Seeking Nature's Logic: Natural Philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment

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The Scottish Enlightenment was a vital moment in the history of Western civilization. As one modern admirer of Scotland cogently wrote: “No small nation—except Greece—has ever achieved an intellectual and cultural breakthrough of this magnitude.” Placing Isaac Newton’s natural philosophy within a broad conceptual context, Seeking Nature’s Logic takes that science from Galileo to the early nineteenth century, concentrating on Scotland during the 120 years from 1690 to 1810—a period defined by the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1687 and the death of John Robison in 1805. Newton’s work changed the course of natural philosophy, and Robison was the most significant natural philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment.

As professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University from 1774 to 1805, John Robison taught the premier science of the day at the premier science university of the time. He discovered experimentally that electrical and magnetic forces were, like gravity, inverse square forces, and he wrote influential treatises on electricity, magnetism, mechanics, and astronomy. By articulating a particularly Scottish approach to physics, he was the main conceptual link between Newton and those Scottish geniuses of Victorian physics, Lord Kelvin and James Clerk Maxwell. Seeking Nature’s Logic explains the background of Robison’s natural philosophy, analyzes his own sharply shifting ideas, and places those ideas in the context of early nineteenth-century Scottish thought.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Seeking Nature’s Logic is a substantial contribution to the history of eighteenth-century science, technology, and philosophy. It is the first serious work to (rightfully) give the thought of Glasgow’s John Anderson proper attention and to explain the content and relevance of the influential natural philosophy course taught by Edinburgh’s John Robison. Drawing from a wide variety of innovative primary sources, the scholarship is extremely sound, and it will undoubtedly become a classic reference work for those interested in the history of science as it was practiced during the Scottish Enlightenment.”
—Matthew D. Eddy, Durham University

“David Wilson’s comprehensive study of Scottish Enlightenment natural philosophy explores in detail the extent to which chemical ideas shaped the teaching of natural philosophy in Scotland, the ways in which natural theological concerns drove natural philosophizing, and the ways in which metaphysical and epistemological concerns were incorporated into the teaching of natural philosophy. The scholarship is sound and reflects a thorough command of relevant printed and manuscript materials.”
—Richard G. Olson, Harvey Mudd College

Seeking Nature’s Logic: Natural Philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment will be required reading for those who study natural philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment, but hopefully it will attract a wide readership, for it has things to offer many others whose scholarly interests intercept Wilson’s at one place or another.”
—Mark G. Spencer, American Historical Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271035253
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 7/16/2009
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

David B. Wilson is Professor of History and Philosophy at Iowa State University. Among his publications are Did the Devil Make Darwin Do It? Modern Perspectives on the Creation-Evolution Controversy (1983) and Kelvin and Stokes: A Comparative Study in Victorian Physics (1987).

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations


Introduction: Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz

1. Changing Newton: The Legacy of Early Scottish Newtonians, 1690–1740

2. Midcentury Glasgow University, 1740–1760

3. The Natural Philosophy of Common-Sense Philosophy: Thomas Reid and His Colleagues, 1760–1788

4. The Natural Philosophy of Chemistry: Joseph Black and His Disciples, 1760–1786

5. Contemplating Knowledge and Nature: John Anderson, 1760–1796

6. John Robison’s Phlogiston Physics, Circa 1780

7. John Robison’s Boscovichian Physics, Circa 1800

8. Turn-of-the-Century Edinburgh University, 1790–1810



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