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Title: Physis  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Cynicism (philosophy), Ancient Greek philosophy, Physical law, Pneuma (Stoic), Nature
Collection: Concepts in Metaphysics, Nature
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Physis (Greek: φύσις) is a Greek theological, philosophical, and scientific term usually translated into English as "nature".


  • In Plato Laws 1
  • Aristotle 2
  • Classical usage 3
  • Usage in patristic theology 4
  • Modern usage 5
  • The Change of the Word "Physis" 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes and references 8

In Plato Laws

"Because those who use the term mean to say that nature is the first creative power; but if the soul turns out to be the primeval element, and not fire or air, then in the truest sense and beyond other things the soul may be said to exist by nature; and this would be true if you proved that the soul is older than the body, but not otherwise."

- Plato's Laws, Book 10(892c) - translation by Benjamin Jowett


Aristotle sought out the definition of "physis" to prove that there was more than one definition of "physis", and more than one way to interpret nature. "Though Aristotle retains the ancient sense of "physis" as growth, he insists that an adequate definition of "physis" requires the different perspectives of the four causes (aitia): material, efficient, formal, and final."[1] Aristotle believed that nature itself contained its own source of matter (material), power/motion (efficiency), form, and end (final). A unique feature about Aristotle's definition of "physis" was his relationship between art and nature. Aristotle said that "physis" (nature) is dependent on techne (art). "The critical distinction between art and nature concerns their different efficient causes: nature is its own source of motion, whereas techne always requires a source of motion outside itself."[1] What Aristotle was trying to bring to light, was that art does not contain within itself its form or source of motion. Consider the process of an acorn becoming an oak tree. This is a natural process that has its own driving force behind it. There is no external force pushing this acorn to its final state, rather it is progressively developing towards one specific end (telos).

Classical usage

Homer uses the word physis just once – in the Odyssey, referring to the intrinsic way of growth of a particular species of plant.[2] This is its earliest known occurrence.

Philosophical use begins very early in pre-Socratic writings, where the meanings fit well with current senses of the English word nature.[3][4] In the Sophist tradition, the term stood in opposition to nomos (νόμος), "law" or "custom", in the debate on which parts of human existence are natural, and which are due to convention.[5] This is the basis of today's classic biological debate of "nature vs. nurture". nomos would refer to "nurture", and physis would correlate to "nature". The Greeks believed "physis" and "nomos" correlated to many aspects of science and philosophy, such as the gender debate. The Greeks would refer to law, order, and rationalism as "nomos". "Women in general tend to be (in the view of Greek man) on the side of physis, while men are generally on the side of nomos: men can control themselves while women become hysterical (the word is Greek and it means to be taken over by your uterus). Men make and obey laws, but women do what comes naturally (see Phaedra or Medea)."[6] nomos could also refer to the practices of mathematics, music, and architecture, which all follow strict sets of rules and attempt to order nature (see "nomos"). "Architecture brings space under control, music brings noise under control, and mathematics brings the infinite under control. For this reason, Greek men liked all three of these arts very much."[6]

Usage in patristic theology

Theologians of the early Christian period differed in the usage of this term. In Antiochene circles, it connoted the humanity or divinity of Christ conceived as a concrete set of characteristics or attributes. In Alexandrine thinking, it meant a concrete individual or independent existent and approximated to hypostasis without being a synonym.[7] While it refers to much the same thing as ousia it is more empirical and descriptive focussing on function while ousia is metaphysical and focuses more on reality.[8] Although found in the context of the Trinitarian debate, it is chiefly important in the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria.[8]

Modern usage

"Physis" is commonly referred to as nature. Back in the Sophists' time, the word "physics" (the study of nature) was derived from "physis" by Aristotle, which is where we got the field of physics today. The etymology of the word "physical" shows its use as a synonym for "natural" in about the mid-15th century.[9] In medicine the element -physis occurs in such compounds as symphysis, epiphysis, and a few others, in the sense of a growing. The physis also refers to the "growth plate", or site of growth at the end of long bones.

The Change of the Word "Physis"

Since Aristotle, the physical (the subject matter of physics, properly τὰ φυσικά "natural things") has often been contrasted with metaphysical (the subject of metaphysics).[10] "Physis, translated since the Third Century B.C. usually as "nature" and less frequently as "essence", means one thing for the presocratic philosophers and quite another thing for Plato."[11] Physis is a great example of a keyword that was very important in classical rhetoric and helped define Greek language, but over time was modified through culture changes into a related, but new word.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Atwill, Janet. "The Interstices of Nature, Spontaneity, and Chance." Rhetoric Reclaimed: Aristotle and the Liberal Arts Tradition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1998. N. Print.
  2. ^ Homer's text: ὣς ἄρα φωνήσας πόρε φάρμακον ἀργεϊφόντης ἐκ γαίης ἐρύσας, καί μοι φύσιν αὐτοῦ ἔδειξε. (So saying, Argeiphontes [=Hermes] gave me the herb, drawing it from the ground, and showed me its nature.) Odyssey 10.302-3 (ed. A.T. Murray).
  3. ^ Guthrie, W. K. C., Presocratic Tradition from Parmenides to Democritus (volume 2 of his History of Greek Philosophy), Cambridge UP, 1965.
  4. ^ Naddaf, Gerard The Greek Concept of Nature, SUNY Press, 2006.
  5. ^ Dunkie, Roger (1986). "Philosophical background of the 5th Century B.C.". The Classical Origins of Western Culture: The Core Studies 1 Study Guide. Brooklyn College Core Curriculum Series.  
  6. ^ a b "DEEP ETHOLOGY - Determinism - Nomos/physis." DEEP ETHOLOGY - Determinism - Nomos/physis. N.p., 22 Feb. 2005. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. .
  7. ^ Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines A&C Black(1965) p.318
  8. ^ a b Prestige, G.L. God in Patristic Thought, SPCK (1964), p.234
  9. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Physical". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 20 September 2006. 
  10. ^ Discussed in Aristotle's works so titled, Physics and Metaphysics
  11. ^ Welch, Kathleen Ethel. "Keywords from Classical Rhetoric: The Example of Physis." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 17.2 (1987): 193-204. Print.

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