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De Koninck on the Philosophy of Nature
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De Koninck on the Philosophy of Nature

Charles De Koninck was born in Belgium in 1906. In 1934 he obtained a PhD from Louvain University with a dissertation on Sir Arthur Eddington. That same year he was hired by Laval University, Quebec, Canada, where he was dean of the faculty of philosophy from 1939–1956 and 1964–1965 and spent the rest of his life. In 1954 he obtained a doctorate in sacred theology from Laval with a dissertation on Mary’s Assumption, La Piété du Fils. He also taught at Notre Dame University in the fall semesters of 1957–1963. He died in Rome on February 13, 1965, while acting as conciliar theologian for Cardinal Roy of Quebec.1

De Koninck wrote on many topics: the common good, natural philosophy, the philosophy of science, Marxism, and Mariology. A [End Page 140] complete list of his 163 published works can be found in Melanges a la Memoire de Charles De Koninck.2 The bibliography also contains a list of the forty-seven dissertations he directed, most of which were excerpted in Laval Théologique et Philosophique. A. Gagne, the archivist who compiled the bibliography, notes that the unpublished work of De Koninck exceeds the published.3

The two articles by De Koninck presented here deal with topics in the philosophy of nature. It has become commonplace to consider the philosophy of nature as having been replaced by experimental science.4 After all, what is there to say about nature that science has not already said?5 Some have tried to save the philosophy of nature by reducing it to metaphysics; others have reduced it to the philosophy of science in its critical role of judging the results of science.6 Of those who attempted to find an autonomous role for the philosophy of nature, the preeminent was Jacques Maritain.7 He held that since the subject of the study of nature is ens mobile seu sensibile (changing or sensed things), there could be two more or less autonomous sciences of nature. One, the philosophy of nature, studied changing things precisely as things (res); the other, which he called empiriological science, studied changing things precisely as changing (mobile). In his first writing on the philosophy of nature, “Le Cosmos” (1936), De Koninck indicated agreement with Maritain.8 Five years later, however, in “Les sciences expérimentales sont-elles distinctes de la philosophie de la nature?” he presented a different view, one he was to refine the rest of his life.9 “The Unity and Diversity of Natural Science,” published in 1961 and here reprinted, is his last expression of this view.

In this article, De Koninck argues, following Aristotle, that the philosophy of nature and experimental science are parts of one science of nature. There is but one science of nature, but there is diversity in the methods by means of which the human mind achieves knowledge of natural things and their behaviors.10

The unity arises from the consideration of natural science as the study of material things. [End Page 141]

To understand this we must see that, following Aristotle, one must say that science studies general, universal things, not singulars (roses, not this rose bush; dogs, not Fido). It follows then, that sciences can be distinguished according to the ways they abstract from (leave aside) matter, which is, philosophically speaking, the source of individuality.11 There are thus three possibilities: a science that leaves aside individuating matter but not all sense matter, that is, natural science; one that leaves aside all sense matter but not all matter, that is, mathematics; and a science that studies things completely separated from matter, that is, metaphysics. From this point of view there can be but one science that studies natural things precisely with reference to their sensible matter: natural science. Philosophy of nature and the experimental sciences are fundamentally united in their study of material things. Of course, each may be further divided by the kinds of material things studied, but here we see the fundamental point of unity.

So if there is one science of nature, how is one to understand the diversity...