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Posts tagged: Aristotle

    The text of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is embellished by a group of disputing philosophers, including at far left a Dominican (probably Thomas Aquinas) and again Averroes (third from left).

I like the monkey best.

(via Aristotle - Opera - The Morgan Library & Museum - Collections)

The text of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is embellished by a group of disputing philosophers, including at far left a Dominican (probably Thomas Aquinas) and again Averroes (third from left).

I like the monkey best.

(via Aristotle - Opera - The Morgan Library & Museum - Collections)

Experience in the Moral Realm (V): Two Supernaturalists

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

The previous posts in this series adressed various comments on Aristotle’s thesis that young people are ‘unfit to hear moral philosophy’ giving different answers to the question, whether it is possible to compensate for the lack of experience leading to this exclusion of the young. We have seen ( that the medievals believed that such a compensation was not possible. Aquinas concedes that in rare cases it may nevertheless be possible to teach moral philosophy to young people, presumably if they have an excellent character. Buridan and Burley negate their aptness for moral discourse alltogether. Burley adds the qualification that the young may somehow profit having moral beliefs that are not knowledge in the full sense of the word.

A position close to Burley is proposed by Gilbert Crab: The lack of experience cannot be compensated, but young people may nevertheless profit from hearing moral philosophy, because they are auditores utiles of this discipline. John Mair sides with Aquinas: in some cases, young people had a character that allowed them to study moral philosophy. But these cases are exceptions. All in all, the characteristic lack of experiences cannot be compensated: We learn to lead an abstinent life only by experiencing the consequences of alcohol (

Opposite views can be found in Acciaioli and Melanchthon ( For Acciaioli, moral education is an adequate preparation for studying moral philosophy, and experience is not strictly required. For Melanchthon, experience is moral knowledge. But nevertheless, studying moral philosophy can be a success, because it procedes in steps. Students first learn the content of moral teachings, e. g. in the Decalogue. Afterwards, they learn to reflect on their validity. In the context of what I want to discuss in this post, it should be noted that Melanchthon does not go into the question whether Christian precepts have a special status, because they have been revealed to us by God.

Schegk and Talon take Aristotle by his words ( Schegk adds the argument that young people’s memory is not reliable. Therefore, they do not learn from experience and must be excluded from moral philosophy. The Ramist Omer Talon denies that Aristotle’s view is philosophically valid, because moral laws adress mankind and should be accessible to anyone.

The two authors to be discussed now introduce a new problem into the debate: the role of the ‘supernatural’ in moral education. First, it is interesting to note that both arrive at similar conclusions, although they belong to different denominations: Peter Martyr Vermigli is an important figure in Reformed theology. Pedro Serrano taught philosophy at the Catholic university of Alcalá de Henares and published biblical commentaries (more information here). In spite of this difference in background, both agree in their commentaries on the Nicomachean ethics that revelation is the most powerful tool for teaching morality. Moral philosophy is a complement of moral theology (Vermigli) or even completely superfluous (Serrano). Correspondingly, experience has either a limited role (Vermigli) or it is irrelevant, because moral insights rely only on our rational capabilities (Serrano).


Vermigli states that Aristotle argues in fact for the exclusion of the young, because they cannot be fully taught how to act virtuously. But he follows Aquinas and Mair and concedes that exceptions to the rule are possible (mentioning Edward VI.). 1 Yet, if such exceptions are conceivable, the question remains why Aristotle argues so rigidly for the opposite view. Here, Vermigli raises an interesting exegetical point. We must be aware of where exactly Aristotle discusses the problem. It is part of preliminary considerations, in which Aristotle wants to show that moral philosophy is relevant. In such a context, it is counterproductive to include a group into the audience of moral philosophy that is bound to fail in this discipline: the moral failure of a group of individuals sharing certain traits would suggest that the discipline itself is a failure, because it cannot achieve what it sets out to do, namely turn the listener into a better human being.2 Nevertheless, young people (or their parents) believe that philosophers are capable instructors in moral matters, because young people are customarily required to learn wisdom from philosophers (as they learn about justice or moral worth (honestas) from jurists).3

So there is empirical evidence for the value of philosophical education. In order to reconcile this evidence with Aristotle’s statement, Vermigli combines the strategies employed presviously by Crab and Melanchthon. Like Melanchthon, he distinguishes two steps in learning moral philosophy: “[…] in this our [sc. discpline, i. e. moral philosophy), we must guarantee two things, first that its teachings are understood. After that they must become real [sc. i. e. translated into action].”4 And with an attitude close to Crab, he then points out that, as soon as young people grasp the requirements of moral philosophy at least intellectually, this discipline may be useful for them, even if they do not fully acquire the capability for virtuous action.5 Experience does not serve to validate the content of moral philosophy, because this content can be understood without any reliance on it. But experience is indispensable as soon, as this content is intended to be action-guiding: Moral behaviour must be practiced. Only if a person acts with courage and temperance repeatedly, she can become a courageous and temperate person. And if this practice has been sucessful, a virtuous person will actually enjoy acting virtously (she will act absque ulla molestia, sed potius summa cum voluptate).6

The fact that moral behaviour requires practice constitutes a significant difference to what faith can convey in moral matters. Again, we have ‘empirical’ evidence for that: philosophical ethics can only be successful, if certain conditions have been met. But faith can result in a wholesale conversion of our moral character. Grace is meant for the sinner (Vermigli mentions publicani, meretrices, and latrones) And ‘imbeciles, women and children’, i. e. those who most certainly would have been excluded from the study of moral philosophy were among Christian martyrs.7 Moreover, sinners are never excluded from hearing the word of God. In order to justify such an exclusion, humans would have to know whether a committed sin has been caused by the sinner’s nature: such knowledge, however, is reserved for God.8

So, Vermigli is forced to acknowledge that the Gospel can change those souls that could not be bettered by moral philosophy. The moral teachings of religion are more powerful than the insights the moral philosopher has to offer.9 Nevertheless, moral philosophy does contain truths. It is not spurious: Vermigli acknowledges that it has been inspired by the Holy Spirit, too. But the spiritual force of human philosophy is weaker than the potential of the word of God. Vermigli uses an analogy from medicine to illustrate this distinction: even though the power of gemstones is superior to that of ordinary minerals, both can enhance our lives (an example for the healing force of ordinary minerals can be found in a fascinating blog post by Katherine Foxhall on gunpowder and toothache ).10

Nevertheless, moral philosophy is no requirement for leading a virtuous life, while revelation promises redemption even for those who would not be changed by philosophical argument and practice. So faith is, for Vermigli, a more powerful substitute for the lack of experience to be found in young people than any moral instruction by a philosopher. And this is true even for this world, without any reference to the afterlife. But he shies away from the radical consequence that moral philosophy is, therefore, superfluous - a consequence Pedro Serrano is ready to accept.


Serrano’s basic thesis is that moral philosophy must fail in the education of young students and therefore be replaced by a form of moral instruction that follows the prescriptions contained in Christian revelation. His argument starts from the premiss that young people are constitutively inept to apprehend what moral philosophy can teach them, because they have a distorted perception of what is good for them. This distortion is caused by their ‘base appetite’ (appetitus pravus) that in turn is caused by the fact that young people only follow the authority of the senses. Their cognitive assessment of intentions will always be subordinated to their inclination to follow the dictates of sense perception and sensual desires.11 In this they follow the example of ancient hedonists and sensualists (Serrano names Aristippus, Eudoxus, and Epicurus) who believed that the sun has a diameter of a foot, because this is how it appears to us. In the same vein, hedonists hold that only those ends should be valued by us that are dictated by the desires of the body.12

So young people must be excluded from learning moral philosophy, because they rely on a deceptive epistemic authority, namely sense perception. But according to Aristotle (in Serrano’s reading, at least) moral knowledge must be based on rational insight, and morally wrong desires lead to erroneous moral judgment. This is, according to Serrano, the basic axiom of Aristotle’s moral philosophy. As an axiom, it cannot be based on further arguments. It must be accepted or denied.13 So we must first have the right desires, before we can have right moral judgments. This principle cannot be proven sucessfully to anyone who steadfeastly refuses to see first that his previous ‘principles of action’ (i. e. hedonism) were wrong.

Hedonism was - in Serrano’s version of the history of moral philosophy - the predominant view in Aristotle’s times. Philosophical truth was not easily accessible and had not yet become stable.14 But the situation has changed: the moral worth of actions as well as the ultimate aims of our lives can be determined conclusively in the light of Christian revelation, because Scripture contains all we need to know in the moral domain. The correct epistemic attitude in moral matters is, therefore, to rely on this intuition (illuminatio), to acknowledge the primacy of rational capabilities and to have trust in grace (divini numinis beneficium) that it may help us to act in agreement with the requirements of reason.15

So according to Serrano, we cannot acquire moral standards, if we are guided by the senses. We are instead obliged to listen to the demands of reason. Such demands are grounded in revelation. Therefore, our standards for moral action depend on a supernatural effect on our souls. So he seems to imply that moral knowledge cannot be acquired naturally. If this is what Serrano wants to tell us that means that experience has no role to play in the acquisition of moral knowledge. The irrefutable norms of revealed Christianity take over the role of instructing the young about standards of moral action.


For both thinkers, the role they give experience in the moral education of young people depends on their understanding of the role of moral philosophy in general: For Vermigli, experience has limited relevance, because it helps us to translate moral precepts (which we can understand abstractly) into action. However, this is no absoute requirement, because moral philosophy is at best an additional factor in moral education. Revealed truths of faith can help us to achieve the same goal without any reliance on such additional factors. Serrano suggests that experience is at best superfluous, because moral philosophy itself is superfluous: revelation suffices for instruction about the morality of our actions. Maybe, experience should even be regarded as a dangerous complication of moral education: After all, it is sense-based. And teaching the young to rely on what they experience is an insufficient guide, because it bars them from acknowledging the truth of Aristotle’s basic principle: wrong passions lead to wrong moral judgments.

In the light of these reflections, Vermigli’s and Serrano’s views suggest three questions that may be crucial for any early modern theory that believes in a productive role of experience in moral education:

  1. Can experience be helpful in moral education, if it may be used to defend hedonism?

  2. Why should we defend a role for experience in moral education, if we can equally well rely on moral standards as they have been revealed to us by God?

  3. In sum: why do we need moral philosophy as a separate discipline, if its aims can be achieved by Divinely illuminated reason?

  1. Cf. Vermigli, Pietro Martire: In Aristotelis ethicorum ad Nicomachum librum I. II. ac initium tertii commentarius, Tigurum, 1563, p. 59 sq.: “Proinde quae hac de re nunc dicuntur, non sunt citra exceptionem intelligenda: sunt enim aliquando iuvenes natura sic facti, disciplina et educatione tantum emendati, ut ex hoc doctrinae genere multum queant proficere, quo ad externam iustitiam et civilem conversationem, quod illis evenire maxime arbitror qui Christiana fide a teneris imbuti pietatem ex animo colunt: quod exemplo illustrissimo testatus est Eduardus VI. Angliae Rex, adolescens profecto ad omnem virtutem exercendam prima sua aetate paratissimus.” 

  2. Cf. loc. cit., p. 60: “Non itaque voluit Aristoteles omnes iuvene in universum excludere, sed in hoc prooemio id quam maxime curavit, ut depelleret obiectiones quae dignitati ac existimationi facultatis huius possent officere: atque hoc agit, ne si videris iuniores in hac doctrina versatos aliquando nihilo fieri meliores, id ei vitio vertas quasi minimi pretii sit et ignava, reijicit igitur culpam in defectum aetatis, quod experientia destituatur et animi perturbationibus versetur.” 

  3. Cf. loc. cit., p. 61: “Attamen propter has rationes nunquam sunt maiores nostri illuc adducti, neque hodie prudentes viri adducuntur, quin suos liberos, quum ex ephebis excesserint, adducant ad Philosophos, ut eorum doctrina et sapientia erudiantur: mittunt etiam eosdem ad Iurisperitos, ut ab eius quae iusta sint et honesta percipiant.” 

  4. Ibid.: “in hac nostra duo praestanda sunt, unum ut praecepta intelligantur, deinde ut fiant.” 

  5. Cf. ibid.: “Quod ideo factum est antiquitus et hodie quoque factitatur, quia illa quae Aristoteles modo scribit, non eum sensum habent quasi Iuvenes ex ista philosophia nullam percepturi sint utilitatem, sed quod non eo usque proficere queant ut animo sentiant quae hic docentur, et ex virtute statim agant, sibique bonos et rectos habitus acquirant.” 

  6. Cf. loc. cit., p. 62: “Quaeres fortassis cuiusmodi experientiam exigamus ab idoneis auditoribus, exemplis demonstrabo, nempe cupiditates abstinentia superare: ex actionibus fortibus et temperatis, si crebrae fuerint, homines evadere tandem fortes et temperatos, ita ut absque ulla molestia, sed potius summa cum voluptate in harum virtutum officiis se ipsos exerceant.” 

  7. Cf. loc. cit., p. 68 sq: “Videas enim publicanos, meretrices, nec non latrones a Christo in suam disciplinam admissos, nec tantum iuvenes imo parvulos ipsos accersitos. Et ex historiis possemus excitare quamplures, qui prius turpiter ac flagitiosissime vixerunt, statim doctrina Christi sic emendatos et correctos, ut postea non tantum summam vitae innocentiam sint assequuti, et etiam incredibili fortitudine se magnis cruciatibus necari pertulerint, ne decreta nostrae fidei et pietatem, quam erant adepti, violarent, cum ipsis et liberatio et maxima praemia si ab instituto discessissent proponerentur. neque solos viros in certamina huius generis descendisse videmus, sed mulieres alioquin imbecilles, pueros et puellas haec eadem fortiter pertulisse non ignoramus.” 

  8. Cf. loc. cit., p. 69: “Neque id dixerit quispiam, illos qui peccant in Spiritum S. sermonib.[us] divinis quicquam non proficere, ideoque videri ab eorum auditu arcendos. Fatemur sane qui sic peccant, frustra verbum Dei audire, sed sed [sic] cum a nobis usitata ratione internosci non queant, minime excluduntur. Deus bene novit qui hoc peccati genere sint implicati: at homines cum ignorent qui natura in tantum scelus prolapsi sint, eos non possunt a sacra doctrina removere.” 

  9. Cf. ibid.: “Quaeras forsitan unde hoc discrimen inter verbum Dei, et philosophorum doctrinas? Ex eo profecto, quod humani sermones quantumvis eximii atque laudabiles, non ea praediti sunt vi atque potentia, ut ineptos et corruptos animos immutare, seu corrigere valeant: at verborum Dei potentia et vis incredibilis est, revocandi homines ad Deum.” 

  10. Cf. ibid.: “Non enim inficiamur sententiam illam vetustate tritissimam, qua dicitur, a spiritu sancto proficisci quicquid veri ab authore cuiusque modi prolatum fuerit: quae vero divini spiritus impulsu dicuntur, non possunt esse omnino vacua efficacia, quamvis longe minor ea sit, atque vehementia qua sacrae literae sint instructae. Quis negaverit vulgares lapides robore suo et propria facultate eaque non inutili nostrae vitae ornatos, licet conferri nequeant cum viribus gemmarum?” 

  11. Cf. Pedro Serrano, Commentaria in primum lib. Ethicorum Aristotelis ad Nicomachum, Compluti 1556, fol. 53 r sq.: “Sed magis ad rem secundo dicendum arbitror: eos tantum exclusisse: propter appetitum pravum, et in malum propensum, quem ex consuetudine sensus sequendi, sic infecissent: nam penes talem appetitus proclivitatem […] semper ii iudicabunt, rationesque omnes quae ad praecepta virtutum adducentur, percipient.” 

  12. Cf. loc. cit., fol. 53 v: “[…] ineptos sane huic doctrinae percipiendae se prestabunt: cum eius principiis nullo pacto adhereant: quales fuerunt aristipus, eudoxus, epicurus, eorumque sequaces, qui solem padalem existimarunt: quia huius quantitatis sensui apparebat. Atque corporis voluptates finem omnium actionum continere: quia sensus ut sibi prospicerent, tales eas iudicabant.” 

  13. Cf. ibid.: “[…] qui appetitum nempe depravatum omnino haberent, quem semper sequitur, rationis iudicium erroneum. Atque quia propositio haec in doctrina hac primi principii vim habet: neque aliter quam principium eam probare potuit, cum rationibus intellectum convincentibus, eam probare non posset:[…]” 

  14. Cf. ibid.: “Sed tamen est advertendum: quod illis temporibus quibus iudicia sensus, eiusque oblectamenta, passim ab hominibus probabantur, forsan dicta sententia congruit: quia nulla veritas certa stabilis philosophis erat: sed eam per tenebras et caliginem quandam, obscure et cum trepidatione quadam cernebant.” 

  15. Cf. loc. cit., fol. 53 v sq.: “Nunc autem quando cuiuscunque actionis veritas, totiusque humanae salutis ratio, ore divino Christi Iesu propalata, et revelata est: omnibus ad hanc doctrinam aditus iam patet. Scripturam quippe sacram divinamque veritatem, ut regulam infallibilem, et normam, qua omni actione doctrinaque morum, et quavis alia facultate omnia metienda sint: habemus: ex qua illuminatione quantumvis quisque pravus sit, certo cognoscit et exploratum habet: sensus, et ea omnia, quae illis consentiunt, homines ipsorum sequaces in aeternum praecipitium agere: nec aliud quam quo pacto homines a recta veritatis via deflectant, procurare. […] Quo principio accepto, […] rationis dignitatem agnoscant, semperque et si ab ea declinaverint, eandem tamen semper suspiciant, et venerentur: rationibus quae vir tutum praecepta tradent, fidem adhibebunt: atque tandem ipsis perceptis, divini numinis beneficio, ad actionem eisdem consentaneam, se accingent: in qua huius doctrinae finis constitutus est.” 

Experience in the Moral Realm (IV): For and against Aristotle in 1550 (Jacob Schegk and Omer Talon)

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

In the previous posts of this series here and here, I have shown how early moderns relativized Aristotle’s statement that the young must be excluded from hearing moral philosophy. Now I will discuss two authors who agree with Burley that Aristotle must be understood literally as saying that young people are no fitting audience for what moral philosophy has to teach: Schegk and Ramus’s close collaborator Omer Talon. Both published their work on the Nicomachean Ethics in the same year, 1550. Schegk defends Aristotle, Talon criticises him sharply.


Schegk attributes young people’s ineptitude for moral philosophy to their age and the concomitant lack of experience and to traits of their moral character, namely levity and instability (levitas et inconstantia). Therefore, young people are unable to understand moral problems or judge correctly the virtuousness of actions.1 They can merely simulate moral knowledge by talking about moral doctrines:

[…] oratio […] duntaxat in ore et lingua nascatur, non in corde.2

Experience becomes relevant in this context, when Schegk reflects on why moral knowledge cannot be firmly rooted in young souls: young people forget easily what they have learned. Experiences can only be fruitful, if they have been committed to memory (in this context, it should be remembered that experience presupposes that we have perceived a particular several times).3 So only the usus rerum can provide us with experiential input that allows us to gain true moral knowledge. Schegk thus follows Melanchthon and Lonicer in equating moral experience and prudence.


Talon agrees with Schegk’s literal reading of Aristotle. But he believes that Aristotle is wrong. His criticism is instructive, even though it does not directly attack Aristotle’s thesis that the young must be excluded, because they lack experience in moral matters. He does mention this argument at the beginning of the relevant passage: We need knowledge in order to judge moral matters correctly. Only those who have lived long enough to have gained appropriate experiences, have moral knowledge and may be regarded as ‘good men’ (vir bonus). Only good men can judge correctly on moral matters.4 But the counterarguments do not refer to experience at all. His main accusation is that Aristotle’s view has sceptical consequences regarding the general efficacy of philosophical teaching.

Talon bases his criticism on Cicero’s definition of philosophy as ‘medicine for the mind’ (medicina animorum). In this context, Aristotle’s exclusion of the young implies that their moral defects cannot be healed: But this is contrary to Cicero’s assertion that the success of philosophical therapy is guaranteed.5 And if we believe - as Christians should - that the best articulation of true philosophy is to be found in Scripture, it can be seen again that philosophy should not be content to preach to the converted: Christ did not expect to save only the virtuous.6 And even ancient lawgivers probably did not expect everyone to behave virtuously, because then the laws they wrote would have been unnecessary.7 Moreover, moral laws are universally valid, so it does not make sense to exclude anyone from knowing about them.8

Talon discusses two Aristotelian objections to his view: the young cannot judge correctly in moral matters, and they are morally unstable (perditus et dissolutus). Talon replies to the first objection that the situation of the young is analogous to the situation of a patient: He cannot find out himself the causes for his disease, so he has to turn to an expert - the doctor. So young people who want to better their moral condition should turn to the moral philosopher as a teacher. Regarding the second objection, Talon asks whether this should mean that the young cannot be reformed in principle.9

The crucial question what role experience has to play in philosophical therapy is not adressed by Talon. He bases his arguments against Aristotle on the absurd consequences of excluding the young. Nevertheless, his strategy is instructive, because it demonstrates the consequences which must be faced by those who, like Schegk, agree unanimously with Aristotle. And since the first syllogism Talon uses for reconstructing the Aristotelian point of view explicitly mentions the lack of experience typical for young people, his reductio of the exclusion of the young from moral philosophy can be read as an implicit argument against any relevant role for experience in moral education.


Schegk’s defense of Aristotle’s position adds one new aspect to the role of experience for moral knowledge: the close connection between experience and memory. To use an example from Mair: Having hangovers does not help us to lead a frugal life, if we do not remember these experiences appropriately. This in turn is a necessary prerequisite for being prudent.

Talon’s criticism shows that those who wish to defend Aristotle must face valid objections: If there is neither prudence nor knowledge of right and wrong without experience, Aristotelian moral philosophy seems to be in conflict with Scripture and the rule of law.

  1. Cf Schegk, In X. Libros Ethicorvm Annotationes longe doctissimae, Basileae 1550, p. 432: “Sive igitur aetate, sive moribus puerilis animi levitas et inconstantia definiatur, fieri non potest ut qui hoc modo animo sit affectus, aut intelligere satis, aut recte iudicare virtutis opera actionesque possit.” 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. The other reason is disrespect for authorities, so Schegk does not accept Buridan’s idea that lack of experience can be compensated by belief in authorities. Cf. ibid.: “Proinde usu rerum et fide quae inde nascitur quod carent, in causa est ut moderationis affectuum, et virtutis compotes esse non possint. Nam, ut Plato inquit in Gorgia, duo sunt foramina quibus contineri in animis nostris honest non possunt studia, oblivio nimirum et incredulitas: quorum altero eripitur nobis peritia rerum atque empeiria, quae memoria colliguntur: altero fidem qua monitoribus acquiescendum erat, continere non possumus.” 

  4. Cf. Talon, Audomari Talaei In primum Aristotelis Ethicum librum explicatio, Parisiis 1550, p. 14: “Quam quisque rem novit, de ea bene iudicat: Vir bonus longo usu vitae peritus mores novit: Quare vir bonus de moribus recte iudicabit.” 

  5. Cf. loc. cit., p. 15: “Cumque ad corporum sanationem, multum ipsa corpora et natura valeant, nec omnes qui se curari passi sunt, contiuo etiam convalescant, animi autem qui sanari voluerint, praeceptisque sapientium parverint, sine ulla dubitatione sanentur, est profecto animi medicina philosophia, cuius auxilium non ut in morbis corporis petendum est foris, omnibusque opibus viribusque, ut nosmetipsi mederi possimus, elaborandum est.” 

  6. Cf. ibid.: “Et quid Evangelium Christianum, quae est vera philosophia, profitetur aliud aut pollicetur, quam medelam et sanationem animorum? An Christus se ad vocandos iustos, non potius ad consolandos et in viam reducendos iniustos ex illa caelesti vita in hanc humanam venisse confirmat?” 

  7. Cf. ibid.: “[…] quid de legumlatoribus antiquis, qui primi fuerunt magistri morum, doctoresque vitae, dicam? bonisne hominibus eos tulisse leges arbitramur? at vir bene moratus legibus et praeceptis omnino non eget. quibus igitur?” 

  8. Cf. ibid.: “[…] cum morales civilesque leges universo hominum in civitate viventium generi a legislatore, id est magistro civitatis et doctore, promiscue et communiter tradantur, ridiculum est quaerere, qui sint in civitate legum idonei auditores, quasi non una sit communis omnium et bonorum et malorum doctrina, non una schola, non unus magister.” 

  9. Cf. ibid.: “At non potest, inquies, iuvenis de moribus iudicare: nec agrotus de morbo suo potest aestimare: accedet tamen nihilominus ut ille ad medicum, ita hic ad philosophum. At perditus et dissolutus est. Qumquamne adeo dissolutum putas, ut nulla ratione colligi possit?” 

Experience in the Moral Realm (III): The British Connection (Crab, Mair, Case)

This blog post explores the role of experience in the moral writings of three British authors commenting on the Nicomachean Ethics between 1517 and 1585: Gilbert Crab, John Mair, and John Case (Alexander Broadie has written extensively on John Mair and his circle, see e. g. here [PDF], Case’s Speculum moralium quaestionum has been edited online by Dana F. Sutton). The previous posts considered Acciaioli, Lonicer, and Melanchthon and the medieval background (Aquinas, Burley, and Buridan).


It should be noted that, even though Crab is seen as Mair’s disciple, his commentary on NE was published in 1517, thirteen years before Mair’s version (first published in 1530). And it contains the most substantial discussion of the role of experience in moral education in the texts discussed here.

Crab introduces a distinction that we have not yet encountered: For him, the question whether young people are ‘proper recipients’ (idonei auditores) of moral philosophy is different from the question how and when young people can profit from hearing about moral philosophy (i. e. whether they are utiles auditores).

Moral philosophy is meant to turn us into better persons. If this effect is missed, the recipient is ‘useless’:

Ille autem dicitur utilis auditor huius scientiae qui per studium huius scientiae potest effici bonus. Et dicitur inutilis auditor qui per studium huius disciplinae non potest esse utilis huius disciplinae auditor.1

According to this standard, young people insofar as they are young (secundum aetatem) cannot profit from hearing moral philosophy, because they are inexperienced and do not know enough about the facts of life.2 This is the case, because only experience of good actions (bona opera) allows virtuous persons to really understand what is being taught in moral philosophy. In this context, Crab discusses not only lack of experience as an impediment for studying moral philosophy. He also believes that having made these experiences actually allows to understand the discipline more deeply.3

But to be inutilis in this respect does not conflict with being idoneus. Crab takes up Buridan’s hint that young people have an epistemic attitude towards moral truths that is different from full-blown knowledge, namely credulitas: young people believe what they hear either because they get accustomed to it or because of the authority of the teachers.4 This suffices to assume that they are ‘fit to hear moral philosophy’ in principle. The pedagogical efficacy of the moral philosopher is, however, limited. Students by themselves are not that interested in what it takes to learn moral philosophy:

Iuvenes ut in pluribus non sunt consentanei huius scientiae auditores quantum ad actus studiosos exercendos (qui sunt finis huius scientiae) nisi concurrente parentum vel alios ipsos regentium coactione.5

In other words: students by themselves are lazy, so they must be forced either by their parents or other authority figures to dedicate themselves to actus studiosi. So by themselves, young people are ‘fit to hear moral philosophy’ (idoneus), but they cannot profit from hearing it (they are auditores inutiles), because they have not made appropriate experiences. But Crab concedes that this can be compensated for:

Ideo quando sunt sub debito praeceptorum regimine sunt utiles philosophiae moralis auditores ad virtutes adipiscendas et vitia fugienda.6

Students of moral philosophy must be governed by their educators. This leads them to ‘achieving virtue and avoiding vice’. But since they are inutilis when left to their own devices, young people need to be forced to dedicate themselves to the study of moral philosophy.


John Mair (Major) discusses an interesting empirical objection against the exclusion of young people from moral philosophy: virtuous adolescents have existed, so they are (or would have been) appropriate recipients of moral teaching.7 Mair concedes the point, but believes that individuals in question (he mentions the Virgin Mary) have been exceptions.8

And he explains in some more detail, how experience influences moral judgments. He, too, echoes Buridan’s point that young people’s epistemic access to moral truths is deficient and that the authority of moral philosophy depends on the moral authority of its teachers. This prevents the formation of an evident and properly ‘scientific’ judgment on moral matters.9

But what do adults know from experience that young people cannot know? Mair gives a colourful example: An adult knows that thick blood (i. e. melancholy) is conducive to a frugal live. Attempts to accelerate its flow by abusing alcohol end in hangovers, i. e. a diseased state of the body. So it is better to live abstinently - and this insight is based on the experience of diseases that result from drinking.10 Or, to put it more simply: only those who have experienced enough hangovers can see the value of a frugal life.


For John Case, the essential sign of moral maturity is constantia, the ability to master own’s passions reliably. Therefore, being a ‘young person’ in the moral sense is identical to succumbing to the passions.11 Experience is one of many instruments for achieving this goal, so it is just one element in being morally mature: According to Case, Aristotle should be read as saying that all those should be excluded from studying moral philosophy who have not achieved control of their passions, regardless of their age.12 In this context, he adds a precise age for when someone may be regarded as an adult capable of autonomous moral reflection: it is commonly held that this should not be possible before the age of 30.13

But even if experience is just part of becoming a morally mature person, it is nevertheless indispensable, because moral principles directly depend on experience: this distinguishes them from principles of the speculative sciences. Case’s view is here more radical than Burley who had merely stated that experience is required for learning about moral philosophy. Case’s stance is thus closer to Lonicer who had, as we have seen in the last post, identified experience and prudence.


For Crab, young people are ‘fit to hear moral philosophy’ (idoneus), because they can believe what they are being taught (in this he echoes Buridan). This is not the same problem as the question, whether they can profit from hearing moral philosophy (i. e. whether they are auditores utiles). This is only possible, if young people are forced to dedicate some effort to learning about moral truths. Mair shows how experiences help us to form moral judgments. The fact that certain behaviour is detrimental to our (physical or mental) health cannot be learned abstractly: we have to suffer the consequences of our actions in order to learn from them. For Case, experience has a twofold role: it is an instrument for acquring constantia. And it is needed to justify the validity of moral principles. Case thus makes it explicit that moral philosophy is an empirical endeavour.

  1. Gilbert Crab, Aristotelis Peripatetici Philosophorum monarche Ethicoru[m] dece[m] libri ad Nicomachu[m], Lyon 1517, fol. 5 r

  2. Cf. ibid.: “Iuvenes secundum etatem non sunt utiles auditores huius disciplinae moralis: et hoc propter inexperientiam eorum quae in hac scientia morali traduntur. Sunt enim ut dicit Aristotles: rudes actuum vitae.” 

  3. Cf. loc. cit., fol. 5 v: “[…] quod licet non sit eis utilis tanquam aliquid curativum: est tamen eis utilis tanquam aliquid praeservativum. etiam boni perfecti intelligunt quae in hac scientia morali traduntur propter experientiam bonorum operum.” 

  4. Cf. ibid.: “Iuvenes sunt idonei auditores huius disciplinae quo ad consecutionem alicuius credulitatis vel opinionis: et hoc aliquando propter consuetudinem audiendi aliquid in hac scientia: aliquando propter auctoritatem praeceptorum.” 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Loc. cit., fol. 5 r

  7. Cf. John Mair, Ethica, Paris 1530, fol. 4 r: “aliqui iuvenes probe vivunt. Itaque hi huius doctrinae sunt apti auditores.” 

  8. Cf. loc. cit., fol. 5 r

  9. Cf. ibid.: “[…] solum habent fidem in morali philosophia, praeceptorum assertionibus fidem imprimunt: et sic raro habent evidens iudicium et scientificum.” 

  10. Cf. ibid.: “Provecte autem aetatis vir ad animae et corporis crassim novit frugalitatem plurimum conducere, quia per ingluviem et crapulam experimento didicit morbos tam in mente quam in corpore pululasse, […]” 

  11. Cf. John Case, Speculum moralium quaestionum, Frankfurt 1593, p. 14: “Iuvenis ergo hic non tam aetate quam moribus intelligi debet. Nam ut ante periodum illius aetatis raro cernitur constantia: ita canitiem capitis semper non sequitur affectuum anchora et moderatio.” 

  12. Cf. ibid.: “Nam intra circulum tot annorum et affectus supprimi, et experientia acquiri, et ingenium perfici, et imperium rationis ac virtutis recte teneri possit: hic ergo sensus est ni fallor, iuvenem excludi, id est, omnem hominem qui seipsum non vincit, id est, ut iterum dicam, qui affectibus nimium succumbit, qui vitiis inservit et mancipatur.” 

  13. Cf. loc. cit., p. 15: “Quippe si vere dicam quod sentio, non fuit omnino decretum philosopho omnem hominem ante trigesimum quintum annum, quo termino clauditur iuventus, ab hoc gymnasio explodere atque arcere.” 

Experience in the Moral Realm (II): Acciaioli, Lonicer, Melanchthon

In my last post on Aquinas, Burley, and Buridan I have identified two open questions in the debate on the role of experience in the moral realm. It is disputed whether or not the lack of morally relevant experiences can be compensated for by other means (e. g. teaching). And it is not clear whether moral knowledge in the strictest sense of the word is required in the moral education of a young person. In this post, I will discuss three early modern commentaries on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that adress these problems (more or less obliquely): Acciaoli’s In expositionem libri ethicorum Aristotelis (1478), Melanchton’s remarks in the Enarrationes […] librorum ethicorum Aristotelis (first published in 1529, I quote the edition in vol. 16 of the Corpus Reformatorum), and the Ethicorum ad Nicomachum compendium, published in 1540 by the German theologian and philologist Johannes Lonicer.


At first sight, Acciaioli’s commentary on NE does not depart from the medieval tradition: He concedes that young people disqualify for moral philosophy, because they are young and lack the required experiences - arguments discussed by Aquinas, Burley, and Buridan, too. According to him, adolescents even lack the capability for making such experiences:

[…] iuvenis non habet experientiam actuum humanorum propter aetatem nec est idoneus illos experiri […]1

So it seems that Acciaioli reads Aristotle literally as stating that young people cannot profit from moral philosophy. But on closer examination, it can be seen that Acciaioli chooses a more indirect approach: He states that moral philosophy may at times help to turn a bad person into a virtuous person.2 And those who have a disposition for virtue without being fully virtuous may profit most from being educated about moral philosophy.3 But if this is the case, it would only make sense to exclude young people from the opportunities moral philosophy may provide in education, if one of these conditions were met:

  • Young people are inherently immoral, so moral philosophy cannot have any effect on them.

  • Young people have no disposition for moral virtue, so that moral education is superfluous.

This is highly counterintuitive, because it would mean that the dubium refered to in the text would be true: moral philosophy would be superfluous.4 But since Acciaioli believes that what he says is a refutation of this counterargument, we should read him in my opinion as trying to distance himself from the literal sense of the Aristotelian text without questioning the authority of the Philosopher explicitly.

So according to Acciaioli, the lack of experiences and the missing ability to make the right experiences that is characteristic for young people can be alleviated by moral instruction: Young people may already have a predisposition for moral virtue that can be fully realised by appropriate instruction, so that there is no strict requirement for having moral experiences in order to become virtuous.

Teaching the young (using speech and instruction, sermo et doctrina) can, however, only be successful, if the pupil has been prepared for accepting moral truth. So before a young person encounters moral philosophy for the first time, the student’s mind must be ready to receive its insights, serving as ‘soil’ in which the ‘seeds’ of moral education can be planted.5


A similar position is adopted by Johannes Lonicer: He concedes that ideal students of moral philosophy would understand its scope and principles. But this does not provide a reason why the less talented should be excluded, as long as they express a willingness to learn (satis est pronam exhibere mentem docenti).6 Instead of keeping them away from moral philosophy, students should be trained to study it properly. This consists first in obeying moral authorities (recte monentibus obsequi). Thereby, affects that stand in the way of hearing moral philosophy may be tempered.7 If students are properly prepared, i. e. if they have been educated properly, a teacher can focus on their moral integrity (morum integritas) and disregard typical failings of the young like the instability of their moral convictions (iuvenis aetatis instabilitas).8

So Lonicer takes a stronger view than the medievals: He silently equates experience and moral knowledge. But still, lack of such experiences does not justify to keep the young away from moral philosophy, because these deficits can be overcome in moral teaching, if the student is properly prepared for studying moral truth.The crucial question is then, whether or not this preparative step should be regarded as part of moral philosophy (i. e. whether or not moral philosophy is identical with moral instruction).


Melanchthon adresses this problem in his Enarrationes, first published in 1529. He takes up the Stoic distinction between praecepta and decreta and connects it to the Aristotelian distinction between knowledge of facts and knowledge of causes (i. e. knowledge quod ita sit and knowledge propter quod).

In this model, the student first learns about the content of moral teachings, or, as one could say, ‘moral facts’. In this context, Melanchthon uses medicine as an example: if a doctor only tells the febrile patient to avoid wine, this is a praeceptum nudum, i. e. a command that does not contain any reason for why this course of action is recommendable. In the moral realm, such commands are contained in the Decalogue or the moral teachings of the ancient poets.9 If the student makes some experiences, he has acquired prudence: then he begins (by himself?) to inquire about causes (or reasons) of these moral truths.10

So, for Melanchthon, this preparation for proper moral inquiry is itself a part of moral philosophy, because moral philosophy has two functions: it is not only concerned with reasons for moral action, i. e. reflection on decreta, but it also has the task to guide moral actions (it contains praecepta). Investigation into the ‘why’ of moral truths requires experiences. Making such experiences conveys prudence (a connection that had not been mentioned in this context by the medievals): Only the prudent student can reason morally. But this reasoning on decreta is only one part of moral philosophy. Its other part consists in action-guiding norms (praecepta).


Regarding the question whether or not the lack of morally relevant experiences can be compensated for by other means (e. g. teaching), early modern Aristotelians begin to distance themselves from a literal reading of the Aristotelian text: experience in the moral realm is no necessary condition for studying moral philosophy. Acciaioli and Lonicer assume that nevertheless the student’s soul must have been prepared by moral education. Melanchthon seems to believe that this process (i. e. teaching praecepta) is itself a part of moral philosophy.

The idea defended by Acciaioli that some moral education must have taken place, before anyone can study moral philosophy suggests that moral education does not require moral knowledge in the strict sense of the word. Melanchthon has a different view: he makes explicit the conceptual connection between making experiences and becoming prudent. Prudence is required to reflect on reasons for moral truths (this echoes Buridan’s distinction between ‘knowledge by testimony’ of moral truths and reflective acquisition of moral knowledge presupposing epistemic autonomy). Lonicer’s equivocation of experience and moral knowledge points into a similar direction.

  1. Acciaioli, In expositionem, fol. 10 v

  2. Cf. Acciaioli, In expositionem, fol. 11 r: “Nam pravi licet cum difficultate tamen quoquomodo revocari possunt a vitiis et flecti ad virtutes audiendo […]” 

  3. Cf. ibid.: “Verum medii inter curabiles et optime se habentes praecipue ferent fructum: quasi bene dispositis ad virtutem suscipiendam proderit maxime haec moralis doctrina […]”. 

  4. Cf. ibid.: “Dubitatur quia haec scientia videtur superflua, cum non prosit hominibus pravis: boni vero ea non egeant.” 

  5. Cf. ibid.: “Sermo autem et doctrina nunquam in omnibus vires habent: sed oportet ut antecultus sit animus auditoris ad recte agaudendum odendumque tanquam ager qui semina sit nutriturus.” 

  6. Cf. Lonicer, Compendium, fol. 88 v: “Aristoteles prudentissimus philosophus recte, primum inquit, futurum huius philosophiae discipulum bonis moribus exornatum esse convenit, eoque pervenisse decet, uti norit principia et finem, hoc est quid sit, et quo sese acclinet haec institutio. Quod si neque elementa, neque scopum tenuerit, satis est pronam exhibere mentem docenti, […]” 

  7. Cf. Lonicer, Compendium, fol. 89 r: “Atqui etiamsi non sit idoneus, non est tamen ido arcendus, sed assuefaciendus ad morum studia. Non obest quenquam nihil scire in philosophia et bonis moribus, sed ideo commendandus est puer, quod recte monentibus obsequatur, quorum diligentia et fide cum doctior tum melior redditur.” 

  8. Cf. ibid.: “Si adfectus cohibens recte monentibus obtemperet, iam est commodus huius philosophiae factus auscultator, praeterea morum potius integritas quam iuvenis aetatis instabilitas hic spectanda est.” 

  9. Cf. Melanchthon, Ennarationes, p. 288: “Est autem duplex docendi via, altera, cum nuda praecepta sine causis traduntur. Ut, medicus tradit praeceptum laboranti febribus non esse bibendum vinum. Talia nuda praecepta vocantur to hoti, id est, quod ita sit. Sic tradunt praecepta sine causis: Decalogus, Hesiodus, Phocylides.” 

  10. Cf. ibid.: “Altera via est, cum adduntur causae, quam vocant di hoti, id est, propter quod. […] omnes prudentes tradunt primum nuda et communia praecepta, et ad haec adiungunt honestam disciplinam. Cognitis autem his praeceptis, postea prudentiores facile inveniunt causas, […]” 

Experience in the Moral Realm (I): The Medieval Background (Aquinas, Burley, Buridan)

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

In the first book of NE (1095a2), Aristotle reflects on who is the ideal student of moral philosophy (οἰκεῖος ἀκροατὴς, idoneus auditor). An adolescent (ὁ νέος, iuvenis) does not qualify. Shakespeare noted this, talking about “young men, whom Aristotle thought/Unfit to hear moral philosophy” (Troilus and Cressida II.2).

In interpreting this passage in Aristotle, the early moderns developed diverging positions, some claiming that a literal understanding is correct, so that young people are no audience for moral philosophy, others stating that it is conceivable that the young may profit from moral education. I am interested in this debate, because the notion of experience has a central role to play here. Those who want to understand Aristotle literally claim that experience is a necessary condition for acquiring moral knowledge: Young people have not acquired this experience, so moral knowledge is inaccessible to them. Their opponents believe that experience may be helpful in acquiring moral knowledge but it is not completely indispensable. Other means - e. g. teaching - can be as effective.

Some time ago, I blogged on the role of experience in the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Interestingly, there are correspondences between the use of experience in speculative science and its application in the moral realm: Javellus held that experience is an indispensable instrument for acquiring knowledge. Suárez believed that this role is accidental: Experience helps to overcome certain contingent epistemic limitations. Cognitive limitations can vary between individuals, so we can conceive an individual that does not need experience in order to know.

Before turning to the early moderns, I want to summarise first the medieval debate on this topic in the commentaries on NE written by Thomas Aquinas, Burley, and Buridan. I want to highlight two main points:

  • Thomas Aquinas and Burley disagree on whether or not experience is indispensable for correct moral judgments.

  • Buridan agrees with Burley in that proper moral knowledge is inaccessible to young people. But in his view, this calls for a distinction of epistemic attitudes. Young people have a lesser form of knowledge, namely ‘knowledge by testimony’: Moral truths are taken to be true, because they are taught by persons in a position of authority.

Aquinas and Burley

Both Aquinas and Burley agree that moral knowledge - like all other sorts of knowledge - must be based on ‘pre-existent knowledge’ (in Scholastic terminology praecognita, cf. An. Post. I.1, 71a1). In moral matters, this notitia (Thomas) or cognitio (Burley) rests on experience, an area where young people must be deficient, because they have not yet lived long enough in order to have made such experiences.1

Both use the same example, namely the response of a young person to the moral truth that generosity requires us to keep less for ourselves and provide more for others. And both agree that a young person has not yet experienced cases in which this is true. But in describing the outcome of such a situation, there is a significant difference in grammar: Aquinas uses the future tense, Burley uses the irrealis mood. So for Aquinas, it is merely improbable that a young person will arrive at a correct assessment of the situation:

si dicatur quod liberalis minora sibi reservat, et maiora aliis tribuit, hoc iuvenis propter inexperientiam forte non iudicabit [my emphasis] esse verum, […]2

Burley believes that in these situations, correct moral judgments are not merely improbable, but impossible:

Si enim proponatur iuveni quod virtuosus puta liberalis minora reservat sibi et maiora alys: propter inexperientiam non iudicaret [my emphasis] illud esse verum.3

So Aquinas’ view is similar to Suárez’ position that experience is no absolute requirement for knowledge of principles. Burley’s view of grasping moral truths is close to what Javellus has to say on the knowledge of principles, namely that experience is indispensable for it.

However, it should be taken into account that what Burley has to say on speculative knowledge differs from Javellus: In speculative sciences, experience is only needed for finding new knowledge and is irrelevant in teaching. Moral philosophy is different, because in this case the student is expected to act according to the insights gained from learning. So, for Burley, learning to act correctly must be based on experience, correct thinking can be learned without experience.4

Buridan against Burley and Aquinas

Buridan seems to be convinced that both Aquinas and Burley overlook a central distinction in their analysis of moral knowledge and its acquisition. There may exist epistemically relevant cognitive states which do not count as knowledge in the scientific sense of the word. So it may be sensible to convey some moral philosophy to young people, even though this moral training does not convey moral knowledge in the strictest sense of the word.

For this, Buridan can rely on the authority of the Commentator. Even if the content of moral precepts cannot be fully understood by children, it is advantageous to teach such precepts: In later years, it facilitates grasping moral teachings, if they have been mentioned during childhood. Conversely, it is more difficult to overcome those falsehoods as an adult that have been learnt in childhood.5

Confronting younger people with moral truths will not make them truly virtuous. But it will help them to avoid vices.6 But this does not imply that moral ‘science’ can be fully understood by children or adolescents (they do not ‘apprehend knowledge knowledgeably’ audire scientiam scientifice).7 They believe in the truth of moral insights, because these have been conveyed to them by persons of authority (parents or teachers).8 So we may conclude that, if a young person holds a moral belief, this belief is based on testimony and has not been formed autonomously. Nevertheless, such moral beliefs have a function, namely to prevent the acquisition of vices, even though they cannot be regarded as fully rational.


The medievals accorded experience a crucial role in moral philosophy. Young people do not have such experiences. Hence they are - at least in most cases - no proper recipients of moral teachings. In this, all three thinkers, Aquinas, Burley, and Buridan agree. But the conclusions to be drawn from these assumptions are more controversial. Aquinas hesitates to exclude young people categorically from moral philosophy, because he does not believe that lack of experiences implies in all cases a lack of comprehension of moral truths. Burley believes that no adolescent can profit from moral philosophy, because there cannot be knowledge about how to act in a given situation, unless we can reflectively act in such a situation. And this is somethings only adults can achieve. Buridan agrees with Burley that the moral awareness to be ascribed to young persons cannot be regarded as knowledge. But even though moral beliefs of adolescents may be based on ‘testimonial evidence’, they can nevertheless be an essential part of a person’s moral upbringing.

So two main problems can be identified in the medieval debate: It is an open question whether or not the lack of morally relevant experiences can be compensated for by other means (e. g. teaching). And it is not clear whether moral knowledge in the strictest sense of the word is required in the moral education of a young person. Moral philosophy can play a role in education if either experience is no strict requirement or if some lesser form of epistemic access to moral truths suffices. In the next posts of this series, I will discuss, how early modern Aristotelians answered these questions.

  1. Cf. Aquinas, Sententia libri Ethicorum, lib. 1 l. 3 n. 7: “Ergo oportet, quod nullus sit auditor conveniens nisi habeat aliquam notitiam eorum quae debet audire.” Burley, Sup. libros Ethicorum ad Lib. I Tract. I Cap. 3, n. p. (in the linked edition img. 20): “[…] iuvenis propter inexperientiam non habet cognitionem de omnibus operibus humanis de quibus est scientia moralis.” 

  2. Aquinas, loc. cit. 

  3. Burley, loc. cit. 

  4. Cf. ibid.: “Debet enim auditor huius scientiae operari secundum quod hec scientia docet et per operationes experientias aggregere. unde in scientia speculativa simpliciter experimentum deseruit inventio et non doctrinae […]” 

  5. Cf. Buridan, Questiones Joannis Buridani super decem libro Ethicorum…, fol. 7 r: “Primo de pueris, qum consuetudo audiendi aliquid in pueritia firmat illud in mente auditoris: et quae audiri non consueverunt, minus nota sunt et magis extranea videntur, ut dicitur in secundo metaphysice. Unde comentator in prologo suo tertio physicorum dicit quod cum quis assuetus fuerit a pueritia credere sermones falsos: illa consuetudo inducet ad negandum veritatem propter quod multum prodest pueris saepe principia huius scientiae aut etiam conclusiones aliquas proponere et ipsos secundum quod patitur eorum debilitas in virtuosis operibus enutrire.” 

  6. Cf. ibid.: “Ita igitur et per hanc scientiam iuvenes qui ad vicia proni sunt preservari possunt: ne habitus induant viciosos. Sciendum tamen quod nec ista scientia sufficit ad ipsos fieri bonos […]” 

  7. Cf. ibid.: “Non tamen dico quod tales habeant vires sufficientes ad hac scientias scientifice audiendam.” 

  8. Cf. Buridan, loc. cit., fol. 7v: “Secunda conclusio quod illi bene sunt idonei auditores et utiles ad habendum de his aliquam credulitatem tam ex doctorum auctoritate quam ex audiendi consuetudine.” 

William Harvey’s Medical Aristotelianism

Guest post by Benny Goldberg from the Department for History and Philosophy of Science, Pittsburgh

In this blog post, I want to continue with Stefan’s recent theme of the role of experience in early modern Aristotelianisms (and there were many!). In particular I want to consider the role of experience in one rather unique Aristotelian, the English anatomist, physician and philosopher William Harvey (1578-1657), discoverer of the circuit of the blood in his (1628) De motu cordis. Harvey is unique not least because his name was associated not with the Aristotelian school at all, but rather with the new experimental philosophy. It is essential, then, that we keep distinct Harvey’s own self image as an Aristotelian, and his image as reflected in the work of others, as a new experimental philosopher, and even as a mechanical philosopher. To understand Harvey we must understand both of these images, of course, but here my concern is only with the image of Harvey we find in his own works. This is the first post of a few I have planned discussing Harvey’s Aristotelianism and his conception of experience. In this first installment, I provide some background on Harvey’s philosophy and the nature of his Aristotelianism.

Robert Boyle called Harvey ‘our English Democritus’—and this, despite the fact that Harvey was a lifelong opponent to corpuscular philosophies. Most likely, then, Boyle was pointing to Harvey not as any sort of atomist, but rather as a searcher into nature’s secrets, a great experimentalist and observer of animal bodies and their functioning. And though it is rarely if ever mentioned by those who lauded his name in this way, Harvey was a deeply committed Aristotelian.

In a moment we shall unpack some aspects of Harvey’s Aristotelianism, for as Stefan has demonstrated, this term covers a wide variety of positions and methods in the early modern period. But I want to note at the outset that, over the course of his career, Harvey’s commitment to Aristotle becomes, if anything, stronger. Thus we find in his last work, the Exercitationes de generatione animalium (1651), that the Praefatio contains some of Harvey’s most explicit thoughts on method, which he expresses by means of an attempt to make cohesive the doctrines on knowledge of universals and particulars of the Posterior Analytics and the Physics, a traditional problem for followers of the Peripatetic. Clearly, in this work at least, Harvey understood his own method in terms of Aristotle’s.

Though Harvey studied at Cambridge what must have been an entirely traditional course on natural philosophy, we know that he was influenced rather more by the Aristotelianism he imbibed at his training in Padua just after the turn of the century (1600-1602). Harvey was thus explicitly anti-Scholastic, writing in the margins of a copy of his own De generatione that “The elenchic disputations of the Scholastics in which they drag truth by the neck to confirm a hypothesis has the result that in this way we can prove or defend anything we choose.”i Instead, as Andrew Cunningham has argued in his (1985) paper “Fabricius and the ‘Aristotle Project’ in Anatomical Teaching and Research at Padua,” Harvey’s indoctrination into Aristotle at Padua was deeply influenced by the new humanist translations of Aristotle, especially his books on animals. Cunningham argues that Fabricius’ project was to resuscitate the methods and project that Aristotle puts forward in these animal books, a project which is obviously incomplete and full of incorrect assertions. Thus, for both Harvey and Fabricius, the goal was not to defend Aristotle’s doctrines (except insofar as they were proven correct by experience) but rather to extend and expand upon Aristotle’s (distinctly teleological) project of explaining living things.

Harvey’s training in anatomy and natural philosophy by Fabricius was part of the latter’s attempt to fix the errors of previous anatomists, such as Vesalius and Colombo, by adopting the methods and standards of Aristotle’s explanations of animal bodies and souls as found in the Parva naturalia, the De partibus animalium, and the De generatione animalium. So, for instance, Fabricius’ argued that anatomists must move beyond knowledge merely of structure (often called historia) to knowledge of actions and uses (actiones, usus or utilitas, though, in fact, the terminology is both complicated and used differently by different authors, and even sometimes within the same work). Knowledge of uses and actions, although expressed using the Galen derived terminology of the physicians, is, in fact, a distinctly Aristotelian model of scientific knowledge, and can be understood as knowledge of final causes and the efficient causes that bring them about.

Indeed, the De usu partium, which is one of the key sources for this terminology, is perhaps Galen’s most Aristotelian work. We must not dismiss the influence of Galen on Harvey, for Harvey’s training took place in a distinctly medical context—and, in the early modern period, Galen was nearly synonymous with medicine. Harvey’s Aristotelianism is, in fact, deeply influenced by Galen’s philosophy and methods, though this influence is hard to detect since he never talks about Galen in the same way as Aristotle, and, furthermore, Galen’s own philosophy is deeply Aristotelian in many ways. Again, like with Aristotle, Harvey’s agreements with Galen are not so much on substantive doctrines—for all know that Harvey’s De motu cordis was aimed at proving Galen’s (and Aristotle’s) doctrines on the heart to be false—but rather on matters of method. The most important work to note here is Galen’s De placitis hippocratis et platonis, a work in which he takes Aristotle to task for failing to abide by his own methods. But, though Galen justifies his methods based on Aristotle’s conception of science and scientific explanation, he is just as innovative a thinker, and his influence on Harvey and early modern anatomy should not be underestimated.

We conclude this first post, then, with this thought, namely, that Harvey must be located in the context of Renaissance medical humanism, a blend of Aristotle and Galen and other Ancient philosophers. Later in life, responding to a query from John Aubrey on what philosophers to read and learn from (found in the Brief Lives), Harvey bid Aubrey “…to goe to the fountain head, and read Aristotle, Cicero, Avicenna, and did call the neoteriques shitt-breeches.”ii The referent of ‘neoteriques’ is a bit obscure, but we have good reason to include here not only those, from our perspective, who seem new and innovative, thinkers such as Descartes or Gassendi, but the much wider class of writers contemporary to Harvey, such as Laurentius, Scaliger, and Fernel. Even Fabricius does not merit remit from Harvey’s gaze, and many times throughout the De generatione Harvey takes his teacher to task not only for getting the facts wrong, but for not even understanding the appropriate way to explain various natural phenomena. (So, for instance, Harvey criticizes him for using material causes where efficient and final ones are needed.) Harvey’s philosophy then, while definitely and distinctly Aristotelian, embraces a wide variety of Ancient sources and philosophies, and Harvey’s erudition and wide reading can be glimpsed from the wide range of figures he cites, from Augustine to Hippocrates to Pliny and beyond. Like many of those from a medical background (and in distinction to those with more traditional training), Harvey’s philosophy was eclectic. His respect for the Ancients, though both deep and broad, was a matter of adopting that philosophy which worked. Harvey was, we might say, interested not in whose philosophy could be justified most completely through disputations (no wringing of truth by the neck), but rather he was interested in that philosophy which helped him best understand, explain, and investigate the natural world. His commitment to Aristotle was one that he thought justified and reinforced by his experiments and experiences, a matter not of reflexive belief but of confidant empirical warrant, supported by his long career and his many dissections and experiments.

In the next installment, I will delve more specifically into how Harvey conceives of experience and its relation to scientific knowledge.

iThese annotations are found in the copy of De generatione animalium (1651) in the Pybus Collection at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, probably made in 1653. Some of the notes, including this one, are found in: Harvey 1981 [1651], Disputations Touching the Generation of Animals, Trans. and Ed. Gweneth Whitteridge, p.455.

iiAubrey, John (1898), Brief Lives Vol. I, Ed. Andrew Clark, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 300.

Experimental Philosophers and Early Modern Aristotelians

Guest post by Alberto Vanzo from the Early Modern Experimental Philosophy Project in Otago, New Zealand

In the last post of his interesting series on early modern Aristotelian views on experience, Stefan compares some of their views with the views of early modern experimental philosophers. Stefan distinguishes between two ways of spelling out the ESD (that is, the distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy): as a disciplinary distinction between an empirical and a theoretical part of philosophy, or as a methodical distinction between two antithetical ways of practising philosophy. As Stefan argues, the former distinction can be found in late renaissance Aristotelianism. However, the early modern thinkers who called themselves “experimental philosophers” typically understood the ESD to be a distinction between two antithetical methods. For instance, Locke’s adversary John Sergeant writes in 1696:

"The METHODS which I pitch upon to examine, shall be of two sorts, viz. that of Speculative, and that of Experimental Philosophers; The Former of which pretend to proceed by Reason and Principles; the Later by Induction; and both of them aim at advancing Science.”

Experimental natural philosophers claimed that we should refrain from proceeding “by Reason and Principles”, as they took the Aristotelians to be doing. As John Dunton writes in The-Young-Students-Library of 1692,

"We must consider, the distinction we have made of Speculative and Experimental, and, as much as possible, Exclude the first, for an indefatigable and laborious Search into Natural Experiments, they being only the Certain, Sure Method to gather a true Body of Philosophy, for the Antient Way of clapping up an entire building of Sciences, upon pure Contemplation, may make indeed an Admirable Fabrick, but the Materials are such as can promise no lasting one.”

Similar statements could be found outside England, for instance in Diderot’s Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature of 1754.

To be sure, some early modern authors distinguished between empirical (or experimental) and theoretical (or speculative) disciplines. For instance, Leibniz and Wolff both distinguish between empirical and rational physics. They are similar to some Aristotelians in that they think that natural philosophy relies on a priori, demonstrative reasonings alongside observations and experiments. They endeavour, to use Leibniz’s curious mix of Latin and German, “Theoricos Empiricis felici connubio zu conjungiren”: “to unite in a happy wedding theoreticians and observers”. However, Leibniz can be hardly called an experimental philosopher, and I would argue that Wolff — although he called his system philosophia universalis experimentalis — was at best an unorthodox experimental philosopher. The general trend was to contrast experiments and observations with hypotheses, conjectures, and demonstrative reasonings.

Experience, Natural Histories, and the Foundations of Natural Philosophy

As Stefan notes, the Baconian “‘hunt’ for ‘fact’, namely ‘nuggets of experience detached from theory’ […] is fully compatible with early modern Aristotelian theories of experience.” Admittedly, some forms of Aristotelianism were not as hostile to the projects of experimental philosophers as the latter suggested. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between the function that experimental philosophers assigned to natural histories and the role that experience had for Andreas, Javellus, Fonseca, or Suarez.

Let me recall their views with some quotes from Stefan’s posts. For Andreas, “To grasp the content of a principle is an achievement of the intellect propria virtute”. “For knowledge of conclusions, again, experience may be helpful, but it is no precondition.” For Fonseca, experience “serves only to prevent error, but seems to have no independent justificatory function.” For Suarez, “the relevance of experience for knowledge is purely ‘psychological’”, rather than epistemological. Javellus places more importance on experience. In his view, experience “serves as the indispensable starting point for scientific inquiry, and it is required in order to confirm the conclusions drawn in this inquiry”. However, the results of that inquiry will only be science if, say, “the purgative power of rhubarb is deduced from more general principles”.

Andreas’s, Fonseca’s, Suarez’s and Javellus’s views are quite different. What do they have in common? A feature that they all share is that none of them regards experience as a source of justification for natural-philosophical claims. Even Javellus, who assigns the greatest importance to experience, holds that science relies on demonstrative reasonings from principles. By contrast, experimental philosophers advocated an extensive and systematical recourse to experience because they regarded it as the source of justification for natural-philosophical claims and theories. Baconian natural histories were introduced as an “experimental” alternative to the “speculative” demonstrative reasonings upon which the Aristotelians relied. In fact, they adopted a new, Baconian form of natural history that differed from the traditional natural history that was known to the early modern Aristotelians. Boyle and Hooke also developed a philosophy of experiment, rather than a set of reflections on experience in general. The epistemological role of experience, natural histories, and experiments as sources of justification for natural philosophical claims appears to me to be, to use Stefan’s terms, “an area of fundamental disagreement between Aristotelians and the anti-Aristotelian novatores”.

As Stefan suggests, another area of disagreement may concern the role of mathematics. I am no expert in seventeenth century philosophy of mathematics and would love to hear what you readers think on this or on any other aspect of the relations between early modern Aristotelians and experimental philosophers.

Early Modern Experimental Philosophy: Aristotelian Views (IV) - Fonseca on the Necessity of Invention

Even though the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek promises persistent links to single images, the implementation seems to be buggy: Inserting a link to opens a window showing image 54. I have refrained from working around these limitations. Sorry for the inconvenience.

In his Commentariorvm Petri Fonsecae Lvsitani, Doctoris Theologi Societatis Iesv, In Libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis Stagiritae (EMTO 42305) Pedro Fonseca, the third author to be examined in this series of blog posts on the concept of experience in early modern Aristotelianism, dedicates eight pages to the role of experience in the constitution of Aristotelian science. And more than a third of these eight pages (six of sixteen columns, to be precise) attack two thinkers who - in Fonseca’s reading - deny the possibility to acquire new knowledge tout court: Plato and Averroës. This denial must be addressed, because it only makes sense to reflect on the role of experience in generating new knowledge, if gaining new knowledge is possible at all.

The arguments brought forward against both authors may be neither original nor valid. Nor should it be surmised that they depict their adversaries’ stance in a fair and balanced manner. The only intention here is to show that early modern Aristotelians had to endorse intellectual progress (viz. finding new knowledge, inventio) in order to be an Aristotelian rather than a Platonist or an Averroist. The next blog post in this series will examine more closely the role of experience in Fonseca’s own account.

Averroës is not mentioned by name: Fonseca merely complains about the “temerity of some pagans” (temeritas ethnicorum) who assume that all knowledge accessible to humans preexists in a suprapersonal ‘agent intellect’ (col. 86). The Averroist conception of knowledge presumes that knowledge in the individual is caused by two factors: The individual stands in some sort of relation to the suprapersonal ‘agent intellect’. Then input from the senses (phantasmata) can cause knowledge of this or that particular (type of) object(s) (col. 86).

Fonseca puts forward three arguments against this view (col. 87):

  • Stating the existence of a suprapersonal ‘agent intellect’ goes against the teachings of faith.
  • Acts of knowing are acts of life (because they are acts of the soul). As such, they must be caused by the living individual. It does not help to classify the Averroist ‘agent intellect’ as partial or instrumental cause, because acts of life using instruments (a one-legged person walking on a wooden leg) still must originate in the living being. By definition, this cannot be true for acts of knowing attributable to suprapersonal agency.
  • Thus, acts of knowing originating in an intellect that is separate from us cannot be attributed to us.

Plato’s general view (somnium illud Platonicum, coll. 88) that all knowledge is based on recollection (reminiscentia, col. 86) is rendered by Fonseca as implying that we have (natural) habits for knowing (types of) objects. These habits are actualised when encountering appropriate objects (col. 87).

The arguments brought forward against Plato’s teachings fall into two groups: arguments against the doctrine of anamnesis in general (col. 88), and arguments drawn from Fonseca’s reconstruction of anamnesis as presupposing natural habits for knowing objects (col. 89f).

Fonseca introduces three arguments against any theory of knowledge as recollection:

  • There is no evidence for knowledge being based on some sort of recollection: Usually we are aware of knowing something. But we have no awareness of this knowledge being based on recollection.
  • Genuine new knowledge can come into existence: Evidence for that can be found in the inventions of the artes effectivae in Fonseca’s time (quae nostro etiam saeculo inventa sunt, col. 88)
  • If Plato was right, we should have had prenatal cognitive access to Platonic ideas. So if what we know is based on what our soul encountered in an extracorporeal state before entering its present body, we should be omniscient.

Three arguments are put forward against the notion that we have natural habits for knowing specific (types of) objects:

  • Explaining knowledge of (types of) objects by habits for knowing these (types of) objects is needlessly complicated. Aristotle’s explanation that is based on sense perception and our natural cognitive faculties (vis intelligendi) is more simple (col. 89 f).
  • If knowledge was based on natural habits, it would have to be infallible: It may be conceded that not all of these habits will be realised, because a cause for such a realisation is lacking (our natural habit for knowing crocodiles may never be actualised, because crocodiles are rarely encountered). But realisations of natural capabilities are part of the ‘ordinary course of nature’: In nature, however, there is no leeway for error (col. 90).
  • The entry of a human soul into its body is itself a natural process, namely the generation of a human being. A natural event or process cannot be detrimental to the form or soul of a human body (col. 90).

We may conclude that Plato and Averroës are portrayed by Fonseca as having a ‘static’ view of knowledge: The ‘space of knowledge’ is circumscribed by what is given either in the suprapersonal ‘agent intellect’ or by what we can recall from prenatal states of our soul, be they corporeal or extracorporeal.

From Fonseca’s point of view, such a static view violates two fundamental requirements for a sound understanding of knowledge: Knowledge must be a state that can be attributed to an individual. And this individual must be conceived as a finite being.

Averroës’ introduction of a suprapersonal intellect disallows attribution of knowledge to individuals. And since for Plato the entrance of the soul into the body annihilates previous states of knowledge, we may presume that it is dubious whether a Platonist can attribute states of knowledge to the actual knower: It can never be decided whether these states come about as the result of epistemic activities here and now or whether they are due to recollections from an earlier soul that the purported knower may have difficulties to regard as her own.

The second requirement we can deduce from Fonseca’s argumentation concerns knowledge as the state of a finite being. Averroës violates this requirement, because the ‘agent intellect’ encompasses everything there is to know. According to Plato, we are either omniscient, because we have had access to ideas in a former state of our soul. Or our epistemic activities are at least impervious to error, because they are the realisation of specific natural habits.

So we may conclude that the possibility of gaining new knowledge is not extrinsic to Fonseca’s thought. It is a central presupposition of his view on knowledge. The next blog post will explore the role experience has to play in this context.

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

Early Modern Experimental Philosophy: Aristotelian Views (I)

As anyone acquainted with Thomas S. Kuhn’s view of science and its history knows - and as has been vividly recalled by Erroll Morris - Kuhn often complained about the “whiggishness” of history of science, the evaluation of past theories in the light of what we know today.

Being interested in the role of Aristotelianism in the formation of early modern thought, I cannot but help to agree. The “whiggish” view of Aristotelianism has been articulated e. g. in a recent blog post by William Eamon on the relevance of the metaphor of hunting in early modern science (note: the post as a whole is well worth reading, my complaints are minor quibbles):

"Whereas in the medieval scholastic tradition the aim of science was to demonstrate the known, early modern science set its sights on the discovery of new and ‘curious’ phenomena. In the Baconian tradition, facts — nuggets of experience detached from theory — became the object of inquiry. In other words, Baconian science focused attention upon particulars; for these were precisely the clues and signs that would guide investigators to nature’s deepest arcana. […] To these contrasting images of science — one as logical demonstration and the other as a hunt — corresponded radically different images of nature. One conceived of nature as a geometrical cosmos, a reality whose essential features could be known by reason. The other viewed nature as a dense forest, an uncharted domain, a labyrinth in which method offered but a thin thread to orient oneself."

Looking at early modern Aristotelian sources, matters tend to get less clear-cut. As has been pointed out by Peter Anstey,  Aristotelians even may have played a role in developing the very concept of experimental philosophy. He cites the commentary on the Aristotelian Meteorologica by Niccolò Cabeo, published in 1646: The book mentions the concept of experimental philosophy in its very title.

Some 20 years earlier, the same author published his “Philosophia magnetica in qua magnetis natura penitus explicatur …” (Ferrara 1629, EMTO 41294). In this book Cabeo discusses - among many other problems - the question why the blade of a sword is less magnetised by a movement from point to handle than by a movement in the opposite direction. The reason is that the blade has less contact with the magnet when being pushed up than when being drawn down (cf. loc. cit., p. 320). This fact is in itself not very interesting. But Cabeo adds a very noteworthy remark:

”[…] ex hoc intelligat lector, quam operosum sit bonis experimentis viam sibi ad rerum notitiam assequendam aperire; et quam coniunctae sint in experimentis, hoc est in initiis philosophiae veritatis, et erroris viae.” (ibid.)

"Maybe the reader understands, how laborious it is to use good experimenta in order to pave the way to knowledge of things, and how near to each other the way to truth and the way of error are in the beginnings of philosophy.” (My translation)

Should we interpret these “beginnings of philosophy” as part of the beginning of experimental philosophy? Or is it maybe just plain (Aristotelian) common sense? To which extent are Aristotelians themselves committed to basing their inquiry into causes on experimental (or experiential) insight? And if so, what exactly is the role of experience and experiments in such inquiry?

In order to address these questions we must begin by reflecting on the concept of experience itself (rather than its uses in natural philosophy proper). The discipline that reflects on the fundamental concepts of the Aristotelian world view and there interrelations is metaphysics (and, to a lesser degree, logic). So it is at least conceivable that these two disciplines are more relevant for an assessment of experience and its role in Aristotelianism than natural philosophy itself, which is tasked with employing these concepts rather than examining them in depth.

I am aware that this is a rather counterintuitive thesis, since metaphysics is at the same time the most speculative discipline of the Aristotelian canon. But right at the beginning of his book, Aristotle muses on the role of experience in the creation of knowledge:

”[…]καὶ δοκεῖ σχεδὸν ἐπιστήμῃ καὶ τέχνῃ ὅμοιον εἶναι καὶ ἐμπειρία, ἀποβαίνει δ᾽ ἐπιστήμη καὶ τέχνη διὰ τῆς ἐμπειρίας τοῖς ἀνθρώποις: […]” (981a1ff)

"And experience seems pretty much like science and art, but really science and art come to men through experience." (transl. Ross)

I intend to show that this quote and the way it was interpreted by early modern Aristotelians suggest that the whiggish view of early modern Aristotelianism may not do justice to the complexities of this tradition. An argument for this thesis,  however, would go beyond the scope of one blog post, so this post marks the beginning of a mini-series tracing the role of experience in four different textbooks on metaphysics between the 14th and the 16th century.

Whether these reflections are relevant for the analysis of experimental philosophy proper will be for others to decide. I merely hope to suggest a more balanced and historically correct account of the intricacies of early modern Aristotelianism. For those who are to some extent acquainted with this tradition, it will suffice to drop some names: I intend to cover Antonius Andreas, not strictly an early modern, but a direct disciple of Scotus, who still had some relevance in the 16th century, Javellus, a Dominican Thomist from Bologna, Fonseca, and Suárez. Topics to be discussed will include e. g. the difference between finding new knowledge and knowledge taught in the schools, the role of the “natural light”, and the question whether there is a place for a-posteriori-science in an Aristotelian context. And, yes, all texts can be found in EMTO. And, of course, comments and outspoken criticism are highly appreciated, since my thoughts on the matter are still very much in flux (which is why they will be blogged rather than be put in a paper).

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter