Was Aristotle an Idiot?

[Chapter 1 Objectives]

BHS -> Mr. Stanbrough -> Physics -> About Science -> this page

"In studying the science of the past, students very easily make the mistake of thinking that people who lived in earlier times were rather more stupid than they are now." - I. Bernard Cohen


Aristotle lived around 300 BC. He was a pupil of Plato, and the tutor of Alexander the Great. Although Plato's main interests were philosophy and logic, Aristotle wrote extensively in the sciences. Some would say, with considerable justification, that Aristotle was the first scientist.

Yet, with regard to physics, particularly the physics of falling objects, Aristotle made statements like "... just as the downward movement of a mass of lead or gold or of any other body endowed with weight is quicker in proportion to its size..." (from Eric Rogers, Physics for the Inquiring Mind, p. 7) Such statements were taken, by medieval scholars, to mean "objects fall faster in proportion to their weight." This seems very reasonable to most reasonable people, and in fact, Aristotle's statements were the physics of falling bodies for about twenty centuries. But, there is a problem...

Try this!

Take a heavy object, say a book, and a light object, say a pencil, and drop them together from the same height. You really have to try this!

What happened? They hit the floor at the same time, don't they? Certainly, the one that weighs twenty times as much does NOT fall twenty times faster! OOPS!


Thus the question, was Aristotle an idiot? What was the matter with this guy? Didn't he ever drop a heavy stone and a light stone at the same time, or see anyone else do it? You might say, "Well, maybe he dropped a rock and a leaf. Air resistance keeps the leaf from falling as fast as the rock." Well, that might be true, but then, wouldn't a person have to be pretty stupid to be fooled by this?

(By the way... Students often have the naive idea that people who lived thousands of years ago were not as smart as modern people. After all, they didn't have cars and CDs and computers! (see the quote above.) This is silly. These people were primitive by modern standards, but primitive is not stupid. The popular conception of cave dwellers as lumbering dullards is not valid - if cave dwellers were stupid, you wouldn't be here!)

The answer is "No, Aristotle was DEFINITELY NOT an idiot."

Aristotle's conclusions were certainly incorrect, but Aristotle was handicapped by the fact that he had to use a deductive method of inquiry, instead of an inductive method. Today, we know that an inductive (sometimes called scientific) method is most appropriate for the study of Nature. Aristotle didn't know that - in fact, the inductive method wouldn't be invented for 2000 years. Aristotle did know all about the deductive method - he was one of its architects!

[Chapter 1 Objectives]

BHS -> Mr. Stanbrough -> Physics -> About Science -> this page
last update September 11, 2006 by JL Stanbrough