Some Myths about Aristotle's Biological Motivation


Aristotle, Biological Motivation, Philosophy, Humanities


Aristotle was the first scientific biologist of whom we have any record. He was the first to amass precise observations concerning animals, their structure and behavior, the first to attempt to systematize the data he had collected, and the first to bring to bear on his data sophisticated theoretical machinery. Aristotle's philosophy contains elements which readily accommodate biological facts. For instance, the theory of sub- stance seems tailor-made to account for biological phenomena, and the concept of final cause is suggestive of functional accounts in biology. Moreover, Aristotle's philosophy is remarkably this-worldly in contrast to the abstract and mathematicized philosophy of his master. It is sig- nificant that Aristotle's father was a physician and may have instructed him in dissection. All of this suggests an obvious hypothesis concerning Aristotle's method: Aristotle's biological interests account for the unique character of his philosophy. The predilections and scientific competence of Aristotle the biologist shape the doctrines and methods of Aristotle the philosopher. I shall call the foregoing claim the thesis of Aristotle's biological motivation, B for short. B seems to bring together Aristotle's scientific activity, his philosophical profile and his biography into a re- markable harmony. The thesis is well entrenched as a pedagogical com- monplace-indeed, a sort of vulgate tradition has grown up around B- and it has able scholarly exponents.

Original Publication Citation

"Some Myths About Aristotle's Biological Motivation,"Journal of the History of Ideas 47 (1986): 529-45.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



Journal of the History of Ideas







University Standing at Time of Publication

Full Professor