The Philosophy of Nature and its Importance for the Modern World

Reflections on the natural world go back to the origins of thought and have been part of one of the branches of philosophy that has contributed most to the development of the modern world. Learn more here.
The Philosophy of Nature and its Importance for the Modern World
Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati

Written and verified by the philosopher Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati.

Last update: 22 November, 2022

The philosophy of nature, also called natural philosophy, refers to the philosophical reflection on the natural and physical world in which we are immersed. Thus, its objects of study are inanimate entities (planets, stars, natural phenomena, physical-chemical components of matter, etc.) and living beings.

Its origin dates back to the dawn of the history of thought, when primitive man strove to understand nature. At that time, man was amazed at the grandeur and harmony of the universe; humans marveled at the constant repetition of natural cycles and feared the uncontrollable power of natural phenomena.

From there and throughout history, a variety of theories and explanations about the physical world have arisen, which have contributed to its understanding and mastery by humans. Below, we’ll take a closer look at what this branch of philosophy consists of and how it’s contributed to the evolution of modern society.

The origin of natural philosophy

As we said, the origin of natural philosophy goes back to the first reflections and explanations about the physical world, whose first records date back to antiquity. We have the explanatory theories of Thales of Miletus – the first known nature philosopher – and other renowned thinkers such as Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle.

Natural philosophy was characterized by establishing the origin and constitution of natural beings. In this sense, a spontaneous and naive dialectical interpretation of nature was given in which everything that makes up the physical world was concatenated and alive.

In this era, nature was understood as a permanent and primordial substance that is maintained through the incessant changes of natural beings. Likewise, the origin of the world was usually explained on the basis of concrete objects (such as water), which were called arche (principle).

Philosophy of nature
The world and the universe are the concerns of natural philosophy, which it tries to explain.

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The evolution of the philosophy of nature

Later, in medieval times, the philosophy of nature was based on the adaptation of certain Aristotelian cosmological principles to the geocentric image of the world. For example, nature was conceived as a universal, self-sufficient organism, a unified system of omnipresent forces animated by a cosmic soul in which the distinction between the living (spirit) and the non-living (matter) loses its meaning.

Thus, it was assumed that everything is alive; therefore, things within the body were not believed to happen because some non-natural being intervenes in it.

Then, during the modern age, the philosophers of the time begin a struggle against the scholastic view of nature and defend a more scientific view. They developed diverse and profound rationalist, empiricist, materialist, and dialectical explanations.

In this sense, modern natural philosophers are neither scientific nor humanist, but are usually somewhere in the middle, mixing a bit of everything. That is to say, during this period, we can note ideas that favor speculation, but we also find thoughts that defend experimentation.

Finally, in contemporary times, the philosophy of nature hasn’t been replaced either by the natural sciences or by natural theology. It continues to develop its specificity in various sectors that distance themselves from both scientism and the doctrines of the supernatural.

One of these spaces is the Circle of Philosophy of Nature, founded in 2008 by Miguel Espinoza, from the University of Strasbourg. Among the problems addressed are the continuity from science to metaphysics, the relationship between mathematics and the sensible world, the different aspects of causality in science, and its relationship with determinism and freedom.

The main nature philosophers

To list all the philosophers who have focused on understanding nature is an arduous task. Therefore, we’ll limit ourselves to present some of the authors who propitiated the emergence of natural philosophy:

  • Thales of Miletus (624 B.C. – 546 B.C.): He was the first to affirm that the earth was circular and stated that water is the principle of universal life. He was also the one who divided the year into seasons and 365 days.
  • Anaximander (610 B.C. – 546 B.C.): He believed that the universe and nature are made up of the apeiron or small particles of indeterminate matter that is infinite. He was also the first to claim that life is generated in water and that organisms regenerate and evolve by adapting to their environments.
  • Anaximenes (born between 615 B.C. and 590 B.C. – 525 B.C.): He was the first to introduce in cosmology the idea of periodicity, which alludes to the incessant movement of the cosmos. In addition, he spoke of the dilation and condensation of matter by the heat and cold of the air.
  • Aristotle (384 B.C. – 322 B.C.): He brought together all of the above concepts while giving answers to the great questions raised by the pre-Socratics, especially concerning the problem of motion. He also wrote extensively on plants, stars, and animals.
Philosophy of nature
Aristotle systematized much of the knowledge of his time about plants and animals.

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The impact of the philosophy of nature on the evolution of society

The emergence and development of natural philosophy have undoubtedly been one of the fundamental aspects of our understanding of the world we live in. Thanks to the philosophy of nature, the human being has acquired a relative dominion and objective knowledge about the physical world.

This has allowed us to prevent and cure diseases, diminish the impact of natural disasters, produce more food for the human population, and develop mechanisms and technologies to increase the quality of life.

Also, the philosophy of nature has helped us to understand ourselves as a species and has provided theories about the origin of the whole universe. These answers, although not definitive, give meaning and purpose to our existence.

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