Scientia and βαναύσων τέχναι1:

The joint foundation for modern experimental science and technology

In Plato and Aristotle, mechanics and mechanical arts are referred by the term techne but this broad term also refers to rhetoric or poetry. In fact, when Ancient Greeks have in mind specifically the useful material production they prefer to use a pejorative term, banausias. Banauson is still used by late Renaissance writers like Solomon de Caus to designate the mechanical arts, the most ignoble arts that are contrary to science and morality2.

Artes mechanicae and mechanics are, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, redefined by Descartes and Bacon, who rank them at the core of natural philosophy and emphasise their scientific character. Bacon is the first to centre his philosophy around mechanical arts, making them a central part of physics, both as the source of knowledge, his “experiments of light”, and as the ends of knowledge, his “experiments of fruit”. Bacon’s ideas are taken up by Descartes who provide the theoretical basis for the transformation of mechanics into science3. Specifically, Descartes gives a new meaning to scientia, in order to make it identical with mathematics and mathematical certitude.

The clasical place where Aristotle defines knowledge is Nichomachean Ethics 1139b4. Scientia (έπιστήμη) is defined as “the quality whereby we demonstrate” through syllogistic deductions from the first principles. Mathematics is certainly not syllogistic in character and, as such, is not a science. In the Early Modernity there are attempts to demonstrate that at least some of the mathematical demonstrations are syllogistic, but demonstrative methods such as reductio ad absurdum are in principle non-syllogistic5. Descartes bites the bullet and affirm that mathematics is science, moreover it is the only science, and identifies it with physics and mechanics, formerly known as vulgar art (AT VI 54, AT VIII 78-79, AT II 525, AT II 268, AT II 542). These conceptual shifts and new conceptual identifications (scientia=mathematics=physics=mechanics=βαναύσων τέχναι) are the foundations of modern understanding of sciene and technology.

1Vulgar or mechanical arts, or, in Latin: artes illiberales, artes vulgares, artes sordidae.

2“The inferiority of banausic arts is derived neither from their technological character nor their physicality alone but from the idea that these particular arts do not involve the soul in either its intellectual or its moral capacities but are practised merely to satisfy physical needs or pleasures.” (Whitney, 1990, 30)

3“Bacon advocates a program that his own method could never achieve: Descartes is the Baconian with the necessary means. … Descartes … is a student [of Bacon] who outstripped his teacher in the one essential way by contributing the essential means to the project first set forth by the teacher.” (Lampert, 1993, 154). For the direct influence of Bacon on Descartes and Descartes’ acknowledgement of this influence see Hiram Caton, “Descartes’ Anonymous Writings: A Recapitulation” (1982) and Laurence Lampert, Nietzsche and Modern Times, Yale, 1993.

4“Let it be assumed that the states by virtue of which the soul possesses truth by way of affirmation or denial are five in number, i.e. art, knowledge, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, comprehension; for belief and opinion may be mistaken.” (Nichomachean Ethics, 1139b)

5Biener, Zvi. 2008. The unity of science in early-modern philosophy: Subalternation, metaphysics and the geometrical manner in scholasticism, Galileo and Descartes, doctoral thesis, University of Pittsburgh.