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Translated by E. W. Webster

Climatic Zones according to Aristotle

Some critical comments

... the main interest of the work (Aristotle's Meteorologica) is to be found not so much in any particular conclusions which Aristotle reaches, as in the fact that all his conclusions are so far wrong and in his lack of a method which could lead him to right ones. In this he is typical of Greek science. The comparative failure of the Greeks to develop experimental science was due to many causes, which cannot be considered here. They lacked instruments of precision -- there were, for instance, no accurate clocks until Galileo discovered the pendulum. They did not produce until a comparatively late date any glass suitable for chemical experiment or lens making. Their iron-making technique was elementary, which precluded the development of the machine. Their mathematical notation was clumsy and unsulted to scientific calculation. All these things would have severely limited the development of an experimental science had the Greeks fully grasped its method. But the experimental method eluded them. They observed but they did no experiment, and between observation and experiment there is a fundamental difference which it is essential to recognize if the history of Greek thought is to be understood. This difference can be essentially seen in the Meteorologica. There is plenty of observation: Books 1-3 are full of it, and Book 4 shows a keen observation of the processes of the kitchen and garden in terms of which Aristotle tries to explain chemical change in general. But there is practically no experiment, and in those experiments which Aristotle does quote the results given are wrong. A good example of his attitude and method is the theory of exhalations which plays so prominent part in Books 1 and 2. It has a basis in observation: Aristotle had obviously observed the phenomena of evaporation. Yet not only has it no basis in experiment but it is not designed to be verified experimentally, nor is it easy to conceive all experiment which could either confirm or invalidate it. It is this absence of the awareness for the necessity of an experimental test that is the mark of thought that is rational but not yet scientific, of the natural philosopher rather than the natural scientist. And of Aristotle's natural philosophy and of Greek natural philosophy in general it is true that it "roamed rational without being scientific, that it never passed from natural philosophy to nature science. There are, of course, exceptions both in Aristotle and elsewhere in Greek thought Greek medicine comes very near to being scientific, so also do Aristotle's biological works and the Greeks made further progress in astronomy than in ally of the other physics sciences, though this was just because their astronomy involved no experiment, but only observation and mathematical calculation. But these are exceptions. Of the more generally tendency the Meteorologica is typical; it is the product of the natural philosopher and not the natural science. H. D. P. Lee, Aristotle Meteorologica, London Cambridge,Mass. 1952.


Book I

Book II

Book III

Book IV

The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, Princeton University Press: (2 Volume Set; Bollingen Series, Vol. LXXI, No. 2), edited by Jonathan Barnes ISBN 0-691-09950-2

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