Aristotelian Philosophy and Empiricism

The Scientific Revolution of the 17th century marked the beginning of a new era of modern science that significantly transformed and advanced the existing knowledge and ideas. The philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Francis Bacon played an instrumental role in shaping the theory of empiricism that, to a considerable extent, challenged the philosophy of the Antiquity, in general, and Aristotle, in particular. The present paper sets out to identify the main points of contention between the two approaches with the goal of determining whether the two can be reconciled.

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Empiricism is a theory of science that puts special emphasis on observation and experience rather than logic and deliberation alone (Bacon 336). The empiricist view of the nature of reason thus differs considerably from that of the classical philosophers. First of all, Aristotle’s model of reasoning is what came to be known as deductive reasoning, whereby one uses logic to make inferences about specific phenomena based on pre-existing general knowledge. Even though Aristotle, like empiricists, also considers senses to be of utmost importance for obtaining knowledge, thinking is how he thinks people arrive at it (Aristotle 98). The nature of reason in the view of the empiricist philosophers is also closely linked to senses, but they also realize that human perception can be skewed for several reasons, which Bacon refers to as “the Idols” (426). Hobbes compares reasoning to the act of adding and subtracting, and it needs to be based on agreed-upon principles (33). Thus, one gains knowledge about the world by making inductions about phenomena based on experiments and observation – what came to be known as the scientific method.

This difference stems from the two philosophies’ approach to human intellect and its virtues. Aristotle has described five primary “virtues of thought” (98). He grouped them into theoretical, practical, and productive. The first group includes wisdom, scientific or empirical knowledge, and reason. The second only has one virtue which can be translated as prudence, or practical wisdom, into English. Finally, the last category refers to the skills needed to produce something, such as arts or craft. According to Aristotle, it is the human soul that can possess these virtues (99). The empiricists, on the other hand, are far more materialistic in their line of thinking. Hobbes, for instance, does not consider the reasoning process in terms of virtues; for him, matter and the laws of nature are what is important when it comes to the human mind (7). Thus, intellectual virtues of Aristotle are translated into more practical and materialistic terms in empiricism.

The intellectual virtues of Aristotle guide the soul to accept or reject some notion so as the person arrives at the truth. However, out of the five virtues, Aristotle mostly talks about the virtue of practical wisdom, or phronesis in Greek. It is an intellectual virtue because one acquires it from instruction rather than experience, yet it is the virtue that is most connected to moral virtues (Aristotle 111). Practical intelligence is necessary because it guides the everyday actions of people; without it, even a person that has good intentions will not be able to act upon them. Thus, the intellectual virtues of Aristotle have a very practical end to them: deduction from general and minor premises to guide the behavior of people. The empiricists, on the other hand, given their materialism, aim to establish certain and certifiable knowledge based on evidence.

It thus follows that the Aristotelean reason cannot help people attain the goals of the modern empiricists. To a significant, the process of reasoning grounded in deliberation and logic can produce false outcomes as human intelligence is not infallible. Mere observation and consequent interpretation do not produce the knowledge as required by empiricism. On the other hand, it thus appears that reason in the modern empiricist sense is not necessarily incompatible with the goals of Aristotle. While the scientific method can be more difficult and time-consuming for implementation in one’s everyday life, nevertheless, knowledge obtained through such a method can still guide the person’s practical intelligence.

Once again, the differences between the two philosophies can be largely understood in light of their view of the human soul. Aristotle divides the human soul into a part with reason and another without it – the interaction of the two is what guides a person’s behavior. The soul is the tool that allows humans to observe the objects’ form from which they can then make inferences about their substance. However, the materialistic view supported by Hobbes and Bacon discards this notion of soul, as they believe that physical interactions and matter are objective regardless of how one observes it (Hobbes 7). For them, senses are an imperfect guide to reasoning.

Empiricism and the scientific method have thus made a considerable step away from the classical philosophy of Aristotle. The two approaches emphasize different ways of arriving at knowledge – that of deliberation and that of observation – that is grounded in how they perceive the human soul, intelligence, and reason.

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Works Cited

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 2014. Print.

Bacon, Francis. Great Instauration and the Novum Organum. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 1996. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

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