In his works of 1220–1235, in particular the Aristotelian commentaries, Grosseteste laid out the framework for the proper methods of science. Although Grosseteste did not always follow his own advice during his investigations, his work is seen as instrumental in the history of the development of the Western scientific tradition.
Grosseteste was the first of the Scholastics to fully understand Aristotle's vision of the dual path of scientific reasoning: generalizing from particular observations into a universal law, and then back again from universal laws to prediction of particulars. Grosseteste called this "resolution and composition". So for example looking at the particulars of the moon, it is possible to arrive at universal laws about nature. And conversely once these universal laws are understood, it is possible to make predictions and observations about other objects besides the moon. Further, Grosseteste said that both paths should be verified through experimentation in order to verify the principles. These ideas established a tradition that carried forward to Padua and Galileo Galilei in the 17th century.
As important as "resolution and composition" would become to the future of Western scientific tradition, more important to his own time was his idea of the subordination of the sciences. For example when looking at geometry and optics, optics is subordinate to geometry because optics depends on geometry (and so optics was a prime example of a subalternate science). Thus Grosseteste concluded, following very much in what Boethius had argued, that mathematics was the highest of all sciences, and the basis for all others, since every natural science ultimately depended on mathematics. He supported this conclusion by looking at light, which he believed to be the "first form" of all things, it was the source of all generation and motion (approximately what we know as biology and physics today). Hence since light could be reduced to lines and points, and thus fully explained in the realm of mathematics, mathematics was the highest order of the sciences.
Grosseteste's work in optics was also relevant and would be continued by Roger Bacon, who often mentioned his indebtedness to him although there is no proof that the two ever met. In De Iride Grosseteste writes:
This part of optics, when well understood, shows us how we may make things a very long distance off appear as if placed very close, and large near things appear very small, and how we may make small things placed at a distance appear any size we want, so that it may be possible for us to read the smallest letters at incredible distances, or to count sand, or seed, or any sort of minute objects.
Editions of the original Latin text may be found in: Die Philosophischen Werke des Robert Grosseteste, Bischofs von Lincoln (Münster i. W., Aschendorff, 1912.), p. 75.; A reproduction of this text may be found on the website: The Electronic Grossteste here .
Grossesteste is now believed to have had a very modern understanding of colour, and supposed errors in his account have been found to be based on corrupt late copies of his essay on the nature of colour, written in about 1225. The 'Ordered Universe' collaboration of scientists and historians at Durham University studying medieval science regard him as a key figure in showing that pre-Renaissance science was far more advanced than previously thought.
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