Nature Closer to the Ancient than the Renaissance View?
In his book, The Idea of Nature, Collingwood analyzes the principle characteristics of three periods of cosmological thinking in the history of European thought: Greek, Renaissance, and the Modern. By taking such an approach, Collingwood makes it possible for his readers to distinguish the similarities as well as fundamental differences between the modern view of Nature and that of Greek and Renaissance cosmology. But, perhaps Collingwood's work is more valuable because it demonstrates how both Greek and Renaissance schools of thought have made the modern view of nature possible. In other words, the modern view of nature has evolved from both Greek and Renaissance cosmology, with each period laying the foundation for the next to build on. To that extent, an assertion that the modern view of Nature more closely resemblances one period rather than another cannot, strictly speaking, be made at all.
In fact, Collingwood himself suggests as much at several points in his book. For instance, in his introduction he observes, "The modern view of Nature owes something both to Greek and to Renaissance cosmology, but it differs from each in fundamental ways." (p. 9) Thus, it is evident that Collingwood is conscious of the dangers inherent in any comparison that does not examine the antecedents of a particular school of thought. In fact, to avoid falling into such a trap, he takes meticulous care to establish how the scholars within a particular period and across eras built on the work of their predecessors by identifying and addressing loopholes and unanswered questions.
Indeed, the process of the evolution of cosmological thinking can be traced back to its very beginnings. Consider, for example, the dilemma created by the false move made by the Ionians in assuming that a cosmology could be built on a foundation of primary homogenous matter: "If you begin ... By postulating a uniform matter, and go on to say that the world is a local differentiation in this matter, you are logically obliged to give some reason why the differentiation should have occurred where it did occur ...." (p. 40) This dilemma was later identified and addressed by Pythagoras leading to the development of his hypothesis that there existed a connection between cosmology and the principles of geometry. Based on this, he suggested that the qualitative differences in nature were based on differences of geometrical structure.
Today, it is acknowledged that Pythagoras's work of describing structure in mathematical terms laid the foundation for the "whole of modern physics with its mathematical theories of light, radiation, atomic structure, and so forth." (p. 51) However, it is equally important to note that Pythagoras equally laid the foundation for the work of both later Greek as well as Renaissance scholars: "The principle of which Physics stood in need, hitherto vainly identified with something unintelligible, namely matter, was now identified with something supremely intelligible, namely mathematical truth." But perhaps, as Collingwood points out, the greater significance of Pythagoras's work lies in its philosophical importance; as a declaration that the essence of things or what makes them, what they are, is supremely intelligible (p. 54-55). Indeed, it is this contention that links the work of the Greeks to that of both the Renaissance and modern period.
Later Greek scholars such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle further built on the Ionic and Pythagorean traditions till the Greek view of nature was, more or less, crystallized as a vast living organism, consisting of a material body spread out in space and permeated by movements in time, which were purposive and directed by intellect: "This living and thinking body was homogenous throughout in the sense that it was all alive, all endowed with soul and with reason; it was non-homogenous in the sense that different parts of it were made of different substances each having its own specialized qualitative nature and mode of acting." (p. 111) Thus, the Greek view did not recognize any difference between dead and living matter or matter and mind: " ... matter was simply that of which everything was made, in itself formless and indeterminate, and mind was simply the activity by which everything apprehended the final cause of its changes." (p. 111)
In fact, the preceding description or rather summary of Greek thought is useful in highlighting a fundamental difference as well as similarity with the modern view of Nature. Indeed, the theory that Nature was characterized not just by change but by effort or nisus to change in certain definite ways in an effort to bridge the gap between potentiality and actuality is remarkably similar to the modern view: "more recently the theory of evolution has necessitated a return to something not altogether unlike the Aristotelian theory of potentiality." (p. 83)
However, as the body of knowledge built by natural science developed, the Greek view that different substances each had their own specialized nature and mode of acting was disproved, leading to the modern view that "the process of nature is not a merely cyclical or rhythmical change, it is a creative advance; the organism is ... pursuing a process of evolution in which it is constantly taking new forms and producing new forms in every part of itself." (p. 167) Thus, as it turns out, the Greeks were only partially right.
However, the important point here is that modern science or cosmology would probably never have been able to determine that "life or the cosmic process is an extensive continuum, which has both a time- and space-aspect" (p. 167) if the Renaissance school of thought had not addressed the questions that the Greeks failed to resolve, namely, the relation between dead and living matter and the relation between mind and matter:
"Science had discovered a material world in a quite special sense: a world of dead matter, infinite in extent and permeated by movement throughout .... It was no longer the formless stuff of which everything is made by the imposition on it of form, it was the quantitatively organized totality of moving things .... It ... yielded solid results in the shape of physical science as that had been worked out by men like Galileo and Newton ...." (p. 112)
Thus, it was the work done by Renaissance scholars that led to the discovery that there were natural laws to be found within nature. This immanence lent a new dignity to the natural world itself and, more important, it led to the maturing of modern science since "nature could now be an object of adequate and certain scientific knowledge." (p. 103) Therefore, it can be argued that the work done by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and other scholars led to the more careful study of Nature, leading to the raising of questions such as the exact relation of the body to the space it is said to occupy; how can motion be transferred by impact; and why should bodies move at all. Indeed, if it hadn't been for these questions, it is doubtful whether modern science would have ever evolved to its current know-how of electrons, and the fact that a body's composition consists of a dynamic and not static pattern (p. 146).
Similarly, it was the efforts of the Renaissance period to establish some intrinsic connection between mind and matter that led Hegel and later modern scholars to hypothesize that "the thing in itself is simply pure being" (p. 121) or as Alexander expressed it, "God is the being towards whose emergence the evolutionary nisus of mind is directed." (p. 161) Thus, while prima facie it may appear that the Renaissance view of Nature differs significantly from both that of the ancient as well as modern view, the fact is that the important role played by this period cannot be denied.
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