You are on page 1of 6

Aristotelian vs.

Galilean Forms of Explanation
William S. Abruzzi

"The development of thought since Aristotle could, I think, be summed up by
saying that every discipline as long as it used the Aristotelian method of
definition has remained arrested in a state of empty verbiage and barren
scholasticism and that the degree to which the various sciences have been
able to make any progress depended on the degree to which they have been
able to get rid of this essentialist method."
--Karl R . Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies 1950, p. 206.

Aristotle explained the behavior of an object, such as a rock, in terms of the “essential
nature” of that object. For Aristotle, a non-measurable force existed within an object
that compelled it to behave in a certain manner. A stone, for example, was classified by
Aristotle as a heavy object, while fire was defined as a light object. Since heavy objects,
likes stones, tend to fall downwards and light objects, such as fire, tend to move
upwards, these behaviors --gravity and levity respectively-- were deemed by Aristotle to
be part of the essential nature of those objects. The significant point here is that the
factors determining the behavior of an object, according to Aristotle, all originate within
the object to be explained, and depend upon the unobservable nature of that object.

One of the consequences of Aristotle’s method of explanation was that he proposed
two kinds of motion: natural motion and unnatural motion. Stones do not always move
downward. When thrown they may proceed upward before returning to the earth. This
upward motion of the stone was considered unnatural to Aristotle because the force
causing the stone to move upwards originated from outside the stone and, hence, did
not result from the stone’s own volition (its nature). One of the important components of
an Aristotelian explanation, therefore, is that thebehavior which is typically associated
with a particular object becomes viewed as the “natural” behavior of that object.
Because rocks tend to move downward, it thus becomes the “nature” of rocks to move
downward in Aristotelian philosophy. We, thus, have two explanations for the movement
of the rock: one explanation for the rock’s downward motion and a very different
explanation for the rock’s movement in any direction but downward. All of these other
movements become “exceptions to the rule.” The result, however, is that Aristotelians
cannot really explain the movement of the rock at all --why it moves faster or slower, at
various angles, etc. Only vague generalizations can be made: “Rocks will normally
move downwards”.

in a completely new way of analyzing that world. One result of this new way of looking at the world was a substantially greater precision in the new explanations. scientists were concerned . Initiated by Galileo and later synthesized by Isaac Newton. Newton. but. Instead. this precision was not the significant part of the revolution. Hand in hand with the rejection of the earlier Aristotelian theories. The Mechanical Revolution resulted not only in a different conception of the physical world. It ushered in a whole new concept of what actually constitutes science. and others were now asking completely different questions. it was the result of that revolution. Then came what has become known as The Mechanical Revolution. there was now little concern for classifying objects into abstract categories as a basis for building theoretical explanations. First of all. more importantly. was the repudiation of the analytical methods upon which those theories were based. and arriving at significantly different answers. However. The true revolution was in the methodological procedures followed. Galileo.

the surface of both the ball and the plane. “historical rarity is no disproof. In addition. How would the angle of the inclined plane. The historical occurrences are not lawful. but rather the theoretical relationship between variables. An event was to be explained as the interaction of specific measurable variables (both internal and external to the object). This revolution in science was a fundamental consequence of by far the most unique aspect of the methodological innovations introduced by the Mechanical Revolution. . not just of the ball but of a whole variety of objects. “The Newtonian achievement rendered Aristotelian patterns of explanation logically incoherent” (Wilson. making it move faster. rather. historical regularity no proof of lawfulness” (Lewin. affect the movement of the ball? By viewing each of these factors as measurable variables. This resulted from an important shift away from a concern with the abstract averages common to a group to the full consideration of a specific situation. we had a single Galilean explanation for the movement. etc. plane angle. 1935: 26). 1969: 298).e.with the interaction of specific variables that could be discerned to have an effect upon a particular event. etc. Occam’s Razor made these two concepts irrelevant. using a simple set of principles that predicted each behavior as a consequence of the measurable relationship among the relevant variables. rather than resulting from either “natural” or “unnatural” forces. often. Consequently. the medium surrounding the ball. or not at all is irrelevant to the validity of the law. All motion was conditional. unnatural motion became superfluous. In the place of separate and distinct Aristotelian explanations for the movement of different objects based on the non-measurable “nature” of those objects. What becomes lawful is not the historical association between items. the shape of the ball. slower -- or even upwards! The various movements were not considered natural or unnatural. Galileo followed a completely different procedure. several different explanations were replaced by one single systemic explanation. Instead of rolling a number of balls down an inclined plane and calculating the average of the group. As a result. Variables rather than types formed the cornerstone of the new explanation. Galileo’s principles of motion (and the principles of those who followed him) could now be applied not only to balls rolling down an inclined plane. they are deduced by aid of the laws. There was no longer a concern with the “nature” of an object. i. the rejecting of any reference to the historically given in the formulation and determination of lawfulness. basing the “law of movement on an inclined plane” on that average. Whether an event described by a law occurs rarely. but rather with a more precise determination of the variables contributing to a situation. but any kind of motion/behavior associated with any kind of object. Better and better explanations could now be proposed and tested (and accepted or rejected) by comparing how accurately and precisely they explained the motion of a variety of objects. but rather predictable consequences of different constellations of ball shape. He considered all of the variables that could influence the motion of the ball and what their effect on the ball’s motion would be. The concept of natural vs. Galileo could postulate how a change in one or more of these variables would affect the overall movement of the ball. Explanation assumed a whole new form.

as some people do. Otherwise. so also are Aristotelian concepts in the social sciences unable to explain the considerable variation that exists in human behavior. this is Aristotelian! Similarly. Thus. such Aristotelian thinking underlies all gender and ethnic stereotypes. We would also have to claim similar natural differences between whites and blacks. use concepts and explanations that are fundamentally Aristotelian. we are being Aristotelian. as well as for the same society over time? If we are going to argue that males are “naturally” more aggressive because of their higher involvement in violence. domestic violence. ethnic/racial stereotypes. vary from one society to another. of course. as well as the well-documented domestic violence that occurs in both gay and lesbian relations? Furthermore. then how do we explain the fact that most men do not beat their wives and children and that governments generally have to resort to the draft (which many men resist) in order to raise armies. how do we explain husband abuse by wives. in the same society through time. For example. then how do we explain maternal child abuse? Do we consider these as "exceptions to the rule"? If so. when we use the concept “mother’s instinct” to explain maternal behavior. infanticide. If we do adopt such approaches. then we must also argue that African Americans are naturally more aggressive because they display a higher incidence of violent behavior as well. and among different segments of a specific community? Similarly. how do we explain the fact that the incidence of warfare varies significantly among human societies. a constant cannot explain a variable. How does all of this relate to explaining human behavior? We need to ask ourselves to what extent people in their daily lives. be that constant the nature of a ball. . we are being logically inconsistent. Indeed. or that lower-income males are far more likely to join the army than upper-income males? Also. We would need to argue. as many individuals do. Put very simple. are we attempting to explain certain behavior typically associated with women by proposing non-measurable essentialist forces considered “natural” to females? If so. Such reasoning can’t. or the culture of a particular population. If we are going to base the existence of natural characteristics on behavior that is typical of men and women. Again. if we discuss domestic violence or warfare in terms of the more aggressive “nature” of males. while women are naturally subservient because they have more typically been nurses rather than doctors and secretaries rather than bosses. that men are more naturally leaders because they fill more leadership positions. If we assume that male-on-female domestic violence results because males are “naturally” more aggressive than females and that warfare is a product of male aggressiveness. etc. or with different social groups. explain the radical changes that have taken place in our own society in the past 40 years. how do we explain the fact that rates of murder. maternal instinct. aren’t we saying that one form of behavior (nurturing children) is “natural” to women while the other form of behavior (child abuse) is “unnatural”? This is Aristotelian. if these “natural” tendencies exist in all males and females. then we must be consistent and apply it to all behaviors that are typically associated with one sex or the other. child abuse. as well as sociologists and anthropologists in their research. just as the Aristotelian approach to the motion of a heavy object such as a ball cannot explain all of the variation in a ball’s motion. we are also relying on non- measurable essentialist forces attributed to the category male based on the fact that men fight wars and that physical violence in our society is more typically associated with males.

Navajo behavior to Navajo culture and Bemba behavior to Bemba culture. When we use the concept of culture. the Iroquois Indians practice both matrilocal residence and matrilineal descent. Arapaho. participation in external trade relations. without ever having to mention purported “natural” characteristics. were matrilocal and matrilineal. what about people who live in other societies who do the same thing? For example. Sioux culture. etc. They add nothing to the explanation. the role of men and women in the larger political economy. Crow. differences between men and women in control over household talk about Cheyenne culture.. such Plains Indians as the Cheyenne. or can we dispense with these concepts and focus instead on the impact of the horse and the gun on the role of men and women in subsistence. How do we explain their behavior? Do we attribute the Iroquois behavior to Iroquois culture. We need to abandon essentialist Aristotelian explanations in the social sciences in favor of conditional explanations that account for variationin social behavior in terms of the different material circumstances in which individuals and populations find themselves. women. or will one systemic explanation that applies to all groups suffice? In other words. as well as the Bemba peoples in Africa. etc.. for example. They are superfluous. the division of labor between men and women in the household economy. Likewise. does the concept of culture add to the explanation.? Which gives us a better scientific understanding of the post-marital residence and kinship: having several different Aristotelian explanations based on the non-measurable cultural forces associated with each distinct group. Sioux. the role of men vs. political organization. If. we are making an Aristotelian generalization: “Most of the people in this place behave in a certain way. kinship systems.? Do we need a different explanation for each group. whereas afterwards their residence and kinship became more strongly male-oriented? Is it necessary --or even useful-. political organization. to explain the behavior of people. or is it superfluous? . etc. then Occam’s Razor suggests that this concept is also superfluous and needs to be abandoned if we hope to develop systematic and testable theories of human social behavior that are able to explain and predict human behavior in any meaningful way. can be predicted? Also. for example. So do the Navajo. then the principle of Occam’s Razor states that such concepts are irrelevant and should be abandoned. kinship systems. or a single Galilean explanation based on the relationship among a specific set of social variables from which the different forms of residence. how do we explain the fact that before they acquired the horse. etc. women in warfare. if we can explain various social behaviors among different human societies without using the concept of culture (which is a notoriously subjective and non- measurable concept). or do we see post-marital residence and kinship as part of a larger system of behavior in which different sets of ecological and economic circumstances produce different residence patterns. we can explain differences in gender-related behavior by focusing on such quantifiable variables as the work load of men vs. family structure.” But what about the people who do not behave in the way that is typical for the group? Also. the ownership of property. etc. it must be because they all share this non-measurable set of values and beliefs that cause them to act that way. etc.

too vague and too subjective to be of any meaningful scientific value? If it does prove unnecessary. law school. Similarly. than in Japan. medical school. comprise over 50% of students in college. then how useful is this concept? How meaningful is it to use the same concept to describe both the U. or is it. like the concept of culture. kinship. where female infanticide is practiced.S. religion and many other aspects of human social behavior. I submit that we can better understand the cross-cultural diversity and similarity of human social behaviors if we approach them through the application of systemic models that attempt to explain such behaviors as a consequence of underlying ecological and economic conditions. gender. Various patterns of social behavior occur cross-culturally with regard to ecology. if so many different societies are defined as Patriarchal. . rather than through the use of vague and operationally indefinable concepts that result in logically unconnected and non-systematic explanations or in explanations that are so vague and subjective as to lack scientific credibility. (where women inherit property.. be discarded as irrelevant. essentialist characteristics) to societies defined by these terms? Furthermore.S.) and the Inuit (where women do not inherit property but rather are the property of their husbands. participate in the labor force. and where husbands lend their wives to other men for sexual purposes)? How does the application of this concept help explain the much greater incidence of rape and violence against women in the U. like other Aristotelian concepts. it should. which most individuals would describe as more patriarchal than the U. etc.? Can this concep be used in a systematic way to explain differences in gender relations over time and in different societies. how useful are such essentialist Aristotelian concepts as Patriarchal and Matriarchal society? Are these operationally definable concepts? Don’t those who apply these concepts in their analysis of gender relations attribute specific inherent “natures” (that is.S.