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The Natural Philosophy Problem February 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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I have decided that Geoffrey Cantor’s “The Eighteenth Century Problem,” an essay review of 1980’s Ferment of Knowledge collection, is a lost masterpiece [History of Science 20 (1982): 44-63].  I don’t think it’s possible to just pick it up and enjoy it; obviously reading Ferment of Knowledge helps, and knowing a little something about various eighteenth-century sciences helps as well.  But what the piece is really about is differing methods of historiographical presentation, and how they help us digest the scientific work of an era.  Cantor does a lot to help us understand the crucial variations in approach that existed ca. 1980.

What I want to concentrate on is the subsidiary “problem of natural philosophy”.  A common way of analyzing natural philosophy is just to say that “it’s what they used to call science”, but this not only misses the key distinctions and connections between, say, natural philosophy, natural history, mathematics, and other forms of higher learning, it also doesn’t help to explain the fact that a lot of the discussion that falls into natural philosophy comes off as just plain weird.  What are we to make of this?

Cantor observes that nobody seemed entirely sure: