Aristotelian sciences threaten to cause a great scientific scandal. A finished Aristotelian science is a deductive system of all the truths in a domain structured into theorems and the explanatory first principles (or axioms, in modern parlance) that they can be explanatorily derived from. A presentation of an Aristotelian science thus should look a lot like Euclid’s Elements: first principles are asserted at the start without justification and then various theorems are demonstrated from them. First principles being asserted without justification is what Frege called the great ‘scandal’ of science. Why think these propositions (and not others) are the basic explainers? Until we get such justification, the entire scientific endeavour is on shaky footing. It is easy to see, then, why Aristotle the scientist should feel the force of this scandal. My research argues that he does.
Aristotle tackles the scientific scandal head-on. I argue that Aristotle theorized and (in his own scientific writings) practiced a procedure for giving you reasons to treat certain propositions (and not others) as the basic explainers of a science. In short, Aristotle theorizes something I call the downstream-justification of principles as principles. The basic idea is this: when we already accept a proposition Q which belongs to a science, and another proposition P gives an explanation for Q but does not itself have an explanation, P is a good candidate for an explanatory first principle. The key idea behind downstream-justification is that we justify principles as principles by starting with the explanatorily downstream theorems of the science and work our way back up to the principles. Whereas in demonstrations you use upstream truths (principles) to justify downstream truths (theorems), in downstream-justifications of principles as principles you use deductively downstream truths (theorems) to justify upstream truths (principles).
Despite the ineliminable role which the downstream-justification of principles as principles plays in science-building, its workings and its role have not received explicit recognition from readers of Aristotle. One of the most salient ways in which this lack of recognition has been detrimental to our understanding of Aristotle is that it has prevented us from seeing how Aristotle structures his own writings. Take the Physics and the Posterior Analytics; they are core texts of the Aristotelian corpus and the conceptual entryway into much of Aristotle’s philosophy. My research shows that these treatises—commonly thought to be some of Aristotle’s most difficult, frustrating, and unsatisfying texts—are in fact organized in a compelling way around a philosophically interesting project: getting sciences going. My research accordingly centers on two closely related projects. The first focuses on what Aristotle thinks we have to do to get natural science going. In particular, I argue that Aristotle’s Physics looks exactly like we should expect, given what we learn from the Posterior Analytics about justifying principles as principles of natural science. My second project shows that Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics—often considered unsatisfying or even inchoate—is structured around the aim to build up a science of epistemology, that is to say, structured around identifying and justifying the explanatory first principles of epistemology.
Science-building and principle justification thus provide an attractive framework for thinking about the famously fraught relationship between Aristotle’s scientific theory and his scientific practice.
Picture taken on Antelope Island Utah, 2015