Back Discussion on Philosophy of Science (for my philo major class)

Philip Frank, in his Philosophy of Science, shows how in Aristotle both science and philosophy formed a “common chain” (p. 11) of investigating the physical world.  It formed what Aristotle referred to as the “natural path of investigation” (p. 12).  The chain can be illustrated as starting “from what is more readily knowable and more evident to us and proceeds to what is more self-evident and intrinsically more intelligible” (Ibid.).  On the one hand, science in ancient times set up principles from which observable facts and applications could be derived.  On the other hand, these generalizations could be derived from more plausible and more intelligible principles which philosophy tries to achieve (such as the principle of sufficient reason, etc.). The above sketch of the common chain linking science and philosophy as co-constitutive disciplines is Aristotelian in character.  Aristotle’s works which straddled both his naturalistic and speculative investigations greatly represent a kind of synthetic knowledge (not to be confused with Kant’s notion of synthetic knowledge) that involves the two disciplines working intrinsically in the process of achieving what may be termed as knowledge in the form of a concrete universal.   

Early before Aristotle, the Ionian naturalists were already a curious lot of naturalists and philosophers.  Thales’s cosmology, for instance, was a concrete example of the fusion of the two disciplines, merged in his theory of moist, not simply as the primary stuff, but moreso, and which is rather the most crucial point of his investigation, as a cosmological principle that explained why observable phenomena in nature happened as they did. Thales was acknowledged as the founding father of philosophy because of this principle-deriving method that the Homeric tradition preceding him could only surmise in mythological frills.  The mythos and the mystic occultism that characterized the pre-Thalic period of Greek thinking were no match for the explanatory power of intelligible principles, so to speak.  That water (or moist) is the primary stuff is already a principle at work which sought an achieve intelligible connection with reality.  Of course, it must not be ignored that Thales and the presocratics were nonetheless too simplistic from the standpoint of modern science. 

 With the coming of Anaximander on the picture, the original fusion of philosophy and science started to show signs of breaking up, but it would take until Plato to solidify this gnawing tendency in Greek thought.  (Aristotle simply provided a breathing space for this tendency to come full circle in the advent of Christian theology).  Anaximander theorized that the cosmos is neither governed by a material principle (primary stuff) nor of a too abstract concept of a mind-like force acting on the physical world.  He put forth the concept of apeiron (the indefinite) that advanced an understanding of the cosmos which both incorporated the immanent principle of Thales (water is within the world acting as its governing principle) and the emerging transcedentalism borne of the vestiges of the Homeric belief that the world is full of gods.  For a principle to be credible enough to explain the nature of the cosmos it must stand above the constitutive  limitations of the object from which it is derived.  In this manner, Anaximander avoided the inherent paradox of Thales’ cosmology which relied on the principle that “what the world is made of is..identical with what it is surrounded by (Collingwood, p. 40).” For Anaximander the ‘really primitive universal substance must be indeterminate in quality” (Ibid., p. 39), and also by this register, the world could no more be identified with a material substance (primary stuff).  He therefore broke the Ionian tradition of cosmology (looking for the primary stuff as principle-deriving method)  and “reduced the question to absurdity” ( Ibid.). Anaximenes, meanwhile, who found the primary stuff in air only aggravated the situation.  At one point, he was believed to have argued for the existence of many worlds arising from the intrinsic motion of air to disperse into plural elements in nature wherein each world exists outside one another in time (Ibid.; underscoring mine).  It is not difficult to glimpse in this cerebration a pattern of metaphysics that was typical of Pythagoras, that is, a form of philosophizing in eternal verities.  Going back to Aristotle, the singular accord between science and philosophy generated a solid tradition of natural investigation imbued with the questions typical of philosophy as the search for truth by way of intelligible principles, or as the early Greek meant by philosophising.  Frank illustrates the common chain in the following sketch (p. 22):  

Direct observations®Scientific End/Philosophic End®General/Intelligible Principles 

Let us take, for instance, the theory that living things act in accordance with their nature.  This is known as the organismic theory prevalent in Aristotle’s time. As naturalist, Aristotle would take up the observable phenomenon of motion as readily given. From this observable data came into play the task of producing explanations on the physical end of understanding their nature, such as the theory mentioned above (organismic).  On the philosophical end of the chain, the organismic theory would find its counterpart in the speculative criterion of understanding such that nature in itself is intelligible.  One example of the speculative explanation of this nature is that things have a natural direction, have a natural end, towards which organisms move and live out in time.  This is known as the teleological principle of physical phenomena.  What would turn up as the general and intelligible principle that could explain all these phenomena is that Aristotle believed in the linear succession of living things in time.  This example of a particular chain of understanding a physical phenomenon is connected to other individual chains of distinct objects of investigation.  But they were all linked under a universal chain in Aristotle’s physical cosmology which states that motion is made possible by the epicycles.  This  theory is best illustrated in the following explanation by Michael Hoskin (2003): 

“The daily rotation of the outermost sphere of all, that of the fixed stars, now sufficed to impose a daily rotation on every planet within, so the outermost sphere of each planetary nest could be discarded.  However, the spheres special to an individual planet would transmit their motion down through the system, unless steps were taken to prevent this; and Aristotle therefore interpolated additional spheres with opposite motions in the appropriate places, to cancel out any unwanted rotations (p. 13)”.

Aristotle devised this cosmological theory in the light of his strong criticism of mathematical deductions of the movement of heavenly bodies which “did not explain in physical terms how the planets come to move as we observe them to do” (Ibid.).  Now we have an example here of the concern of a natural philosopher for accounting how the processes could be made intelligible.  Mathematics would turn out to be pure mental constructions, and their connection with reality is still suspect.  What Aristotle did is to “convert the mathematical spheres into physical reality” (Ibid.).   Aristotle was the pioneer of natural philosophy in Greek thought (incorporating science and philosophy under a common chain of investigation) and also, the last thinker in this tradition before natural philsophy succumbed to theological ruminations of the medieval Christians.  

 Suggested Topics for Further Discussion: 

  1. The intrinsic workings of the Presocratics in their understanding of the cosmos.
  2. Aristotle’s theory of linear motion as against the evolutionary view which some noted Presocratics had taken up in their studies although under-theorized.
  3. The already given assumption that the world is somehow spherical as evidenced in Aristotle’s theory of epicycles, suggesting that the world is round.


 Collingwood, R.G. The Idea of Nature.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. 

Curd, Patricia, ed., McKirahan, Richard, Jr., trans. A Presocratic Reader. Selected Fragments and Testimonia. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993.

Frank, Philip. Philosophy of Science. The Link Between Science and Philosophy. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1957. Hoskin, Michael. The History of Astronomy. A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Quezon CityJune 22, 2006


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