What is it about?

Many scholars have argued that there is no room for experiments in Aristotle’s natural science because in experiments we intervene in nature, but Aristotle holds that to understand nature we must simply observe it; if we intervened, the result would be something artificial or contrary to nature. Against this, I argue that Aristotle not only performed experiments, but also holds that there is much about nature that can be discovered experimentally.

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Why is it important?

Since Francis Bacon, the standard view of Aristotelian science has been that it excluded experiments because the latter obscure nature, rather than revealing it. In experiments, we intervene in nature so as to manipulate causal processes, but Aristotle held that scientific inquiry requires us to stand back and watch the natures of things reveal themselves; if we intervened, the result would only be something artificial, wrought by us, or worse, something contrary to nature. When we examine Aristotle's treatises on nature, however, we see that he did in fact perform experiments, most notably in investigating the nature of seawater and other liquids, through distillation, with a view to discovering the material elements from which they are composed. More generally, he held that there is a great deal about nature that can be discovered experimentally, because, at the level of matter, the behaviour of physical objects is the same, whether that behaviour is naturally or artificially caused. In other words, in many instances, it makes no difference to the outcome whether the proximate cause of the change investigated is a human being or some other natural substance.

Perspectives

The modern view that there are no experiments in Aristotelian science is another instance of the misunderstanding of material causes in hylomorphic compounds. If formal causes explain everything capable of explanation in such compounds, there is nothing left for material causes to explain. The result is that we get a mistaken view of the explanatory division of labour in hylomorphic compounds and, in particular, of Aristotle's views on matter (in the sense of physical stuff) and motion.

Prof. Christopher Byrne
St. Francis Xavier University

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This page is a summary of: Aristotle and Scientific Experiments, Dialogue, December 2020, Cambridge University Press, DOI: 10.1017/s0012217320000244.
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