Thursday, 10 September 2015

Adventures with Aristotle in Germany and Greece

Stressout of the week was delivering the annual Erasmus Lecture, the venue being the Technological University of Darmstadt. The stress was exacerbated by the red-faced pilot who arrived late from his hotel to the Heathrow gate. This meant I arrived at the lecture hall only half an hour before kickoff.  

Then the event’s host, the local Professor of Computer Science, refused for a while to accept my powerpoint demo because he did not believe that I was actually the person giving the lecture. (This happens a lot: I don’t look very intelligent and people—or rather men—who have only read my work are invariably disappointed when they meet me in middle-aged maternal person).

Aristotle, Scientist-Philosopher
Prof.  was punished by the she-gods, however. His computer broke down at the precise moment when he told the European Academy that his institution was At The Apex of World Computational Science. Someone had put a vase of flowers on the platform in a place which made it inevitable that the technician would kick it over. The water zapped the electricity. Prof. was at a loss how to mop up the puddle. I reached into my mumsy handbag and offered him a packet of tissues, explaining that Lo-Tech Is Sometimes Best. He never spoke to me again.

Aristotle inventing Zoology on Lesbos
But I ploughed on. Having been asked to ensure that my lecture could be enjoyed by the 90% of the audience who are scientists, I hit them hard with Aristotle.  He is a tough read at the best of times, despite a few laboured Stageirite puns. But he did after all invent systematic Zoology, statistical analysis of volcanoes, self-conscious use of logical syllogisms, the concepts of Collective Intelligence, theory, and above all of potentiality and its actualisation—teleology.

Greek Science made statues seem to move
I explained what I like best about Aristotle—his application of everyday experience to elevated theorisation. When illustrating the moment that biological reproduction instils potentiality (what we would call the fixing of the genetic code or DNA transfer) the man from Stageira draws an analogy from temple cult. He has seen gadgets in the form of ‘wonderful puppets’ (automata) which trick people into thinking that gods’ statues are alive. They use hidden wheels that transmit movement to gears, edge-to-edge, through friction.  The potential for the statues to move is created when the first wheel of the series is set in slow, grinding motion, some time before the potentiality is actualised. 

You can go to see reconstructions of such wonder-inducing mechanisms, reconstructed by Kostas Kotsanas at his Museum of Ancient Greek Technology and Inventions in Katakolo, western Peloponnese. The museum, charmingly, is free of charge. So remember, when not marvelling at the ingenuity of the ancient Greeks in this ordinary seaside town, to eat out a lot and inject some money into the modern ones’ economy.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this post! I was always too cowardly to use Powerpoint when I had to deliver talks at work as I was always terrified of the inevitable Technical Hitch. It's a very long time since I studied Aristotle but I remember rather warming to him, probably because of the use of everyday experience which you mention. I'm sure it was him who said that people make more noise with their sweets in a theatre if they're bored, which seemed very true (though I can't of course remember the philosophical significance of this...).

  2. You think that Aristotle invented the concept of teleology? Really? Who suggested this? No classical scholar who had read and understood Plato could ever suggest such a thing.

  3. In general it is very interesting piece of writing. Though I have some questions. I agree to the previous comment. I also don’t believe that Aristotle is the father of teleology, at least my university course of Classical Philosophy tell quite the opposite. Though I’m not a professional in this question) thanks for sharing + thanks for nice pictures!
    More article on Philosophy are here!

    1. I'm interested to hear from you an answer, who is the father of theology on your opinion? Imho you need to read this helpful site to improve your knowledge on philosophy!