In Praise of Natural Philosophy


The title of chapter 2 of Faith and Wisdom in Science‘What’s in a Name? Stories of Natural Philosophy, Modern and Ancient’, introduces a discussion of the name-change that the study of nature underwent in the early 19th century.  Here’s a short extract:

‘Scientists’ were not always so called; we know, unusually, that the word was coined around 1830 and probably by William Whewell of Cambridge, England. Before then if any collective expression were used for those who made it their business to examine the heavens, explore the chemical properties of gases or the distribution of different rocks and the varieties of flora and fauna on the Earth, that expression would be “Natural Philosopher”.  The etymology could not be more different: the phrase replaces the Latin scio with the two Greek  words, Philio and Sophia, for “love” and “wisdom”. What happens, we ask ourselves, to our image of science if we replace in our minds its word-label, “I know” with “I love wisdom to do with natural things”?  Instead of a triumphal knowledge-claim we have a rather humbler search, together with more than a hint of delight.  We also have as a goal something deeper than pure knowledge, in the wisdomthat surrounds and supports it.  The idea of wisdom draws on a long history of Greek and Hebrew ideas in which Sophia has been personified to an extent that Scienta never could be – ancient writers could imagine talking to someone called “Wisdom”, but not someone called “Knowledge”! Finally, at the heart of “Natural Philosophy” there is the word for love.  Not nowadays an idea that readily claims association with science, it belonged there once.  I have often seen a smile and an “I wonder …” expression appear on the faces of people who a moment before have claimed to find no interest in the cold, logical inhuman process they imagine science to be, when they begin to think of the new directions in which “love of wisdom of natural things” might take them. 

Little did I suspect when I wrote those words that just a few years later the University of York would appoint me to the first new chair of Natural Philosophy in the UK since Whewell invented the new name ‘scientist’ to cover the increasingly fragmented academic world of the disciplines of physics, chemistry, geology, biology, astronomy, …. It’s an exciting challenge to explore what a natural philosophy for today might look like.


The historic Grossmünster church next to the Theology Faculty in Zürich

The challenge to say something about that also came sooner than expected. This week I was invited to give one of the plenary talks at a conference held in the Theology Faculty at the University of Zürich Science and Theology – Friend or Foe? Organiser Andreas Losch asked me to speak on the title Our Common Cosmos: A Natural Philosophical Approach across Disciplines. The great advantage and delight was to speak directly after University of Queensland history of science scholar Peter Harrison, who has pointed out from a historian’s point of view just how more connected, contemplative, theologically-founded and holistic was Natural Philosophy rather than the Science we know today. It was a natural segue to ask ‘What would a Natural Philosophy look like today had it evolved continuously without the fragmentation and separation that becoming ‘science’ signified, and how might we return there now?’.



The charming quad of the Zurich Theology Faculty

We need to look at a little history. Although the ingredients for ‘natural philosophy’ were known and used in the ancient world, and the genre of natural philosophical works in the Latin west under the title of De Rerum Natura enjoyed a regular stream of re-edition from Lucretius and Pliny to Isidore and Bead into the early medieval period, its medieval flourishing was found within the quadriviumof the high medieval schools. For a high medieval account of the purpose of these mathematical disciplines of astronomy, geometry, arithmetic and music we might turn to a classic introduction to the seven liberal arts by English polymath Robert Grosseteste in the early 13thcentury:


Now, there are seven arts that purge human works of error and lead them to perfection. These are the only parts of philosophy that are given the name ‘art’, because it is their effect alone to lead human operations towards perfection through correction.

Two things to note here: firstly that it is the unity of the disciplines that work together, including both the ‘humanities’ disciplines of the trivium as well as the more ‘scientific’ quadrivium; secondly that the practice of the disciplines is to a purpose, embedded within human teleological history – namely the purging of error and leading to perfection of human works. That these works include understanding itself emerges in contemporary passages that describe the ‘scala’ – the ladder of restitution from a dimmed and confused knowledge of the universe. Here is Grosseteste again in his commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics:

“Since sense perception, the weakest of all human powers, apprehending only corruptible individual things, survives, imagination stands, memory stands, and finally understanding, which is the noblest of human powers capable of apprehending the incorruptible, universal, first essences, stands!”

The explicit use of the term ‘natural philosophy’, far from fading with early modern science, actually reached its zenith then. The first chair accorded that name was established at Padua for Jacopo Zabarella in 1577, and we should not forget that the full title of Newton’s most celebrated and transformational work (in 1687) was Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

The resonances of the name acquire slightly different referents in the 18thand 19thcenturies: within the German speaking world the Naturphilosophieof Goethe, Hegel and Schelling point to a more immersive, embedded and organic grasp of nature than the empirical and analytic tradition of Newton, so that by the time that William Whewell coined the term ‘scientist’ in 1834 it was in the face not only of a fragmentation of disciplines we have already noted, but also with a loss of congruity of the older term itself. Notwithstanding, it is striking that neither Maxwell nor Faraday would agree to be classed as ‘scientists’, insisting on ‘natural philosopher’ and as late as 1876, Kelvin and Tait published their Treatise on Natural Philosophy.


The Divorce of Poetry and Science

But at the great turning point and departure in the early 19th century there seem to have been other possible futures presented, and other visionaries than Whewell who saw a road into the future in which the resonances of ‘natural philosophy’ would prevail over those of ‘science’. One such was English poet William Wordsworth, who wrote an important and extended piece on the future possible relationship of science and poetry in the third edition of his Lyrical Ballads. Excerpting here:

Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings.

We may well believe that the mind the wrote the contemplative lines on nature from the bank above Tintern Abbey could also see a future in which poetry would respond to and re-echo the new impressions and glories of science. Yet he knows that this is conditional – there is a tendency of the poetic response of science to remain a private one, while all true poetry must communicate, must travel. For Wordsworth the choice between ‘science’ and ‘natural philosophy’, in so far as the first assumes a form that is private and knowledge-based and the second shared, contemplative and poetic, turns on communication. It depends on the way science and writing work together. I don’t know if the British Nobel laureate and consummate science writer Sir Peter Medawar knew this passage from Wordsworth (though I strongly suspect that he did) but he makes the same point in his Pluto’s Republic:

No one questions the inspirational character of musical or poetic invention because the delight and exaltation that go with it somehow communicate themselves to others. Something travels – we’re carried away. But science is not an art form in this sense – scientific discovery is a private event, and the delight that accompanies it, or the despair of finding it illusory, does not travel.

There is a second critique of science at work in the Romantic poets, one that has its origin in the horrified reaction, a century before, of William Blake to what he perceived as the desiccated reason of the enlightenment, but which finds most familiar voice in John Keats. Keats writes of science (ironically ‘philosophy’ here) in his long poem Lamia:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine

Unweave a rainbow.

Keats does not inveigh against science because of its lack of communication or shared engagement, but for what he perceives it does to our idea of the world. It cuts into pieces, excises wonder, banishes agency, chills perception, outlaws all that charms and mystifies. The Romantic polarisation that unleased the centrifugal flight of the sciences and the humanities from each other also divorced science from poetry. We even find it difficult to imagine why someone like Wordsworth could have perceived science and poetry as natural creative partners.

Yet the entanglement of imaginative writing and science had already enjoyed a long and intense relationship by the time they reached the fork in the road that I have been suggested presented itself to Wordsworth. Among the founding members of the Royal Society, for example, the first of the national academies for the sciences, Robert Boyle was responsible for the new styles and forms of writing that would propel the early modern scientific enterprise. And as Notre Dame scholar Stephen Fallon has recently pointed out, the poetic, theological and philosophical resonances between contemporaries Isaac Newton and poet John Milton, run too deep and complex to be coincidental. Into the later 19th century the ‘Transcendentalists’, Americans Emerson and Thoreau and German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, perhaps capture the poetic spirit of a natural philosophy that used a different form of language, more accessible, more open to linguistic forms of creativity and answered to Wordsworth desire that science be an open book to all. Here is Ralph Waldo Emerson on the imagination:

Science does not know its debt to imagination. Goethe did not believe that a great naturalist could exist without this faculty. He was himself conscious of its help, which made him a prophet among the doctors. From this vision he gave brave hints to the zoologist, the botanist, and the optician. When the soul of the poet has come to the ripeness of thought, it detaches from itself and sends away from it its poems or songs, a fearless, sleepless, deathless progeny which is not exposed to the accidents of the wary kingdom of time.

In the end, cultural evolution took the path, or rather set of paths, that I think we can signpost under ‘science’ rather than ‘natural philosophy’. The poetic connection is lost, the task becomes functionally narrowed into epistemology, the community of scientists becomes a sort of modern priesthood, what they do becomes lost to ‘common contemplation’, and perhaps above all, the ancient tributary of wisdom, of Sophia  or the Hebrew hochma, is forgotten.

The Lost Science-Theology of Wisdom

If a reframed natural philosophy for our times is to be reconstituted, not only must we return to the poetic alternative of the early Romantic period, but to the theological foundation beneath it, which is the wisdom nature poetry of Hebrew tradition (there are so many dualities at play here I am tempted to suggest that the choice of science over natural philosophy was set, not so much by the Romantic followers of Keats and the scientific disciples of Whewell, but by the medieval scholars who identified their scientific sources in the ancient Hellenistic world of Aristotle to the exclusion of the Biblical nature tradition – but that is for another time).

Berlin neo-Kantian Philosopher Susan Neiman has claimed that western philosophy ought to acknowledge that it draws from two ancient sources. One is Plato, but for Neiman (and for me!) the other is simply the Book of Job.

The Book of Job, of all ancient literature, succeeds in articulating in timeless and plangent depth the difference between what human beings consider the world ought to be, and how they find it. Its response, in poetic dialogue of beautifully structured form, but of brutally honest content, has also shocked and offended many of its readers. One of its enduring puzzles is that, when God finally answers long-suffering yet righteous Job’s complaints ‘from the whirlwind’, his Answer seems to by-pass the moral dimensions of Job’s predicament, directing him instead with over 160 questions about the natural world:


The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?

Or have you seen the arsenals of the hail,

Where is the realm where heat is created, which the sirocco spreads across the earth?

Who cuts a channel for the torrent of rain, a path for the thunderbolt?

Now is not the place to repeat the wisdom-theology within Job that urges a questioning search for understanding, and a healed relationship between humans and the natural world. A blogpost that expands on it (but not to the extent of chapter 6 of Faith and Wisdom in Science) is here.  But a ‘Theology of Science’ that responds to this perspective through a New Testament lens can be summarised:

Science is the

  • participative,
  • relational,
  • co-creative

work within the Kingdom of God of healing the fallen relationship of humans with nature.

Strangely, the answers to Wordsworth’s, Humboldt’s and Emerson’s and  perhaps Maxwell’s and Faraday’s requirements for an evolution of natural philosophy, rather than a turning away into ‘science’, were offered many centuries before in a theological context. The invitation to Job and his descendants is contemplative, universal, shared, deeply creative itself.

Towards a New Natural Philosophy

To finish with, let us look forward rather than backward, using these theological, poetic and historical resources  to delineate an alternative history in which natural philosophy assumes a 21stcentury form. This is not, however, a necessary fiction – the object is also to find a pathway back from knowledge alone to the engagement with nature that is also driven by love and wisdom.

The two leading critiques of science mounted by the Romantic poets, and echoed by late modern commentators as well, are linked. A science that appears to fragment and tear apart or compartmentalise the object has the same effect on its subjects. A holistic science, or natural philosophy, is also a communal one. Wisdom seeks to unite not divide and to build communicative bridges not pull them up.  Natural philosophy therefore needs to develop a polyvalency and inclusivity that even the best current science communication fails to do.

To give an example of what I mean I’d like to quote from a profound remark from the author Andrea Wulf, who won a science literature prize from the Royal Society for her biography of Alexander von Humboldt, subtitled The Invention of Nature. I had the opportunity to speak with her at the award ceremony at the Royal Society in London, where she spoke of the discouragement she had experienced at school in regard to science. Then she said something that made a great impression on me:

Science is a palace with many doors, but at school we only show children one of them. Not all of us can enter through that door – I was one that could not. But I found another door into the palace through researching and writing about the life of Alexander von Humboldt. We need to find paths to other doors for other people.

There are movements of inclusivity – citizen science, the movement to connect schools with research programmes, the new wave of science writing such as Wulf herself, and a personal approach to scientific biography in broadcasting such as Jim Al-Khalili’s Life Scientificon the BBC. But these still do not touch those for whom the mention of science is still a painful one that speaks unnecessarily of personal inability and failure.

Developing a natural philosophy that shares with art and music the notion of a contemplative good for the non-expert, a concept of critical participation of active audience, is a second aspect of a reformed natural philosophy that needs to find new life. Robert Boyle was probably the best known exponent of this ‘Occasional Meditation’ in Britain. It did not outlast the 17thcentury (unless you count the vestiges in amateur astronomy and ornithology – as well you might), but there are aspects of this permissive lay science at work at present as well.

Third is the essential role of creativity – hidden by the label ‘science’.  One of the saddest personal and repeated experiences I have when visiting schools is to hear from young people that the reason that they have given up on any science is because they saw no room for their own imagination of creativity were they to continue it. An education that purports to include science yet restricts itself to the imparting of a body of fact is no better than an art course that looks at biographies of artists but never allows brush to contact paper. I have spent the last three years researching a new book The Poetry and Music of Science, that takes as its raw material conversations with scientists, mathematicians, artists, composers, poets and novelists, and asks them to talk through the narratives of their most innovative and pleasing projects.  The process of creation is more common to discuss in the artistic than in the scientific world, but when the scientists lower their voices and tell the stories of vision, desire, repeated failure, then the apparent gift of an idea, a new imagined conception of what nature must be like – then the narrative structures of science and art map onto each other with uncanny faithfulness. Much much more needs to be said here, and nuanced into visual, textual and abstract forms of imagination, the role of non-conscious thought, and in particular the entanglement of affective, emotional and cognitive thought in all creative process. Those avenues also belong to a natural philosophical approach to the material world.

Forth, is the poetic structure of science itself, and the comprehension that functional and methodological as well as objective and linguistic ties exist between science and poetry. To take first the structural aspect, if poetry is the creative constraint of imagination by form, then one might ask what could call on a greater force of imagination than the re-imagination of nature itself, and what might constitute a greater constraint than nature as it is observed?

Finally, if it is perhaps hard for the church to recover from a two centuries of being indoctrinated with the narrative that science is a threat to faith and to the community of believers, then perhaps a reformed natural philosophy might more easily be accepted under the correctly perceived heading of gift. For the truth is that science needs the church far more than the other way around. One consequence of the divorce of science from the humanities, its cult of expertise and its hegemony of epistemology is, paradoxically, its newly-suffered optionality. Take the temperature of public and political debates on tense scientific topics, be the subject genetic medicine or global climate change, and you will measure high readings in both the dissemination of untruth, and the propagation of fear. If there are two core values of at least the Christian tradition that are needed now as much as at any other time, they are those of truth and the removal of fear. Yet there is still very little informed public service of debate by the church (a glowing exception is the papal encyclical Laudato Si, but even this has limited reach at local level). A church does not have to come down on one side or other of a scientific or technological debate in order to make a transformational illumination of its process. Let us make sure that we are not the servant in Matthew 25 who buried the talent of science in the ground because he was afraid, when it was meant to be put to use in building the master’s kingdom.

The love of wisdom to do with nature will surely be more powerful to do this than a mere system of knowledge.

One thought on “In Praise of Natural Philosophy

  1. Pingback: Interview 7. – Prof Tom McLeish – Words on Wonder

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