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Kant: Natural Science
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Though Kant is best known for his strictly philosophical works in the 1780s, many of his early publications in particular were devoted to what we would call 'natural science'. Kant's Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755) made a significant advance in cosmology, and he was also instrumental in establishing the newly emerging discipline of physical geography, lecturing on it for almost his entire career. In this volume Eric Watkins brings together new English translations of Kant's first publication, Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces (1746–9), the entirety of Physical Geography (1802), a series of shorter essays, along with many of Kant's most important publications in natural science. The volume is rich in material for the student and the scholar, with extensive linguistic and explanatory notes, editorial introductions and a glossary of key terms.


'… this volume is a much-needed, very valuable contribution to scholarship. It brings together important texts by an important philosopher, readably translated and edited to the highest standards in the field. It will easily become the new reference work on Kant’s natural-scientific output and will foreseeably remain the standard text for decades to come.'

Source: Metascience

'The value of this publication is conspicuous given that it brings together Kant’s specialised works on natural science and makes them available in English translation, some of them even for the first time … this volume can be extremely helpful for historians of astronomy and Kant scholars who are interested in assessing the extent to which Kant influenced his contemporaries and immediate successors.'

Silvia De Bianchi Source: Journal for the History of Astronomy

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  • 3 - The question, whether the Earth is ageing, considered from a physical point of view (1754)
    pp 165-181
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    In this essay, Kant defines what it would mean for the earth to be ageing, warning in particular against anthropocentric conceptions. He also provides detailed evaluations of four different accounts of how the earth might be ageing and by what causal mechanisms. The first is by the rivers stripping fertile salts from the land and delivering them into the ocean, thereby robbing the land of its ability to grow and sustain life. The second is by the rivers depositing sediment into the sea, which raises the sea until it inundates the land. The third is by the decrease of water (from the oceans) and the resultant increase of land. The fourth is by the decrease and gradual exhaustion of a hypothetical general 'world spirit' that sustains all living beings on earth. He concludes by criticizing those who would appeal to comets to explain "all manner of extraordinary" events.
  • 5 - Succinct exposition of some meditations on fire (1755)
    pp 309-326
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    Kant's essay "Succinct Exposition of Some Meditations on Fire" is divided into two sections. The first section argues that various phenomena pertaining to the solidity and fluidity of bodies can be explained only by positing an elastic matter. The second section explains how the elastic matter of fire, which is compressed into the interstices of larger bodies, can be used to account for phenomena involving vapors, air, and flame, as well as the proper way to measure heat. The elastic matter of the first section is also identified here with both the matter of fire and the matter of light, or the ether. While Kant accounts for the selective range of natural phenomena by positing a small number of forces and entities, he demonstrates his familiarity with many leading contributors to the debate about the nature of fire, such as Newton, Euler, and other natural philosophers.
  • 6 - On the causes of earthquakes on the occasion of the calamity that befell the western countries of Europe towards the end of last year (1756)
    pp 327-336
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    Kant published the first essay, "On the causes of earthquakes on the occasion of the calamity that befell the western countries of Europe towards the end of last year", in two instalments. His main contention is that earthquakes are caused by the conflagration of a mixture of iron filings, sulphur, or vitriolic acid, and water that has been compressed in extensive caverns lying below the Earth's surface. He argues that earthquakes are connected with volcanic activity, which have the same cause; and denies that they are caused by electricity, but allows for a connection with magnetic materials and atmospheric changes. According to Kant, the main line of earthquakes follows the direction of the highest mountains, and thus the countries that are chiefly affected are close to these, especially if they are enclosed by two mountain ranges, in which case the tremors combine from both sides.
  • 7 - History and natural description of the most noteworthy occurrences of the earthquake that struck a large part of the Earth at the end of the year 1755 (1756)
    pp 337-364
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    In this essay, Kant presents a description of the Lisbon earthquake and the events surrounding it. The earthquake was preceded by a vapour rising into the air that turned red in the atmosphere and made the torrential rains that ensued blood-red as well. Kant describes the tsunami caused by the earthquake, its effects in distant places, its speed of transmission and extent as well as its influence on springs. He theorizes about what geographical features are most conducive to earthquakes and the directions of motion of an earthquake, speculating the connection between earthquakes and the seasons and the influence of earthquakes on atmospheric conditions as well as their potential uses. Kant concludes with a sketch of a theodicy, according to which man often inappropriately views himself rather than nature as a whole as the object of God's actions, and in addition, man is in no position to know God's intentions.
  • 8 - Continued observations on the earthquakes that have been experienced for some time (1756)
    pp 365-373
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    This third and final essay on earthquakes by Kant continues the reflections presented in the previous two essays. Kant's primary concern is to refute various competing opinions about earthquakes, specifically, those by Gottfried Profe and Pierre Bouguer. Both agree that the Moon could bear some responsibility for this event. He says that if one considers that the gravitational forces of the celestial bodies can act on the innermost parts of matter and thus move the air in the deepest and most inaccessible passages of the Earth, then one can hardly deny the Moon some influence on earthquakes. Kant mentions that a report by Gassendi suggested that a rare conjunction of the three outer planets, which had occurred in 1604, resulted in no significant earthquakes, thus contradicting Profe's theory. Kant concludes his treatment of earthquakes with a brief reiteration of the main contours of his theory.
  • 9 - New notes to explain the theory of the winds, in which, at the same time, he invites attendance at his lectures (1756)
    pp 374-385
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    Kant, over the course of five notes, attempts to explain a series of specific meteorological phenomena, sometimes in novel ways. In the first and second notes, he claims that the direction of coastal winds depends on the expansion and contraction of air that is caused by differences in the rate of heating and cooling of the land and the water at sea during the day and at night. In the third, he explains the difference in (east-west) direction arising for winds moving from the Equator. In the fourth note, he talks about the Coriolis effect, and the easterly direction of the trade winds. Finally, Kant provides an account of monsoon winds. The atmosphere should be thought of as a sea of fluid, elastic material constituted, as it were, of layers of different density, which decreases as the height increases.
  • 12 - Review of Silberschlag's work: Theory of the fireball that appeared on 23 July 1762 (1764)
    pp 409-413
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    Kant's "Review of Silberschlag's Work: Theory of the Fireball that appeared on 23 July 1762" was published anonymously on 23 March 1764. While it is uncertain exactly what motivated Kant to respond in this way, the review is clearly positive. This work consists of two main parts, the first of which treats of the atmosphere, and the second of the fireball, to which further addenda are attached with reports and observations that had come in. The first part discusses air and its changes and views the sea of air as an atmosphere and a new division of regions of air is presented in addition to the various considerable remarks about mists, fog, clouds, and rain. The second part treats of the orbit the creation and the use of this meteor in three sections. The three copper plates illustrate the theory, the shape and the path that this fire-mass took.
  • 13 - Notice of Lambert's correspondence (1782)
    pp 414-417
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    This advertisement of the publication of Johann Heinrich Lambert's correspondence appeared on 4 February 1782. In a second notice, Herr Bernoulli announced that the first part of the correspondence is to be followed by the first volume of philosophical and philological treatises and the second volume of the correspondence then towards the end of March 1783. The second volume was of the philosophical treatises and the third and fourth were on the correspondence. His acuteness in discriminating what is deficient in all sciences, in thinking up masterful proposals and experiments to complete them, his project of transforming the decadent taste of the age can perhaps contribute more forcefully than anything else to breathe new life into the nearly extinguished zeal of scholars for the dissemination of useful and thorough science, and induce them to establish a confederation that works against the prevailing barbarism.
  • 14 - On the volcanoes on the Moon (1785)
    pp 418-425
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    The occasion for Kant's essay was Aepinus's claim that Herschel's 'discovery' of volcanic activity on the Moon supported his view that volcanic activity could be invoked to explain the irregularities on its surface. Kant wants to maintain that the Moon, like the Earth and the other planets in the solar system, was formed from chaotic, gaseous material that gradually lost heat on the surface and solidified, albeit with irregular crevices. The primary novelty of Kant's explanation here, compared to what he offered thirty years earlier, is his adoption of Crawford's theory of heat. Thus, we have on Earth two kinds of crater-like land-forms: one, of volcanic origin [of the order of] 160 roods in diameter and thus about 20,000 square roods in area; others that are definitely not volcanic and are about 1000 square miles, that is 200,000 times greater in area.
  • 15 - Something concerning the influence of the Moon on the weather (1794)
    pp 426-433
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    The topic of this Kant's essay is whether the Moon has any influence on the Earth's weather. The attraction of the Moon, i.e., the only motive force by which it can have an influence on the atmosphere and possibly also on weather conditions, has a direct effect on the air in accordance with laws of statics, that is, insofar as it is a ponderable fluid. It is a question of deciding a priori whether or not the Moon has any influence on the weather, then the light that it casts on the Earth can be ignored, and so there remains only its attractive force. But the Moon['s attraction] is far too weak to effect any discernible change in the level of the barometer by this means, and, insofar as weather conditions are directly dependent on the cause of change. Therefore, it ought not to have any influence on the weather.
  • 16 - Physical geography (1802)
    pp 434-679
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    Among Kant's publications, Physical Geography has a complex origin. It is a compilation of a variety of sources such as notes that Kant made for himself and updated only sporadically, student transcripts from different classes over several decades, and Rink's independent additions. Two further features of Kant's Physical Geography that need mention. First, Kant's contributions to physical geography can be assessed only against the background of the current state of knowledge of geography in general and of physical geography in particular. Second, Kant's knowledge of different geographical facts derives not from first-hand experience, given that he never travelled far from Konigsberg and thus never ventured outside the boundaries of East Prussia, but exclusively from the reports of others. Particularly the parts of the present work describing nature or dealing with natural history would require an almost complete revision.


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