A novice, I do not feel prepared yet to read Aristotle; but please tell me if his primary sources answer my question.
Source: p 75, Philosophy ; A Very Short Introduction (2002) by Edward Craig.

  For an Aristotelian, the baser kinds of matter are earth and water. Unlike the other two kinds, air and fire, they naturally strive towards the centre of the universe. So a spherical mass of earth and water has formed there, and this is the Earth. (However often you hear it said, it just isn’t true that the medievals believed that the Earth was flat!) But the Moon, the Sun, the planets and stars don’t consist of this sort of matter at all, not even air and fire. They are made of the Quintessence – the fifth element – incorruptible and unchanging, and all they do is go round in circles, eternally, in godlike serenity. Now the new astronomy wants to blow this distinction away: however things may look and feel from where we are standing, the Earth is itself in the heavens; and the heavenly bodies are not utterly set apart, but are as much proper objects of scientific investigation as the Earth itself. On top of which the new scientists want to replace explanations couched in terms of natures and goals with talk of the particles of which things are composed, and of mechanical causation governed by mathematical laws.

  1. Is the bolded directed at Aristotelianism? To wit, does the bolded mean that Aristotelianism explains physicality only in terms of natures and teloi?

  2. Why did (and do?) Aristotelians really reject science? The bolded implies conflict and hostility between Aristotelianism and 'the new scientists', but though I have not read Aristotle, I would expect Aristotelians as intelligent and rational, and not stupid or obstinate.


2 Answers 2


The question here is misleadingly framed because it (incorrectly) conflates an idea some natural scientists of the 17th century held with "science" as such.

For example, suppose you want to explain why mammals are all warm-blooded. Aristotle held that to explain nature you have to invoke all four causes: 1. formal, 2. final, 3. material and 4. efficient. So on Aristotle's account, you'd need to explain:

1. Formal Causality: what the structures of the animals are which allow them to regulate their body temperature.

2. Final Causality: why being warm-blooded helps the animal perform its characteristic kinds of activities, like surviving in its natural habitat, giving birth to live young, etc. You'd have to say what being warmblooded is for in other words.

3. Material Causality: how the chemical properties of particular kinds of matter allow that matter to play the functional role in the structures of the living things that allow them to have functions like being warm-blooded.

4. Efficient Causality: Finally, how it actually comes to be that these bits of matter get put together in the right way to form a structure that has that kind of function.

Now Aristotle thinks that you can actually find these four causes operative everywhere in nature, not just in biological cases, but I think it's best to try to see what he is after by thinking about the case of living being, since I think it is biology Aristotle himself was most interested in.

Many thinkers of the scientific revolution of the 17th century, including Boyle, Bacon, Gassendi and others (but not including, for instance, Leibniz) thought that you shouldn't need all four of Aristotle's causes to explain natural phenomena. Instead, they said, all you need is the efficient cause. The idea was that if you know the positions and fundamental properties of all the particles that exist, then you'd have a complete explanation of everything else, since everything else is made up of these particles.

Aristotle would have denied this, of course, and 17th century Aristotelians, such as Suarez, did in fact deny it. However, the early successes of Galileo and others working in mechanics led to many people thinking that this new, purely quantitative approach to science would be the key to making more progress in science. (And this approach looked clearly vindicated after Newton published the Principia, which provides an amazing synthesis of what was known of mechanics at the time, together with a bunch of new mathematical techniques.)

Fast forward to today. There are contemporary philosophers who are Aristotelians. Some of those people, but not all of them, buy the idea that we still need to appeal to the four causes in at least some cases. For instance, Bill Jaworski, in his recent Philosophy of Mind: A Comprehensive Introduction (Blackwell: 2014) argue that in the cases of complex biological systems, such as human beings, we do need to invoke a notions of structure and function in order to explain the phenomena we want explained. I won't present the argument here, but it's worth noting that a contemporary aristotelian like Jaworski would vehemently deny that he is "against" science in any sense.

  • Thank you for your reply. I am sorry if I erred or miswrote; answering your first paragraph, I never intended to mislead or conflate anything. Please do edit my OP if apt.
    – user8572
    Feb 19, 2016 at 20:12
  • 2
    Glad to help. I think somebody else has already edited it. The point of the site is to have access to people who can help us formulate our problems correctly!
    – user5172
    Feb 19, 2016 at 20:13
  • +1. Thank you for your sympathy and benevolence. I added numbering to your answer which (I hope) does not offend.
    – user8572
    Feb 19, 2016 at 20:18
  • You are most welcome! Thank you for the helpful answer. No reply needed.
    – user8572
    Feb 19, 2016 at 20:19

Do Aristotelians reject science?

Well, here are the chapter headings of A's books on Physics:

  1. The principles of nature

  2. The study of nature

  3. Change and Infinity

  4. Place, Void and Time

  5. Change

  6. Continuity

  7. More about change

  8. The eternal and unchanging cause of all change

All of these are very general topics, on things of a physical nature; they're really about turning over and probing the physical ideas of his time; and because of this, is of lasting value - though people just tend to see the word 'Aristotelian', some image of Aristotle, bequeathed to them by tradition; but not the actual words of A.

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