On Natural Philosophies

Recently, a friend mentioned that she believed “natural philosophies” would become more popular in this decade. I responded by pointing out that AUDC’s Blue Monday is subtitled Stories of Absurd Realties and Natural Philosophies. Here is an excerpt from the introduction that gets to the point of what a natural philosophy is and why we employed it.

We are certainly attracted by Deleuze and Guattari’s organizational logics and Hardt and Negri’s tales of Empire as well as Baudrillard’s theories of totalized consumption of the sign and the system of objects, Žižek’s fictionalization of the real, and Jameson’s dissection of late capitalism. These are fascinating explanatory frameworks, but, scandalously, they don’t add up. To weave a coherent whole out of them would be sheer madness. So how to proceed?

During our research into the evolution of art, science, and philosophy we found that these fields were once much more intimately related than they had been in the last century. Prior to the Enlightenment and the development of the scientific method, science was dominated by natural philosophy, a method of studying nature and the physical universe through observation rather than through experimentation. Virtually all contemporary forms of science developed out of natural philosophy, but unlike more modern scientists, natural philosophers like Galileo felt no need to test their ideas in a practical way. On the contrary, they observed the world to derive philosophical conclusions. Taken together, these didn’t necessarily add up. But the lack of metanarrative for natural philosophy is not an obstacle for us, instead it is a strength.

Natural philosophy flourished from the 12th century to the 17th and with it did cabinets of curiosities, sometimes entire rooms, sometimes quite literally elaborate cabinets, filled with strange and wondrous things. These first museums collected seemingly disparate objects of fascination in a specific architectural setting, assigning to each item a place in a larger network of meaning created by the room as a whole. In the cabinet each object would be a macrocosm of the larger world, illustrating the wonder of its divine artifice. Together however, their affinities would become apparent and a syncretic vision of the unity of all things would emerge, as the words Athanasius Kircher inscribed on the ceiling of his museum suggested: “Whosoever perceives the chain that binds the world below to the world above will know the mysteries of nature and achieve miracles.” For the natural philosopher, the cabinet of curiosities possessed a reflexive quality: it was both an exhibition and a source of wonder, a system the natural philosopher built to instruct others but also to coax himself into further thought.[i]

This book, like our web site or an AUDC installation, is a cabinet of curiosities, consisting of a series of conditions that AUDC observes in order to speculate on them in the manner of natural philosophy, extrapolating not theories that could then be applied to architecture but rather philosophies to explain the world. The result is neither the relativist pluralism nor a single monist philosophy, but rather a set of multiple philosophies that almost add up, but being situationally derived, don’t quite.

[i] Patrick Mauries, Cabinets of Curiosities (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002), 25-26. Some further sources on cabinets of curiosities are Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998) and Giorgio Agamben, “The Cabinet of Wonder” in The Man Without Content (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 28-39.