No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Aristotelian and Galileian Modes of Thought

Lewin, K. (1931), The Conflict Between Aristotelian and Galileian Modes of Thought in Contemporary Psychology, in: The Journal of General Psychology, Vol. 5, No. 2, pages 141-177.

In this paper, Kurt Lewin compares Aristotelian and Galileian modes of thought in the context of psychology and physics. Lewin seeks to clarify and refine questions in modern psychology by looking at these historical perspectives. Lewin doesn't attempt to dictate what psychology should be or whether it's reducible to physics but highlights differences in thought processes that influenced the research of Aristotelian and post-Galileian physicists. The focus is on the fundamental distinctions in Galileo’s and Aristotle's theories.

  1. General Character of the Two Modes of Thought

A. In Physics

Aristotelian physics is anthropomorphic and inexact, filled with valuative and normative concepts. These concepts are rooted in ethics and values, classifying phenomena based on their perceived worth and relationships, which played a significant role in the development of psychology. Aristotelian concepts continue to influence psychology, such as the distinction between normal and pathological. Aristotelian physics relied on rigid, dichotomous classifications, such as cold vs. warm, which were replaced by continuous gradations in modern physics. Similarly, contemporary psychology still holds on to dichotomous classifications in certain areas like feelings and temperaments. But there is a gradual shift towards functional differences in classifying psychological phenomena.


In Aristotelian physics, the concept of lawfulness was tied to frequency and historical terms. Lawful events were those that occurred without exception or frequently, and this lawfulness was closely related to the historical, geographic context in which they occurred. This mode of thought influenced the development of physics and had important consequences on how scientific concepts were formed. The Aristotelian mode of thought is deeply rooted in the historical and geographic context of events. This approach was characterized by an interconnection between normative and physical concepts, reflecting the given historic-geographic circumstances.


The use of mathematical tools and the pursuit of exactness are important but not the core differences between Aristotelian and Galileian physics. It was possible to express the essential content of Aristotelian dynamic ideas in mathematical form, as is happening in contemporary psychology. The focus shifted more towards changes in content rather than form.


Galileian physics is characterized by the idea of a comprehensive, all-encompassing unity in the physical world, where the same laws govern various phenomena, like the courses of stars, falling of stones, and flight of birds. This homogenization of the physical world minimizes the significance of rigid, abstract classifications, leading to more fluid transitions and gradations between phenomena. The shift to conditional-genetic concepts, which emphasize the functional aspects of objects and their dynamic relations, further reduces the significance of rigid class distinctions. This allows for the recognition that apparently different phenomena, classified based on their appearance (phenotype), are actually different expressions of the same underlying law. Galileian physics and its shift towards quantification involve a desire to understand and describe concrete, individual cases fully and quantitatively. This means considering not just qualitative differences but also differences in degree or intensity. The increasing quantification in physics was driven by the need to comprehend concrete particular cases fully.


The tendency in Galileian physics to have the closest possible contact with actuality led to a mode of concept formation that contrasts with Aristotelian empiricism. While Aristotelian concepts had an immediate reference to historically given reality, modern physics concepts often lack such a direct historical reference. Modern physics laws do not depend on how frequently an event occurs in history; whether it's rare or common is considered irrelevant to these laws.


B. In Psychology

Aristotelian concept formation

Many concepts in psychology exhibit Aristotelian characteristics, as psychology often places importance on regularity and frequency in phenomena. Psychologists tend to focus on whether a behavior or phenomenon is common or typical, and they may disregard exceptional or unique cases as unimportant or scientifically irrelevant. Similar to Aristotelian physics, there is an ongoing debate in psychology about whether and to what extent psychological events are lawful. Psychology has been hesitant to extend into the study of areas like emotions or individual will, partly because such events are not expected to repeat regularly, and frequent recurrence has been historically linked with the assumption of lawfulness.


Contemporary child psychology and affect psychology often define characteristics of certain age groups or emotional expressions based on what a group of individuals has in common. This abstraction of class membership is sometimes treated as the essence of the behavior and used to explain it. Similar methods are used in various psychological concepts such as instincts, character, and temperament. Statistics in contemporary psychology serve as a means of demonstrating common features in groups of psychological phenomena. In psychology, the use of statistics to calculate averages and represent characteristics of groups aligns with the Aristotelian mode of thinking. Statistics are used to abstract commonality from groups of cases.


Psychology often distinguishes between regularity and lawfulness and is typically satisfied with regular validity rather than absolute lawfulness. This notion that exceptions are not counter-arguments as long as they are not too frequent corresponds with Aristotelian thinking, which often assumed a correlation between repetition and lawfulness.


Contemporary psychology retains a significant link to the historic-geographic context, as psychological concepts are often rooted in and shaped by historical and geographic data. The frequency of occurrences within historically and geographically defined fields plays a crucial role in shaping psychological concepts.


Approximation of life conditions is about the tendency to study important life decisions that are less frequent experimentally. This echoes an Aristotelian approach, which could be akin to studying the largest rivers in hydrodynamics instead of focusing on laboratory experiments.


Galileian concept formation

In psychology, there is a shift away from valuation and humanoid classifications of phenomena. Instead of relying on binary distinctions and dichotomies, the field is moving towards more continuous and serial concepts that allow for variations. This shift has progressed significantly in sensory psychology, where phenomena like psychological optics and acoustics are being studied in a more continuous and nuanced manner.


A significant change in psychology is the recognition that psychological laws must hold without exceptions. This shift towards exceptionless lawfulness aims to unify and harmonize the entire field of psychology, removing the previous divisions between normal and pathological, and regular and unusual. The process is analogous to how modern physics united heavenly and earthly processes.

Psychology is becoming more homogeneous and is removing the distinctions between different fields. Freud's work contributed to bridging the gap between the normal and the pathological. This trend towards homogenization is apparent in child and animal psychology, among others. The goal is not merely philosophical unity but practical unification in research.

The shift to exceptionless validity of psychological laws is associated with an increase in the demands placed on the burden of proof. Exceptions can no longer be taken lightly and are considered as valid disproofs. The use of idealized cases, like the frictionless rolling of an ideal sphere down a perfectly straight plane, allows for the exploration of laws' pure forms. In this context, a law can hold without exception without relying on historical regularity or an average of historical cases.


The transition to Galileian concepts in psychology entails the detachment of lawfulness from regularity. The presence of historical rarity or constancy does not prove or disprove lawfulness. Instead, the concept of lawfulness is separated from historical constancy. The content of a law cannot be derived solely from averages of historically given cases. To comprehend the concrete nature of an event and embrace lawfulness without exception, psychology must find ways to penetrate the nature of events beyond merely ignoring individual peculiarities. This challenge parallels the paradoxical procedures of Galileian methods, which are clarified by considering the dynamics of physics.


2. Dynamics

A. Changes in the Fundamental Concepts of Physics

There are fundamental differences between Aristotelian and Galileian concepts of lawfulness and dynamics. For Aristotle, dynamics were explained through teleological concepts, where objects tend toward perfection or the realization of their nature, and these concepts were closely related to psychological drives.


Galileian dynamics are based on the dependence of the entire dynamic structure on the whole situation in which the event occurs. The situation and the object involved play equal roles in determining the dynamics of the event. In Galileian dynamics, the situation (i.e., the environment or context) plays a significant role in determining the dynamics of an event. The whole situation is viewed as a critical component in understanding dynamics. The vectors determining the event's dynamics are not determined solely by the nature of the object but also by the situation itself.


Unlike Aristotelian dynamics, Galileian dynamics do not rely on the historical regularity of events. Instead, they focus on understanding dynamics within the specific, individual situations where the events occur. The aim is to understand the real, always unique event without the need for historical regularity as confirmation. Galileian dynamics may involve the use of process differentials to comprehend the dynamics of a process. This method arises from the idea that the process differential allows the dynamics of an event to be expressed without the influence of historical factors.


The shift to Galileian dynamics leads to various methodological consequences. Experiments can focus on rare, transitory, or historically unusual events because the concept of lawfulness is not limited to historically regular events. Precise qualitative and quantitative determinations are essential because they enable a full and concrete understanding of individual peculiarities within a given situation. The use of continuous transitions instead of dichotomies allows for refined descriptions and provides functional concepts that can capture the particular without losing it in the general. The method of approximation in the description of objects and situations becomes valuable, emphasizing the continuous and functional mode of thought in Galileian dynamics.


The transition to Galileian dynamics marks a significant departure from the Aristotelian mode of thought, focusing on understanding events within their specific and concrete situations, without relying on historical regularity, and embracing a more refined and continuous approach to describing and studying dynamics.


B. Fundamental Dynamic Concepts in Psychology

Psychology's dynamic concepts are Aristotelian in nature, primarily because they attribute the processes to vectors associated with individual objects, somewhat independently of the concrete whole situation. Instincts, for example, are determined based on what actions are most frequently or regularly observed in individual or group behavior, leading to an abstract class concept that is both the goal and the cause of the process. The Aristotelian approach has intrinsic difficulties, especially the tendency to exclude specific situations, which leads to vague explanations and a lack of precise laws for individual cases. Psychology has sought to self-correct these issues by considering momentary conditions of drives and environments, but these approaches still fall short of a full Galileian mode of thought.


There are emerging signs in psychology, particularly in sensory psychology, of a transition towards a Galileian mode of thought. This transition involves considering the dynamics of processes not just based on isolated objects but in relation to the concrete whole situation and the momentary conditions of the individual. The development of a more constructive, concrete method in psychology is anticipated. Furthermore, contemporary psychology is moving towards a state of constant development and away from the speculative stage where various schools of thought opposed each other. The adoption of a method that promotes step-by-step understanding is expected to lead to continuous progress in psychology.


I see parallels to safety management.

Safety management, in my experience, often uses an Aristotelian mode of thought. In this Aristotelian safety management, events are often classified as normal or abnormal (or even “pathological”). Aristotelian binary thinking simplifies events into categories of safe or unsafe. This binary approach fails to capture the complexities and nuances of real-world risks and incidents.

In the Aristotelian framework, events are viewed as isolated incidents, without a comprehensive understanding of the broader context. Historical regularities serve as a confirmation that things are safe or unsafe, often leading to a backward-looking perspective and a tendency to emphasize blame over prevention. It fails to fully comprehend the dynamic and complex nature of safety events, resulting in a myopic view that hinders overall improvement.
In Galileian safety management, events are regarded as dynamic processes influenced by the entire situation. This encompasses organizational culture, processes, and individual actions, and highlights the systemic factors in work, traffic, or whatever process you study. Instead of binary thinking, Galileian safety management promotes shared ‘response-ability’, recognizing that safety is a collective effort.
Galileian safety management seeks to understand events in their contexts, without relying on historical regularity as the sole confirmation of "safety". This approach demands precise qualitative and quantitative determinations to grasp the complexity of dynamic processes. In doing so, it emphasizes the study of normal, rare, transitory, and unusual events to build a comprehensive understanding of safety processes.