Investigative Faculty


Ancient Contributions to Modern Ways of Thinking: The Investigative Faculty


Crombie (1987:83) gives voice to the received wisdom that the Western scientific movement is a specific vision created initially by the Ancient Greeks. He traces this vision

…to the commitment of some ancient Greeks, within a much wider intellectual movement, to the decision [sic] of questions of all kinds, ethical and practical as well as scientific and metaphysical, by argument and evidence as distinct from custom, edict, revelation or some other habitual [unquestioned] means. The Greek philosophers, mathematicians and medical thinkers developed thereby the notion of a problem as distinct from a doctrine, and the consequent habit of envisaging thought and actions in all situations as the perceiving and solving of problems. They developed with this the conception of a rational scientific system,….a system in which formal reasoning matched natural causation. From these two fundamental matching conceptions, of formal proof and causal demonstration, each entailing a capacity for self-correction, have followed all the essential character and style of Western philosophy, mathematics and natural science and their competence to control subject-matters of all kinds, from abstract ideas to material things.

This modern view of the Ancient Greeks is inaccurate and misleading, if somewhat true, and obscures the deep cognitive origins of the human investigative faculty. First, we need to look closer at the scientific intellectual postures of the Ancient Greeks. Then we return to the question of ancient origins for empirical investigative reasoning.


Ancient Greek Investigative Modes of Reasoning

            By privileging everyday phenomena, Ancient Greek 'scientists', i.e., natural philosophers and medical practitioners (especially the Hippocratic physicians), drew conclusions based on what could be seen, felt, and learned from experience. Crombie correctly envisages the Greek aporetic orientation to scientific and philosophic issues. But their accounts were couched within and shaped by the very things Crombie believes to be distinct from the investigative process: “custom, edict, revelation or some other habitual means” of thought. Thales may have been the first purported Greek scientist privileging a physical, natural explanation of the universe—‘all is water’—but his belief was itself never divested of myth and metaphor. And the physicians, for all their malaise toward the otherworldliness of the monists and Eleatics like Parmenides, believed that even this material world was divine. Prognosis, a ‘foreknowing,’ was a kind of prophesying. Myth, metaphor, and storytelling were methodologically constitutive of Ancient Greek investigative reasoning.

For an example of the philosophical weaving of customary and 'scientific' modes of thought, we can look to how the Greek physicians—the Hippocratics—rooted conceptual and mythological explanations in the four elements of fire, air, water and earth. The four elements constitute physical bodies according to different ratios. The elements themselves are governed by material contraries, hot/cold and wet/dry. (See Table 1, modified from Chandler 2002.) These contraries explain why the elements change and how certain ratios are possible. While hot/dry explains the nature of fire, and cold/dry accounts for earth, etc., the very same contraries explain the four humors, their related organs, and the nature of the seasons. These relationships continue to explain physical phenomena as they change in scale. But because their contrary powers are constant the elements can operate as principles of physical change. Heraclitus made fire the principle of explanation of the physical universe since everything appeared to evaporate and condense with respect to fire. Moreover, the Ancient Greeks tracked all physical phenomena in such a way as to explain the universe by attending to the cyclic world witnessed every day, including the cosmic narrative of the night sky.

For the physicians, the reliability and predictability of the elements ruled out the need for modes of explanation that required immaterial or supernatural principles. Still, the reliance upon physical elements was firmly rooted in customary practices and beliefs. Because proper diet correlated to specific seasons, physicians were able to prognose the course of a disease based upon changes in diet and times of year. But, since prognosis was also a kind of ‘divination’ it retained that mythological sense of imagining future circumstances based on present material conditions. For the ancients, probabilistic thinking was a kind of fortune telling. Ptolemy's astrological accounts (Tetra. I.4), attributing elemental powers to the planets, are a well-known example of this type of thinking applied more broadly to human affairs.


Tracking Skills of the Hunter: The Fundamental Mode of Investigative Reasoning

            Here we present an argument that the origins of the investigative faculty refined by Western natural science reside not in the elite leisure practices of a slave-based civilization, but rather in the mundane everyday practices of people much closer to nature than any Greek in recorded history. First we review some basics in the art of tracking, the following text comprised primarily of ideas from Liebenberg (1990).

            Perhaps the oldest of the sciences, the art of tracking is of crucial importance to both the traditional hunter and to wildlife management and nature conservation (including public education) in contemporary settings ( With regard to observational and cognitive skills, speculative tracking is the most advanced level of this art. It relies on both systematic and creative abilities applied in variable environments with an uncertain outcome. The systematic part involves the gathering of information from signs until a detailed mental picture is built up of what an animal is doing, e.g. when it passed by, where it is going, and the speed at which it is traveling. This requires an ability to recognize and interpret signs in conditions where spoor are not obvious nor easy to follow. This ability to interpret indirect evidence is also used to acquire knowledge of the activities of nocturnal animals. Additionally, speculative tracking

…involves the creation of a working hypothesis [or multiple working hypotheses] on the basis of the initial interpretation of signs, a knowledge of animal behavior and a knowledge of the terrain. Having built a hypothetical reconstruction of the animal’s activities in their mind, the trackers then look for signs where they expect to find them. (Liebenberg 1990:29.)

As seen in the simple schematic illustration below (Figure 1), the systematic, essentially inductive-deductive, ability and the speculative hypothetico-deductive ability are complementary and integrated seamlessly in the advanced art of tracking.

 Figure 1. Semicircular tracking of a moose in snow, where before it stops to feed or lie down the moose doubles back on its trail to smell whether any predator is following it. (Liebenberg 1990: 35, with minor modification.)

             It is Liebenberg’s thesis (1990: 45-46) that systematic-speculative tracking represents the faculty of science in its most basic form. Through the continuous process of conjecture and refutation, skilled trackers create informed imaginative reconstructions of what their quarry are doing and why. For unexpectedly complex dynamic situations this can lead to novel (even life-saving) predictions in unique circumstances. Liebenberg points out that hunting is one part of the naturalistic research program of each hunter-gatherer community acting as a whole. The main differences, he argues, between those small non-industrial communities and modern industrial science are sociological and technological, especially the social institutions developed to store a greater body of knowledge which is accessible in libraries, the technological instruments to make more accurate observations and complex calculations, and the collective efforts of large numbers of increasingly specialized individuals across the generations.

            The ancient Greeks were at an inchoate stage in the development of some of the modern sciences. It is possible that among contemporary subtropical hunter-gatherers the most competent shamans/healers knew more comparative anatomy (including that of non-human primates), more herbal medicine and proper seasonal dietetics, than any Greek physician at that time.


The Modern Investigative Faculty

            Some of the ancient components of the modern investigative faculty are schematically represented in Figure 2. Naturalist components are seen in the panels to the left. For the elite Hellenic Greek who was advised to take up hunting as a worthy pursuit during the change in age from childhood to adolescence, the work of hunting with nets and dogs was born by the young man’s hunter-slave (Xenophon On Hunting, Doty's 2001 English translation). It is doubtful the aristocrat learned much of the art of tracking in these circumstances at this relatively late age. The rural commoner probably knew more. This speculation implies the elite may have been handicapped in the development of skilled investigation, and refined methods of practical inquiry were found elsewhere, for example in the activities of the artisan class. This conclusion is suggested, in part, by Hippocrates’ use of practical crafts as metaphors for the physician’s art (see W.H.S. Jones' 1931 English translation of Hippocrates' Regimen, Book I).


Figure 2. Some ancient capabilities that contribute to the modern investigative faculty. (See for a key to the semiotic signs used in the iconography of this graphic model.)


            The panels seen in the right side of Figure 2 allow for a world full of signs. The investigative faculty includes, as we acknowledged earlier, the skills of imagining. For the Ancient Greeks seercraft and divination were parts of the arts of life and religion (Beerden 2013). It is not until the end of the Renaissance that extispicy is systematically replaced with expiscation. In the iconography on the right side of Figure 2 the flow of propaganda from Omen Mindedness into the Investigative Faculty enters above the bullet of implicit critical comparisons, acknowledging a location where the ancient products of imagination are held up to modern (post Renaissance) styles of scrutiny and knowing.

            It is Zilsel’s Thesis that science cannot develop in a civilization based on slave labor. Furthermore, Zilsel illuminates how a combination of circumstances and factors combined in the free-towns of Western Europe during the period from 1300-1600 CE to weaken belief in authority, servile collective-mindedness, and magical thinking, and instead promote worldly, rational, causal, experimental and quantitative reasoning (see Zilsel 1942, for a summary of this thesis). Highly skilled artisans played a central role in this as artist-engineers, instrument makers, navigators, commercial accountants, surveyors, metallurgists, etc., and in the new more fluid social order of international commerce and trade they adopted some of the theoretical interests of the humanists (who also began to write in the vernacular), and the methodical 'intellectual' discipline of the schoolmen. Concurrently the humanist-literati professional ideal of individual glory and the scholastic method of disputation were programmatically superseded by the ideas of control of nature and the advancement of learning through intellectual and scientific cooperation.

   On the whole, the rise of the methods of the manual workers to the ranks of academically trained scholars at the end of the sixteenth century is the decisive event in the genesis of science. The upper stratum could contribute logical training, learning, and theoretical interest; the lower stratum added causal spirit, experimentation, measurement, quantitative rules of operation, disregard of school authority and objective co-operation. (Zilsel 1942: 558).

Thus it is not until the seventeenth century that we see the ancient skills of the systematic-speculative tracker reworked into the beginnings of modern science and the philosophy of potential progress for civilization.



                                                       References Cited

Beerden, K. 2013. Worlds Full of Signs: Ancient Greek Divination in Context. Brill: Leiden.

Chandler, D. 2002. Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge: London.

Doty, R.E. 2001. Xenophon On Hunting. Studies in Classics Volume 13. Edwin Mellen Press:     Lewiston.

Jones, W.H.S. 1931. Hippocrates Volume IV (including Heracleitus On The Universe) With An English Translation. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.  

Liebenberg, L. 1990. The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science. David Philip Publishers: Cape Town.

Zilsel, E. 1942. The sociological roots of science. American Journal of Sociology 47 (4): 544-562.














You are here