Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The problem of Aristotle

I have just noticed The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman. The thesis is that after Constantine declared Christianity the state religion in 312, the church successfully quashed any challenges to its religious and political authority, in particular any challenges arising from the tradition of Greek rationalism and (in effect) held up human development for a thousand years until the Renaissance.

The difficulty with any such view is that it must face up to the 'problem of Aristotle'. If there really was a 'spirit of Greek rationalism', why did Greek science and philosophy apparently not advance much beyond Aristotle, writing in the fourth century BC, and Constantine in 312 (that's about 700 years)? And if Christian dogma was really that stifling, how was it that Western science developed from the rediscovery of Aristotle's work at the end of the 12th century to the scientific revolution in the 17th century (that's about 500 years)?

It is particularly difficult to explain given that (as I noted here, and as everyone knows) Aristotelian science is so spectularly wrong. Nearly all his scientific views are false, indeed spectacularly and obviously false, and in a way that the simplest experiment would confirm. How did the Greeks did not notice this? As Hannam notes (God's Philosophers chapter 11), simple observation of the trajectory of an arrow or of a ball thrown through the air, noted by Albert of Saxony as early as the 14th century, would have refuted a considerable part of Aristotle's physics.

Why and how was it that the medieval West eventually progressed well beyond Aristotle's science, when Greek culture did not? Constantine's state religion seems completely irrelevant.


Charles Freeman said...

May I suggest that instead of just 'noting' my Closng of the Western Mind, you actually read it , or failing that read the 'review' I posted on the amazon.com review page of Closing , then you can also go on to read, through the reviews, what the companion book, AD 381 is about. You will see that your view of Closing, wherever you got it from, is misguided. The crucial date for the suppression of rational thought by the STATE, not in the first instance by the Church, is AD 381, not AD 312.. The Church, or that section of it endorsed by the state, acquiesced in 'truths' that the emperor Theodosius made law, and then, notably through Augustine, developed theological justifications for its acquiescence. Good reading.

Edward Ockham said...

I do apologise. I took the first part from the Amazon review that says "Christianity's power culminated when Constantine declared it the official state religion in 312. Freeman points to Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, as the figure who showed Constantine that the bishopric could wield power over the state. From then until the Middle Ages, Freeman argues, the church ruled triumphant, successfully squelching any challenges to its religious and political authority. "

Is that incorrect? I'm not an expert on early Christianity at all.

In any case, if the crucial date is even later, how does tnat affect the point I was making? Why did Greek science and philosophy apparently not advance much beyond Aristotle, writing in the fourth century BC, and AD 312 (OK, let's make that even later - AD 381)?

Charles Freeman said...

That's the problem. Some of the reviews have been wildly inaccurate but if you read enough , or the actual book itself, then you will get a clearer idea of what I actually wrote.
I have only once come across the idea that nothing happened after Aristotle and then was in the bizarre Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark. I am not sure what you can mean by Aristoteleian science being so spectacularly wrong when there are respected authorities such as Edward Grant arguing that Aristotle was the most important figure of all up to the end of the sixteenth century. I think you would change your mind of you read something like G.E.R. Lloyd's Aristoteleian Explorations when he shows, how, in contemporary terms, sophisticated Aristotle was in formulating issues such as classification in a way not seen again until the sixteenth century.

Moving on, while you are mugging up on Archimedes (who is normally considered quite an important figure after Aristotle) I would recommend you to get in an order for Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge, edited by Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey Lloyd, Harvard, 2000. It's pretty mammoth, a thousand pages, but it is useful in that it has everything including essays on the major figures after Aristotle, plus essays on such subjects as 'Demonstration and the Idea of Science'. 'Technology' .Medicine, 'Observation and Research', Astronomy, Physics,etc. ,etc. There is also an excellent section dealing with 'Currents of Thought' so that the main philosophers are covered. Although it will have far more than you need,unless you have a very serious academic interest in the ancient Greeks, it will certainly fill in the gap of 'nothing happened after Aristotle'. It' not a propaganda book for the ancient Greeks, simply a sober assessment of what they did or did not, achieve and that is why it is worth recommending.
Take away the Greeks , including Aristotle, from the period 1200- to 1700, and see how much you would have left. It was Greek texts which kick-started virtually every aspect of thought in science in this period.

Edward Ockham said...

Taking your first point (more to follow). I made some remarks here http://ocham.blogspot.com/2010/11/indifference-to-science.html about Aristotle being wrong, by which I mean his scientific explanations are wrong. His explanation of thunder, for instance. His theory of substantial forms is very very wrong. That said, other Greeks had the correct theory (atomism). But there was no consensus as to which theory was correct, and in any case it was Aristotle's theory which predominated.

Edward Ockham said...

>>Take away the Greeks , including Aristotle, from the period 1200- to 1700, and see how much you would have left. It was Greek texts which kick-started virtually every aspect of thought in science in this period.>>>

That point does not contradict my argument in any way. Perhaps my argument was not clear?

Charles Freeman said...

There has been a mammoth amount of work on Aristotle over the centuries and the degree to which his views on particular matters are right or wrong has been analysed ad infinitum. After all this, contemporary scholars of Greek thought still see him as a pivotal figure in the birth of science and you will find the arguments for this set out in the standard texts.A short introduction can be found in Grant's Science and Religion 400 BC -AD 1550, Chapter Two 'Aristotle and the Beginnings of Two Thousand Years of Natural Philosophy' in which Grant makes his statement that 'Aristotle is probably the most significant figure in the history of western thought up to the end of the sixteenth century' and goes on to elaborate. He also quotes Lloyd ( who is the main authority if you want to explore further): 'The idea of carrying out systematic research is one that we in the West owe as much to Aristotle and to the Lyceum as to any other single man or institution', So while no one is going to complain if you set out some of the specific areas where Aristotle can be shown to be wrong, to extrapolate from that to make sweeping statements about his overall contribution to founding scientific thinking is probably not sustainable. But you can read up all this for yourself if you are seriously interested. I only came in on this blog to warn you that you had been reading misleading reviews of my book as you will find if you read it for yourself!

Edward Ockham said...

Thank you Charles! But you still misunderstand my argument. If you read my post above (and if you read and understand the post, I will read your book), my point is that Aristotle's scientific 'explanations' are not just wrong, they are *obviously* wrong. Most of them are wrong in a way that simple observation would demonstrate, without any need for instruments or complex observations. The question is then why didn't Greek science spot this? Why and how was it that the medieval West eventually progressed well beyond Aristotle's science, when Greek culture did not?

I am not denying that Aristotle is a significant figure in Western thought. Nor am I making sweeping statements about his contribution to scientific thinking. Please read my post carefully.

Charles Freeman said...

As early as Theophrastus, Aristotle's successor at the Lycaeum, Aristotle was being criticised , in the case of Theophrastus over his views on spontaneous generation. Theophrastus' eyes were obviously sharper than Aristotle's and he noticed tiny seeds that Aristotle had missed and he went on to argue that if Aristotle was wrong here then his whole theory could be wrong. I do urge you to read Geoffrey Lloyd on this as one of his main arguments,with much supporting evidence, is that the Greeks felt able to criticise their forebears. You can,of course, cherry -pick instances where something Aristotle said was not challenged,but the general point holds.
Remember, too, that Aristotle's works were only put together as a corpus in the Roman period so we cannot expect the Hellenistic Greeks to have known them in the form we do today. The Hellenistic scientists and mathematicians worked independently of Aristotle and so should be judged on their own merits, not on whether they accepted or did not accept specific ideas of Aristotle. They tended to work from their own axiomatic foundations. I have given you references which, if you read them carefully, will provide you with a wider background to Greek thought and you will see that you have some misconceptions about it. I can't go any further that show you the way, so i will now drop out!

Edward Ockham said...

See my comments on the more recent post.

Tim O'Neill said...


While I'd agree that it might be best to take the time to read Freeman's work before criticising it, you have pinpointed the flaw in his thesis exactly. I would also note that Freeman is notoriously oversensitive to criticism, though given his work is crippled by his ideological biases, this is hardly surprising.

He seems to take great comfort from ill-informed positive reviews on Amazon.com (to the extent of giving himself one, in a feat of fatuousness which has now become legend). Apparently these fawning reviews by people who have had their prejudices confirmed by his book insulate him from the scathing treatment it's received from people who actually know what they are talking about.

Still, former high school teachers are used to captive audiences of people in no position to criticise the oracle, so this behaviour makes some sense. Delicate flowers like this amateur hobbyist wouldn't last five minutes in the rough and tumble of academia.

For a full critique of Freeman's flawed "Closing" see http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2009/06/closing-of-western-mind-by-charles.html

Edward Ockham said...

Thank you Tim. Please note my original post was not intended as a critique of Freeman's work. I was simply noting that any such thesis faces the problem I have noted, namely the time-lag between the fourth century BC and the early centuries AD, in which the progress does not seem as rapid as between the thirteenth century AD and the seventeenth.

I am assuming here that the 'recovery' of Greek knowledge in the Latin West (with the exception of a few areas) was more or less complete by the mid 13th century. No one has yet challenged this assumption.

Freeman's answer here has been essentially that there was lots of progress after Aristotle. Perhaps, but that does not address the problem. If there was lots of progress, why weren't there second century Boyles, Hookes, Descartes's, Locke's (fill in your favourite early modern figure here).