In this post I will be exploring and elucidating the claim that in the 16th Century the underpinning philosophy of science turned from being Aristotelian in nature to being Pythagorean. I will chiefly explore what it means to be “Aristotelian” or “Pythagorean” in approach, and I will go on to suggest some possible reasons why we can observe this shift.
At some point in the history of thought, all forms of enquiry were simply called philosophy. People who practised philosophy often wrote on a large number of topics, such as biology, optics and astronomy, along with musings on the nature of god. In the modern era, it would be very rare to come across someone who could write proficiently on such a diverse array of topics, and arguably this is down to advancements in science which have made each branch more specialist and rarefied.
In medieval times, Aristotle was held up as an authority on science. Aristotle himself had interests in biology, among other things, and his writings were dominated by the classification of things in to classes and defining their essential and non-essential qualities. If you read Aristotle, you will note that his work is observational, and in many regards feels like a catalogue. Certainly, the focus was highly qualitative and descriptive.
At some point during the modernisation of science in the 16th century, science began to embrace a wider range of views and approaches. This loosely coincides with the time during which more texts were available in English as opposed to Latin, and the time during which the Puritan influence was weakening following the Restoration. The possibility that a wider range of people were able to access texts may contribute to the shift in views.
The prevalent new way of thinking came from Pythagoras. Pythagoras is chiefly associated with mathematics, among other things, and his followers were known (as noted by Aristotle) for applying the principles of mathematics to all things. The key characteristic of this movement was an emphasis on quantity, in stark contrast to the more qualitative Aristotelian approach.
An interesting quote from Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society of London (1667) states the following:
“they have extracted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness: bringing all things near the mathematical plainness, as they can: and preferring the language of artizans, countrymen, and merchants, before that of wits and scholars.”
Here we see stated quite plainly the novelty of a shift in thought towards “mathematical plainness” contrasting the “scholarly” approach of those belonging to the Aristotelian school. The Royal Society itself was founded in 1660 as an organisation of natural philosophers. Arguably, they played a highly important part in forging the shape of scientific discourse.
In my view, the shift from “Aristotelian” to “Pythagorean” thinking was enabled by the availability and prevalence of the early technology which would allow scientific measurements to be taken, and which provided opportunity to give quantitative measures to a wide range of phenomena. I hope to explore this further in a future post.
Of course, to this day some sciences still retain more Aristotelian qualities than Pythagorean ones. This is particularly true of some of the social sciences, where arguably more emphasis is placed on discourse than on mathematical correctness. Science in the modern era also owes plenty to the works of Popper and to the sceptics. It is important to note that progress comes not from sticking to one firm approach, but from being open to apply a variety of approaches.
Wightman – The Growth of Scientific Ideas, Oliver and Boyd, 1950
Wolf – A History of Science, Technology and Philosophy XVIth and XVIIth Centuries, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1935