The Revenge of the Stagirite?

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Why a new book using Aristotle to philosophize about modern science is not akin to using alchemical texts to philosophize about pharmacology

In a recent blog post, Ed Feser notes Tim Crane’s review in First Things of a recent book, Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science. The book is edited by William M. R. Simpson, Robert C. Koons, and Nicholas J. Teh. The book—not an introductory volume by any means—takes up various special topics in the philosophy of science from the vantage point of those indebted to, inclined to, or inspired by the Aristotelian tradition. As Feser notes, Crane’s review is much less a review than an introduction to this area of thinking for the general reader, so as to answer the question “why Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science is not analogous to neo-astrological perspectives on contemporary astronomy.” Feser himself contributes an excellent essay on Aristotelian approaches to understanding special relativity, and in the his blog post advertises his upcoming book on the philosophy of nature, Aristotle’s Revenge (which we all highly anticipate reading). Indeed, the exigencies encountered when thinking deeply about modern science are the very opportunities which the Stagirite takes for his revenge.

A striking passage in Crane’s essay which highlights this field of opportunity open to the Aristotelian philosopher is the following:

Although science is not itself metaphysics, metaphysics of science is ­unavoidable. Once we start theorizing at a certain level of generality, we cannot escape metaphysical commitments. For example, if we ask what kind of entities physical theories are committed to, we may have to answer in terms of traditional categories such as substance, property, object, ­process—or specify some new categories. This does not mean that physicists must be metaphysicians, only that if they enter into metaphysical speculation, they should acknowledge that others have been there before them, and that the questions are not easy. (link)

Here I note a certain point of contention in the Aristotelian philosophy of nature, and in particular the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy of nature. Generality alone does not a science make. That is, it is not true that merely attaining a certain level of generality in our thinking guarantees that we are doing metaphysics. We could merely be doing physics with very generic concepts, or we could be practicing logical or conceptual analysis with very vague terms. What makes for a different science is a different intellectual mode of defining our terms.

What is helpful in Crane’s question, however, is that it raises the issue of what Plato called dialectic, which especially concerns the principles of things. If science is that proceeding from evidence via ratiocination that arrives at a conclusion known with certitude or high probability, then it cannot be the case that science locates its own beginning. The art of dialectic is that non-scientific ground-clearing effort to locate the beginnings of the scientific endeavor. This requires of the scientist (or of the practitioner generally) a sufficient degree of self-awareness such that they can recognize and locate the limits of their own affairs and their indebtedness to a grounding beyond their own design.

This is not (immediately) something metaphysical or having to do with natural theology, but rather arises (in our order of knowing) from the process of discovery. This process begins on common ground of experience commonly available to most (the cenoscopic mode of knowledge, as John Deely called it, closely repurposing a term from Jeremy Bentham) and the ramifies into the realms of experience proper and ever more private and specialized, available only to the expert (the idioscopic mode of knowledge). This implies that the philosophy of nature and not metaphysics precedes the sciences, if and only if one can philosophize about nature from what is common.

The recognition of this fact, in part, involves a historical exercise, as Crane notes. However, it is also a perennial philosophical exercise that arises naturally—or ought to arise naturally—in the human attempt to know the natural order. To the extent that it does not occur this is because the modality of instruction in modern science negates this natural extension or natural desire of the mind to know. The speculative fruit of the more natural and better course of action is in no small part recovered by this volume.

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