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C H A P T E R 4 A R I S T O T L E ' S PHYSICS AND TODAY'S P H Y S I C S * IN MAKING some observations on the nature of the physics of the Greeks, especially of the physics of Aristotle, our aim will be to point up similarities and dissimilarities, analogies and discrepancies, between the physics of antiquity and the physics of today. The aim is not to find out how much of Greek physics survives in ours, but to verify that to a certain extent the similarities in the modes of general thinking, ancient and modern, also reflect themselves in parallelisms between the doctrines of physics which these modes of thinking have produced. 1. PHYSICS AND MATHEMATICAL PHYSICS Greek physics, while being observational and perhaps also experiential, never became properly experimental. The Greeks, of both the Hellenic and Hellenistic eras, never developed, or even truly initiated, a kind of physics that would correspond to the so-called theoretical or mathematical physics of today. This was not at all due to the fact that Greek physics was not "ready" for it. In fact, modem physics, that is, the physics which began to develop after the Renaissance, started out from rather modest beginnings , but it showed from the very beginning a tendency toward becoming mathematical, and toward becoming so in a manner and to an extent that is a hallmark of its "modernism" and an instrumentality for its ever growing success. Nevertheless, as already stated in Chapter 1, the Greeks * Originally in International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 4 (1964), pp. 217-244. Somewhat revised. [l43] A R I S T O T L E ' S PHYSICS did have areas of knowledge in which science and mathematics interpenetrated. Their astronomy was clearly mathematical, from Eudoxus to Ptolemy. Also, as early as Aristotle there was, on his testimony, something called optike which was subordinate to geometry, and something called harmonike which was subordinate to arithmetic (and according to the Posterior Analytics 78 b 37 there was even a kind of mechanike that was subordinate to "stereometry").1 Furthermore it follows from various known statements in Aristotle that Pythagoreans envisioned some kind of mathematization of physics,2 although the extent and depth of their insights is not easy to appraise even when the allusions to them in Plato's Timaeus are added to express statements in Aristotle.3 In a known passage in the Physica (Book II, Chapter 2, 193 b 22-194 a 15) Aristotle even seems to be wondering, for a fleeting moment, whether astronomy, optike, and harmonike can indeed be distinguished from mathematics proper. But in the same passage, and in passages in the Metaphysica, he has no such doubts about what he invariably and firmly calls physike, and which apparently corresponds to physics in general in our sense. He insists that mathematics and physics (that is, Greek mathematics and Greek physics) are distinct and separate, and that this separateness is not one that can be overcome. In this, as it turned out, he was right. This separateness was indeed never overcome by the Greeks, not even by Archimedes who could have done so, or by physicists and mathematicians after him who should have done so. His laws on the balancing of the lever and on floating bodies clearly pertain to mathematical physics and were the first of their kind. But they did not have the effect of initiating a mathematical 1 For references see Thomas Heath, Mathematics in Aristotle (Oxford, 1949), especially pp. 11-12. 2 Ibid, (see index under "Pythagoreans"). 3 See F. M. Cornford, Plato's Cosmology (New York, 1937). [144] A R I S T O T L E ' S PHYSICS physics at the time. Archimedes the mathematician was revered in antiquity, and Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who specialized in physics and cosmology must have been aware of him. However, there is nothing to indicate that any of these philosopher-physicists was capable of comprehending that Archimedes was a species of physicist, too, or that any of them had an inkling or premonition, if ever so vaguely, that it would be this species of physics to which a later future would belong.4 2. PHYSICS AND PHILOSOPHY The Loeb edition of Aristotle's Physica by Wicksteed and Cornford, which is a very good commentary on the contents of the treatise, begins its "General Introduction" (p. xv) with the following paragraph: The title 'Physica' is misleading, and the reader must expect...


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