- Series: Galaxy Books (Book 31)
- Paperback: 192 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (December 31, 1960)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195002172
- ISBN-13: 978-0195002171
- Product Dimensions: 8 x 0.4 x 5.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,738,009 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Idea of Nature (Galaxy Books) 1st Edition
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"Masterly analyses of the great cosmologies of the past and present. Collingwood breathes life into these speculations by relating them to the current science of the day, or the science that was influential upon them."--Philosophy and Phenomenological Research
"Merits the attention and gratitude of the philosophical reader."--The Philosophical Review
About the Author
The late R. G. Collingwood was Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford University. Jan van der Dussen is Professor of History and Philosophy at the Open University of the Netherlands.
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This book was published posthumously, and was mostly written in 1933-1934; he presented much of the material in lectures in 1934 and 1937. He had begun revising the manuscript for publication at the time of his death.
He wrote in the first chapter, "in the nineteenth century a fashion grew up of separating natural scientists and philosophers into two professional bodies, each knowing little about the other's work and having little sympathy with it. It is a bad fashion that has done harm to both sides, and on both sides there is an earnest desire to see the last of it and to bridge the gulf of misunderstanding it has created. The bridge must be begun from both ends; and I, as a member of the philosophical profession, can best begin at my end by philosophizing about what experience I have of natural science." (Pg. 3)
He states, "This new conception of nature, the evolutionary conception based on the analogy of history, has certain characteristics which follow necessarily from the central idea on which it is based. It may be useful to mention a few of these. i. Change no longer cyclical, but progressive... ii. Nature no longer mechanical. A negative result... was the abandonment of the mechanical conception of nature. It is impossible to describe one and the same thing ... as a machine and as developing or evolving. Something which is developing may build itself machines, but it cannot be a machine. On the evolutionary theory... there may be machines in nature, but nature itself cannot be a machine, and cannot either be described as a whole or completely described as to any of its parts in mechanical terms... iii. Teleology reintroduced. A positive corollary of this negative result is the reintroduction into natural science of an idea which the mechanical view of nature had banished: the idea of teleology." (Pg. 13-15)
He argues, "The conception of development is fatal to materialism... development implies an immaterial cause. If a seed is really developing into a plant, and merely changing into it by pure chance owing to the random impact of suitable particles of matter from outside, this development is controlled by something not material, namely the form of a plant... which is the Platonic idea of the plant as the formal cause of the full-grown plant and the final cause of the process by which the seed grows into it." (Pg. 83-84)
He asserts, "On the ground of philosophy, I think it is fair to say that the conception of vital process as distinct from mechanical or chemical change has come to stay, and has revolutionized our conception of nature. That many eminent biologists have not yet accepted it need cause no surprise. In the same way, the anti-Aristotelian physics ... was rejected by many distinguished scientists of that age... who were making important contributions to the advancement of knowledge." (Pg. 136)
He observes, "But although the doctrine expressed by scientists like Eddington and Jeans that nature or the material world depends on God is welcome as marking their rejection both of materialism and of subjectivism, these are merely negative merits. If the doctrine is to stand for anything positive, we must know not only that God is something other than either matter or the human mind, but what that other is. For Eddington... the non-material reality on which material nature depends is mind: that is to say, he conceives God as mind." (Pg. 156-157)
He says, "This evolutionary process is theoretically infinite. At present, it has reached the state of mind; but it only goes forward at all because at every stage there is a forward movement or impulse... towards the realization of the next... This next higher order of quality, as yet unrealized, is deity, and thus God is the being towards whose emergence the evolutionary nisus of mind is directed." (Pg. 161) He concludes, "that is why I answer the question, `Where do we go from here?' by saying, `We go from the idea of nature to the idea of history.'" (Pg. 177)
Although the work is somewhat disjointed, it will be of keen interest to anyone studying Collingwood's philosophy.
Perhaps this thought has become a commonplace since the appearance of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and given the rise of "History and Philosophy of Science" departments at major research universities around the world. It was a radical insight in Collingwood's time, when the positivist assumption that natural science and its results and proper methods are independent from history tended to dominate philosophy departments, even if it was at odds with what Collingwood took to be a growing recognition among some scientists that the natural world and its processes are themselves historical and evolving.
In rough outline, Collingwood argues that the ancient Greeks conceived of nature along the lines of a living organism - or considered that the living organism was the paradigm of a natural thing. To understand Thales' proclamation that "all is water" requires that we not think of water as a dead, inert, material stuff, but as a kind of dynamic, self moving substance (or how else could we reconcile that claim with another famously cryptic claim by Thales that "all things are full of gods"?). He argues, by contrast, that the early modern or renaissance thinkers responsible for the "scientific revolution" conceived of nature mechanistically, as a kind of machine, an aggregate of parts that exert forces on other parts. Note that this is a radical shift: whereas for the Greeks (as Aristotle put it) things in nature are self moving, for the Renaissance thinkers nature is inert, which means it can't move itself but has to be pushed. To read Aristotle with a mechanistic conception in mind, is to radically misread him. The modern or twentieth century conception of nature, Collingwood argues, was pointing in a new direction, towards a conception of nature as an evolving historical system. Not only Darwin, but quantum mechanics and ecology can be thought of along these lines. To understand a natural system or process rightly according to these (then) new approaches is to recognize it as having come to be what it is as a result of an ongoing history of interactions with other systems or processes.
Collingwood's study is obviously of historical interest, but also for its methodology, for exemplifying a rigorous philosophical approach to the history of ideas, and for its important implications regarding the relations between history, science and philosophy. Scientists, he argues, need to understand the methods and teachings of history as much as historians and philosophers need to be attentive to the results of natural science, which can only be understood properly in light of history.