BMCR 2023.02.38

Aristotle’s empiricism

, Aristotle's empiricism. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 272. ISBN 9780197567456.



Aristotle considered sense perceptions to precede other kinds of knowledge, but it is not sufficiently clear how much the different kinds of knowledge really owe to sense perceptions. How, for example, are these sense perceptions useful for grounding advanced and organized kinds of knowledge? This question animates Gasser-Wingate in making a case for “Aristotle’s Empiricism”. But there are some preliminary issues which he needs to address as well. First, considering the breadth of the concepts “empiricism” and “empiricist”, calling Aristotle’s philosophy “empiricist” can mean quite different things. For example, did Aristotle assert that “all knowledge starts from sense perceptions” (weak empiricism), or that “sense perceptions offer solid bases AND a safe structure for building other more sophisticated kinds of knowledge” (strong empiricism). Here one must note that in Aristotle there is no argument for a radical empiricism, understood as the assertion that all knowledge is always and only, at bottom, absolutely perceptual.

A second issue concerns rationalist readings of Aristotle. In the twentieth century the “rationalist” reading of Aristotle (which completely rejects strong empiricism and usually accepts weak empiricism only with reservations) seems dominant, and was espoused by scholars such as Frede and Irwin.[1] But, on the other hand, “rationalist” readings of Aristotle in the twentieth century seem to have forgotten the uncertainty in antiquity over the extent of Aristotle’s empiricism. For instance, the methodological disputes between the different schools of medicine in Galen’s time, the so-called “Rationalist school” presenting itself as an episteme, the so-called “Empiricist school” as a techne, are based on competing interpretations of Metaph. 1 and APo.[2]

On the first of these issues, instead of sharing the “rationalist” point of view, Gasser-Wingate’s position is that, for Aristotle, the role of perception is to offer a safe and sufficiently stable starting point for knowledge, offering effective practical guidance for ordinary life associated, and allowing us to perform sophisticated tasks and to live in complex societies (a strong empiricism, although not a radical one). Now, since we can assert almost the same things about the role of sensory perceptions for other complex animals as well, the author ends up rehabilitating the notion that these animals also act in a complex way, motivated by faculties analogous to human ones, except for reason, since reason is an exclusively human capacity which makes us able to build up theoretical knowledge concerned with essences and universal causes. In support of his case, Gasser-Wingate first invites us to return to the conceptual distinction between “Perception, Knowledge, and Understanding in Aristotle’s Epistemology”, in a first chapter which is subdivided into: “1.1 Aristotle’s Epistemic Terminology”; “1.2 Understanding and Demonstration”; “1.3 Rationalism and First Principles”; “1.4 Understanding and Priority”; “1.5 Understanding and Conviction”; and “1.6 Justification and Epistemic Value in Aristotle”.

After the second chapter (“Plato and Aristotle on Our Perceptual Beginnings”), Gasser-Wingate addresses more directly the second above-mentioned issue, first going back to Plato’s dialogues, especially the middle-period ones, in order to try to establish comparisons, and to show disagreements, between Plato and Aristotle on the issue of the causal role of perception for structuring knowledge and offering trustworthy guidance for practical action and learning. This chapter is subdivided into: “2.1 Aristotle on learning”; “2.2 Perceptual Beginnings: A Platonic View”; “2.3 Perceptual Beginnings and Our Epistemic Ascent”; and “2.4 Perceptual Foundations and Perception’s Epistemic Value”.

After that, based on the Analytics, and aiming to prove that sense perceptions are aetiologically prior to more sophisticated kinds of knowledge, the author argues in the third chapter (“Understanding by Induction”) that for Aristotle we learn scientific first principles through inductive processes. This chapter is subdivided into: “3.1 Demonstrative Understanding and nous”; “3.2 Learning in APo II.19: Some Preliminaries”; “3.3 Learning in APo II.19: Induction”; “3.4 The First Stand: Perception to Universal Knowledge”; “3.5 Subsequent Stands: Universal Knowledge to nous”; and “3.6 Induction and Universal Knowledge”.

The most important part of the book is composed by Chapters Three along with Four and Five, which set out the striking consequences that follow from its arguments. Moving on from the initial stages of the inductive process, the fourth chapter deals with “Perception and Perceptual Contents”. The chapter is subdivided into: “4.1 Perceptual Objects and Contents: A Broad View”; “4.2 Perception and Rationality: A Nontransformative View”; “4.3 Perceptual Experience and Conceptual Resources”; “4.4 Particularity and Universality: APo I.31”; “4.5 The Perception of Universals”; and “4.6 Discrimination, Recognition, and Compound Universals”. Chapter Five (“Perception, Experience, and Locomotion: Aristotle”) proceeds by analysing crucial passages and conceptions in the De Anima, covering the role of memory, impulses and phantasiai in both human behaviour and that of the so-called “irrational” animals. This chapter is subdivided into: “5.1 Discrimination, Pleasure, and Desire”; “5.2 Perception and Phantasia”; and “5.3 Animal Experience, Human Experience, and Rationality”. As a corollary, Chapter Six examines “Perception in Aristotle’s Ethics”, offering an empiricist approach to Aristotle’s moral epistemology (this chapter is subdivided into: “6.1 Strong Particularism: Ethics and Rules of Conduct”; “6.2 Against Strong Particularism”; and “6.3 Perception, Experience, and Practical Wisdom”). The book closes with “Final Thoughts”, “Bibliography”, “Index-Locorum-Aristotle”, “Index-Locorum-Plato”, “Index Nominum”, “Thematic-Index”.

Gasser-Wingate succeeds in offering us an alternative empiricist reading of Aristotle’s epistemology, instead of the “rationalist” reading which prevailed in the twentieth century. The book is a guide to Aristotle, but one that differs from more conventional, “rationalist” guides since its starting point is different. And it is not only the author’s perspective which differs radically from the prevailing view, but maybe also the motivation behind his writing: by proposing a new reading of Aristotle, he is also restoring some unfortunately forgotten Ancient interpretations and problems.



Frede, Michael; Walzer,Richard (1985). Galen: Three Treatises on the Nature of Science. Hackett Publishing Company.

Frede, Michael (1987). Essays in Ancient Philosophy. University of Minnesota Press.

Frede, Michael (1996). “Aristotle’s Rationalism.” In Rationality in Greek Thought (Michael Frede and Gisela Striker, eds.), 157-173, Oxford University Press.

Irwin, Terence (1988). Aristotle’s First Principles. Clarendon Press.



[1] Frede 1996; Irwin 1988.

[2] It is interesting to notice that Michael Frede, although he defended a “rationalist” interpretation of Aristotle, was, thanks to his research into ancient medicine, and specially on Galen’s De Sectis (cf. 1985; 1987), perfectly able to perceive that his own “rationalist” reading was not even close to standard in late antiquity.