Reading Aristotle: Physics 1.1: What is the Study of Nature?

In my post Aristotle’s Answer to the Science/Philosophy Debate, I introduced a new series. I’ll repeat the introduction here:

As most of my readers are aware, I write mainly from what is known as the “Aristotelian-Thomistic” philosophical tradition, a system of thought which originates in the metaphysics of Aristotle, and was revived and expanded upon by St. Thomas Aquinas and other scholastic philosophers. Most of my knowledge of this system comes from contemporary, secondary writers; but it has been suggested to me that the best, and really only way, to truly dive into the system, is to read the originals themselves. With that goal in mind, I’ve decided to start a series doing exactly that: I’ll be reading passages from Aristotle, Aquinas, and other great thinkers and offering some of my thoughts/interpretations. Please note, I am about as far from an “expert” in this as one could possibly be, so if I ever read/interpret something incorrectly (which is bound to happen, probably often), please have patience and leniency with me. I welcome and encourage engaging comments and questions!

With that being said, I’ll begin by examining Physics 1.1. It opens:

“When the objects of an inquiry, in any department, have principles, conditions, or elements, it is through acquaintance with these that knowledge, that is to say scientific knowledge, 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, as in other branches of study, our first task will be to try to determine what relates to its principles” (Physics 1.1, 184a1-16) [1].

I have explained already in the previous post that for Aristotle, there is not the same distinction between “science” and “philosophy” as there exists in the modern academic fields. Instead, science just is a type of philosophy. The greek word translated as “science” above is epistêmê, which literally means “knowledge”. Says one writer:

“While epistêmê is generally rendered as knowledge, in this context, where it is used in its precise sense, it is sometimes translated as scientific knowledge. However, one must not confuse this usage with our contemporary understanding of science, which includes experimentation . . . Rather, translating epistêmê as scientific knowledge is a way of emphasizing its certainty” [2].

Another writer explains that for Aristotle epistêmê  has “a comparatively broad term in his usage, since it extends to fields of inquiry like mathematics and metaphysics no less than the empirical sciences” and it “not only reports the facts but also explains them by displaying their priority relations . . . That is, science explains what is less well known by what is better known and more fundamental, and what is explanatorily anemic by what is explanatorily fruitful” [3]. That last part in particular is at the heart of what Aristotle is saying at the beginning of Book 1 of the Physics.

In another of his books, the Posterior Analytics, Aristotle further extrapolates on what epistêmê is:

“We suppose ourselves to possess unqualified scientific knowledge of a thing . . . when we think that we know the cause on which the fact depends, as the cause of that fact and of no other, and, further, that the fact could not be other than it is” (Posterior Analytics, 1.2 71b8-12) [4].

Aristotle goes much more into this issue of what scientific knowledge is in Posterior Analytics, but since this post is focusing primarily on the first section of Physics we will leave that extended discussion to a later time. For now it is only important to understand that when Aristotle refers to “science” or “scientific knowledge,” he does not mean specifically the technical, modern understanding of science which we hold, but a broader concept of knowledge, including of nature, mathematics, metaphysics, etc.

To return to the original passage, which is the opening paragraph of Physics, Aristotle is saying that for any intellectual endeavor, in order to gain true knowledge we need to find the “principles, conditions, or elements,” particularly the “primary conditions or first principles.” Interestingly, what he says next seems to be related to the discussion from my previous post The End of Science? about a grand “theory of everything” which many modern physicists are devoted to discovering. He says, “we do not think that we know a thing until we . . . have carried our analysis as far as its simplest elements.” In other words, when we seek knowledge and understanding about a certain area, we should seek to  uncover the underlying causes and explanations, stretching our analysis as far down as it possibly can go.

How do we do this? Aristotle continues:

“The natural way of doing this is to start from the things which are more knowable and obvious 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. So in the present inquiry we must follow this method and advance from what is more obscure by nature, but clearer to us, towards what is more clear and more knowable by nature” (Physics 1.1 184a17-21) [5].

Here he insists that in order to find the underlying causes/explanations, we start from what is obvious and work our way down. For those familiar with the Argument from Motion, also known as Aquinas’s First Way, this method should be recognizable. In that argument, one starts from the observation that motion exists, which is undeniably evident to the senses, and works from there to explain what motion actually is/how it happens on a deeper level.

One writer gives this example:

“We may, for instance, wish to know why trees lose their leaves in the autumn. We may say, rightly, that this is due to the wind blowing through them. Still, this is not a deep or general explanation, since the wind blows equally at other times of year without the same result. A deeper explanation—one unavailable to Aristotle but illustrating his view nicely—is more general, and also more causal in character: trees shed their leaves because diminished sunlight in the autumn inhibits the production of chlorophyll, which is required for photosynthesis, and without photosynthesis trees go dormant” [6].

Aristotle talks about a dichotomy between what is “obvious to us”, or knowable relative to us, and that which is “clearer and more knowable” to nature. He also indicates that what is obvious to us is “more obscure by nature,” while what is less obvious to us is clearer to nature. Knowledge of the latter is what we are striving for. What does this mean?  Well, consider something simple, like a table. To our senses, a table is just a single, solid object with a certain form, shape, color, texture, size, quality, etc. We know scientifically, however, that a table is a complex collection of chemical elements, formed by arrangements of atoms and molecules, which consist of neutrons, electrons, protons, and other subatomic particles, all interacting and bonding and changing energy levels, etc. None of this is available to our senses to know; we know it by reasoning from what is available/obvious to our senses, to what must be the underlying causes. We could say the same for something such as gravity. We know via senses that if we drop something, it’ll fall to the ground. But to know why this happens, we have to reason to the underlying/overarching principle, which in this case would be the law of gravity. To say that what is obvious to us is “more obscure by nature” while what is obscure to us is clearer to nature just means that nature itself works via the underlying causes, elements, and principles, so these are “better known” to it.

Philosopher W. Norris Clarke, S. J. explains this further (note, Clarke is here referring actually to metaphysics, but it is applicable/related to what Aristotle is saying; the distinction between metaphysics and physics will be explored in more depth in the future):

“Its work will then be to try to discern the great universal properties, constitutive principles, and governing laws of all that is real, in a word, the laws of intelligibility of being as such, including how all real beings interrelate to form an intelligible whole, that is, a universe . . . In practice, however, we humans cannot directly inspect all beings as immediately accessible to our experience. We have to start, therefore, with where we are, with what is accessible to us within the limited horizon of our experience, namely, this material cosmos that is our present home. From the study of this universe, insofar as it is open to our experience, we shall first derive the general properties, laws, and principles governing all the beings of our experience” [7].

It is important to understand here the difference between a “broad” knowledge of facts as opposed to a “deep” knowledge of underlying properties, laws, and principles. To know all the “facts” about everything would be quite impossible for humans; we’d have to find a way to traverse our entire universe. While we should always seek to learn more in this way, learning the facts themselves is useless if we don’t understand the more fundamental explanations of these facts.

Aristotle continues:

“Now what is to us plain and obvious at first is rather confused masses, the elements and principles of which become known to us by later analysis. Thus we must advance from generalities to particulars; for it is a whole that is best known to sense-perception, and a generality is a kind of whole, comprehending many things within it, like parts . . . Similarly a child begins by calling all men ‘father’, and all women ‘mother’, but later on distinguishes each of them” (Physics 1.1 184a22-184b10) [8].

The first part reiterates what has been said before. What we see are “confused masses” of atoms, molecules, etc. The whole of these is what is perceptible to our senses. But we must advance from the whole to the parts which make up the whole, from generalities to particulars. This last part might seem confusing because, for example, in the case of gravity, we might think we move from a particular — an apple falling to the ground — to the general principle of gravity. But in order to do this we first must consider the example of an apple falling as a whole itself, and then explore its inner parts until we understand why it does what it does.

This concludes Physics 1.1. In the next post in the series I will pick up with 1.2, which begins to look at the principles themselves.




[1]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print, Physics 1.1, 184a1-16, page 218.

[2]. Parry, Richard, “Episteme and Techne“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[3]. Shields, Christopher, “Aristotle”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[4]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print, Posterior Analytics, 1.2 71b8-12, page 111.

[5]. Ibid., Physics 1.1 184a17-21, page 218.

[6]. Shields, Christopher, “Aristotle”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[7]. Clarke, W. Norris. The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. Print, 6.

[8]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print, Physics 1.1 184a22-184b10, page 218.

Image credits: Mitenkov (


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