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Philosophy 024: Big Ideas Prof. Robert DiSalle ( ) Talbot College 408, 519-661-2111 x85763 Office Hours: Monday and Wednesday 11:30-12:30 PM Course Website: The ancient Greek world. Questions for Plato and Aristotle:

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Philosophy 024: Big Ideas

Prof. Robert DiSalle (

Talbot College 408, 519-661-2111 x85763

Office Hours: Monday and Wednesday 11:30-12:30 PM

Course Website:


Questions for Plato and Aristotle:

Can virtue be taught?

If it can be taught, is it an object of knowledge, or a kind of behavior?

Is it an abstract idea, or a mere disposition to act?

If it is an idea, how can we arrive at the correct definition of it?

Meno’s paradox: If we know what it is already, how can we learn it? If we don’t know what it is already, how can we possibly know when we have found it?


The Sophists: Common enemies of Plato and Aristotle

Philosophical argumentation is a skill that can be taught, for the sake of winning arguments

Any philosophical position or assertion can be undermined or made plausible by some clever argument or other.

Truth is irrelevant, since it is essentially relative.

“Humans are the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are; of the things that are not, that they are not.” (Protagoras, 490-420 BCE )


How can we construct a square of double the area?

If we double the side, we get four times the area:


If we increase the side from 2 to 3, we still get a square that is more than double the first one. Clearly there is no whole-number multiple of the side that doubles the area.


But if we take the quadruple square and cut it along the diagonals below, we construct the double square.

So the double of any given square is the square whose side is the diagonal of that square.


The meaning of Plato’s geometry example:

We know things by recollection that we cannot be taught by the senses

We can only reach this knowledge by recognizing our ignorance, and ceasing to be distracted by sensible things, or by guessing

Dialectical argument brings out of the mind what experience is incapable of putting into the mind.

The ideas that we know in this way are more precise and certain than any information we get from our senses, and are eternally true.


Plato’s theory of Ideas (the “Platonic Forms”:

Abstract general notions are never fully realized by concrete particular things, which can only “participate” in the Ideas.

Therefore particular things can never teach us these notions, but can only remind us of notions that are already there in our minds.

A person who focuses on the sensible world of particular things is therefore like the people in the Cave, looking at shadows and mistaking them for realities.

Teachers are those who ask questions that enable us to “recollect” the Ideas by reasoning from particular things.


Plato’s theory of Ideas in connection with his account of the Soul:

The rational soul of a human is that part that is capable of understanding the Ideas. It exists before the body, and survives the death of the body.

Before the soul joins with the body, it has direct knowledge of the Ideas. Being joined with the body causes it to be confused by sensible imagery, and it must work to free itself to contemplate the Ideas again.

All of our ideas of what is, the eternal world of being, come to the soul before it is immersed in the confusing and ephemeral world of becoming. This is why knowledge of the Ideas is really recollection.


Aristotle’s theory of universals:

There is no “Dog,” or “Justice,” or “Equality.” There are only particular dogs, particular just things, and particular pairs of things that happen to be equal to one another.

Humans do not have the ability to “contemplate the Forms” directly. Instead, we have the ability to classify things according to their common characteristics.

Abstract notions are just the names we give to general classes of things.

Each field of human knowledge has classifications, and degrees of precision, that are appropriate to its objects.


What about the idea of “the Good”?

Plato: The good is an Idea in which all good things “participate.” It is an object of our intellectual knowledge-- if we can see past the distractions of sensible things.

The Good is The True: the good is a fundamental truth, and the pursuit of the truth is a fundamental good.

Aristotle: There is no singular idea of The Good. Instead, there is a good that is appropriate to each art or science.

“Every art and every science aims at the good. Hence it has been well said, that the good is that at which all things aim.”

But the nature of the good will depend on the nature of the subject.


Aristotle on The Good:

Every being has certain potentialities appropriate to its nature.

The good for any being is the actualization of its potential.

For human beings, the unique potentiality is the capacity for rational thought. Therefore the highest good for a human is the activity of rational contemplation.

In general, “the good” according to Aristotle is not a particular Idea as it is for Plato. Instead, it is a disposition to act in a certain way that is appropriate to the nature of the agent.

“Human excellence will be the disposition that makes one a good man and causes him to perform his function well.”


The Golden Mean:

Every human virtue is the mean between two extremes.



Comparing the “golden mean” to some other moral principles:

The “Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (cf. Confucius, 500 BCE, Christ, 30 CE):

The Categorical Imperative: Act so as to treat others as ends in themselves, never as means to an end. (cf. Kant, 1785).

The Greatest Happiness Principle : Act so as to bring about the greatest possible good for the greatest number of people. (Cf. Bentham, 1789).

The Two Most Important Things in Life: Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut. (Anonymous)


Aristotle’s theory of the soul:

For Aristotle, the soul is not an entity that can exist separately from the body.

The soul is related to the body as actuality to potentiality: the soul constitutes the actualization of certain potentialities that a body has, to act in certain ways.

Therefore the nature of the soul depends on the nature of the body whose soul it is.

“If the eye had a soul, it would be seeing.”


Types of soul:

Nutritive: characteristic of any living being (even a plant), representing the capacity for nutrition and growth

Sensitive: characteristic of any animal capable of responding to stimuli and having sensory awareness

Motor: characteristic of any animal capable of autonomous motion as well as nutrition and sensation

Rational: characteristic of humans only, who have the potentiality for rational thought as well as nutrition, sensation, and motion


The moral theory and the theory of the soul:

Plato’s account of The Good is intimately connected with an account of the soul as something whose essence is separate from that of the body, and whose capacity for rational thought depends on a virtual or actual separation from the body.

Aristotle’s account of The Good is intimately connected with an account of the soul as something that is essentially bound to a body of a certain kind with certain capacities, and that represents the actualization of that body’s highest potential.