natural philosophy

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natural philosophy

(now only used in Scottish universities) physical science, esp physics

Natural Philosophy


the philosophy of nature; a speculative interpretation of nature viewed in its [nature’s] entirety. Throughout the history of philosophy, the distinction between natural science and natural philosophy (as well as the latter’s place in philosophy) has often changed.

The most important period of natural philosophy was in classical antiquity. Natural philosophy was the first historical form of philosophy. Ancient Greek natural philosophers advanced a number of hypotheses that played an important role in the history of science; the most important hypothesis was that of the atomists. Later, natural philosophy was usually referred to as physics or physiology, that is, teachings about nature. The term “natural philosophy” (philosophia naturalis) was introduced by the Stoics (Seneca).

During the Middle Ages, when philosophy sought to substantiate the geocentric theory of the universe, natural philosophy underwent a period of almost total decline. Individual elements of classical natural philosophy were adapted to creationistic ideas of Christian, Muslim, and Judaic theology.

The Renaissance philosophers’ awakened interest in nature led to a revival of natural philosophy, which was associated with G. Bruno, B. Telesio, T. Campanella, G. Cardano, Paracelsus, and F. Patrizi. The natural philosophy of the Renaissance was based on pantheism and hylozoism. The principle of the identical nature of the microcosmos and macrocosmos was particularly widespread. Renaissance natural philosophy advanced the principle of the integral study of nature as well as a number of profound dialectical theses, for example, the thesis of the struggle between opposing elements as a source of change. However, on the whole, the Renaissance natural philosophers’ understanding of nature was to a large extent fantastical and included astrological and alchemical concepts. Intense efforts to master the forces of nature led to an interest in magic, cabalism, and Pythagorean number-mysticism.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, during the era of the rapid progress of mechanistic natural science, when analytic methods and the metaphysical method of examining nature prevailed, natural philosophy declined in importance. In German classical philosophy, natural philosophy again emerged as one of the principal philosphical disciplines, particularly in the philosophy of F. W. J. von Schelling, who attempted to summarize the achievements of contemporary natural science from the standpoint of objective idealism. Schelling introduced the dialectical concept of polarity, which he defined as the principle of the differentiation of the primary unity of nature. He proposed that higher forms represent, in a manner of speaking, the raising of lower forms to a higher power. Schelling’s natural philosophy was continued by L. Oken (Germany) and D. M. Vellanskii (Russia), as well as by natural scientists, including the physicist H. C. Oersted, the geologist H. Steffens, the biologists G. Treviranus and C. G. Carus, and the psychologist G. Schubert.

Marx and Engels highly valued the importance of “old natural philosophy”; however, they demonstrated its historical limitations. Describing natural philosophy, Engels wrote that it put “in place of the real but as yet unknown interconnections ideal, fancied ones, filling in the missing facts by figments of the mind and bridging the actual gaps merely in imagination. In the course of this procedure, it conceived many brilliant ideas and foreshadowed many later discoveries, but it also produced a considerable amount of nonsense, which indeed could not have been otherwise. Today, when one needs to comprehend the results of natural scientific investigation only dialectically, that is, in the sense of their own interconnection, . . . natural philosophy is finally disposed of” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, pp. 304–05).

Attempts to revive natural philosophy were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by W. Ostwald, H. Driesch, T. Lipps, and others. These men sought to overcome, by means of natural philosophy, the crisis of modern natural science. Elements of idealistic natural philosophy are present in the theory of emergent evolution and in the philosophy of A. Whitehead.

Dialectical materialism, proceeding from the Leninist delineation of the philosophical concept of matter and its natural scientific investigation, denies the possibility of natural philosophy as a separate philosophical discipline which dominates and directs the progress of the natural sciences.


Dingier, H. Geschichte der Naturphilosophie. Berlin, 1932.
Holländer, A. Vom Wesen der Natur: Einführung in die traditionelle Naturphilosophie. Vienna, 1948.
Bense, M. Der Begriff der Naturphilosophie. Stuttgart, 1953.
Naturphilosophie: Von der Spekulation zur Wissenschaft. Edited by H. Hörz, R. Lother, and S. Wollgast. Berlin, 1969.