A free enquiry into the vulgarly receiv'd notion of nature made in an essay address'd to a friend
Boyle, Robert, 1627-1691.


I. A Considering Person may well be tempted to suspect, that Men have generally had but imperfect and confused Notions con∣cerning Nature; if he but observes, that they apply that Name to seve∣ral things, and those too such, as have some of them very little depen∣dance on, or connexion with, such others. And I remember that in Ari∣stotle's Metaphysicks, I met with a whole Chapter expresly written, to enumerate the various Acceptions of the Greek word, 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, common∣ly render'd Nature; of which, if I mistake not, he there reckons up six. Page  27 In English also we have not fewer, but rather more numerous significa∣tions of that Term. For sometimes we use the word Nature, for that Author of Nature, whom the School-men, harshly enough, call Natura Na∣turans; as when 'tis said, that Nature hath made Man partly Corporeal, and partly Immaterial. Sometimes we mean by the Nature of a thing, the Essence, or that which the School-men scruple not to call the Quiddity of a thing, namely, the Attribute or Attributes, on whose score it is, what it is; whether the thing be corpo∣real or not; as, when we attempt to define the Nature of an Angle, or of a Triangle, or of a Fluid Body as such. Sometimes we confound that which a Man has by Nature, with what accrues to him by Birth; as, when we say, that such a Man is no∣ble by Nature, or such a Child na∣turally forward, or sickly, or fright∣ful. Sometimes we take Nature for an Internal Principle of Motion; as, when we say, that a Stone let fall in Page  28 the Air, is by Nature carried towards the Centre of the Earth; and, on the contrary, that Fire or Flame does Naturally move upwards to∣wards Heaven.

Sometimes we understand by Na∣ture, the Establish'd course of things, as, when we say, that Nature makes the Night succeed the Day: Nature hath made Respiration necessary to the Life of Men.

Sometimes we take Nature for an Aggregate of Powers belonging to a Body, especially a Living one; as, when Physicians say, that Na∣ture is strong, or weak, or spent; or that in such or such Diseases, Nature left to her self, will do the Cure. Sometimes we take Nature for the Universe, or System of the Corporeal works of God; as, when 'tis said of a Phoenix, or a Chimera, that there is no such thing in Nature, (i. e.) in the World. And some∣times too, and that most commonly, we would express by the Word Na∣ture, a Semi-deity, or other strange Page  29 kind of Being, such as this Discourse examines the Notion of. And be∣sides these more Absolute Accepti∣ons, if I may so call them, of the word Nature; it has divers others (more Relative) as Nature is wont to be set in Opposition or Contradistinction to other things; as, when we say of a Stone when it falls downwards, that it does it by a Natural motion; but that if it be thrown upwards, its motion that way is violent. So Chy∣mists distinguish Vitriol into Natu∣ral and Fictitious, or made by Art, (i. e.) by the Intervention of Human Power or Skill; so 'tis said, that wa∣ter kept suspended in a sucking Pump, is not in its natural place, as that is, which is Stagnant in the Well. We say also, that Wicked Men are still in the state of Nature; but the Regenerate, in a state of Grace: That Cures wrought by Medicines, are Na∣tural Operations; but the miracu∣lous ones, wrought by Christ and his Apostles, were Supernatural. Nor are these the only Forms of Page  30 Speech, that a more diligent Colle∣ctor, than I think it necessary I should here be, might instance in, to manifest the Ambiguity of the word Nature, by the many and va∣rious things 'tis applied to signifie; tho' some of those already mention∣ed, should be judged too near to be co-incident. Among Latin Writers I found the acceptions of the word Nature to be so many, that I re∣member, one Author reckons up no less than fourteen or fifteen. From all which 'tis not difficult to gather, how easie 'tis for the generality of Men, without excepting those that write of Natural Things, to impose upon others and themselves, in the use of a word so apt to be mis-im∣ploy'd.

On this occasion I can scarce for∣bear to tell you, that I have often look'd upon it as an unhappy thing, and prejudicial both to Philosophy and Physick; that the word Nature hath been so frequently, and yet so unskilfully imploy'd, both in Books Page  31 and in Discourse, by all sorts of Men, Learned and Illiterate. For the very great Ambiguity of this term, and the promiscuous use Men are wont to make of it, without sufficiently at∣tending to its different Significations, makes many of the Expressions wherein they imploy it, (and think they do it well and truly) to be ei∣ther not intelligible, or not proper, or not true: Which Observation, tho' it be not heeded, may, with the help of a little attention, be easily verified; especially because the Term Nature is so often used, that you shall scarce meet with any Man, who, if he have occasion to discourse any thing long of either Natural or Me∣dicinal Subjects, would not find himself at a great loss, if he were prohibited the use of the word Na∣ture, and of those Phrases whereof it makes the principal part. And I confess I could heartily wish, that Philosophers, and other Learned Men (whom the rest in time would follow) would by common (tho' Page  32 perhaps Tacite) consent, introduce some more Significant, and less am∣biguous Terms and Expressions in the room of the too licenciously a∣bused word Nature, and the Forms of Speech that depend on it. Or would, at least, decline the use of it, as much as conveniently they can; and where they think they must imploy it, would▪ add a word or two, to declare in what clear and deter∣minate sense they use it. For with∣out somewhat of this kind be done, Men will very hardly avoid being led into divers mistakes, both of things, and of one another; & such wrang∣lings about Words and Names, will be (if not continually multiplied) still kept on foot, as are wont to be manag'd with much heat, tho' little use, and no necessity.

And here I must take leave to complain, in my own excuse, of the scarce superable Difficulty of the Task, that the design of a Free Inqui∣ry puts me upon. For 'tis far more difficult than any one that hath not Page  33 try'd, (and I do not know that any Man hath,) would imagine, to Dis∣course long of the Corporeal Works of God, and especially of the Opera∣tions and Phaenomena's that are attri∣buted to Nature, and yet decline making oftentimes use of that Term, or Forms of Speech whereof 'tis a main part; without much more fre∣quent, and perhaps tedious, Circum∣locutions; than I am willing to trou∣ble you with. And therefore I hope you will easily excuse me, if, partly to shun these, and to avoid using often the same words too near one another, and partly out of unwilling∣ness to imploy Vulgar Terms, likely to occasion or countenance Vulgar Er∣rors; I have several times been fain to use Paraphrases or other Expressi∣ons, less short than those commonly received: And sometimes for one or other of these Reasons, or out of In∣advertence, miss'd of avoiding the Terms used by those, that admit and applaud the Vulgar Notion of Na∣ture: whom, I must here advertise Page  34 you, that partly because they do so, and partly for brevity's sake, I shall hereafter many times call, Naturists: Which Appellation I rather chuse than that of Naturalists; because, many, even of the Learned among them, as Logicians, Orators, Law∣yers, Arithmeticians, &c. are not Physiologers.

But if on this occasion you should be very urgent to know, what Course I would think expedient, if I were to propose any, for the avoiding the In∣convenient use of so Ambiguous a Word, as Nature: I should first put you in mind, that, having but very lately declar'd, that I thought it ve∣ry difficult, in Physiological Dis∣courses especially, to decline the fre∣quent of that Term; you are not to expect from me the satisfaction you may desire in an Answer. And then I would add, that yet my unwilling∣ness to be altogether silent, when you require me to say somewhat, makes me content to try, whether the mischief complain'd of, may not Page  35 be in some measure either obviated or lessen'd, by looking back upon the (Eight) various significations, that were not long since deliver'd of the Word Nature, and by endea∣vouring to express them in other Terms, or Forms of Speech.

1. Instead then of the Word Na∣ture taken in the first sense, [for Natura Naturans,] we may make use of the Term 'tis put to signifie, namely, God; wholly discarding an Expression, which, besides that 'tis harsh and needless, and in use only among the School-men, seems not to me very suitable to the profound Reverence we owe the Divine Maje∣sty; since it seems to make the Cre∣ator differ too little by far from a Created (not to say an Imaginary) Being.

2. Instead of Nature in the second sense, [for, That on whose account a Thing is what it is, and is so call'd,] we may imploy the Word Essence, which is of great Affinity to it, if not of an adequate import. And some∣times Page  36 also we may make use of the Word Quiddity, which, though a somewhat Barbarous Term, is yet frequently imploy'd, and well e∣nough understood, in the Schools; and, which is more considerable, is very comprehensive, and yet free enough from Ambiguity.

3. What is meant by the Word Nature taken in the third sense of it, [for, what belongs to a living Crea∣ture at its Nativity, or accrues to it by its Birth,] may be express'd some∣times, by saying, that a Man or other Animal is Born so; and sometimes by saying, that a Thing has been Ge∣nerated such; and sometimes also, that 'tis thus or thus Qualifi'd by its Original Temperament and Constitu∣tion.

4. Instead of the Word Nature taken in the fourth Acception [for, an Internal Principle of Local Moti∣on] we may say sometimes, that this or that Body Moves as it were, or else that it seems to Move, spontaneously (or of its own accord) upwards, Page  37 downwards, &c. or, that 'tis put in∣to this or that Motion, or determin'd to this or that Action, by the con∣course of such or such (proper) Cau∣ses.

5. For Nature in the fifth signifi∣cation, [for, the establish'd course of Things Corporeal] 'tis easie to substi∣tute what it denotes, the establish'd Order, or the setled Course of Things.

6. Instead of Nature in the sixth sense of the Word [for, as Aggre∣gate of the Powers belonging to a Body, especially a Living one] we may im∣ploy the Constitution, Temperament, or the Mechanism, or the Complex of the Essential Properties or Qualities, and sometimes the Condition, the Stru∣cture, or the Texture of that Body. And if we speak of the greater Porti∣ons of the World, we may make use of one or other of these Terms, Fa∣brick of the World, System of the Vni∣verse, Cosmical Mechanism, or the like.

7. Where Men are wont to im∣ploy the Word Nature in the seventh Page  38 sense [for, the Vniverse, or the Sy∣steme of the Corporeal Works of God] 'tis easie, and as short, to make use of the Word World or Vniverse; and instead of the Phaenomena of Nature to substitute the Phaenomena of the Vniverse, or of the World.

8. And, as for the Word Nature taken in the eighth and last of the fore-mention'd Acceptions [for, ei∣ther (as some Pagans styl'd Her) a Goddess, or a kind of Semi-Deity] the best way is not to imploy it in that sense at all; or at least as seldom as may be, and that for divers Rea∣sons, which may in due place be met with in several Parts of this Essay.

But though the foregoing Diversi∣ty of Terms and Phrases may be much increas'd, yet I confess it makes but a part of the Remedy, I propose, against the future mischiefs of the confus'd Acception of the Word Na∣ture, and the Phrases grounded on it. For besides the Synonymous Words, and more literal Interpretations late∣ly propos'd, a dextrous Writer may Page  39 oftentimes be able to give such a Form (or, as the Modern French∣men speak, such a Tour) to his many∣ways variable Expressions, as to avoid the necessity of making use of the Word Nature; or sometimes so much as of those shorter Terms, that have been lately substituted in its place. And to all this I must add, that though one or two of the eight fore-mention'd Terms or Phrases, as Quiddity and Cosmical Mechanism, be Barbarous or Ungenteel; and some other expressions be less short than the Word Nature: Yet 'tis more the Interest of Philosophy to tolerate a harsh Term, that has been long re∣ceived in the Schools in a determi∣nate sense, and bear with some Para∣phrastical Expressions, than not to avoid an Ambiguity that is liable to such great inconveniences as have been lately, or may be hereafter, re∣presented.

There are, I know, some Learned Men, who, (perhaps being startled to find Nature usually spoken of so Page  40 much like a kind of Goddess,) will have the Nature of every thing, to be only the Law that it receives from the Creator, and according to which it acts on all occasions. And this Opinion seems much of kin to, if not the same with, that of the famous Helmont, who justly rejecting the Aristotelian Tenent of the Contrarie∣ty or Hostility of the Elements, will have every Body, without any such respect, to act that which 'tis com∣manded to act. And indeed this Opinion about Nature, though nei∣ther clear nor comprehensive e∣nough, seems capable of a fair Con∣struction. And there is oftentimes some resemblance between the or∣derly and regular Motions of inani∣mate Bodies, and the Actions of Agents, that, in what they do act, con∣formably to Laws. And even I some∣times scruple not, to speak of the Laws of Motion and Rest, that God has establish'd among things Corpo∣real, and now and then, (for brevi∣ties sake, or out of Custom) to call Page  41 them, as Men are wont to do, the Laws of Nature: Having in due place declar'd, in what sense I under∣stand and imploy these Expressi∣ons.

But to speak strictly, (as becomes Philosophers in so weighty a matter) to say that the Nature of this or that Body, is but the Law of God prescrib'd to it, is but an improper and figura∣tive Expression. For, besides that this gives us but a very defective Idea of Nature, since it omits the general Fabrick of the World, and the Con∣trivances of particular Bodies, which yet are as well necessary as Local Motion itself, to the production of particular Effects and Phaenomena's; besides this, I say, and other imperfe∣ctions of this Notion of Nature, that I shall not here insist on, I must freely observe, that, to speak proper∣ly, a Law being but a Notional Rule of Acting according to the declar'd Will of a Superior, 'tis plain, that no∣thing but an Intellectual Being can be properly capable of receiving and Page  42 acting by a Law. For if it does not understand, it cannot know what the Will of the Legislator is; nor can it have any Intention to accomplish it, nor can it act with regard to it; or know, when it does, in Acting, either conform to it or deviate from it. And 'tis intelligible to me, that God should at the Beginning impress determinate Motions upon the Parts of Matter, and guide them, as he thought requisite, for the Primordial Constitution of Things: and that ever since he should, by his ordinary and general Concourse, maintain those Powers, which he gave the Parts of Matter, to transmit their Motion thus and thus to one another. But I cannot conceive, how a Body, devoid of understanding and sense, truly so call'd, can moderate and determine its own Motions; especially so, as to make them conformable to Laws, that it has no knowledg or apprehen∣sion of. And that Inanimate Bodies, how strictly soever call'd Natural, do properly act by Laws, cannot be Page  43 evinc'd by their sometimes acting Regularly, and, as Men think, in or∣der to determinate Ends: Since in Artificial things we see many Motions very orderly perform'd, and with a manifest Tendency to particular and pre-design'd Ends; as in a Watch, the Motions of the Spring, Wheels and other parts, are so contempera∣ted and regulated, that the Hand up∣on the Dyal moves with a great Uni∣formity, and seems to moderate its Motion, so as not to arrive at the Points, that denote the time of the day, either a minute sooner, or a mi∣nute later, than it should do, to de∣clare the hour. And when a Man shoots an Arrow at a Mark, so as to hit it, though the Arrow moves to∣wards the Mark, as it would if it could and did design to strike it, yet none will say, that this Arrow moves by a Law, but by an External, tho' well directed, Impulse.