Natural philosophy

Natural philosophy

Natural philosophy or philosophy of nature (from Latin philosophia naturalis) was the philosophical study of nature and the physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science. It is considered to be the precursor of natural science.

From the ancient world, starting with Aristotle, to the 19th century, the term “natural philosophy” was the common term used to describe the practice of studying nature. It was in the 19th century that the concept of “science” received its modern shape with new titles emerging such as “biology” and “biologist”, “physics” and “physicist” among other technical fields and titles; institutions and communities were founded, and unprecedented applications to and interactions with other aspects of society and culture occurred.Isaac Newton’s book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), whose title translates to “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, reflects the then-current use of the words “natural philosophy”, akin to “systematic study of nature”. Even in the 19th century, a treatise by Lord Kelvin and Peter Guthrie Tait, which helped define much of modern physics, was titled Treatise on Natural Philosophy (1867).

In the German tradition, Naturphilosophie (philosophy of nature) persisted into the 18th and 19th century as an attempt to achieve a speculative unity of nature and spirit. Some of the greatest names in German philosophy are associated with this movement, including Goethe, Hegel and Schelling.

Origin and evolution of the term

The term natural philosophy preceded our current natural science (i.e. empirical science). Empirical science historically developed out of philosophy or, more specifically, natural philosophy. Natural philosophy was distinguished from the other precursor of modern science, natural history, in that natural philosophy involved reasoning and explanations about nature (and after Galileo, quantitative reasoning), whereas natural history was essentially qualitative and descriptive.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, natural philosophy was one of many branches of philosophy, but was not a specialized field of study. The first person appointed as a specialist in Natural Philosophy per se was Jacopo Zabarella, at the University of Padua in 1577.

Modern meanings of the terms science and scientists date only to the 19th century. Before that, science was a synonym for knowledge or study, in keeping with its Latin origin. The term gained its modern meaning when experimental science and the scientific method became a specialized branch of study apart from natural philosophy.

From the mid-19th century, when it became increasingly unusual for scientists to contribute to both physics and chemistry, “natural philosophy” came to mean just physics, and the word is still used in that sense in degree titles at the University of Oxford. In general, chairs of Natural Philosophy established long ago at the oldest universities are nowadays occupied mainly by physics professors. Isaac Newton’s book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), whose title translates to “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, reflects the then-current use of the words “natural philosophy”, akin to “systematic study of nature”. Even in the 19th century, a treatise by Lord Kelvin and Peter Guthrie Tait, which helped define much of modern physics, was titled Treatise on Natural Philosophy (1867).

Scope of natural philosophy

In Plato’s earliest known dialogue, Charmides distinguishes between science or bodies of knowledge that produce a physical result, and those that do not. Natural philosophy has been categorized as a theoretical rather than a practical branch of philosophy (like ethics). Sciences that guide arts and draw on the philosophical knowledge of nature may produce practical results, but these subsidiary sciences (e.g., architecture or medicine) go beyond natural philosophy.

The study of natural philosophy seeks to explore the cosmos by any means necessary to understand the universe. Some ideas presuppose that change is a reality. Although this may seem obvious, there have been some philosophers who have denied the concept of metamorphosis, such as Plato’s predecessor Parmenides and later Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus, and perhaps some Eastern philosophers. George Santayana, in his Scepticism and Animal Faith, attempted to show that the reality of change cannot be proven. If his reasoning is sound, it follows that to be a physicist, one must restrain one’s skepticism enough to trust one’s senses, or else rely on anti-realism.

René Descartes’ metaphysical system of Cartesian Dualism describes two kinds of substance: matter and mind. According to this system, everything that is “matter” is deterministic and natural—and so belongs to natural philosophy—and everything that is “mind” is volitional and non-natural, and falls outside the domain of philosophy of nature.

 

 

 

 

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