Axiomatic Natural Philosophy and the Emergence of Biology as a Science

Journal of the History of Biology 53 (3):379-422 (2020)
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Ernst Mayr argued that the emergence of biology as a special science in the early nineteenth century was possible due to the demise of the mathematical model of science and its insistence on demonstrative knowledge. More recently, John Zammito has claimed that the rise of biology as a special science was due to a distinctive experimental, anti-metaphysical, anti-mathematical, and anti-rationalist strand of thought coming from outside of Germany. In this paper we argue that this narrative neglects the important role played by the mathematical and axiomatic model of science in the emergence of biology as a special science. We show that several major actors involved in the emergence of biology as a science in Germany were working with an axiomatic conception of science that goes back at least to Aristotle and was popular in mid-eighteenth-century German academic circles due to its endorsement by Christian Wolff. More specifically, we show that at least two major contributors to the emergence of biology in Germany—Caspar Friedrich Wolff and Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus—sought to provide a conception of the new science of life that satisfies the criteria of a traditional axiomatic ideal of science. Both C.F. Wolff and Treviranus took over strong commitments to the axiomatic model of science from major philosophers of their time, Christian Wolff and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, respectively. The ideal of biology as an axiomatic science with specific biological fundamental concepts and principles thus played a role in the emergence of biology as a special science.

Author Profiles

Hein Van Den Berg
University of Amsterdam
Boris Demarest
University of Amsterdam


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