Hello Sean M. P. Coughlin

Instructor, Philosophy
The University of Western Ontario
Electronic mail: scoughli (a) uwo.ca

PhD, Philosophy, The University of Western Ontario, 2013
MA, Philosophy, The University of Western Ontario, 2007
BA (Hons.), Philosophy and Classics, McGill University, 2005

You can find my curriculum vitae here


Method and Metaphor in Aristotle's Science of Nature

Defended, 15 August 2013

General Abstract

The biologist Richard Lewontin writes, "it is not possible to do the work of science without using a language that is filled with metaphor" (Lewontin, p. 3). Lewontin is emphasizing the danger, commonly felt, that metaphor in science can mislead. Metaphors mislead, in part, because we aren't quite sure what we're doing with them (what they mean) when we use them in science, any more than when we use them to talk about the world in general. As Lewontin goes on to say, "there is a great risk of confusing the metaphor with the thing of real interest," so that "we cease to see world as if it were like a machine, and take it to be a machine" (Lewontin, p. 4).

My dissertation, "Method and Metaphor in Aristotle's Science of Nature," examines how Aristotle uses metaphors in his physics, and I pay particularly close attention to those metaphors he appropriates from technology, myth, and popular discourse. Building on the work of philosophers like Max Black (1962) and Paul Ricoeur (1975/2003), and historians of philosophy like G.E.R. Lloyd (1996), James Lennox (2001, 2008, 2011), and Mariska Leunissen (2010), I demonstrate that Aristotle's metaphors are not scientific explanations as commonly thought, but heuristic strategies for scientific inquiry; and the general point of the dissertation is to defend the view that scientists can use metaphors in ways that don't mislead. They can use metaphors, not as answers to scientific questions, but as ways to generate scientific questions themselves.

My interpretations of specific metaphors (like, "imitation" and "participation") rely, in part, on an analysis of efficient causation, which I develop throughout the dissertation. I demonstrate that this analysis helps to unravel some of the peculiar ways Plato, Aristotle and Theophrastus use not only metaphor, but also normative explanations in their natural science. The kinds of explanations I have in mind are those which Plato and Aristotle picked up from the cultural landscape (endoxa) of the time, including beliefs like 'right is better than left', 'male is better than female', and even 'form is better than matter'. Once these 'normative facts' are understood as grounded in an analysis of efficient causation, it becomes clearer why Aristotle thought they could serve as 'teleological principles' (in Leunissen's sense) in specific branches of natural philosophy.

This research project was funded by a doctoral fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Areas of Specialization

Ancient Philosophy, Ancient Natural Science, Geometric Models in Ancient Natural Science, Culinary and Oenological Models in Ancient Biology
Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus, John Philoponus, Michael of Ephesus

Areas of Interest

Medieval Philosophy, Renaissance Platonism and Platonist Cosmology, Early Modern Philosophy
Pherecydes, Late Medieval natural teleology, Jean Buridan, history of vitalism, scala naturae, Romanticism

Current Research

I ask the following questions in my work: given that there are certain regular and ordered phenomena in nature, what did ancient philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, think the agents of these phenomena had to be like in order to guarantee their continued generation and existence? What, in other words, did they think an efficient cause must be like to be a cause of regular, ordered change? Also, how do their answers to these questions differ, and what can these differences tell us about the differences in their approach to explanation in natural philosophy?

I am currently exploring these questions through a study of technological models in ancient natural science. My project looks at the exchange of ideas among medicine, biology and philosophy, and focuses on three fundamental but unexplored questions: (1) What are the relationships between medical and biological conceptions of living things? (2) What methods of inquiry in ancient medical science influenced the development of an autonomous science of life? (3) How did the practical concerns of medicine, along with its normative and ethical aspects, influence the speculative and theoretical concerns of biology and botany?

In addition, I am working on a translation of Michael of Ephesus' 12th century commentary on Aristotle's Generation of Animals. I am also putting together materials for a study looking at 16th century Renaissance Platonism, early 17th century empiricism and witchcraft. Finally, I am developing a project that uses wine and wine-making as a model for understanding Theophrastus' botanical ecology.

Papers and Publications


Michael of Ephesus, Paraphrase of Aristotle's De generatione animalium:

Courses Taught

Philosophy 2200F: Ancient Philosophy

Philosophy 2006: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Witchcraft

Philosophy 1300E: Introduction to Philosophy

Community Service

Co-organizer of the Canadian Colloquium for Ancient Philosophy with Riin Sirkel (University of Alberta, University of Vermont) and Michael Griffin (UBC). Find out more about our initiative and check out the programme here.

Colleagues' Homepages


Last updated: December 2, 2013

Please note, all work on this site is work in progress; otherwise, it would be between covers. If you have criticisms or suggestions, or found a typo, or want to talk about convivality, please send me an email. What suburbia is to living, the internet is to communication. It affords us a communication-range so vast that actual communion has become the remotest of possibilities. And so it forces, without facilitating, a need for community and conspiracy.