The Idea of Nature

The Idea of Nature

The Idea of Nature

The Idea of Nature

Excerpt

In the history of European thought there have been three periods of constructive cosmological thinking; three periods, that is to say, when the idea of nature has come into the focus of thought, become the subject of intense and protracted reflection, and consequently acquired new characteristics which in their turn have given a new aspect to the detailed science of nature that has been based upon it.

To say that the detailed science of nature is 'based' upon the idea of nature does not imply that the idea of nature in general, the idea of nature as a whole, is worked out first, in abstraction from any detailed study of natural fact, and that when this abstract idea of nature is complete people go on to erect upon it a superstructure of detailed natural science. What it implies is not a temporal relation but a logical one. Here, as often, the temporal relation inverts the logical relation. In natural science, as in economics or morals or law, people begin with the details. They begin by tackling individual problems as they arise. Only when this detail has accumulated to a considerable amount do they reflect upon the work they have been doing and discover that they have been doing it in a methodical way, according to principles of which hitherto they have not been conscious.

But the temporal priority of detailed work to reflection on the principles implied in it must not be exaggerated. It would be an exaggeration, for example, to think that a 'period' of detailed work in natural science, or any other field of thought or action, a 'period' lasting for half a century or even for half a decade, is followed by a 'period' of reflection on the principles which logically underlie it. Such a contrast between 'periods' of non-philosophical thinking and subsequent 'periods' of philosophizing is perhaps what Hegel meant to assert in his famous lament, at the end of the Preface to the Philosophie des Rechts: 'When philosophy paints its grey in grey, a form of life has aged; and grey in grey does not enable us to make it young again, but only to know it. The owl of Minerva begins to fly only at the coming of dusk.' If that was what Hegel meant, he made a mistake: and a mistake which Marx only turned . . .

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