A Historical Introduction to the
Philosophy of Science

Ch. 1: Aristotle's Philosophy of Science

Book cover: A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by John Losee

The following is a summary of the Introduction and the first chapter of John Losee's book, A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (fourth edition), with some ancillary notes.


[p. 1] Philosophers and scientists do not agree on the nature and subject matter of the philosophy of science (e.g., is it the study of scientific achievement in its historical context or is it a reformulation as a deductive discipline?).

[pp. 1–2] There are four views of the philosophy of science:

  1. formulation of world-views based on scientific theories (ontological categories/implications of theories)
  2. exposition of the presuppositions and predispositions of scientists (sociology of science)
  3. analysis and clarification of scientific theories (elucidation of meanings of concepts)
  4. investigation of the distinction between science and non-science, scientific procedures, the nature of scientific explanation and the truth-value of laws and principles

Losee's book is devoted to the fourth view—that philosophy of science is a second-order discipline—while treating aspects of the second and third view.

[p. 3] There is no hard distinction between science and the philosophy of science (e.g., both seek to answer what makes a scientific explanation acceptable).

It is important to review both what scientists have said about the scientific method and their actual scientific practice.

Aristotle's Philosophy of Science

Philosophers discussed in this chapter: Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

[p. 4] Aristotle was the first philosopher of science. He set up the Peripatetic School in Athens, covering epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), physics, biology, ethics, politics and aesthetics. In the philosophy of science, principle works are his Posterior Analytics, the Physics and the Metaphysics.

Aristotle's Inductive–Deductive Method

[p. 5] For Aristotle, scientific enquiry progresses by an inductive–deductive procedure from observations to general principles and back to observations.

Everything is a union of matter and form. Matter individuates (e.g., makes two identical giraffes two and not one) and form gives commonality among things (e.g., all animals with a four-chambered stomach).

[p. 6] Inductive stage of scientific enquiry

There are two types of induction:

  1. induction by simple enumeration from individual objects/events to generalization about a species, or from individual species to a generalization about a genus
  2. induction by intuition from phenomena to what is an essential property (like 'seeing';)

[p. 7] Deductive stage of scientific enquiry

Deductive syllogism consists of two premises and one conclusion.

Syllogism is deductively valid and consists of major (P), minor (S) and middle (M) terms.

If 'Every S is included in M'

AND 'Every M is included in P',

then (necessarily) 'Every S is included in P'

Major premise: one class is included/excluded from another class

–all/some S are/are not included in P

'All S are P' indicates P as an essential property and is the basis for scientific explanation. The interposition of the middle term between individual S and property P allows explanation for S having property P (e.g., why planets shine steadily).

The validity of a syllogism is solely down to the structural relationship between the premises and the conclusion.

Empirical Requirements for Scientific Explanation

[p. 8] For Aristotle, for a true scientific explanation:

  1. the premises of the syllogism must be true
  2. the premises must be indemonstrable (some are axiomatic/unprovable to avoid an infinite regress of explanations)
  3. the premises must be better known than the conclusion (the general laws of a science are self-evident)
  4. the properties named in the premises are the causes of the attribution in the conclusion (distinguishes true causes from accidental correlations) [p. 9]

[p. 9] For a true causal relation, the attribute is:

  1. true of every instance of the subject (no exceptions)
  2. true of the subject precisely and not as part of a larger whole
  3. 'essential to' the subject
Book cover: Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science by Richard DeWitt

Losee objects to criterion 1. The lack of an exception cannot be determined for most properties (e.g., all dense objects sink).

Losee objects to criterion 3. As Aristotle has not given criteria for being 'essential to', this only pushes the need for explanation one step back.

[p. 10] For Aristotle, each science has its own distinct subject genus and set of predicates and hierarchy of deductive principles.

General level: principles of identity, non-contradiction and excluded middle (applies to all sciences)

First principles of physics: natural motion/violent motion; no vacuum (not deducible from other premises)

[p. 11] An acceptable scientific explanation must specify all four causes:

  1. formal cause: specifies pattern of the process (design)
  2. material cause: specifies type of substance
  3. efficient cause: specifies what brings about transition
  4. final cause: specifies the reason for the process (telos)

[LA: For more on Aristotle's four causes, see]

Both animate and inanimate objects have a telos (e.g., fire rises to its 'natural place') that may not be conscious or involve a cosmic purpose, but are always deterministic.

Aristotle criticized:

  • the atomists who neglected formal and final causes by focusing on the motion of atoms
  • the Pythagoreans who only focused on formal causes by explaining in terms of mathematical relationships

The Demarcation of Empirical Science

[p. 12] Aristotle demarcated empirical science from pure mathematics by saying the former deals with change while the latter deals with the unchanging. Pure mathematical forms are abstracted from physical processes and have no objective existence. The first principles of science and their deductive consequences are necessarily true.

The Necessary Status of First Principles

Losee thinks Aristotle is committed to:

  1. some properties inhere essentially in individuals [LA: e.g., Socrates would not be a man if he were not a mammal]
  2. an identity of structure between sentences describing essential properties and their real counterparts in nature
  3. scientists correctly intuit the relationship between language and reality

[p. 13] Losee concludes that Aristotle's distinction between generalizations that are necessarily true and others that are accidental is plausible. However, Aristotle failed to specify a way to verify which properties are essential.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What is it to be an 'essential' property of a thing? How can we tell?
  2. Was Aristotle a scientist, a proto-scientist or not a scientist at all? Why?
  3. Does Aristotle's syllogistic form of explanation really explain why a thing has a particular property or a particular event happens?

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