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Reflections on Natural Philosophy

A question and an answer

Question: What do Tantra, alchemy, Jungian psychology, Engels' Dialectics of Nature, and thoughtful science fiction have in common?

Answer: They can all be described as branches of natural philosophy. That is, all look at basic questions about the nature of things, including human nature.

Etymology of the term "natural philosophy"

The term "natural philosophy" comes from

* natura (Latin) from natus: born

* philosophia (Greek) from philos – loving; sophia – wisdom

The "nature" of a person or animal is what they retain from the time they were born, the foundation on which their acquired characteristics are built.

Nature also means the underlying character of the world as a whole.

Nature and culture can be thought of as opposites... however, if it is accepted that humans evolved from animals, then human culture is the child of nature.

The Sanskrit terms sahaja and prakṛti have similar meanings to the Latin word Nature. Sahaja, from saha (with) and jan (to be born), is literally "that with which one is born". Prakṛti, from pra (before) and kṛti (transformation) is the original underlying character...

Natural philosophy is literally "love of wisdom about nature", that is, love of wisdom about the underlying character of the world.

A doctrine or a field?

Natural philosophy is a field of enquiry, not a single doctrine. There is a case for using the plural form "natural philosophies"...

Relation to other fields of study

Natural philosophy is a territory that borders on

Natural philosophy and science

Modern science is a development of natural philosophy, and a division of natural philosophy into various specialist fields. What modern science doesn't always acknowledge, is the possibility of a big picture inclusive of all the specialist branches of knowledge. Metaphorically speaking, the specialized sciences don't see the forest for the trees.

The following passage from C.S.Lewis is relevant here:

Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the 'natural object' produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? ... Goethe's approach to nature deserves fuller consideration... even Dr Steiner may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed. The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. (C.S.Lewis; The Abolition of Man; Collins, Glasgow, 1978; p 47.)

Another difference between natural philosophy and modern specialized sciences, is that natural philosophy has been more willing to talk about things that can't – or can't yet – be verified, classified, quantified.

Perhaps this is why David Grinspoon, a contemporary scientist who studies the question of life on other worlds, considers this field to be a branch of natural philosophy. Grinspoon has written a book with the title Lonely Planets – the natural philosophy of alien life.

Natural philosophy and religion

Natural philosophy is continuous with forms of religious reflection that find the sacred in nature or through nature. Not so close to forms of religion which focus on the supernatural and turn away from the natural.

Natural philosophy and art

Both Tantra and western alchemy are associated with rich traditions of symbolic visual art. In the late 20th century, thoughtful science fiction became the basis for classic works of cinema, such as Solaris, and 2001 - a Space Odessey. But natural philosophy as a field is not the same thing as specialist study of forms of art.

Natural philosophy and magic

The Renaissance term "natural magic" refers to powers sought by study of nature, instead of bringing in spirits from beyond nature. The relationship between natural magic and natural philosophy bears comparison to the relationship between technology and science.

Sentimentalizing nature, demonizing nature

Nature has a gentle, nurturing side, and also a violent side: "nature red in tooth and claw", as Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote. To focus one-sidedly on the gentle side is sentimentalization. To focus one-sidedly on the violent side is demonization.

Nature and us humans

Nature precedes culture. But human understandings of nature occur within culture.

The emergence of the word "nature" is a result of us humans differentiating between nature and ourselves. The word expresses the perception that we humans are separate from nature.

We humans are distinct from Nature, yet also continuous with Nature. Two to three thousand years ago, people in Greece, India, and China became aware of the distinction, and that was an important step in the history of human consciousness.

Today, thanks to evolutionary biology and ecology, we are becoming more aware of our continuity with Nature. That is an equally important step...

It is collective egoism to deny our kinship with other living things. It is an instance of the error which in ancient Greece was called hubris, in Sanskrit is known as madā, and in Christian theology is named "pride".

Nature, Kālī, the Guru

Kālī is not only a personification of Nature (Prakṛti), but also a naturalization of Person (Puruṣa).

Nature is not only a topic of philosophy, it is the mother of philosophy. It is the first Guru.

Colin Robinson, December 2011

© Author 2011

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