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Older-style histories of science that depicted the growth of science as a gradual accretion of new knowledge, and that devoted much attention to identifying when discoveries were made and by whom, allocated little space to the physics of the eighteenth century. Although some interesting discoveries, especially in relation to electricity, were acknowledged, the period was generally presented as a fallow one compared with the periods of dramatic advance in physical understanding that preceded and followed it. More recently, as historians have adopted a less restricted view of their task, eighteenth-century physics has come to be seen in a more favorable light: as the period when physics became a field recognizably like the one we know today.
Physics as traditionally understood was not an experimental science, and neither was its subject matter the same as it is today. Consistent with the meaning of the Greek word φυσιζ from which it drew its name, physics was taught in universities throughout Europe as “natural philosophy,” that is, as the part of the standard undergraduate course in philosophy dealing with “nature” in general. The primary concern was with broad principles rather than particular natural effects, and above all with the nature of body and the conditions determining natural change. Everywhere for several centuries the Aristotelian treatises Physica, De caelo, De generatione et corruptione, Meteorologica, and De anima were the standard texts, and in many places they were still being used at the start of our period, notwithstanding the dramatic changes in intellectual outlook that had occurred during the preceding century and a half.
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