The Philosophical Review/Volume 1/Natural Science and the Philosophy of Nature

The Philosophical Review Volume 1  (1892)  edited by Jacob Gould Schurman
Natural Science and the Philosophy of Nature by B. C. Burt


THERE is a very important philosophical distinction, the A neglect of which has, we think, been at the root of much of the discussion in recent years on vital topics such as e.g. that of the "conflict between science and religion"; the distinction, namely, between natural science and the philosophy of nature. It is frequently assumed that natural science comprises in itself all knowledge of nature, and even all real knowledge whatever; that natural science is a perfectly independent, an absolute, domain of knowledge. This assumption is not philosophically justifiable; nor, indeed, has it been made universally by physicists of name and real standing.

An idea of the meaning and importance of the distinction between natural science and the philosophy of nature, may be gained — by way of introduction — by a glance at the history of modern thought, as regards the distinction. English philosophers have, it is scarcely necessary to say, pretty generally followed the example of Bacon, and adopted the advice of Newton, who warned physicists to "beware of metaphysics," in identifying the philosophy of nature with natural science, as, indeed, is obvious from the universal use by Englishmen of the term "natural philosophy" to designate physical investigation generally. The continental philosophers, who, instead of eschewing metaphysics have cultivated it, have (with the exception of the French as a rule) pretty generally distinguished between natural science as empirico-mathematical investigation of the physical universe, and the philosophy of nature as the speculative discussion of the foundation-principles of all thought about physical existence. They have assumed that, underlying and conditioning empirico-mathematical natural science, are certain speculative notions concerning space, time, motion, matter and its constitution, which have to be discussed by a science different from natural science as such; they have treated natural science as a thing of relative, not of self-dependent and absolute significance. Descartes, Leibnitz, Wolff, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Lotze, have accounts to give of nature, which no mere empiricist, no mere mathematician, would as such think to give. Kant, in the celebrated preface to his Metaphysical Principles of Natural Science, though treating natural science proper as something far above what, perhaps, is commonly dignified by the name of natural science, viz. empirical description and characterization of natural objects and processes, and affirming that a science is a natural science proper, only so far as it is ruled by mathematical principles, declares that natural science proper presupposes a metaphysics of nature (this presupposing in turn a higher metaphysics). Schelling, building upon a Kantian basis, distinguishes from empirical natural science speculative physics founded upon the a priori notion of nature as pure productivity. Hegel put forth a "philosophy of nature" which conceived nature, not from the point of view of sense or even of the mathematical understanding merely, but from that of the pure idea or self-determining notion or thought. Lotze separates sharply cosmology, or the speculative account of the foundation of physical existence, and natural history, or the mere description of physical phenomena. Even certain English positivists (?) as Mill, Lewes, Huxley, assert that natural science ultimately lands us in metaphysics. The history of modern thought indicates (in fact, demonstrates) the existence of a real distinction to be made between natural science and what must be called the philosophy of nature.

What is the distinction in question? It may be said, in the first place, that the body of natural sciences requires to be co-ordinated — not of course in the sense of being reduced to a common level, but of being brought together in their natural relations of interdependence — and that this "co-ordination" is the work of, or is itself, the philosophy of nature. The philosophy of nature, if this be its sole province, is but generalized natural science, as Spencer, for example, maintains; it is the broadest, most encyclopædic knowledge of externally presented objects, considered as such. But, vast as a philosophy of nature in this sense would be, it does not completely exhaust the possible conception of a philosophy of nature. For, even supposing nature as object, or as opposed to mind, were accurately summed up in a most "general" science, it would still have to be known as related to mind or thought; would have to be characterized in terms of pure thought, the sciences having described it only in terms of sense, either immediate or abstract. And the characterization of nature in terms of thought is just the work of the pure philosophy of nature. Such a characterization presupposes for its realization an accurate and most "general" knowledge of nature, in and by itself considered, or as object. It likewise presupposes the knowledge of the forms or functions of thought. Its office will be, or is, the synthesis of these sorts of knowledge, the reading into the highest truths of the sciences, those of pure mind, the transformation of the formulas of natural science into those of thought. (We may equally well say that it is virtually the transformation of the formulae of thought into those of nature: it is, as it were, the equating of the two.) This expression of the results of the natural sciences in terms of thought is a natural, necessary proceeding for thought, if it is to be a whole, to be without any internal lacuna destructive of its ideal integrity: it is but the completed realization of the meaning (not fully comprehended by Bacon) of the (Baconian) phrase, "the interpretation of nature." In accordance with the foregoing, the philosophy of nature may, in view of the fact that for common consciousness, and for natural science, even, nature and mind are opposed, be described as the reconciliation of nature with mind, or vice versa; a form of description, we may remark in passing, which suggests its vital relation to all interests involved in the real discussion of such a topic as the above-mentioned one, of the relation between science and religion.

From the foregoing it seems clear that for thought there is a philosophy of nature distinct from mere natural science, formerly dignified, especially in England and America, by the name "Natural Philosophy"; that natural science does not exhaust the knowledge of nature, is not exclusive and absolute as regards its object, nature. We say for thought, for unless it be seen that, as we have stated, the philosophy of nature presupposes the science of pure thought which is, of course, known only in thought, its existence is not to be comprehended. Of course the natural scientist who is unaware of the existence of a science of thought, cannot be expected to understand how there can be a philosophy of nature which is not identical with his own province of knowledge.

A fuller, more concrete notion of the distinction between the philosophy of nature and natural science may be gained from a comparison of the methods of the two. Natural science is a bringing together into (formal) unity of "given," or passively apprehended, "facts" under, or by means of, certain notions (as those of space, time, motion, number, matter, etc.), which also, as far as it is concerned, are "given." As "given," facts and notions have, of course, in themselves no meaning and have no conceived inner relation to one another as classes, but are brought together only in consequence of a certain instinct, which is not an object of natural science as such, towards unity of apprehension. Consequently the relations apprehended by natural science are relations between rather than in things, external rather than internal, formal rather than constitutive relations; they are subjective, abstract, merely provisional, inexact, instead of objective, concrete, final, exact. The natural sciences even those mathematically grounded are (admittedly) full of mere "symbols," "postulates," "working hypotheses," "analogies," "tentative results," "probabilities," "approximations," etc., etc. For the philosophy of nature nothing is purely, or absolutely, "given," "mere fact"; everything is a product and an expression of (self-determining) thought; those notions of space, time, motion, number, matter, etc., which are mere postulates for natural science, are forms of thought (self-externalized), and the laws of external existence are but higher powers of these. The relations apprehended and determined by the philosophy of nature are internal and constitutive, relations of or in the real being, and not merely in the phenomenal existence of things; they are objective, concrete, final, exact: they are so because they are thought-determined (not mere sense-conditioned) relations. The distinction between the philosophy of nature and natural science is one not merely of quantity ("generalty"), but of quality. In nature as object of science externality of parts rules: each thing is outside all others, is an individual by itself, its relation to others being mechanical: even as “cause” of some other thing, a thing is wholly outside of that other. For philosophy, nature is everywhere fraught with the tendency towards inward identity, the unity of thought; cause and effect are two organically related forms of the same self-distinguishing reality; a genus is not merely a collective unity, either of attributes or of individual things, but an underlying combining activity, a living, synthetic energy.

To exhibit the difference of method and spirit between the philosophy of nature and natural science by means of examples, let us consider the doctrines, say, of the conservation of energy, instead of being merely “given” as a general “fact” or, rather, perhaps, as a postulate, is a self-evident, identical proposition, since energy, and energy alone, is being in activity, energy. For natural science, it is “given,” is not really demonstrable by any means within its cognizance which does not presuppose the truth of the “law,” all so-called demonstrations of it being mere tautologies or restatements of the fact itself as presupposed in every individual experiment and observation used to “prove” the law. Strictly speaking, indeed, natural science as based on (limited) observation and experiment, does not of itself prove any (universal) law or truth; hence, of course, not that of the conservation of energy. Still more “given” (undemonstrable), if that were possible, for natural science is the distinction of energy as kinetic (real) and potential (ideal): and indeed the tendency is manifested among physical speculatists to regard all energy as kinetic, which, however, cannot really be done without doing violence to (observed) “fact,” to consistency in physical theory as such, and to philosophical principles of nature. The oscillation of the pendulum (including the rest at the close of each swing) is an example of the sort of fact requiring the distinction in question. If all energy is purely kinetic, then the constitution of matter is atomic in the merely mechanical sense, a notion now rejected by advanced physical speculation. Philosophically viewed, potential energy and kinetic energy are merely the necessary corresponding thetic and antithetic forms of the one concrete eternal energy constituting the substance of all real things; their notions flow from that of nature as eternal definite productivity.

As regards "evolution," natural science — i.e. the most highly generalized natural science — arranges phenomenal existences in ascending series consisting of groups differing by gradual variations, and affirms that the more indefinite, incoherent, and homogeneous forms are earlier than, and the parents of, the more definite, coherent, and heterogeneous, succeeding them. But natural science, since it knows only the given phenomena, does not, when it understands itself, pretend to have any conception of cause in any other sense than that of regular antecedent; all that it can mean by the assertion that the more definite, coherent, and heterogeneous forms are evolved from the more indefinite, incoherent, and homogeneous forms, is that they regularly follow them in the order of time. The philosophy of nature sees in an ascending series of gradually differing forms not merely a temporal succession, but the operation of a single energy in and for which the forms, though temporarily successive, are logically coexistent, the "later" being quite as much presupposed by the "earlier" as they presuppose the earlier, the two being "parts" of a whole, logically prior to either or both. The philosophical law of "evolution" in nature is that of an ascent in forms from indifferent or neutral indetermination through mere determination by others to self-determination, from mere abstract individuality to concrete individuality of being, in which latter the notion of the genus is all but realized in every individual, the whole is in every part. The terms of the scientific law of evolution are expressive of categories quite abstract, and of a comparatively low order even when taken in other than a purely mechanical significance. "Definite," "coherent," "heterogeneous," when applied merely to modes of the "redistribution of matter and motion," of which alone science is cognizant, can denote only the most external relations, and have no reference to the inner essence of nature. The term "concrete individual," expressing that at which evolution in the philosophical sense arrives in the highest forms of nature, represents a whole which is not a mere mechanical aggregate, however "definite," "coherent," and "heterogeneous," but is organic and embodies in a manner a self-determining, or self-realizing notion, an inner spiritual force, manifesting itself in material form.

The "scientific" view of the constitution of matter is characterized by the same abstract mechanicalness as are the "scientific" doctrines of the conservation of energy and of the evolution of natural phenomena or orders of being. The doctrine of mere science regarding the constitution of matter is, briefly, that ultimately it is composed of and owes its properties to infinitesimal, indivisible, eternal, dead particles, called atoms, vibrating in infinitesimal spaces, movement being imparted to the atoms by impact from without. For philosophy, eternity and absoluteness in the atom are inadmissible because utterly irreconcilable with the dependence of all things upon the synthetic activity of thought: the atom can be at most only an ideal centre of force in an otherwise perfect continuum of being; instead of being merely inert and individual, it is essentially active and in organic relation with all other atoms. In short, the constitution of matter is a concrete, dynamical, not an abstract, mechanical constitution; it is not something, as it were, foreign to and impervious to thought, but thought-determined, thought-governed.

In the examples just now considered — and in general — philosophy seeks a closer unity than science (instinctively) aims at, since it refers all objects to the highest principle of being and knowledge, viz. the ultimate unity of self-consciousness, whereas science seeks only the unity of the "given" as given, or as passively apprehended. But philosophy also regards all unity or identity as a unity or identity of things opposed or different, i.e. as a concrete unity. Science — and in this partly lies its abstract character seeks a unity which is realized only by neglecting differences. Science, for example, so interprets the law of the conservation of energy as to represent that all "forces" are merely co-ordinate forms of a single ultimate force. For philosophy there is an order among forces, a perfect distinguishedness as well as unity, a regulated difference of relation to pure self-consciousness depending upon the ratio of ideality to reality in forces. And as regards the law of evolution, philosophy again insists upon a difference neglected by science, namely, a difference in that the successive forms in the evolutional series are, as it were, separate manifestations of one and the same concrete energy, instead of being merely altered reproductions, one of another. And, again, as regards the constitution of matter, philosophy, in so far as it allows the existence of atoms, affirms qualitative differences instead of maintaining merely a mechanical similarity among them as does abstract science.

We have spoken of natural science chiefly in the empirico-mathematical, the merely mechanical, sense, natural science as a would-be absolute domain of knowledge. Happily there are indications that such science will not always be regarded by men of science as true science, or as adequate to the notion of real and final truth concerning nature. The example of Professor Huxley,[1] who thinks that there is more truth in the Cartesian non-atomic conception of matter than in the modern atomic conception, and more truth in the Aristotelian than in either (or both together?) points to an epoch not far distant when mechanical science will have given place, as a final arbiter in truths natural, to a real philosophy of nature, somewhat in the too much neglected ancient Platonico-Aristotelian sense. Doubtless as philosophy acquires its rightful influence as a study and a branch of real knowledge in our institutions of learning, and the philosophy of nature receives its proper place among philosophical branches, mechanical science will cease to tyrannize over men's thought of nature. Such a result the earnest student of true philosophy would fain see.

B. C. Burt.


  1. See his Advance of Science in the Last Half Century.