Peter Thiel said in a podcast:

Early Modern Science wanted to resist the aristotelianism of the Catholic church

This confused me because I thought that aristotelianism was the precursor to science.

I would define Aristotelianism as the belief that one could come to understand the universe by methods and observation. It was the precursor to analytic philosophy and empiricism. Aristotle's methods where an early version of the scientific method. So my answer to this question would be Yes, Aristotle was THE proto-empiricist.

Of course I'm basing this on actually having read Aristotle (and comparing him to Plato (idealist/anti-empiricist)) and don't actually have any knowledge of the history of Aristotelianism. Could someone help me out?

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    Very broad issue... See Scientific Revolution. In a very rough overview, yes Aristotle was an empiricist but modern science was not only empiricist but also (mainly...) mathematically minded. Aug 24 at 9:47
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    The relevant form of early modern empiricism was experiment that is much more than observation: Aristotle was a champion of empirical observation (biology, zoology) but the tradition of Aristotelian science mainly failed the develop a "modern" concept of experiment. Aug 24 at 9:51
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA I'm satisfied thanks! You said you were a "pluralist" on science. Have you read any of Kurt Doolittle's blog. He says science is recursive due diligence of the elimination of falsehood. I disagree that mathematics is essential rather it is just another arrow in the quiver of due diligence. Mathematics becomes quickly abused by sudo-scientists trying to gain status. In essence, I agree with Doolittle that science is fundamentally an ethical discipline rather than a technical one. Aug 24 at 22:21
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    We should add that Peter Thiel is a remarkably shallow thinker, despite his education at Stanford. I've hardly encountered a more fatuous book than Zero to One, and I've read Peikoff's contributions to Ayn Rand's school of thought. Be cautious in thinking that his opinions about the development of modern scientific methods are more than freshman oversimplifications. Aug 27 at 4:38
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    My two main objections to Zt1 are: the shift from 0 to 1 is replicated at every limit ordinal/cardinal in the ascending hierarchy, so it's far less meaningful than he makes it sound (and is not even accurately stated, since the continuum of numbers in the unit interval are not all, or even mostly, given via succession on 0); second, he has hardly any grasp on Rawls' ethical/political philosophy, which is a glaring lack of knowledge (comparable to a physicist not understanding Feynman, I'd venture). Aug 27 at 6:50

4 Answers 4


Early Modern Science wanted to resist the aristotelianism of the Catholic church

That's not quite right, because the Condemnations of 1277 by Bishop Étienne Tempier of Paris attacked some Aristotelian theses (cf. Edward Grant's article). This is why Pierre Duhem considered 1277 the beginning of modern science; the condemnations freed science from dogmatic Aristotelianism. Pierre Duhem discusses the various theses on place, the void, and plurality of worlds before and after the Condemnations of 1277 in:


The claim that "Early Modern Science wanted to resist the aristotelianism of the Catholic church" is more or less on target, if by "aristotelianism" is understood the catholic theologians' interpretation of Aristotle.

The first decrees against Aristotelianism date not from 1277 but from the papacy of Innocent 3 in the early 1200s (in 1215 at the 4th Lateran Council and another decree by a papal envoy in Paris specifically against teaching some Aristotelian doctrines at the University).  But the perceived problem with Aristotelianism was not to "enable modern science" or anything like that, but rather because of its perceived insufficient compatibility with catholic doctrine.  In spite of such decrees, Aristotelianism still held sway in the 17th century, when it was used by the jesuits to attack the emerging theories of indivisibles, including Paul Guldin's attack against Cavalieri on the grounds that Cavalieri's notion of "all the lines" is incoherent, since it allegedly involved an incoherent concept of infinity.  In parallel, there were decrees issued against indivisibles by the generals of the order, as being contrary to both the common doctrine of Aristotle and canon 2 of session 13 of the Council of Trent which codified a transubstantiation interpretation of the eucharist (following the lead of Innocent 3), similarly based on what was thought of as Aristotelian hylomorphism (or hylemorphism), which was furthermore thought of as incompatible with atomism.  The attribution of hylomorphism to Aristotle is a loaded issue, but it was the standard catholic interpretation at the time.

It is hard to know what Thiel had in mind exactly, but the fight over atomism/indivisibles was certainly part of it.


In Dark Ages and Byzantine Europe mostly only commentaries on Aristotle's 'Organon' were widely available. Through shifting frontiers in Spain Islamic translations of more of his works became available, including his works like Physics, and On Generation & Corruption. These were at first condemned as heterodox and proscribed to read by the Church on penalty of excommunication, but went on to be incorporated by Aquinas and others into Catholic doctrine.

While Aristotle's wide curiosity and interest in everything certainly were a big improvement on the Dark Ages theology that had seen a lot of pre-Christian books burnt, there were also problems. Teleology was at the heart of his thought, the idea organisms are designed for and moving towards their purposes. Sponteneous generation of small animals from mud. His Metaphysics, which is thought to be lecture notes rather than written directly by Aristotle, is notoriously impenetrable, contains problematic ideas about essences and causation, and with Aquinas become core to Catholic doctrine. And many small errors that came from just not looking: an incorrect model of buoyancy; a belief men & women have different numbers of teeth. Aristotle was science-ish, but certainly not science. And his thought towered over the medieval world just like the ruins of the Colliseum did - a perpetual reminder that in a past Classical age people could do and think with skills long lost.

By the Italian Rennaissance the stature of Aristotle's thought and the high regard it was held in, had come to be a barrier rather than enabler. One of the defining qualities of that flowering of new knowledge, was superceding the Ancients, and proving new insights could be generated rather than just rediscovered. For instance by correcting Galen by referencing human rather than animal autopsies, and correcting Aristotle on buoyancy (though Descartes also got this wrong) and mechanics. This gave courage to question the big stuff: geocentrism, and the unfalsifiable claims in the Metaphysics. However some of his insights were not superceded until the 19th century, and a lot of his best thinking was not available or not understood in the medieval era.

See a good discussion here: Was Aristotle the first physicist?, article from the Guardian newspaper.


Early Modern Science is often to taken to be the natural philosophy and mathematization of science by thinkers like Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon and his Novum Organum. As such, there are a number of breaks with the Aristotelian tradition. In his Conjectures and Refutations, Karl Popper discusses this briefly as the beginning of the "optimistic epistemology" which was a hidden metaphysical principle that the universe was highly realist and self-evident through mathematics and experimentation. Aristotelian physics was a tremendous and influential work, but it lacks what we would call modern empirical methods since empirical evidence was was primarily constrained to observation. Also, natural philosophy continued diverging from natural theology continuing the debate between the theologi and physiki of Pre-Socratic Greece as to whether or not supernaturalism had any role in explaining the reality and the world.

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