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 A Dictionary of English Philosophical Terms  Francis Garden


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Introductory Paragraph

Early Ionic Natural Philosophers

The Pythagoreans

The Eleatics


Later Natural Philosophers

General Character of the First Period in the History of Greek Philosophy

The Sophist


The Followers of Socrates

The Lesser Socratics

Plato. Life. Works

Plato. Philosophy

The Disciples of Plato

The Old Academy

Aristotle: Life and works

Aristotle: Theory of Knowledge

Aristotle: Metaphysics

Aristotle: Physics

Aristotle: Psychology

Aristotle: Practical Philosophy

Aristotle: Rhetoric and Poetic

Aristotle: Sources

Aristotle: Unity of Plato and Aristotle

Aristotle: result

The Peripatetic School

Three Leading Post-Aristotelian Schools

The Stoics and Stoicism

The Epicureans and Epicureanism

The Sceptics

The Common Ground of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics

Philosophy in Rome: Eclecticism

The Later Peripatetics

The Later Academics

The Later Stoics

General Character of the Second Period

Standpoint and Schools of the Third and Latest Period of Greek Philosophy

Jewish-Alexandrian School


The Eclectic Platonist

Neo-Platonism. Plotinus

Neo-Platonism. Porphyry. Jamblichus

Neo-Platonism. Proclus




B. C. BURT (1852-1915) - Table of contents                        




§ 14 - Aristotle

Physics, or the Philosophy of Nature

We have just seen that substance is immovable and movable, and that the science of immovable substance, or of substance as immovable, is First Philosophy or Metaphysics. The science of movable substance, or of substance as movable, is Physics, or the Philosophy of Nature. Movable substance is of two kinds: that which has, in a manner, the principle of motion in itself, and that which has not. But the principle of motion in this is the soul; hence Physics discusses, and is primarily the philosophy of, the soul(1).

Essential Character of Nature

Nature, as having the principle of motion within itself, is possessed of a soul, is a living being, and its works are in all respects like those of an artist, except that the latter have their efficient cause outside themselves, whereas the efficient cause of the works of nature is immanent. Nature is governed by the principle of the end and does nothing in vain(2). The end is an immanent end: the end of the plant or the animal is to be just the plant or the animal. Nature is both matter and form, but the form prevails to such an extent that nature works generally, if not always, in the same way and towards cognizable ends. There is, indeed, a certain mechanical necessity in nature: but it is secondary, not primary, a condition merely, not a cause,—just as "heavy" and "light" are conditions but not causes with reference to the house made by the builder(3).



There is, also, a certain element of contingency in nature: there are in the animal kingdom monstrosities, which are examples of nature's failure to attain to form, or reason. Such failures are inherent in matter, which is the contingent cause of what is accidental(4).  But in spite of necessity and chance, or contingency, nature is governed by form, or inherent end.

Method of the Philosophy of Nature

As governed by the end, or reason, nature is an object of science ; and yet owing to the contingency inherent in matter, the science of nature, or Physics, is not so purely a demonstrative science as is that of being. Careful and comprehensive observation and induction are requisite as a basis from which to rise to principles ; truth is not to be attained by those who, preoccupied with theories, neglect facts(5). But observations and deductions from facts are to be governed by the idea of the end: the highest of the "causes" of knowledge as of being is in Physics, as in Metaphysics, the final cause.

Motion, Space, and Time

Motion (κίνησις) is the entelechy or natural state of the potential as potential. In other words the world of matter is inherently a world of movement—matter has reality (form) for us only as in motion. Motion is distinguished by Aristotle from change (μεταβολή), which embraces origin and decay, increase and diminution, alteration (in kind or quality), and change in place. Motion is merely a kind of change, and includes only the six last-mentioned kinds of change, all (six) of which are or involve change in place. The six kinds of motion referred to may be grouped into three : changes in quality (alteration), in quantity (increase and diminution), and in "place". "Place'' (τόπος) is not (as we understand it) position, nor the space occupied by a body, but the limit presented to a body by a surrounding body or by surrounding bodies; it may be compared to a vessel in which water or any other material substance is held. No "place" is empty (there is no empty space); the world is a plenum. The movement of bodies is therefore merely an exchanging of "places". Space is not infinite but ends with the sphere of the fixed stars. The world as a whole is not in any "place". The perfect motion is circular; for only such a motion, a motion the path of which is without beginning or end, answers to the eternal nature of the Prime Mover. Such is the motion of the sphere of the fixed stars, upon which God acts, though without touching it. Motion is eternal, since every motion of a real thing implies, on the one hand, an antecedent motion which, again, implies another and so on in infinitum and, on the other hand, a subsequent one, which, in turn, implies another and so on in infinitum. The eternity of motion implies an eternal cause of motion(6), —a corollary to the theorem of the eternity of motion is that of the eternity of time. Time is the "number of motion with reference to earlier and later". We should have no conception of time merely from the idea of a "now". Consciousness of succession (arising from the perception of motion) is also necessary. Practically, however, every "now" is a union of before" and "after," and so time is in itself potentially infinite. Time as a numbering presupposes a "numberer," infinite time an infinite mind(7). The universe has always been, and always will be the same.

The Visible Universe

The visible universe was conceived by Aristotle as a living sphere. Exterior to the sphere is the abode of the Prime Mover. That part of the sphere nearest the abode of the Prime Mover—the region of the fixed stars—partakes of the perfection of the Prime Mover, or Deity, dwelling in felicity and realizing the highest end of existence; the centre of the sphere, the region of our earth, is the place of imperfection. The region of the planets is intermediate in character as in place between the other two. The material elements are five in number,—earth, water, air, fire, ether. Ether, the most perfect of them, exists only in the upper heaven, is not subject to changes either in quality or in quantity, but to change in place only, and has only a circular (perfect) motion. Of the other elements, earth is lowest, fire highest, in place and nature. They easily pass into one another, being active and passive in nature, and are, as compared with ether, the fifth element, or quintessence, imperfect and the cause of imperfection in the lower world. Their motions are not circular : earth moves downwards, fire upwards, air and water having intermediate motions. Of fire, air, water, and earth all living beings are composed, homogeneous parts, e.g., flesh or bones, being formed of like parts, and heterogeneous of the homogeneous.

Graduated Scale of Being in Nature

There is throughout nature a gradation of being, and at certain points it is with difficulty that beings of one kind can be distinguished from those of another(8). Certain plants (e.g., the sponge) very closely resemble animals, and the attributes possessed by animals are possessed by man in a higher degree of perfection. Life pervades even the elements.


(1) Metaphysics, Bk. V. ch. I; Bk. X. ch. 3, etc.

(2) De Anima, Bk. III. ch. 12.

(3) Physics, Bk. II. 9.

(4) Metaphysics, Bk. V. ch. 7.

(5) Posterior Analytics, Bk. I. ch. 33; De Generatione et Corruptione, Bk. I. ch.

(6) Physics, Bk. VIII. ch. I.

(7) Ibid., Bk. VIII. ch. I; Bk. VI. ch. 6, etc.

(8) On the Parts of Animals, Bk. IV. ch. 5.



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