dr hab. Zenon Eugeniusz Roskal, prof. KUL

Mathematical Astronomy in Greek Science: A Study in History and Philosophy of Science

Z. E. Roskal, Astronomia matematyczna w nauce greckiej. Metodologiczne studium historyczno-przyrodnicze, Lublin: RW KUL 2002, ss. 228 [in Polish]
Mathematical Astronomy in Greek Science: A Study in History and Philosophy of Science


The goal of this study has been to gain a better appreciation of ancient astronomy (we are interested in the topic over the period of 700 years between 550 BC and 150 AD). It is well known that the Greek astronomy was already subjected to historical scrutiny especially in XIX and XX-century and many works on this subject were done. However, this study on the subject is rather different. Our intention in this work is not to describe the main episodes in the Greek astronomy but rather to attempt to answer the question: is the Greek astronomy scientific? And how (in what ways) was it done?

Our answer to this question is a concept of mathematical astronomy. We intend to show that it can appropriately be called scientific. By calling mathematical astronomy scientific we intend more than to claim that mathematical astronomy was somehow a precursor of the later developments that really must by called scientific. Especially, the Greek astronomy in the Hellenistic period offers plausible rationales for scientific procedures. Astronomers like Hipparch and Ptolemy make use of both the observation and the theory as well as derive conclusions, which explain phenomena and can be rationally corrected. We think that those procedures are genuinely scientific in a modern sense.

The consideration which was undertaken in this study shows that the essence of the rise of mathematical astronomy consists in the fusion of two chief astronomical traditions of antiquity. The first is the Greek astronomy, which is characterized by a geometrical method and the second one is the Babylonian astronomy, which was dominated by a computational method. In other words, we may say that the mathematical astronomy is due basically to the mixture at an advanced level of two quite different scientific techniques – the first one logical, geometrical and pictorial, the other one – quantitative and numerical. In the combination of both approaches to astronomy, a perfect and workable theory was evolved. It was a science. This study has led us to reach conclusions in many ways diametrically opposed to traditional judgments. We judge then that science began not in XVII century, but in around 150 AD in the Hellenistic times.

This work has three main chapters, which reflect the author’s methodological beliefs that to clarify something in humanities means displaying its genesis, structure and functions. Accordingly, the first chapter is devoted to the presentation of controversies about the genesis of scientific astronomy in the Greek science. In the second, we consider the place the scientific astronomy in the structure of the Greek science, especially in the three main concepts of scientific knowledge: Aristotle’s, Plato’s, and Ptolemy’s. In the last chapter, we show the functions, which belong to the Greek astronomy as to the genuine scientific knowledge. In our opinion there are four main functions which characterize the Greek astronomy as a scientific one. The first is a prognostic function (there are no general rules of exclusion for scientific data, but the procedure for securing them must be rigidly controlled to avoid favouring a particular result, there are procedures for establishing the reliability and validity of scientific hypotheses, examples of this function was a development of Ptolemy’s models of the Moon motion), the second is diagnostic (that means that the function of science is to enlarge our knowledge and understanding of natural phenomena), the third is instrumental (the use of astronomical instruments like conical sundial etc. in practical applications) and the fourth is technical (ancient technology which produced such advanced devices like Antikythera mechanism). In other words, we studied and analysed scientific activities in the Greek astronomy within the framework of the four dimensions of science i.e.: prognostic, diagnostic, evaluation and practical application.

All in all, we argue for a new interpretation of the Greek astronomy. In this connection we may conclude that in the Greek astronomy, especially in the Hellenistic period, all the functions of scientific theory are performed.

Autor: Andrzej Zykubek
Ostatnia aktualizacja: 08.01.2010, godz. 10:46 - Andrzej Zykubek