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Natural philosophy

This article is about the philosophical study of nature. 1 Origin and evolution of the term
For the current in 19th-century German idealism, see
The term natural philosophy preceded our current natural
Natural philosophy or philosophy of nature (from science (i.e. empirical science). Empirical science historically developed out of philosophy or, more specically, 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 eld of study. The rst 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
A celestial map from the 17th century, by the Dutch cartographer only to the 19th century. Before that, science was a
synonym for knowledge or study, in keeping with its
Frederik de Wit
Latin origin. The term gained its modern meaning
when experimental science and the scientic method beLatin philosophia naturalis) was the philosophical study
came a specialized branch of study apart from natural
of nature and the physical universe that was dominant bephilosophy.[2]
fore the development of modern science. It is considered
From the mid-19th century, when it became increasto be the precursor of natural science.
ingly unusual for scientists to contribute to both physics
From the ancient world, starting with Aristotle, to the
and chemistry, natural philosophy came to mean just
19th century, the term natural philosophy was the
physics, and the word is still used in that sense in decommon term used to describe the practice of studygree titles at the University of Oxford. In general, chairs
ing nature. It was in the 19th century that the concept
of Natural Philosophy established long ago at the oldof science received its modern shape with new titles
est universities are nowadays occupied mainly by physics
emerging such as biology and biologist, physics and
professors. Isaac Newtons book Philosophiae Naturalis
physicist among other technical elds and titles; inPrincipia Mathematica (1687), whose title translates to
stitutions and communities were founded, and unpreceMathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, redented applications to and interactions with other asects the then-current use of the words natural philospects of society and culture occurred.[1] Isaac Newophy, akin to systematic study of nature. Even in the
ton's book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica
19th century, a treatise by Lord Kelvin and Peter Guthrie
(1687), whose title translates to Mathematical Principles
Tait, which helped dene much of modern physics, was
of Natural Philosophy, reects the then-current use of
titled Treatise on Natural Philosophy (1867).
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 dene much
of modern physics, was titled Treatise on Natural Philos- 2 Scope of natural philosophy
ophy (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.

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 world. Plato followed Socrates in concentrating on man.
sciences (e.g., architecture or medicine) go beyond natu- It was Platos student, Aristotle, who, in basing his
ral philosophy.
thought on the natural world, returned empiricism to its
The study of natural philosophy seeks to explore the cos- primary place, while leaving room in the world for man.
mos by any means necessary to understand the universe. Martin Heidegger observes that Aristotle was the originaSome ideas presuppose that change is a reality. Although tor of conception of nature that prevailed in the Middle
this may seem obvious, there have been some philoso- Ages into the modern era:
phers who have denied the concept of metamorphosis,
such as Platos 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 ones skepticism
enough to trust ones senses, or else rely on anti-realism.
Ren 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 naturaland so belongs to natural
philosophyand everything that is mind is volitional
and non-natural, and falls outside the domain of philosophy of nature.

Branches and subject matter of

natural philosophy

Major branches of natural philosophy include astronomy

and cosmology, the study of nature on the grand scale;
etiology, the study of (intrinsic and sometimes extrinsic)
causes; the study of chance, probability and randomness;
the study of elements; the study of the innite and the unlimited (virtual or actual); the study of matter; mechanics,
the study of translation of motion and change; the study of
nature or the various sources of actions; the study of natural qualities; the study of physical quantities; the study
of relations between physical entities; and the philosophy
of space and time. (Adler, 1993)

History of natural philosophy

For the history of natural philosophy prior to the 17th

century, see History of physics, History of chemistry,
and History of astronomy.
Humankinds mental engagement with nature certainly
predates civilization and the record of history. Philosophical, and specically non-religious thought about
the natural world, goes back to ancient Greece. These
lines of thought began before Socrates, who turned from
his philosophical studies from speculations about nature to a consideration of man, viz., political philosophy. The thought of early philosophers such Parmenides,
Heraclitus, and Democritus centered on the natural

The Physics is a lecture in which he seeks

to determine beings that arise on their own,
, with regard to their being. Aristotelian physics is dierent from what we
mean today by this word, not only to the extent that it belongs to antiquity whereas the
modern physical sciences belong to modernity,
rather above all it is dierent by virtue of the
fact that Aristotles physics is philosophy,
whereas modern physics is a positive science
that presupposes a philosophy.... This book determines the warp and woof of the whole of
Western thinking, even at that place where it, as
modern thinking, appears to think at odds with
ancient thinking. But opposition is invariably
comprised of a decisive, and often even perilous, dependence. Without Aristotles Physics
there would have been no Galileo.[4]
Aristotle surveyed the thought of his predecessors and
conceived of nature in a way that charted a middle course
between their excesses.[5]
Platos world of eternal and unchanging
Forms, imperfectly represented in matter by a
divine Artisan, contrasts sharply with the various mechanistic Weltanschauungen, of which
atomism was, by the fourth century at least, the
most prominent This debate was to persist
throughout the ancient world. Atomistic mechanism got a shot in the arm from Epicurus
while the Stoics adopted a divine teleology
The choice seems simple: either show how
a structured, regular world could arise out
of undirected processes, or inject intelligence
into the system. This was how Aristotle
when still a young acolyte of Plato, saw matters. Cicero preserves Aristotles own caveimage: if troglodytes were brought on a sudden
into the upper world, they would immediately
suppose it to have been intelligently arranged.
But Aristotle grew to abandon this view; although he believes in a divine being, the Prime
Mover is not the ecient cause of action in
the Universe, and plays no part in constructing
or arranging it... But, although he rejects the
divine Articer, Aristotle does not resort to a
pure mechanism of random forces. Instead he
seeks to nd a middle way between the two positions, one which relies heavily on the notion
of Nature, or phusis.[6]


Medieval philosophy of motion

The world we inhabit is an orderly one, in which things

generally behave in predictable ways, Aristotle argued,
because every natural object has a naturean attribute
(associated primarily with form) that makes the object
behave in its customary fashion...[7] Aristotle recommended four causes as appropriate for the business of
the natural philosopher, or physicist, and if he refers his
problems back to all of them, he will assign the why in
the way proper to his sciencethe matter, the form, the
mover, [and] that for the sake of which. While the vagaries of the material cause are subject to circumstance,
the formal, ecient and nal cause often coincide because in natural kinds, the mature form and nal cause
are one and the same. The capacity to mature into a
specimen of ones kind is directly acquired from the primary source of motion, i.e., from ones father, whose
seed (sperma) conveys the essential nature (common to
the species), as a hypothetical ratio.[8]

4.1 Medieval philosophy of motion

Medieval thoughts on motion involved much of Aristotles works Physics and Metaphysics. The issue that medieval philosophers had with motion was the inconsistency found between book 3 of Physics and book 5 of
Metaphysics. Aristotle claimed in book 3 of Physics that
motion can be categorized by substance, quantity, quality,
and place. where in book 5 of Metaphysics he stated that
motion is a magnitude of quantity. This disputation led to
some important questions to natural philosophers: Which
category/categories does motion t into? Is motion the
same thing as a terminus? Is motion separate from real
things? These questions asked by medieval philosophers
tried to classify motion.[11]

Ecient cause That which caused the object to come

into being; an agent of change or an agent of

William Ockham gives a good concept of motion for

many people in the Middle Ages. There is an issue with
the vocabulary behind motion which makes people think
that there is a correlation between nouns and the qualities that make nouns. Ockham states that this distinction
is what will allow people to understand motion, that motion is a property of mobiles, locations, and forms and
that is all that is required to dene what motion is. A
famous example of this is Occams razor which simplies vague statements by cutting them into more descriptive examples. Every motion derives from an agent. becomes each thing that is moved, is moved by an agent
this makes motion a more personal quality referring to
individual objects that are moved.[11]

Final cause The reason that caused the object to be

brought into existence.

4.2 Aristotles philosophy of nature

Material cause An objects motion will behave in different ways depending on the [substance/essence]
from which it is made. (Compare clay, steel, etc.)
Formal cause An objects motion will behave in different ways depending on its material arrangement.
(Compare a clay sphere, clay block, etc.)

From the late Middle Ages into the modern era, the tendency has been to narrow science to the consideration
of ecient or agency-based causes of a particular kind:[9]
The action of an ecient cause may sometimes, but not always, be described in terms
of quantitative force. The action of an artist
on a block of clay, for instance, can be described in terms of how many pounds of pressure per square inch is exerted on it. The efcient causality of the teacher in directing the
activity of the artist, however, cannot be so described
The nal cause acts on the agent to inuence or induce her to act. If the artist works
to make money, making money is in some
way the cause of her action. But we cannot
describe this inuence in terms of quantitative
force. The nal cause acts, but it acts according to the mode of nal causality, as an end
or good that induces the ecient cause to act.
The mode of causality proper to the nal cause
cannot itself be reduced to ecient causality,
much less to the mode of ecient causality we
call force.[10]

An acorn is potentially,
but not actually, an oak
tree. In becoming an
oak tree, it becomes actually what it originally
was only potentially. This
change thus involves passage from potentiality to
actuality not from nonbeing to being but from
one kind or degree to being another[7]
Aristotle held many important beliefs that started a convergence of thought for natural philosophy. Aristotle
believed that attributes of objects belong to the objects
themselves, and share traits with other objects that t
them into a category. He uses the example of dogs
to press this point an individual dog (ex. one dog can
be black and another brown) may have very specic attributes (ex. one dog can be black and another brown) but
also very general ones that classify it as a dog (ex. four
legged). This philosophy can be applied to many other
objects as well. This idea is dierent than that of Plato,
with whom Aristotle had a direct association. Aristotle


argued that objects have properties form and something

that is not part of its properties matter that denes the
object. The form cannot be separated from the matter.
Given the example that you can not separate properties
and matter since this is impossible, you cannot collect
properties in a pile and matter in another.[7]
Aristotle believed that change was a natural occurrence.
He used his philosophy of form and matter to argue
that when something changes you change its properties
without changing its matter. This change occurs by replacing certain properties with other properties. Since
this change is always an intentional alteration whether by
forced means or by natural ones, change is a controllable
order of qualities. He argues that this happens through
three categories of being: non-being, potential being, and
actual being. Through these three states the process of
changing an object never truly destroys an objects forms
during this transition state but rather just blurs the reality between the two states. An example of this could be
changing an object from red to blue with a transitional
purple phase.[7]


Other signicant gures in natural


Early Greek Philosophers studied motion and the cosmos. Figures like Hesiod regarded the Natural world
as ospring of the gods, whereas others like Leucippus
and Democritus regarded the world as lifeless atoms in a
vortex. Anaximander deduced that eclipses happen because of apertures in rings of celestial re. Heraclitus
believed that the heavenly bodies were made of re that
were contained within bowls. He thought that eclipses
happen when the bowl turned away from the earth.
Anaximenes is believed to have stated that an underlying element was air, and by manipulating air someone
could change its thickness to create re, water, dirt, and
stones. Empedocles identied the elements that make up
the world which he termed the roots of all things as Fire,
Air. Earth, and Water. Parmenides argued that all change
is a logical impossibility. He gives the example that nothing can go from nonexistence to existence. Plato argues
that the world is an imperfect replica of an idea that a
divine craftsman once held. He also believed that the
only way to truly know something was through reason and
logic not the study of the object itself, but that changeable
matter is a viable course of study.[7]
The scientic method has ancient precedents and Galileo
exemplies a mathematical understanding of nature
which is the hallmark of modern natural scientists.
Galileo proposed that objects falling regardless of their
mass would fall at the same rate, as long as the medium
they fall in is identical. The 19th-century distinction of a
scientic enterprise apart from traditional natural philosophy has its roots in prior centuries. Proposals for a more
inquisitive and practical approach to the study of nature

are notable in Francis Bacon, whose ardent convictions

did much to popularize his insightful Baconian method.
The late 17th-century natural philosopher Robert Boyle
wrote a seminal work on the distinction between physics
and metaphysics called, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, as well as The Skeptical Chymist, after which the modern science of chemistry
is named, (as distinct from proto-scientic studies of
alchemy). These works of natural philosophy are representative of a departure from the medieval scholasticism
taught in European universities, and anticipate in many
ways, the developments which would lead to science as
practiced in the modern sense. As Bacon would say, vexing nature to reveal her secrets, (scientic experimentation), rather than a mere reliance on largely historical,
even anecdotal, observations of empirical phenomena,
would come to be regarded as a dening characteristic
of modern science, if not the very key to its success.
Boyles biographers, in their emphasis that he laid the
foundations of modern chemistry, neglect how steadily
he clung to the scholastic sciences in theory, practice and
doctrine.[12] However, he meticulously recorded observational detail on practical research, and subsequently advocated not only this practice, but its publication, both for
successful and unsuccessful experiments, so as to validate
individual claims by replication.
For sometimes we use the word nature for
that Author of nature whom the schoolmen,
harshly enough, call natura naturans, as when
it is said that nature hath made man partly
corporeal and partly immaterial. Sometimes
we mean by the nature of a thing the essence,
or that which the schoolmen scruple not to call
the quiddity of a thing, namely, the attribute
or attributes on whose score it is what it is,
whether the thing be corporeal or not, as when
we attempt to dene the nature of an angel,
or of a triangle, or of a uid body, as such.
Sometimes we take nature for an internal
principle of motion, as when we say that a
stone let fall in the air is by nature carried
towards the centre of the earth, and, on the
contrary, that re or ame does naturally
move upwards toward heaven. Sometimes we
understand by nature the established course
of things, as when we say that nature makes
the night succeed the day, nature hath made
respiration necessary to the life of men.
Sometimes we take nature for an aggregate
of powers belonging to a body, especially a
living one, as when physicians say that nature
is strong or weak or spent, or that in such or
such diseases nature left to herself will do
the cure. Sometimes we take nature for the
universe, or system of the corporeal works
of God, as when it is said of a phoenix, or a
chimera, that there is no such thing in nature,

i.e. in the world. And sometimes too, and that
most commonly, we would express by nature a
semi-deity or other strange kind of being, such
as this discourse examines the notion of.[13]
Robert Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the
Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature

Natural philosophers of the late 17th or early 18th century were sometimes insultingly described as 'projectors. A projector was an entrepreneur who invited people to invest in his invention but - as the caricature went
- could not be trusted, usually because his device was
impractical.[14] Jonathan Swift satirized natural philosophers of the Royal Society as 'the academy of projectors in his novel Gullivers Travels. Historians of science
have argued that natural philosophers and the so-called
projectors sometimes overlapped in their methods and

6 See also
Environmental philosophy
Gentleman scientist
History of science
Natural environment
Natural theology
Naturalism (philosophy)
Nature (philosophy)

7 References

The modern emphasis is less on a broad empiricism (one

that includes passive observation of natures activity), but
on a narrow conception of the empirical concentrating on
the control exercised through experimental (active) observation for the sake of control of nature. Nature is reduced to a passive recipient of human activity.

[1] Cahan, David, ed. (2003). From Natural Philosophy to

the Sciences: Writing the History of Nineteenth-Century
Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN

[3] Michael J. Crowe, Mechanics from Aristotle to Einstein

(Santa Fe, NM: Green Lion Press, 2007), 11.

Current work in the philosophy

of science and nature

In the middle of the 20th century, Ernst Mayr's discussions on the teleology of nature brought up issues that
were dealt with previously by Aristotle (regarding nal
cause) and Kant (regarding reective judgment).[17]

[2] The naturalist-theologian William Whewell coined the

word "scientist"; his earliest written use identied by the
Oxford English Dictionary was in 1834.

[4] Martin Heidegger, The Principle of Reason, trans. Reginald Lilly, (Indiana University Press, 1991), 62-63.
[5] See especially Physics, books I & II.
[6] Hankinson, R. J. (1997). Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought. Oxford University Press. p. 125.
ISBN 978-0-19-924656-4.

Especially since the mid-20th-century European crisis,

some thinkers argued the importance of looking at nature
[7] David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science,
from a broad philosophical perspective, rather than what
University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 50.
they considered a narrowly positivist approach relying implicitly on a hidden, unexamined philosophy.[18] One line [8] Aristotle, Physics II.7.
of thought grows from the Aristotelian tradition, especially as developed by Thomas Aquinas. Another line [9] Michael J. Dodds, Science, Causality and Divine Action:
Classical Principles for Contemporary Challenges, CTNS
springs from Edmund Husserl, especially as expressed
Bulletin 21:1 [2001].
in The Crisis of European Sciences. Students of his such
as Jacob Klein and Hans Jonas more fully developed his [10] Dodds 2001, p. 5.
themes. Last, but not least, there is the process philoso[11] John E. Murdoch and Edith D. Sylla Science in The Middle
phy inspired by Alfred North Whitehead's works.[19]
Ages:The Science of Motion (1978) University of Chicago

Among living scholars, Brian David Ellis, Nancy

Press p. 213-222
Cartwright, David Oderberg, and John Dupr are some of
the more prominent thinkers who can arguably be classed [12] More, Louis Trenchard (January 1941). Boyle as Alchemist. Journal of the History of Ideas. University of
as generally adopting a more open approach to the natPennsylvania Press. 2 (1): 6176. doi:10.2307/2707281.
ural world. Ellis (2002) observes the rise of a New
JSTOR 2707281.
Essentialism. David Oderberg (2007) takes issue with
other philosophers, including Ellis to a degree, who claim [13] Boyle, Robert; Stewart, M.A. (1991). Selected Philosophto be essentialists. He revives and defends the Thomisticical Papers of Robert Boyle. HPC Classics Series. HackAristotelian tradition from modern attempts to atten naett. pp. 176177. ISBN 978-0-87220-122-4. LCCN
ture to the limp subject of the experimental method.[21]


[14] The Age of the Projectors | History Today. www. Retrieved 2016-10-19.

Alfred N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, The

Macmillan Company, 1929.

[15] Willmoth, Frances (1993-01-01). Sir Jonas Moore: Practical Mathematics and Restoration Science. Boydell &
Brewer. ISBN 9780851153216.

Ren Thom, Modles mathmatiques de la morphogense, Christian Bourgois, 1980.

[16] Yamamoto, Koji (2015-12-01).

Medicine, metals
and empire: the survival of a chymical projector in
early eighteenth-century London. The British Journal for the History of Science. 48 (4): 607637.
doi:10.1017/S000708741500059X. ISSN 0007-0874.
[17] Teleology and Randomness in the Development of Natural Science Research: Systems, Ontology and Evolution
Interthesis, v. 8, n. 2, p. 316-334, jul/dec.2011
[18] E.A. Burtt, Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1954), 227230.
[19] See, e.g., Michel Weber and Will Desmond, (eds.),
Handbook of Whiteheadian Process Thought, Frankfurt /
Lancaster, ontos verlag, Process Thought X1 & X2, 2008.
[20] See his The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New
Essentialism 2002. ISBN 0-7735-2474-6
[21] David S. Oderberg, Real Essentialism (Routledge, 2007).
ISBN 0415323649

Further reading
Adler, Mortimer J. (1993). The Four Dimensions
of Philosophy: Metaphysical, Moral, Objective, Categorical. Macmillan. ISBN 0-02-500574-X.
E.A. Burtt, Metaphysical Foundations of Modern
Science (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1954).
Philip Kitcher, Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Science. Oxford;
New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. LCCN:
2001036144 ISBN 0-19-514583-6
Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy
and Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day
(1945) Simon & Schuster, 1972.
Santayana, George (1923). Scepticism and Animal
Faith. Dover Publications. pp. 2741. ISBN 0486-20236-4.
David Snoke, Natural Philosophy: A Survey of
Physics and Western Thought. Access Research Network, 2003. ISBN 1-931796-25-4.
Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul
of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy
(Crossway Books, 1994, ISBN 0891077669).

Claude Paul Bruter, Topologie et perception, Maloine, 3 vols. 1974/1976/1986.

Jean Largeault, Principes classiques d'interprtation
de la nature, Vrin, 1988.
Miguel Espinoza,
L'Harmattan, 2014.




Moritz Schlick, Philosophy of Nature, Philosophical

Library, New York, 1949.
Andrew G. Van Melsen, The Philosophy of Nature,
Duquesne University, Pittsburgh 1954.

9 External links
Aristotles Natural Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Institute for the Study of Nature
"A Bigger Physics, a talk at MIT by Michael
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letter_w.svg/50px-Wiki_letter_w.svg.png' width='50' height='50' srcset='
Wiki_letter_w.svg/75px-Wiki_letter_w.svg.png 1.5x,
100px-Wiki_letter_w.svg.png 2x' data-le-width='44' data-le-height='44' /></a>
Original artist: Derivative work by Thumperward
File:Wikiquote-logo.svg Source: License: Public domain
Contributors: Own work Original artist: Rei-artur


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Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0