The Reigning Denial of Any Philosophy of Nature
The philosophy of nature has become virtually an oxymoron for the prevailing philosophical consensus. Reason, we are told, is powerless to conceive what nature is in itself but must instead hand over all understanding of physical reality to empirical science. Philosophy may reflect upon how natural science models its data, scrutinizing the consistency of scientific theories and the way research projects are framed, but reason must never go beyond its frail limits to provide a priori ampliative, synthetic knowledge of what holds universally and necessarily of nature. Insofar as the problems of knowing nature a priori apply to any extension of a priori knowledge beyond reason’s knowledge of itself, philosophy should have no aspirations beyond, on the one hand, developing the formal logic of a thinking incapable of generating contents of its own and, on the other, doing “philosophy of science,” finding some regulative, methodological coherence in the endeavors of the empirical sciences.
The rejection of any philosophy of nature may today be rampant, but it is itself incoherent. It relies upon a reduction of reason to a formal thinking that may analyze what is contained in terms given by experience in general and linguistic usage in particular but is incapable of knowing universally [End Page 172] necessary truths about itself or any other topic. Reason’s knowledge of itself is no more analytic than its knowledge of what is other than itself, for what reason is cannot be presupposed as something given but, rather, must be established. Hence any proscription to know nature a priori is just as inconsistent as the subjection of all thought to formal logic from which that prohibition stems.
The great philosophers of the past have had no such qualms about tackling nature with reason. They all, however, have recognized that nature cannot be immediately addressed but must follow from prior philosophical investigation, without which nature remains unthinkable.
The Philosophical Presuppositions of the Philosophy of Nature
The pioneers of the three fundamental options for philosophical investigation, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel, may all agree that the philosophy of nature is not first philosophy, but they all characterize the philosophical presuppositions of the philosophy of nature differently, with important consequences for how nature gets conceived. For Aristotle, nature is inconceivable without first thinking the categories of being in general, which determine every particular type of being insofar as any have being at all. According to the metaphysical approach that Aristotle pioneers, ontology constitutes first philosophy insofar as philosophical investigation must begin with that privileged given that underlies all else by providing the most universal principles that determine each and every subject matter. Insofar as everything depends on being, nothing but being per se seems able to play that foundational role. Whereas ontology thereby must come first, the philosophy of nature comes next, preceding the account of the psyche, as well as that of ethics and politics and poetry. The philosophy of nature falls in between ontology and these “human” sciences because nature provides the given existing condition for all the other domains involving living minds and their conventions and productions. Nonetheless, because the categories of being determine everything that is, they cannot distinguish nature from being or nature from the psyche and its realizations. This raises the question of how reason can advance from knowledge of being to knowledge of nature, given that the categories of ontology must be further supplemented to grasp what is specifically natural.
Ontology has something to offer to bridge the gap between being and nature, at least insofar as being as such is conceived by Aristotle to be [End Page 173] grounded in a highest divine being, which plays a further determining role with regard to nature. That determining role, however, is necessarily highly restricted, given how the highest being ends up requiring a pure, unconditioned actuality that can only be an immaterial self-thinking thought. Since such a highest being only thinks itself, it cannot provide any form to nature, let alone any matter. Moreover, since self-thinking thought is directed solely to its own self-contemplation, it cannot furnish any efficient causality to set...