On the Pre-Socratics and the Aristotelian Metaphysics

This undergraduate philosophical paper was originally written as a three-page reflection paper in partial fulfillment of the requirements for PHIL 2013.

A Paper in PHIL 2013

An Attempt to Relate the Fundamental Substances of the Pre-Socratics to the Aristotelian Four Causes.


This paper seeks to utilize a rather creative, if not mere alternative, an approach in relating the views of the prior Pre-Socratic ontology to the later Aristotelian system, and vice versa; that, by means of classifying the fundamental substance(s) held by each Pre-Socratic thinker under Aristotle’s Four Causes, a more firm grasp of the similarities and dissimilarities of both philosophical traditions may be accomplished, reproduced in the very least. And by traditions, it is thereby acknowledged the fact that Aristotle’s had been more systematic, organized, scientific as contradistinguished from those of his predecessors’ all of which were unadulterated, crude, raw.

Aristotle’s Four Causes are as follows: (1) Material, (2) Efficient, (3) Formal, and (4) Final. Each of which partake in the essential aspect of a substance, that is essential as distinguished from accidental properties which, though altered, changed, manipulated cannot by itself affect the substance of a thing. The Substance of the thing in turn, incarnates the identity of any particular thing so as to not confuse it from all the other things residing in the world of reality.

The world of reality is the principal concern of the Aristotelian system. This system, however relatively—or arguably—complex to that of Plato’s, remain within the purview of the Socratic tradition. Inasmuch as the Socratic tradition is diametrically opposed to that of the pre-Socratics’, an apparent tautology may thereupon be formulated as: a clear and distinctive character with regards to particulars becomes plausible where the Aristotelian system is related to those of the pre-Socratics. Hence this paper’s intent to compare-and-contrast them both: by rendering said fundamental substances before the tribunal of the Aristotelian paradigm of the Four Causes (aition).


In fully understanding Aristotle’s metaphysics, it is essential to see how his methodology contrasts to that of his educator, Plato.  Plato’s assessment of reality is firmly grounded on metaphysical foundations. Specifically, Plato embraces the notion of metaphysical dualism: the claim that there are two completely different kinds of reality. For Plato there exists a world in constant change —that is a physical world that we encounter with sense experience—and at the same time a world that is immutable and eternal, a dimension of Forms. Aristotle, on the other hand, is keen in understanding the ‘natural world’ in the language of a systematic scientific approach.

The examination of the principles that are the common foundation for every science is what Aristotle refers to as ‘first philosophy’. In his work entitled Metaphysics, Aristotle advances his philosophical standpoint by substituting Plato’s Forms (with the capital F) with his notion of immanent forms. According to Aristotle there is no such thing as abstract Form. The forms can only be the cause and explanation of things if they are an intrinsic part of things. Moreover, Aristotle dismisses the Platonic idea of dualism and instead turns to the only reality we have—the natural world of science and sense perception. For Aristotle, the world of the here-and-now is governed by the universal principle of change and to understand a changing world, according to Aristotle, we must first understand the causes that operate in such world. These causes, according to him, explain how a particular event happens or why something is the way it is. Very briefly, the first of the four causes is the material cause or its matter or out of which it is made. The efficient cause is the origin of the process that produced the specific thing in question. The formal cause is the essence of the item, the form being actualized in its matter and the final cause is the end or purpose by which it is made.

With the Four Causes a unique classification of the fundamental substances of the Pre-Socratics proceeds on its way; each fundamental stuff being thus subsumed under Aristotle’s paradigm, a matrix could be arrived at as follows:

Thales Water Material cause
Anaximander Indeterminate Boundless Formal cause
Anaximenes Air Material cause
Pythagoras Numbers Formal cause
Xenophanes Water, Earth Material cause
Heraclitus Fire, LogosDoctrine of Universal Flux Material causeEfficient cause
Parmenides Being and One Efficient cause
Empedocles Synthesis of Fire, Water, Air and EarthLove and Strife Material causeEfficient cause
Anaxagoras Mind Efficient cause
Democritus and Leucippus Divisible matter, atom Material cause

The table attempts to depict a constricted summary analysis of the basic ‘stuffs’ out of which the world of reality according to the Pre-Socratics, was said to be composed, reducible in its simplest form. The ‘stuffs’ are however rammed, classified as to which particular ‘cause’ they fall under, whether Material, Formal, Efficient or Final causes.


Owing to a unique approach which seems not so much akin to a difficult syncretism as much as a challenging comparison, Aristotle’s paradigm of the Four Causes were taken as a touchstone with which the ‘reductionisms’ of the above beckoned Pre-Socratics may be studied, esteemed, and reconsidered. Albeit the yardstick verily belonged to a later age bracket, the specimen has been viewed, observed, and touched from a cohesive philosophical light. With no malice to suggest that a more later-and-scientific system is philosophically superior to a lesser polished postulations of an earlier past, it remains a fact that both were but metaphysical discourses in their own right. Each of which consist in a context which spawned-and-brood them, generated their tenures.

In our times, where philosophical traditions abound and continue to ramify, it is but reverent to pay homage to the very roots of Western Philosophy; especially to the students of thought. To say that they are not relevant, of no more worth, zero cash-value—does not cure discontent in a world of confusion resulting from an superabundance of information as well as mal-information alike—that they are deviate from pragmatic interests, only seems as lewd as to disown, renounce, repudiate one’s childhood and puberty for that of her/his college recognitions, achievements, triumphs.

Pre-Socratic enchantments may seem ‘unadulterated, crude, raw’ as above described, but they were them because they were honest-and-true enshrinements and epitomes of the concerns in their times. If ours is a heyday of high commerce, surplus products and massive consumption, theirs was a halcyon of ultimate reflections, provocative sophistries, and precursory creations—which our times had relegated to mere history. But either Metaphysics is, or was, a bequeathal of Antiquity — would be a task of ours.

To borrow an excerpt from Lyotard, “. . . Aristotle was doubtless one of the most modern of all in separating the rules to which the statements declared scientific must conform (the Organon) from the search for their legitimacy in a discourse on Being (the Metaphysics). Even more modern was his suggestion that scientific knowledge, including its pretension to express the being of the referent, is composed only of arguments and proofs —in other words, of dialectics.”[1] Antiquity reaches to our age.

An attempt was hereby taken to notice in our times in a resourceful manner the metaphysics of old, particularly those of the Pre-Socratics and Aristotle’s; with themselves being collated against the other. The heritage of Ancient Greece is a rich philosophical treasure which the generation of today may revisit, fascinate upon, cogitate—assimilate.

[1] Lyotard, J.F. (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: Manchester University Press, 1984. p.29.


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