Aristotelian Science versus Pythagorean Science

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

(Project: Wolf) Introduction

This blog will be organised in to a number of research projects, each with a catchy codename. Updates may be sporadic and will depend on life and work. There may be several projects running concurrently. When I consider a project concluded, I will write a summary of the outcomes. The first post in each project will include an outline, and an indication of what will be researched over the course of the project. If you have any thoughts, leads, or relevant resources they are more than welcome regardless of the subject focus, as are general criticisms of the nature of the project itself.

My first project will be a summary and a continuation  of the last research project I undertook during an MA in Literature and Philosophy. I had entered this MA course in 2010 somewhat too quickly in order to avoid the fee raise (which doubled at taught Master’s level), and realised early on that not only was this not really the right course for my interests, but also that the part-time work I was doing could not possibly support my household.

This project sprung from my interest in the development of science throughout history, and the representation of science in the literature at the time. This was to include, where possible, the ways in which results of scientific experiments are presented, as well as representations of science in fiction. I never entirely got around to examining scientific literature, and I think this will be left for another project. Ultimately, the crux for me was the transition between science being a naturalistic subject and science being something which operated in terms of quantification.

The précis for my original essay was as follows:

Over the course of this essay, we will be examining the evolution of science literature in relation to the content and standing of science and the philosophy of science. As scientific understanding develops, we will see this reflected in the manner that science is represented in its literature. From this, we will be able to draw some conclusions about the underlying epistemology when we are presented with a piece of science writing.

We will be extending our study over three very broad periods of time: Classical, Medieval, and Modern. The Classical period will denote the Greco-Roman era, the Medieval period will extend from the end of the Roman Era to around 15th Century, and the Modern period will be from the 16th century onward.

We will begin by firstly outlining what was considered to be scientific study at during the era, and we will examine some texts by key writers. Alongside this, we will also follow the historical development of a particular science and its associated writings in order to give a clear comparison of writings that were considered “natural philosophy” and not always strictly science. We will then consider these writings alongside those of philosophers who wrote on science at the time. To begin with, we will notice that there is a great overlap between scientists and philosophers, which eventually weakens as we travel into the modern era. We may draw some conclusions as to why this may be the case.

The ultimate goal of the essay will be to show a sudden shift in the way in which science is represented in literature at the beginning of the modern period, when conditions for observation and measurement were greatly improved. In some way, we hope to build upon or examine further the postulation made by Wolf (1938) that science shifted from an Aristotelian focus to a Pythagorean focus, and we will attempt to adapt that claim to reflect the written content of science.  We also hope to be able to bring some of Naussbaum’s observations of the relationship between form and content into this dialogue, and we will find that many of the questions regarding whether literature is an appropriate vessel for philosophy will be applicable to science.

You can click here to see the power-point presentation I gave outlining my approach to the essay, which sadly remains unwritten. I hope that during this project I will slightly amend this state of affairs.

During my initial scoping of the project, I had established that the branch of science which seemed most consistently to be considered “science” as opposed to “natural philosophy” or even “philosophy” was actually biology. This revelation had come as a surprise to me, as I had by far expected mathematics to be more consistently considered science. I was also quite shocked at the extent to which medicine had remained in the realms of folklore, and the sheer length of time it took to draw scientific links between medicine and biology. For the purposes of further research, I am likely to continue plans of attack from a biological perspective.

Looking back at my notes, I am not entirely sure how Naussbaum is crammed in all of this, and suspect it may have been my tenuous attempt to tie this research back to the module (“Literature and Knowledge”, for reference). I do not wish to be dismissive of my past self, so I will intend to review whether or not Naussbaum is relevant later in this project.  My initial outline was also overly concerned with Abraham Wolf, so I will also be hoping to find some other commentators on the topic in order to diversify my own understanding.

I intend to post further on the following sub-topics:

  • Aristotelian verses Pythagorean science
  • The Rise of Scientific Instruments
  • A further exploration of the claim made by Wolf, which would form the centre of my argument.
  • The history of thermometers, and the rise of empiricism in science
  • The history of the concept of science and the eventual split between science and philosophy.
  • Other things that occur to me – this list will be edited with links and any further topics.