7. A Matter of Method: British Aristotelianism and the New Science. Essay Review
HISTORY OF IDEAS
- Section 4: Reviews - A Matter of Method: British Aristotelianism and the New Science. Essay Review
by F.G. Sacco
c b n a
Volume 4 Issue 8
Section 1: Editorials
1. Introduction to the special issue on “Gastronomy and Rev
olution” (M. Albertone – L. Frobert – E. Pasini)
Section 2: Articles. Special Issue: Gastronomy and
2. Nourrir les enfants, nourrir le peuple. L’alimentation entre
identité nationale, lutte politique et action révolutionnaire.
Commentaire au séminaire sur “Gastronomie et Révolution”
3. Wheat versus Maize. Civilizing Dietary Strategies and
Early Mexican Republicanism (S. Bak-Geller Corona)
4. Food and the Futurist ‘Revolution’. A Note (R. Ibba –
5. Food and Cooking in Revolutionary and Soviet Russia
Section 3: Notes
6. A Response to Doina-Cristina Rusu (M. Thick)
Section 4: Reviews
7. A Matter of Method: British Aristotelianism and the New
Science. Essay Review (F.G. Sacco)
8. Book Reviews (S. Gino, R. Gronda)
Section 5: News & Notices
9. Activities of the GISI | Les activités du GISI (2015)
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A Matter of Method: British Aristotelianism and
the New Science. Essay Review
Essay Review of Steffen Ducheyne, The Main Business of Natural Philosophy:
Isaac Newton’s Natural-Philosophical Methodo,lDogorydrecht: Springer, 2012,
p. XXV+354 (ISBN 9789400721258, € 259); Marco Sgarbi, The Aristotelian
Tradition and the Rise of British Empiricism: Logic and Epistemology in British Isles
(1570-1689), Dordrecht: Springer, 2013, XII + 260 pp. (ISBN 9789400749504, € 209).
1 than the publisher. Both deal with British empiricism and its Aristotelian
The books of Steffen Ducheyne and Marco Sgarbi share something more
background. The existence of such a background as claimed by Sgarbi,
challenges the traditional prevalence of Platonism and anti-Aristotelianisᵗmʰ- in 17
century Britain. Ducheyne, on the other hand, claims the Aristotelian roots
of Newtonian methodology. According to Ducheyne, Newtonian method was
very different from hypothetico-deductive methodology. Newton’s use of
hypothesis was part of a more general methodology divided in two phases: the
construction of a model and its application including the formation and the
testing of theories (p. 56-57). In this context, the nature of hypotheses changes
with respect to the mechanical philosophy.
Newton was involved in the quest for a demonstrative and rigorous method
till the 1680s, a decade that represents a turning point in his physical and
methodological work. After the correspondence on planetary motion with Robert Hooke
Journal of Interdisciplinary History of Ideas 4(2015), 8, p. 7:1–7:12. Non peer-reviewed.
in 1679-1680, Newton radically changed his ideas on celestial mechanics. At the
same time, his methodology reached the stage later maintained inPtrhinecipia.
“Although in his early optical work Newton had clearly formulated an ideal of
establishing demonstrative causes, a clear formulation of the method by which
to arrive at “deductions from phenomena” was still lacking. It was only by the
time of the Principia that Newton could answer this issue in a sufficiently
detailed way” (p. 184). Newton’s masterpiece of 1687 is at the centre of Ducheyne’s
work. In thePrincipia the new method operated in a way that Newton was not
able to reproduce in thOepticks. Book I and II of thePrincipia offer the
empirical foundation to the discussion of Keplerian laws. Newtonian’s model for the
explication of celestial motions according to Kepler’s laws is based on the new
laws of mechanics developed with empirical evidence in the first two books.
The first phase of the method, viz. the construction of the model, is completed
with the elaboration of a model for Keplerian laws. In book III the second phase
begins with the application of this model to the movements of celestial bodies
and the formation of the theory of universal gravitation. The remaining of the
Principia essentially consists in the last phase of the method, i.e. the application
of the theory. Unlike Cartesian vortexes’ hypothesis, Newtonian model is firmly
based on the laws of motions. Newton refusead hoc factors to explain
discrepancies between the phenomena and the mathematical results derived from ideal
conditions. Thanks to the good approximation between the laws of motions and
the celestial trajectories described by planets, which entailed the absence of any
relevant resistance compatible with the presence of a dense ether, Newton could
conclude for the inexistence of Cartesian vortexes.
According to Ducheyne, thePrincipia’s methodology is consistent with a
non-mathematical concept of gravity, since it is related to a non-mechanical
idea of causes. Unlike Cartesian hypotheses, causes in Newtonian model are
not only explanatory but also true because they supply the necessary
explanations of the observed phenomena. For Ducheyne, Newton’s assumption of a
causal approach is the proof of the non-mathematical origins of his
methodology. “From a conceptual point of view the mathematical account of analysis and
synthesis is incompatible with Newton’s conception of analysis as discovering
causes and of synthesis as assuming these causes to explain other
phenomena. In the mathematical tradition analysis consists of reasoning from what
is sought to what is known. In Newton’s natural-philosophical view,
analysis consisted in reasoning from what is known, the effect, to what is sought,
the cause” (pp. 7-8). According to Ducheyne, the theory orefgressus
demonstrativus developed by British Aristotelians shares common features with the
Newtonian method of deduction from phenomena and represents the best
candidate to explain the origins of Newtonian methodology. Both are composed of
two consecutive phases: analysis orersolutio, proceeding from the effects to the
causes, and synthesis orcompositio, proceeding from the causes to the effects
(p. 4). Furthermore, Ducheyne’s thesis is supported by the evidence of
Newton’s direct study of a relevant Aristotelian textbook, such as Samuel Smith’s
Aditus ad logicam (p. 16). Thus, Aristotelian influence, along with Isaac
Barrow’s mathematical work, supported the Newtonian quest for a demonstrative
method in natural philosophy and his refusal of the Baconian legacy embraced
by the Royal Society’svirtuosi.
What Ducheyne describes as the “Newtonian Style”, following I. Bernard
, does not work in Newtonian optics. Since the beginning of the
Newtonian researches on light and colours, discrepancies between methodological
demands and epistemological results emerged. UnlPikriencipia’s laws,
Newton’s definition of white light as the heterogeneous mixture of coloured rays
could not be deduced from experiments. According to Newtonian
methodology, from the brilliant experiment of double diffraction realized in the second
half of 1660s one can only deduce that, after the decomposition of white light
by the first prism, the singular coloured rays refracted by the second prism
maintain their colours. “Since heterogeneity of light cannot be derived from
phenomena, it qualifies as being a hypothesis according to Newton’s criteria.
Ultimately, Newton had only provided a sufficient cause for prismatic
dispersion, not a necessary and sufficient one” (p. 196). But for Ducheyne this is not
incompatible with Newtonian style, because Newton’s inference from the
observable immutability of refracted coloured rays to their state before diffraction
is consistent with his thirrdegula philosophandi, the so-called analogy of nature,
and with Newton’s use of the so-called transduction or transdictive inference
in the analysis of brief-scale attractive forces inPtrhinecipia. As Mandelbaum
(1664, p. 87) and
, p. 4) pointed out, since it enables to overcome
the limits of experience and sense perception inferring the unknown status of
unobservable entities, the Newtonian third rule is not an induction rule. This
is the case for Newtonian conclusions on the state of light rays before the first
7 : 3
diffraction in thexperimentum crucis of 1672. Attributing to coloured rays the
property of immutability before the diffraction, Newton operated an inferential
process similar to that described in the third rule ofPtrhinecipia.
Thus Ducheyne can conclude that the epistemological problems of Newton’s
optical works are due to the state of the discipline and not to the high
demands of his juvenile methodology. Despite Newtonian methodology evolved
till the mature formulation of thPreincipia, the epistemological problems at the
heart of his construction remainedTinhe Opticks, resisting to thePrincipia-style
methodizing. According to Ducheyne, this is because optics did not reach the
status of physico-mathematics acquired by mechanics and remained a mixed
science (p. 220-1).
Ducheyne’s analysis of Newtonian optics rigorously reflects Newton’s point
of view. In his reconstruction, little space is conceded to the disputes following
the appearance oTf he New Theory of Light and Coloursin 1672. The reasons of
Robert Hooke and Christian Huygens are not adequately discussed, despite the
emergence of the most evident limits of Newton’s early optical work is due to
Hooke’s criticism. As Niccolò
, p. 21) observed, the
methodological programme of thNeew Theory was “a rather extremist methodological
position”. But, unfortunately, the way this initial position evolved tilPlritnh-e
cipia’s methodology is not adequately highlighted by the book.
2 or rather one, thPerincipia. It offers a rigorous and insightful analysis
Sgarbi’s The Main Business of Natural Philosophy is a study of two books,
of the structure of Newton’s masterpiece, but does not notice the existence of
a long and complex work of elaboration and revision of Newtonian work, so
relevant for the understanding of his theories. This is probably due to the
author’s questionable decision to restrict the analysis to the “method of
justification”, excluding the “method of discovery” (p. 63). Nevertheless, Ducheyne
seems to believe that logical and methodological (British) Aristotelianism
influenced Newtonian science.
Despite some initial caveats, Sgarbi maintains a similar belief about British
experimental philosophy of the ᵗ1ʰ7century. The relationship between Paduan
Aristotelianism and the new science is a topic widely discussed by historians of
science. In the introduction toThe Aristotelian Tradition and the Rise of British
Empiricism, Sgarbi inclines for a moderate version of John Randall’s continuist
, because “Randall’s argument was narrower and less
ambitious” than his critics realized: “He aimed simply to demonstrate certain
conceptual analogies between the thought of some Paduan Aristotelians and that
of the early scientists, in their use of particular terms such as ‘analysis’,
‘synthesis’, ‘induction’ etc.” (p. 4). Building on Randall’s moderate programme, Sgarbi
states that his book “aims to investigate how the map of Paduan Aristotelianism
was replaced and absorbed into the movement known as ‘British Empiricism’,
and not into modern science” (p. 6). But by the end of the book readers
apprehend that “the emergence of experimental philosophy marked not the defeat of
British logical Aristotelianism, but a strong empiricist turn in the elaboration
of a new epistemology. The heirs to this tradition were Locke’s precursors, who
made sensation and induction the real instruments of logic: British Aristotelians
no longer indulged in hypothetical and metaphysical speculations that were
often untestable or inexplicable, rather emphasized that experience, acquired by
observation and experiment, was the ground of science” (p. 233). This
harmonizing view of the late Scholasticism and the new science is grounded on the
empiric character of British Aristotelianism and supported by the decisive
mediation of the Paduan Aristotelian Harvey and the “latent” Aristotelians Bacon
and Hobbes (p. 197).
The insufficiency of the traditional view of British empiricism is challenged
by showing the large diffusion of Aristotelian philosophyᵗʰi-nce1n7tury Britain.
The book carefully follows the rise and fall of Ramist logic in British universities
and the affirmation of Paduan Aristotelianism from the end of t hᵗʰece1n6tury.
Sgarbi’s analysis is not limited to Oxford and Cambridge, but takes into
account all the universities operating in early modern British Isles. A chapter on
Zabarella doctrine of induction, analysis and synthesis, precedes the accurate
reconstruction of the defeat of the prevailing Ramism in British universities by
means of the dissemination of Paduan textbooks, such as Giulio Pace’s bilingual
7 : 5
(Greek and Latin) edition of AristotlOe’rsganon of 1584, hisInstitutiones logicae
(1597) and hisLogica rudimenta (1612). Thanks to their propaedeutic simplicity,
Pace’s works were able to answer the demand of new textbooks requested by
the reforms of the university statutes, such as the Laudian statutes of 1636.
Furthermore, as Sgarbi accurately points out, Paduan Aristotelism reached British
Isles also by means of the works of German scholars, such as Bartholomäus
Kekermann. Continental textbooks offered to British scholars a new approach
to the traditional peripatetic questions, and favoured the formation of a local
tradition of Aristotelian thought with new features. Only in an initial phase
British Aristotelianism took the shape of a simple repetition of the thesis of
Zabarella. In contrast, Smith, Edward Brerewood, John Sanderson and Richard
Crakanthorpe emphasized the role of the empirical part of the method
developing Zabarella’s theory of induction.
In the hands of the Paduan professor of natural philosophy, the Aristotelian
epagôgê was not a real syllogistic demonstration, but only a clarification of
things already known by sensation. Unlike demonstrative syllogism, for
Zabarella induction did not demonstrate unknown things by means of prior
knowledge, rather it was a “process by which particulars are comprehended under
the general universal concept, but properly it does not create new knowledge
beyond what the mind has already acquired by sensation” (p. 69). Following
Zabarella, a generation of British Aristotelians emphasized the sensible origin
of knowledge and the primacy of analysis on synthesis. Since analysis did not
have the demonstrative nature of synthesis, it proceeded from the effects to the
causes, and produced the fundaments of any possible knowledge. Then
analysis would be possible without synthesis, not vice versa because analysis is
the base of synthesis. This empirical foundation of knowledge is stressed by
Robert Sanderson, the author oLofgicae artis compendium (1615), a treatise
read and annotated by Newton along with SmitAhd’situs ad logicam (1613).
For Sanderson induction is the last step of a complex process of
knowledgeacquisition starting from senses perception. It consists in a sufficient
enumerations of particular experiences and establishes a universal conclusion. Both
Sanderson and Crackanthorpe were aware of the dangers of this kind of
induction, because even a single case could invalidate it. Their development of
Paduan tradition, stressing the importance of sensation, observation and
induction, was largely dominant in British universities. The large diffusion of the new
textbooks suggests the influence of this empirically-oriented Aristotelianism
on British modern empiricism. But this goes beyond the chronological limits
of the book. Sgarbi does not renounce, however, to take into account the
relationship between the prevailing Aristotelianism and the thoughts of the some
English reformers of scientific knowledge, Francis Bacon, William Harvey and
Thomas Hobbes. Thus, the accurate reconstruction of a neglected ancestor of
modern British empiricism turns into a reappraisal of the old continuist theses.
For Sgarbi, Bacon’s interest for induction and his reforms is nothing else but the
effects of the influence of the British scholars for the logical tools. “If Bacon
focused on an inductive methodology for science, it was precisely because of the
great attention which contemporary Aristotelians paid to the problem of
induction and experience” (p. 168). In Sgarbi’s eyes, Bacon’s criticism of traditional
induction does not entail a rejection of Aristotelian logic. On the contrary,
Bacon accepted it but insisted for a strong reform (p. 170). His criticism of
Aristotelian logic was not against Brerewood’s, Sanderson’s and Crackanthorpe’s
work, but only against Zabarella, whose concept of induction “was not really
a process of discovery, but rather of notification of something already known
by sensation” (p. 172-3). The influence of Aristotelianism on Harvey’s
methodology is less problematic. Harvey’s debt with Paduan tradition is well known,
but it is significant that the preface tDoe generatione animalium (1651) restored
the original Paduan Aristotelianism against its British developments.
According to Sgarbi even the anti-scholastic Hobbes could not avoid the influence of
the new British logical textbooks on a significant part of his logical theory.
Although Sgarbi recognizes the experimental character of the new science and the
unfamiliarity of Aristotelian philosophers with mechanical arts and their
intervention in nature, he affirms that “the dissemination of the works of Bacon,
Harvey and Hobbes did not make the end of the Aristotelian tradition; rather,
with their latent Aristotelianism they promoted the integration of Aristotelian
philosophy and the new science” (p. 197).
As in other similar reconstructions, such as
Anstey and Vanzo (2012
509514), in Sgarbi’s view Bacon’s work is not a watershed separating the new
philosophy from the old scholastic, rather it is the necessary link between them.
Thus, in contrast with Ducheyne’s view, Sgarbi arguments for a wide
influence of British Aristotelian methodology on the whole experimental
philosophy, from Baconians virtuosi to the young Newton. The contrast between
Ba7 : 7
con’s Aristotelian background claimed by Sgarbi and Bacon’s idea of science
drawn by scholars such as Mary
; 2007) is evident. But whatever interpretation one chooses, it
is difficult to ignore the substantial inefficacy of Bacon’s method along with
the general insufficiency of historical positivist reconstruction which identifies
modern science with the inductive method. If we look beyond their deceptive
methodological statements, not any of the experimental philosophers gathered
in the Royal Society really adopted Bacon’s cumbersome methodology, neither
did they faithfully follow his induction or his tables. On the contrary, Bacon’s
work passed through a process of selective reading, influenced by different
cultural aims and social backgrounds. As Michael
observed, the result
of this process was the existence of “different styles of Baconianism”. In short,
every experimental philosopher selected his own Bacon.
3 do not describe the real practice of natural philosophers; instead they are
In early modern natural philosophy, methodological statements often
a decisive argument to sustain some hypotheses and principles. In this respect,
Newton’s experimentum crucis is significant. In the letter of 1672 to the Royal
Society, the new theory of light and colours appears as the result of a rigorous
induction or rather deduction from the phenomena observed in the experiment
of the double refraction. On the contrary, Newtonian unpublished optical
papers suggest a different genesis of his revolutionary ideas. Between 1661 and
1664, as the notes on colours iQunaestiones quedam philosophicae show,
Newton optical inquiries started with the discussion of Cartesian and Atomistic
hypothesis.¹ At this stage the young student made a first step towards a different
¹ TheQuestiones quaedam philosophicae , like most of Newton’s unpublished papers are now
available at http://www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk.
theory, considering the hypothesis of a double composition of white light in fast
and slow rays: dark colours originate from the slow rays; light colours from the
fast ones; white, grey and black from their mixture. Despite refraction was
conceived as a division of different rays, the difference itself consisted in degrees
of speed, and nothing in the notes suggests that Newton conceived it as an
inherent and inalterable propriety of the coloured rays in white light. Is it a
coincidence that the criticism of Cartesian physics coexists in the same notebook
with a critical view of Cartesian hypotheses of light and colours? The presence
in the same notebook of an atomistic commitment suggests that the genesis of
Newtonian optical theories was influenced by his atomistic assumptions.
Between 1666 and 1669, Newton developed his initial hypothesis by means
of a new series of experiments. The famouesxperimentum crucis was an
instrument to develop not only his hypothesis but also to demonstrate the limits of the
Cartesians ones. By means of a double set of prisms Newton could then refine
his hypothesis in what he presented as a theory in 1672. As he wrote to the Royal
Society, theexperimentum crucis was nothing else than a “specimen” of a long
series of experiments. Unlike Kepler, who presented inAhsitsronomia nova the
long series of hypotheses employed in the ‘war’ against Mars, Newtonian
narration did not refer to the hypotheses preceding the new theory. Adopting the
expressionexperimentum crucis, Newton described it as the result of a rigorous
inductive process, a demonstrative deduction from the phenomena leaving no
space to mechanic hypotheses and uncertain conjecture
(Bechler 1974, p. 116,
Blay 1985, p. 372, Dear 1985, p. 155, Giudice 2009, pp. 69-74)
. The whole
Newtonian theory is invested by demonstrative certainty and experimental
foundation, included the assumption of the heterogeneous nature of white light. But,
as Ducheyne noted, this became the greatest obstacle to the extension of the
Principia’s methodology to optics, because it cannot be observed at all, but only
assumed on the base of a transdictive inference. Only after Hooke’s criticism
on this point, Newton reduced his highly methodological demand in the field of
optics. It was no coincidence that he decided to publiTshhe Opticks only after
Hooke’s death in 1703.
This case does not entail the denial of any role for methodology in early
modern science. Methodological ideas influenced the way scientists conceived
problems and solutions in their research practice. But it is difficult to
maintain the old positivist idea of an inductive method, whose origins are rooted
7 : 9
in the theoretical appeal to experience by the British Aristotelians emphasized
by Ducheyne and Sgarbi. According to this view, the complete identification
of scientific practice with a codified methodology dissolves the complex nature
of modern science into abstract epistemology. However, methodological ideas
play different roles in scientific practice, which includes among other things,
the a-posteriori justification of revolutionary conclusions by means of clear and
indisputable philosophical principles, despite those conclusion were carried out
in different ways. The revaluation of the role of methodology in post-positivist
studies of science helped to understand the complex character of modern
natural philosophy, whose experimental character is seemingly more dependent
on the world of Renaissance mechanics, alchemy and natural magic than the
Aristotelian and Scholastic theoretical empiricism. Newtonieaxnp’esrimentum
crucis seems to confirm that it is from the active intervention on nature, by one
side, and the recourse to mathematics by the other, that so complex a thing
called new science originated.
7 : 10
7 : 11
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