In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Aristotle’s Physics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Monographs
  • Texts, Editions, Commentaries, and Translations
  • Collections of Essays
  • The Principles of the Things That Are by Nature (Physics I)
  • Aristotle’s Argument against the Eleatics (Physics I.2-3 and 8)
  • Nature, Matter, Form, and “the Snub” (Physics II.1-2)
  • The “Four Causes” (Physics II.3 and 7)
  • Chance (Physics II.4-6)
  • The Argument for Teleology (Physics II.8)
  • Hypothetical Necessity (Physics II.9)
  • Change (Physics III.1-3; See Also V and VI)
  • Agency, Acting on, and Being Acted Upon (Physics III.2-3)
  • The Infinite (Physics III.4-8, VIII.1 and 8)
  • Place and Void (Physics IV.1-9)
  • Time (Physics IV.10-14, VI)
  • Continuity and Continua (Physics V.3 and VI)
  • Aristotle’s Responses to Zeno (Physics VI.2 and 9, VIII.8)
  • Self-Movers and the Unmoved Mover (Physics VII, VIII)

Classics Aristotle’s Physics
by
Lindsay Judson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0371

Introduction

The word physics comes from the Greek word for nature: phusis. As Aristotle himself uses it, the Greek term translated as physics in this context refers to natural science as a whole, including cosmology, biology, chemistry and meteorology, as well as the sort of investigation of the fundamental elements of things, and the laws that govern their behavior, for which we use the term today. The work we call “Aristotle’s Physics” was not published as a book in his own day, and it was not intended for publication as it stands. Instead, like his Metaphysics, it is a compilation—probably by Aristotle himself—of a number of separate writings: they may have been research papers and/or the basis for lectures (the ancient title for the Physics is Lectures on Natural Science, but there is no evidence that this title goes back to Aristotle). Nonetheless, the writings which make up the Physics exhibit a clear thematic unity. Aristotle explains “nature” as “an internal principle of change and rest”: change is thus central to the idea of nature as he understands it. Linked by the notions of nature and change, these writings are all concerned with foundational issues in natural science as Aristotle conceives of it. It is clear from other works that Aristotle took natural science as a whole to be a systematic body of knowledge which should be presented and studied in a systematic order (see Meteorologica I.1 338a20-26 and 333a5-9); in this order, the material in Physics comes first. Aristotle’s other works on natural science, such as De Caelo (On the Heavens), De Generatione et Corruptione (On Coming to Be and Ceasing to Be), De Anima (On the Soul), and De Partibus Animalium (On the Parts of Animals) constantly make reference, explicitly or implicitly, to notions developed and argued for in the Physics—most especially to matter and form; the four types of cause, chance, teleology, and hypothetical necessity; and the nature of change and agency. Matter and form, and the four causes, also play a key role in Aristotle’s metaphysics: see especially the so-called central books (Books Ζ, Η, and Θ), and Book Λ, chapters 1–5. The Physics is divided into eight Books (perhaps corresponding to the length of a scroll of the papyrus on which Aristotle’s works would have been written); in the Renaissance each Book was divided into chapters by the publishers of printed versions, and these are still used for ease of reference.

General Overviews and Monographs

Perhaps because of the richness, diversity, and complexity of the material contained in the Physics, no recent systematic book-length treatments of the work as a whole are available. Bostock 1996 and Bodnár 2018 together provide a good if brief overview. Waterlow 1982, Lear 1988, and Shields 2007 provide good introductions to various key aspects of the Physics; for more literature on these and other topics, see other sections.

  • Bodnár, István. 2018. Aristotle’s natural philosophy. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ.

    A brief but helpful introduction to nature and motion, with a useful glossary and bibliography.

  • Bostock, David. 1996. Introduction. In Aristotle: Physics. Edited by Robin Waterfield and David Bostock, vii–lxxx. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199540280.book.1

    A useful topic-by topic introduction to the Physics, with some brisk criticism of Aristotle’s views. An excellent starting point, though not the last word on any given subject. The bibliography is helpful, though now a little dated. Available online by subscription or for purchase.

  • Lear, Jonathan. 1988. Aristotle: The desire to understand. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511570612.002

    Chapters 2–3 offer a good introductory discussion of nature, matter and form, causation, teleology, Aristotle’s response to Parmenides’s argument against change in Book I, infinity, and some of Zeno’s paradoxes of motion. Available online by subscription.

  • Shields, Christopher. 2007. Explaining nature and the nature of explanation. In Aristotle. By Christopher Shields, 49–115. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203961940

    A helpful introduction to Aristotelian explanation and the “four causes,” matter and form, and teleology.

  • Waterlow, Sarah. 1982. Nature, change and agency: A philosophical study. Oxford: Clarendon.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198246534.001.0001

    A much more advanced discussion, presenting a sustained argument for a sophisticated and distinctive account of how Aristotle’s general conception of a natural substance and of its “nature” explains his defense of teleology, his doctrine of natural motions and places, his accounts of agency and actuality, and his argument for a prime unmoved mover. A seminal book on Aristotle’s concepts of nature and change. Available online by subscription.

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