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The Intelligibility of Nature

How Science Makes Sense of the World

Throughout the history of the Western world, science has possessed an extraordinary amount of authority and prestige. And while its pedestal has been jostled by numerous evolutions and revolutions, science has always managed to maintain its stronghold as the knowing enterprise that explains how the natural world works: we treat such legendary scientists as Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein with admiration and reverence because they offer profound and sustaining insight into the meaning of the universe.

In The Intelligibility of Nature, Peter Dear considers how science as such has evolved and how it has marshaled itself to make sense of the world. His intellectual journey begins with a crucial observation: that the enterprise of science is, and has been, directed toward two distinct but frequently conflated ends—doing and knowing. The ancient Greeks developed this distinction of value between craft on the one hand and understanding on the other, and according to Dear, that distinction has survived to shape attitudes toward science ever since.

Teasing out this tension between doing and knowing during key episodes in the history of science—mechanical philosophy and Newtonian gravitation, elective affinities and the chemical revolution, enlightened natural history and taxonomy, evolutionary biology, the dynamical theory of electromagnetism, and quantum theory—Dear reveals how the two principles became formalized into a single enterprise, science, that would be carried out by a new kind of person, the scientist. 

Finely nuanced and elegantly conceived, The Intelligibility of Nature will be essential reading for aficionados and historians of science alike.

254 pages | 6 halftones, 20 line drawings | 5 1/4 x 8 | © 2006


Earth Sciences: History of Earth Sciences

History of Science

Philosophy of Science


"In an introduction, six detailed chapters, and a final summation, Mr. Dear examines the tension between theory and practice in such sciences as celestial mechanics, taxonomy, chemistry, biology, physics, and quantum theory. The portraits of individual scientists, from Newton, Boyle, and Faraday to Einstein and Bohr, are vivid and pithy; he has a good ear for the apt quote that lets us hear their voices. His chapter on taxonomy, which franky I was dreading, proves unexpectedly fascinating."

Eric Ormsby | The New York Sun

"Arranging his main chapters chronologically from Galileo to the present, Dear uses [his] binary analytical scheme to link the centuries together, laudably devoting roughly equal attention to the physical, chemical and life sciences. . . . Eloquently written, and embracing an impressive range of topics, Dear’s The Intelligibility of Nature admirably demonstrates that historians can make trenchant comments on the present as well as the past."

Paticia Fara | TLS

“Just as the body of knowledge evolves over time, so does the way scientists view the world they are explaining. This interplay between knowledge and mental model is the subject of Peter Dear’s book. He shows how mechanistic explanations in physics and chemistry became ever more frequent after the industrial revolution, only to be supplanted by the nihilism of quantum theory in the social turmoil that followed the first world war. It is full of insights into how society, culture and people’s perception interweave across biology, chemistry and physics.”

Adrian Barnett | New Scientist

“Scientists who wish to reflect on their vocation will gain valuable insights from this beautifully contrived book, and all readers will be prompted to think more carefully about the nature and ethos of science.”

Richard Yeo | Nature

The Intelligibility of Nature is a very impressive and compelling book about the relationship between instrumentalism and realism in the sciences from 1600 to 1950. Peter Dear argues for a fascinating reinterpretation of the Scientific Revolution and its aftermath, showing how between the time of Descartes and that of Lavoisier, natural philosophy and practical techniques merged: that process, this book shows, was decisive for the emergence of modern science. This is a lucid and intelligent history.”

Simon Schaffer | Simon Schaffer

"Dear weaves together a great deal of academic history of modern physics, chemistry, and biology into a concise, coherent, and original narrative that is introductory without ever being superficial.”

Matthew L. Jones | Science

"An excellent treatise on the dualistic character of science in history."

Tadeusz Aniszewski | Plant Science Bulletin

"An excellent brief introduction to the (often complex) interaction between ’natural philosophy’ and ’instrumentality’ in the development of Western science from the Scientific Revolution to the present."

Robert J. Deltete | Quarterly Review of Biology

"A good read for anyone interested in science and as a component of an undergraduate course in the history and philosophy of sceince."

Persepectives on Science and Christian Faith

"This is a book written for a broad audience of educated people. No specific knowledge of the state of the art of research in the history of modern science is presupposed. . . . The chapters contain a lot of useful material, helping the reader to understand the main lines of development in modern science. It is a pleasure to read."

Michael Esfield | History & Philosophy of Life Sciences

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Science as Natural Philosophy, Science as Instrumentality
1. The Mechanical Universe from Galileo to Newton
2. A Place for Everything: The Classification of the World
3. The Chemical Revolution Thwarted by Atoms
4. Design and Disorder: The Origin of Species
5. Dynamical Explanation: The Aether and Victorian Machines
6. How to Understand Nature? Einstein, Bohr, and the Quantum Universe
Conclusion: Making Sense in Science
Bibliographical Essay

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