Naturalism as a bedfellow of capitalism? A note on the reception of early modern natural philosophy

Facing the consequences of anthropogenic climate change and pollution, the idea that a certain form of scientific naturalism goes hand in hand with an exploitative form of capitalism might (or might not) have an intuitive plausibility. But does the supposed relation between naturalism and capitalism have something like a historical origin? A set of conditions that tightened it? And that can be traced back to a set of sources? In what follows, I’d like to present a few musings on this kind of question.

What does it take to write or think about a history of certain ideas? Obviously, what you try to do is to combine certain events and think something like: “This was triggered by that or this thought relies on that assumption.” You might even be more daring and say: “Had it not been for X, Y would (probably) never have occurred.” Such claims are special in that they bind events or ideas together into a narrative, often designed to explain how it was possible that some event or an idea occurred. – The philosopher Akeel Bilgrami makes such a claim when he suggests that naturalism, taken as a certain way of treating nature scientifically and instrumentally, is tied to capitalism. In his “The wider significance of naturalism” (2010), Bilgrami writes:

“[D]issenters argued that it is only because one takes matter to be “brute” and “stupid,” to use Newton’s own term, that one would find it appropriate to conquer it with nothing but profit and material wealth as ends, and thereby destroy it both as a natural and a human environment for one’s habitation.
[…] Newton and Boyle’s metaphysical view of the new science won out over the freethinkers’ and became official only because it was sold to the Anglican establishment and, in an alliance with that establishment, to the powerful mercantile and incipient industrial interests of the period in thoroughly predatory terms that stressed that nature may now be transformed in our conception of it into the kind of thing that is indefinitely available for our economic gain…”

Bilgrami’s overall story is a genealogy of naturalism or rather scientism.* The paper makes itself some intriguing observations regarding narratives and historiography. But let’s look at his claim more closely. By appealing to Newton and the victory of his kind of naturalism, it is designed to explain why we got to scientism and a certain understanding of nature. In doing so, it binds a number of highly complex events and ideas together: There is a (1) debate between “dissenters” and what he calls “naturalists”, whose ideas (2) became official, (3) “only because” they were “sold” to the Anglicans and to industrial stakeholders. Although this kind of claim is problematic for several reasons, it is quite interesting. One could now discuss why ideas about necessary connections between facts (“only because”) presuppose a questionable understanding of history tout court or seem to ignore viable alternatives. But for the time being I would like to focus on what I find interesting. For me, two aspects stand out in particular.

Firstly, Bilgrami’s thesis, and especially (3), seems to suggest a counterfactual causal claim: Had the metaphysical view not been sold to the said stakeholders, it would not have become official. In other words, the scientific revolution or Newton’s success is owing to the rise of capitalism. Both cohere in that they seem to propagate a notion of nature that is value-free, allowing nature to be exploited and manipulated. Even if that notion of nature might not be Newton’s, it is an interesting because it seems to gain new ground today: The widespread indifference to climate change and pollution for capitalist reasons suggests such a conjunction. Thus, a genealogy that traces the origin of that notion seems to ask at least an interesting question: Which historical factors correlate to the rise of the currently fashionable notion of nature?

Secondly, the narrative Bilgrami appeals to has itself a history and is highly contested. But Bilgrami neither argues for the facts he binds together, nor does he appeal to any particular sources. This is striking, for although he is not alone with his thesis, people are not exactly buying into this narrative. If you read Steven Pinker, you’ll rather get a great success story about why science has liberated us. And even proper historians readily dismiss the relation between the rise of capitalism and science as “inadequate”. This raises another interesting question: Why do we accept certain narratives (rather than others)?

This latter question seems to suggest a simple answer: We do or should accept only those narratives that are correct. As I see it, this is problematic. Narratives are plausible or implausible. But the complexity of the tenets they bind together makes it impossible to prove or refute them on ordinary grounds of evidence. Just try to figure out what sort of evidence you need to show that the Newtonian view “won” or was “sold”! You might see who argued against whom; you might have evidence that some merchants expressed certain convictions, but the correlations suggested by these words can be pulled and evidenced in all sorts of ways. Believing a narrative means to believe that certain correlations (between facts) are more relevant than others. It means to believe, for instance, that capitalism was a driving force for scientists to favour certain projects over others. But unless you show that certain supposed events did not occur or certain beliefs were not asserted, it’s very hard to counter the supposed facts, let alone the belief in their correlation.

So I doubt that we simply chose to believe in certain narratives because we have grounds for believing they are true. My hunch is that they gain or lose plausibility along with larger ideologies or belief systems that we adhere to. In this regard it is striking that Bilgrami goes for his thesis without much argument. While he doesn’t give clear sources, Bilgrami’s assumption bears striking resemblance to the claims of Boris Hessen, who wrote (in 1931):

“The Royal Society brought together the leading and most eminent scientists in England, and in opposition to university scholasticism adopted as its motto ‘Nullius in verba’ (verify nothing on the basis of words). Robert Boyle, Brouncker, Brewster, Wren, Halley, and Robert Hooke played an active part in the society. One of its most outstanding members was Newton. We see that the rising bourgeoisie brought natural science into its service, into the service of developing productive forces. … And since … the basic problems were mechanical ones, this encyclopedic survey of the physical problems amounted to creating a consistent structure of theoretical mechanics which would supply general methods for solving the problems of celestial and terrestrial mechanics.”

The claim that “the the rising bourgeoisie brought natural science into its service” is indeed similar to what Bilgrami seems to have in mind. As a new special issue on Boris Hessen’s work makes clear, these claims were widely disseminated.** At the same time, an encyclopedia from 2001 characterises Hessen’s view as “crude and dogmatically Marxist”.

Thus, the reception of Hessen’s claim is itself tied to larger ideological convictions. This might not be surprising, but it puts pressure on the reasons we give for favouring one narrative over another. While believing in certain narratives means believing that certain correlations (between facts) are more relevant than others, our choice and rejection of narratives might be driven by wider ideologies or belief systems. If this is correct, then the dismissal of Hessen’s insights might not be owing to the dismissal of his scholarship but rather to the supposed Marxism. So the question is: are the cold-war convictions still alive, driving the choice of narratives? Or is the renewed interest in Marxism already a reason for a renewed interest in Hessen’s work? In any case, in the history of interpreting Newtonian naturalism Akeel Bilgrami’s paper is striking, because it bears witness to this reception without directly acknowledging it.*** Might this be because there are new reasons for being interested in the (history of the) relation between scientific naturalism and capitalism?


* It’s important to note that Bilgrami uses the term naturalism in a resticted sense: “I am using the term “naturalism” in a rather restricted way, limiting the term to a scientistic form of the philosophical position. So, the naturalism of Wittgenstein or John McDowell or even P. F. Strawson falls outside of this usage. In fact all three of these philosophers are explicitly opposed to naturalism in the sense that I am using the term. Perhaps “scientism” would be the better word for the philosophical position that is the center of the dispute I want to discuss.” – This problematically restricted use of naturalism is probably owing to Margaret Jacob’s distinction between a “moderate” and “radical enlightenment”. The former movement is associated with writers like Newton and Boyle; the latter with the pantheist “dissenters” for whom nature is inseprable from the divine.

** I am very grateful to Sean Winkler, who not only edited the special issue on Hessen but kindly sent me a number of passages from his writings. I’m also grateful to all the kind people who patiently discussed some questions on Facebook (here with regard to Bilgrami; here with regard to Hessen).

*** The lines of reception are of course much more complex and, in Bilgrami’s case, perhaps more indirect than I have suggested. Bilgrami explicitly references Weber’s recourse to “disentchantment” and also acknowledges the importance of Marx for his view. Given these references, Bilgrami’s personal reception might be owing more to Weber than Hessen. That said, Merton (following Weber) clearly acknowledges his debt to Hessen. A further (unacknowledged but possible) source for this thesis is Edgar Zilsel. For more details on the intricate pathways of reception see Gerardo Ienna’s and Giulia Rispoli’s paper in the special issue referenced above.

13 thoughts on “Naturalism as a bedfellow of capitalism? A note on the reception of early modern natural philosophy

  1. For what it’s worth, I know from personal experience that Bilgrami is very into Jonathan Israel’s two strands of the enlightenment, which might also be behind some of these claims. I would guess that his work is pretty controversial, but it certainly is serious. I don’t know if these particular passages are derived from his reading of Israel, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

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  2. Margaret Jacob relies on Israel? Without wading into that rather tired debate (i’ve seen Israel and Jacob debate each other too many times, always on the same points), her book The Radical Enlightenment is from 1981. Israel of course has a different (and broader) focus, whereas she has a strong Freemason focus, but I don’t think she has ever ended up relying on his distinctions????


    1. You’re right of course. In my hasty reply I phrased very badly. I meant that she also uses such a distinction. Since Isreal was the person refernced first, I presented Jacob as relying on such a distinction, too. – Anyway, I didn’t intend to make any claims about first origins and sameness. (This might be helpful: Reassessing the Radical Enlightenment ed. by Steffen Ducheyne. Though you certainly know it.) – What I found interesting is that Bilgrami references Jacob, but seems to rely (oops, said it again) on Israel, if Justin Vlasits’ point carries over.

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      1. yes, i think that’s right (that bilgrami references jacob but means israel – although the pantheist theme is more hers than israel’s). I know Steffen’s edited volume (more or less). There is a bigger, and crazier one in French, with Israel, Jacob et al. (and lots of Dutch, Germans and Italians, all of whom attacked each other at the original conference. Watching Manfred Walther speak and then be attacked by Winfried Schröder was a learning experience for me).

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        1. Amazing to imagine these people getting so worked up over radical enlightenment… It would be interesting to try and make explicit the ideologies driving these oppositions. They don’t strike me as merely scholarly.

          In the similar vain, I also wonder whether Hessen was (secretly) more read than acknowledged. The fact that Zilsel probably was a major influence does not rule out Hessen’s potential influence. His work is quite catchy, in a scholarly fashion.


        2. to be clear, i’m a fan of Hessen. But it’s been studied already (eg by Nick Jardine?) how Zilsel’s version came to ‘overwhelm’ or ‘paint over’, if not replace, Hessen’s thesis. Cf That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t return to Hessen as you (then Sean, etc.) are doing. But if the question then is, where did this idea about natural science and capitalism come from, its genesis, its stages, etc., then more work needs to be done. Helena Sheehan’s old book Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History used to be available online but i guess Verso has since republished it so it was taken down. I have vague memories of a book by Jon Elster (more the kind of author a certain Eric S reads) from the 1970s trying to locate early modern science (and Spinoza?) in the framework of an analysis of the rise of capitalism.

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  3. PS I think Bilgrami is a bit fast and loose with the thought of people like Winstanley, Toland, Collins (it is irresponsible at best to collapse the thought of Collins into a ‘pantheist’ or ‘enthusiast” model). Also, it’s unclear in what sense a Tolandian Radical Enlightenment is the same in any sense as a Spinozist or a Diderotian Radical Enlightenment (as detailed in the closing section of Israel’s 2001 book).


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