Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Is Aristotelian Science Possible? A Commentary on MacIntyre and McMullin

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Is Aristotelian Science Possible? A Commentary on MacIntyre and McMullin

Article excerpt

IN THEIR AQUINAS LECTURES, given at Marquette University in 1990 and 1992 respectively, Alasdair MacIntyre and Ernan McMullin offer a defense and a critique of Aristotle's theory of science in the Posterior Analytics. (1) McMullin's interpretation, informed by a lifetime of accomplishment in contemporary philosophy of science, is negative about the treatise as either an adequate description of natural science or a normative account of it. MacIntyre's engaging and penetrating essay deals generously with the picture of science in the treatise. I shall argue, however, that the two philosophers share an incorrect interpretation of the science of the Posterior Analytics as deductivist and perfectionist. Both miss the true focus of Aristotle's treatise on science, namely, distinguishing the necessary and accidental in things themselves. They share twentieth-century presuppositions about the proposition that obscure the import of the theory of demonstration, especially with respect to the role of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in an Aristotelian science.

MacIntyre sets as his aim to render plausible the classical belief in first principles, but an underlying and more important aim seems to be to lay out a strategy by which Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy may enter contemporary philosophical discussion in a way that contemporary philosophers cannot refuse. Accordingly, he highlights the teleological implications of philosophical language about knowledge, arguing that thinkers like Rorty have failed to banish from their own discourse a claim of truth that presupposes principles. MacIntyre explains Aristotle's conception of science in terms of science's own [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as knowledge, placing the requirement for first principles in a context of the growth of knowledge as guided by its final end. The end of knowledge includes unmiddled first principles that ground demonstrated conclusions about what cannot be otherwise. Nevertheless, while science grows, candidates for first principles remain subject to change. One task of Thomistic philosophy of science is to provide genealogies of scientific change written from a perspective of the growth of knowledge toward its [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (2)

MacIntyre is implicitly responding to a charge that McMullin makes very explicit, namely that Aristotle's picture of science has no place for the fallibilism, which, as we have learned in modernity, is a constant feature of the practice of science. (3) This charge originates in interpretations of AP 1.2-3. In these chapters, Aristotle presents what seem to be logical requirements for the structure of science. He presents an axiomatic system in which there are principles taken by the knower as prior and primary, embodying what is first in nature. (4) He says:

   If, then, scientific knowing is as we hold it to be, demonstrative
   knowledge must be from [premises that are] true, first, unmiddled,
   more known, prior to, and causes of the conclusion [TEXT NOT
   REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. (5)

These first principles must be capable of generating by deduction all truths dependent on causes. From the modern standpoint, of course, the logical structure of an axiomatic system precludes any proof of first principles, and hence any unchangeable [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (6) conviction in the knower concerning them. Following upon this logical feature of deduction, there is persistent indeterminacy accompanying any first principles in science, because empirical results are never enough to decide between competing theories.

Following Kosman and Burnyeat, (7) most interpreters of the Posterior Analytics parry the fallibilist objection by saying that Aristotle's treatment of the structure of science is never purely logical anyway but is always embedded in an account of what constitutes a good explanation. Science [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], is a normative term, and theory of science brings out implicit criteria for knowing by means of causes. …

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