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Plato usually tried to solve philosophical problems using a schematic approach. Probably one of the best examples of this is the tripartite system, which he applies both to the human soul (psyché) and to the ideal city, assuming that there is an isomorphism relation between them. According to that theory, both entities can be divided into three components: reason, spirit and desire. But these three parts are presented as very distinct from each other, to the point that the whole theory sounds somewhat incoherent1.

Aristotle also advances his theory of the soul, based on fundamental constituents arranged in a hyerarchical system. But, unlike the rather "mechanistic" view of Plato, Aristotle's theories try to show how these constituents work together, in a more organic way. And, this is true not only for the soul, but for his other theories, like his physics, ethics etc.

History tells us that Plato was a mathematician while Aristotle was essentially a biologist. So, would it be safe to say that their different backgrounds had a very strong influence on their philosophies? In other words, did Aristotle tend to treat object of study as an organism because he was used to dealing with animals and plants, while Plato was more accustomed to abstract geometrical concepts?


1 Williams, B. “The Analogy of City and Soul,” in R. Kraut, ed., Plato’s Republic: Critical Essays, pp. 49–60.

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    I feel like it's fairly self-evident that your educational background is the foundation upon which you build any further knowledge (not just ones philosophical theories). Am I missing something here? – stoicfury Jan 23 '12 at 16:41
  • @stoicfury, yes, but it could have been the other way around. Their different world views could have determined which kind of other intellectual pursuits they chose. Probably the word "background" is misleading here. I'll try to come up with a better term. – Otavio Macedo Jan 23 '12 at 19:17
  • Its not just ones educational background, but also ones nature. After all plato must have enjoyed mathematics, to become a mathematician. And plenty of people - the vast majority do not. – Mozibur Ullah Mar 5 '12 at 22:12
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    @stoicfury As I understand Otavio's question, his concern is not really if Plato and Aristotle's further work is built on the prior knowledge they received in their education. His question is if there is a quasi-deterministic connection between the professional background of Plato and Aristotle and their respective theoretical doctrines. I'll try to address this question in an answer. – DBK Mar 11 '12 at 15:16
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Short answer

Drawing these kinds of causal connections is, in principle, unproblematic. However, in single cases it is difficult to build good explanations, because it is complicated, if not impossible, to assess their validity.

Longer answer

As I understand your question, your concern is not really if Plato and Aristotle's further work is built on the prior knowledge they received in their education. Your question is rather if there is an essential determination between the professional background of Plato and Aristotle and their respective theoretical doctrines. This is a question asked in internalist approaches to sociology of knowledge (in this case: sociology of philosophy).

So, would it be safe to say that their different backgrounds had a very strong influence on their philosophies?

This claim is a strong version of the basic assumption of sociology of knowledge. Simply (and thus somewhat misleadingly) put: Externalist approaches in sociology of knowledge assume such deterministic connections in regard to social, economic, political backgrounds, internalist approaches refer mainly to the intellectual backgrounds. However, these explanations target mostly socially distinct groups of people, not single individuals. In biographical approaches to intellectual history such assumptions are often applied to single individuals, mostly, but not exclusively, to prominent figures in history.

In other words, did Aristotle tend to treat object of study as an organism because he was used to dealing with animals and plants, while Plato was more accustomed to abstract geometrical concepts?

The claim seems at first sight quite plausible ("why not?"), but this is more a problem than a feature. While the general assumption above is often taken for granted, it is difficult to assess more specific claims like yours, because they rely on very loose analogies between one domain (professional background, e.g. biological methods) and another (abstract doctrines covering a lot of other things outside of biology). This is a problem, because with hindsight many other connections (including other analogies) can be set up at will, without any good methods to test them.

This problem is known as the construction of just-so stories, especially when these "stories" are used as explanations ("Aristotle tend to treat object of study as an organism because he was used to dealing with animals and plants").

To sum up: Drawing these kinds of causal connections is, in principle, unproblematic. However, in single cases it is difficult to build good explanations, because it is complicated, if not impossible, to assess their validity.


If you are interested in this kind of explanations in the history of philosophy, there is an ambitious book which I can recommend: Randall Collins, The sociology of philosophies: a global theory of intellectual change, HUP 2000

Here's the blurb:

Through network diagrams and sustained narrative, Randall Collins traces the development of philosophical thought in China, Japan, India, ancient Greece, the medieval Islamic and Jewish world, medieval Christendom, and modern Europe. What emerges from this history is a general theory of intellectual life, one that avoids both the reduction of ideas to the influences of society at large and the purely contingent local construction of meanings. Instead, Collins focuses on the social locations where sophisticated ideas are formed: the patterns of intellectual networks and their inner divisions and conflicts. According to his theory, when the material bases of intellectual life shift with the rise and fall of religions, educational systems, and publishing markets, opportunities open for some networks to expand while others shrink and close down. It locates individuals -- among them celebrated thinkers like Socrates, Aristotle, Chu Hsi, Shankara, Wirt Henstein, and Heidegger -- within these networks and explains the emotional and symbolic processes that, by forming coalitions within the mind, ultimately bring about original and historically successful ideas.

  • Thank you very much! This is exactly the kind of answer I was expecting. – Otavio Macedo Mar 11 '12 at 16:48

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