ROGER BOSCOVICH'S THEORIA PHILOSOPHIAE NATURALIS AND THE RISE OF MODERN PHILOSOPHY*
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Journal of Croatian Studies, XXVIII-XXIX, 1987-88 – Annual Review of the Croatian Academy of America, Inc. New York, N.Y., Electronic edition by Studia Croatica, by permission. All rights reserved by the Croatian Academy of America.
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In order to ascertain the spiritual affinities between an 18th century scientist and the beginnings of modern philosophy in the 19th century, the meaning of the title of Boscovich's magnum opus must first be deciphered. The title is unusual — theory of a philosophy. What does it mean? From today's point of view, such a theory could mean one of the two things: 1) something above the experiments; a theory that puts the findings reached by experiments into a system, or 2) it could simply be another name for philosophy. In other words "philosophy" of natural philosophy, the latter in Boscovich's time still being considered, following Aristotle, physics. By way of an explanatory intermission, let me relate that for centuries "pure" philosophy meant only some of the most idealistic aspects of Plato's thought. Aristotle, interpreting Plato, classified under "pure" philosophy metaphysics, ethics and politics. In the Middle Ages, the aforementioned disciplines were renamed and termed "moral philosophy." Natural philosophy, on the other hand, included, what we today consider, sciences. In contemporary usage, we would call Boscovich's book the "philosophy of science." However philosophy of science as conceived today, is the domain of the philosophers, not the scientists. And Boscovich was in the first place a scientist and then, of course, a theologian. In his case, and in connection with this work, he was a scientist who reflected, or philosophized, over his experiments; he was conceptualizing his scientific discoveries into a higher sphere, i.e., he was adding logic and his mind's visions to experimental data. Consequently, the proper way to understand Boscovich the scientist is through his philosophy of science. The former dean of Croatian philosophers, now deceased, Professor Vladimir Filipović refers to Boscovich's book as "philosophical reflection" upon the latter's experiments; Boscovich thus created a work which went beyond his "physical theory" (356). Marković in his two-volume biography and study of Boscovich cites a number of distinguished scientists and philosophers who have been intrigued with Boscovich's opus (471-477).
Why did Boscovich force us into this theoretical labyrinth? Why did he not simply call his book philosophie naturalis — natural philosophy? In his age there was a surfeit of hypothetical doctrines in and about natural philosophy, not necessitating another theoretical appendage, in this instance — theoria. Or perhaps Boscovich wanted us to understand the universe on the basis of both his philosophy and his experimental sciences. In a number of instances throughout the book Boscovich tells us that he has come to his conclusions by means of both his experiments and his thinking (per reflexionem) or by legitimate reasoning (legitima ratiocinatione). The very title of his work gives an indication that theory comes first and natural philosophy second. Consequently, his is a theory which explains and defines the sciences: it is a comprehensive reflection on the nature of sciences. By itself Boscovich's natural philosophy (basically physics) would be a torso.
To utilize today's definitions, we assume that sciences have done their work when they have reached the intended results. Why, for what reason, or of what value are these results is secondary to a scientist (not to everyone). Philosophy, specifically the so-called philosophy of science, does not stop at describing the procedures alone; it wants to give logical explanations to scientific processes. It wants to make clear to the general mind the nature of scientific work, to clarify the methods and concepts involved in the experiments, and, per reflection, to suggest further modes of investigation. In this respect Boscovich must have believed that the theoretical mind itself can open new avenues leading to the discovery of factual phenomena. As we know, in many instances, subsequent experiments only confirm the hypotheses reached by pure reasoning. Philosophy's task is, and this might have been Boscovich's intention, to put pure reason at the service of experimental sciences. Let us not then be surprised that a Catholic theologian wanted to see his discoveries confirmed by the perennial principles of philosophy.
Newton, the forerunner of Boscovich, and the latter's great idol, refuted the value of purely philosophical thinking in the study of nature. For Newton, philosophy is either philosophia experimentalis (experimental philosophy) or no philosophy at all. Boscovich thought differently.
Professor Zenko, in one of his articles, notes the differences in the thinking processes between Newton and Boscovich (2). Zenko does not think, however, that these differences were any impediment to Boscovich in his pursuit of Newton's ideas. Zenko definitely considers Boscovich a philosopher but thinks that Boscovich's was a unique experimentum philosophicum (philosophical experiment). It was an experiment because Boscovich tried to understand the very nature of the sciences and the newly emerging technology by the constructs of rational thought, or in plain words, by logical reasoning (ibid.). Boscovich must have thought, as later Schopenhauer did too, that thinking itself is part of the functioning of the universe and that by studying its own (mental) operations, our mind also studies some aspects of the universe. Along this line of reasoning, Boscovich argued that "new physics," in studying nature, also studies living bodies with, of course, their psychological components. This is more than self-evident in his Appendix to the Theoria, labeled De anima et deo or The Mind (soul) and God. Together with his contemporaries, however, Boscovich soon realized that soul cannot be just another sort of mat-ter, since soul cannot obey the laws of mechanics. Soul's moving forces are a sense of purpose and responsibility, the latter two can-not be reconciled with the laws of mechanical regularities. Together with Spinoza, Leibnitz, Berkeley, and Hume, Boscovich also reflected in his Theoria upon the relationship of the body to the mind (No. 537). His conclusion, as we shall see later, was that soul and God are not subject to the laws of nature. Indeed, they regulate them.
Along with the theoretical, we must also pay attention to the experimental nature of Boscovich's scientific pursuits. He used tools, gadgets, followed special techniques. He was, after all, a physicist. In his theoria he even conceptualizes technical skills. In this respect, for Boscovich technology itself is a type of science, subject to its own "natural" laws to be discovered and explained.
Zenko gives us the final definition of Boscovich's theory as follows: 1) The theory (Theoria) is not a hypothesis which must be experimentally proved; 2) it is not simply natural philosophy because Boscovich goes beyond the sciences; 3) Boscovich' theory is a new and radical philosophical conceptualization of the essence of reality reached by means of experimental sciences (15).
As an "experimental science" Boscovich's theory should be further discussed by natural scientists as to the validity of its results, or by philosophers of science as to the clarity and logic of its concepts and methods. I am pursuing neither of these two lines of investigation. This year's published monograph on Boscovich by Professor Zarko Dadić, popularly written but sound in scholarship, gives us a logical, clear and succinct explanation of Boscovich's scientific accomplishments.
My concern here is with Boscovich's philosophical ideas, detached from experiments, which pursue the goals normally ascribed to metaphysics and ethics, the two traditional philosophical disciplines.
Boscovich added an appendix to his theory labeled De anima et deo or The Mind and God. The latter is the key to the understanding of Boscovich's purely philosophical mind.
My purpose in this study is to find in Boscovich's thought the aspects of, following in his wake, 19th century philosophy, the latter extending into our own times. We are entitled to look into this matter by the fact that Boscovich was a theologian and as such was well versed in classical and medieval philosophies. He "argued" with his immediate predecessors Descartes and Leibnitz, he worked in Paris from 1773 to 1783 in the heydays of the French enciclopaedists, and was honored by membership in the Royal Society of England at the time of Hume, barely missing during his lifetime the bishop and philosopher Berkeley.
Boscovich was not a pure philosopher and we cannot expect his philosophical thought to stretch into 19th and 20th century philosophy as separate from his scientific thought. However, Boscovich felt philosophical currents flowing from the 18th into the 19th century and expressed them in his own jargon. The latter could easily be translated into the language of our age.
His greatest opponent in modem philosophy, but also confrere, was Schopenhauer. Schopenahuer was born only one year after Boscovich died. Like Boscovich, Schopenhauer (although a philosopher, and not a scientist) was passionately and irrevocably committed to the discovery of the final and irrefutable laws which govern our universe. Let us keep in mind that Schopenhauer, although a German, was thoroughly imbued with the Anglo-Saxon spirit of empirical modes of thinking.
Schopenhauer maintained that everything in nature — man, animals and plants — are propelled into existence, for a while maintained there, and finally crushed by a invisible, impalpable, illogical, but still fully sensed force which he labeled Universal Will. This force is beyond our ability to manipulate it. Even our mind, hereto glorified by many philosophers as the essence of Being, is itself subject to the will. At best the mind can "justify" (ironically speaking) the deeds of the will. However, these explanations are always tied to the interests of the will. Due to the fact that our mind is dependent on an obviously irrational will, we can never know the truth about ourselves. Before Schopenhauer, classical philosophers and Christian theologians have placed the ultimate nature of man and the universe in human mind. It was a God given gift.
The second of Schopenahuer's theses is that there are not two worlds, one world we, or our mind which thinks, and the other world, the world of nature in which we are placed. When we observe the external world we are in contact only with our senses, not with the real objects. The outer world exists only because we as human beings can see it, feel it, touch it, hear it, or taste it. Without us, without our senses, that outer world would not even exist. Consequently, we and the material world are one and the same thing. The so-called natural laws are our own products, and since they are reached by a secondary organ, the human mind, they are unreliable. After all, how can something that we have created explain to us in retrospect what we are; the created thing its creator? To go to the natural sciences for the explanation of life means to outdistance ourselves from the very sources of knowledge — which are within us. The crucial question is — what or who determines our actions? Something, says Schopenhauer, that will forever re-main foreign to us — Universal Will.
Boscovich is diametrically opposite to Schopenhauer on the questions of mind vs. will, matter vs. spirit, and, needless to say, Boscovich firmly believed that it was possible to discover the laws of nature via experiments and logical reasoning. This Jesuit father was far less of a metaphysician than the Weymar playboy, the latter in reference to Schopenhauer.
Boscovich's eulogy of the human mind and our mind's ability to know and manage the material world, advancing thus our soul closer to God's final designs, are all a world apart from Schopenhauer, and equally so from the early romantic metaphysicians of the 19th century and the materialistically oriented mid-nineteenth century thinkers.
Boscovich downgrades the value of matter at the expense of the mind. The very first sentence of his The Mind and God states: "What relates to the distinction between the mind and matter ... it is clear how great distinction there is between the body and mind ... corporeal matter and spiritual substance" (No. 525-526). He goes directly against Schopenhauer's thesis that our senses are everything by alleging that there is a "twofold class of operations: one of which we call sensations and the other thought and will" (No. 527). He even further refutes Schopenhauer's theses by maintaining that in our mind there is "a certain force" which gives knowledge of non-local, non-material strictly mental operations, spiritual contents that exist within ourselves and do not come from outside (ibid.). Not quite, I would say, but very close to Kant's "pure reason."
Contrary to Schopenhauer, matter in Boscovich is devoid of feeling, thinking and willing (No. 529). And finally Boscovich attacks the core of Schopenahuer's teaching by maintaining that "The whole of our power of free action consists of the excitation of acts of the will and by means of these of ideas of the mind also; once these have been excited by a free and intrinsic motion of the mind" (No. 532). Mind, not will, directs living creatures.
Boscovich thinks that mind has free power of choosing, even against "our natural inclinations" (No. 534), which in Schopenhauer would be unthinkable. In a rather theological or medieval manner, Boscovich searches for the seat of mind in the human body, a matter that would be of no interest to any modern philosopher (ibid.) He, of course, could not pinpoint the location. However, like a natural scientist, Boscovich argues that matter as matter must have "a single point in space and a single instant of time" (No. 537). Mind on the contrary can exist throughout the whole body and at all points at the same time. God is mind supreme due to "His own infinite Immensity, (and) is present in an infinite number of points of space" (ibid.) In Boscovich spirit rules supreme over the matter.
At the end of their treatises, both Schopenhauer and Boscovich put limitations to their respective theories: Schopenhauer states that his philosophy cannot understand a world in which will would be denied or overwhelmed. This would mean the very denial of life. If will were ever successfully denied, we would then usher into the world of "beyond," of which only mystics can speak. With that world, says Schopenhauer, his philosophy cannot deal.
Boscovich too maintains that his natural philosophy, or in today's terminology science, can never explain Him (God) who has shown "infinite Power, Wisdom and Foresight" in founding this universe (No. 539). In physical terms, the weak human mind can never behold His Perfection. Ergo we must turn for information or enlightenment to — Revelation.
Although not a determinist or a pessimist like Schopenhauer, Boscovich, nevertheless, rejects Leibnitz's pre-established harmony (No. 525). He attacked the followers of Leibnitz who were the upholders of perennial optimism and for whom this universe was the most perfect one in existence. If this were true or possible, God would not be called upon to make the selection between the good and the bad, Boscovich argues. In consequence, He would automatically loose His absolute power since everything would be perfect from the very inception of life. God would also cease to be a creator. What for? Ultimately, God would have nothing to do; logically, he would be nobody. Consequently, Boscovich had decided to involve God in an imperfect universe and thus indirectly to defend his own scientific pursuits: to discover God's laws which govern the universe (No. 555).
Further studies would be necessary to relate Boscovich's ideas on body, mind, instincts, etc., to the theories of our age, notably behaviorism. Boscovich was a physicist and he finally always reverts to this discipline for factual evidence.
Boscovich found a great admirer in the most unlikely philosopher of the 19th century — Nietzsche. Both Boscovich and Nietzsche directed the scalpel of their analyses to the everlasting dilemna agitating man — what forces, spiritual, and/or physical, are responsible for the functioning of the universe? And what type of activities of the human mind can make these forces clear to us (the theories of the acquisition of knowledge). And, finally, when these forces are found and defined, what role does a human being play in this thus fully revealed universe?
Boscovich investigated as a mathematician, physicist, and a theologian. Nietzsche thought as a philosopher, poet, and — an atheist.
According to Boscovich, the energy or the mass of which this universe, and concommitantly our existence, is made, is infinite. It consists of "the arrangement of the points of matter (punctorum materiae) in a space that extends in length, breadth, and depth" (No. 541). Following this arrangement, "the number derived from the possible changes in all these things is infinite" (ibid.). Or in other words "the combinations necessary for the formation of the Universe ... are infinite" (No. 542). Boscovich considers as false the argument based on the chance theory which purports that "the combination of a finite number of terms are finite in number" (No. 540). Some things are called by us fortuitous, and as such finite, simply because we are ignorant of the causes which determine their existence, Boscovich argues (No. 540).
Continuing this argument on the combinations of terms as stretching into infinity (combinationes numero infinitae) Boscovich goes into the details which have more to do with physics than philosophy. At the end of his scientific arguments, Boscovich reverts finally to God. According to him, due only to the existence of an outside Being the number of combinations is infinite. This Being, God, possesses an "infinite determinative and elective force" (No. 550). The theologian had no other choice. But the scientist spoke out loud and clear.
Nietzsche on his part uses the same frame of reference and occasionally even the same terminology as Boscovich, but gives a different interpretation to the operations of the universe.
Relevant to the issue of the combination of forces as finite or infinite is Nietzsche's famous doctrine of "the eternal recurrence," the perpetual coming back of everything in existence. The doctrine, as stated in his book The Will to Power runs as follows: "If the world may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force and as a certain definite number of centers of force (in Boscovich points of matter or punctorum virium) ... it follows that, in the great dice game of existence, (Boscovich rejects the dice game theory) it must pass through a calculable number of combinations in (Boscovich numerum combinationum). In infinite time, Nietzsche continues, "every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more, it would be realized an infinite number of times" (WP 1066). Here two points are of utmost interest: the very "material" of which everything in nature is made is finite; there exists only so much of it. However, the life-span of that material, its durability, is infinite. Consequently, Nietzsche argues, the identical shapes of this material will be repeated, will come back, will eternally recur. The material does not expand itself, only transforms itself. The whole process has no goal, and no end. Nietzsche does not explain how this quanta of energy undergoes ceaseless transformations. In somber tones he only says: "All things recur eternally, and we ourselves too; and that we have already existed an eternal number of times, and all things with us" ("The Convalescent," in So Spoke Zarathustra). For a while Nietzsche insisted that his theory had a solid scientific basis. He read extensively in the works of renowned scientists, as for example, Helmholtz, Mundt, Rieman, and Richter. He even planned to undertake a study of the sciences in Vienna. He soon forgot his intentions.
In Boscovich the energy or mass forming this universe is infinite. It has its definite laws, laws discovered by human mind but long before foreshadowed by God. They are in nature only to reveal God's ultimate designs. In Nietzsche everything is finite but moves in a perpetuum mobile, without a goal, unless, as he alleges, power itself is a goal.
Where is the place of ethics in these two differently defined operations of the universe? Neither Boscovich nor Nietzsche had forgotten this important dimension of human existence.
From the point of view of ethics, Boscovich speaks of "regular" and "irregular" combinations. "Regular" combinations are those which carry God's message. As such they are the carriers of wisdom, piety and knowledge (No. 550). They advance the cause of the sciences and bring us closer to God. The "irregular" series are arbitrary. They elicit blind chaos, fatalism, necessities, the pro-ducts of dark forces of the devil. The Supreme Being, the only one who controls the series and is from the inception aware of their moral import, selects the right series and brings them to the attention of human mind. After that, it is up to human beings to make the right choices by their God given free will. Only "regular" series give certainty to life (ibid.)
Nietzsche too imbues his eternal recurrence with moralistic overtones. In order not to repeat the mediocre, stupid, disastrous, below the dignity of man existence, man must also choose between the "series," using Boscovich's terminology. However, these "series" in Nietzsche are defined by a new code of ethics, a code "beyond good and evil." The carrier of this amoral code is Nietzsche's Superman. He is the one who must, all alone, without God's or anybody's help, live his moment on this earth to the fullest degree of his abilities and capacities. He must live so that when his deeds are repeated, they will give light, grandeur, and meaning to human existence. God takes care of moral values in Boscovich; Superman in Nietzsche. For God, one must have faith; for Superman, an unbounded confidence in oneself.
Nietzsche, quite surprisingly, read Boscovich. He held him in high esteem, as the quotation from his Beyond Good and Evil makes this clear. Nietzsche states: "Thanks chiefly to the Dalmatian Boscovich ... materialistic atomism ... is one of the best refuted theories ... in Europe" (No. 12). (Boscovich "defined atoms as centers of energy, and not as particles of matter," according to the historian of science Gillespie, 455.). Then Nietzsche continues: "He (Boscovich) and the Pole Copernicus have been the greatest and most successful opponents of visual evidence so far. For while Copernicus has persuaded us to believe, contrary to all senses, that the earth does not stand fast, Boscovich has taught us to abjure the belief in the last part of the earth that 'stood fast' — belief in 'substance', in 'matter,' in the earth-residuum and particle-atom: it is the greatest triumph over the senses that has been gained on earth so far" (ibid.) What Nietzsche found in Boscovich was that the latter had successfully proved that our senses misinform us about the phenomena of nature. And this all from Nietzsche who based his entire philosophy on the value of the senses as the sole source of knowledge and the only directing force in human existence. As a scientist Boscovich argued over and over that objective reality cannot be grasped through our senses. His very Theoria is shaped, as he told us, "per reflexionem", by means of reflection. Needless to add, per reflection which follows in the wake of scientific experiments, the latter again not tied to the senses. It was Boscovich's philosophical frame of mind, not his experiments, which conjured a new image of reality.
As far as the inner driving force of the universe is concerned, there are great similarities in the thinking of Boscovich, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Boscovich's theory has been described by Zenko as one of "absolute dynamism" (2), or by Copleston as "dynamic atomism" (70). For Boscovich, force not matter was a fundamental feature of the universe. Matter itself is a field of forces, the extended atoms, girating but not colliding with each other, in constant motion, a self-generating energy. Boscovich viewed even God as force, according to Zenko's interpretation (16). (Remember "Force" as the ruling phenomenon of life in the movie Star War). This force in Zenko's view is "organogena," i.e,. the force of the technique, technique itself, or skill, being also a component part of nature.
Schopenhauer zeroes in on the same phenomenon but calls it Universal Will. The latter too runs our existence, is in perpetual motion and is outside of the human sphere of control. Nietzsche, in the same line of thinking, introduces the concept of the Will-to-Power (in the book of the same name) as the essence of life. Behind all phenomena of life, even the most benevolent ones, is the will to overpower something or somebody. As Nietzsche says in the conclusion of his last book, "This world is the will to power — and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power — and nothing besides" (WP 1067). All three of our thinkers clearly zeroed in on the notion of a unified force, dark or light, creative or destructive, depending on one's ethical point of view, which propels the universe into existence. And that force or power or dynamism is with us today and is more menacing than ever before.
The Jesuit Father Copleston, who wrote the best and the most voluminous history of philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon world, wrote two separate books on Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. What prompted this Jesuit to devote so much time to these two confirmed atheists? This may be beyond the goals of this study, but it is worth mentioning that Copleston also greatly valued Boscovich's theories. Although Boscovich was primarily a scientist, Copleston gave him three pages in his history of world philosophy.
Professor Zenko notes some similarities between Boscovich, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger (26). This is possible, but in order to prove this point research of an intricate nature would be required. One author who could be compared with Boscovich, more as to his personality and the character of his efforts than to his specialty, was Father Teilhard de Chardin, also a Jesuit. The latter, too, was a scientist (an anthropologist), a philosopher, and a visionary. Like Boscovich he too tried to outline a total vision of man's spiritual and material world. The church was hesitant to support either of them.
Conclusion. It would be foolish to deny the title of philosopher to Boscovich. He thought and reflected on life, nature, and God independently of his scientific experiments. Like Descartes and Leibnitz, he had a comprehensive vision of man's place in the universe and of the forces which shape our existence, — be they material or spiritual in nature. Had he had a home (he was a perennial vagrant), a circle of trusted friends, and a more flexible church, he might have philosophized more and become eventually another Aristotle — an all comprehensive scientist and philosopher. As we know him today, he remains basically a scientist, but one with a full awareness that the sciences do not offer a total picture of man and his universe.
1) Roger Joseph Boscovich, S.J. Theoria philosophiae naturalis (A Theory of Natural Philosophy) (Chicago & London: Open Court Publishing Company, 1922). Dual text in Latin and English. Translated by J.M. Child.
2) Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy (New York: Image Books, 1960). Vol. 6.
3) Žarko Dadić, Rudjer Bošković (Zagreb: Školska knjiga, 1987). Parallel texts in English and Croatian. Translated by Janko Paravić.
4) Vladimir Filipović, "Pogovor," in Rudjer Bošković Teorija prirodne filozofije (Zagreb: Liber, 1974).
5) C.C. Gillispie, The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960).
6) Željko Marković, Rudje Bošković (Zagreb: Jugoslavenska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti, 1968). Two volumes. This is the most comprehensive study of the life and scholarly activities of Bošković.
7) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: A Vintage Giant, 1968). Edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale.
8) Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, (New York: Vintage books, 1966). Edited and Translated by Walter Kaufmann.
9) Arthur Schopenhauer, The Will to Live (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1967). Edited by Richard Taylor.
10) Franjo Zenko, "Fundamentalno-filozofijski horizont Boškovićeve teorije" (Fundamental-Philosophical Horizon of Boscovich's Theory'). International Symposium on Boscovich, December 11-13, 1986, Zagreb.
* This paper was presented at the 19th National Convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies held in Boston, November 5-8, 1987.