Boundaries of Natural Philosophy

One of the issues important in scholarly communication is the concept of boundaries within particular disciplines.  In the nineteenth century, as the concept of modern disciplines is first being developed, understanding these boundaries becomes even more difficult.  Theophilus Wylie is actually an interesting case study for understanding how the disciplines of natural philosophy and physics was first developing.  Between 1884 and 1886, Wylie became a professor of Physics in addition to being a professor of natural philosophy.

Wylie it seems was more of a natural philosopher than a physicist (at least in the modern sense of the term).  For him the ultimate task of a scholar was to find the ultimate origins of the forces acting upon the universe.  Physical forces were ultimately controlled by God who was the ultimate cause.  Yet Wylie also recognized the importance of the kinds of observed phenomena that science could provide in helping to explain those ultimate causes.  Additionally, in order to truly determine ultimate causes it was essential, for Wylie at least, to be a “wise” and moral person who could understand and utilize the tools of both science and religion in order to understand the ever increasing mysteries of nature.  Though the discipline of physics changed significantly in how it discussed these issues during the late nineteenth century, Wylie did not. In his diary on May 11, 1890, only a few years before he died, Wylie wrote “there is a great (first) cause — intelligent — Nature, the developer by which quoting Isaiah — the way will be prepared. Prepare ye Way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God, &c. This is what science is doing.”  Thus Wylie still sought to utilize both scientific and religious techniques even toward the end of his life.  For him these were the boundaries of natural philosophy, a discipline altogether different from, though perhaps closely related to, modern Physics.

Interestingly, Wylie’s own students criticized him because of his lack of changing with the times.  In the 1880 issue of The Dagger, a student publication rating professors and commenting on Indiana University news, one rather scathing critique of Wylie commented that he “knows almost nothing outside of physics and astronomy, and in these even is forty years behind the time. . . .  It is unnecessary to add that this incubus should be removed from the chair of Physics.” While one hesitates to put too much credence in the writings of a single student, Wylie’s own definitions show how defining disciplines is still a tricky concept and was even more so in the late nineteenth century when the modern idea of disciplines was still in formation.

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