The term natural philosophy, or the philosophy of nature (Latin, philosophia naturalis), has several applications, according to its historical context. Before the development of modern science, “natural philosophy” referred to the objective study of nature and the physical universe, and is considered the counterpart, or the precursor, of what is now called natural science, especially physics.
Naturphilosophie, a German philosophical movement prevalent from 1790 until about 1830, is chiefly associated with Friedrich Schelling and G.W.F. Hegel, and championed the concept of an organic and dynamic physical world, instead of the mechanism and atomism of the materialists.
Most recently, developments in physics and biology have initiated philosophical discussions on a whole new range of topics, mostly concerning the relationship of humans with nature and humanity’s perception of natural reality. Modern natural philosophy explores the fundamental nature of natural reality and its implications for mankind, and includes fields such as environmental ethics, the philosophy of biology, and the philosophy of physics.
The usage of the term "natural philosophy" preceded the current term “science.” The word "science" was a synonym for knowledge or study, and the term "natural philosophy" referred to knowledge or study of "the workings of nature." Natural philosophy became “science” (Latin, scientia, "knowledge") when the acquisition of knowledge through experiments (special experiences) performed according to the scientific method became a specialized branch of study, beyond the type of observation, speculation, and logical analysis which takes place in philosophy.
Forms of modern science historically developed out of natural philosophy. At older universities, long-established Chairs of Natural Philosophy are today occupied mainly by physics professors. In Europe, natural philosophy reached its height during the high and late Middle Ages (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), after the rise of the university system. Before the emergence of modern “science” and "scientists" in the nineteenth century, the word "science" simply meant “knowledge” and the label, "scientist" did not exist. Isaac Newton's 1687 scientific treatise is known as Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy).
In what is thought to be one of Plato's earliest dialogues, Charmides, the distinction was drawn between sciences or bodies of knowledge which produced a physical result, and those which did not. Natural philosophy was categorized as a theoretical, rather than a practical, branch of philosophy, such as ethics. Sciences that guided arts and which drew upon the philosophical knowledge of nature did, of course, produce many practical results, such as architecture or medicine, but these subsidiary “sciences” were considered beyond the scope of natural philosophy.
In his lifelong study of nature, Aristotle identified the physical universe as being dependent on a first cause, an unmoved mover of the universe, which was without matter and therefore imperceptible. In his treatise, Metaphysics, he referred to the study of this first cause as the “first philosophy” (Metaphysics 6.1, 1026a27-31), and to physics, or the study of the material world, as the “second philosophy.” Since the first entities were not perceptible, and were causal entities, they could only be studied through a metaphysical investigation of physical entities. In Physics, Aristotle conducted an investigation of different kinds of natural phenomena, providing a general framework for an understanding of nature.
Ancient Greek philosophers conducted their study of the natural world through observation, and drew their conclusions from reflection and logical deduction.
Medieval natural philosophy in Europe can be divided into two periods, distinguished by the rise of the university system. Before the the rise of the universities during the twelfth century, there existed mostly catalogues or encyclopedias of natural history, but very few works that dealt with natural philosophy. Most scholarly research took place under the auspices of church schools, monasteries or private patrons, and the strongest Greek influence was from medical works and Plato’s Timaeus, part of which had been translated into Latin, with commentary, by Calcidius. During this period, several original texts emerged that dealt with natural philosophy, including William of Conches' Philosophia mundi (Philosophy of the World), Bernard Sylvester’s Cosmographie, and Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivia (Know the Ways).
During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, natural history was an official subject in the arts faculties of the medieval universities, distinct from the seven liberal arts, ethics, metaphysics, theology, medicine, and law. The works of Aristotle had become available in Latin, and the study of natural philosophy often took the form of disputations or commentaries arising from Aristotle’s Physics, De generatione et corruptione (On Generation and Perishing), the De caelo (On the Heavens), Meteorology, On the Soul, and Parva Naturalia, a group of treatises on psychology. Very little scientific experimentation took place, and investigations were mostly based on the use of new methods of medieval logic. Investigations of the natural world that were based on mathematics, such as astronomy and optics, were generally considered to be outside the realm of natural philosophy.
Natural philosophy was considered useful to medicine and theology, and in Oxford and Paris, most original work in natural philosophy was carried out in pursuit of answers to theological problems, such as the nature of the soul and of angels, or in an effort to resolve contradictions between Christian doctrines and Aristotelian concepts of the cosmos.
The Enlightenment brought about a great increase in scientific experimentation and discovery, much of which was carried out under private patronage, independently of the great universities. As scientific methods of research became established, natural philosophy was superseded by the development of various fields of scientific study.
Galileo (1564–1642), Francis Bacon(1561-1626), and Robert Boyle (1627-1691) shared a conviction that practical experimental observation provided a more satisfactory understanding of nature than reliance on revealed truth or on a purely speculative approach. Galileo wrote about his experiments in a philosophical way, but his methodology resembled modern scientific research. Francis Bacon originated proposals for a much more inquisitive and practical approach to the study of nature. In 1686, Robert Boyle wrote what is considered to be a seminal work on the distinction between nature and metaphysics, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature. This book represented a radical departure from the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, and introduced innovations such as an insistence upon the publication of detailed experimental results, including the results of unsuccessful experiments; and also a requirement for the replication of experiments as a means of validating observational claims.
René Descartes(1596–1650) distinguished between two kinds of substance, matter and mind. According to this system, everything which is "matter" is deterministic and natural—and so belongs to natural philosophy—and everything which is "mind" is volitional and non-natural, and falls outside the domain of philosophy of nature.
Naturphilosophie, a movement prevalent in German philosophy, literature, and science from 1790 until about 1830, is chiefly associated with Friedrich Schelling and G.W.F. Hegel, and championed the concept of an organic and dynamic physical world, instead of the mechanism and atomism of the materialists. It originated from the philosophy of German idealism, and opposed the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter with a Spinozan concept of mind and matter as different modes of a single substance. Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature portrayed nature as individual instances of a spiritual notion, and gave nature a “life” and a “personality” which resembled the life and personality of human beings.
Recent discoveries and developments in science have given rise to new discussions of the philosophy of nature, and have opened new areas of inquiry. Philosophy of nature now explores the fundamental features of natural reality and their implications for humankind. Human understanding of nature shapes beliefs and attitudes in many areas, including ethics, moral theory, metaphysics, and anthropology.
Powerful new technology allows the observation and measurement of physical phenomena far beyond the capacity of human senses, and has inspired new thought about the nature of “matter” and the “imperceptible” world. In astronomy and physics, certain mathematical and geometric relationships which were assumed to be absolutely true have been found to alter when they are applied at infinitely greater magnitudes, raising questions about the definition of truth, and about how the human mind can grasp everyday practical reality and at the same time comprehend truth on a larger scale.
Humanity has developed ways of interfering with the natural biological order, such as genetic engineering, artificial insemination, organ transplants, cloning, gene therapy, and the use of chemical agents such as fertilizers and pesticides. This raises new questions about ethics; when and to what extent it is appropriate for humankind to intervene in natural processes of growth and multiplication, and whether such intervention will disrupt the natural balance of the universe. A new field, philosophy of biology, is rapidly developing in response to these issues and to ancient philosophical questions about the nature of happiness and the quality of life.
In just a short time, modern technology has allowed human beings to have a disproportionate impact on nature. Humanity is rapidly reshaping the natural environment, and scientists and scholars are questioning whether “nature” can survive this onslaught. Another field of natural philosophy concerns the ethical use and distribution of resources among an increasing world population, the effect of technology on the balance of political power, and the best way in which to administer global standards and resolve conflicting interests. Examples are the debate over global warming, efforts to stem the development of nuclear weapons, and the creation of laws to protect international resources such as fisheries.
In metaphysics, natural philosophy is concerned with concepts of “creation science” and intelligent design, with the idea of the universe as an organic whole, and with the definition of the “supernatural world” and its relationship with the physical world. Some philosophers and scientists question whether a strict scientific methodology of experimentation, observation, and documentation can, by itself, provide an adequate understanding of physical reality, or whether a larger framework is needed.
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