Jane Austen Science Words: Natural Philosophy

“. . . if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.”—Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, saying the world would be less wicked if more people paid attention to Nature.


Did Jane Austen ever mention “science”? Yes, but in surprising ways. In Pride and Prejudice, she refers to the science of dancing, when Sir William Lucas calls Mr. Darcy “adept in the science” (chapter 6). Lady Susan considers music, singing, and drawing among the “arts & sciences” her daughter does not need. Austen’s letters refer to music as a science.  Music and dance as science?

In the eighteenth century, science meant any kind of knowledge or study, or its application.  In one of Cowper’s poems (1782) he calls the alphabet, which a child is learning, the “seeds of science”—the basis of learning. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were considered sciences. Sportsmen talked about the science of fencing, or of boxing, meaning both knowledge and skill in the sport. More formally, the traditional branches of learning were considered sciences: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Astronomy is probably the only one we would call science now.

Science in Austen’s day, developing rapidly in a range of directions, was still called “natural history” or “natural philosophy,” phrases used since at least the sixteenth century.

Natural Philosophy

When the Prince Regent’s secretary suggested that Austen write a novel about an accomplished clergyman (such as himself!), she responded that she knew nothing of “subjects of science and philosophy” which an accomplished clergyman would talk about. Here she may have been referring to science—using the word philosophy! “Natural Philosophy” meant the study of the natural world, of how nature worked.  Conversations on Natural Philosophy, written for the general public in 1826, includes a wide range of topics in what we would now call physics and astronomy, ranging from lunar eclipses to levers.

Philosophy in general often referred to science.  The Bath Literary and Philosophical Society was a scientific society.  In 1816, a newspaper account of one of their meetings included experiments with chemist Humphry Davy’s new safety lamp (designed to prevent explosions in mines); several other chemical experiments; a description of a meteorite and an alligator skin; and plans to investigate various “Atmospheric Phenomena.”

Bodlein door - 2
Oxford School of Natural Philosophy door at Bodleian Library
Experimental Natural Philosophy

At Cambridge University, the Evangelical professor Isaac Milner (influential in William Wilberforce’s conversion) taught courses every other year in “experimental natural philosophy.” This was experimental science, and included experiments in mechanics (motion), hydrostatics (properties of water and other fluids), electricity, magnetism, and light.  In alternate years, he gave lectures in chemistry, another experimental branch of natural philosophy.

Such experiments were also popular fare for the public.  A course of nine “experimental lectures” offered in Bath in 1816 promised to illustrate pneumatics (properties of gases including pressurized air), heat, optics (properties of light), hydrostatics, electricity, and galvanism (electricity produced by chemical reactions, as in a battery).  Visitors could buy tickets for single lectures or the whole series.

Natural History

Natural History referred to observations and descriptions of nature, including biology and sometimes geology.  Gilbert White was a clergyman in Selborne, near Chawton where Austen wrote most of her novels.  His book The Natural History of Selborne (1788) describes the soil, plants, fossils, stones, birds, fish, and animals of his area.  It introduced many ideas of ecology, and has stayed in print ever since; an amazing contribution from a country clergyman!


Branches of Science

Separate branches of science were separating out from “natural philosophy” and “natural history” during Austen’s lifetime. By the end of the Regency, Oxford University had professors of medicine, natural philosophy (by this time meaning physics), geometry, astronomy, anatomy, chemistry, experimental philosophy, mineralogy, and geology. None of their courses were required, and students had to pay extra fees to take them.  But each science was taking on its own identity, and the word “science” was beginning to be used to cover them all.


The word “scientist” was not coined until well after Austen’s death.  In her time, scientists might be called naturalists or natural philosophers.  In 1831, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society became the British Association for the Advancement of Science, reflecting the changing use of the word “science.”  In 1833, the members sought a new word to call themselves. William Whewell, a Cambridge professor who coined many scientific terms, suggested the word “scientist.” By 1840 it was part of the Oxford English Dictionary. The alternative “sciencist,” not surprisingly, was rejected as being too awkward to say!

Natural Theology

In 1802 William Paley published a very popular book called Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Natural theology is the idea that nature reflects God and teaches about God, since he created and sustains the world. The book uses detailed illustrations from biology, anatomy, and astronomy to argue for God’s existence and loving character. We will look at Paley’s book in more depth in a later post. First, though, we will look at two earlier scientists, Kepler and Galileo, who also believed that nature reflects God, and that natural philosophy is connected to theology.

Vocabulary is constantly changing, as we saw with the words candour, exertion, duty, principle, and serious. In Austen’s time, philosophy also meant something different than we think of now. Particularly as we read books from earlier times, we need to be careful not to assume we understand what even seemingly familiar words mean!     

Selected Sources

Austen, Jane. The Complete Works of Jane Austen. Palmera Publishing. Kindle edition.

Bath and Cheltenham Gazette, articles of Oct. 16, 1816 and Jan. 3, 1816.

Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. HarperCollins 2008. Kindle edition.

Jones, Thomas P. Conversations on Natural Philosophy. Philadelphia: Grigg, 1826.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: OUP, 2017.

White, Gilbert. The Natural History of Selborne. Public domain edition for Kindle.



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