Friday, July 29, 2011

New philosophy, natural philosophy, mechanical philosophy, experimental philosophy

New philosophy, natural philosophy, mechanical philosophy, experimental philosophy—these are all terms that describe the new science in the seventeenth century, when science did not exist in the form we know it today. Alan Cutler explains in his biography of the Dutch anatomist and geologist Nicolaus Steno, that during Steno's time most knowledge came from books [1]. Then, many universities confined learning to the writings of Aristotle and other scholars, did not encourage curiosity and kept students away from activities at which they might have dirtied their hands. Knowledge came from outside the academic walls [1]: “Potters learned about clay from the clay itself; miners and quarrymen learned about rocks from the rocks.” 

Steno was a great exception and ahead of his time: he dissected (for example, a shark head), observed and deduced to derive knowledge and principles, such as his principle of superposition; rather than just gleaning information from texts. Sixty years after Galileo Galilei triumphed over Aristotle and Ptolemy by observing stars and planets through telescopes and shaping modern physics (including astronomy), Steno's approach to earth science slowly was recognized by academic institutions and obscure societies, which were still clinging to superstition, scorcery and alchemy as their “state-of-the-art.” The new philosophy became visible at the horizon and the diverse terms for it eventually merged into the terms natural history, natural science or— simply and universally—science.

[1] Alan Cutler: The Seashell on the Mountaintop. Dutton (Penguin Group), New York, 2003; page 19.

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