Many of us may know what it means to feel “at sea”: without beacons to steer by, without terra firma on which to set our feet. A dialectical passage between two world-views is like that, and James Clerk Maxwell’s life-story might be read as the log-book of just such an expedition: a lifelong search for a clear and coherent view of the physical world. Maxwell’s voyage would almost precisely fill his lifetime, but it would in the end be rewarded by his recognition of one single principle, the principle of least action, which would be key to a virtually complete inversion of the Newtonian world order from which he was escaping.
I’m just back from a week of seminars in Maine: an overview of Aristotle’s world-view, based on a sequence of selected readings. Although I’ve long been curious about Aristotle’s thinking, and written about this to some extent on this website, I’ve never before caught the full coherence and impact of his world-view. I’ll leave details to future posts to this blog, but here’s an overview of a few highlights. Tradition has misleadingly titled many of Aristotle’s works. His “Physics” is not limited to what we today call “physics”, but actually addresses the foundations of the entire natural world, of all things that move, from stones to living creatures, including ultimately ourselves. Aristotle’s “Physics”, then, lays the foundation for his other works, and in the “Metaphysics”, of the cosmos itself. We ourselves he will say, are rational by nature.
What is “nature”? An inner principle of motion, Aristotle says; things move not because they are pushed or pulled, but through inner tendencies. This is by no means nonsense. Within what we call “physics”, think for example of the second law of thermodynamics, which asserts, in more formal terms, that heat “tends” to flow downhill. Within our own lives, think of fear or love, and our innate desire to know. Thus in Aristotle’s inclusive world-view, there’s no occasion for the infamous split which today appears to divide our sciences from the humanities.
Such unification need not threaten the integrity of the sciences. Remarkably, within this encompassing perspective Aristotle lays a secure foundation for a fully valid alternative approach to modern science. Key is his concept of “energy” (the word, energeia, is his!); motion consists in the unfolding of energy from potential to kinetic form. Importantly, energy belongs primarily to whole systems, so wholeness and living, organic unity are foundational in Aristotelian science.
In the 17th century Leibniz, who knew his Aristotle, put this into mathematical form. He introduced, in open opposition to Newton, a version of the calculus which served to open alternative path into not just modern physics, but modern thought more generally.
As a result, we can discern two very different, parallel pathways through the history of western thought – one leading to Newton, Descartes, and a world of force, competition and mechanism; the other, prefigured by Aristotle, leading to wholeness, cooperation, friendship and life.
The path through Newton, Locke and Hobbes is very familiar to us; it has led t the world we know today, a world of strife, competition, and ever-escalating warfare. That other thread, which runs from Leibniz, Euler, Lagrange, Hamilton, Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein, bespeaks unity and intelligent cooperation. Within physics, this appears especially in the concept of the field; but more generally, it looks to a society of intelligent cooperation in the solution of our common human problems. It is easy to see, I believe, which is better suited to address the problems of warfare and environmental catastrophe which beset human society today.
Nobody, of course, is offering us this choice of roads into the future. But we have independent minds, and it would be good to know that there is a difference in principle even if we see no way at present to pursue it in practice. I propose to write more about this in upcoming postings – and it will be good to know what others think of this Aristotelian way I’m convinced I’m seeing.