Tag Archives: Literature

Kuhn, Paradigms, and Aristotle’s Physics

Although Aristotle’s contribution to biology has long been recognized, there are many philosophers and historians of science who call him the man who held up the Scientific Revolution by two thousand years. In this post, Christoper Byrne, author of Aristotle’s Science of Matter and Motion, criticizes these views, including that of Thomas Kahn, a well-known historian and philosopher of science, who was one of many historians that labelled Arisitotle of being the great delayer of natural science.


By Christopher Byrne

In his 1987 essay, “What Are Scientific Revolutions?,” Thomas Kuhn wrote that he came up with his idea of a scientific paradigm by reflecting on what was for him the enigma of Aristotle’s physics. On the one hand, Kuhn wrote, Aristotle clearly made significant contributions to logic, biology, and several other fields; on the other hand, Aristotle’s physics was worthless from the point of view of later physics – indeed, held up progress in physics – and contained many errors of logic and observation. Still, Kuhn wrote, given Aristotle’s contributions to logic and biology, the failure of his physics cannot be explained just by scientific incompetence on his part. Thus, we are faced with the puzzle of understanding how someone could be so good at logical reasoning and the minute inspection of biological organisms, but so wrong about the behaviour of physical bodies in general. It could only be the case, Kuhn concluded, that the basic beliefs about nature that had served Aristotle so well in his biology had fundamentally occluded his judgment when he turned to physics. More generally, Kuhn argued, Aristotle’s physics showed that beliefs about nature are not held piecemeal, but are part of a connected system. Claims about nature that by themselves seem arbitrary and wrong-headed, make sense within the context of a more general set of principles. Thus was the concept of a scientific paradigm born, as well as the attendant belief that scientific revolutions involve exchanging one scientific paradigm for another.

Kuhn admits that his view of Aristotle’s physics was the standard one at the time. One finds similar accounts of Aristotle in Sarton’s A History of Science (1952), Sambursky’s The Physical World of the Greeks (1956), Butterfield’s Origins of Modern Science (1957), and Westfall’s The Construction of Modern Science (1977). All of these accounts have in common the view that Aristotle’s account of nature is thoroughly qualitative and teleological, that is, that all change in nature involves the exchange of contrary qualities in perceptible objects, one of which is the distinctive perfection of the object undergoing the change and the other some type of deficiency in that kind of thing. Thus, every change is either a movement toward a telos, or final cause, or a movement away from that telos; in the first case, the change is natural, in the second, violent. Either way, all change in nature must be understood in relation to the specific perfection of the thing undergoing the change.

Kuhn took this interpretation of Aristotle’s physics to its logical conclusion; in so doing, he made clear its many flaws. Perhaps the best example of the way this interpretation misconstrues Aristotle is found in what Kuhn says about Aristotle’s account of locomotion. Kuhn argues that for Aristotle locomotion is a qualitative change; a change of place is a change of quality. Thus, place must be a quality. The difficulty, however, is that the qualities of perceptible objects move with them; examples of such qualities given in Aristotle’s Categories include colour and temperature, possessing a natural capacity or an acquired skill, say, an athletic ability, and properties such as being healthy or ill, and hard or soft. Place, however, does not belong in the category of quality; in his Categories, Aristotle lists the category of place separately from that of quality. He also explicitly states in his Physics that the place of an object does not move with it; on the contrary, a place has to remain and not move with the body that occupied it if one body is to replace another body in the same place. Thus, from the point of view of Aristotle’s Categories and Physics, claiming that a place is a quality is not only wrong, but a category mistake.

Kuhn made similar mistakes with respect to the role of matter as the substratum of change in perceptible objects and the scope of teleological explanation in Aristotle’s physics. I leave it to others to consider whether scientific revolutions are properly understood as paradigm shifts. I will also suspend for the moment the question of whether a set of causal principles and basic ontological commitments constitute what Kuhn calls a scientific paradigm. I do argue, however, that Kuhn was deeply wrong about the principles of Aristotle’s physics.

Learn more about Aristotle’s Science of Matter and Motion


Christopher Byrne is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at St. Francis Xavier University and author of Aristotle’s Science of Matter and Motion

 

Spirit, Wit, and Forgeries: The Beautiful Untrue Afterlife of Oscar Wilde

After ten years of detective work investigating Oscar Wilde forgeries, Beautiful Untrue Things author Gregory Mackie talks queer poets, roguish impostors, and the shifting reputation of everyone’s favourite Victorian gay icon.


Oscar Wilde is an instructive case study in how literary reputations can change drastically. When he died in 1900, in exile after his release from a prison sentence for the crime of “gross indecency” – the legal term for sex between men in Victorian Britain – he was a pariah. Over the course of the twentieth century, he has gone from being “unspeakable,” in the words of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice (1913), to being the ultimate gay icon, revered as a saint and martyr. (If you don’t believe me there, check out his lipstick-kissed tomb in Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery.) Wilde remains a haunting presence in literary history, which is why I frame my examination of multiple Wilde forgeries in terms of an “afterlife.” And indeed, in one chapter of Beautiful Untrue Things, I mean this idea quite literally: it explores what Wilde’s voluble spirit says about art and theatre from the great beyond, when channelled by zany 1920s spiritualist mediums. Without giving too many details away, I can say here that Wilde’s ghostly wit is characteristically devastating.

I have been working on this book for over a decade now, and during that time the topic of my research – literary forgeries of Oscar Wilde – has intrigued nearly everyone I have told about it. That such curiosity has survived my nerdy bibliographical enthusiasms is, I think, a testament to the topic’s appeal, although whether more fascination attaches to Oscar Wilde or to forgery I can’t say. For me, the process of assembling, orchestrating, and analyzing the obscure publications, archival bits and pieces, and outrageous, long-neglected stories that make up the book has been wonderful. And I mean that in the word’s literal sense: researching and writing Beautiful Untrue Things has kept me in a sustained state of wonder, which for an academic is a rare treat. What do I mean by wonder? I mean learning things that few people currently alive likely know or remember; reading books that no one else has touched for a century; following up obscure leads to unexpected revelations (not to mention the occasional disappointment); and finally putting together the pieces of an intricate puzzle. In some ways, working on forgery means thinking like a detective – and, sometimes, even like a forger – as much as a traditional literary scholar.

Following the leads of the mysterious and eccentric characters who populate the book – forgers that include the queer poet “Dorian Hope” and the roguish impostor Mrs. Chan-Toon – has meant that much of my sleuthing has been done in rare-books libraries. I visited archives, some of which have only recently been catalogued, across North America and Britain. Researching this book has also meant remaining attentive to information emanating from unexpected places. I continue to be amazed by the wealth of information about forgotten literary adventurers held by people working in the rare-book market, for instance. One of the most crucial sources for Beautiful Untrue Things is the private archive of a well-established London dealer – still in business today – contacted by “Dorian Hope” in 1921. These kinds of places represent a living repository of lore about book history and the book trade.

Of course, my research methods have also had to keep up with the times. Early in this project, I travelled to the British Library’s offsite newspaper archive in North London in search of an otherwise unobtainable interview with Mrs. Chan-Toon. I spent a full day trying to access one small news article. That library is now closed, as widespread digitization of historical newspapers has transformed the work and expense of a transatlantic journey into a matter of a few well-chosen clicks in an online database. And yet online research has also saved me from momentous mistakes. One of the book’s signature contributions is the uncovering of the real identity of “Dorian Hope” in New York and Paris, thereby solving a mystery that has puzzled literary researchers and librarians for decades. Quite late in the production process, as the book was nearly ready to go into print, I still believed that it was impossible to prove with certainty who “Hope” really was. If it hadn’t been for a chance database search on another project – a veritable tumble down the archival rabbit-hole – I wouldn’t have been able to connect the dots to arrive at the forger’s unmasking. With this new information in hand, the game is newly afoot: I hope to go back to the archives, to learn more about a certain Brett Holland (from Gastonia, North Carolina) who reinvented himself as the French fashion journalist and literary chronicler “Sylvestre Dorian” after the Wilde forgeries he peddled under the name “Dorian Hope” proved profitless. But that’s another story.


Gregory Mackie is an associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures at the University of British Columbia, and the author of Beautiful Untrue Things.

A Short History of the Ancient World, Part Two: Igniting Curiosity

To mark the publication of our new and beautifully illustrated textbook, A Short History of the Ancient World, we are featuring two back-to-back posts by the authors. Today, Heidi E. Kraus discusses the importance of using history, art, and literature together to help inspire students to ask meaningful questions and to pursue answers.

I recently attended a session at an academic conference dedicated to undergraduate teaching. A question arose related to curiosity: how do liberal arts professors teaching an undergraduate audience inspire curiosity in our students? I have often joked that if I could find the answer to this omnipresent question, I could make a million dollars and retire. How do we reach students in today’s culture—one consumed with the instant gratification that digital technology affords—let alone inspire them? How do we ignite a fire in them to ask questions or to pursue answers to the seemingly unanswerable?

One could argue that this is not our job as college professors. We deliver the material, we present the facts, and we facilitate the connections that might fan the flames of curiosity. Rather, this argument might go, students need to take the initiative. We cannot be responsible for making our students curious. But, while the student must be in the driver’s seat of their own education, what if we as professors worked to make the material we profess more relatable to our students? What if we were decidedly interdisciplinary and collaborative in our approach to teaching and scholarship, informed by our fields of expertise but not restricted to them? What if we modeled for our students why this material matters?

A Short History of the Ancient World is a textbook that models this collaborative, interdisciplinary approach. With classicist Nicholas K. Rauh’s uncompromising manuscript as a foundation, I was invited to join the project as an art historian, interjecting over fifty images and art historical analysis wherever appropriate. The text is supplemented by sidebars similar to what you will find in art history textbooks: Art in Focus, Materials and Techniques, and Primary Sources. For example, Chapter 2 provides the reader with a chronological survey of Ancient Egypt from circa 3100 to 1069 BC. Framed within Rauh’s broader discussion of why ancient civilizations rose and fell, this chapter considers the character and conduct of Egyptian art by examining works like the Palette of Narmer and The Book of the Dead of Hunefer. I sought to bring the relevancy of antiquity forward to the Modern period by discussing the impact of Napoleon’s monumental Description de l’Égypte on Western culture and the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone by Champollion in 1822. By highlighting visual culture both in this chapter and throughout the book, we wanted to put forward a more complete version of history, and one that chooses to emphasize the culture and society in the creation of that history.

While the story of antiquity is often told through the lens of Greece and Rome, A Short History of the Ancient World exposes the student to ancient non-Western civilizations in Africa, China, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent. In addition to the impact of visual culture on these civilizations, literature serves as an important thread throughout the book. Nearly every chapter contains a sidebar dedicated to a primary source. One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 4, which focuses on the Iron Age Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and includes a discussion of Phoenician and Assyrian art, an analysis of the Palace of Darius at Persepolis, as well as an excerpt from an account of the destruction of Persepolis from the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus. The passage is accompanied by Joshua Reynold’s 1781 painting of Thais setting fire to the city, giving a powerful textual and visual connection to an otherwise distant historical event. Using literature, history, and art, the book encourages students to connect to the material via multiple avenues.

The book begs the question: what can we learn about our own civilization by studying those that came before, how they rose to power, how they functioned, and why they fell? Useful for surveys, upper-level courses, and seminars, the book’s versatility is among its many strengths. A Short History of the Ancient World does not come with a guarantee to spur the curiosity of our undergraduates or to solve the problems of our present, but it does try an exciting new way.

Heidi E. Kraus is Assistant Professor of Art History and Director of The De Pree Gallery at Hope College.

Behind the Book with Stephen M. Yeager

From Lawmen to PlowmenStephen M. Yeager is the author of From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland. In From Lawmen to Plowmen, Stephen M. Yeager offers a fresh, insightful explanation for the alliterative structure of William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the flourishing of alliterative verse satires in late medieval England by observing the similarities between these satires and the legal-homiletical literature of the Anglo-Saxon era.

How did you become involved in your area of research?
As a reader I’ve always loved formal experimentation, from the provocations of avant-garde literature to the more familiar surprises of genre-bending commercial fiction. I was drawn to medieval studies as a researcher because I was fascinated by the ability of medieval literature to consistently confound my expectations about what texts are likely to do. There’s something especially exciting about being pushed to examine your notions of “literature” itself by writers like Wulfstan and Langland, who seem to act as if their highly unusual texts are nothing but conventional articulations of common sense. As exciting as formal experiments can be, it’s even more exciting to go back to the beginning, and see where the conventions came from.

What inspired you to write this book?

I started my research with a fairly basic question: if alliterative verse in the fourteenth century is a sign of conscious archaism, as some scholars have argued about alliterative romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then why is Piers Plowman alliterative? Nothing about this highly political, satirical text seems particularly archaic; so what does the choice of this unusual verse form for Piers Plowman tell us about that text? By the same token, what does the text tell us about alliterative verse?

When I began to look at the evidence, I quickly found that the most obvious precedents for political, alliterative writing in the earlier English corpus were not poems and romances, but homiletic law codes and legal documents. These legal, historical texts had continued to circulate throughout the later Middle Ages, influencing vernacular works in multiple genres along the way. Hence if I was going to answer my question about the Piers Plowman tradition, I was going to have to rethink the continuity in English writing from the Conquest to the fourteenth century, expanding the field to think about the broader formal overlaps between early English legal documents and poems, found for example in intermediate genres like chronicle and homily.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
It’s been said somewhere that every book is an autobiography, no matter the subject, and I think there’s some truth to that statement. For that reason, I can only envision very long and very short answers to this question. I’ll stick with a short one: I learned that the image of the poet Laȝamon in the manuscript London BL Caligula A.ix, appearing on the cover for the book, is the earliest known portrait of an English language author.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
There comes a moment in the writing process where you have to stop thinking so hard. Instead of challenging yourself and pushing your conclusions further, you have to go back over the conclusions you already have, to make sure that the arguments that lead to them are organized well enough for a reader besides yourself to understand them.

Of course, revisions are not particularly difficult in their own right—indeed, they often come with their own quiet pleasures. The difficulty for me was in the transition from researching to revising. Going over my work, I saw all of the roads for further research it had opened up, and it took a lot of effort to hold myself back from pursuing them.

What are your current/future projects?
I’m following up on a few points in the conclusion to From Lawmen to Plowmen, to think about Chaucer’s memories of Anglo-Saxon England in The Canterbury Tales. Or course Chaucer doesn’t say much about the Anglo-Saxons, but the few mentions in the Tales do have a striking tendency to appear at moments of rupture and authorial self-representation. People have written a great deal about Chaucer’s self-conception as a vernacular poet in relation to earlier English romances; but what about his relationship to earlier English legal texts and documents, many of which were still being copied and circulated in the fourteenth century?

What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?
My main criteria for picking a book is that it be as different as possible from the book I previously read. Besides literary fiction I enjoy science fiction, book-length journalism, and the occasional thriller; but I’m a short sales-pitch away from trying anything.

Right now I’m reading a novel called The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, primarily for pleasure but also for work. The novel was long-listed for the Booker prize in 2014, and it tells the story of a man who leads a group of guerrilla fighters against the Normans in the immediate aftermath of 1066. The most striking thing about the book is its use of a kind of hybrid Old/Modern English dialect, which the author calls a “shadow tongue.” The book uses this dialect to great effect, and it gives us a portrait of a world that is both convincingly medieval and recognizably, troublingly contemporary.