History of Scientific Method - Early Methodology - Aristotelian Science and Empiricism

Aristotelian Science and Empiricism

Aristotle introduced what may be called a scientific method. He provided another of the ingredients of scientific tradition: empiricism. For Aristotle, universal truths can be known from particular things via induction. To some extent then, Aristotle reconciles abstract thought with observation, although it would be a mistake to imply that Aristotelian science is empirical in form. Indeed, Aristotle did not accept that knowledge acquired by induction could rightly be counted as scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, induction was a necessary preliminary to the main business of scientific enquiry, providing the primary premises required for scientific demonstrations.

Aristotle largely ignored inductive reasoning in his treatment of scientific enquiry. To make it clear why this is so, consider this statement in the Posterior Analytics,

We suppose ourselves to possess unqualified scientific knowledge of a thing, as opposed to knowing it in the accidental way in which the sophist knows, when we think that we know the cause on which the fact depends, as the cause of that fact and of no other, and, further, that the fact could not be other than it is.

It was therefore the work of the philosopher to demonstrate universal truths and to discover their causes. While induction was sufficient for discovering universals by generalization, it did not succeed in identifying causes. The tool Aristotle used for this was deductive reasoning in the form of syllogisms. Using the syllogism, scientists could infer new universal truths from those already established.

Aristotle developed a complete normative approach to scientific enquiry involving the syllogism which is discussed at length in his Posterior Analytics. A difficulty with this scheme lay in showing that derived truths have solid primary premises. Aristotle would not allow that demonstrations could be circular; supporting the conclusion by the premises, and the premises by the conclusion. Nor would he allow an infinite number of middle terms between the primary premises and the conclusion. This leads to the question of how the primary premises are found or developed, and as mentioned above, Aristotle allowed that induction would be required for this task.

Towards the end of the Posterior Analytics, Aristotle discusses knowledge imparted by induction.

Thus it is clear that we must get to know the primary premises by induction; for the method by which even sense-perception implants the universal is inductive. it follows that there will be no scientific knowledge of the primary premises, and since except intuition nothing can be truer than scientific knowledge, it will be intuition that apprehends the primary premises. If, therefore, it is the only other kind of true thinking except scientific knowing, intuition will be the originative source of scientific knowledge.

The account leaves room for doubt regarding the nature and extent of his empiricism. In particular, it seems that Aristotle considers sense-perception only as a vehicle for knowledge through intuition. Induction is not afforded the status of scientific reasoning, and so it is left to intuition to provide a solid foundation for Aristotle’s science. With that said, Aristotle brings us somewhat closer an empirical science than his predecessors.

Read more about this topic:  History Of Scientific Method, Early Methodology

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