Aristotle's Posterior Analytics is the basis of the modern scientific method of arguing from effects to the causes of things ("demonstration quia" or "a posteriori").

The ideal [of a unified science with a "progressive Aristotelianism" philosophy] is that perhaps best set by Thomas Aquinas and his teacher Albertus Magnus [both 13th century], neither of whom was a slavish follower of Aristotle (as was the famous Arab commentator Averroes), but instead used the analytical techniques of their mentor to develop sciences completely unknown to the Greeks. Paradoxically, the ideal is also suggested by Galileo [†17th century], who disagreed with many teachings proposed by the Aristotelians of his day, but who nevertheless was well acquainted with the methodology of the Posterior Analytics. Indeed, so well equipped was he that he could maintain that were Aristotle then alive and had access to the new empirical evidence he himself had made available, the philosopher would have sided with him rather than with his proclaimed disciples. Much more, of course, is here assimilated within an Aristotelian synthesis than could have been known to either Albertus, Aquinas, or Galileo, including information that has become available only in the late twentieth century.
—William A. Wallace's The Modeling of Nature (pg. xv)

Where does Aristotle's Posterior Analytics disagree with modern philosophy of science? Is his conception of "science" (certain knowledge through causes) different than the modern conception of science, which is more dialectical?

Thanks in advance for any insight on this issue

  • What are the points of disagreement?
    – Geremia
    Jun 21, 2012 at 19:11
  • I don't understand why you ask which is more dialectical, as dialectics is important in Plato's knowledge theory but not in Aristotle's, as far as I'm concerned (not sure about this, though)
    – Tames
    Jul 31, 2012 at 1:49
  • @Tames: Kuhn's philosophy of science is certainly dialectical, in a Hegelian sense. Maybe Geremia is alluding to this?
    – Matt W-D
    Aug 3, 2012 at 14:23
  • @Tames: Yes, Aristotle's conception isn't dialectical.
    – Geremia
    Feb 20, 2014 at 19:15
  • @MattW-D: No, not in a Hegelian sense. Perhaps I should say modern science is not illative, whereas in Aristotle's conception it is.
    – Geremia
    Feb 20, 2014 at 19:16

2 Answers 2


The historiographical debate about the medieval origins of modern science is a long one (Duhem, Crombie, Koyré) but modern science (from Galileo on) is not at all aristotelian.

Modern science is based on mathematics and experiments. Aristotle was a great observer (in botany, zoology) but observation is not experiment.

And mathematics is absent from aristotelian and medieval physical science.

Is his [Aristotle] conception of "science" (certain knowledge through causes) different than the modern conception of science?

Certainly! The aristotelian ideal of science is the deduction of the explanation of natural facts from certain principles involving the causes of the said facts.

When Newton states the gravitation laws, he assert a mathematical law governing the behaviour of planets in motion subject to the action of a central force. He is not able to find an explanation based on the "cause" of gravitation (i.e.what is the force acting on the planets in motion) and he refrains to do so.

Newton celebrated statement : "Hypotheses non fingo" (Latin for "I feign no hypotheses") is a famous phrase used in the General Scholium to the second (1713) edition of the Principia :

I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction. [from I.Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman's 1999 translation - see Wiki]

As you can see from my answer to a previous post I'm a "pluralist" and not an "essentialist" about science: science is a complex human activity, too complex to be defined with a single (essential) characteristic, and the same for the "scientific method".

Science is both botany and quantum mechanics; to do botany we need herbals and not mathematics. Aristotle and Albertus were good (very good, indeed) "empirical observers"; thus, they made a lot of observations and discoveries regarding zoology and botanics.

But physical science, as "invented" by Galileo and Newton, is mathematically and experimentally based : to build aircraft, nuclear fission and space travel (i.e.all the good and bad things that scientific knowlede gave us in 500 years), curiosity, enduring observation and "Aristotelian method" were not enough.

Suggstions for further readings regarding the debate about medieval and modern science

1) About the aristotelian method, the medieval origins of modern science and the "new" science .

John Herman Randall, Jr., The School of Padua and the Emergence of Modern Science (1961)

Alistair Cameron Crombie, *Robert Grossteste and the Origins of Experimental Science, 1100-1700, 1953

Alistair Cameron Crombie, *Augustine to Galileo: The History of Science A.D. 400 - 1650 [1952] (Revised ed. 1969)

2) Contra:

Alexandre Koyré, Études galiléennes, 1939 (engl transl: Galileo Studies, 1978)

Alexandre Koyré, Études d’histoire de la pensée philosophique, [1971] (3e éd. 1990)

3) Renaissance debate on the method

Walter Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, 1958

Paolo Rossi, Francis Bacon: from Magic to Science, 1968 (ed or.1957)

4) About Galileo:

Stillman Drake, Galileo at Work, University of Chicago Press, 1978

Stillman Drake, Essays on Galileo and the History and Philosophy of Science, Volume I, University of Toronto Press, 1999

William A. Wallace, Galileo and his Sources. The Heritage of the Collegio Romano in Galileo's Science, Princeton University Press, 1984

William A. Wallace, Galileo's Logic of Discovery and Proof: The Background, Content and Use of His Appropriated Treatises on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, Kluwer, 1992

5) Recent overviews on the "scientific revolution* :

H. Floris Cohen, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry, University Of Chicago Press, 1994

Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 1996

Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts Cambridge UP, 1996

Peter Dear, *Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1700 *, Princeton University Press, 2001

John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Stephen Gaukroger, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210-1685, Oxford UP, 2009.

  • Not all scientific explanations are supported via controlled, repeatable experiments. (Evolutionary explanations are contingent, historical, and non-repeatable, for instance.) There is a danger of overgeneralizing the methods appropriate to mechanics to other domains.
    – user5172
    Mar 26, 2014 at 14:22
  • I agree, but some fact are certain (contra Wallace) : (i) there is no "modern" scientific method in Aristotle's science : only observation and logic (and it's not little !) (ii) regardeless of Aquinas and Albertus as philosophers, they were not scientists : nor in "modern" sense, but neither in "aristotelian" one. (iii) Modern science (from Galileo and Newton on) argue form effects to causes and then, having established (assumed) general laws or principles (also evolution in Darwin case) deduces (i.e.explain) efefcts from general principles. 1/2 Mar 26, 2014 at 15:49
  • But the general principles (evolution included) are not certain, because the process of "deducing" causes by their effect is not a deduction in the strict sense; thus, it cannot "transfer" truth (like deduction in logic) nor certainty. Effects are explained by theories through laws, and scientific theories are corrected and revised according to the evolution of knowledge. 2/2 Mar 26, 2014 at 15:52
  • See "Albertus Magnus on Suppositional Necessity in the Natural Sciences," which goes over, esp. the last sentence of, Aristotle's Physics II.9 (199b33-200a16) regarding reasoning ex suppositione, a type of necessary reasoning that even Galileo employed and commented on in his logical notebooks.
    – Geremia
    Mar 29, 2014 at 2:01
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA: Also, see Albertus Magnus's entry in the Dict. of Sci. Bio.; he certainly did do empirical science.
    – Geremia
    Mar 29, 2014 at 2:04

Aristotelian science is substantially different from modern science.

Aristotelian collection and classification describes the state of an eternal, unchanging nature.

Modern science is primarily the study of change in a phenomenal world. Two main methods are observations of momentary states repeated over time, and the direct study of rate of change over time. Both are theoretical and mathematical.

There is no modern philosophy yet that describes the science of change.

  • Bergson was known to advocate that everything is change. Was he not studying change? Some modern-day natural philosophers hold that the objects of physics (even of modern physics) are changing/changeable beings (ens mobile).
    – Geremia
    May 13, 2016 at 0:16

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