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Western philosophy
Ancient philosophy
Aristoteles Louvre.jpg
Name: Aristotle
Birth: 384 B.C.E.
Death: March 7, 322 B.C.E.
School/tradition: Inspired the Peripatetic school and tradition of Aristotelianism
Main interests
Politics, Metaphysics, Science, Logic, Ethics
Notable ideas
The Golden mean, Reason, Logic, Biology, Passion
Influences Influenced
Parmenides, Socrates, Plato Alexander the Great, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, Albertus Magnus, Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Ptolemy, St. Thomas Aquinas, and most of Islamic philosophy, Christian philosophy, Western philosophy and Science in general

Aristotle (Greek: Ἀριστοτέλης Aristotélēs) (384 B.C.E. – March 7, 322 B.C.E.) was a Greek philosopher, a student of Plato, and teacher of Alexander the Great. He wrote on diverse subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry (including theater), logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology. Along with Socrates and Plato, he was among the most influential of the ancient Greek philosophers, as they transformed Presocratic Greek philosophy into the foundations of Western philosophy as it is known today. Most researchers credit Plato and Aristotle with founding two of the most important schools of ancient philosophy, along with Stoicism and Epicureanism.

Aristotle's philosophy made a dramatic impact on both Western and Islamic philosophy. The beginning of "modern" philosophy in the Western world is typically located at the transition from medieval, Aristotelian philosophy to mechanistic, Cartesian philosophy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet, even the new philosophy continued to put debates in largely Aristotelian terms, or to wrestle with Aristotelian views. Today, there are avowed Aristotelians in many areas of contemporary philosophy, including ethics and metaphysics.


Given the volume of Aristotle's work, it is not possible to adequately summarize his views in anything less than a book. This article focuses on the aspects of his views that have been most influential in the history of philosophy.


Aristotle was born in Stageira, Chalcidice, in 384 B.C.E. His father was Nicomachus, who became physician to King Amyntas of Macedon. At about the age of eighteen, he went to Athens to continue his education at Plato's Academy. Aristotle remained at the academy for nearly twenty years, not leaving until after Plato's death in 347 B.C.E. He then traveled with Xenocrates to the court of Hermias of Atarneus in Asia Minor. While in Asia, Aristotle traveled with Theophrastus to the island of Lesbos, where together they researched the botany and zoology of the island. Aristotle married Hermias' daughter (or niece) Pythias. She bore him a daughter, whom they named Pythias. Soon after Hermias' death, Aristotle was invited by Philip of Macedon to become tutor to Alexander the Great.

After spending several years tutoring the young Alexander, Aristotle returned to Athens. By 334 B.C.E., he established his own school there, known as the Lyceum. Aristotle conducted courses at the school for the next eleven years. While in Athens, his wife Pythias died, and Aristotle became involved with Herpyllis of Stageira, who bore him a son that he named after his father, Nicomachus.

It is during this period that Aristotle is believed to have composed many of his works. Aristotle wrote many dialogues, only fragments of which survived. The works that have survived are in treatise form and were not, for the most part, intended for widespread publication, and are generally thought to be mere lecture aids for his students.

Aristotle not only studied almost every subject possible at the time, but made significant contributions to most of them. In physical science, Aristotle studied anatomy, astronomy, economics, embryology, geography, geology, meteorology, physics, and zoology. In philosophy, he wrote on aesthetics, ethics, government, logic, metaphysics, politics, psychology, rhetoric, and theology. He also studied education, foreign customs, literature, and poetry. Because his discussions typically begin with a consideration of existing views, his combined works constitute a virtual encyclopedia of Greek knowledge.

Upon Alexander's death in 323 B.C.E., anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens once again flared. Having never made a secret of his Macedonian roots, Aristotle fled the city to his mother's family estate in Chalcis, explaining, "I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy."[1] However, he died there of natural causes within the year.

The loss of his works

Though Aristotle wrote many elegant treatises and dialogues (Cicero described his literary style as "a river of gold"),[2] the vast majority of his writings are now lost, while the literary character of those that remain is disputed. Aristotle's works were lost and rediscovered several times, and it is believed that only about one fifth of his original works have survived through the time of the Roman Empire.

After the Roman period, what remained of Aristotle's works were by and large lost to the West. They were preserved in the East by various Muslim scholars and philosophers, many of whom wrote extensive commentaries on his works. Aristotle lay at the foundation of the falsafa movement in Islamic philosophy, stimulating the thought of Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and others.

As the influence of the falsafa grew in the West, in part due to Gerard of Cremona's translations and the spread of Averroism, the demand for Aristotle's works grew. William of Moerbeke translated a number of them into Latin. When Thomas Aquinas wrote his theology, working from Moerbeke's translations, the demand for Aristotle's writings grew and the Greek manuscripts returned to the West, stimulating a revival of Aristotelianism in Europe.


It is the opinion of many that Aristotle's system of thought remains the most marvelous and influential one ever put together by any single mind. According to historian Will Durant, no other philosopher has contributed so much to the enlightenment of the world.[3] He single-handedly began the systematic treatment of Logic, Biology, and Psychology.

Aristotle is referred to as "The Philosopher" by Scholastic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas (for instance, Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 3). These thinkers blended Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity, bringing the thought of Ancient Greece into the Middle Ages. The medieval English poet Chaucer describes his student as being happy by having

At his bedded hed
Twenty books clothed in blake or red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie (Chaucer).

The Italian poet Dante says of Aristotle, in the first circles of hell,

I saw the Master there of those who know,
Amid the philosophic family,
By all admired, and by all reverenced;
There Plato too I saw, and Socrates,
Who stood beside him closer than the rest (Dante, The Divine Comedy)

Nearly all the major philosophers in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries felt impelled to address Aristotle's works. The French philosopher Descartes cast his philosophy (in the Meditations of 1641) in terms of moving away from the senses as a basis for a scientific understanding of the world. The great Jewish philosopher Spinoza argued in his Ethics directly against the Aristotlean method of understanding the operations of nature in terms of final causes. Leibniz often described his own philosophy as an attempt to bring together the insights of Plato and Aristotle. Kant adopted Aristotle's use of the form/matter distinction in describing the nature of representations—for instance, in describing space and time as "forms" of intuition.


Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while holding a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his hand, whilst Plato gestures to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms.

Both Plato and Aristotle regard philosophy as concerning universal truths. Roughly speaking, however, Aristotle found the universal truths by considering particular things, which he called the essence of things, while Plato finds that the universal exists apart from particular things, and is related to them as their prototype or exemplar. For Aristotle, therefore, philosophic method implies the ascent from the study of particular phenomena to the knowledge of essences, while for Plato philosophic method means the descent from a knowledge of universal ideas to a contemplation of particular imitations of those ideas (compare the metaphor of the line in the Republic).

It is, therefore, unsurprising that Aristotle saw philosophy as encompassing many disciplines which today are considered part of natural science (such as biology and astronomy). Yet, Aristotle would have resisted the over-simplifying description of natural science as based entirely in observation. After all, all data requires some interpretation, and much of Aristotle's work attempts to provide a framework for interpretation.


Aristotle is, without question, the most important logician in history. He deserves this title for two main reasons: (1) He was the first to consider the systematization of inferences as a discipline in itself (it would not be an exaggeration to say that he invented logic), and (2) his logical system was the dominant one for approximately 2000 years. Kant famously claimed that nothing significant had been added to logic since Aristotle, and concluded that it was one of the few disciplines that was finished. The work of mathematicians such as Boole and Frege in the nineteenth century showed that Kant was wrong in his estimation, but even contemporary logicians hold Aristotle in high regard.

Central to Aristotle's theory was the claim that all arguments could be reduced to a simple form, called a "syllogism." A syllogism was a set of three statements, the third of which (the conclusion) was necessarily true if the first two (the premises) were. Aristotle thought that the basic statements were of one of four forms:

  1. All X's are Y's
  2. No X's are Y's
  3. Some X's are Y's
  4. Some X's are not Y's

Aristotle's main insight, the insight that more or less began logic as a proper discipline, was that whether an inference was successful could depend on purely formal features of the argument. For instance, consider the following two arguments:

  1. All cats are animals
  2. All animals are made of cells
  3. Therefore, all cats are made of cells


  1. All ducks are birds
  2. All birds have feathers
  3. Therefore, all ducks have feathers

The particular substantive words differ in these two arguments. Nevertheless, they have something in common: a certain structure. On reflection, it becomes clear that any argument with this structure will be one where the truth of the conclusion is guaranteed by that of the premises.


As with logic, Aristotle is the first to have treated metaphysics as a distinct discipline (though, more than in the case of logic, other philosophers has discussed the same specific issues). Indeed, the very word "metaphysics" stems from the ordering of Aristotle's writing (it was the book prior to his Physics).


Aristotle distinguishes four types of cause: Material, formal, efficient, and final. His notion of efficient causation is closest to our contemporary notion of causation. To avoid confusion, it is helpful to think of the division as one of different types of explanations of a thing's being what it is.

The material cause is that from which a thing comes into existence as from its parts, constituents, substratum or materials. This reduces the explanation of causes to the parts (factors, elements, constituents, ingredients) forming the whole (system, structure, compound, complex, composite, or combination), a relationship known as the part-whole causation. An example of a material cause would be the marble in a carved statue, or the organs of an animal.

The formal cause argues what a thing is, that any thing is determined by the definition, form, pattern, essence, whole, synthesis, or archetype. It embraces the account of causes in terms of fundamental principles or general laws, as the whole (that is, macrostructure) is the cause of its parts, a relationship known as the whole-part causation. An example of a formal cause might be the shape of the carved statue, a shape that other particular statues could also take, or the arrangement of organs in an animal.


The efficient (or "moving") cause is what we might today most naturally describe as the cause: the agent or force that brought about the thing, with its particular matter and form. This cause might be either internal to the thing, or external to it. An example of an efficient cause might be the artist who carved the statue, or the animal's own ability to grow.

The final cause is that for the sake of which a thing exists or is done, including both purposeful and instrumental actions and activities. The final cause, or telos, is the purpose or end that something is supposed to serve, or it is that from which and that to which the change is. This also covers modern ideas of mental causation involving such psychological causes as volition, need, motivation, or motives, rational, irrational, ethical, all that gives purpose to behavior. The best examples of final causes are the functions of animals or organs: for instance, the final cause of an eye is sight (teleology).

Additionally, things can be causes of one another, causing each other reciprocally, as hard work causes fitness and vice versa, although not in the same way or function, the one is as the beginning of change, the other as the goal. (Thus, Aristotle first suggested a reciprocal or circular causality as a relation of mutual dependence or influence of cause upon effect.) Moreover, Aristotle indicated that the same thing can be the cause of contrary effects; its presence and absence may result in different outcomes. For example, a certain food may be the cause of health in one person, and sickness in another.

Substance, matter, and form

Aristotelian metaphysics discusses particular objects using two related distinctions. The first distinction is that between substances and "accidents" (the latter being "what is said of" a thing). For instance, a cat is a substance, and one can say of a cat that it is gray, or small. But the greyness or smallness of the cat belong to a different category of being—they are features of the cat. They are, in some sense, dependent for their existence on the cat.

Aristotle also sees entities as constituted by a certain combination of matter and form. This is a distinction which can be made at many levels. A cat, for instance, has a set of organs (heart, skin, bones, and so on) as its matter, and these are arranged into a certain form. Yet, each of these organs in turn has a certain matter and form, the matter being the flesh or tissues, and the form being their arrangement. Such distinctions continue all the way down to the most basic elements.

Aristotle sometimes speaks as though substance is to be identified with the matter of particular objects, but more often describes substances as individuals composed of some matter and form. He also appears to have thought that biological organisms were the paradigm cases of substances.

Universals and particulars

Aristotle's predecessor, Plato, argued that all sensible objects are related to some universal entity, or "form." For instance, when people recognize some particular book for what it is, they consider it as an instance of a general type (books in general). This is a fundamental feature of human experience, and Plato was deeply impressed by it. People don't encounter general things in their normal experience, only particular things—so how could people have experience of particulars as being of some universal type?

Plato's answer was that these forms are separate and more fundamental parts of reality, existing "outside" the realm of sensible objects. He claimed (perhaps most famously in the Phaedo) that people must have encountered these forms prior to their birth into the sensible realm. The objects people normally experience are compared (in the Republic) with shadows of the forms. Whatever else this means, it shows that Plato thought that the forms were ontologically more basic than particular objects. Because of this, he thought that forms could exist even if there were no particular objects that were related to that form. Or, to put the point more technically, Plato believed that some universals were "uninstantiated."

Aristotle disagreed with Plato on this point, arguing that all universals are instantiated. In other words, there are no universals that are unattached to existing things. According to Aristotle, if a universal exists, either as a particular or a relation, then there must have been, must be currently, or must be in the future, something on which the universal can be predicated.

In addition, Aristotle disagreed with Plato about the location of universals. As Plato spoke of a separate world of the forms, a location where all universal forms subsist, Aristotle maintained that universals exist within each thing on which each universal is predicated. So, according to Aristotle, the form of apple exists within each apple, rather than in the world of the forms. His view seems to have been that the most fundamental level of reality is just what people naturally take it to be: The particular objects people encounter in everyday experience. Moreover, the main way of becoming informed about the nature of reality is through sensory experience.

The basic contrast described here is one that echoed throughout the history of Western philosophy, often described as the contrast between rationalism and empiricism.

The five elements

Aristotle, developing one of the main topics of the Presocratics, believed that the world was built up of five basic elements. The building up consisted in the combining of the elements into various forms. The elements were:

  • Fire, which is hot and dry
  • Earth, which is cold and dry
  • Air, which is hot and wet
  • Water, which is cold and wet
  • Aether, which is the divine substance that makes up the heavenly spheres and heavenly bodies (stars and planets)

Each of the four earthly elements has its natural place; the earth at the center of the universe, then water, then air, then fire. When they are out of their natural place they have natural motion, requiring no external cause, which is towards that place; so bodies sink in water, air bubbles up, rain falls, flame rises in air. The heavenly element has perpetual circular motion.

This view was key to Aristotle's explanation of celestial motion and of gravity. It is often given as a paradigm of teleological explanation, and became the dominant scientific view in Europe at the end of the middle ages.

Philosophy of mind

Aristotle's major discussion of the nature of the mind appears in De Anima. His concern is with the "principle of motion" of living entities. He distinguishes three types of soul:

  1. Nutritive
  2. Sensory
  3. Thinking

All plants and animals are capable of absorbing nutrition, so Aristotle held that they all have a nutritive soul. Yet, not all are capable of perceiving their surroundings. Aristotle thought this was indicated by a lack of movement, holding that stationary animals cannot perceive. He, therefore, concluded that the presence of this type of soul was what distinguished plants from animals. Finally, Aristotle held that what was distinctive of humans is their ability to think, and held that this requires yet another principle of motion, the thinking soul.

Most of Aristotle's discussion of the soul is "naturalistic"—that is, it appears to only describe entities whose existence is already countenanced in the natural sciences (primarily, physics). This is especially brought out by his claim that the soul seems to be the form of the organism. Because of this, some contemporary advocates of functionalism in the philosophy of mind (just as Hilary Putnam) have cited Aristotle as a predecessor.

In the De Anima discussion, however, there are places where Aristotle seems to suggest that the rational soul requires something beyond the body. His remarks are very condensed, and so incredibly difficult to interpret, but these few remarks were the focus of Christian commentators who attempted to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with Christian doctrine.

Practical philosophy


Aristotle's main treatise on ethics is the Nichomachean Ethics, in which he gives the first systematic articulation of what is now called virtue ethics. Aristotle considered ethics to be a practical science, that is, one mastered by doing rather than merely reasoning. This stood in sharp contrast to the views of Plato. Plato held that knowledge of the good was accomplished through contemplation, much in the way in which mathematical understanding is achieved through pure thought.

By contrast, Aristotle noted that knowing what the virtuous thing to do was, in any particular instance, was a matter of evaluating the many particular factors involved. Because of this, he insisted, it is not possible to formulate some non-trivial rule that, when followed, will always lead the virtuous activity. Instead, a truly virtuous person is one who, through habituation, has developed a non-codifiable ability to judge the situation and act accordingly.

This view ties in with what is perhaps Aristotle's best-known contribution to ethical theory: The so-called "doctrine of the mean." He held that all the virtues were a matter of a balance between two extremes. For instance, courage is a state of character in between cowardice and brashness. Likewise, temperance is a state of character in between dullness and hot-headedness. Exactly where in between the two extremes the virtuous state lies is something that cannot be stated in any abstract formulation.

Also significant here is Aristotle's view (one also held by Plato) that the virtues are inter-dependent. For instance, Aristotle held that it is not possible to be courageous if one is completely unjust. Yet, such interrelations are also too complex to be meaningfully captured in any simple rule.

Aristotle taught that virtue has to do with the proper function of a thing. An eye is only a good eye in so much as it can see, because the proper function of an eye is sight. Aristotle reasoned that humans must have a function that sets them apart from other animals, and that this function must be an activity of the soul, in particular, its rational part. This function essentially involves activity, and performing the function well is what constitutes human happiness.


Did you know?
Aristotle believed that human nature is inherently political since individuals cannot achieve happiness without forming states (political bodies) because the individual in isolation is not self-sufficient

Aristotle is famous for his statement that "man is by nature a political animal." He held that happiness involves self-sufficiency and that individual people are not self-sufficient, so the desire for happiness necessarily leads people to form political bodies. This view stands in contrast to views of politics that hold that the formation of the state or city-state is somehow a deviation from more natural tendencies.

Like Plato, Aristotle believed that the ideal state would involve a ruling class. Whereas Plato believed that the philosophers should rule, Aristotle held that the rulers should be all those capable of virtue. Unfortunately, Aristotle believed that this was a fairly restricted group, for he held that neither women, slaves, nor labor-class citizens were capable of becoming virtuous.

For Aristotle, this ideal state would be one which would allow the greatest habituation of virtue and the greatest amount of the activity of contemplation, for just these things amount to human happiness (as he had argued in his ethical works).


Major works

The extant works of Aristotle are broken down according to the five categories in the Corpus Aristotelicum. The titles are given in accordance with the standard set by the Revised Oxford Translation.[4] Not all of these works are considered genuine, but differ with respect to their connection to Aristotle, his associates and his views. Some, such as the Athenaion Politeia or the fragments of other politeia, are regarded by most scholars as products of Aristotle's "school" and compiled under his direction or supervision. Other works, such as On Colours, may have been products of Aristotle's successors at the Lyceum, for example, Theophrastus and Straton. Still others acquired Aristotle's name through similarities in doctrine or content, such as the De Plantis, possibly by Nicolaus of Damascus. A final category, omitted here, includes medieval palmistries, astrological, and magical texts whose connection to Aristotle is purely fanciful and self-promotional. Those that are seriously disputed are marked with an asterisk.

In several of the treatises, there are references to other works in the corpus. Based on such references, some scholars have suggested a possible chronological order for a number of Aristotle's writings. W.D. Ross, for instance, suggested the following broad arrangement (which of course leaves out much): Categories, Topics, Sophistici Elenchi, Analytics, Metaphysics Δ, the physical works, the Ethics, and the rest of the Metaphysics.[5] Many modern scholars, however, based simply on lack of evidence, are skeptical of such attempts to determine the chronological order of Aristotle's writings.[6]

Logical writings

  • Organon (collected works on logic):
    • (1a) Categories (or Categoriae)
    • (16a) De Interpretatione (or On Interpretation)
    • (24a) Prior Analytics (or Analytica Priora)
    • (71a) Posterior Analytics (or Analytica Posteriora)
    • (100b) Topics (or Topica)
    • (164a) Sophistical Refutations (or De Sophisticis Elenchis)

Physical and scientific writings

  • (184a) Physics (or Physica)
  • (268a) On the Heavens (or De Caelo)
  • (314a) On Generation and Corruption (or De Generatione et Corruptione)
  • (338a) Meteorology (or Meteorologica)
  • (391a) On the Universe (or De Mundo, or On the Cosmos)*
  • (402a) On the Soul (or De Anima)
  • (436a) Parva Naturalia (or Little Physical Treatises):
    • Sense and Sensibilia (or De Sensu et Sensibilibus)
    • On Memory (or De Memoria et Reminiscentia)
    • On Sleep (or De Somno et Vigilia)
    • On Dreams (or De Insomniis)
    • On Divination in Sleep (or De Divinatione per Somnum)
    • On Length and Shortness of Life (or De Longitudine et Brevitate Vitae)
    • On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration (or De Juventute et Senectute, De Vita et Morte, De Respiratione)
  • (481a) On Breath (or De Spiritu)*
  • (486a) History of Animals (or Historia Animalium, or On the History of Animals, or Description of Animals)
  • (639a) Parts of Animals (or De Partibus Animalium)
  • (698a) Movement of Animals (or De Motu Animalium)
  • (704a) Progression of Animals (or De Incessu Animalium)
  • (715a) Generation of Animals (or De Generatione Animalium)
  • (791a) On Colors (or De Coloribus)*
  • (800a) On Things Heard (or De audibilibus)*
  • (805a) Physiognomics (or Physiognomonica)*
  • On Plants (or De Plantis)*
  • (830a) On Marvellous Things Heard (or De mirabilibus auscultationibus)*
  • (847a) Mechanics (or Mechanica or Mechanical Problems)*
  • (859a) Problems (or Problemata)
  • (968a) On Indivisible Lines (or De Lineis Insecabilibus)*
  • (973a) The Situations and Names of Winds (or Ventorum Situs)*
  • (974a) On Melissus, Xenophanes, and Gorgias (or MXG)* The section On Xenophanes starts at 977a13, the section On Gorgias starts at 979a11.

Metaphysical writings

  • (980a) Metaphysics (or Metaphysica)

Ethical & Political writings

  • (1094a) Nicomachean Ethics (or Ethica Nicomachea, or The Ethics)
  • (1181a) Magna Moralia (or Great Ethics)*
  • (1214a) Eudemian Ethics (or Ethica Eudemia)
  • (1249a) On Virtues and Vices (or De Virtutibus et Vitiis Libellus, Libellus de virtutibus)*
  • (1252a) Politics (or Politica)
  • (1343a) Economics (or Oeconomica)

Aesthetic writings

  • (1354a) Rhetoric (or Ars Rhetorica, or The Art of Rhetoric, or Treatise on Rhetoric)
  • Rhetoric to Alexander (or Rhetorica ad Alexandrum)*
  • (1447a) Poetics (or Ars Poetica)

Major current editions

  • Princeton University Press: The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation (2 Volume Set; Bollingen Series, Vol. LXXI, No. 2), edited by Jonathan Barnes. ISBN 978-0691016511 (the most complete recent translation of Aristotle's extant works, including a selection from the extant fragments)
  • Oxford University Press: Clarendon Aristotle Series.
  • Harvard University Press: Loeb Classical Library (hardbound; publishes in Greek, with English translations on facing pages)
  • Oxford Classical Texts (hardbound; Greek only)


  1. W.T. Jones, The Classical Mind: A History of Western Philosophy (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 216.
  2. Marcus Tullius Cicero, Flumen orationis aureum fundens Aristoteles. Retrieved January 25, 2007.
  3. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1926, ISBN 9780671739164), 92.
  4. Jonathan Barnes (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton University Press, 1984).
  5. W.D. Ross, Aristotle's Metaphysics (1953).
  6. Jonathan Barnes, "Life and Work," in The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle (1995) 18-22.


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Note: This article incorporates material from Aristotle on PlanetMath, which is licensed under Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0.

External links

All links retrieved November 3, 2012.

General philosophy sources


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