The ‘prehistory’ of philosophy of science (6): Plato’s best student.
If Plato’s reflections on the nature of epistéme was the starting point of what we can take as an authentic ‘philosophy of science’, and even if his views were probably the most influential during the rest of the Ancient times (as we shall confirm in subsequent entries), the truth is that science as we know it, and the philosophical understanding thereof, had its first real hero in Plato’s most distinguished disciple: Aristotle (384-322 BC). Aristotle started to study within Plato’s Academy as little more than an adolescent, and remained there, turned into one of its most outstanding educators, till Plato’s death, when Aristotle was in his late thirties. Rumours tell that the former pupil departed due mostly to jealousy for not having been appointed as the successor of the master in the Academy (a position that was given to Plato’s own nephew, the philosopher Speusippus); be it as it may, Aristotle moved to several places in the east and north of the Aegean for the next fourteen years (including a period as tutor of the future Macedonian king, Alexander the Great), till he decided to return to Athens to establish his own philosophical school, the Lyceum, which he run for another twelve years. He abandoned the city after Alexander’s death, for fear of anti-Macedonian sentiments (Aristotle was not a Macedonian himself, but his friendship with the Macedonian royal family was probably a very dangerous liaison), and retired to his estates in the isle of Euboea, where he died within just one more year, probably from an abdominal cancer, at the age of sixty-two.
In a way, Aristotle’s ideas are difficult to disentangle from those of Plato. Reading in parallel the surviving writings of the two intellectual colossi (different in format and conception as they undoubtedly are), it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that they represented the evolving work of one single author, elaborated in two different types of books: Plato’s dialogues are literary masterpieces, most of them targeted to what we could label a ‘normal reader’ (of whom not too many must have existed at the time, however), and, with few exceptions (like the Timaeus, the Parmenides, or the Sophist), do not contain bookworm paragraphs as those typical of ‘scientific treatises’, i.e., full of logical detail, complicated terminology and systematic reasoning. Aristotle’s preserved works are, instead, just that kind of ‘scholarly monographs’, which use to start by clearly stating one problem, by discussing later the theses of previous authors, presenting the relevant data, and finally offering an analysis and a solution based on a given set of systematic concepts. Nothing similar to this style of ‘academic writing’ is preserved from before Aristotle’s times (except a few Hippocratic medical texts, and perhaps some short mathematical treatises), and at least in this first sense (we shall discuss other, more important senses later) we can bestow Aristotle with the title of ‘the founder of science’. He was, at least, one of the first to think and write ‘as a scientist’. Aristotle wrote also dialogues ‘for the general public’, and it seems they were highly praised by their elevated prose, but unfortunately none of them survived the Antiquity.
Nonetheless, as I was saying, regarding the content of Aristotle’s works, it would not be too fanciful if someone reached the conclusion that they belonged to the same author (or at least, to the same ‘school’) as the Platonic dialogues, only that they are probably more ‘mature’: some ideas appearing in the dialogues, as, for example, the theory of Form, are explicitly criticized by Aristotle… but they are also criticized in other dialogues by Plato himself, like in the Parmenides (where, by the way, a character from Socrates times but with the name of ‘Aristotle’ also appears), and with arguments that Aristotle will almost literally repeat in his Metaphysics. These ideas are also formulated in Aristotle’s writings ‘for the experts’, rather than ‘for the public’, as we have seen. One has often the impression that what Aristotle is doing is something like saying: “well, the theories, ‘similes’ and ‘myths’ presented in the dialogues are certainly very naive, imprecise and ambiguous, and this is the way in which they should be rationally formulated in order to take into account all possible criticisms”. It is, in a way, as if the disciple was trying to ‘tiding up’ his master’s rather ‘poetic’ thoughts. (For a philosophical and philological authoritative argument about the intimate connection between Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought, especially in the case of metaphysics, see 1).
In the case of our series’ topic, the nature of science, Aristotle replaces Plato’s ‘simile of the line’ with a version which is much less speculative and flamboyant, but that in a way preserves its essential aspects: he also says, like Plato, that there are different ‘degrees’ of knowledge that we can order from the most ignoble to the most excellent, and that form a kind of ‘scale’ we should ascend: in Aristotelian terms, these ‘levels’ would be perception, memory, experience, art (téchne) and science (epistéme). The most important difference between them is not so much the ‘type of reality’ they respectively capture (though in a sense something of this is preserved in Aristole’s theory, as we just will see in a moment), but the amount of reasoning capacity they confer to us: from perception and memory, that only allow some kind of reactive behaviour more or less complex, to téchne and epistéme, that allow us to explain what we are doing… the characteristic aspect of epistéme being its capacity of providing with demonstrably true answers to why-questions: having science consists, for Aristotle, in knowing why things are the way they are. This is possible thanks to our grasping of the essence of things, i.e., of their more intrinsic, universal and unchanging nature. The aim of science is, hence, knowing in detail the nature of things… what, by the way, offers the first important difference with respect to the theories of Plato, for, as we saw, this author, thinking that the material world was only an imperfect copy of the world of eternal Forms, hesitated about the possibility of ‘a real science of nature’. Aristotle, instead, not only thought that a scientific study of nature was possible, but went so far as devoting most of his time to create just that… what we now call biology, and in this sense he certainly went much far beyond Plato. But this will be the subject of a future entry.
- Aubanque, Pierre, 1962, Le problème de l’être chez Aristote, PUF, Paris. ↩
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