Chapter 1 – Nature: a short history
Chapter 1 Nature: a short history
The enterprise called the history of ideas is especially fruitful when the unit-idea picked by the historian has served as an important assumption, an unconscious habit of thought, that determined much of what is done within a school of thought, a tradition, or a scientific paradigm. This view has been developed masterfully by Arthur Lovejoy in his book The Great Chain of Being, where he highlights the role of what he calls philosophical semantics. For him, the work of philosophical semantics is one of the important factors in the history of ideas, and involves the study of key-words in view of achieving “a cleaning up of the ambiguities, a listing of their various shades of meaning, and an examination of the way in which confused associations of ideas arising from these ambiguities have influenced the development of doctrine”.1 Ambiguities inherent within such key-words do not constitute a peripheral factor for the historian’s task. On the contrary, Lovejoy was convinced that such ambiguities have a special role, because some shade of meaning may gain currency during one period, and thus become dominant for the thought of that period, while some other shade of meaning of the same key-idea may gain such currency in another period. He adds: “the word ‘nature’, it need hardly be said, is the most extraordinary example of this, and the most pregnant subject for the investigations of philosophical semantics”.2 Taking my cue from such reflections, I will...
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