The History of Greek Philosophy in Four Questions

Understanding the history of Greek philosophy is understanding Aristotle’s account of it. His work is authoritative in a way that no other history is, and not only because of the quantity of information we get from him. In addition, his philosophical views are often employed in the organization of later histories, histories that form almost all the data available to us today (the works of the early Greek philosophers have not survived and only live on in these ancient historical accounts). Successors like Aetius, for instance, organize early Greek philosophical views according to Aristotle’s stipulations on the order of explanation or according to the number and types of questions Aristotle claims there are. The point is that in the long run, not only have historical accounts crucial to our knowledge of the history of Greek philosophy taken up the factual content of Aristotle’s account. They have also appropriated his philosophy as a way of structuring their histories. As a result, there can be no history of Greek philosophy purified of Aristotle and herein lies the bulk of his authority.

I should add that Aristotle is not an authority because his history is the first, however. It isn’t. He does have one known predecessor, Hippias. Hippias was, at the very least, a collector and organizer of philosophers’ views, and it is likely that Aristotle adopted not only some of Hippias’ historical content but also many of his organizational categories. In short, what Aristotle adds to the mix, most importantly, is a theory of causes, and, at its heart, his history of Greek philosophy is a narrative of the discovery of the causes, of which there are four—the material, efficient, formal, and final.

Ultimately, causes are significant because knowledge is of causes. Aristotle’s historical account is, therefore, not really a history of ideas, as some have supposed. Rather, it is, more precisely, a history of knowledge, and this more than anything else makes Aristotle’s a proper history of philosophy.

One final note on cause. Cause is, generally speaking, an answer to a question. Thus, structuring an historical account according to the four causes also means structuring the account according to four questions, the first of which is: what are all things made of? In order to answer this question, philosophers appeal to material causes such as earth, water, fire, and air, the four elements posited in traditional Greek natural philosophy.

The first attempts to answer this question, however, were not made by philosophers and did not amount to knowledge. These pioneers were the purveyors of myth, and Aristotle sees the philosopher as someone who has moved beyond myth to what we might label plainly as the philosophical account. For Aristotle, Thales is the first to offer such an account and thus is the first philosopher.
The philosophical account has three components. First, it makes reference to a cause, and in Thales’ case, this cause is water which acts as the matter of all things. Second, the entity, water, and the account that employs it in an explanatory capacity are clear. That is, unlike mysterious terms such as “nectar” and “ambrosia” used by the purveyors of myth, water is something sufficiently comprehensible as are Thales’ claims about it. Lastly, Thales’ assertions are persuasive. This means that they incorporate proof or supporting evidence. What we see, then, is that Aristotle’s history carries with it a robust view of philosophical methodology which is as crucial to shaping his historical account as his causal theory is.

Ultimately, however, Thales only addresses the first question about matter. His successors, by contrast, appear to be interested not only in the nature of material reality but also in the nature of change. They are concerned, in particular, with the following question: what is the source of change? Two answers stand out for Aristotle, those of Empedocles and Anaxagoras. For Empedocles, change—coming to be and passing away—is the product of the activity of the cosmic forces of Love and Strife: Love effecting coming to be in the sense of combining various parts to form unified wholes; and Strife destroying those wholes by separating and scattering them into disconnected parts. Anaxagoras, too, has a combination-separation account of change, though the agent he posits as responsible is something like a divine mind which produces coming to be and passing away by its motion.

In the historical progress from the first to the second question, it does not seem that Aristotle sees much increase in sophistication or at least not as much as he sees in the move to the third and fourth questions. The third question concerns essence or definition and might be reasonably formulated as: what is a thing? Here we should pause, however, to consider that a concern with something like definition or form—the answer to a “what is” question—comes along somewhat late in philosophy’s history. Definition is not the first stop in the progress of knowledge. It is a late innovation. In fact, Aristotle sees himself as the only one who has adequately addressed this cause. What is equally profound is that the discovery of definition or essence coincides with the discovery of invisible things. More precisely, successfully answering this third question is what puts one in touch with such things.

Prior to Aristotle, those who get closest to making contact with the invisible objects of knowledge are Plato and his cohort (which perhaps includes the Pythagoreans), and at this point in the narrative, Plato is placed on the causal/historical grid. In Aristotle’s assessment, the only issue Plato addresses beyond definition is the first concerning matter. One also gets the sense that in failing to address the other two causes (efficient and final), Aristotle thinks Plato offers a deficient account.

The last question, then is: what is the role of the good in change? The answer to this question, something Aristotle thinks only he has grasped, is truly the height of sophistication—i.e. final cause, teleological explanation. In this kind of explanation, one appeals to the goodness of ends in order to explain, in particular, processes of change. One might conceive of final cause as a collection of explanations something like the following:

1. An end explains the process that leads to it.
2. We use the end to explain the process that leads to it by suggesting that the process is for the sake of the end. The process is directed to the end.
3. The directedness of the process is explained by the goodness of the end. The process is directed to the end because the end is good.
4. The goodness of the end is explained by the goodness afforded by that end, for instance, to an organism as a whole.
There are many who have noticed the above four components in the structure of Aristotle’s history itself and would describe his historical account as teleological, accordingly. By his own lights, his work acts as that good end for the entirety of philosophy. In particular, his system is that goodness afforded by him as the end to philosophy as a whole (4. above). After all, I assume that Aristotle would not have written his history if he weren’t entirely convinced that the history of philosophy had already reached completion and in the sense of reaching maturity or full development.
Thus, in sum, Aristotle appears to think of his own contribution to the history of philosophy in something like the following terms. He has honed his answers to the third and fourth questions. He has discovered essence and the role of good in change, and because he has, his explanations are superior. His explanations, in fact, are exhaustive, and as such they mark the end of the history of philosophy.
In conclusion, we might refine Aristotle’s views on the progress through the four questions by seeing in them a single item to explain—change. In this case, we should think that the first philosophers wanted to know about the “stuff” involved in coming to be and passing away. Their successors wanted to grasp not only this but the source acting as the engine, as it were, of all generation and destruction, something we might also understand in terms of an interest in why a change begins in the first place. Plato and the Pythagoreans, then, advance the field beyond the material and efficient by stumbling upon what a thing is, or as Aristotle will make explicit, the thing that endures through a given change or series of changes, the thing that stays the same, the subject of change. Aristotle reaches the culmination of philosophy in explaining why a change ends and he explains this by appeal to the good. Thus, in total, the history of Greek philosophy is a history of the discovery of the anatomy and causes of change.


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[We are very lucky to have the philosopher and ancient historian (and stand up comedian) Charles Ives  (which according to him is plural for “Charle Ive”), offer this essay on the history of Greek philosophy. Charles is a course lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Washington. His primary research interests include Platonic and Pre-Platonic physics.Look for his book, <em>Plato’s Timaeus: Physics for the Sake of Philosophy</em>, coming Fall 2016, Lexington Books.]

About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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