What is it about?

According to Aristotle, induction is the process by which we ascend from knowledge of particular states of affairs, typically through perception, to the knowledge of what is universal and necessary with respect to a certain kind of being. As such, it is responsible for our knowledge of the first principles of any science. Although empirical generalizations have a role to play in this process, Aristotle is clear that they are insufficient to yield scientific knowledge. I argue that in Aristotle's account the process by which the necessary and universal principles of any science are reached is similar to what we now know as mathematical induction. In particular, it is grounded in a non-enumerative, but replicable process in which things are resolved into their simplest components. As a result, the observation of past uniformities has, at most, a heuristic function in scientific inquiry.

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Why is it important?

According to a long interpretative tradition, Aristotle holds that the formal cause is the ultimate object of induction when investigating perceptible substances. For the job of induction here is to find the essential nature common to a set of perceptible individuals, and that nature is captured solely by their shared formal cause. The material cause individuates different members of the same species, but it does not contribute to their essential nature. Against this view, I argue that Aristotle understands perceptible individuals as irreducibly composite objects whose nature is constituted by both their formal and their material cause. As a result, when investigating individual perceptible objects, the job of induction is to discover their common composite nature, consisting of both a formal and a material cause, and not just their formal cause.


The standard account of Aristotelian science emphasizes deductive inference. By contrast, Aristotle thinks that induction is fundamental because the first principles of every empirical science (hence, not mathematics) must be discovered inductively, by analyzing the objects of our experience. For Aristotle, the scientific method is primarily inductive and empirical.

Prof. Christopher Byrne
St. Francis Xavier University

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This page is a summary of: The Object of Aristotelian Induction: Formal Cause or Composite Individual?, De Gruyter,
DOI: 10.1515/9783110347777.251.
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