36 - A Principled Stand: Aristotle's Epistemology

Peter discusses Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, asking what demands we must meet in order to count as having knowledge. The bar turns out to be set surprisingly high.

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Further Reading: 

• P. Adamson, “Posterior Analytics II.19: a Dialogue with Plato?” in Aristotle and the Stoics Reading Plato, ed. V. Harte, MM McCabe, R.W. Sharples and A. Sheppard (London: 2010), 1-19.

• J. Barnes, Aristotle, Posterior Analytics (Oxford: 1996).

• M. Burnyeat, “Aristotle on Understanding Knowledge,” in E. Berti (ed.), Aristotle on Science: The Posterior Analytics (Padua: 1981), 97–139.

• M. Ferejohn, The Origins of Aristotelian Science (New Haven: 1980).

• M. Frede, “Aristotle’s Rationalism” in M. Frede and G. Striker (eds), Rationality in Greek Thought (Oxford: 1996).

Luke Cash's picture

Aristotle's ideas about taxonomy and evolution

Aristotle's idea of persistent generalization seems to explain why he believed there was a static order in the animal kingdom. It could be said that his epistemics directly relate to his classification of the species according to type and binomial definition, right?

So, where was it that he wrote about what they coined "The Great Chain"? I'm interested to read that work.

Peter Adamson's picture

The great chain

Hi Luke,

Yes, you're exactly right about the relation of his biology and epistemology, that's one reason I tried to emphasize the point about the universality of knowledge (according to him).

The "great chain of being" idea is to me most familiar as the title of a book by Arthur Lovejoy. The basic idea is that there is a hierarchy of types of beings with God at the top, down through angels (or whatever), humans, animals, plants, minerals, and perhaps elements or matter itself at the bottom. Aristotle anticipates that to some extent, but doesn't use the expression I don't think.



Luke Cash's picture

The first principle

How interesting it is that Aristotle himself seems to be the root for our idea of an axiom.

Charles B's picture

Middle Term

Hi Peter thanks for your great podcasts! I am just wondering about the 'middle term'. In medicine, doctors are always trying to isolate and identify the causes of various diseases. So after experiment and trial and error they might find that the cause of disease X is Y, and so for example they found that the cause of TB was a particular kind of bacteria that spreads through the air (and not something in the water or something in the food etc). So could this be expressed as an Aristotelian or other kind of syllogism or is this just a different and non-syllogistic kind of cause?

Thank you

Peter Adamson's picture

Medical example

Hi -- that's an excellent example I think, actually, because Aristotle wants the middle term to be a causal link between the extreme terms. So the syllogism would go like this:

All flu sufferers are affected by the flu virus

All who are affected by the flu virus get symptoms X Y and Z

Therefore all flu sufferers get symptoms X Y and Z

So the idea would be that we started by observing that people have these symptoms and we look for the explanatory cause, which turns out to be the virus. It would be important for Aristotle that the same virus is always the cause, because these links for him are supposed to be necessary (so it couldn't be that sometimes the flu has some other underlying cause).

Might be worth thinking about this in the context of the medical epistemology debate I covered in this other episode. Basically I think the Empiricists would claim that the middle term isn't helping you do anything in terms of treatment -- just recognizing the symptoms is enough -- whereas the Rationalists would claim that it is integral to medicine that we discover the underlying cause.