Since antiquity, natural philosophy has served as the foundational and universal way of knowing for all of mankind. Although natural philosophy is no longer a mainstream predicate to modern understandings of the world, it is an interesting study in the sense of its precurse to scientific ways of understanding. In order to best understand science, one must carefully analyze its origin, rooted in natural philosophy. Studying natural philosophy also serves to remind us of the lack of security in continued relevance associated with the modern scientific method — we will certainly adopt new methodologies ad nauseam. Natural philosophy, simply put, is the study of nature prior to the widespread adoption of modern science.
Although it can be argued otherwise, it appears that Aristotle was one of the first natural philosophers. The lasting effect which Aristotilean thinking had on society — most notably on the Church in the former half of the second millennium — clearly demonstrates the hold in which natural philosophy gripped humanity [1]. Aristotle attempted to categorize the natural world, and although much of his actual findings were later discredited, his line of thinking massively impacted modern ways of thinking. This notion of classification of the natural is a critical characteristic of natural philosophy.
Natural philosophy really emerged with Aristotle, who practiced an early form of science. It can be argued that Pre-Socratic thinkers such as Anaximander, Democritus and Parmenides studied an early form of natural philosophy [1], however, Aristotle's profound and lasting alteration of the modern definition of natural philosophy is blatant. Natural philosophy developed through the Islamic Renaissance (through such endeavours as the development of alchemy), the European Middle ages (notably through Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas) and the Italian Renaissance (notably through Copernicus and Brahe).
As has been noted, natural philosophy has made a significant impact on thought in the ancient, Islamic, and early modern worlds. Although this is extremely apparent through the dogma surrounding Aristotle, natural philosophy was exemplified by several key thinkers during these eras. Islamic thinker Al-Khwarizmi developed the field of algebra, including the mathematical concepts of the zero object, as well as variables used as placeholders [1]. His name is etymologically related to the “algorithm”; this reflects Al-Khwarizmi's profound effect on mathematical thinking [2]. St. Thomas Aquinas merged the thirteenth century's substantial rift between the Church and natural philosophy [1]. It is obvious that the Catholic Church had ha a profound impact on modern society [3]; further, Thomist thinking serves as the modern basis for the intellectual core of the Church. As such, it can be implied that the Saint has had a massive impact on much of Western civilization. Finally, it should be noted that although Aristotle ignited and revolutionized the field of natural philosophy, he followed a long history of natural philosophers. Of note is Heraclitus, who supported the notion of a universal state of flux and change [1]; he compared this notion to fire, in its ever-evolving, yet overall constant existence. Critically, Heraclitus' On Nature contained the first mention of logos, which Aristotle heavily drew from in his thinking, especially in Rhetoric.
Overall, natural philosophy has had a history derived from Aristotle and the Pre-Socratics and has developed through millennia until the Scientific Revolution. It is critical for scientists to have a deep understanding of natural philosophers, as science is a direct successor to the field of natural philosophy. Furthermore, the scientific method must be applied to the method itself, ensuring that the scientific method itself is adaptable. Not only do our scientific processes change over time, so too does the field of science itself.
Read on STEM Fellowship Journal