Thursday, 2 August 2018

Aristotle on The Motivation of Greek Science

The motivation of Greek science is summed up in a passage by Aristotle in his first book of Metaphysics. Here’s the passage (as quoted by Benjamin Farrington in Greek Science; page 130-131):
That it is not a productive science is clear, even from the consideration of the earliest philosophies. For men were first led to study philosophy, as indeed they are today, by wonder. At first they felt wonder about the more superficial problems; afterwards they advanced gradually by perplexing themselves over greater difficulties; e.g., the behaviour of the moon, the phenomena of the sun, and the origination of the universe. Now he who is perplexed and wonders believes himself to be ignorant. Hence even the lover of myths is, in a sense, a philosopher, for a myth is a tissue of wonders. Thus if they took to philosophy to escape ignorance, it is patent that they were pursuing science for the sake of knowledge itself, and not for any utilitarian applications. This is confirmed by the course of the historical development itself. For nearly all the requisites both of comfort and social refinement had been secured before the quest for this form of enlightenment began. So it is clear that we do not seek it for the sake of any ulterior application. Just as we call a man free who exists for his own ends and not for those of another, so it is with this, which is the only free man's science: it alone of the sciences exists for its own sake.
It is noteworthy that Aristotle severs the origins of this branch of philosophy from the techniques of production. He believed that as a free man is to his slaves, so is philosophy to the practical sciences. He also notes that applied science had completed its task long before his time.

In another passage from Metaphysics (quoted by Farrington, in Greek Science, Page 131), Aristotle says:
It was natural that in the earliest times the inventor of any Art which goes beyond the common sense-perceptions of mankind should be universally admired, not merely for any utility to be found in his inventions, but for the wisdom by which he was distinguished from other men. But when a variety of arts had been invented, some of them being concerned with the necessities and others with the social refinements of life, the inventors of the latter were naturally always considered wiser than the former because their knowledge was not directed to immediate utility. Hence when everything of these kinds had been already provided, those sciences were discovered which deal neither with the necessities nor with the enjoyments of life, and this took place earliest in regions where men had leisure. This is why the mathematical arts were first put together in Egypt, for in that country the priestly caste were indulged with leisure.
The key point that Aristotle is making this passage is that knowledge which is not directed to immediate utility is of the higher kind, and that true knowledge of reality originates through men who have leisure and not from those who are interested in finding out how things work. 

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