Raffaele Pisano, Joseph Agassi and Daria Drozdova (Eds.): Hypotheses and Perspectives in the History and Philosophy of Science

Hypotheses and Perspectives in the History and Philosophy of Science: Homage to Alexandre Koyré 1892-1964 Book Cover Hypotheses and Perspectives in the History and Philosophy of Science: Homage to Alexandre Koyré 1892-1964
Raffaele Pisano, Joseph Agassi and Daria Drozdova (Eds.)
Hardcover 139,09 €

Reviewed by: Anita Williams (Murdoch University)

As the title suggests, this edited book showcases Alexandre Koyré’s contribution to the field of history of science. The volume makes a major contribution to this field by showing the breadth of Koyré’s work and illustrating its significance in reshaping our understanding of the history of modern science. For an English speaking audience, the book is particularly exciting because the authors discuss Koyré’s legacy in both Anglo-Saxon and European contexts as well as the full range of Koyré’s opus, written in English, French, German and Russian. As a result, the book fulfils its aim, as outlined by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent: to ‘reconsider Koyré’s works in a broad international perspective’ (ix).

Given the edited books aim to pay homage to Koyré’s work as part of the Koyré anniversary project, it is not surprising that the majority of contributions focus on Koyré’s unsurpassed and trailblazing contribution to the history of science, which forms the overall narrative of the book. By way of introducing this review, I will start with a rather striking omission regarding the organisation of the book: the edited volume is put together in alphabetical order, rather than around themes, and the introduction mainly lists summaries of the papers, rather than providing an overall framework for making sense of this volume. The organisation of the book detracts from the overall high quality of this publication and the nuanced arguments between the authors on key themes in Koyré. Rather than being foregrounded, the central themes of the edited book are left for the reader to find. In this review, I will discuss the different papers around the book’s focal motifs, which are: (1) Koyré’s ground-breaking influence on the history of science and, most notably, his influence on Thomas Kuhn; (2) the unity of Koyré’s oeuvre; (3) Koyré’s discussion of Galileo’s experiments and the mathematical character of modern science; (4) studies that extend Koyré’s analysis of the central figures in the history of modern science; and (5) Koyré’s relationship to Edmund Husserl as well as phenomenology more generally. I will use these themes to structure this review.

Several authors outline that Koyré helped to establish a new historiographical approach in the field of history of science. Chiefly, many authors note that Koyré introduced the now widely used term ‘scientific revolutions’ and this term summarises the difference between Koyré and earlier historians of science. Koyré sees modern mathematical science as a radical disjuncture between ancient and medieval understandings of the world, on the one hand, and the modern conceptualisation of nature as mathematical, on the other. In brief, for Koyré, modern science is not the culmination of a linear progression of human thought, but, instead, should be acknowledged as a radical change in the way the world is understood. Famously, Koyré has summarised this change as a shift from the closed Cosmos to the open universe, a profound change that he states is only rivalled by ‘the invention of the Cosmos by Greek thought’ in the first place (Koyré 1968c, 16).

Joseph Agassi and Jean-François Stoffel tackle Koyré’s general contribution to the history of science and how Koyré changed this field. In chapter 1, Agassi proposes that Koyré’s greatest contribution to the history of science is to present a different way of reading foundational texts of modern science. He argues that Koyré reads these texts as akin to reading the classics of the arts and humanities. By doing so, Koyré is not only able to bridge the gap between the arts and humanities, on the one side, and the sciences, on the other, but also reveals the metaphysical basis of modern science. In chapter 20, Stoffel critically reviews Koyré’s reconceptualization of the Copernican revolution as the spiritual or ontological “revolution of the 17th century” (424). Stoffel outlines that an important abiding theme in Koyré’s work is the separation of the world of science from the world of life (430) and this provides the framework for Koyré’s discussion of the Copernican revolution. Stoffel concludes by suggesting that the Koyré’s claimed separation between the scientific and the living world is without historical foundation and, instead, may reflect ‘the turmoil of his era that Koyré was marvellously echoing’ (447). Both Agassi and Stoffel highlight that Koyré changed the way the history of modern science is understood, but disagree on what Koyré’s insights should mean for current historians of science, leaving the discussion for the reader to continue.

J. C. Pinto de Oliveira and Amelia Oliveira, John Schuster and Antonino Drago focus on showing Koyré’s impact on the history of science via his influence on Kuhn. Each author discusses the relationship between Koyré and Kuhn in a different light. In chapter 15, Pinto de Oliveira and Oliveira discuss the relationship between George Sarton, Kuhn and Koyré. The main focus of this paper is the relationship between Sarton and Kuhn. From the footnotes, the emphasis on the relationship between Kuhn and Sarton seems to stem from the authors’ suggestion that Kuhn extends Koyré, while Koyré retains sympathies for Sarton (footnote 2, 278) and ‘still has one foot in the “old” historiography’ (footnote 12, 284). However, the relationship between Koyré and Kuhn is not the main focus of the paper. Instead, the authors present the case study of William Harvey’s discovery of blood circulation to illustrate the benefits of a Kuhnian inspired historiography, over Sarton’s approach. In chapter 19, Schuster explicitly outlines how Kuhn extends from Koyré as well as suggesting some difficulties Kuhn faced, given his admiration of Koyré’s work. Schuster specifically focusses on Kuhn’s early work in the history of science. He argues that Kuhn pushes Koyré’s approach to speak directly to the importance of experiments and experimental equipment in modern science, illustrating the case through Kuhn’s engagement with classical and Baconian sciences, in particular his explanation of the Copernican revolution and the rise of new experimental sciences. Schuster argues that there remains a tension within Kuhn’s account of the rise of modern science that is visible by two incommensurate explanations that can be derived from Kuhn’s work: one approach suggests the beginning of modern science is best analysed through looking for points of rupture between the old and new sciences and another suggests that Baconian sciences are born from a ‘continuous process of scientificity’ (413). Schuster leaves this tension open for future thinkers in the areas of ‘sociology of knowledge and Scientific Revolution studies’ (418).

In chapter 7, Drago presents the counterargument and argues that Koyré’s contribution to history of science is more profound than Kuhn’s own contribution. Drago writes that ‘Koyré introduced into the historiography of science the account of a conflict, i.e. the conflict between ancient and modern science’, while ‘Kuhn presented a peaceful development of science over two centuries’ (134). Drago convincingly argues that, while Kuhn adopts the term scientific revolution from Koyré, what the two scholars mean by revolution significantly differs between them. Together, Pinto de Oliveira and Amelia Oliveira, John Schuster and Drago show that a nuanced analysis of the relationship between Koyré and Kuhn is still a fruitful area for further investigations.

In chapter 18, Marlon Salomon pays attention to the way in which Koyré, himself, understood his relationship to the history of modern science and how he differentiated his own approach. He summarises Koyré’s approach by separating between two ways of engaging with the past and, in so doing, Salomon shows that Koyré’s interest in history is to ‘critique’ and ‘denaturalization’ current scientific evidence (380). One approach to the past takes current scientific ideas as natural and factual and reads the history of science with an eye to discarding old and obsolete theories and to focusing on the theories that support the current scientific models and evidence. Such an approach renders the history of ideas as a ‘showcase of curiosities’ (380), at best, and irrelevant to present concerns, at worst. By contrast, as Salomon outlines, Koyré’s approach to the history of ideas is ‘to apprehend the old theories, not at the moment of their death agony but at the moment of their birth’ (382). Salomon drives home that Koyré’s interest in the history of ideas is to enable a critique of the contemporary modern scientific understanding of the world by concluding that ‘Koyré is a thinker of the limits’ (384).

Following on from Solomon, Charles Braverman and Daria Drozdova attend to another key topic: the question of what ties together Koyré’s oeuvre. In chapter 2, Braverman argues that Koyré’s central concern is showing how the notion of space changed with the rise of modern science: modern science conceptualises space as geometrical and this affects all domains of human endeavour, which shows the relevance of Koyré’s assertion of the unity of human thought. To demonstrate his point, Braverman examines the case of André-Marie Ampère in order to show the ‘value of Koyré’s methodology’ (37). In chapter 8, Drozdova suggests that Koyré’s characterisation of modern science is bifurcated and cannot be reduced to one central claim. Instead, according to Drozdova, Koyré shows that both the “destruction of the Cosmos” and “the geometrization of space” are equally important to understanding rise of modern science. Braverman and Drozdova both foreground the importance of the geometrization of space to Koyré’s conceptualisation of the modern scientific revolution.

The next major theme addressed by the volume is Koyré’s thorough examination of the work of Galileo Galilei. As the authors that talk to this theme seek to demonstrate, Koyré made two central and controversial claims about Galileo. First, Koyré outlines the importance of imaginary or thought experiments for Galileo (see Koyré 1968b). Second, Koyré argues that Galileo sides with Platonism (see Koyré 1968c). These two arguments are closely tied together because, as Koyré, himself, notes:

‘for the contemporaries and pupils of Galileo, as well as for Galileo himself, the dividing line between Aristotelianism and Platonism was perfectly clear…the opposition between these two philosophies was determined by a different appreciation of mathematics as science, and of its role for the constitution of the science of Nature…if…one claims for mathematics a superior value, and a commanding position in the study of things natural, one is a Platonist’ (Koyré 1968d, 15).

The authors in this volume, who address Koyré’s work on Galileo, importantly draw attention to the controversy regarding Koyré’s engagement with Galileo and the ways in which this debate has influence subsequent work in the history of science.

Francesco Crapanzano, Mario De Caro and Gérard Jorland all address the theme of Koyré’s account of Galileo’s experiments. In chapter 4, Crapanzano discusses the evidence for and against the factual existence of Galileo’s experiment on the law of falling bodies at the leaning tower of Pisa. He accents Vincenzio Viviani’s – Galileo’s biographer’s – role in documenting this experiment. Crapanzano suggests that Viviani may have used the description of Galileo’s experiment with literary flare: ‘to celebrate the grand master in the best way possible, that is, by corroborating his stance with an experiment that publicly disavowed Aristotelianism’ (82). However, Crapanzano also outlines that there were other experiments supporting the law of falling bodies carried out in this time period, hence, the role of the Pisa experiment is not decisive. He concludes that Koyré ‘disproving the experiment’ played a crucial part in ‘affirming’ Koyré’s ‘perspective on the genesis of scientific theories’, but, ultimately, highlighted ‘one of the first signs of [Koyré’s] prosperous and controversial thesis of Galileo’s Platonism’ (82). In chapter 12, Jorland addresses the evidence for and against the existence of Galileo’s experiments more generally. Jorland suggests that Koyré questions Galileo’s experiments ‘on two very different grounds’: (1) ‘whether Galileo had ever performed experiments’ and (2) ‘if he had, whether [Galileo] had obtained the experimental results that he claimed’ (210). Jorland covers the work of several historians – most notably Stillman Drake – after Koyré who scoured Galileo’s private notes for evidence that he performed experiments or tried to reconstruct Galileo’s experiments to show that it was possible for Galileo to have performed them. Jorland concludes that ‘Galileo did perform experiments, but their results were not precise enough to be reliable’ (220). In a similar vein, in chapter 10, Gaukroger argues that Galileo conducted real experiments and puts forward that Koyré overlooks the prominence that experiments played in the development of modern science due to his focus on the mathematical-idealised structure of science.

In chapter 5, De Caro agrees that Galileo performed experiments. However, in contrast to Crapanzano, Jorland and Gaukroger, De Caro defends Koyré’s view of reading Galileo as a mathematico-physico Platonist. As a result, De Caro spells out that ‘the “sensate esperienze” (“sensible experiences”) that Galileo mentions as crucial in his scientific method, are not the experiences of everyday life, as it was for Aristotelians, but the observations, experimentations, and thought experiments’ (99). De Caro concludes that Koyré correctly identifies that the scientific method ‘could fully flourish only if one assumed, as Galileo did, that the natural world has an inherently mathematical structure that we are endowed to grasp when we reason mathematically’ (102). Crapanzano, Jorland, Gaukroger and De Caro highlight the continued importance of discussing the relationship between the modern mathematical sciences and the experiment.

In a related theme, Mauro Condé and Diederick Raven specifically discuss Koyré’s claim that the foundation of modern science is mathematics. In chapter 3, Condé draws attention to Koyré’s early work on mathematics and shows how his training in mathematics is important to his later history of science and explains Koyré’s argument that metaphysics precedes technology. In chapter 17, Raven also foregrounds the importance of the mathematical foundations of modern science: he writes that for modern science ‘mathematics is the key to understanding the world created for us’ (354) because ‘God created the universe’ (355) and ‘the mind is for understanding quantities’ (355). Raven presents a fascinating comparative analysis, suggesting that it is important to consider the Christian roots of modern science. He argues that Christianity’s confrontation with Aristotle creates the seeds for the scientific revolution because there is a contradiction between the Christian creator and an Aristotelian understanding of the universe, which leads to nominalism. Condé and Raven agree that Koyré’s focus on the mathematical character of modern science is central to his approach, but Raven extends this further to argue for the importance of the Christian tradition in the development of modern science.

Another motif across the volume, which draws different together authors, is those authors who extend from Koyré’s analysis to investigate various scholars pertinent to the history of modern science. In chapter 6, Dominique Descotes starts from Koyré’s lecture on Pascal to reassess the importance of Pascal’s work to the history of modern science. In chapter 11, Glenn Hartz and Patrick Lewtas discuss the importance of Descartes’ voluntarism throughout his work. In chapter 13, Anna Maria Lombardi follows Koyré’s lead to examine Kepler, focusing on the importance of the relationship between music and the harmony of the world for Kepler. In chapter 16, Raffaele Pisano and Paulo Bussotti pay attention to Kepler’s notion of force. Kepler did not agree with the infinite universe, as they note: ‘if the size of the universe were infinite then it should have…a uniform geometrical-cosmological and well-defined structure’ (335). In addition, Kepler believed that ‘the infinite was unthinkable for a human being’ (335). Pisano and Bussotti agree with Koyré that Kepler is a thinker that dwells on the cusp of the closed Cosmos and the indefinite universe, but conclude that Koyré overestimates the influence of Aristotle on Kepler. Descotes, Hartz and Lewtas, Lombardi and Pisano and Bussotti all show that Koyré’s approach points the way to further investigations and re-examinations of premier modern scientific scholars.

The last theme that I will discuss is Koyré’s relationship to the phenomenological tradition, which is discussed by three authors: Massimo Ferrari, Rodney Parker and Anna Yampolskaya. In chapter 9, Ferrari talks to the similarities and differences between Koyré and Ernst Cassirer. Ferrari argues that Cassirer and Koyré need to be understood in light of their respective philosophical backgrounds: Marburg neo-Kantianism and Husserlian phenomenology, which explain two important differences identified by Ferrari. First, Cassirer presents a linear history, whereas Koyré looks for breaks in, and differences between, Ancient and Modern science. Second, Cassirer looks for a priori foundations of science, while Koyré looks for the essential structures of modern science and traces their origins. Similarly, in chapter 14, Rodney Parker argues that Koyré needs to be understood in relationship to Edmund Husserl and phenomenology. He explicates that Husserl’s rejection of Koyré’s dissertation is not a reason to consider Koyré without Husserl. He contends that the disruption to Koyré’s studies, and his subsequent move to France, should not be understood as a new beginning, but, rather, as a continuation of Koyré’s project of phenomenology aimed at explicating the historical a priori, which he adopts from Husserl, albeit in a unique way. The important theme that links Husserl and Koyré is their focus on Galileo and the mathematisation of nature: Husserl provided a starting point for Koyré’s nuanced and detailed engagement with the history of modern science. In chapter 21, Yampolskaya outlines the impact of Koyré’s work on studies in the history of religion, namely on the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Michel Henry. Yampolskaya’s main focus is to review the exchange between Koyré and Levinas on the infinite and the finite as well as Henry’s extension of Koyré’s work on Jacob Böhme. However, during the course of the paper, Yampolskaya illustrates the relationship between Koyré and early French phenomenology and provides insightful commentary about the relationship between Koyré, Husserl and Heidegger. Yampolskaya concludes by suggesting that at the heart of the discussions between Koyré, Levinas and Henry is the ‘problem of truth’ (469) and that the ‘necessity of truth for the being of humans is a lesson of Koyré that French “theological” phenomenology would do well to retain’ (469). Ferrari, Parker and Yampolskaya expose the importance of understanding Koyré in light of the phenomenological tradition that was so influential upon him.

Outside Ferrari, Parker and Yampolskaya, the volume largely discusses Koyré outside of the phenomenological tradition and I would suggest that this is the main limitation of the volume. The book starts by outlining the impossibility of separating Koyré’s philosophy and history of science and, thereby, the importance of understanding Koyré’s work as a philosophy and history of science. On this point, Pisano quotes Koyré in his introduction to the edited work:

‘History of Science without philosophy of Science is blind…[and] philosophy of science without History of Science is empty’ (xx).

Yet, it is my contention, as I shall briefly outline, that without an appreciation of Koyré’s tie to Husserl and phenomenology more generally, the impossibility of splitting philosophy from the history of science cannot be fully appreciated.

The main source of disagreement throughout the edited volume seems to be Koyré’s characterisation of modern science as mathematical, rather than experiential. As Ferrari highlights, Koyré ‘strongly criticized the “virus of empiricist and positivist epistemology” which had also “infected” the history of science’ (159) and this also entails a reconsideration of the role of observation and experiment in modern science. Koyré’s critique of the empiricism and positivism inherent in modern science is not unique to him, but is rather a central characteristic of phenomenological philosophy, stemming and extending from Husserl.

For Koyré, modern science is not a triumph of observation over tradition and authority (Koyré 1972 [1950], 89–91). Instead, modern science is characterised by ‘an Archimedean world of geometry made real…in substituting for the world of the more-or-less of our daily life a universe of measurement and precision’ (Koyré 1968a, 91). Koyré’s point stems from and echoes Husserl’s own words: modern science surreptitiously substitutes ‘the mathematically substructured world of idealities for the only real world, the one that is…experienced and experienceable’ (Husserl 1970, §9, 48–49). As Parker in this volume notes, Husserl also addresses Galileo’s mathematisation of nature (265–269, also see Husserl 1970, §9, 23–59). Husserl names Galileo a revealing and concealing genius because he ‘discovers mathematical nature’ and ‘blazes the trail for the infinite number of physical discoveries and discoverers’, but in so doing he conceals the world as we experience it (Husserl 1970, §9, 51–52). Husserl sees modern science as permeated by a thoroughgoing confusion between the real and the ideal, where ‘what is acquired through scientific activity is not something real but something ideal’ (Husserl 1970, ‘The Vienna Lecture’, 278), but we mistake ‘for true being what is actually a method’ (Husserl 1970, §9, 51). Koyré concurs with Husserl’s identification of the confusion between the constructed world of the modern scientist and the tangible world of experience.

Additionally, Koyré’s philosophy of science cannot be separated from his history of science because he takes seriously the problem of the historical a priori that Husserl gestures towards. Husserl writes: ‘but we come back again to the fact that historical facts…are objective only on the basis of the a priori. Yet the a priori presupposes historical being’ (Husserl 1970, Objectivity and the World of Experience, 350; Parker also notes this, 247). In other words, the question of conceptual understanding cannot be separated from the supposedly objective facts and, furthermore, the question of the origin of concepts, theories and models is a question of tracing them back to the historical context in which they arose.

Husserl’s critique of the mathematisation of nature in Galileo, as well as the recognition of the problem of the historical a priori, form the background to Koyré’s own engagement with Galileo. Koyré does not merely reiterate what Husserl has said, but looks to the history of modern science in order to extend and assess Husserl’s claims about Galileo and the birth of modern science. When Koyré discusses the experiments of Galileo, it is precisely the distinction between the ideally constructed world of the scientist and the real world of our living that Koyré has in mind. Koyré’s claim is not simply that Galileo’s inferior equipment prevented him from preforming his experiments, but, more importantly, that it is ‘impossible in practice to produce a plane surface which is truly plane’ (Koyré 1968b, 45). A plane is a geometrical idea, not a real thing and, as Koyré writes, ‘perfection is not of this world: no doubt we can approach it, but we cannot attain it’ (Koyré 1968b, 45). For Koyré, ‘imaginary experiments’ or “thought experiments” step in where the real experiments end in order to bridge the gap between the world of more-or-less and the perfect world of geometry. He states that imagination ‘is not embarrassed by the limitations imposed on us by reality. It achieves the ideal, and even the impossible’ (Koyré 1968b, 45). According to Koyré, thought experiments play an important role in modern science because imagination can act as an intermediary between the mathematical and the real. Whether Galileo actually performed the experiments in question or not, does not affect the point that Koyré is making here: we cannot attain perfection in the real world.

Furthermore, the principle of inertia cannot be derived from experience because it is impossible to experience: nowhere can we actually see a body left to itself, uniformly moving in a straight line. Martin Heidegger aptly describes this point when he states:

‘modern science, in contrast to…medieval Scholasticism and science, is supposed to be based upon experience. Instead, it has [the law of inertia] at its apex. This law speaks of a thing that does not exist. It demands a fundamental representation of things which contradict the ordinary’ (Heidegger 1967, 89).

For Koyré, inertia is implicit in Galileo’s conception of motion, which will later be made explicit by Newton (Koyré 1968c, 19). As Koyré notes, ‘the Galilean concept of motion (as well as that of space) seems to us so “natural” that we even believe we have derived it from experience and observation’ (Koyré 1968d, 3), yet ‘for the Greeks as well as for the thinkers of the Middle Ages the idea that a body once put in motion will continue to more forever, appeared obviously and evidently false, and even absurd’ (Koyré 1968c, 19). As Koyré points out, it is the experiment, where we interrogate nature and force her to yield to our questions, that is decisive for modern science, not sensible experience (Koyré 1968c, 18).

The equivocation between experiment and experience is an ongoing problem for phenomenology and, therefore, worth reiterating here because the meaning of experience is at the heart of the difference between phenomenological philosophy and modern science. Yet, the meaning of experience is often left unclarified. The tradition of modern science leads to an understanding of human experience as unreliable and as reduced to a mere dependent copy of the, purportedly, external world. Modern science is not based upon unreliable experience, but upon experiments that are repeatable. The modern experiment presupposes that nature is mathematical, in other words, that nature can be measured and mapped with exactitude. On this account, the experiment allows us to move closer to the exact determination of nature by isolating ‘components’ and ‘variables’ and measuring them as well as the specific interactions between them. Phenomenology questions the mathematical conception of nature by suggesting that the scientific method operates by idealising and, then, formalising the things it investigates. Hence, what the scientists attains is not a better description of the tangible world, but a measurement of a mathematised or formalised ideal. Phenomenologists foreground this disjunction between the experimental basis of modern science and human experience as it is lived through. Furthermore, phenomenologists rethink the meaning of experience and problematise reducing experience to sensations as well as making experience equivalent to objectified repeatable data. Phenomenologists foreground that human experience is always meaningful which entails that we are able to see the same thing through different perspectives. However, this does not mean that human experience is perfectly replicable: our experience is typified, more-or-less the same, roughly similar, etc. On the other hand, human experience is not an accumulation of sensations because we always intend something whole, we always see more than we actually see. The meaning of experience is a central question for phenomenology as well as understanding modern mathematical science. I conclude by suggesting that it is important to read Koyré in light of the phenomenological critique of modern science that distinguishes the experiment from experience, brings into question the reduction of experience to sense-data and attempts to rethink experience as always intending something meaningful.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. 1967. What is a Thing? Translated by W. B. Barton and Vera Dutsch. Boston: University Press of America.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by David Carr. Evanston: Northwest University Press.

Koyré, Alexandre. 1968a. «An Experiment in Measurement.» In Metaphysics and Measurement: Essays in Scientific Revolution, 89–117. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Koyré, Alexandre. 1968b. «Galileo’s Treatise De Motu Gravium: The Use and Abuse of Imaginary Experiments.» In Metaphysics and Measurement: Essays in Scientific Revolution, 44–88. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Koyré, Alexandre. 1968c. «Galileo and Plato.» In Metaphysics and Measurement: Essays in Scientific Revolution, 16–43. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Koyré, Alexandre. 1968d. «Galileo and the Scientific Revolution of the Seventeenth Century.» In Metaphysics and Measurement: Essays in Scientific Revolution, 1–15. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Koyré, Alexandre. 1972 [1950]. «Introduction.» In Descartes Philosophical Writings, edited by Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Thomas Geach, vii–xliv. London: Nelson’s University Paperbacks.

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