Others, such as Plato, believed that natural change was too irregular and fluctuating to be a suitable subject for genuine science or scientific explanation (A.6, 987a32-b1; cf. Metaph. M.4, 1078b12-17). Still others, such as Empedocles and the Atomists, offered, at best, only partial or inconsistent explanations for the regular patterns of natural change (A.4, 985a10-29, b19-20). In addition, Aristotle claims, none of the earlier thinkers made any clear or proper use of the essence or form of natural objects, in definition or in explanation concerning them. Plato only made gestures in this direction, as did the Atomists in their use of the shapes and positions of the atoms to explain their patterns of interaction (A.7, 988a34-b1; A.4, 985b10-19 with H.2, 1042b11-15, 1043a5-7, 14-21). Finally, and most importantly for our purposes here, Aristotle claims that no one at all before him had any real understanding of natural teleology, or of those goals for the sake of which things come about in nature (A.7, 988b6-8).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAristotle's Physics
Subtitle of host publicationA Critical Guide
PublisherCambridge University Press
Pages121-143
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781139381741
ISBN (Print)9781107031463
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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