Greek Philosophy and Science
May 10 15:08:40 2009
There is a tendency, for me at least, to alternate between two views. The first is that practically all science and philosophy originates with the Greeks as almost all of our sciences begin with reference to the ideas of the Greeks. The other view would be to evaluate those ideas from our current understanding and see how well they have held up over the years. From this perspective the Greeks fare rather poorly as physical science based on four elements and their four qualities or medical science based on humours seems naïve and fantastical to us today. Neither of these approaches seem especially helpful or informative.
The Greek approach to understanding the world was rarely experimental and seems far removed from the hypothesis formation and testing that are the cornerstone of modern science. While many particular ideas–Hippocrates’s humours, Euclid’s geometry and the natural philosophy of Plato’s Timeaus to name a few–were influential in the Hellenistic, Arab and medieval European world, I think their most important contribution was in a rather dramatic change in method and approach to understanding the world.
The Milesians took the first and most important step. Their naturalistic approach looked to mechanisms in the world in order to explain it rather than relying upon supernatural and mythological explanations. Hippocrates brought rigorous disciplined observation and classification to medicine and science generally. The Eleatics and Sophists taught the importance of language in understanding the world and the development of a complex rhetorical approaches to describing and evaluating propositions later codified in the six books of Aristotle’s Analytics. Thucydides and later Plato experimented with contrasting different points of view to see how that might inform or alter our understanding. Xenophon, while not what we would consider either a philosopher or scientist today, extended the use of these techniques to a great range of subjects, many of them quite ordinary and prosaic. Aristotle continued this trend and applied meticulous observation, rational evaluation and comparative taxonomy to many aspects of the natural and social world including plants, animals, physics, optics, even ethics and politics.