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Aristotle as Scientist

Aristotle as Scientist

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August 1, 1998

An exchange between professors Susan Dawn Wake and Alan Kors.

Reprinted from Navigator, Volume 1, Number 8, 1998.

In an interview for the November 1997 issue of Navigator, Professor Alan Charles Kors is quoted as saying: "I believe, in fact, that the Enlightenment was correct that [Aristotle's] a priori commitment to a scheme of causal explanations — final causes, above all — made the modern project of objective inquiry impossible."

I am sorry but not surprised to read this. I think that such a judgement is not merely mistaken, but does a grave injustice to Aristotle and many of his followers, notwithstanding the fact that Professor Kors's assessment has been a commonplace one since the early seventeenth century.

The evidence for assessing Aristotelianism as an intellectual deadweight needing to be shaken off in order to make scientific progress possible has consisted largely of the published, and hence readily available, literary criticisms of a few prominent, and hence widely read, Moderns: Galileo and Bacon being typical sources. Unfortunately, their readers do not as a rule pause to consider the objectivity of such contemporary accounts. There is little concern for the polemical nature of some remarks, or the selective memories — deliberate or not — of authors. On the rare occasion when counter-evidence within the same genre is considered at all, it is just as often explained away. For example, despite Galileo's vividly sarcastic treatment of certain Aristotelians, he was acquainted with more progressive members of the movement, and yet chose not to mention them: it is the Aristotelian refusing to look through the telescope who is made (in)famous, not those who embraced the new astronomical discoveries. Similarly, when Galileo declared that "I am sure that if Aristotle should return to earth he would accept me among his followers... ," readers have assumed that he was being disingenuous at best. Yet there were progressive Aristotelians, and historians have recently begun to document Galileo's own debts to Aristotle.

It also needs to be remembered that the opposition to Aristotle was almost exclusively directed against the details of his physics and astronomy. Yet there is nothing in the writings of Aristotle to suggest that he would have been opposed in principle to the development of a mathematical physics or the Copernican revolution, and many of his followers were supportive of both projects. Furthermore, final causes might be useless in these contexts, but William Harvey found them to be both necessary and fruitful in biology. Indeed, as James Lennox pointed out at the IOS summer seminar in 1995, it was Aristotle who ruled the study of comparative anatomy and physiology at the University of Padua.

A particularly ironic, if minor, case of the unrecognized indebtedness to Aristotle during this time can be found in a popular critical simile: that Aristotle, like the cuttlefish, obscures himself in his own ink when he feels himself about to be grasped. The basic — and empirical — observations about the cuttlefish's nature and behaviour were first recorded by none other than Aristotle himself.

If it is true that history is written by the victors, it is high time for Aristotle's admirers to show that he was not the defeated enemy. For those interested in the evidence of his positive and pervasive influence during this period, I would be happy to provide copies of my own research. In any case, I would like to thank Navigator and Professor Kors for a stimulating and informative interview.

Susan Dawn Wake
St. Mary's University
Halifax, Nova Scotia


Professor Kors responds:

I thank Professor Wake for her thoughtful and collegial criticism.

Neither the genius nor the intellectual power of Aristotle is in dispute. The crucial issue joined — undecided by the utility of a modified and metaphorical notion of biological "purpose" — is whether Aristotle's imposition upon his natural philosophy of a scheme of a disposed nature and a science of final causes (so useful to theology) was a barrier to later rigorous inquiry into nature. It certainly is true — and none of Aristotle's responsibility — that in many instances, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Aristotelians took Aristotle's a posteriori assertions and transformed them, against the spirit of his system, into axioms from which to deduce logically entailed "truths" about nature. This does not seem to me to be the case with his system of causality, however, which functioned as a logic of explanation. In the Enlightenment's view — which I share in this instance — the advance of modern science has been to a large degree the overcoming of that system of causal explanation. Professor Wake suggests a strong case for an opposite view, and readers should decide such an issue on the basis of their assessment of the place of Aristotle's theory of causes within his natural philosophy and of its relationship to the experimental and mathematical sciences of the seventeenth century and after.

Alan C. Kors

Professor of History
University of Pennsylvania

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