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Greek Philosophy and the Rise of Western Science

The first thinkers ever to ask, in anything like their modern form, such radical and demythologised questions as ‘what is the world made of?’ and ‘how does it change?’ were the Pre-Socratic philosophers of Ancient Greece (operating between roughly 600 and 400BCE). Their intellectual ingenuity and daring remains one of the great landmarks in human achievement. It gave rise to an atomic theory, Pythagoras’ Theorem, and geometric techniques good enough to obtain a reasonable estimate of the circumference of a (spherical) Earth.

Nevertheless the Greeks did not go on to invent experimental science. This is partly because their philosophy became dominated by two patterns of thinking both extremely ingenious, but neither propitious for science:

  1. Plato’s idealism, the conviction that the perfect abstraction is more real and worthier of study than a physical entity which may crudely imitate the abstraction, and

  2. Aristotle’s theory of causation, which included not only material causes (what things are made of) and efficient causes (what past events affected them) but also formal causes (to what pattern the matter in them conforms) and final causes (towards what purpose or end are things being attracted).

To say that Plato and Aristotle of themselves do not lead to experimental science is not however to deny their enormous contribution in framing and training the patterns of thought of the Western world from their own time until now. For instance, Aristotle’s texts on logic, metaphysicsThe very term ‘metaphysics’ was originally the title given to the books of Aristotle which followed his Physics. It refers to questions about reality which ‘lie beyond or behind those capable...and the structure of the world were a major spur to intellectual development in the late Middle Ages. Importantly, these great Aristotelian texts entered Western Europe through the work of Islamic commentators.To explore the relation between science and Islam - also to note some tensions which may have prevented the Golden Age of Islamic inquiry into the world from going on to give rise to a modern scientific...

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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