Monday, September 25, 2017

Review of Leroi’s The Lagoon

My review of Armand Marie Leroi’s excellent book The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science appears in the September issue of Isis: Journal of the History of Science Society

The link takes you to just the first page of the review, but as it happens there are only a few further sentences on the page that follow it.  So when you’re done reading what you see at the link, come back here for the rest of the review.  Here it is:

Commenting on Aristotle’s view that function is so central to a thing’s nature that a corpse is not strictly speaking a man at all, Leroi writes,  “From this point of view, a male cuttlefish who copulates with a dead female is not only wasting his time but making a serious philosophical mistake” (p. 159).

The book’s chief deficiency is that Leroi does not afford certain other thinkers the charitable reading he insists that Aristotle get.  In particular, he is too hard on Aristotle’s predecessor, Plato, and on his successors, the Scholastics.  While demolishing the clichés that surround Aristotle, he perpetuates those obscuring our view of these other writers.  It is as if Leroi thinks he cannot defend his hero without finding someone else to beat up on.

But this is a book about Aristotle and not about them, so this weakness does little harm.  Perhaps correcting it could give Leroi material for a sequel.


  1. I've read the book and was wondering about his comments about Plato. Timaeus is silly, if I remember correctly. Has he misunderstood Plato?

  2. I haven't read the book (yet) so I can't comment on the content, but I would appreciate your 2 cents on some thoughts I had following your review.

    It's been my observation that on a cultural level it is easier for a scientist to believe in God if he is a physicist (amongst which I would include astronomers) or chemist; perhaps because the fathers of those disciplines were either Christian clerics of one sort, or prominent laymen (I'm thinking of Copernicus, Maxwell, Newton, Faraday etc), whereas for biologists the well is poisoned by the mud-slinging (on both sides) over evolution. In your opinion could this book be the start of the healing process between Faith and Reason from the biologist's perspective? I get the impression that Leroi isn't ready to make the jump from naturalism to theism just yet, but is certainly willing to seriously consider the possibility that Aristotle (and by extension Aquinas) was right.


  3. I read this book a couple of years ago and followed up by viewing his BBC documentary "Aristotle's Lagoon". I successfully contacted Armand and we are yet friends on Facebook. He responded almost immediately to my complimentary and encouraging comments on what he had written and produced. But, there are, I have found, limits to a FB friendship between a certified public intellectual like Armand Leroi and someone such as myself, an enthusiastic consumer of the perennial philosophy with very limited academic credentials. Since our initial contact I have tried to acquaint him with some of the writings of modern Aristotelian/Thomist academics that touch on the philosophy of science that could loosen his embrace of naturalism. I sent him links to articles by Oderberg and Daniel De Haan. I have received in return only a thank you and a promise to look into it. In the end I think that Leroi's understanding of Aristotle has much in common with the Aristotle that is described by John Herman Randall, Jr. in his book "Aristotle". Randall suggests that Aristotle's effort was a failed project to make structuralism and functionalism the center of a philosophy of science, with the rest being simply the ruins of an attempt to reconcile with his Platonic origins. For Armand Leroi, like it is for so many naturalist public intellectuals, this is the only Aristotle they can abide.


  4. Aristotle got his philosophy from Plato -- Plato got his philosophy from Socrates -- and Socrates said that "the most ancient and fertile home of Greek philosophy is Crete and Sparta", the homes of the Spartans. Aristotle did not "invent" science. Plato defined science as "To know the condition of what is". That began with the Doric Greeks --- "To know the condition of what is". The honor of inventing science goes to the Doric Greeks -- Aristotle only furthered it along and wrote it down.