It is often said that modern philosophy begins with a break from Aristotle, as developed by Galileo, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, et al.

Though the modernists struggled to "start from scratch," it seems that the "overturning" of Aristotle was very piecemeal and historically circumstantial. Divisions of church authority, experimental method, centrality of the subject, Kepler's cosmos, turn to critical epistemology, etc.

Without going philosopher by philosopher, point by point, can anyone summarize some sort of fundamental principle, category, or decisive, irreversible move that characterizes the modern break with Aristotle?

  • a very senior lecturer who taight me called aristotle "simply the best" ha :)
    – user6917
    Sep 9, 2015 at 16:10

2 Answers 2


I'd suggest that one needs to distinguish between Aristotelianism and Aristotle; I find it quite difficult to conceive of how, for example, modern physics would have begun with Galileo without the work done by thinkers in Greek Antiquity, summarised in both Aristotle's Physics and Metaphysics, say; and illustrated quite directly by the drawing by Da Vinci, of Vitruvian Man which celebrates the turn towards man as a subject in combination with Greek science (i.e. geometry).

Rovelli, a prominent theorist in QG writes:

[Aristotles Physics] is the book that has given its name to the discipline; it is a profound masterpiece; it discusses Eleatism, the notion of change, the nature of motion, the infinite, space, time, infinite divisibility; some of the issues discussed, for example the nature of time, are still of relevance today; for example in QG research.

This perhaps shows that the historical breaks aren't as historical as we might wish to view them; but in part are constructed; and have lines of both continuity and difference; for example the SEP argues that despite Descartes reputation as a key representative of early modern thinking on Physics

many of Descartes physical hypotheses bear a close kinship with the Aristotelian influenced science of late medieval and Renaissance Scholasticism.

I'd suggest it was the rise of another Greek philosophy - that of the Greek atomists (Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius) in a new guise - the Mechanical Philosophy that eclipsed that of Aristotelianism; for example:

The mechanical philosophy's explanation of natural phenomena, which Descartes quickly adopted [after meeting Isaac Beeckman, an amateur scientist and mathematician] rejected the use of Scholastic substantial forms, and favoured a contact or impact model of small, unobservable 'corpuscles' of matter (which possess only a limited number of mainly geometric properties: size, motion and shape).

Importantly, this philosophy in terms of Aristotles four-fold classification of causes, possesses only two: the material and efficient; it lacks the final cause, in Aristotles opinion the proper sense of cause, and prioritised over the others; and possibly the formal cause - though one suggestion there is that this is chance.

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    You may find Rovelli's view congenial:"When Galileo realized that the missing ingredients were the notion of acceleration and the use of formulas, opening the way to Newton, Galileo’s interlocutor was Aristotle. Not because Aristotle was the stupid dogma against which intelligence should rise. But because Aristotle was the best of the intelligence of the world that thirty centuries of civilization had so far produced in this field". arxiv.org/pdf/1312.4057v2.pdf But I think there still was a break from speculative to empirical attitude, atomism only rose again with the latter.
    – Conifold
    Sep 8, 2015 at 22:18
  • Thanks. I'd be happy to substitute Aristotelianism, even as a dogma, but I know nothing about Thomism or what exactly Galileo was "refuting." I agree that atomism is an interesting candidate for a "break point." It is certainly fundamental in the sense that a nonscientific atomism preceded Aristotle, he refuted it, and it made a come-back. Why? It seems to me that the "point atomism" of, say, Galileo and Newton (not sure about Descartes) enabled them to apply math to "reality" in a way that continuous substance prevented. Will chew on it. Sep 8, 2015 at 23:50
  • @Nelson Alexander Epicurus, the most popular atomist, founded his school 15 years after Aristotle's death, and it remained popular throughout Roman times, its demise had more to do with the rise of Christianity than with Aristotle, neo-Platonism and peripateticism were more suitable for theology. Mathematics of Galileo and Newton still relied on continuous magnitudes and Euclid, albeit with Plato's proscription of motion removed. The appeal of atomism might have been in decomposing matter into smaller parts, which provided a non-Aristotelian mode of explanation suitable for empirical science.
    – Conifold
    Sep 9, 2015 at 0:48
  • I think you have it backwards. Atomism means "indivisible" units. This separates ancient "nonscientific" atomist (a lucky guess, we might say) from the "atomism" following Einstein's paper on Brownian motion. In this sense, modern "atomism" has been a failure because the divisions still appear bottomless. To refer to my original question, modern "atomism," applying the mathematics of discrete units, broke with Aristotle. In the bigger, now quantum picture, the jury is out. I think you are wrong about Galileo and Newton and "continuous" magnitude. They "cheated" using the infinitesimal. Sep 9, 2015 at 1:46
  • @alexander: I have only the vaguest understanding of why Aristotle refuted atomism - I'd like to know more; that one can apply math to it is obviously important; but it's also important to note, I think that one can give, in that picture, a priori justifications of why something like Newtons laws as well as the conservation laws - of mass and of 'motion' (in Descartes phrase), should hold; and this without being specific about how one quantifies. Sep 9, 2015 at 3:14

I believe it has been said that "all (Western) philosophy is refutations of Plato" --one might similarly say that all Western science is refutations of Aristotle. He wrote so widely, so systematically, and so influentially, that practically every scientific discipline has a Aristotelian and a post-Aristotelian version. In a certain sense, the "overturning" of Aristotle might be most simply described as the moment in which people within a given discipline were no longer willing to take Aristotle's word as the final authority on the subject. As you have noted, that happened at vastly different times in different disciplines: as early as Galileo for Physics, as late as Russell for Logic.

From a contemporary viewpoint, one of the most significant departures in modern philosophy from Aristotle is the rejection of Aristotelian teleology which sees a final "cause" or purpose in all things, however it's not clear that this is a historical match for the "break" you describe.

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    Thanks. I'd agree dropping teleology is, or was, one of the chief fissures, though it seems to be sneaking in the back door via "spontaneous organization" and whatnot. I guess I'm groping for as clear and reductive a "philosophical" distinction as possible. Galileo's turn to math, instrumental observation, and experiment is pretty decisive, but is not perhaps what we'd call a "philosophical" turn. Perhaps "man" as a Christianity-based "universal subject"? You are right, maybe he's just too vast and coherent. Sep 8, 2015 at 18:18
  • Whitehead's quote is "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato". This is somewhat outdated, since 19th century it clearly transformed into a series of footnotes to Kant :) But I see at least two overturns of Aristotle in 17th century, from speculative to rational/empirical, and from impersonal to individual centered philosophy, both the legacies of Renaissence and companions of capitalism.
    – Conifold
    Sep 8, 2015 at 22:04
  • I agree about "protestant" individualism and capitalism, from a historical or sociological perspective. But philosophically I am not sure what constitutes some clear Aristotelean counterpart to modern "subject" or "individual." Apples and oranges, yet there is something there. I just don't know exactly how to characterize it. Also, I must admit I have a weak grasp of what is now meant by "speculative." Would this term apply to the scholasticism preceding "modern" turns? Sep 9, 2015 at 0:01
  • @Nelson Alexander I used "speculative" in a sense close to "scholastic", as in Descartes "was denying the then-dominant scholastic Aristotelian ontology, which explained all natural bodies as comprised of a “prime matter” informed by a “substantial form,” and which explained qualities such as hot and cold as really inhering in bodies in a way that is “similar” to the qualities of hot and cold as we experience them tactually" plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes/#MetTurComPhyDis Descartes, Leibniz or Hegel are themselves speculative, but in a very different way.
    – Conifold
    Sep 9, 2015 at 0:42
  • @Conifold - Probably worth its own answer... Re: The Whitehead quote --I'm not convinced this is the original of the quote I remember, mine was a little more oppositional. I won't argue the relative influence of Kant with you, that's a whole new topic... Sep 9, 2015 at 1:14

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