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Adelard's Questions and Ockham's Razor:
Connections between Medieval Philosophy and Modern Science

(Released November 2008)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


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Roger Bacon and 13th Century Natural Philosophy


Natural philosophy flourished during the 13th century. The work of scholars such Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, and Roger Bacon exemplify what the century had to offer. As knowledge of Arabic natural philosophy increased, it encouraged advances in European scholarship in areas such as mathematics, astronomy, and chemistry in the form of alchemy. Natural philosophy continued in the vein of naturalism, looking for rational explanations for natural phenomena and challenging authoritative texts. Natural philosophers began the process of integrating mathematics into the study of nature. They relied less on deductive reasoning alone, looking to experience (personal observation or accounts of personal observation) and even conducting limited experimentation to verify results of reasoning. Inventions such as eyeglasses and gunpowder occurred some time around the 13th century.

stately statue
Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum

The English Bishop Robert Grosseteste made wide ranging contributions to 13th century intellectual life. He wrote works on theology, philosophy, nature, and translated and commentated on Greek texts. In Grosseteste's works one can find the medieval preoccupation with light. (Light was interpreted as a very literal metaphor for truth. Few scholars who studied natural philosophy of the time could resist putting forward ideas concerning optics and vision.) Grosseteste believed light played an important role in the creation of the universe and heavenly motions, and aided in understanding God. Aside from his preoccupation with light, Grosseteste advocated the value of observation, and at least in one case, experimentation. He argued for a form of parsimony in natural events: "every operation of nature occurs in the most finite, ordered, shortest and best way possible for it (SEP, 2007)." And he applied geometry to the understanding of natural philosophy.

Albertus Magnus, another bishop with broadly ranging interests, also worked as a commentator on Greek philosophy, a theologian, a philosopher, and a naturalist. He is best known as the teacher of Thomas Aquinas. Albertus dabbled in alchemy, astrology, and botany. Most of his writings concentrated on the commentary of Aristotle, but within these commentaries he inserted sections regarding his travels and observations of natural philosophy. In his book De vegetabilibus he works carefully on the classification and description of plants (Durant, 1950).

Medieval natural philosophy reached its apex in the work of Roger Bacon. He was a student of Grosseteste and an admirer of Albertus Magnus. Some enthusiasts go so far as identifying Bacon as the first scientist in the modern sense of the term. Bacon acquired knowledge where ever he could find it. His linguistic expertise encompassed Hebrew, Greek, Arabic as well as Latin. He argued that knowledge of all of these languages was important for the study of theology and natural philosophy.

The best known work associated with Roger Bacon is the Opus Majus. Bacon wrote the Opus Majus in response to a request from the pope for a copy of his work. Bacon composed the Opus Majus in a year, an impressive feat considering the text was over 800 pages long. Roger Bacon only intended this work as a summary. He hoped to obtain papal support for a program of research to produce a larger work in natural philosophy. The pope died not long after Bacon sent the work, and there is no indication that he ever read it before his death. Bacon never received a response to his effort.

The Opus Majus contains seven treatises: on ignorance of error, the relations between philosophy and theology, the studies of foreign languages, the usefulness of mathematics, perspective and optics, experimental science, and moral philosophy. As supplements and summary to the Opus Majus Bacon also wrote two additional manuscripts, the Opus minus and the Opus tertium. In a biography of Roger Bacon, Brian Clegg (2003) claims that Bacon's work demonstrates, "a basis of mathematics, an openness of mind, the desire to communicate, and the fundamental contribution of experiment." On this basis Clegg argues that Bacon was the first scientist. However, while Bacon advocated and even performed experiments, his focus was philosophical in nature. Moreover, individual scientists may make profound, unique contributions to theory and practice, but science thrives in a community environment. Functionally, it is hard to assign Bacon the role of scientist with no scientific community with which to interact. It may be more accurate to identify Bacon in the role of visionary. But by the 13th century, particularly in the works of Roger Bacon, the philosophical underpinnings of science appear to have coalesced.

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