Saturday, January 19, 2013

Know your scholars: E.A. Burtt

Edwin Arthur Burtt (1892-1989) was an American professor of philosophy who wrote extensively on the history and philosophy of science, religion, and science's relationship to religion. During his long career, Dr. Burtt (who was known to his friends as Ned) held the prestigious Susan Linn Sage chair of philosophy at Cornell University and was president of the American Philosophical Association from 1964-5.

Much of his interests in topics involving metaphysical and religious questions about reality was probably cultivated in his childhood. Even when he was an old man, Burtt recalled how his parents attitudes towards religion (his father was a devout evangelical and missionary) had a profound influence on his life.

Despite his later rejection and criticism of Jesus as a man who had "no appreciation of the value of intelligence as the most dependable human faculty for analyzing the perplexities into which men fall and for providing wise guidance in dealing with them" and who "took entirely for granted and without criticism the economic structure prevalent in his day, with its assumption of an absolute right on the part of employers to make such profits as they are able and to treat their workmen according to whatever whim may seize them (link)", Burtt remained sympathetic to religious experience and awe and published books like Religion in the Age of Science, Types of Religious Philosophy, and The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha throughout his life.

While completing his dissertation in philosophy at Columbia University, Burtt chose to focus his research on the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution. Burtt argued that ideas like human consciousness, purpose, and religious aspirations do not fit into the mechanical worldview created by men like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, and especially Newton. Burtt showed that these thinkers' work cannot be clearly separated out from the work of Hobbes, Locke and Descartes.

While his dissertation argued that this scientific philosophy has a positivist streak, Burtt also demonstrated and explored the rich philosophical contributions made by these men. He showed that philosophical concepts like epistemology, the philosophy of mathematics, and the philosophy of physics (in particularly, space and time) were richly explored and elucidated by almost all of these noted intellectuals.

After he received his doctorate in 1915, Burtt revised this work and published it as the book The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. Despite being largely unknown now, this book was a landmark in the history and philosophy of science. Burtt's idea that certain pre-scientific ideas were carried over into the seventeenth century mechanical worldview is said to have influenced both Alexandre Koyre and most importantly,Thomas Kuhn. 

Despite the large contributions Burtt made to the study of history and philosophy of science, Burtt is most remembered for being a key contributor to the early days of the Humanist movement. Although is ideas that "spiritual experience is the identification with categories of space, time, causality, and other fundamental physical principles (link)" was left out of humanist writings, he was a contributor and signer of the first Humanist Manifesto and a signer of the second.

While Burtt was less vocal about humanism after the first manifesto, he occasionally reviewed books for The Humanist magazine during the 1950's. While I cannot locate any of these articles, I did find this one letter and response to him (I did not desire to post it in this article because it is a big picture. Click here if you desire to read it).

While his ideas are largely forgotten, Burtt is an imminent figure in the history and philosophy of science. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science for yourself and see why his ideas were held in such high regard by his contemporaries and his intellectual heirs.


  1. Hey, Isn't that a picture of Henry David Thoreau up there?

    1. you are totally right! I don't know how I mixed that up.