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Aristotle’s Scientific Method

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Chapter Summary

It is often said that Aristotle’s works rarely follow the deductive method he expounds in the Posterior Analytics but that, instead, they often use a dialectical method that cannot produce the necessary, eternal truths required to deduce certain conclusions. This latter method involves setting out contrary common opinions and exploring ways of reconciling them so as to “save the phenomena”. This paper challenges this interpretation. First, I argue that the Posterior Analytics describes not deductions, but demonstrations—contemporary readers have not appreciated the difference, possibly because of a lack of mathematical sophistication—and that it sketches a method of inquiry (zetēsis) that seeks not to deduce a conclusion but to discover the cause, that is, to discover the middle term of a demonstrative syllogism. Aristotle insists that to know is to grasp the cause: this middle term is the cause he is talking about. The paper goes on to explain how Posterior Analytics II briefly describes a way to use common opinions to locate an intermediate middle term and to use this latter to find the cause. The rest of the paper tests this account of Aristotelian inquiry by examining the first two books and part of the third book of the Physics. It argues that in Physics I Aristotle, in effect, posits the motion of substances as the conclusion of a demonstrative syllogism and systematically examines common opinions about the number of principles of motion in order to argue for an intermediate middle term. This term expresses, collectively, the necessary conditions of any motion. Then, the paper argues that in Physics II, Aristotle uses this intermediate middle term to argue for a properly causal middle term, form. Initially, form is a refinement of the intermediate middle, but he spends the entirety of book II—which can now be seen to be nicely coherent—showing why a determinate motion must necessarily result from a particular form. In this way, the Physics uses common opinions to arrive at a cause that serves both as the middle term of a scientific syllogism and as a constituent of necessary, eternal truths that are the premises of this syllogism. Finally, the paper argues that Aristotle expands this account of the cause of motion to apply to all motions and, thereby, advances a definition of motion in Physics III. In short, this paper shows that the first books of the Physics constitute an inquiry into the cause of motion that follows closely the scientific method that Aristotle sketches in Posterior Analytics II. These books are not exploratory probes but a carefully constructed path toward a cause. My claim is that the best way to read the Physics is to inquire into the cause of motion along with Aristotle. We can follow his moves by reflecting on the cause his method seeks and thinking through what is at issue in attaining this cause, though we must recognize that he rarely supplies us with the signposts that mark the progress of the inquiry. To read Aristotle in this way is to reflect philosophically on the subject of his inquiry. The same method can be used to read all the works in the corpus. In sum, what have come down to us as Aristotle’s works are inquiries that are best read and understood as instances of the (properly interpreted) scientific method he sketches in the Posterior Analytics.



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