Title: "Teaching Aristotle with Modeling Clay", Teaching Philosophy, 23/3, 2000, 269-276.
Author: Christopher Conn
Date: April 2002
Reviewer: John Sellars
 Reading Aristotle for the first time is a daunting task. Instead of making new students read large amounts of difficult text, instead they should be introduced to Aristotle's intellectual environment. To this end, the author only uses short extracts from Aristotle.  These extracts are supplemented by a practical exercise involving modelling clay.
In class students are asked to clear their desks. Then they are asked to create something new in front of them, to bring something into being. All immediately realise that this is an impossible task without something with which to work. This introduces them to Aristotle's central ideas in Book One of the Physics.  The appropriate texts are then discussed.
Next, balls of clay (the size of billiard balls) are distributed to the students.  Each piece of clay is given a proper name (e.g. 'Fred'). Then the students are given 5-10 minutes to create something from the clay. Each creation is then also given a proper name (e.g. 'Mary'). Then the students are asked to consider the nature of the relationship between the two named entities (is 'Fred' the same as 'Mary'; does 'Fred' still exist?). This introduces questions of identity and both the students' and Aristotle's views are discussed.
 This exercise introduces the students to Aristotle's claim that substances come into being when a form is imposed upon a portion of pre-existing matter. Afterwards, further extracts from the Physics are discussed.  One problem that students often face here is trying to understand the sense in which the form and matter of an object are both parts of that object, for they are used to thinking solely in terms of homogeneous atomic physical parts. Further discussion can help to overcome this.
Finally, this exercise is used to introduce Aristotle's four causes.  Students are asked to discuss in groups what it would mean to know all about the new clay entities that they have created. When the answers are listed on the blackboard usually three or four of Aristotle's causes will appear. Only then is Aristotle's text on the four causes introduced.
This exercise enables students to explore four key Aristotelian claims:
My initial response to the suggestion that philosophy students should play with clay in order to understand hylomorphism was one of extreme scepticism. Surely such practices are the province of the primary school and surely the majority of students would find such a procedure too childish.
However, the author gives a spirited account of his proposal and a number of sensible justifications. Aristotle's Physics is an extremely difficult text for first year students to read and many fail to grasp its ideas. The author's approach tackles this problem by introducing philosophical questions concerning form, matter, and identity in as graphic a way as one can imagine before turning to read Aristotle himself. And the author's reading of Aristotle outlined in the article is serious and careful. Moreover, the exercises with the clay are used solely to illustrate complex philosophical points. One gets the impression that few in the author's class would think that they were simply having a bit of fun or engaging in a childish activity. Indeed, what is most impressive about the author's account is the way in which he manages to bring together a practical activity with a serious philosophical discussion. It is perhaps also worth noting that the students have no idea before the class that this is what they will be doing.
So, despite my initial scepticism, I think that the author has actually found an exegetical problem that may well benefit from the addition of a practical classroom activity. Of course, as the author notes, this is designed for first year undergraduates who are coming to Aristotle for the first time. Once they are familiar with this central Aristotelian idea such exercises will be unnecessary. The time devoted to the exercise would probably require a two hour lecture-seminar, if all of the activities outlined by the author are to take place in a single session.
This site was created by Dr John Sellars for the PRS-LTSN, 2002.