Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Asking Questions

Image from Adelard's translation
of Euclid's Elements of Geometry
Being inquisitive is the first step to learning.* In the early Middle Ages, the presence of many classical authorities circulating in Latin, such as Aristotle and Plato, eliminated the need for inquiry in the opinions of many.

The 12th century saw an influx of more works, many of them Greek writings (preserved by Arabs) or Arab writings. The widening of philosophical and scientific horizons by this wave of knowledge caused many scholars to re-think what had been established.

Adelard of Bath (c.1080-c.1152) was an English philosopher who was in a position to translate into Latin for the first time many of the Greek and Arabic works becoming available to the West. After studying at Tours and teaching at Laon in France, he traveled for seven years through Italy, Sicily, Syria and Palestine. He translated Al-Kwarizmi's astronomical tables and Euclid's Elements of Geometry from Arabic, wrote works on the abacus and on his love of philosophy, and a book called Questiones Naturales (Natural Questions) in which he tackled, in dialogue form, 76 questions about the world. One of his themes is the choice of using reason rather than merely accepting authority.
For what should we call authority but a halter? Indeed, just as brute animals are led about by a halter wherever you please, and are not told where or why, but see the rope by which they are held and follow it alone, thus the authority of writers leads many of you, caught and bound by animal-like credulity, into danger. Whence some men, usurping the name of authority for themselves, have employed great license in writing, to such an extent that they do not hesitate to present the false as true to such animal-like men. [...] For they do not understand that reason has been given to each person so that he might discern the true from the false. [Questiones Naturales, VI]
To be clear: Adelard's science is not ideal: his periodic table of elements contains only four substances, which are mixed in various proportions to create all materials. Some animals see better by day or night because of either white or dark humor in their eyes. We see because an extremely light substance (Plato's "fiery force") is created in the brain, gets out of the brain through the two eyes, swiftly reaches an object and learns and retains its shape, then returns to the brain through our eyes so that we "see" what is in front of us. A mirror, whose surface is smooth, bounces back the fiery force, which on returning to us picks up our image on its way and allows us to see our reflection.

Still, his works were copied and distributed, and influenced much of what was to come. His assertion of reason over blind acceptance of classical authorities was an important milestone in scientific thought. Many of his ideas are seen again in the writings of Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and Hugh of St. Victor. Once the printing press was perfected, Adelard's translation of Euclid became a standard text for a hundred years.


*One of the followers of this blog is part of a group trying to promote inquiry-based learning in young people. Visit Prove Your World to learn more.

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