Philosophy of Nature

Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism

Brian Ellis
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Philosophy of Nature
    Book Description:

    For many years essentialism was considered beyond the pale in philosophy, a relic of discredited Aristotelianism. This is no longer so. Kripke and Putnam have made belief in essential natures respectable once more. Harré and Madden have argued against Hume's theory of causation and developed an alternative theory based on the assumption that there are genuine causal powers in nature. Dretske, Tooley, Armstrong, Swoyer, and Carroll have all developed strong alternatives to Hume's theory of the laws of nature. And Shoemaker has developed a thoroughly non-Humean theory of properties. The "new essentialism" has evolved from these beginnings and can now reasonably claim to be a metaphysic for a modern scientific understanding of the world - one that challenges the conception of the world as comprising passive entities whose interactions are to be explained by appeal to contingent laws of nature externally imposed.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8171-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Essentialism is an ancient theory about the sources of power and order in the world. Its basic thesis is that the laws of nature are immanent in the things that exist in nature, rather than imposed on them from without. Thus, essentialists hold that things behave as they do, not because they are forced or constrained by God, or even by the laws of nature, but, rather, because of the intrinsic causal powers,

    capacities and propensities of their basic constituents and how they are arranged. The new essentialism is a modern version of this ancient theory. The new essentialists, like...

  4. CHAPTER 1 Essentialist Philosophies of Nature
    (pp. 9-20)

    Classical essentialism was a theory of nature developed in ancient Greece, mainly by Aristotle (4th century BCE), to provide a metaphysical foundation for the science of that time. It sought to explain and synthesize Greek knowledge in fields as diverse as cosmology and biology. It was the cornerstone of Aristotle’s metaphysics. Aristotle believed that the world below the sphere of the moon consists ultimately of four elements (earth, air, fire and water), while the heavens above are composed of a special element (the ether) that is essentially different from any of the others. Each natural kind of object, or substance,...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Empiricist and Realist Perspectives on the World
    (pp. 21-38)

    My motivation for breaking with the long tradition of Anglo-American philosophy to become an essentialist derives from reflection on the aims of scientific theorizing. The French philosopher Pierre Duhem, writing in 1905, said that there are two principal views about this. According to one — that favoured by Duhem — science aims only to “summarise and classify logically” the laws discovered by observation and experiment, to represent them mathematically, to postulate general principles that can usefully systematize our knowledge in the relevant field, and develop a theoretical structure within which the experimental laws can be derived as special cases. It does not...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Properties and Relations
    (pp. 39-58)

    To describe things in English, or in any other language, we must refer and classify. We may refer to things by naming, describing, or pointing to them, or by using a combination of these techniques. We may then describe them, or describe them further, by saying what they are like, or what they do, or something of the sort, and in doing so we inevitably classify them. The classifications that we make may have any of a number of different bases. Sometimes we classify things on the basis of some perceived similarity; “. . . is red” and “. ....

  7. CHAPTER 4 Powers and Dispositions
    (pp. 59-80)

    Essentialism presents a view of reality that is very different from that of any kind of passivism. Essentialists believe that:

    (a) inanimate matter is not passive, but essentially active;

    (b) the actions of things depend on their causal powers and other dispositional properties;

    (c) dispositional properties are genuine properties, and intrinsic to the things that have them;

    (d) the essential properties of things always include dispositional properties;

    (e) elementary causal relations involve necessary connections between events, namely between the displays of dispositional properties and the circumstances that give rise to them;

    (f) the laws of nature describe the ways that...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Laws of Nature
    (pp. 81-102)

    According to A. R. Hall, the idea that nature is governed by laws does not appear to have existed in the ancient Greek, Roman or Far Eastern traditions of science. Hall suggests that the idea arose due to a “peculiar interaction between the religious, philosophic and legalistic ideas of the medieval European world”.¹³ There were probably other sources of the idea too. There were, for example, the influence of Euclid’s geometry and Archimedes’ statics in the medieval period in Europe, and the attempt that was then made to apply geometrical methods to the study of mechanics. These ancient works must...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Natural Necessity
    (pp. 103-122)

    Hume’s treatment of the problem of natural necessity dealt mainly with the relationship between cause and effect. He argued that all reasoning concerning matters of fact is ultimately founded on this relationship. So, he thought, the more general problem of justifying all sound reasoning of this kind could be solved if the more specific one of justifying reasoning from cause to effect could be. What then, he asked, is there about this relationship to justify such an inference? Is there, perhaps, some kind of necessary connection between causes and effects?

    On this question we have conflicting intuitions. On the one...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Philosophical Implications
    (pp. 123-144)

    The new essentialism is a metaphysic that has implications for philosophy right across the board, in ontology, epistemology, logic, theology, social theory, philosophy of science and most other areas. It is a thesis about the sources of power in the world, about the nature of reality, about the connections between things, about logical analysis, and even about the methodology of philosophical enquiry. As the dominant metaphysic, the Humeanism with which I have sought to contrast essentialism also has broad implications in philosophy. It is also not just a theory of science, or language, or of what exists, but a metaphysic...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Wider Implications
    (pp. 145-166)

    The impact of the new essentialism in philosophy should be considerable, because a great deal of modern philosophy was conceived in response to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and therefore in reaction to Aristotelianism. But essentialism requires an understanding of the nature of reality that is more akin to the Aristotelian one than to the mechanist philosophy of Descartes or Newton. It also points to the need for a new programme of analysis, new conceptions of necessity and possibility, and new foundations for modal logics.

    The consequences outside philosophy are likely to be less dramatic, because philosophy has...

  12. Appendix
    (pp. 167-176)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 177-180)
  14. Index
    (pp. 181-185)