37 - Hugh Benson on Aristotelian Method

Posted on 11 June 2011

Hugh Benson of the University of Oklahoma chats to Peter about Aristotle's views on philosophical method, and whether he practices what he preaches.




Adam 22 June 2011

Hi Peter:

Firstly, thank you for investing in such a comprehensive endeavor. It must be mutually rewarding and cumbersome to take on “the history of philosophy without any gaps”; and, I for one have monumentally enjoyed the podcasts. However, despite the fact that I have found many of them stirring enough to comment and haven’t as of yet, recently I took time to listen to the episode on Aristotelian Method.  I know I am jumping the gun with upcoming western philosophers by putting forth the query to follow, but I cannot resist. At the start of the podcast, you and Hugh make reference to Plato and Aristotle possibly having an apprehension to “beginnings” with inquiry. This for me has long been a puzzle, as I have a strong background with scientific method; which may be a topic better suited for the collapse of the Aristotelian World View and thinkers such as Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton and others; however, lately, method has struck me as a strange sort of thing (and maybe I have “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig as a partial culprit to my notions, or maybe just Descartes, or a number of other factors). I cannot help but realize that any method is only as good as its premises, or hypothesis, or belief, or axis, or whatever term one chooses– more or less, the beginnings. And here, it seems to me, crossing into an inquiry of episteme is unavoidable. If the matter is this, let’s say: I know with certainty my premises; then, “demonstrating” or providing a proof of my belief is fairly simple using a method – whatever that particular method might be. However, if my premises are not so concrete, the use of any method is moot. It seems then that I have to know in order to know – and this is not inquiry at all – at least in my mind, and I may be wrong. For me, and please let me know if I am off, the point of inquiry is to start without knowledge of something, and in the end gain knowledge of that thing. I understand that a premise must be separate from a conclusion, and that, a conclusion must follow logically from its premises; however, my unrest lies more so with the gulf between foundationalism and the skeptic. So, to make matters more concise, do you believe that Aristotle may have had an epistemological problem with beginnings; in that, he must first know somethings with certainly in order to deduce other things using a method? And further, do you believe this plays some sort of role in Aristotle’s systematic categorization and definition of the world; namely, in an attempt to esoterically (or maybe rather bluntly) show that certain foundations must be established prior to the use of any method?  I would certainly appreciate your insight; thank you.



Peter Adamson 26 June 2011

In reply to by Adam

Dear Adam,

That's a pretty complicated question. But I would say the answer is basically "yes": when he talks about getting hold of first principles at the end of the Posterior Analytics, he can't just mean things like laws of logic. Because he talks about getting principles via sense-perception. So he must mean we are grasping certain "things" as you put it, like maybe certain first principles regarding horses if we are studying horses. An example might be something as banal as "horses are animals". This is useful because if you also know, for instance, that animals engage in nutrition, you can infer that horses engage in nutrition (or better: understand why they do, namely, because they are animals and all animals do this). It is banal, but a first principle, because you don't demonstrate that horses are animals on the basis of anything more fundamental. Possibly Aristotle does have something more robust in mind, for instance he might think that the principle is the whole definition of "horse" (which would include being an animal, but also some other things).

And you're of course right -- Aristotle makes this point too -- that if you take something false/shaky as a principle, that will infect the whole chain of inferences you draw from it.

Does that help?


Adam 28 June 2011

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thank you for the insight, Peter, it is quite helpful; and I apologize for the complexity of the first question. I think it is interesting that you use the word banal to describe some of Aristotle’s first principles. I have recently read Categories and On Interpretation, and, at times, it seems more like reinventing the wheel than the opposite – but maybe it is because it is easy to take some of his inferences for granted. Something I find remarkable though is about certain features being essential to objects or, if we are sticking with your example, horses; for instance: it would be essential that a horse be a quadruped, but it would not be essential that it be, let’s say, brown because that is accidental. So, in regard to method then, I guess it would make sense that Aristotle expects that one who is knowledgeable about the world would draw inferences from essential “qualities” (for lack of a better word) rather than accidental ones. Would this be a safe assumption? And if so, do you think Aristotle believes it common sense to be able to differentiate between what is essential and what is accidental – in that this can be derived easily from something like sense perception and understanding?  Or do you think that Aristotle believes it is a more difficult task to draw understanding from sensation – in that it is easy to have sensations but difficult to understand (have episteme)? Again, I appreciate any thoughts.



Peter Adamson 28 June 2011

In reply to by Adam

Hi Adam,

That all sounds right to me -- I think it could be a matter of considerable difficulty to decide between essential and accidental features, actually. This is a potentially big problem for him: on the basis of induction how could you know that a feature which seemed essential wasn't accidental? You might, for instance, discover some ducks that don't live in water, having thought that living in water was essential to ducks. I think Aristotle is convinced that our minds are adapted to take on the natures of things around us, which means getting hold of their essential properties through experience. So that gives him reason for optimism (this may make more sense after the later episode on his theory of mind). But he doesn't need to say it is _easy_ to tell essential properties apart from accidental ones, only that it is possible given enough inquiry.


Michael P 3 February 2012


A friend and I were debating about knowledge in mathematics and such, and the main points ended up aligning pretty closely with (what I now find) are the four methods that you and Benson discussed.
Mathematical Aporia are well-known open questions, and surprisingly initial results that lead to questions. Identifying patterns, making conjectures and useful definitions are types of Induction (in the sense of Aristotle, not mathematical induction). Proof of course is Demonstration, and for math it is both a part of inquiry as well as being our primary way to confirm knowledge although there are two problems: 1. the crisis of foundations, Godel, etc., and 2. distiguishing interesting/good math from true but irrelevant propositions, which aren't really math). Dialectic is the general process of mathematical inquiry and also describes the social aspect of determining when a published result is truly reliable.
In mathematics, demonstration is an essential part of mathematical inquiry and serves the related function of verifying knowledge (subject to caveats 1 and 2 above). As you mentioned in the podcast, the role of demonstration is less clear in Aristotle's philosophy.
If I understood correctly, one theory about Aristotle's view is that demonstration serves as a verifier (primarily?), much like proof in modern mathematics. This would be reasonable if they see mathematics as an example of what philosophy ought to be like (not unheard of elsewhere), or otherwise as being an inspiration for philosophy.
This leads me to wonder, what was seen as the role of proof within mathematics as it was practiced in Aristotle's time? And more generally, how did they think of mathematical inquiry? As a part of mathematics? Or not, but rather as a tool to gain knowledge of true mathematical statements, which themselves comprise mathematics? (Or something else.)
We know that they must have thought of mathematics somewhat differently. I'm under the impression that for them math=geometry, and that their response to the square root of 2 was to double down on pure, non-numeric geometry. Going out on a limb, perhaps this could be a motive for wanting to have a notion of Robust Knowledge, which would be delineated so as to not include irrationals. They had no crisis in foundations: Non-Euclidean geometry didn't occur to anyone until much later. And it seems like irrational numbers didn't affect their confidence in math's correctness. My guess would be that because of this, they would have been less wary of the limitations of proof than we are nowadays---and also maybe, the influence of mathematical proof on philosophy might have been stronger than would seem reasonable nowadays, with our modern view of proof.
Anyway, that's as far as I can get, with my near total ignorance of math history. But maybe there is more interesting stuff along similar lines.


Thanks for this interesting post. In fact Aristotle mentions mathematics repeatedly in the Posterior Analytics, he clearly sees this as a paradigm case of the kind of demonstrative knowledge he is talking about (or, perhaps one should be more cautious and say that he thinks he can clearly illustrate points about demonstration by using mathematics). Given the work of Euclid at around the same time, and what we know was going on in Plato's Academy (also from examples used by Plato himself e.g. in the Meno to illustrate the method of hypothesis) we know that mathematical inquiry was never far from reflection on the possibility of knowledge. As I describe in episode 51, the immediate successors of Plato seem to have pushed this even further, to argue that reality must be in itself mathematical if it is to be a fit object of knowledge. Or at least that's one way of reading them; and some would say they were here developing themes from Plato himself.

I'll have a later interview episode on the topic of ancient philosophy and mathematics, actually, if all goes according to plan.

I think one difference between the way people nowadays think about mathematics, and the way Aristotle thinks about demonstration, is that mathematicians allow themselves to choose unargued starting points ("axioms") more or less arbitrarily and then study what follows from these. By contrast Aristotle thinks there is a privileged set of true first principles which are the basis for demonstration. I think he might see most (all?) of modern mathematics as dialectical in the sense that it is only arguing from agreed premises; but here I should probably admit that what I know about modern mathematics could be fit into a small isoceles triangle.

Thanks for listening and for the comment!


Thanks for the reply. Sorry, but I can't resist a follow-up.

The axioms are not at all arbitrary. Actually, axioms are always carefully chosen to produce a recognizable piece of mathematics. For example, let's define Adamson arithmetic to contain constants a,d,m,s,o,n and a binary function + which has the following axioms:

1. Not(o+n=n+o)
2. x=y+z if xyz is a consecutive substring of "adamson"
3. (x+y)+z=x+(y+z)
That's it. Note that it's not good for anything (except providing an example of a consistent, uninteresting axiom system). No mathematician, modern or ancient, would call it mathematics in any sense. (Sorry, I had too much fun with that. Moving on...)
I agree that in modern mathematics we have mostly given up on a single set of axioms, but it's because we had to, because of Godel's work and also because we know of potential axioms where we're pretty sure that we can't justify always taking them or always omitting them. So, Aristotle had a view of mathematics that turned out to be wrong. For what it's worth, this informed my earlier comment.
Another point that I may be misunderstanding: I thought that Demonstration doesn't always need to proceed from correct First Principles; for example, in a Proof by Contradiction. If so, then I don't see why Aristotle would view modern math proofs as being only Dialectic, and not Demonstration.
Well, maybe once I listen to more podcasts - or even do the unimaginable, read Aristotle myself - I will ask less silly questions. Thank you for your patience.

Peter Adamson 5 February 2012

In reply to by Anonymous

Yes, you're right that "arbitrary" may have been misleading but I think it is technically the right word. What I mean is that in modern maths one can simply choose axioms, and you're right that one chooses not at random but in such a way as to produce something interesting -- but still you get alternate systems which can be studied, e.g. different geometries. (So I basically was trying to say what you say in this latest post but not saying it as clearly as you have.) Whereas Aristotle as I read him thinks there is only one set of true starting points, the first principles from which all demonstrations ultimately proceed.

The question about proof by contradiction is very interesting. That style of argument becomes popular later in philosophy, for instance one sees it a lot in the Islamic tradition and this may be partially due to the influence of mathematics on philosophy. But I think Aristotle doesn't consider this to be a kind of "demonstration" in his sense, since for him a demonstration is a causal explanation of why something is the case (or rather, why some subject S has some predicate P). It's hard to see how that could be achieved by a reductio ad absurdum.



Right, I see. So a theorem of the form "p implies q" isn't really a theorem unless p is actually true... and now I remember that you or Hugh said as much during the podcast.
The misunderstanding about "arbitrary" is my fault.  In math "at random" has a technical meaning, so we say "arbitrary" in situations that people usually say "at random".
Different geometries could be (are now?) thought of as different definitions, which are based on the same axiom system (set theory) rather than alternative, incompatible axiom systems. I would argue more generally that axiom systems are mostly just a type of definition, and I want to discuss why I think so, why the ancient Greeks wouldn't agree with me, and what the implications of that would be.
Nowadays we have loads of important definitions that are built on definitions that are built on definitions, etc. (This is why it is typically difficult for a mathematician to describe their research to a non-expert). Some definitions are quickly forgotten, some become as an essential part of mathematics as points and lines, and there is a wide range in between. Because of this, we are accustomed to the idea that finding the right objects of study (definitions) is an essential part of mathematics. Furthermore, it's not at all obvious that there is a black and white distinction between those those that must be part of mathematics (like imaginary numbers or groups) to those that clearly are not (like Frontalot numbers). Ancient Greek mathematics, on the other hand (if I'm not mistaken) considers only their basic notions (points, lines, circles, angles, equidistant) or objects that are easily described using those basic concepts (like conic sections), so they haven't had the same experience, and would see no reason to believe that selecting good definitions is an issue at all.
So, there is something in the air now that challenges the mystique of a pure, single mathematics, something which did not exist back then. And if we're less certain that the eventual body of mathematics is a Platonic object, then it is no longer clear why one must have a unique axiom system. Also, in our previous comments, we agreed that an axiom system is only as good as the mathematics it can produce. If we are interested in different, not necessarily compatible bodies of mathematics (and isn't this how the ancient Greeks felt about geometry, integers, and/or magnitudes?), why would we think that it should all rely on a single axiom system?
Not sure I accomplished what I claimed I set out to do.  I guess that my conclusion is that even if we ignore the crisis of foundations and Godel and all that, there is still a difference in mathematics as practiced then and now that might lead to different views on the role of axiom systems (as discussed above)... and if that's true, might also lead to different views on the role of Demonstration, namely that it is too ambitious (to describe mathematics at least)... and that a more modest alternative interpretation or modification of Demonstration might work with my original attempt at mapping of Aristotle's four methods of philosophical inquiry to modern mathematical inquiry... and that such an alternative might not have seemed like a terrible idea to Aristotle if he knew what we now know about mathematics and nonetheless wished to preserve his four methods in some (necessarily modified) form.  
Well, I hadn't planned on cascading off into increasingly silly counterfactuals to support what is really a rather insignificant idea.

Thanks for the reply. Sorry, but I can't resist a follow-up.

The axioms are not at all arbitrary. Actually, axioms are always carefully chosen to produce a recognizable piece of mathematics. For example, let's define Adamson arithmetic to contain constants a,d,m,s,o,n and a binary function + which has the following axioms:

1. Not(o+n=n+o)
2. x=y+z if xyz is a consecutive substring of "adamson"
3. (x+y)+z=x+(y+z)
That's it. Note that it's not good for anything (except providing an example of a consistent, uninteresting axiom system). No mathematician, modern or ancient, would call it mathematics in any sense. (Sorry, I had too much fun with that. Moving on...)
I agree that in modern mathematics we have mostly given up on a single set of axioms, but it's because we had to, because of Godel's work and also because we know of potential axioms where we're pretty sure that we can't justify always taking them or always omitting them. So, Aristotle had a view of mathematics that turned out to be wrong. For what it's worth, this informed my earlier comment.
Another point that I may be misunderstanding: I thought that Demonstration doesn't always need to proceed from correct First Principles; for example, in a Proof by Contradiction. If so, then I don't see why Aristotle would view modern math proofs as being only Dialectic, and not Demonstration.
Well, maybe once I listen to more podcasts - or even do the unimaginable, read Aristotle myself - I will ask less silly questions. Thank you for your patience.

Here's a further thought from Hugh Benson, the interview guest on this episode: "the listener raises an important question which in my view those who are experts do not pay enough attention to, i.e. mathematical *inquiry*.  Everything that I read is addressed to proof and display - as though math was a finished product.  So Euclid gets a lot of attention.  But the process of discovery which results in the Elements is seldom addressed.  Of course, part of the problem here is the lack of evidence, but still..."

Thanks to both of you for your replies.  I would have more questions perhaps but I think it's about time that, in your shoes, I would ask the listener to trying reading a bit.



Otter Bob 5 November 2014

Peter----thank you for these very thought provoking podcasts that take us beyond just the history of these thinkers, their contexts and content of their writings into the philosophical problems themselves.
My question in quite specific: Can you point me to any actual demonstrations that Aristotle gives, meetings his standards, in the area of his writings on Nature--particularly his biological works. I'm not asking about his logical, mathematical or metaphysical works (unless they happen to contain such examples). I'm looking for actual explanatory demonstrations involving universal statements that give in the middle premise what he offers as the immediate cause of P belonging to S. I won't go so far as to require they be necessary truths (although that is one of his requirments) nor that he has actually pegged the right cause.
I'm not asking for the actual demonstrations--just some pointers towards the topic of the demonstration and a reference citation from his writings. Please don't feel required to respond if this is asking for too much work from you (given all your other endeavors) or because my request is way too far back from where your podcasts are currently at.

That's a good question! It's one much discussed in the literature on Aristotle's zoology; have a look at the further reading on episode 43. But it's at best unclear whether the things Aristotle says in the zoological works are meant to be proper demonstrations; and in fact, there is even debate over the question of how "demonstrative science" relates to the projects we actually see undertaken in the animal books. (Some people think that demonstrations are not involved in discovery, but rather in presenting already-discovered information to students; others disagree.)

I think the best examples you'll find are actually in the Posterior Analytics. He gives two or three such examples there: one is about the cause of thunder in the clouds; another is about broad-based leaves; and then a third is about the cause of an eclipse. Check out book 2 chs. 8 and 16. You can find a freely available online translation here.

Thanks so much for those references. I do understand the controversies surrounding what is really going on in these biological works. And your discussion here with Hugh Benson clarified even more these scholarly disputes.
Thanks again and I don't know how you do it. I can hardly keep up with your responses let alone the podcasts.

Dear Peter,
Congratulations on your 200th HOPWAG podcast. They continue to stimulate and deepen my inquiries. A tip of the hat also goes to your helpers behind the scenes and the guests who have joined you. I must not forget your sister, which I believe you mentioned as writing the scripts for the episodes. Or should I have said that credit also goes to your not-a-sister? I've finally caught up with you folks with the current podcast, but I'm hiding this post way back in Episode 37 because my notes are more appropriately posted here.

I'm sure you must remember these, but I've come across three more of Aristotle's scientific demonstrations concerning physical states-of-affairs. These are from the Posterior Analytics, Bk.1, Ch. 13. The first concerns the nearness and non-twinkling of the planets. The second is about the spherical shape and waxing of the moon. I've had fun getting the premises and conclusion stated in the right way and in the right order. It does bother me a bit that the subjects are individuals rather than universals (unless one rephrases it as “anything that is a planet...). These first two are introduced to distinguish between knowledge that a fact is so and a scientific demonstration (explanation) of a reasoned fact via the middle term being the cause. Pointing out this difference in syllogistic reasoning certainly seem primarily a case of presenting a tool for scientific inquiry (teaching to students versus engaging in discovery).

The third example is a bit later in the chapter, concerning (of all things) why a wall doesn't breathe. (OK, not quite a biological fact.) This one bothers me also because it's explaining why something is not a property of a wall (and necessarily so), but that doesn't seem to be a case of scientific understanding (why something is not so), even if we change it from a wall to a comet. Using this example, Aristotle seems to be pointing out two other features of scientific demonstration: 1) a rule to be observed regarding the affirmation or negation of a cause for the inherence or non-inherence of a property and 2) that the cause must not be too remote, which, I've been told, brings up the issue of commensurate universals.

The upshot of this for me is that I need to devise a check list of all the requirements for a proper scientific demonstration, according to “the master”, even if, for any demonstration, they are never all checked off. Back to the study of at least the two Analytics—yes, to “learn my Aristotle”, but more importantly to engage with the problems. I not asking for a reply to all this. I just meant to note three more examples which you can stuff down into your philosophical traveling kit bag.

Thanks again for all your efforts-------------Bob

Peter Adamson 4 December 2014

In reply to by Otter Bob

Thanks very much! These are indeed famous examples. There is also the eclipse, which is an example of something where you could see the cause directly by perception if you were on the moon (!). These examples all have their problems, and also a later afterlife in history. For instance Avicenna gives the eclipse as an example of something God could know simply by deploying universal knowledge. Generally when I was presenting Aristotle's theory I tried to use examples that avoid the sort of problems you mention here; this does have the disadvantage, maybe, of making the story too smooth (and also suggesting an easier fit with the zoological works than we in fact have in the texts themselves, since I mostly used animal cases, like with the giraffe).

Hello Peter,

That helps. I have been looking at Aquinas' commentary on this work and I suspected that there was much later work on these issues. I keep returning to these podcasts, especially Aristotle, because I find them so intriguing. I know I'm going to have other problems where you insights would be appreciated. But that will be for later, if I get my thoughts clarified, and I don't want you to think I expect a reply, given all the other comments you are dealing with.
Thanks again-----Bob

Peter Adamson 4 December 2014

In reply to by Otter Bob

Don't worry, one of my favorite things about the podcast is getting to chat about this stuff with my audience, so keep firing the comments and I'll do my best to say something useful!

Ian 4 February 2015

Peter, hi.

The question was raised in the podcast whether or not the demonstrative proof or syllogism was in fact for Aristotle a method of philosophical enquiry, but given the impact of Aristotle’s logic and natural philosophy on medieval Christian scholarship it is notable that this issue was evidently not raised: for these scholars the demonstrative syllogism from the Posterior Analytics was indeed a method of philosophical enquiry. Indeed, Copernicus’ heliocentric theory (a sun-centred cosmos) was regarded as falling far short of the requirements of demonstrative proof, which appears to be a significant reason why the physical theory, as distinct from its mathematical utility, was generally rejected by both Catholic and Protestant scholars of the time. The Aristotelian theologian-astronomer Giovanni Maria Tolosani (1470/1 - 1549) offered the following criticisms of Copernicus and his theory:

He is expert indeed in the sciences of mathematics and astronomy, but he is very deficient in the sciences of physics and dialectic. . . A man cannot be a complete astronomer and philosopher unless through logic he knows how to distinguish between the true and the false in disputes and knows the modes of argumentation. . . Hence since Copernicus does not understand physics and logic it is not surprising that he should be mistaken in this opinion and accepts the false as true . . . it is stupid to contradict an opinion accepted by everyone over a very long time for the strongest reasons, unless the impugner uses more powerful and incontrovertible demonstrations and completely dissolves the opposed reasons [an example of principles established by ‘reputable opinions’ (endoxa)?].

How do you Peter view the medieval interpretation and application of Aristotle’s demonstrative proof? Did medieval scholars attempt to apply this proof to natural philosophy in a manner that modern philosophers would argue it was not intended for?

Thanks, that's a fascinating post and a great question. I speak about these issues from time to time in the episodes on the Islamic world and will get on to the Latin Christian use of the Posterior Analytics soon. But basically my answer would be that the Post An sets very a high bar for what would count as knowledge (or science: episteme, 'ilm, scientia) and that this caused the medievals various problems. For instance, how can we get from observation of individual things to universal knowledge (universality being one of Aristotle's criteria for episteme)? Can religious beliefs somehow be given the status of knowledge in this strict sense (Aquinas talks about this a lot)? Despite these difficulties there is a very strong tendency to accept Aristotle's logic-plus-epistemology, but to see it more as defining the end result of inquiry than the process of inquiry itself. However there are exceptions, for instance Avicenna is very interested in the question of how we get hold of the middle terms that allow us to complete syllogisms.

Peter, hello again.

You stated in your previous post that for medieval thinkers “. . . there is a very strong tendency to accept Aristotle's logic-plus-epistemology, but to see it more as defining the end result of inquiry than the process of inquiry itself” and I have been pondering whether this is actually or generally the case, whilst being mindful that I may have misunderstood you. In medieval universities in Europe - as I am sure you know - it was the practice to require students to first master the skills of learning before beginning a study of specific subjects (mathematics, astronomy etc.); these skills included grammar, rhetoric and dialectic or logic, what collectively was known as the trivium. The importance of this requirement for the true acquisition of knowledge is perhaps reflected in Tolosani’s reference in my previous post to the “modes of argumentation”, so I would find it surprising if medieval scholars side-stepped the process of enquiry, although I do believe I see a problem with applying it to enquiries of the natural world. I am also aware of course that personal agendas may also affect the “modes of argumentation”. Nevertheless, I think the problem posed by Copernicus’ heliocentric system may be illuminating, suggesting the importance attributed to the process of enquiry and in particular to premises.

Copernicus’ description of the cosmos introduced radical changes in the location and behaviour of the Earth and its relationship to the other planets and the sun. One might expect, therefore, that such radical changes would have notable consequences for our observations of the heavens, but within the limits of current observational capability nothing had changed: the heavens in this new configuration looked just the same. How could this be? From the Aristotelian astronomers’ perspective Copernicus would have provided a premise (a sun-centred cosmos) that contrary to Aristotle’s standard of demonstrative proof did not lead uniquely and necessarily to a certain and necessary conclusion (the known observable cosmos) as the existing geocentric model also satisfied this conclusion and had in addition served as a description of the heavens for two thousand years so giving that model priority (endoxa or ‘reputable opinion’). It strikes me that given the difficulty in the 16th century of acquiring empirical data to resolve the question of which cosmological theory was true the premises upon which a theory’s conclusion rested were of especial importance for medieval scholars, even more so than the enquiry’s end result. Not having read Copernicus’ own work on the subject - in English, Six Books on the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs - I would not know how to represent his central argument in terms of an Aristotelian syllogism, if that should even be possible, but certainly Tolosani regarded the theory to fail to meet such exacting standards and accepting “the false as true”: I remind your readers that Aristotle’s logic of demonstrative proof prevailed in the universities and among scholars of the time. Does not all this Peter at least suggest the process of enquiry to be important to medieval scholars?

All the best,


What I meant is that Aristotle's notion of a demonstrative syllogism and, more generally, the posterior analytics can be thought of either as outlining a method of scientific inquiry or a way of presenting results achieved through some other process. There's a contemporary debate about which of these is the right way to interpret the Post An itself. However if you take other parts of the Organon, especially dialectic (the Topics), then the medievals do think of that as a model of inquiry - just think of the disputed question! But how that relates to specifically empirical inquiry is another question; what we really want is an account of how inductive inference works, and Aristotle is famously rather elusive on that though he does make relevant comments like in the final chapter of the Post An.

There is of course a further issue about how anything in Aristotle relates to the traditional trivium and quadrivium; as we've seen a bit, and will be seeing more soon on the medieval episodes, Aristotelian logic was very incompletely known up through the 12th c and then there is a period where it pushes out the traditional methods of grammar, rhetoric and (early) dialectic/logic. I will actually be doing a whole episode on that later this year, so stay tuned...

morgan 19 March 2015

As my father used to say, "Don't search for knowledge like a retriever who's lost their ball."  Wise man, and he was right, I think, to a great pedigree.  Whoops, I meant degree.  But sometimes, when one has absolutely no idea where the ball of knowledge lies, one needs to search helter-skelter, willy-nilly, and here and there, hoping one isn't chasing their tail.

Glenn Houtary 17 May 2015

hello, this is an interesting episode.

Thank you for the introduction to Aristotle's:  inquiry,Dialectic, beginnings, demonstration, and first principles. I also liked the dog analogy. i'll be interested to learn more about Aristotle's Philosophy! 


thanks again,



Jerrie 25 June 2022

As a person having read no philosophy first hand with the exception of Spinoza but only second hand information I am struck at how these episodes on Aristotle are so much easier to understand than those on Plato and before.  I was wondering if that is because he does use method in his treatise rather than dialogue and argument.  Should I say more down to earth.  If you don't mind if I followup here on my post on episode 29 my daughter did show a great interest in the podcasts when I mentioned them to her but whether it materializes is hard to say.  Busy lady as I said.

Jerrie 25 June 2022

Oh let me also ask you if you ever talk about Spinoza in these podcasts.  I suppose reading him was what made me want to see where he might have come from in his ideas.

I will definitely devote a lot of attention to Spinoza when I get to him chronologically! I don't think he has been mentioned much, maybe a couple of times in passing like maybe about Maimonides influencing him, for instance.

Your point about Aristotle being easier to understand is interesting. I think reading the primary texts you would have the opposite sense: Plato is a lot easier to read (and more fun too) than Aristotle. But it is perhaps easier for someone like me to explain Aristotle clearly just because there are fewer questions about what in general is going on: Plato writes dialogues, his authorial intentions are unclear, he gives you lots of perspectives on each issue, his views developed more than Aristotle's, etc.

Or maybe I just got better at writing podcasts as I went along?

Jerrie 26 June 2022

In reply to by Peter Adamson

That's interesting.  Time for me to jump into the actual text I guess.  Any suggestions of where to start with that?

If you mean Plato, then a popular first choice would be the Euthyphro: it's short and gives you a sense of the classic "Socrates as refuter" character. And then maybe the Meno and/or Phaedo which shows how Plato used that character to start exploring issues in epistemology and metaphysics.

Thank you.  Just one more possible recommendation.  Which works of Aristotle would best contrast with these as starting points or good comparisons

Peter Adamson 26 June 2022

In reply to by Jerrie

Aristotle's De Anima ("On the Soul") would make an obvious match with the Phaedo, since the latter is about the immortality of the soul.

Jerrie 28 June 2022

Phaedo vs De Anima on reading through left me with the same conclusion that Aristotle is easier to understand, and I think for just the reasons you reiterated as to why they are easier for you to explain.  To paraphrase from the De Anima, our predecessors were wrong in endeavoring to fit the soul into a body without determining the nature of that body...For the actuality comes to be developed by its potentiality, says everything.  Plato doesn't go deep enough to first causes which makes it difficult to grasp his arguments. whether they are good or not or even understanding them.  He assumes a lot of previous knowledge which of course I don't have.  Then there is I'm an American whose culture is  more a down to earth Aristotlian one than the upward looking Britain Platonic.

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