|||Aristotle, and Jonathan Barnes. Physics. The complete works of Aristotle: the revised Oxford translation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.|||
When the objects of an inquiry, in any department, have principles, causes, or elements, it is through acquaintance with these that knowledge and understanding is attained. For we do not think that we know a thing until we are acquainted with its primary conditions or first principles, and have carried our analysis as far as its simplest elements. Plainly therefore in the science of Nature too our first task will be to try to determine what relates to its principles. The natural way of doing this is to start from the things which are more knowable and clear to us and proceed towards those which are clearer and more knowable by nature; for the same things are not knowable relatively to us and knowable without qualification. 184a10-18.
As is usual with his works, Aristotle packs many things into two short paragraphs. Being a very systematic thinker, he reminds us what a science is and how to approach it. In the practical sciences, we explore particular areas of nature. Physics studies things as they are in motion. Chemistry studies things as they are subject to chemical change. In natural philosophy, which is Aristotle’s particular interest in this work, we search for the principles of natural things. This quest will have to balance many opposing pairs (matter and form, universal and particular, real being and being of reason, constancy and change). Where we begin will have a tremendous impact on possible solutions to philosophy’s toughest questions. For example, how do we account for the similarity between two things and at the same time account for the change that goes on in each of them?
The last sentence of the quote above gives us Aristotle’s pedagogical starting point. He begins with a contrast between how things are known by us and how things are known in themselves. The latter is the goal, but the former is where we must start. There have been many philosophical systems that try to start out in the mind and work outward. These systems turn into logical systems that are completely disconnected from reality itself. The classical definition of truth is,”the correspondence of the mind with reality.” If that is the definition of truth, then one cannot begin with the mind (i.e. in a Cartesian or Kantian manner). We must begin with experience. That is how we learn, how we come to know the world. It is not a perfect method, as is evident from the many, many different philosophical responses to the toughest questions. It is ours, however. As creatures, made of matter and form, our knowledge is imperfect.
That our knowledge cannot be perfect (especially at the beginning of the inquiry) scares many philosophers. However, we must approach philosophy as Socrates did, with humility, awe, and reverence for the eternal.
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