Aristotle & Realism Research Paper Starter

Aristotle & Realism

(Research Starters)

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a philosopher who greatly influenced educational philosophical thought for centuries. His search for truth led him to research many areas including metaphysics, ethics, rhetoric, logic, natural science, psychology and language (Gutek, 2009). His views on political and educational philosophy were mostly outlined in his works, Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. Out of Aristotle's political and educational philosophy evolved one of the oldest educational philosophies in Western culture, realism.

Keywords: Aristotle; Character Development; Essentialism; Ethics; Golden Mean; Habits of Mind; Metaphysics; Realism; Syllogism; Universal Truth; Virtue


Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a philosopher who greatly influenced educational philosophical thought for centuries. His search for truth led him to research many areas including metaphysics, ethics, rhetoric, logic, natural science, psychology and language (Gutek, 2009). His father was a court physician to the royal family in the Greek colony of Stagira in Macedon. When he was 17, Aristotle became a pupil of Plato in his Athens' Academy, where he remained for 20 years. He left the Academy to tutor Alexander the Great, but eventually returned to Athens to found his own school called the Lyceum. In 335 BC, an anti-Macedonia reaction swept through Athens after the death of Alexander and Aristotle fled to Chaleis (where his mother was born) after he was indicted for impiety (Gruber, 1973). He died a year later. His views on political and educational philosophy were mostly outlined in his works, Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. Other great works include Metaphysics, On Justice, On the Sciences, Political Theory and Art of Rhetoric.

Gutek (2009) likens Aristotle to "a traditional college professor who connected his research with teaching." Aristotle would "do his research, reflect and digest his findings, then transmit his discoveries to his students in his lectures" (p. 42). Even though Aristotle was a student of Plato, Aristotle takes a different approach to the world of ideas than Plato did. For example, Plato believed that the only true reality is that within ideas. For Aristotle, reality or truth consists of matter; each piece of matter has universal and particular properties (Ozmon & Craver, 2008). To Aristotle, "the forms of things -- those universal properties of objects -- remain constant and never change but that particular components of objects do change" (p. 4). As an example of this concept, Ozmon and Craver (2008) relate the concept of an acorn. They explain that an acorn has the universal property of "acornness," meaning that the form of a substance has certain universal properties or essences. The acorn may possess individual properties that are different from another acorn (i.e., perhaps the shell has been broken), but the idea of "acornness" will always be. Aristotle believes that there is design and order to the universe and there are universal properties to all that is; that things happen in an orderly fashion. As Ozmon and Craver (2008) point out, "The acorn follows its destiny to grow as an acorn" (p. 42). Such truths are tested by use of syllogism, the logical systematic form of ordering statements to prove their truths.

Human Nature

Aristotle believed that human nature involves two aspects — the irrational and the rational. Gruber (1973) explains that a person has no control over the irrational, as this concerns either fortune or luck. However, humans have control over that rational aspect of the soul, as the part that they control by reason is what is called moral virtue. Beauchamp (1982) defines virtue as "dispositions developed through the careful nurturing of one's capacities for living…to live well" (p. 157). Moral virtues are considered "universally praiseworthy features of human character that have been fixed by habituation" (p. 157). Those who possess moral virtue use their ability to determine what is right and then choose deliberately because it is right (Frankena, 1965). Character develops from moral virtue, as people develop habits that become well-established over time (Gruber, 1973). When people possess excellent character, they have settled into dispositions whereby "they want to act appropriately and do so without internal friction" (Urmson, 1988, p. 27). However, not all people possess excellent character. There are those who possess, instead, a strength of will. A strength of will occurs when a person wants to "act improperly, but makes himself act properly," resulting in a good action. Weakness of will occurs when "a person wants to act improperly, tries to make himself act properly, and fails." Badness of character occurs when a person wants "to act improperly, who thinks it is an excellent idea to do so, and does so without internal friction" (p. 32).


According to Aristotle, the purpose of humans is to think; if they refuse to think through their free will, then humans "go against the design of the universe and the reason for [their] creations." To Aristotle, when humans go against their purpose, "they suffer the consequences of erroneous ideas, poor health, and an unhappy life" (Ozmon & Craver, 2008, p. 42). Only through knowledge can they really understand their true destiny. Aristotle describes three types of knowledge:

  • Theoretical knowledge, which is the highest form of knowledge in that its end in truth;
  • Practical knowledge, which guides us in our political and social affairs, advising us about moral and ethical action; and,
  • Productive knowledge, which shows us how to make things (p. 44).

Endemic to Aristotle's aims of a liberal education is the idea that all education is under public control; education is universal and compulsory. The polity supports the goals of education, as outlined by Aristotle in the Politics (Taylor, 1955). These goals include: "producing people as will issue in acts tending to promote the happiness of the state; and, preparing the soul for the right enjoyment of leisure which becomes possible when practical needs have been satisfied" (Burnet, 1973, p. 1). Ozmon and Craver (2008) state that "a reciprocal relationship always exists between the properly educated person and the properly educated citizen" (44). To Aristotle, the major function of the state is to educate its citizens in the development of right habits. These right habits are thinking that becomes second nature (Gruber, 1973). Citizens are exposed to a liberal education, an education that tends toward making its recipient "a free man and not a slave in body or soul" (Taylor, 1955, p. 107). The aims of educating also include promoting bodily health, developing character and enhancing the intellect with those subjects that exhibit useful knowledge as is indispensible to them (Burnet, 1973). This general education does not include a technical or professional training, as all that is taught should contribute to "the formation of taste and character, serving to elevate and refine the mind" (Taylor, 1955, p. 108).

Further Insights

Views on Education

Education provides a balance of the physical, the intellectual and character (Gruber, 1973). Children are taught useful things that are essential to their role in the state. By educating citizens in reading and writing, other subjects are opened up to them (Burnet, 1973). Educating citizens in bodily culture makes the body "strong and hardy, but also develops moral qualities of grace and courage" (Gruber, 1973, p. 108). Children can also gain an appreciation of bodily beauty (Burnet, 1973).

Teaching art and music has direct influence on character development. Aristotle explains his stance on developing character in his seminal work called Nicomachean Ethics. Ethics is considered to contain "a systematic account of the principles by which …[citizens'] conduct should be regulated" (Russell, 1945, p. 172). The polity is responsible for educating citizens to become good persons by formulating good habits. Conduct begins with the soul, which is divided into two parts, the intellectual virtues and the moral virtues. All virtues "are means to an end, mainly happiness…an activity of the soul" (p. 17). Intellectual virtues result from teaching and moral virtues results from habit. Russell (1945) explains the idea that every...

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