Aristotle Audited

A class considers the ideas of the most important thinker in the Western philosophical tradition


Aristotle is widely considered the most important thinker in the Western philosophical tradition, and his ideas about ways to make sense of the world around us laid the groundwork for many of today’s forms of academic inquiry. For centuries, his scientific theories held sway in the minds of learned people of the day, his writings pored over and commented on by Romans, monks, and medieval scholastics.

Major research universities like Duke now offer hundreds of courses to undergraduates, yet only one in the fall of 2010 was devoted to Aristotle. Michael Ferejohn, a professor of philosophy at Duke for nearly three decades, led a class of about twenty students in a combination of lecture and discussion about Aristotle’s thoughts on topics such as the classification of animals, the nature of knowledge, how things move and change in the world, and, finally, the ultimate goal of human life. A Duke Magazine writer attended classes, spoke to students, and conducted a series of interviews with Ferejohn. These are his notes and observations:

September 1, 2010

Professor Ferejohn begins class by drawing a crude map of the Mediterranean on the board. To the far right, he draws the coastline of Asia Minor and then works his way left, making a rough outline of the Greek peninsulas and then Italy’s characteristic boot.

Ferejohn mutters a self-deprecating apology for the quality of his sketch—Italy is angled the wrong way—and then marks an important spot. On Asia Minor in what is now Turkey, Ferejohn makes an “X” to indicate the location of the ancient city of Miletus, birthplace of Western philosophy. Beginning around 600 B.C.E., a school of thinkers known as the Milesians began speculating about the origins of the universe. They, for the most part, ignored spiritual explanations and focused instead on the mechanisms by which the cosmos came to be.

One of these, Anaximander, posited that the universe began as a blob of undifferentiated material. Then, the blob began to spin, separating unlike elements and bringing like things together. Ferejohn explains how Anaximander believed that earth fell to the center, forming our planet; water surrounded that, which was in turn surrounded by air. Fire, the Ancients’ fourth and final element, formed the stars and heavenly bodies, which Anaximander believed were visible only through vents in the sky.

For the first time in this class, the students laugh—but Ferejohn counters: Anaximander’s explanations for what he observed in the world may seem strange to us, but isn’t his way of thinking familiar? Scientific even?

Aristotle, who is considered by many to be the true progenitor of science, is nonetheless best understood if examined in the context of the philosophical traditions in ancient Greece before his time, where two main strands of thought alternated in importance. The Milesians were what are called natural philosophers, and they concerned themselves with discovering the origins of the world and the elements that it was built from. Then came the first rationalists—Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Heraclitus among them—who were interested in asking questions about the nature of reality and change.

While ancient Greece began to grow and flourish, philosophy swung back to questions about nature and its component parts; the Atomists emerged and posited a theory about the microstructure of things. And finally, the first ethical philosopher, Socrates, and his famous student, Plato, turned philosophy back to questions of the mind and how to live the best possible life. Aristotle, Ferejohn tells the class, sits at the intersection of these two traditions—he is part scientist, part rationalist.

September 27, 2010

It is a rainy day a little more than one month into the semester, and classroom discussion of Aristotle’s philosophy has finally begun in earnest. The day’s lessons focus on Aristotle’s fourfold framework of classification of things known as the tetrachotomy. About ten minutes after class starts, Ferejohn introduces a seemingly unremarkable concept: An individual human is a kind of human.

Here is how Aristotle explains it himself in the Categories, the first book of the class’ text, which Ferejohn begins reading aloud: “Among beings some are said of a subject but are not in any subject.” Ferejohn stops. This is difficult, he says, but you have to stick with it. Be patient. Aristotle will offer an example of what he means.

He continues reading: “Man, for instance, is said of a subject, an individual man.”

Aristotle’s early works are likely just collections of what is left of his lecture notes, which explains their peculiarly dense, often cryptic nature, Ferejohn says. But understanding Aristotle’s terms will lead to understanding his statements, and understanding his statements will lead to understanding his arguments.

Ferejohn points out that Aristotle has a special way of expressing the basic idea that individual humans are types of humans: The “said-of” relationship is a technical one—it is transitive and indicates that something is a kind of something else. Human, for instance, is said-of Socrates, meaning that Socrates is a human. But Socrates is not said-of human: that would mean all humans are Socrates.

“The more you read him, the more you understand,” says sophomore Elizabeth Bowling. “But I definitely didn’t understand the arguments as well until I was writing a paper.” For the midterm, she wrote about a technical aspect of the tetrachotomy—whether particular instances of things, like the color white, can ever be considered universal. (To illustrate the point in class, Ferejohn breaks a piece of chalk in two and asks whether each half is the same color of white.)

On a decidedly less esoteric level, Aristotle has established that there are individual humans, who are members of the human kind, which is, in turn, a type of animal. This is where the basic idea of genus and species comes from.

Aristotle was born in 384 B.C.E. in what was then the kingdom of Macedon, and then moved to Athens to study under Plato at the Academy, where he rose to prominence. After Plato’s death in 347 B.C.E., Aristotle was passed over as his successor in favor of Plato’s nephew Speusippus. He then left Athens for Asia Minor and, after a brief stop in Lesbos, settled at the royal court in Macedon, which was then in the process of conquering the Greek city states. He began tutoring the son of the Macedonian king, Philip II, named Alexander. History remembers him with a short appellation following his name: “the Great.”

In 334 B.C.E., two years after Alexander assumed the Macedonian throne, Aristotle returned to Athens and founded a philosophical school of his own, called the Lyceum. There, he taught and wrote on an astonishing number of topics and subject matter, ranging from what we now call the sciences of biology, astronomy, and mechanics to ethics, politics, and studies of dramatic structure. His concept of logically demonstrating knowledge has dominated academic life for the past twenty-three centuries. So, too, has his idea of specialized scholarly disciplines. For these reasons and others, many people, Ferejohn included, consider him the most important figure in Western thought. “With Aristotle,” he says in a later interview, “we’re not dealing with secondary literature. Philosophers today are still conversing with Aristotle’s text.”

Ferejohn, who has taught at Duke for twenty-six years and also leads the annual Duke in Greece summer program, does not attempt to cram the whole of Aristotle into one semester, which is likely an impossible, if not counterproductive, proposition in the first place.

This is a course in the history of philosophy, he says, not a course in intellectual history. Instead of trying to understand the breadth of Aristotle’s ideas, or even their later influence, students should focus on coming to terms with Aristotle, consider his arguments in depth, and decide whether they think he is correct about what he says.

It is as difficult as it sounds. For much of the rest of the class period, students ask questions about the definition of terms used in laying out the tetrachotomy. Some stifle yawns. As 4:05 mercifully rolls around, Ferejohn dismisses the class. The students go out of the first floor of Carr Building and into the rain. Little do they know, it will take at least four more classes to finally straighten out the basics of Aristotle’s classification system.


Deep diagram: author’s notes written on a handout for a class discussion on Aristotle’s system of formal logic; more attention was given to the complexity of the ideas than to their ultimate historical significance.

Deep diagram: author’s notes written on a handout for a class discussion on Aristotle’s system of formal logic; more attention was given to the complexity of the ideas than to their ultimate historical significance.

October 25 , 2010

The students are obviously tired—it is around midterm time, and before class they go in groups to the vending machines down the hall for Diet Cokes, Red Bulls, and sweetened juice drinks. Most look sullen, which is unusual. On a normal afternoon, the group is upbeat, talking with one another about anything and everything, sometimes even about Aristotle. Although they are a mix of sophomores, juniors, and seniors (and one freshman), the students seem to be close. Many are philosophy or classical studies majors—making them a relatively rare species on campus—and a number are taking other classes together.

Ferejohn walks in at 2:48, a couple of minutes before the class starts, as he does every Monday and Wednesday. He puts his folder of papers and his well-worn copy of the textbook down and moves the podium to the right and out of the way. “Well,” he begins, “I’m going to ruin some of your weekends.” He then announces that the midterm papers will not be due the following class period, but instead, next week. The classroom erupts in applause.

After everyone settles down, Ferejohn introduces today’s topic: formal logic. Aristotle is credited with inventing the syllogism, a specific form of argument made up of exactly two premises and one conclusion. Ferejohn writes on the board, in what can only be called a script of borderline legibility:
P1. Every planet is near.
P2. Everything that is near doesn’t twinkle.
C. Every planet doesn’t twinkle.

This is an example of the demonstrative syllogism, an argument intended to confirm the meanings of observed facts, which Aristotle writes about in the Posterior Analytics. Together with the Categories, On Interpretation, and the Prior Analytics, this work constitutes what’s called the Organon, a collection of Aristotle’s so-called academic works, which he began writing when he was Plato’s student at the Academy. By laying out the origins of Aristotle’s systematic thought, the Organon forms a starting point for the study of his later work.

Earlier, after one of the first class meetings, Ferejohn had explained that a mysterious transition happens in students’ minds around this point in the semester: They begin to see where Aristotle is coming from. Soon, they’ll be able to anticipate his arguments. A number of students later said this actually happened.

But for now, they are mired in the basics of the syllogism. Ferejohn explains that Aristotle thought that all arguments could be constructed of syllogisms on top of syllogisms. The conclusions of very general syllogisms could form the premises for more specific syllogisms, and those conclusions could form the premises of even more specific syllogisms, and on and on, until one could explain something he’d observed.

The issue, Ferejohn had explained in an earlier class period, began not with Aristotle but earlier, in one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, the Meno. (Socrates left no writing of his own; his ideas, which were revealed in arguments with prominent Athenians, were recorded, with varying degrees of faithfulness, by Plato.) Meno, Socrates’ intellectual sparring partner, poses a paradox about the human being’s ability to learn anything. Socrates summarizes the paradox: A person “cannot search for what he knows—since he knows it, there is no need to search—nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.” In other words, if you already know something, you can’t learn it, and if you are trying to learn something, and you succeed, you won’t know that you’ve learned it.

The answer Socrates gives involves a metaphysical leap that offers a preview to Plato’s theory of forms: The human soul comes from a perfect, otherworldly realm, where it learned all the knowledge in the universe. The process of learning in this world is a matter of uncovering what the soul already knows through repeated questioning, which is why the type of teaching that uses this strategy to push students toward understanding of a topic is called the Socratic Method.

Aristotle takes issue with this explanation. He believes that humans can attain knowledge through observing the world around them and then backing up what they’ve observed using the deductive reasoning of demonstration. True beliefs are not enough; they must be tied down by logic.

While Ferejohn doesn’t employ the Socratic Method, he does push students to participate in class. His casual demeanor and dress—usually an Oxford shirt, jeans, and sandals—along with a laid-back lecture style, encourages students to speak up.

“In my other classes, I don’t really talk that much,” says sophomore Bowling. “But I felt like I always had something to say that was interesting to me, something I wanted to say.” She decided to declare a philosophy major after the semester ended. One reason, she says, was because she found analyzing arguments in depth so interesting.

And analyzing arguments in depth is exactly what it means to look at Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s famous theory of forms. For their midterm papers, students could choose to examine an argument against the theory of forms, known as the “Third F Argument,” which was first posed by the philosopher Parmenides and often repeated by Aristotle.

Plato’s theory of forms holds that for all things of this world, there is an ideal form. Things of this world are mere approximations of these ideal forms. So, there is an ideal form of a horse, a tree, and a blade of grass. Each ideal thing is considered to be “one over many,” meaning that things in the real world belong to or are, in a way, shadows of the ideal. (Plato famously gives an explanation of this in The Republic, in which he likens worldly things to shadows cast by the light from a fire in a cave.)

But Parmenides’ ideas differed with the theory in its assertion that the ideal forms could belong to themselves, and an infinite number of new forms could be created without there being any new things in the world—forms on top of forms, ad infinitum. In this way, the theory becomes logically absurd, Ferejohn explains to the class.

Understanding the “Third F Argument,” like so many things introduced during the semester, served to set up a later, larger topic in Aristotle’s thought. Students were systematically “racking up,” in Ferejohn’s words, more and more building blocks of Aristotelian philosophy. This specific criticism of the theory of forms was just another building block, which helped prepare the ground for Aristotle’s most vehement disagreement with his former teacher. If the forms were perfect and therefore static, how could they account for change on earth?

Teacher, pupil: Aristotle instructs a young Alexander the Great.

Teacher, pupil: Aristotle instructs a young Alexander the Great.

November 8, 2010

“This is going to be a big chalk day,” Ferejohn says. Despite the cold weather outside, he goes out to his car, where he keeps extra chalk, before beginning his lecture.

Today’s lecture introduces Aristotle’s ideas about change in the world, mostly drawn from Book 1 of the Physics. “Physics” comes from the Ancient Greek word physis, meaning nature, Ferejohn explains. For Aristotle, change in nature happens in three ways: generation, alteration, and motion.

Extreme rationalists such as Parmenides and his follower Zeno, who also preceded Plato, had argued that any and all types of change were impossible. To demonstrate the impossibility of motion, Zeno offered a thought experiment: An archer shoots an arrow at a target. But before the arrow reaches the target, it must first reach a point in the air halfway between the archer and the target. And before the arrow can reach that midpoint, it must reach the point between the archer and the midpoint. And so on to infinity. Therefore, there is no motion.

But before considering motion, a type of change, Aristotle had to prove that change was possible. Ferejohn uses the example of a green leaf that changes to red in the fall. The extreme rationalists held that change could not exist because it meant a thing had to arise from something it’s not, and Aristotle agrees with them, to a point. But, using a concept derived from the Categories, he goes a step further. Green and red are surely different, he says, but they are not primary substances—they’re more like states of being.

Green doesn’t change to red; rather, a green leaf changes into a red leaf. This is a deceptively simple statement. It serves as an example of what Ferejohn calls Aristotle’s “discovery” of matter. The leaf that is changing is made of matter; the colors are not.

Aristotle continues his argument by offering an example of a bronze statue. The statue is made of bronze, its matter, but it is bronze arranged in the shape of a statue, its form. Ferejohn explains to the class that Aristotle is asking which is more important: what something is made of or what it’s called. Just as Ferejohn is teasing this point out in what is gradually becoming a tedious discussion—a student in the front row is dozing, mouth open—a glass bottle rolls off a student’s desk in the back of the room. It hits the floor with a thud but doesn’t shatter. Now, the students seem to get it. When does a bottle stop being a bottle and become just glass instead? When is what we call something more important in describing it than what it’s made of?


December 6, 2010

The Thanksgiving holiday signals the beginning of the end of the fall semester—there are a few more class meetings, and then all of a sudden finals arrive. The first week of December becomes a mad rush to tie up the loose ends in the syllabus, to push toward the end. (Ferejohn says he, like seemingly every other college professor, always seems to encounter this problem.) Finally, a week before exams, he is ready to begin tackling Aristotle’s legendary Nicomachean Ethics.

Class begins with Ferejohn offering a definition of eudaimonia, often translated as “happiness,” though he prefers “flourishing.” What is eudaimonia, really? He writes on the board: “A complete life of activity in accordance with rational excellence.” Aristotle’s concept of flourishing is not a higher plane or a state of mind; rather, it is a kind of constant process of doing well by doing good.

Ferejohn describes two different houseplants: One sits near a window and gets plenty of water, and the other sits in the shade, ignored. He gives this example to demonstrate that Aristotle tends to approach human affairs as a biologist would. Some people flourish and others languish, and Aristotle is concerned with why that is.

But, a student asks, Why can’t a person be considered “excellent in criminality,” and, therefore, happy?

For Aristotle, Ferejohn says, ethics is subordinate to politics, and individual virtue builds successful polities. Therefore a person can’t be flourishing if he is not virtuous. Aristotle thinks that all things have an intended purpose or end and that humans are naturally oriented toward virtue.

“The Ethics was fascinating,” says Toby Ubu, a junior premed and classical studies major who was taking his first ancient philosophy class. “I liked how Aristotle was able to draw out these things about human motivation—it was relevant. We all want to be happy.”

But the Ethics sometimes reads like a description of how virtuous behavior occurs, rather than an exhortation to be virtuous or a guidebook for how to get there, Ferejohn says, because of Aristotle’s empirical bent. He doesn’t believe that people are good judges of their own eudaimonia—instead, others are better at determining whether you are truly flourishing.

And this is where we leave things. Class time has run out. Students now have a week to finish their papers and to take the largely perfunctory, fact-based exam. Ferejohn prefers a thoughtful final paper to the timed test and weights his grading accordingly.

He likes to see his students figure out what beliefs they hold, and whether they have good reasons for holding them—both in life and in Aristotle. So he gave them a great degree of freedom to take on topics from Aristotle’s later works that interested them. Students wrote on a range of subjects, from how Aristotle thought of the soul, which wasn’t covered in class, to the more familiar areas of ethics, politics, reason, science, and the nature of change.

Ubu wrote about people who know the right way to act, but choose to do otherwise. He says the paper took him four days to research, write, and revise, and that he liked thinking about why people sometimes confuse the ends and the means in their search for happiness. But his favorite part of the class was learning about Aristotle’s distinctions between luck and chance, which is laid out in detail in the Ethics. “That day I left class and talked about it with my friend on the bus,” he says.

While neither luck nor chance figured into the final grades—well, perhaps a little of both—Ferejohn says the papers, with a few exceptions, were excellent. “I was really gratified by them.” The gratification went both ways—Bowling called the class her favorite so far at Duke. In an earlier ancient-history class, she had thought Aristotle was “kind of bland.” But she says that Ferejohn’s enthusiasm was reason enough to get interested. As to her newfound major, she says she likes that it doesn’t emphasize memorization of facts but rather the ability to “argue well and to think.”

Aristotle would agree. In the Ethics he says that one particular kind of virtuous activity is the best: rational thought that leads to understanding of theoretical things.

In an interview after the semester’s end, Ferejohn described how this idea falls in line with his own views about teaching philosophy, and teaching Aristotle in particular. “I see it as a kind of intellectual housecleaning,” he says, “like organizing a catchall drawer in the mind.”


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