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The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern…
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The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (1924)

by E. A. Burtt

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Burtt sets for himself the task of writing a critical, historical study of the rise of the fundamental assumptions characteristic of modern scientific thinking, so we get an excellent discussion of the evolution from medieval natural philosophy to the philosophy of science, a shift that was gradual rather than abrupt. Burtt is particularly good at showing the lingering tension between the emerging mechanical world-view and traditional qualitative and teleological explanations of the natural world. In his introduction, Burtt posits the constraining influence of Kuhnian paradigms avant la lettre:

Philosophers never succeed in getting quite outside the ideas of their time so as to look at them objectively…neither do maidens who bob their hair and make more obvious their nether bifurcation see themselves through the eyes of an elderly Puritan matron.”

‘More obvious their nether bifurcation’?! This really is the only indication that Burtt wrote the book in 1924 (apparently he was a little put out by young ladies in pants?). After the introduction, it’s impossible to tell by reading that the book is not a contribution to 21st c. discourse (though it well could be).

The dissent of late-medieval neo-Platonists from the idealistic physics of the scholastics presaged the dispute between logic/metaphysics and mathematics/empiricism. (Burtt gives appropriate credit to Plato’s Timaeus and Nicholas of Cusa for their early contributions to the debate.) Burtt demonstrates how the slow turn in natural philosophy entailed a shift in the conception of man’s relation to his natural environment (the metaphysical question) as well as a shift in terminology―from substance, essence, matter, form, quality, and quantity (“medieval”) to time, space, motion, mass, and energy (“modern”).

Burtt’s prose is remarkable for its clarity in the presentation of richly complex ideas and in the easy assurance and wit with which he captures the reader’s imagination. He organizes his commentary around excerpts from the original sources, with contributions from the familiar names―Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes―and the lesser known figures whose work nonetheless pushed the philosophy of science in new directions. William Gilbert’s work on magnetism and mass was borrowed by Galileo and Kepler. Henry More described twenty attributes that could be applied both to God and space, illustrating how the religious spirit in sympathy with the new mathematical philosophy would substitute infinite space for the Absolute Actuality of Aristotelianism. Burtt makes the case for Galileo as a pivotal figure in the history of ideas: his revival of the ancient atomists and his assertion of the subjectivity of secondary qualities helped turn space and time into fundamental categories. After Galileo, man began to appear for the first time as an irrelevant spectator, an insignificant effect of the great mathematical system which the new philosophy regarded as the substance of reality. Robert Boyle’s ideas fused teleology (the divine work apparent in symmetry and the adaptation of living creatures) with experimental proof (i.e. his refutation of Hobbes’ theory of the nature of air), and Isaac Barrow made crucial contributions to the philosophy of time and influenced Newton’s conception of same.

In Newton, all the pieces of the new philosophy are there, but his commitment to Christian ideals revealed the difficulty with which even the greatest minds struggled to jettison traditional metaphysics. Burtt describes Newton’s thought as 'a transitional stage between the miraculous providentialism of earlier religious philosophy and the later tendency to identify the Deity with the sheer fact of rational order and harmony.' Even as the mathematical-mechanical model of nature triumphed, scientific philosophers were reluctant to completely deprive God of his duties.

The concluding chapter shows that Burtt in 1924 anticipated the kinds of questions that would animate the likes of Daniel Dennett and Thomas Nagel in our time. What does the mathematical-mechanical model leave out? Is there ‘value’ in the universe? Can there be a scientific metaphysic? For Burtt, the problematique revolves around the question of matter v. mind, materialism v. idealism, and presciently he suggests the need for a new theory of mind:

An adequate cosmology will only begin to be written when an adequate philosophy of mind has appeared, and such a philosophy of mind must provide full satisfaction both for the motives of the behaviorists who wish to make mind material for experimental manipulation and exact measurement, and for the motives of idealists who wish to see the startling differences between a universe without mind and a universe organized into a living and sensitive unity through mind properly accounted for.”

We are still waiting for that adequate philosophy of mind. ( )
  HectorSwell | Mar 4, 2017 |
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How curious, after all, is the way in which we moderns think about our world!
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0486425517, Paperback)

This classic in the philosophy of science describes and analyzes the profound change from the philosophy of the Middle Ages to the modern view of humanity's less central place in the universe. It offers a fascinating analysis of the works of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Gilbert, Boyle, and Newton.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:43 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

This classic in the philosophy of science describes and analyzes the profound change from the philosophy of the Middle Ages to the modern view of humanity's less central place in the universe. It offers a fascinating analysis of the works of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Gilbert, Boyle, and Newton.… (more)

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