Printer Friendly

Science and Philosophy in Classical Greece.

This is very interesting collection, long awaited, represents the proceedings of a 1986 conference sponsored by the Institute for Research in Classical Philosophy and Science. The conference grew out of the Institute's concern that scholars of the histories of philosophy, the exact sciences, biology, and medicine have been insufficiently familiar with each other's work. "So," writes Alan C. Bowen, director of the Institute, in his Preface,

what we proposed was to encourage collaboration. And to do this we assembled leading historians of ancient Greek philosophy, the various exact sciences, the life sciences, and medicine to focus on three topics: (a) how Greek philosophers and scientists defined science and demarcated the particular sciences during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., (b) the role played by observation in theory as well as by theory in observation, and (c) whether philosophical debates about the ontology and character of scientific explanation occasioned any changes in what the Greek's later regarded as science, and were in fact instrumental in the emergence of the new sciences. (pp. ix-x)

The twelve authors do indeed constitute a distinguished cast, and although inevitably individual papers stray from these topics, cumulatively they do shed significant light on all three across a wide range of sciences. The collection begins, appropriately, with a trenchant reaffirmation by Charles Kahn ("Some Remarks on the Origins of Greek Science and Philosophy") of the traditional view that Greek science and philosophy came into the world "together, one and indivisible, first in Ionia and then in Southern Italy and Sicily, in the sixth and early fifth centuries B.C." (p. 1); and that Presocratic natural philosophy and early Greek astronomy and mathematics, with their radically innovative concern for explanation and proof, constituted "a revolutionary break" with their predecessors. Kahn's piece is complemented by G. E. R. Lloyd's study, later in the volume, of the early medical writings ("The Definition, Status, and Methods of the Medical TEXNH in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries"). Lloyd finds spread through a number of Hippocratic treatises a characteristically Greek "heightening of self-consciousness and the construction of not one but several overlapping and competing models of what medicine is or should be" (pp. 258-9). Elsewhere Lloyd has commented on the relationship between Presocratic theorizing and these aspects of the medical corpus; here he considers how these aspects were affected by factors internal to the medical profession itself.

Kahn's introductory manifesto is followed by three papers concerned with aspects of the overall conceptions of science in the preeminent philosophers of the period under consideration, supplied by Alexander Mourelatos ("Plato's Science--His View and Ours of His"), Joseph Owens ("The Aristotelian Conception of the Pure and Applied Sciences"), and Robert Turnbull ("Platonic and Aristotelian Science"). Of the next six papers, three delve into early Greek mathematics and three into the mathematical sciences of harmonics and astronomy, and the volume closes with Lloyd's paper on Hippocratic medicine and with one on Aristotelian biology by James G. Lennox ("Between Data and Demonstration: the Analytics and the Historia Animalium"). The editor's grouping by subject matter is complemented by various thematic groupings the reader should be encouraged to pursue, for it is one of the merits of the volume that study of it provides the reader just the opportunity for cross-fertilization among subject matters that the 1986 conference aimed to foster.

For instance, several contributors are concerned (among other things) with the aims of certain ancient treatises: for example, Mourelatos with Plato's Timaeus, Wilbur Knorr with Euclid's Elements ("What Euclid Meant: On the Use of Evidence in Studying Ancient Mathematics"), and Lennox with Aristotle's Historia Animalium (hereafter "HA"). In the first and third of these, this concern with aims shades into a concern for the relation between the scientific (or "scientific") content of the treatise and its ancient author's philosophical conception of that activity.

Thus, Mourelatos argues that the Timaeus is not "an encyclopedia of the sciences," nor "a prefiguring of the standard hypothetico-deductive method of scientific explanation" (p. 12), but an edifying, inspirational illustration of metaphysical truths that were established a priori: "What matters is that we grasp the principle truths: that the universe is good and beautiful, that it shares the workings of intelligence at all levels of its organization, and that it is articulated in harmonious structures" (p. 29). Mourelatos makes a very plausible case, although it would have been good to see that case tested by comparison and contrast of the last part of the Timaeus with relevant parts of Aristotle's Parts of Animals. That would have been instructive, since the latter is probably an early Aristotelian work, stimulated by a reading of the Timaeus (cf. Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology (hereafter "PIAB"), ed. Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987], 17). The contrasts are indeed many, and reflect, among other things, the philosophical differences between Aristotle and Plato, which Mourelatos well spells out the Platonic side. But there is one important similarity, since it is at least plausible to think that Parts of Animals has the aim, not only of contributing to an episteme of animal nature (Cf. PIAB, chap. 7), but also of exhibiting, to borrow Mourelatos's words, "the principle truths: that the universe is good and beautiful, that it shows the workings of [teleological natures] at all levels of [living] organization," and that it exhibits the unity of form and matter throughout the living world. In fact, Aristotle says as much in his famous exhortation to biological study in Parts of Animals 1.5 (Cf. PIAB pp. 1-2). Aristotle's work need be no less scientific for having wider philosophical aims. If Plato's work falls short of Aristotle's by reasonable standards of science (as it surely does), it is because of such other features as Mourelatos attributes to Plato's work--his lesser concern for "hard data," his rationalism, and ultimately a metaphysics which excludes natural science from the realm of episteme--and not because it seeks (among other things) to illustrate or defend metaphysical (or other philosophical) truths.

If such reflections should stimulate interest in the connection between Aristotelian theory of science, as presented in the Analytics, and Aristotelian scientific practice, the contributions by Lennox (mentioned above) and Andrew Barker ("Aristoxenus' Harmonics and Aristotle's Theory of Science") will do much to satisfy that interest. Lennox carries forward in dramatic ways his ongoing project (begun in PIAB, chap. 5) of showing the fit between the practice in HA (as he and I have interpreted it) and certain prescriptions for proper science in the Analytics. He shows that indeed HA is an investigation into the "facts" preliminary to establishing their causes, but that such an inquiry is much richer and more methodologically structured than has previously been assumed. Lennox provides an illuminating analysis of the method of "selecting premises" described in Prior Analytics 1.27ff., and shows its relevance to the search in HA with respect to each animal differentia for the widest subject that possesses it--a search we have argued is a central concern of HA. To illustrate his claims Lennox offers a detailed study of HA 4.1-4.7, which, like all of his work on Aristotle's biology, advances in important ways our understanding both of Aristotle's detailed practice and of his wider concerns. (For a caveat regarding the evidence Lennox and I have offered for our interpretation of HA, see Allan Gotthelf, "Historiae I: Plantarum et Animalium," in Theophrastean Studies, ed. W. W. Fortenbaugh and R. W. Sharples [New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1988], 113.)

Barker's discussion of the theory-practice relationship is fascinating. Here we have Aristoxenus, one of Aristotle's prize students, explicitly applying Aristotelian theory to an ongoing science, clearly adopting that theory in developing and organizing his results (not just in teaching them), refining it in places, even rejecting certain Aristotelian claims (for example, about the relationship of "superordinate" mathematics to "subordinate" harmonics), and raising questions on ontological fundamentals (for example, on the relationship between form and matter). In addition, one's picture of how philosophical theory might shape (and be shaped by) a study of harmonic theory will be enhanced by comparing Barker's analysis of Aristoxenus with Bowen's own illuminating analysis of Euclid's very different harmonic theory ("Euclid's Sectio canonis and the History of Pythagoreanism").

The other harmony that so interested the Greeks was the harmony of the spheres. The way the mathematical study of arcs and angles formed by circles on a sphere enabled the ancients to get enormous mileage out of very limited quality empirical data is the concern of J.L. Berggren's historically wide-ranging contribution ("The Relation of Greek Spherics to Early Greek Astronomy").

The study of Greek mathematics has been enlivened in recent years by the work of Ian Mueller, Wilbur Knorr, and D. H. Fowler, all of whom were present at the 1986 conference. Mueller's contribution ("On the Notion of a Mathematical Starting Point in Plato, Aristotle, and Euclid") insightfully analyzes Platonic and Aristotelian texts not only for the philosophers' own views on the nature, justification, and different types of starting points but also as evidence for the views held by the mathematicians of their respective times. With regard to types of starting-points, Plato's contemporaries apparently recognized only definitions; by Aristotle's time at least three of Euclid's "common notions" were included. Euclid adds the postulates himself. On one longstanding matter Mueller is (perhaps too hastily) deflationary: "I see nothing in Euclid's starting points which would suggest to an unbiased reader influence from the work of Plato or Aristotle" (p. 91).

Fowler's contribution ("Ratio and Proportion in Early Greek Mathematics") seeks to establish that "early Greek mathematics and astronomy show no trace of influence of arithmetisation" (p. 113); what might look to us like common fractions are better understood in terms of the notion of ratios as defined by "reciprocal subtraction" (anthuphairesis). Knorr, in the contribution mentioned above, contests this, working back carefully from later texts, which show clear signs of common fractions, to the earlier conception, in the context of a more general discussion of proper methodology in the study of ancient mathematics. Limited to fragmentary texts, or a fragmentary knowledge of context, how do we decide such issues as whether Greek conceptions of ratio and proportion are arithmetized, or what Euclid's aim(s) was in writing the Elements? Knorr claims that contemporary literary theory, judiciously read (he dismisses "literary skepticism" as less "fruitful"), can assist historical scholars; he cites E. D. Hirsch, Jr.'s study of genre in his discussion of Euclid's aims in the Elements. But Knorr's valuable studies of ratio and proportion, fraction, and the aims of Euclid's Elements do not seem actually to depend on any interpretative distinctions or techniques not already firmly entrenched, at least as explicit ideals (and often as realities), in the best scholarship on ancient Greek philosophical, scientific, and mathematical texts (in which Knorr's own work is to be included). On the contrary, I think that serious students of textual interpretation, and of questions of historical objectivity, have much more to learn from a close study of that scholarship than from much of what passes for literary criticism, and literary theory, today.

One reason for the scholarship's quality may be the self-consciousness about methodology that is often a part of that scholarship, and the desire for continued improvement it embodies. We see such self-consciousness in the reflections, noted above, which gave rise to the conference whose proceedings are now before us. They are wise reflections, for the scholarship's quality is certain to improve yet further, if scholars adopt this volume's message, and look more systematically to work in related areas for lessons they might apply to their own. This volume provides a fine prod in that direction.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Philosophy Education Society, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gotthelf, Allan
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Postmodernism and Democratic Theory.
Next Article:Hegel's Philosophy of Politics: Idealism, Identity, and Modernity.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters