Styles of Observation and Experience in Renaissance Aristotelianism

Styles of Observation and Experience in Renaissance Aristotelianism

Daniel Andersson


Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer. Oil on Canvas, 1653. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“Experience and observation triumph in the new science at the expense of the philosophy of the schools in the Renaissance.” In some sense, but we should be alert to a mildly underhand form of semantic slippage that has gone on in scholarship dealing with this issue. Scholars have too readily assimilated the concepts of ‘empiricism’ and ‘observation’, eliding the differences between the two. With a suitably expanded concept of observation, one may begin to arrive at a rather different and more variegated account of the cognitive styles that the forms of Renaissance natural philosophy enabled than has hitherto been possible. How might such a task be accomplished? Chiefly by looking at the appeals to an ‘intuitive observation’, which is one of the many forms of analogical reasoning hallowed in and developed by Aristotelian natural philosophy. This is the first half of the task of decoupling empiricism and observation. Gasparo Contarini’s De elementis provides a good example of how this might be done. It is a text, which uses a particularly wide range of appeals to different modes of analogical reasoning in attempting to bring together certain Platonic and medical theories about a simultaneously celestial and terrestrial explanatory principle, that of heat. These styles of argumentation create in the reader a degree of cognitive fluency that justifies its theses by appeals to the imaginative manipulation of natural phenomena, thereby providing an increased sensitivity to their operation.

The concept of ‘experience’ would also benefit from a more intensive historicization than it has received. Take, for example, the famous chapter B. 19 of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. This chapter deals (put crudely) with the relative epistemological claims of reason and experience. The welter of Renaissance commentaries on this chapter, however, show quite many answers could be given to this issue of priority, and scholarship requires us to do justice to the complexity of the various positions adopted in this turf-warfare of conceptual sibling rivalry.