Rescuing Aristotle

An excellent article! I think the tendency to judge historical figures by modern standards is one we always have to be cautious of. Aristotle was amazing for his times. Criticizing him for not understanding the world as well as we do, without understanding the intervening 2300 years, is facile.

Criticizing Aristotle is a tradition that probably has roots in the struggle of early modern scientists against many medieval scholars who turned him into a source of dogma, but that wasn’t Aristotle’s fault. It would be similar to scholars 1000 years from now deciding that Stephen Hawking was a source of dogma.

Scientia Salon

image002by Robin Herbert

Perhaps you are familiar with the following passage from Bertrand Russell:

“Observation versus Authority: To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.” [1]

This criticism of Aristotle is often repeated and unreflectively accepted due to the reputation of Bertrand Russell. Edward de Bono embroidered upon this theme:

“Finally there was Aristotle, with his word-based inclusion/exclusion logic. Aristotle believed that men had more teeth than did women. Although he was married twice, he never actually counted the teeth of either wife. He did not need to. With horses, the stallion had more…

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3 Responses to Rescuing Aristotle

  1. I think Aristotle was amazing, period, ESPECIALLY by today’s standards. We all make mistakes, but his were within the context of a soaring mountain of achievement that very few since have even thought of attempting. And consider that we may only have his class lecture notes (not his published work). It takes a lot of chutzpah to call him intellectually slovenly!

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    • Agreed. It’s very easy to criticize historical figures for not knowing what we know today, or for having views uninformed with the history between us and them. It’s almost always a demonstration of grandstanding rather than one of any real insight.

      I have to admit that I didn’t even know that we only had his lecture notes. It’s amazing to ponder we we don’t have from the ancient world, what didn’t make it through the centuries. Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things” might have been down to one existing copy when it was discovered in the archives of a German monastery.

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