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  • The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World
  • Richard Olson
The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World. By Peter Dear. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008. Pp. xii + 242. $27.50 (paper).

Knowledge about the natural world has been sought for two major reasons. In the early 19th century,August Comte (1855) argued that one reason is the satisfaction of our psychological need to dispose facts in a comprehensible order, while the other is to predict phenomena in order to be able to act in the world. In his introductory remarks to The Intelligibility of Nature, Peter Dear restates this dichotomy by claiming that one reason focuses on explaining and understanding, while the other focuses on a set of operational and instrumental techniques that grants power over matter and, indirectly, over people. He identifies the first motivation with "natural philosophy" and the second with "instrumentality." Each of these, he says, defines an ideal type associated with modern science, which is a "hybrid" enterprise in which the interpretive processes associated with natural philosophy and the operational approaches associated with instrumentality mutually support one another. In order to understand modern science, Dear focuses on the early modern concern with instrumentality associated with artisanal activity and Baconian philosophy, and argues that such instrumentality was preceded by a natural philosophy-oriented science associated with Aristotle and medieval scholasticism. In Dear's view it was the commingling of these two perspectives that created modern science.

There is certainly a sense in which this view is correct, but it fails to acknowledge a long prior tradition of interactions between natural philosophical and instrumentalist traditions of knowledge about nature. The self-conscious complementarity between natural philosophical and instrumental approaches to natural knowledge goes back at least as far as Hellenistic discussions about the differing functions of philosophical and astronomical knowledge of the heavens, and it is virtually certain that instrumentalist approaches to natural knowledge can be identified in connection with astronomical and medical phenomena for millennia before the emergence of any self-conscious natural philosophy. [End Page 309]

When Dear approaches modern science, he does not think of hybrid science as "technoscience" in the way of Bruno Latour and his followers in cultural studies, because Dear thinks that "technoscience" puts an almost exclusive emphasis on the instrumental capabilities of science. While Dear also acknowledges that modern science derives its direct political and social authority through its instrumentality, he argues—contra Latour and the German sociologist, Jurgen Habermas, whose views have been tremendously important in shaping Continental understandings of the social role of science—that it is the natural philosophical component of modern science that has the most profound influence on our lives. He writes: "The universe in which we live, the bodies that we experience as part of ourselves, and the sense we have of our immediate environments are all shaped by the images of reality that we owe to science in its guise as natural philosophy" (p. 11).

Dear's mention of "images of reality" signals another parallel between his understanding of science and that of Comte. Both argue that natural philosophical knowledge is context-dependent, and that while it purports to represent reality, there can be no ultimate guarantee that natural philosophical knowledge is true in any timeless and universal way. Dear insists that "there are no timeless, ahistorical criteria for determining what will count as satisfactory to the understanding. Assertions of intelligibility can be understood only in the particular cultural settings that produced them" (p. 14). Comte simply argued that no scientific concept at any stage could be understood without understanding how its history incorporated culture-dependent considerations, and that scientific methods could also be understood only historically.

Dear spends the bulk of The Intelligibility of Nature exploring six historical episodes in order to understand the variety of ways in which modern science has sought to make the physical world intelligible: (1) the rise and partial decline of the mechanical philosophy in the 17th century; (2) the flurry of taxonomic sciences centered on natural history in the 18th century; (3) the chemical revolution ending in Dalton's chemical atomism; (4) the rise of the theory...


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pp. 309-312
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