Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought

Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought

Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought

Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought

Synopsis

R. J. Hankinson traces the history of ancient Greek thinking about causation and explanation, from its earliest beginnings through more than a thousand years to the middle of the first millennium of the Christian era. The ancient Greeks were the first Western civilization to subject the ideas of cause and explanation to rigorous and detailed analysis, and to attempt to construct theories about them on the basis of logic and experience. Hankinson examines the ways in which they dealt with questions about how and why things happen as and when they do, about the basic constitution and structure of things, about function and purpose, laws of nature, chance, coincidence, and responsibility. Such diverse questions are unified by the fact that they are all demands for an account of the world that will render it amenable to prediction and control; they are therefore at the root of both philosophical and scientific enquiry. Hankinson offers a rich harvest of information and a fresh panoramic view of the origins and development of these kinds of enquiry.

Excerpt

Why do things happen? What makes an event occur at a particular time? What are the ultimate constituents of things? How does the structure of some organism account for or determine its function? Are the constituents of the universe there for some purpose? What is meant by chance and coincidence? Are there such things as natural laws? How are people responsible for what they do?

Although these questions vary in sophistication and scope, they are united by the fact that they are demands for explanation. They are questions that call for an elucidation of the structure of the world, for an account that will render its apparently arcane and random processes amenable to prediction and control. They are the fundamental questions in the sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as in metaphysics and ethics.

There is, however, another feature which they have in common: they were all posed, in a variety of different forms, and often with widely varying motives, by the Greeks (see also Hankinson 1988c). Perhaps the Greeks did not invent casual explanation; but they were certainly the first Western civilization to subject the ideas of cause and explanation to rigorous and detailed analysis, and to attempt to construct, on the basis of both logic and experience, grand theories about the relations that hold among the inhabitants of the physical universe. That is to say, they engaged in both science and the philosophy of science (on the interplay between reason and experience, see Geoffrey Lloyd magisterial book Magic, Reason and Experience; G. E. R. Lloyd 1979).

This book is an attempt to trace the Greek history of these ideas from their earliest beginnings, through Plato and Aristotle to the Hellenistic philosophers, arriving finally at the Neoplatonists, more or less (the treatment of the Atomists being the principal exception) in chronological order. This is a large and somewhat unwieldy project, which has (in exemplification of a causal principle dear to the Greek soul) resulted in a large and somewhat unwieldy book. My principal concern has been to pursue the development of the concepts themselves: what sort of thing did the Greeks think causes were, and how did they conceive of adequacy in explanation?

Those questions suggest that the Greek theorists themselves were . . .

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