Idealization vs. Abstraction: Plato vs. Aristotle on Scientific Explanation


Plato’s conception of scientific explanation is most often viewed through the lens of Aristotle’s writings. On this view, Plato’s conception centers on what has been called his ‘theory of ideas’, a grand but somewhat mystical and toothless conception, which Aristotle rightly displaced with his doctrine that knowledge of the general arises by abstraction from perception of the particulars. I will suggest that Plato’s idea was neither quite so grand, nor at all mystical, and certainly not toothless. It was the idea that exact science proceeds by idealizing the phenomena it is to investigate. Idealization introduces structure that is not part of the phenomena and so truth concerning it is not to be found by ‘abstraction’ from the phenomena, but rather by focusing on the ideal structure itself. (This last bit is the point of the Divided Line simile!) History has been on Plato’s side.