What does natural science mean?

by Julia Wallace


Dr. Denise Phillips, history professor at University of Tennessee Knoxville, stopped by campus on Feb. 19 to discuss ideas from her book Acolytes of Nature: Defining Natural Science in Germany, 1770-1850. Her talk focused on the origin of the term “natural science” and how it became a respected area of study.

During the Enlightenment in Europe the word “science” was of fairly recent coinage. The controversy of the word “scientist” lasted until the early 20th century; British intellectuals called it “a terrible Americanism.” In the 18th century, history, philosophy, and mathematics were the central categories of knowledge. The category of science was entirely new.

Phillips researched the derivation of this category, which occurred in Germany as “Naturwissenschaft,” which roughly means “nature as a body of knowledge,” or as it translates today, science. A group of German Newtonian scientists in the 17th century grew famous for building a general science of nature. They proposed a natural law of science that was mathematical, with a coherent unification of natural science.

The Natural Scientific Society in Blackburg was the first society to use the term “natural science.” They were not interested in physics, like other scientific societies of the time, but regional nature. Phillips argues that they were responsible for “writing the history of scientific common sense.”

Much of Phillips’s research looked into groups and societies that had to do with science in Germany, including how their social and cultural profiles changed over time, and why they needed to draw new boundaries within their group. Enlightenment societies, such as Berlin’s Society of Nature-Researching Friends, studied natural research and practical knowledge. These societies consisted largely of gardeners, farmers and botanists. The Learned Estate, made up mainly of professors of law and medicine, were interested in “defining the value of nature as an educational pursuit,” Phillips said.

The Romantic Period reinvented the “learned identity,” and began to split science and practice. Groups in the late 18th century, such as the Economic Society of the Kingdom of Saxony and the Society for Natural and Medical Research, thought of the sciences as a general group, a model that became widespread in Germany.

By the 1830s and 1840s, Germany went through its first rush of early industrialization that created new educational institutions such as agriculture, forestry, mining, and mechanical work. Natural sciences lost importance among the educated elite, which subsequently forged a bond between people interested in natural sciences. They argued that there were two different methods of learning, and the study of nature has a different method that must be taught differently than the philosophies, etc.

The field of science was not practiced objectively during this stage of development. “Cultivation of the right kind of subjectivity was important to understanding natural sciences,” Phillips said. “The natural sciences were a form of cultivation just like the humanities.”

Phillips’s book has received praise from universities nationwide. Peter Galison of Harvard University says “In Acolytes of Nature Denise Phillips has a remarkable history to tell—the early and mid-nineteenth century assembly of a cornucopia of voluntary societies into what we know as modern science. These groups helped carve out a new domain of technical public space that, when joined with professional societies and physician associations issued in professional science. A remarkable study that will change the way we tell the story of the emergence of professional science and more generally the emergence of modern civil society in Germany. Written with fine prose and an impeccable grasp of the archives, this is one terrific book.”