Aristotle, Empiricist?

In contrast with Plato, Aristotle made major contributions to early natural science, and was concerned mainly to interpret human experience of the world. I previously noted with some sympathy John Herman Randall Jr.’s argument that Italian Renaissance Aristotelianism played a much greater role in the development of early modern science than is commonly recognized. I cannot, however, follow Leibniz and Kant’s superficial association of British Empiricist philosophy with Aristotle.

Locke, Berkeley, and Hume were all much closer to Descartes than to Aristotle on key questions related to subjectivity. For all of them, immediate presence to the mind played a foundational role. (See also Empiricism; Aristotelian Subjectivity; Mind Without Mentalism.)

(Locke, Berkeley, and Hume all argued with rather more subtlety and sophistication than Descartes. Unlike Descartes, Locke and Hume did not treat the human soul as a substance, and all three of the great British Empiricists produced detailed accounts of aspects of human cognition that are of lasting value, potentially somewhat independent of the mentalist framework in which they were originally developed.)

Locke and Hume did extensively and systematically develop the notion — commonly attributed to Aristotle in the middle ages — that everything in intellect originates in sense perception. As far as Aristotle is concerned, this seems an overstatement.

Aristotle characteristically looked for multiple “causes”, or reasons why, for a given state of affairs. What I think he really meant to assert, in the brief passage in his treatise on the soul that is taken to support this typically empiricist position, was the more modest thesis that broadly speaking, sense perception provides the event-based occasions that drive occasions of thought. That does not mean that all the content (or form, as Aristotle would call it) of thought has its most direct source in sensation, although significant parts of it clearly do.

Consider something like language. Most concrete instances of language clearly have a sensible component, and those that don’t (such as when we silently talk to ourselves) arguably could not occur if they were not preceded by other instances that did have a sensible component. Without sensation, there could be no language. But that hardly means that linguistic meaning has its primary source in sensation. One could argue that sensation is always depended upon somehow even in considerations of meaning, but it does not seem to be the primary concern. Sensation by itself is a necessary — but not sufficient — basis for an adequate account of thought.