Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens

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Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens
Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven (German edition).jpg
AuthorImmanuel Kant
Original titleAllgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels
Media typePrint

Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (German: Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels), subtitled or an Attempt to Account for the Constitutional and Mechanical Origin of the Universe upon Newtonian Principles,[a] is a work written and published anonymously by Immanuel Kant in 1755.

According to Kant, the Solar System is merely a smaller version of the fixed star systems, such as the Milky Way and other galaxies. The cosmogony that Kant proposes is closer to today's accepted ideas than that of some of his contemporary thinkers such as Pierre-Simon Laplace. Moreover, Kant's thought in this volume is strongly influenced by atomist theory, in addition to the ideas of Lucretius.


Kant answered to the call of the Berlin Academy Prize in 1754[1] with the argument that the Moon's gravity would eventually cause its tidal locking to coincide with the Earth's rotation. The next year, he expanded this reasoning to the formation and evolution of the Solar System in the Universal Natural History.[2]

Within the work Kant quotes Pierre Louis Maupertuis, who discusses six bright celestial objects listed by Edmond Halley, including Andromeda. Most of these are nebulae, but Maupertuis notes that about one-fourth of them are collections of stars—accompanied by white glows which they would be unable to cause on their own. Halley points to light created before the birth of the Sun, while William Derham "compares them to openings through which shines another immeasurable region and perhaps the fire of heaven." He also observed that the collections of stars were much more distant than stars observed around them. Johannes Hevelius noted that the bright spots were massive and were flattened by a rotating motion; they are in fact galaxies.


Kant's book ends with an almost mystical expression of appreciation for nature: "In the universal silence of nature and in the calm of the senses the immortal spirit’s hidden faculty of knowledge speaks an ineffable language and gives [us] undeveloped concepts, which are indeed felt, but do not let themselves be described."[3]


The first English translation of the work was done by the Scottish theologian William Hastie, in 1900.[4] Other English translations include those by Stanley Jaki and Ian Johnston.[5]


In his introduction to the English translation of Kant's book, Stanley Jaki criticises Kant for being a poor mathematician and downplays the relevance of his contribution to science. However, Stephen Palmquist argued that Jaki's criticisms are biased and "[a]ll he has shown […] is that the Allgemeine Naturgeschichte does not meet the rigorous standards of the twentieth-century historian of science." [6]

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  1. ^ German: oder Versuch von der Verfassung und dem mechanischen Ursprunge des ganzen Weltgebäudes nach Newtonischen Grundsätzen abgehandelt


  1. ^ Manfred Kühn, Kant - A Biography, CUP, 2002), p. 98: "[The essay] entitled "Investigation of the Question whether the Earth Has Experienced a Change in Its Rotation" [...] was meant to answer a question formulated for a public competition by the Berlin Academy. Though the deadline was at first 1754, the Academy extended it on June 6, 1754, for another two years. When Kant decided to publish this essay, he did not know of the extension. Kant claimed that he could not have achieved the kind of perfection required for winning the prize because he restricted himself to the "physical aspect" of the question."
  2. ^ Brush, Stephen G. (28 May 2014). A History of Modern Planetary Physics: Nebulous Earth. p. 7. ISBN 0521441714.
  3. ^ Immanuel Kant, Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, p.367; translated by Stephen Palmquist in Kant's Critical Religion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), p.320.
  4. ^ Michael J. Crowe (1999). The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900. Courier Dover Publications. p. 48. ISBN 978-0-486-40675-6.
  5. ^ Immanuel Kant (2012). Eric Watkins (ed.). Kant: Natural Science. Cambridge University Press. p. 187. ISBN 978-0-521-36394-5.
  6. ^ Stephen Palmquist, "Kant's Cosmogony Re-Evaluated", Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 18:3 (September 1987), pp.255–269.

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