To set the stage for our readings and discussions of the French Revolution and Human Rights, I thought some of you might want to review the ideas and issues that not only shaped intellectual life in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, but had a profound influence on the thinking of seventeenth century philosophers, writers, artists, and scientists. We'll start by looking at three competing world views: Aristotelianism, Mechanism, and Mysticism.

I. Aristotelianism

There are some philosophical and existential questions that seem to appear in different forms in every human culture. Such questions arise from the desire we feel at one time or another to understand ourselves and to gain a deeper insight into the natural world and our place within it. This often leads to a tension between the idea of the human being as a part of nature, and the human being as somehow apart from nature and the natural world of cause and effect.

There was a tendency in ancient Greek philosophy going back at least to Thales and others (e.g. the Milesians and the later Atomists) to explain nature in purely materialist terms. Various attempts were made to define matter as essentially made up of water, air, atoms, seeds, etc. Regardless of the definition proposed, what unified the materialists was the assumption that matter was the only thing that was real.

One of the problems encountered by this materialist approach was the ontological status of values. Since values are not material -- that is, they're not the sort of things one bumps into in the dark -- it follows from the fundamental assumption of materialism that they don't exist. But given that human beings in every culture are concerned about the moraland ethical nature of life, and that morality depends on value judgments, it would seem to follow that there must be a place made for values in any comprehensive explanation of life on earth. Thus, since the materialists could not provide an account of values, many (including Plato) concluded that the fundamental assumption of materialism ("Everything is matter") must be wrong.

Plato, of course, turned the tables on the materialists by claiming that the ultimate reality was the nonmaterial world of Forms which exist apart from the material things we see around us. And it was this philosophical dichotomy that Aristotle inherited and set out to reconcile. How could there be both material objects of sense and nonmaterial values -- both real, yet fundamentally different from one another?

Aristotle approached his solution through another problem that had challenged western thinkers for centuries, and that was the problem of identity and change. How is it that something can undergo numerous changes, and yet remain the same thing throughout those changes? Plato's answer to this problem never satisfied Aristotle either. Plato claimed that the things that are real, i.e. the Forms, are nonmaterial and, thus, are not subject to change. Rather they constitute an eternal foundation which makes possible the things that are subject to the constant flux, i.e. the being and becoming of natural objects. Thus, it is only the imitations of those Forms -- the material things of this world -- that change. And that which makes something good, the highest value, is itself a nonmaterial Form. So you see that according to Plato change is a kind of illusion -- it's not real.

Of course, this ingenious dualistic solution raised its own problems, some of which were epistemological. For example, if there are two worlds, the world of Nature (appearance) and the world of Forms (reality), and if the latter is totally nonmaterial and invisible, two questions arise:

According to Aristotle, Plato had gone too far in his separation of form and matter. So Aristotle set out to correct Plato's excesses by showing that appearances are not deceiving, but that the things that are real exist in matter and really do change. In the process he also managed to find a place for values in the material, ever-changing world of nature.

To comprehend Aristotle's general philosophical scheme of things and to understand his place in the intellectual world of seventeenth century European philosophy and science, we need to look briefly at his approach to nature and scientific explanation. Aristotle was, in many ways, a pragmatic thinker concerned with the actual conditions of life and how they might be improved. His search for the good was a pursuit he shared with Plato, Socrates, and others. The difference is that Aristotle was to look for his solutions in the material world of nature and not an ideal, abstract world of immaterial forms beyond it.

Form and Matter

For Aristotle, form is a characteristic element of the material world. He agreed with Plato that we must appeal to the notion of form to explain what we see, identify, and recognize around us and to account for our knowledge of these things. But the form that makes, for example, a tree recognizable as a tree and which allows us to know something about the nature of trees is not so far removed as to be in some other world, as Plato taught. Rather, the form is embodied in this world and is intimately connected to matter. These forms play an important role in our experience of the world, even though it must be admitted that they do have some paradoxical features.

Forms are distinguishable in thought but not in fact. So, for example, we can distinguish one colored square from another, but we never experience a square with no color at all, nor a color with no shape. Thus, we may separate the form from the material thing in our minds through intellectual abstraction and analysis. But it doesn't follow that forms can exist apart from material objects.

So what is the proper way to think about the relation of form and matter? First of all, we must observe that the world is divided into beings and becomings. Everything in the material world of nature is in the process of "becoming", i.e. everything is undergoing continual change in the process of birth, growth, decay, and death. This process of change can be analyzed in the most general Aristotelian terms as a movement from the "out-of-which" (that from which a thing moves or emerges) to the "into-which" (that toward which the thing is moving, which it is becoming).

Now, to understand and to gain knowledge of a thing we must first be able to differentiate it from other things, in other words it must be articulated in our experience.[1] This articulation provides the answer to the question which thing we're looking at or talking about. As we look into a room, we distinguish chairs, tables, walls, and human beings from one another in virtue of the fact that they are different particular things. But we move quickly in our experience beyond the mere "whichness" of a thing to a recognition of the kind of thing it is, a process that relies on a definition of the form into which the particular thing (the matter) has developed. Thus, differentiation tells us which thing it is; the form tells us what the thing is. But in addition to the formal classification of the thing, the definition also specifies a function or purpose, i.e. what the thing is capable of doing and the end that it serves. This is where explanation comes into the picture. Explanation is an attempt to account for why the thing has a certain kind of form. So, for example, according to Aristotle the function of a chair is to allow one to sit, which explains why it has the form it does; the function of a shoe is to support and protect the foot, which explains the general form of the shoe; etc. Thus, to answer the why-question one must have knowledge, and knowledge according to Aristotle is always of the form of a thing, not the matter. That's because the matter can vary, but the form must be roughly the same from shoe to shoe, chair to chair, tree to tree, etc. And since knowledge is of things that stay the same (which accounts for its permanence and reliability), and since it is the matter that changes, explanation and knowledge are relative to the form of things.

Take, for example, a solid rectangular object. We might ask, "What is it?" The answer could be, "It's a brick." But how would we know this? What makes it a brick? Aristotle's answer is, "Its form." The fact that it's made of clay is largely irrelevant. Its being clay is not what makes it a brick, but rather the uses to which the clay is put, viz. to build a wall. Vases can be made of clay, and so can toys, cups and tiles. What makes these things the kind of things they are is the form taken by the clay, and the form is determined by the function and purpose of the thing. It is the form that gives it its unity and wholeness. The matter, on the other hand, contains within it the possibility of being a certain kind of thing, whether brick, vase, cup or tile. This suggests the "relativity of form and matter". The bricks can be formed into a wall -- they contain that as a possibility. And when the wall is built, we say the matter is made up of the bricks, and the form is the wall whose purpose is to provide an enclosure. Now when the walls are used to build a house, then the walls become the matter and the house becomes the form. Thus, at every stage of becoming we look back to the matter and forward to the form, structure, and function. In this sense, the world is a hierarchy of individuals related in such a way so that each thing is both the fulfillment of a purpose -- an actuality -- and the possibility of a future development -- a potentiality.

So far we've been talking mostly about things made by human beings -- things such as chairs, shoes, bricks, and walls. But Aristotle applied this way of thinking based on form and matter to all things including objects which acquire their purposes and functions "naturally". So, for example, it makes sense to ask about the function and form of the heart, which is to pump blood. This is a function it has by nature, not through human intervention and design (unless, of course, it's an artificial heart). This marks another major distinction in Aristotle's ontology, i.e. between those things that arise and change spontaneously (by nature) and those that come into being artificially (by art). Thus, "nature" (physis) is defined as the totality of sensible objects capable of spontaneous change. A "natural object" has its principle of motion within it, as opposed to an artifact (e.g. a bed, a chair, a rug) which does not. In other words, an artifact changes into the thing it is because of an action coming from outside of it. Thus, rocks fall naturally; hammers are made.

But hammers fall too. Does that mean that they're natural objects after all? Not really, but the distinction needed here is an important one. When the hammer that's made of metal and wood falls from the workbench to the floor, it is not "as a hammer" that it falls, but as metal and wood which are natural. Thus, the object can also be analyzed into its natural and artificial components. If you bury a wooden bed in the ground, a new bed will not grow from the soil, but if anything grows it will be a tree. That's because the natural part of the bed is the wood, and the artificial part is the form the wood takes and that which makes the wood a bed.

Finally, we should note that according to Aristotle all things belong to a hierarchy of purposes and goals. The oak tree is the "form" of the acorn in the sense that it is its "coming-to-be" or "into-which". The acorn contains the potentiality of there being an oak tree. Thus, the form is actualized by matter (which is what makes it this acorn) which comes to be what its form and function determine it to be. In the case of the oak tree, this happens spontaneously and naturally. In the case of the brick wall, it does not.

The ultimate driving force behind this motion from one state to another is called an entelechy which manifests itself as an innate impulse toward growth and development in the natural world. Every change is thus a coming-to-be of some latent potentiality. God lies at the end (and beginning) of the entire process as the complete actualization of all things.

Substance and Change

The distinction between form and matter and the role it plays in our knowledge and explanation of things may seem relatively straightforward when dealing with bricks, chairs, and even shoes and trees. But what about human beings? To say that Socrates is the combination of matter (flesh and blood) and human form says very little about the nature of the individual person. Socrates was surely more than just a single form. He was a male, a husband, the son of a midwife, a philosopher, the teacher of Plato, snub-nosed, Athenian, etc. The particular thing (Socrates) was all these things and more. He was also a thing constantly undergoing change, e.g. from youth to old age, from happy to sad, from thin to portly, from alive to dead, etc. Yet we want to say it was "the same thing" that embodied these properties and endured such changes.

So now we confront not only the complexity of form and matter, but once again the problem of identity and change. What is the nature of the thing that changes? How is it that one thing changes in so many ways and yet retains its identity as the same thing? According to Aristotle, that which changes is the particular substance -- and the substance is matter that has or embodies various characteristics or properties, e.g. it is round, tall, red, lying down, twelve years old, etc. Properties are what particular things share with one another. Many things can be red and share the property redness. That's because redness is a general, not a particular, thing. Many different people (particular things) can be philosophers, lovers, wives, dishonest, 24 years old, etc. That is to say, they can share the same properties or "whatness" with other particulars. But listing all the properties a thing has will never lead us to the individuality of thisthing (this horse, this person, this chair) that has these properties (brown, four years old, in the corner, etc.) Thus, the "thisness" (substance or matter) of a thing is distinct from its "whatness" (property or form).

Aristotle's Four Causes

From the analysis of a thing into its formal and material components, it's a short step to a more complete Aristotelian explanation. Everything, Aristotle says, aims at some end or goal which gives meaning and purpose to the thing. To understand a thing one must understand its function and goal. This is what he called its final cause. But it may also be helpful to understand how the goal or final cause is reached. The means of achieving its goal is what Aristotle called the means or the efficient cause of a thing.[2]

By extending the notion of cause to the formal, material, efficient, and final aspects of a thing, Aristotle arrived at this rather unusual theory of causation.[3] Consider, for example, the marble sculpture of a discus thrower. As we saw above with the brick, any attempt to understand a thing begins with the questions, "What is it?" and "Why does it look the way it does?" According to Aristotle, the answer will always involve four "causes".

This analysis of a thing into its four causes was applied to natural as well as artificial objects. Unfortunately, the division seems less plausible when it's applied to certain elements of nature, say, for example, stone or fire. What's the purpose of a stone? Aristotle would say its purpose is to fall toward the center of the earth. The purpose of fire? To rise toward the heavens. The problem here is that such claims seem, arbitrary, contrived, and not terribly useful or enlightening. Thus, while it's easy enough to specify the material, formal and in some cases the efficient cause of a natural object, it often requires a stretch of the imagination to formulate a final goal or purpose for it.


Finally, I want to look very briefly at Aristotle's view of astronomical order and motion since this will be the view that various scholars will use to reject the insights of Copernicus and Galileo in the Renaissance.

As we have seen, for Aristotle, all change is movement toward an end. This is known as a teleological view (and will be easily incorporated in the Middle Ages into a Christian theology which sees the world as "God's plan".) "Teleology" comes from the Greek word telos which means goal. The "-logy" in "teleology" comes from logos which, in this context, we can translate roughly as "the theory or study of". Thus psychology is the study of the psyche; sociology the study of social forms; and teleology, the study of goals or goal-directed behavior.

But it seems natural to assume that if everything has an end toward which it moves, there must also be a "place" from which it comes. In other words, it makes sense to ask about the ultimate ends and starting points for the things that exist. Is there a final resting place for all things -- an ultimate stasis in which all things come to a stop and change no more? And was there a beginning of all things -- a time prior to the existence of things and before any changes occurred?

According to Aristotle, everything that is in motion must have been put in motion by something which was itself in motion. This is true on a microscopic as well as a macroscopic scale. The principle assumption here is that all movement can be traced back to a prior movement. But if this is true, what could possibly have put the first thing into motion? Aristotle reasoned that there must be a first mover which is itself unmoved. That unmoved mover constitutes the ultimate and eternal God in Aristotle's scheme of things. Not a personal God; just a logical necessity -- but eternal nonetheless.

Aristotle also argued that the unmoved mover is immaterial and that it initiates an eternal circular motion which is both the basis of all the motions of natural objects in the universe and is the most perfect motion. Thus, the universe, he claimed, was composed of a set of concentric spheres at the center of which was a stationary earth. The motion of the stars and planets was explained in terms of the motion of these concentric spheres.

These are some of the fundamental components of Aristotle's view of the physical and intellectual world around us. His ideas had to be reckoned with in most philosophical discussions throughout the modern age. We'll encounter them again and again in our readings and discussions this semester. So keep them in mind.

Next we turn to two other aspects that shaped scientific and philosophical thinking going into the seventeenth century -- Mechanism and Mysticism.

II. Mechanism

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries brought a renewed interest in the observation of nature and the quantification of natural phenomena. For example, the rediscovery of perspectival drawing -- geometrical and optical techniques that allow a convincing rendering of space in two dimensions -- contributed to a transformation of the visual world. And the use of mathematics to characterize the constitution, motion, and behavior of both terrestrial and astronomical objects challenged the role of deductive logic as the primary tool of scientific investigation.

The importance accorded to mathematics during the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century goes back to Pythagorean, Platonic, and Arabic traditions. The emerging influence of the Arab world on European scholarship during the Middle Ages, the rebirth of interest in Plato, and translations of the works of Archimedes (287?-212 BCE) all contributed to an intellectual climate that made possible the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and the rise of a highly mechanistic and technological view of the universe.

There were also practical and technological uses to which the new science could be put which, no doubt, stimulated a good deal of support and financial backing. So, for example, the mathematical study of the use of cannons increased the efficiency of warfare, and significant improvements in navigational and optical instruments led to more effective travel and more accurate medical research. The collaboration of philosophers, scientists, artists and artisans produced a rapid increase in technology and experimentation.[4]

When the new emphasis on mathematics was fused with some of the ideas of Plato and the neo-Platonists, what resulted was a modern notion of "God the Mathematician" and celestial engineer who set the clockwork of the universe in motion. To study nature, then, was to study the mind of God. What more divine justification could there be for the new science?

In the sixteenth century, the ingenious but convoluted system of Ptolemy (2nd century) was overthrown by the heliocentric system of Copernicus, a scholar trained in canon law, astronomy, medicine and the arts, who argued that the earth revolves on its axis and turns in a circular path around the sun between Mars and Venus carrying the moon with it on an epicycle.

Copernicus was reluctant to publish his theory due to a well-founded fear of Church reaction. It was not until 1543, the year of his death, that his findings were made public with the publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.. Even then, his book contained a preface (written by someone else) claiming that Copernicus did not believe the theory and was not putting it forth as true.

While publication of the theory actually aroused little interest, it's truth was confirmed by Johannes Kepler's observations and detailed calculations of planetary motion. (Kepler, by the way, was influenced by Pythagorean mysticism which may have given him the beliefs and fortitude necessary to continue his difficult analysis of Tycho Brahe's extensive data). Kepler's observations also provided support for the emerging mathematical approach to scientific explanation, which involved hypothesis formation and the testing of hypotheses against empirical data. The one thing still missing, however, was an overarching theory or "rationale".

Galileo and the New Science

Galileo (1564-1642), who was born the same year as William Shakespeare, was a contemporary of Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Francis Bacon, William Gilbert, Thomas Hobbes, and René Descartes. Newton, who was born the year Galileo died, considered him a "giant" whose achievements made Newton's own discoveries possible.

One of Galileo's first discoveries was his law of pendulum motion (which he discovered, while still a medical student, as he watched the lighting of lamps hanging from the ceiling in the cathedral at Pisa.) Using his pulse as a timing device, he found that the periods of the lamp's motion were of equal duration, regardless of the distance covered.

Galileo taught mathematics at the University of Pisa from 1588 to 1592. He taught Aristotelian philosophy and was enthusiastic about the recently translated works of the Greek philosopher Archimedes. However, due to his sharp questioning of Aristotelian dogmas concerning motion, together with his critique of a royal engineering project , his teaching appointment at Pisa was terminated.

In 1592 he moved to the University of Padua where he taught mathematics and physics. The Venetian government, actively distancing itself from papal authority, provided a more suitable location for Galileo's teaching and research. Galileo's physics became increasingly mathematical, prompting many Aristotelians to claim that while his work in mathematics was impressive, his work in physics left much to be desired. His application of mathematics to physics was apparently too abstract and modern for them.

In 1609 he heard about a toy invented by a Dutchman that made distant objects appear close through the proper alignment of lenses in a tube. Galileo knew enough about optics at the time so that he was able to construct his own version of the telescope and aimed it at the night sky. Soon afterwards he observed the moons of Jupiter. With this discovery, he became an avid supporter of Copernicus' heliocentric theory, publishing the results of his observations in The Sidereal Messenger in 1610. Galileo's astronomical investigations confirmed the Copernican model and added to the number of heavenly bodies, which was considered heresy to the conservatives. So entrenched was medieval dogma that certain of his colleagues declined to even look through the telescope because they "knew" the number of celestial objects had to be seven -- a sacred number. For example, in an early seventeenth century "refutation" of Galileo's claims, his critics claimed that

Remember, in 1610 facts were not just facts but were still considered divine symbols to be interpreted -- scientific explanations had to be deduced from theological premises, not inferred from empirical observations.

Galileo moved to Florence in 1610 where he became "Chief Mathematician and Philosopher" in the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Meanwhile, the publication of Galileo's observations during the Inquisition and his support of the Copernican view proved controversial. While there were some supporters among the clergy, the level of tension and sensitivity was high and the Church's authority was under increasing attack. To complicate matters, Galileo was actively campaigning for and publicizing his views. He even went to Rome in 1615 to argue with theologians and to defend his views. The result was that the opposition hardened, publication of his book was suspended, and he was told not to teach these new theories unless he stated clearly that they were merely speculations and false ones at that.

In 1632, after publishing Dialogue on the Two Principle Systems of the World, which had a preface stating he was not advocating the heretical views contained in the work, Galileo had to face the Inquisition a second time. His own sympathies were hardly concealed in the text, however, as he positioned the character named "Simplicio" as the chief advocate of the traditional (and weak) Aristotelian view. Now he was called back to face the Inquisition a second time, threatened with torture, and forced to renounce on his knees the heliocentric view. He must have felt lucky to have escaped with his life given that many other "heretics" of the day were often executed for contradicting received doctrines.

In 1638 Galileo published Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences. In this work, the general assumption ("rationale") underlying the behavior of material objects was taken to be geometric. Since geometry is a deductive science, Galileo was clearly suggesting that, in principle at least, physics must also be an exact science.

The Methodological Legacy

What was the scientific legacy of this rich period of discovery? At least three principles emerged from it:

There was also an emphasis on that which is observable and measurable. Thus, primary qualities (extension, figure, motion) are taken to be more real than secondary qualities (color, sound, etc.) which are nothing more than subjective appearances. Galileo put the matter in the following way: Typical of the "new scientist" was the view that physical reality is characterized by matter in motion. The behavior of matter conforms to simple mathematical laws. Thus, a mechanistic and quantitative view of nature must replace the teleological and qualitative view.

This new approach to the understanding of nature also raised the issue of free will and determinism, as well as questions about the relation and priority of phenomenal experience (appearance) and objective relations (reality), leading to a re-emergence of dualism as one way of reconciling materialism with Christian doctrine.

III. Mysticism, Platonism, and the Great Chain of Being

In addition to the developments in applied mathematics and scientific experimentation during the renaissance, the revival of Pythagoreanism and Platonism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries also stimulated an interest in various forms of mysticism and the occult sciences (astrology, numerology, alchemy, etc.) To separate these elements from the scientific concepts and practices of the time would be to ignore an important aspect of late medieval and renaissance thinking about human experience, the natural world, and their place in the "Great Chain of Being".[8]

Neo-Platonism also emphasized beauty, order and the importance of the sun as the source of light, nutrition, and life on earth. Such views contributed to a "climate of opinion" in which it was quite natural to think of the universe as based on mathematical relations, and to conceive of the sun as the source around which earthly life revolves, both physically and spiritually. Thus, it should come as no surprise that in this context Copernicus, Kepler, and others were motivated by mystical as well as a scientific ideas in the construction of a heliocentric view of the universe.


1. Notice that our discussion is becoming increasingly abstract as we look into the metaphysical and fundamental nature of reality. This is not uncommon in philosophical analysis. But it does take some getting used to. By all means don't hesitate to ask a question if you feel you're getting lost in the fog. There's always somebody around to help. [return]

2. The concept of efficient cause will be very important in our discussions of seventeenth century philosophy and science. [return]

3. Note that Aristotle's use of the word "cause" is quite different from the way we use it today. We would only refer to the efficient cause as a cause. [return]

4. Galileo's remarks are instructive here: "The constant activity which you Venetians display in your famous arsenal suggests to the studious mind a large field for investigation, especially that part of the work which involves mechanics; for in this department all types of instruments and machines are constantly being constructed by many artisans, among whom there must be some who, partly by inherited experience and partly by their own observations, have become highly expert and clever in explanation." From Discourse and Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences (1638), in Allen G. Debus, Man and Nature in the Renaissance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978, 10. [return]

5. Galileo, "Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems", The Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy (ed. Michael R. Matthews), Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989, 64. [return]

6. Taken from Charles Taylor, Hegel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, 4. [return]

7. Galileo, The Assayer (1623), in Michael R. Matthews (ed.), The Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy: Selected Readings, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1989, 56f. [return]

8. Debus, op. cit., 11-15. [return]

9. Ibid., 12. [return]

© T. R. Quigley, 1997

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