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Alister E. McGrath, Natural philosophy: On Retrieving a Lost Disciplinary Imaginary, 2023

In his newest book, McGrath seeks to offer an exploration of what he perceives as a lost conceptual space: natural philosophy. This concern leads to a reflection “of the wider contemporary significance of this disciplinary imaginary and the possibility of its partial retrieval” (2). In the past, McGrath argues, natural philosophy “was seen to designate a coherent intellectual and cultural domain, which wove together what would now be considered to be quite distinct disciplines.” How can such a much-needed space be retrieved for today?

In a first part, McGrath seeks to trace the gradual emergence and subsequent fragmentation of natural philosophy: How was natural philosophy framed by earlier generations, and why did natural philosophy’s vision fade? In this genealogy, McGrath starts out with the origins of natural philosophy by focusing on Aristotle (chapter 1). The Middle Ages are highlighted as an era of consolidation of natural philosophy (chapter 2). Special attention then is given to the natural philosophy of Copernicus and Kepler (chapter 3), as well as to English natural philosophy, referring here to Bacon, Boyle, and Newton (chapter 4). With chapter 5, McGrath addresses the parting of ways of the natural sciences and natural philosophy. In all of this, Natural philosophy does “not emerge from this analysis as a static or fixed, but rather as an evolving discipline, developing capacities to engage new questions, while retaining an interest in older ones.” (113).

Yet while natural philosophy somehow disappeared, for McGrath there seems to be the need for “a conceptual space which is clearly comparable to that once associated with ‘natural philosophy’, as this was understood in the early modern period” (113). Part 2 is meant as an assessment of what a contemporary reconstructed natural philosophy might look like.

While acknowledging the need for specialization, McGrath draws on Albert Einstein and Stephen Jay Gould to argue for a more complex, yet unified vision of the world in Chapter 6. He points to Mary Midgley’s critique of reductionism, which she counters by calling for “multiple mappings of reality because each such mapping is incomplete” (126). The mapping metaphor clearly relates to natural philosophy, McGrath argues, which “could be conceived as the coordinating intellectual domain, a disciplinary imaginary which allows these maps to be superimposed, and their insights and information to be woven together into a grander vision of the natural world than any single disciple can achieve individually.” McGrath then borrows from Popper the concept of the “three worlds” to offer a “conceptual framework within which a retrieved vision of NT might hold together” (127). McGrath addresses these three worlds – theory, objectivity, subjectivity – with the following three chapters.

In chapter 7, he starts with assessing a way of conceiving and retrieving a way of envisioning natural philosophy: We do not simply see the world, McGrath argues, but we see it as something (132), supporting this point by Kuhn’s account of paradigm shifts: While the phenomenon remains the same, it may be seen in a new way. Drawing on Gadamer, he argues that theory “is ‘seeing what is’; yet this seeing is an act of interpretation. It is a ‘hermeneutic concept which means that it is always referred back to a context of supposition and expectation’” (135). Such “seeing as” has been reflected upon in the notion of “imaginaries”; here McGrath draws on Jacques Lacan, Cornelius Castoriades, Charles Taylor, and Kathleen Lennon to point towards an imagined vision of the interconnectedness of disciplines such as philosophy, theology, biology, physics, mathematics and/or music (139).

McGrath then proceeds to explore how this connects with the objective natural realm in chapter 8: He concurs that objectivity is a central goal of scientific research, but that this common perception comes with the downside of treating pre-understandings as bias (143). While some would affirm that science revises and refines inadequate preunderstandings, others would argue that the natural sciences engage only with the objects of the physical world, with the intent to achieve a rational understanding of the world. Here McGrath draws on Thomas Nagel, arguing there would be limitations to a purely objective account. In this context, McGrath discusses various accounts of scientism, siding with Roy Bhaskar: scientism is represented in reducing reality to what can be known through the application of one specific research method (150), allowing epistemology to determining ontology.

Chapter 9 relates to Popper’s world 2 and the issue of subjectivity: With Holmes Rolston, McGrath argues that “human beings develop their own distinct outlooks on nature, which are shaped by many factors – such as personal experience, religious beliefs, scientific knowledge, and the desire for happiness – which are woven together to create a way of seeing – and hence valuing – the natural word,” indicating important parallels with the construction of the social imaginary here (159). “In observing nature, we bring a plurality of interpretative frameworks to bear, which are often unconnected in terms of manner in which these are derived and acquired, the manner in which they are integrated within an individual’s mind, and the manner in which they are applied” (165). As subjective and objective accounts of the natural world can be woven together, Poppers three worlds can be distinguished, but not separated in the lives of individuals. How now can we bridge these three worlds? In Chapter 10, McGrath seeks to “recast a vision” of and a way for retrieving some form of natural philosophy. For doing so, he offers an understanding of natural philosophy as a voluntary confederation of disciplinary territories, all of which keep their own interests and methods, but which explores the greater question of “how humans interact with the natural world cognitively, affectively, aesthetically, and morally” (169). For him, such an account of natural philosophy may lay rather in the subjective imagination: A natural philosophy is the grander vision of nature that arises from transcending disciplinary divisions, affirming the value of all its disciplinary components while actively seeking to discern the larger picture of the natural world that they disclose” (177). This expanded disciplinary imaginary of natural philosophy can help to shape informed attitudes toward the social order, for instance attentiveness towards nature for one, and proper respect for nature on the other (177182).

Natural Philosophy may well be one of McGrath’s most important books: He brings together his decades of research in both science and theology. I entirely agree with McGrath’s proposal to draw especially on the concept of the imaginary here, as well as with his concern to “bring things together” (although I believe that the essential role of some concepts – e.g., the one of the social imaginary – could have been made more explicit). While it will be the task for specialists of many fields and disciplines to pass judgment on whether McGrath included certain key-thinkers and developments correctly into the whole of his genealogy, this genealogy as it stands now seems to represent a successful account.

A critical point may be McGrath’s reasoning on “why we need a critical retrieval of natural philosophy”. For one may have some doubts whether his arguments to this effect will convince many of those who simply feel no need for such a reflection, given that McGrath’s account comes rather in the form of an invitation to see things differently instead of demonstrating the crisis in Western perceptions of science. The latter might not be McGrath’s task, but it seems to be the conclusion we may draw from his work. But given that disciplines such as the philosophy of science have a history of feeling rather ignored by science at large, one may wonder whether the anomalies that McGrath points out within Western science bring about the necessary momentum to encounter the forces of cultural embeddedness of the science imaginary McGrath implicitly challenges.

Yet while there remains work to be done in the field, the task McGrath set to himself was to offer the means for a partial retrieval of a disciplinary imaginary. In my opinion, this is McGrath’s most important work to date, and might even be a candidate of 21st century classics.


Michael Borowski
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


Reprinted from Reviews in Science, Religion and Theology, 1(4) December 2022, pp. 19-22