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For the current in the 19th century German idealism, see Naturphilosophie

A celestial map from the 17th century, by the Dutch cartographer Frederik De Wit.

Natural philosophy or the philosophy of nature (from Latin philosophia naturalis), is a term applied to the 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 sciences such as physics.

Forms of science historically developed out of philosophy or more specifically natural philosophy. At older universities, long-established Chairs of Natural Philosophy are nowadays occupied mainly by physics professors. Modern notions of science and scientists date only to the 19th century (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary dates the origin of the word "scientist" to 1834). Before then, the word "science" simply meant knowledge and the label of scientist did not exist. Isaac Newton's 1687 scientific treatise is known as The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

Origin and evolution of the term

Natural philosophy was the term describing a field of study whose usage preceded our current term natural science (from scientia in Latin, which means "knowledge") when the subject of that knowledge or study was "the workings of nature". Natural philosophy pertains to the work of analysis and synthesis of common experience and argumentation attempting to explain or describe nature, while the term science in the 16th century and prior was also used, and used exclusively, as a synonym for knowledge or study. The term "science", as in "natural science", gained the meaning of science in the modern sense when knowledge acquisition through experiments (special experiences) regulated by the scientific method became its own specialized branch of study over and above natural philosophy. Jacopo Zabarella was the first person appointed as a professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Padua.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, natural philosophy referred to what is now called physical science. From the mid-19th century, when it became increasingly unusual for scientists to contribute to both physics and chemistry, it just meant physics, and is still used in that sense in degree titles at the University of Oxfordmarker. Natural philosophy was distinguished from the other pre-cursor of modern science, natural history, in that the former involved reasoning and explanations about nature (and after Galileo, quantitative reasoning), whereas the latter was essentially qualitative and descriptive.

Scope of natural philosophy

In what is thought to be one of Plato's earliest dialogues, Charmides, the distinction is drawn between sciences or bodies of knowledge which produce a physical result, and those which do not. Natural philosophy has been categorized as a theoretical rather than a practical branch of philosophy (like ethics). Sciences that guide arts and which draw upon the philosophical knowledge of nature can of course produce many practical results, but these subsidiary sciences (e.g. architecture or medicine) are considered to go beyond natural philosophy.

The study of natural philosophy presupposes that change is a reality. Although this may seem obvious, there have been some philosophers who have denied change, such as Plato's teacher Parmenides and later Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus and perhaps some Eastern philosophers as well. 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.

Beginning with Schelling, the mode of change studied in natural philosophy has been development, rather than evolution. Development is predictable directional change, while evolution is the irreversible accumulation of historically mediated information.

In René Descartes' metaphysical system of dualism, there are 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.

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 element; the study of the infinite 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

See History of physics, History of chemistry and History of astronomy for the history of natural philosophy prior to the 17th century.

Figures in natural philosophy

While the scientific method originated with Alhazen's Book of Optics and proposals for a much more 'inquisitive' and practical approach to the study of nature originated with Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle wrote what is considered to be a seminal work on the distinction between nature and metaphysics called A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature. This book, written in 1686, marked the point where the scene was set for natural philosophy to turn into science. It represented a radical departure from the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, and while features of natural philosophy retained some of the trappings of the elitism associated with its precursor, natural philosophy was arguably empirical while previous attempts to describe nature were not. An important distinguishing characteristic of science and natural philosophy is the fact that natural philosophers generally did not feel compelled to test their ideas in a practical way. Instead, they observed phenomena and came up with 'philosophical' conclusions.

Boyle, while he is the first to fully embrace such an approach in both his experimental endeavours and his writings, shares with Bacon (and Galileo who was the inspiration in these matters for both Bacon and Boyle) a conviction that practical experimental observation was the key to a more satisfactory understanding of nature than would have otherwise been sought through either exclusive reference to received authority or a purely speculative approach.

Although Galileo's 'natural philosophy' is hardly distinguishable from science in many ways, the connection between his experiments and his writings about them is characteristically philosophical, rather than being cluttered with the results of meticulously recorded observational detail of practical scientific research, in the way that Boyle subsequently advocated.

Even though Boyle described what he practiced as 'natural philosophy', the very innovations that Boyle introduced can be seen as a basis for delineating a transition from proto-science to science. Among these innovations are 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.

Thus Boyle's application of the term 'natural philosophy' to his own work may be regarded an anachronistic conflation with earlier proto-science, since the distinction between the terms 'natural philosophy' and 'science' only arose after Boyle's passing.

Boyle would therefore describe his work as 'natural philosophy', whereas we would describe it as 'science'; and yet Boyle's use was correct for his own time. Nonetheless, he is in many ways the architect of the modern distinction between the two terms.

The ancient emphasis on deduction has its representative in Aristotle's Organum, and the new emphasis on induction and research has its representative in Francis Bacon's treatise Novum Organum.


  • 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.
  • David Snoke, Natural Philosophy: A Survey of Physics and Western Thought. Access Research Network, 2003. ISBN 1-931796-25-4.[46467] [46468]

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