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The problem of the origin and harmonious organization of the state has been an age long problem for philosophers. They have varied opinions as regards the solution to this problem. The conventionalists and contractualists hold that the state originated out of convention or contract between individuals or groups. 


 However, Aristotle a master in ancient philosophical thought, whose influence has always rocked the philosophical defense of his contemporaries and successors, has it that the state is natural to man. Also, his refutation of the conventionalist’s notion of the state led him to redefine the state as an association of communities made up of citizens with the aim of achieving the highest common good.  Having defined the state thus, he sets himself the task of investigating the activities of the state in order to find out its end and goal; to find out who and who are qualified to be citizens of the state; and if all the members of the state are qualified to enjoy the basic individual rights in the state.


It is in this context that he brought in the issue of justice as the central point on which the activities of the state revolves.  Hence, I found it appropriate to treat as my project topic “Justice and its primacy in the political philosophy of Aristotle.”  As the political philosophy of Aristotle is concerned mainly with the governmental order of the state, we shall be using the word ‘state’ more frequent in this work.


Furthermore, this work shall be divided into four chapters.  Chapter one will deal with the meaning and notion of state and justice respectively, with special reference to Aristotle.  Chapter two will deal with the application of justice in the state.  Since man is naturally born in the state, there is the necessity for harmonious relationship between members of the state.  This harmonious co-existence can only be achieved through the application of justice in the state.


However, in different political organization, there are different constitutions applied.   Nevertheless, the application of justice lies in the governing principles of the constitution of that particular state.  Justice therefore always implies “Justice for whom.”  Here Aristotle seems to make justice relative.  However, he holds that though justice is often determined by a particular circumstance, there is on the whole a particular justice which other relative justice of different constitutions must square up to.  This is the absolute justice; that which justifies any constitution.  But since it aims towards the common good, it is guided by law and morality. Chapter three will concern itself with justice vis-à-vis revolution in the state.  Here we shall look into the consequence of the absence of justice in the state.  And if justice is necessary for the stability of any political organization, how do we restore it?  Moreover, since the problem of political stability depends on good rulership, it follows that present and future leaders must be educated and trained on the acquisition and practice of justice.  Hence the relevance of education and political awareness towards upholding justice and stability of government in the state. Finally, we shall end the work with chapter four which will deal with evaluation and conclusion of all that has been said.







As the saying goes that, no man is an Island, it follows that no man, no matter his status in life, owes the origin of his existence and development solely to himself alone.  Man needs his fellow man to exist and grow in a way that is fitting for him as a rational creature.  This avenue needed for inter-personal relationship is the political organization. General to the early study of political organization by Plato and Aristotle is the concept of ‘Polis’ or the ‘state’. Their study of ‘state’ is restricted within the confines of Greek city.  It is in the modern time that the notion of state became universalized.


However, the state, etymologically, comes from the Latin words ‘civitas’ which means city and ‘stare’ which means to stand.  According to the new encyclopedia Britannica a state is: “a government clothed with monopoly of force for the preservation of peace and the other and having a plenitude of authority within…independent of external control”[1].


The state is entrusted with the task of providing for its citizens, the basic rights and duties.  In consideration of the extent of power, which the state posses, the lexicon Webster’s dictionary defines it as, “the supreme civil authority recognized by a politically organized people of a given geographical area.”2 In other words, the authority of the state should be supreme since it is in itself the end of man’s quest for good as far as this physical world is concerned.


Nevertheless, the above classical definitions are given from the context of the contemporary notion of state.  But prior to these definitions, there have been various opinions among philosophers as regarding the state.  The definitions of the state were considered mainly from the point of view of its origin.  Thus two camps: the contractualists and the naturalist emerged to tackle this problem.  The former holds that the state originates out of contract or convention while for the later; the state has its origin from nature.


For the early Greeks and their philosophers, it is a truism and a self evident fact that the state is natural to man.  Plato made this distinctively clear in his work, The Republic, when he says:

The origin of a city… is, in my opinion, due to the fact that no one of us is sufficient for himself but each is in need of many things… then man, being in want of many things gather into one settlement many partners and helpers; to satisfy their diverse needs, and to this common settlement, we give the name city…3


The state for Plato is a state of type; it is the ideal one, whereby the good is the goal, which everybody in the state aspires to.  But to grasp it means having knowledge of it (the good).This good transcends all customs and conventions, it is natural and permanent.  According to Sabine, “it must belong to nature and not to the shifting winds of customs and conventions”.4


However Plato is not interested with the practicability of the ideal state, rather he sets it as a mode which every state should strive to conform to.  Sabine affaims this when he says:

…the Republic aims not to describe states but to find what is essential or typical in them the general sociological principles upon which any society of human beings depends, in so far as it aims at good life.5


Succinctly, Plato’s notion of the state is not a mere narration or description of events in the state, but speculative and prescriptive.


The ancient philosophers mainly, Aristotle and Plato considered the state only from the point of view of Greek ‘Polis’ in particular.  In other words, the state for them refers only to the Greek city.  But the Stoics, the Epicurians and the skeptics changed the whole idea of the state as a particular city of Athens to the universal and international state, where every man is a citizen of the world.  For them the basic law that should guide man in the state is not that which is particular to a city, but the natural law.


This is because the state is natural to man. It arose out of man’s nature as a social being.  And as such, man needs peace and order.  But this cannot be achieved without an administration, invested with power, which should control the affairs of the state.


However, since man is not self-sufficient, therefore, he needs to interact with others in order to develop fully. With the advent of the modern epoch of political philosophy, the notion of state, and its origin changed for them, the state is not natural. It arose out of contract. This seems to stem from the sophists’ principle that, “man is the measure of all things; of those that are that they are, of those that are not that they are not.”6 State is a man made entity, which arose out of cultural evolution of individual man. However, the philosophers of this modern era tend to support absolute sovereignty.


Thomas Hobbes one of the chief proponents and supporters of conventionalism believes that man in his natural state was apolitical.  He tried to justify this position by positing that man originally existed in a state of “Homo-homini Lupus,” a situation in which man is a wolf to man. This state is an unhappy state, full of anarchy, confusion and pandemonium.  There were no morality, no justice and no law.  Each man was egocentrically concerned with achieving his own goal and not considering the goal of others.  Infact, “there is always war of every one against everyone”.7 However, this ‘war’ is not always a physical combat. 


So, in order to achieve peace, men should renounce their natural rights and enter into a social contract submitting this right to the common wealth-the leviathan. This leviathan, then takes charge of the natural rights of the people.  It becomes the absolute sovereign.  This sovereign can be one man or an assembly of persons.  It in turn owes the citizens security and peace.


Among the contemporary thinkers, Karl Marx came up with his Dialectical materialism.  For him what his predecessors (like Hegel and Plato) called ideal world must be achieved not by mere intellectual speculation but by exertion of physical efforts on nature.  The state is primarily a socio-economic formation, which arises through stages of some historical economic development.

According to him:

The relations of production in their totality constitute what are called social relation, society and specifically, a society at a definite state of historical development… ancient society,…feudal society, courgois socilist society are such totalities…8


The state and its elements exist in ancient society, feudal society, capitalist society where class struggle reaches its peak. According to Nwoko I.M:

The state is the tool of the dominant, ruling, or oppressing class of the society. Its legal and political order forms a superstructure, designed by the class (the bourgeois) to control the mode of production.9


It is therefore to extinguish this antagonism arising between the capitalists who own the forces of production and the proletariat who are merely workers, that brings about the emergence of socialism which then settles down to communism.  For once this communism is established, the state and its elements automatically cease to exist.  There then exists only a classless society, where the factors of production are owned in common.



Aristotle began his theory of the state by first investigating and criticizing the views of his predecessors especially that of Plato his teacher.  Like other Greek philosophers, his aim was to found an ideal state which the Greek Polis conforms to.  However, unlike his master Plato, the ideal state must never be on the utopic world but ought to be practically realizable through the second possible alternative. ‘‘An association… formed with the view to some good purpose.”10


This association is not merely any kind of association even though every association or individual aims at something, which it thinks good;

…that association which is the most sovereign among them all and embraces all others will aim…at the sovereign of all goods.11


The state having therefore its end as the supreme good is not in any way an accidental feature. It is not an association formed out of chance contract or any form of conventionality.  Goodness in itself, which is perfection, is a natural phenomenon and any organization which aims towards its realization in the highest degree must also be natural.  Therefore the state is natural to man, and man dwells in it naturally.  In the words of Aristotle:

It follows that the state belongs to the class of objects, which exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.  Any one who by nature and not simply by ill-luck has no state is either too bad or too good, either sub-human or superhuman…12


It is not only that man has to live in the state naturally but he necessarily has to do so. This is because as an individual he is naturally dependent on others.  Stumpf rightly agrees with this point when he says that, “a particular individual … is conscious of himself in so far as he is a part of this larger self.”13 However, even if the individuals by any means have no need of another’s help, they still have to come together so that, they have a full realization of their individualities, for they have a common end-attainment of happiness.


Hence men have a desire for life together, even when they have no need to seek each others help. “Nevertheless, common interest too is a factor in bringing them together, in so far as it contributes to the good life of each person’’14


Also in considering certain things and their order, we see that it is highly necessary that, for there to be the existence of finite living beings, the question of individuality must be relegated to the background.  So, as there is the natural propensity for two living beings to come together so that their species may constantly be reproduced, so also, there is that same natural tendency for two or more people to unite for the purpose of achieving the goal of man.

The first point is that those which are incapable of existing without each other must be united as a pair. For example (a) the union of male and female is essential for reproduction and this is not a matter of choice, but is due to the natural urge… Equally essential is (b) the combination of the natural ruler and ruled, for the purpose of preservation.15


Man as we have seen so far, naturally and essentially needs the other and has to live together in order to exist and continue in existence.  Nevertheless, this social characteristic of man, must never be taken so lightly as to be placed on the same level with other social or gregarious animals like bees, termites etc.  One may at this juncture ask: where lies the difference then, since both (man) and other gregarious animal’s aim towards the well being of their respective members?  However, no matter how similar this similarity may be in their mode of living, the difference as we shall see is very clear.


Man is uniquely different from other finite creatures in that he possesses rationality which guides his behaviours whereas other animals are propelled by mere instincts.  Moreover in order to distinguish man from other social animals, nature has endowed him with the power of speech.  Only man has language and can speak.  However, this is not without a reason for nature as we say does nothing without some purposes.16


But could the reason be solely to distinguish man from other animals? To this, Aristotle says ‘No’ as much as it serves for that distinction; it also serves man in the organization of the state. According to him, nature:

…has endowed man alone among animals with the power of speech.  Speech is something different from voice which is possessed by other animals and used by them to express pain or pleasure… speech on the other hand serves to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and so also what is just and what is unjust.17


The essence of language for man is to enable him express that cognition of his rationality. This includes: what is just and unjust; what is moral and immoral, in short those actions or thoughts that transcend the natural feelings which man shares with other animals. For instance, only man can say that something is good or bad, beautiful or handsome etc. 


Hence with this capacity, he is able to propound ethical theories as a deal which guided his life.  However, the meaningness of these principles lies in his interaction with his fellow men; otherwise, it would be useless because he cannot formulate these principles to guide himself alone. It always has to do with the other or others.  Since these ethical principles are natural and divinely ordained it follows that the purpose for which they were meant to serve is also natural.  This purpose is the harmonious co-existence of individuals with the view to a common good.  And can only be found in the state which is an offshoot of a family and village.

Since the state is a body, which comprises individuals of different categories, different talents and functions, it follows that it ought to be independent and self-sufficient. Sabine rightly put this when he says:

The state is self sufficing in the sense that it alone provides all conditions within which the highest type of moral development can take place.18


Therefore, for the individual to exist and actualize his individuality in the way that is proper to man as a rational being there must necessarily exist the state.

It is clear that the state is both natural and prior to the individual.  For if an individual is not fully self-sufficient after separation, he will stand in the same relationship to the whole as the parts in the other case do.19


In other words, the individual is to the state what for instance, the ‘leg’ is to the body. So, if either is cut off from the whole which it belongs, it becomes useless in itself because it can not perform that function for which it was naturally made.


Hence, whoever is not able to fit into the state because of his inferior nature is a sub-human-a beast on the other hand, whoever is self-sufficient as not to have any need of the state is a super human being-a god.  So in either case, they are not members of the state.  It is only him who is quite dependent on the state for his well being that can be said to be a member of the state.


The state for Aristotle should take care of the well being of all categories of individuals existing in it.  Also the rule existing in the state must not be like: the master’s rule over slave or the rule of the house holder over his family.  This is because in the former, the rule is solely in the interest of the ruler while in the later, the rule though is in the interest of the ruled, and the ruled has no say.  But man as a rational being, should not be passive in affairs concerning him.  In either case the ruler is of absolute authority.  The rulers are merely despotic or dictators.  It is for the above reasons precisely that Aristotle rejected Plato’s notion of the ideal state which explicitly leads towards communism contrary to Aristotle’s view, Plato maintains that the state ought to be a kind of an enlarged family; whereby everything will be owned in common, including children and wives.  Sabine noted rightly when he says:

The failure to distinguish house hold from political authority, Aristotle regarded as one of Plato’s errors, since it led him in the statement to assert that the state is like a family only larger.20


So the rule in the state for Aristotle should be nothing short from constitutional rule which basis its guiding principles on equality and law. Furthermore:

The relation of the constitutional ruler to his subject is different in kind from any other sort of subjection because it is consistent with both parties remaining degree free men, and for this reason it requires a degree of moral equality or likeness of kind between them despite the undoubted difference which must exist.21


The rule in the state should be constitutional.  It should include the rule of a ruler over free and willing subjects who can also rule in turn.  The ruler must be virtuous in himself.  So the practice of virtuous life in the state by all should be encouraged.  Since, it aims at the common good.

The discharge of the common good in the general affair of the state hinges on good law. Without law, there is no order, no justice.  A good law ruling is better than a good man ruling because; man is often overwhelmed by passion and personal idiosyncrasies.  Where as law is universal and objective in its operation.  Therefore, a good law must be the ultimate sovereign in Aristotle’s ideal state.



The issue of justice is an age long and infact a natural one as far as man’s existence and his relationship with one another is concerned.  Moreover, it is a controversial issue, in the sense that, different thinkers of different philosophical epoch have given it nuances of interpretations and definitions.



Etymologically, justice is derived from the Latin word “Justicia” which means fairness or righteousness. According to Bourker, “It is evident that the term justice can be dependent on the shorter Latin word ‘jus’ which means right”.22However, the origin of justice would be traced to man’s nature. Man naturally is unlimited in his wants but highly limited in the means of satisfying these wants. Now this state of lack and the effort to fill it up with his wants, make him a curious and voracious being. In the course of pursuing the means to satisfying his wants, he infringes on the rights of others. It is this state that has resulted in slavery, wars, abortion and all kinds of man’s inhumanity to man which is prevalent in the society today.


Nevertheless, man as a rational being would not wish to remain in the chaotic state.  Order must be maintained by defining the limits of every man in proportion to his status in life, by means of legislation.  These limits so mapped out, gives each man his own rights, duties etc. Therefore, “Justice presupposes people pressing claims or justifying them by rules or standards”.23


It is pertinent here to note that justice does not deal with privileges or sentiments as such rather it deals with rights-binding by both civil and natural law. For instance, the gift of alms is not a right but a mere privilege.


Philosophers in the past have grappled with the issue of justice in view of giving it a concise definition.  However, Plato, in one of his dialogues- The Republic tried in a dialectical manner to give a philosophical definition of justice. Thrasymarchus, a character in the book, defined justice as obeying the will of the stronger. According to him: “I declare that justice is nothing else than that which is advantageous to the stronger”.24


By the stronger, he meant those who are able to make and enforce laws in the ways that suit their ego. Furthering this stand he continued, “In every city, justice is the same.  It is what is advantageous to the established government”25  without much argument, Thrasymarchus then arrived at the conclusion that the decision of the stronger is just.  However, it should be noted that he was talking in reference to the political realism of his time.  Here the Greeks regard themselves as the rulers and there is the distinction between the noble class and the slave.  The slave is inferior to his master both intellectually and otherwise.  And as such, they (slaves) have no sense of justice.  So any dictate coming from the master automatically becomes what is just.


This notion of justice as the will of the stronger has reared its ugly head into the arena of modern and contemporary political theories.  This is evident in the “philosophy of might is right” propounded by Machiavelli. For any state worth the name to exist, justice must have its place in its administrative structure.


For Aquinas, justice is one of the cardinal virtues of man.  He defines it as that virtue which resides in the will.  Therefore justice is: “…a habit whereby a man renders to one, ones due by a constant and perpetual will”.26


Fagothey defines justice as:

…a chief virtue… which regulates man’s will so that he wills for himself what belongs for himself and wills for others what belongs to them.27


Looking critically at the above notion of justice, one cannot help asking such simple question as: since justice consists in giving everyone his dues, can one be justified, if one gives what is harmful or detrimental to its owner? Therefore, justice is not a mere irrational habit; it should involve every amount of rationality and prudence, which should guide the will of man that naturally seeks the good.  This good is mainly for order in the society.



There are different kinds of justice existing in the state. They all have the same purpose, the fair distribution of duties with the end to achieving a common good.  But we shall treat only two.



This is the justice that deals with the duties and responsibilities of the individual towards the state.  It is often called “Legal Justice” in certain places.  Social justice looks forward to the common good of all in the state.  If it should pursue any particular good, it does so with a view to achieve a better goal for all.

Under this, the individual thinks of what he/she can do for the progress of the state. It refers to the organization of society in such a way that the common good to which all are expected to contribute in proportion to their ability and opportunity is available to all the members for their ready use and enjoyment.  It concerns all that is connected with being a good citizen or a good member of the society and getting what one ought to get as one’s proper share of the benefits of social living; that is, as the reward of his/her good and cooperative conduct in the society.  Social justice is violated whenever a society is organized in such a way that it excludes or denies certain classes or groups within it from getting their fair share of the common good.



This justice deals with interchanging of goods such as in contract.  It exists between one person and another or between groups acting as if they were private persons negotiating on equal terms. 


Commutative justice is realized by establishing a certain arithmetical equality between the values of things which people need. The interaction which commutative justice directs is not between physical persons but also between rational and moral persons.  Here each man acts under the subjection to the tribunal of his conscience under the guidance of law.  Sincerity and honesty is highly inevitable so much so that even if one for instance, has the opportunity to cheat the other without being noticed, he ceases from doing so in respect of sincerity.


This justice is also a virtue that regulates the dealing of private individuals as moral persons, whereby the objective rightness is to be determined by the simple equality of whatever is exchanged and where no attention is to be paid to the possible inequality of persons involved.  So whatever exchange is made among the members of a society, objective rightness must be considered and fostered.





Aristotle treats of justice in book five of his Ethics and applies it in his political philosophy.  For him, justice would be seen from the universal point of view. Universal justice extends through the life of the people and enforces virtue which leads to the fulfillment of the goal of the state.  The application of universal justice stems from what is lawful.  Aristotle has the ingenuity of associating justice with law.  This is because:

…No philosopher has supposed Aristotle’s tributes to the rational dignity of authoritative textual rules which provides justice according to law.28 


However, in as much as we accept that justice is anchored on law, such laws must be just. It is no respecter of person nor shrouded with passions and sentimentality.  It must tend towards the goal of the state – which is the moral life seeking the common good.  Aristotle’s invocation of the magnanimous spirit of equity and morality in law as pertinent now as is evident in his statement.

…he who asks law to rule is asking God and intelligence… to rule; while he who asks for the rule of a human being is importing a wild beast too; for desire is like a wild beast… Hence, law is intelligence without appetition.29


For Aristotle, Laws of morality are more binding and more fundamental than positive law. Therefore justice is an impartial application of substantial rule.


Furthermore, Aristotle considers justice from its particular perspective.  This deals with the distribution of goods and rights according to the proportion of merit.  He however, observes that particular justice hinges on the notion of equality in any particular community.  Justice according to him, arises from the notion that those who are equal in one aspect should be treated equally only on that aspect and vice versa. “Justice consists in treating equals equally and unequals unequally but in proportion to their relevant differences.”30


This is the basic notion of justice in Aristotle, what he calls proportionate equality. For instance in any political organization where goodness is a criterion for holding offices, Aristotle opines that:

…superiority of any good whatsoever justifies unequal distribution of offices, given that in all other respects than this, the persons are not different but similar.31


Generally, justice is the core of harmonious existence in the state. It is “that kind of state of character which makes people disposed to do what is just.”32


Justice entails a self-denial and strong-willed character for each to take that which is proportionate and give others that, which is theirs. It fosters love and social order in the state. Higgins summed these up when he asserted that “justice is the virtue which includes the head of a natural community to promote the social good of the individual.  It is violated by favoritism and partiality.”33


Further more:

Justice is anything that tends to produce or conserve the happiness of man (and the constituent of happiness of a political association)34.


For Aristotle, then justice is that which is highly essential for human co-existence.  Therefore any state without justice is like the Hobbesian “another man”, a state of unorganized life.  While any state, which operates with objective justice is that, which is natural and proper to man as a rational creature.



[1] Encyclopedia Britannica Vol.,XXI U.S.A Encyclopedia

2 The Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary, Vol., II U.S.A” The Delair Pub., Co., 1921. p.953.

3 Plato, The republic. Trans A.D. Lindsay, London: Pub., by J.M. Dent and sons Ltd.

4 Sabine, G.H. and Thorson, L.T., A History of Political Theory; 4th edition Illionis Dryden press 1973. p.57.

5 Sabine, G.H. Ibid., p.59.

6 Protagoras: Quoted in Copleston: History of Philosophy, Image Books Pub., Co., N.Y: 1985. p.87.

7 Hobbes, T., Leviathan, Michael Oakeshott (ed.), New York: Colliet Macmillan 1962. p.100.

8 Marx. K., Labour, Wase and Capital: Selected writing Oxford: 1977. p.256.

9 Nwoko I.M., Basic World Political Theory, Owerri: Claretian Institute of Philosophy. 1988. p.180.

10 Aristotle, Op. Cit. p.187.

11 Aristotle, The Politics (Revised Edition), Trans. T.A. Sinclair England: 1981. p.54.

12 Aristotle, Ibid, p.59.

13 Stumpf S.E., Philosophy: History and Problem (2nd Edition), New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1977. p.336.

14 Aristotle, Op.cit. p.187.

15 Aristotle, Loc.cit.

16 Aristotle., Ibid., p.60

17 Aristotle, Loc.cit.

18 Sabine G.H., Op.cit.

19 Aristotle, The Politics, (Revised Edition). p.61

20 Sabine G.H. Op.cit

21 Loc.cit


22 Bourker, Ethics: A Text Book in Moral Philosophy, Vol. 1 New York: The Macmillian Co; 1966. p.304.

23 Edward P. ed., Encyclopedia of Philosophy, U.S.A. Macmillian Inc., 1976, p.298.

24 Plato, The Republic Trans A.D Lindsay. Land J.M. Dent Ltd, 1976. p.14.

25 Plato, Ibid., p.15

26 Aquinas T. Summa Theo Ila Mae p.58 art 1.

27 Fagothery A., Rights and Reason. St. Lovis The C.V. Mosby Co., 1963, p.272.

28 Edmond Cahn., “Justice” in International Encyclopedia social sciences Vol. 7 and 8 sill D.L. (ed); London, Collier Macmillian Pub., 1968, p.341.

29 Aristotle, The Politics (Revised Edition); 1986, p.226.

30 Op.cit p.226

31 Edward P. (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 3 and 4, London: The Macmillian Pub. and The Press, 1972, p.298.

32 Ibid., p.207

33 Higgins T.J., Op.cit p.153

34 Aristotle, The Nich. Ethics, Trans. J.A.K. Thompson, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1976, p.73.

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