R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) is perhaps best known for his aesthetics and for his distinctive approach to the philosophy of history. His interests and background ranged much more widely, and a consistent feature of his work is to clarify the relations between domains of thought held to be distinct, such as religion, art, history, science and philosophy. In this work, he aims to clarify the aims and scope of natural science, by examining the historical development of the idea of nature. He identifies three broad historical periods in which investigations into the natural world coincided with philosophical reflections on the methods and presuppositions of such investigations. Nature, he argues, was conceived along radically different lines in each of these periods, with the implication that natural science must be understood in light of and in relation to history.
Perhaps this thought has become a commonplace since the appearance of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and given the rise of "History and Philosophy of Science" departments at major research universities around the world. It was a radical insight in Collingwood's time, when the positivist assumption that natural science and its results and proper methods are independent from history tended to dominate philosophy departments, even if it was at odds with what Collingwood took to be a growing recognition among some scientists that the natural world and its processes are themselves historical and evolving.
In rough outline, Collingwood argues that the ancient Greeks conceived of nature along the lines of a living organism - or considered that the living organism was the paradigm of a natural thing. To understand Thales' proclamation that "all is water" requires that we not think of water as a dead, inert, material stuff, but as a kind of dynamic, self moving substance (or how else could we reconcile that claim with another famously cryptic claim by Thales that "all things are full of gods"?). He argues, by contrast, that the early modern or renaissance thinkers responsible for the "scientific revolution" conceived of nature mechanistically, as a kind of machine, an aggregate of parts that exert forces on other parts. Note that this is a radical shift: whereas for the Greeks (as Aristotle put it) things in nature are self moving, for the Renaissance thinkers nature is inert, which means it can't move itself but has to be pushed. To read Aristotle with a mechanistic conception in mind, is to radically misread him. The modern or twentieth century conception of nature, Collingwood argues, was pointing in a new direction, towards a conception of nature as an evolving historical system. Not only Darwin, but quantum mechanics and ecology can be thought of along these lines. To understand a natural system or process rightly according to these (then) new approaches is to recognize it as having come to be what it is as a result of an ongoing history of interactions with other systems or processes.
Collingwood's study is obviously of historical interest, but also for its methodology, for exemplifying a rigorous philosophical approach to the history of ideas, and for its important implications regarding the relations between history, science and philosophy. Scientists, he argues, need to understand the methods and teachings of history as much as historians and philosophers need to be attentive to the results of natural science, which can only be understood properly in light of history.