Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The One and the Many: The Ontology of Science in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The One and the Many: The Ontology of Science in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas

Article excerpt

TWO PROFESSIONAL PSYCHOLOGISTS of the University of Alberta, Thomas L. Spalding and Christina L. Gagne, have recently published an article on the nature of concepts in the works of Aristotle and Aquinas. (1) Their article's task, they emphasize, is to overcome the limitations of philosophy and to employ so-called empirical science in the examination of concepts. In the opening paragraphs of the article, the authors state that they will, in addition to relying on contemporary scientific research, take into account arguments that Aristotle and Aquinas themselves supply in determining the existence and nature of concepts. Spalding and Gagne expect that their colleagues in the social sciences will be doubtful about the value of such arguments since the writings of Aristotle and Aquinas are "prescientific." How could thinkers who lived before the age of science cope with questions that require scientific answers? Spalding and Gagne are sensitive to these doubts but believe nonetheless that Aristotle and Aquinas have something significant to say about concepts, provided their thought is rehabilitated by modern science. (2)

My aim here is not to comment on whether Spalding and Gagne's account of the concept is successful. Instead, I mention their article only to object to their judgment that Aristotle and Aquinas are prescientific thinkers. I find support for this objection in the writings of certain scholars, especially in the publications of Armand Maurer, Charles Bonaventure Crowley, Jude Dougherty, and Peter Redpath. (3) These scholars understand that Aristotle and St. Thomas had a substantive and comprehensive grasp of the nature of science. Indeed, they understood the nature of science in the deepest and most genuine sense: demonstration through causes so as to establish necessary and universal knowledge of substances. Science is not mere knowledge. Science is demonstration of what things are and how they exist in light of their causes. Accordingly, the work of Aristotle and Aquinas is the fruit of a genuine and robust science.

Not surprisingly, a recommendation to recover this classical conception of science as involving knowledge of substance and causes (what Aristotle called episteme) sounds strange to modern ears. Early modern philosophers--like Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke-reacted against Aristotle. As skeptics, these philosophers encouraged a narrower conception of science. By the time modern thought embraced the skepticism of Hume and Kant, science had become largely redefined as mere enumeration and description, allowing prediction and technological control. Hume and Kant ruled out knowing real causes and substances. Since so much modern discourse about science presupposes a Humean and Kantian epistemology, modern thinkers are at best bemused by a recommendation to reintroduce classical episteme as genuine science.

However, this bemusement would seem to describe current philosophers of science more than practicing scientists themselves. Progress in science is a witness to the reality of causal inference. Enrico Fermi judged that the neutrino exists before particle accelerators confirmed it. (4) Early radiologists like Madame Curie and Ernest Rutherford inferred that alpha, beta, and gamma rays accounted for the behavior of radioactive minerals. (5) In biology, scientists recognized the existence of bacteria long before microscopes could corroborate it. It is easy to multiply such examples (including instances in the social sciences). To discount the human reasoning about real (mind-independent) causes would be to discount the significant methods and results of modern science. This constitutes an embarrassing state of affairs for many contemporary philosophers of science, who acknowledge the advance of scientific discovery while continuing to champion the skeptic's paradigm that causes are unknowable.

Philosophy would be better served to recover a more comprehensive use of the term "science. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.