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Structuring the Universe: The Making and Reception of Thomas Wright’s Stellar Astronomy

published 3 Dec 2021 - Tinius Dragland

In 1750, the English astronomer Thomas Wright published his treatise An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe. In it, he explained the visual phenomenon of the Milky Way in terms of an ordered structure of stars surrounding a centre of various possible natures. Wright’s originality lay in being the first to give the Milky Way an ordered structure, and while his supposed structure has since been disproved, his hypothesis influenced later astronomical inquiries into the shape and nature of the Milky Way. Such is the story of how Wright fits into the development of modern astronomical conceptions of the universe. But there is another story about how theology played an essential role in Wright’s astronomical conceptions of the Milky Way and of the universe.

Wright’s cosmology fuses theology and science, and historians have taken different approaches to this. Most earlier accounts misunderstood the scientific aspects of his work and ignored the theological, while two recent accounts, from historians of science Michael Hoskin and Simon Schaffer, have taken this fusion into consideration.[1] Of these, only Schaffer emphasises the implications of this fusion for the reception of Wright’s theories.[2] This reception is especially clear in the interpretation of Wright in Immanuel Kant’s Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels, 1755), which is often considered to be a founding work for the ‘evolutionary cosmology’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is often said today that science and religion are opposites, or even that they are impossible to reconcile, but we find a very different picture in 18th-century astronomy. Situated between medieval and Renaissance cosmologies on one hand, and 19th-century astronomy on the other, it represents an interesting point of development in a process of a supposed secularisation of science.

Plate XXV: Wright’s depiction of the Milky Way, and universe, as stars in a circular band around a divine centre. Outside the divine centre is a zone without celestial objects (it is best identified by the ’rays’ which emanate from the centre into it, and the lack of dots representing celestial objects). The empty space is followed by a circular band depicting various stars and star centres. All solar systems, including our own, would be found in this circular band. Wright believed the areas of the universe beyond the circular band to be the physical location of hell. The Milky Way as a visual [4] phenomena, was explained by the earth’s position in the circular band as being close to either of its ends, that is, close to either the band’s border with the empty zone, or with hell. When looking from this position towards the interior of the band, we would see a light caused by the high concentration of stars in this specific direction, i.e. what we call the Milky Way. (Wright, Theory, p. 64)

My research has focused on Wright’s published primary sources and several of his scripts in the Thomas Wright catalogue in the Durham University archive. Most of these scripts were devoted to the divine nature of the universe and a thorough integration of science and theology.[3] This leads me to suggest that historians have overemphasised the physical, or scientific, aspects of Wright’s theories, thus limiting their lens of his influence to strictly scientific terms. Consequently, the influence of Wright’s theological theories on Kant, was far greater than has previously been recognised. To set the scene, I will start with an account of Wright’s cosmology and its reception in the eighteenth century.

Wright’s primary concern in the Original Theory was to explain the Milky Way as a collection of stars in a circular band in orbit around a supposed divine centre. Observational evidence of nebulae and the Milky Way suggested that stars outside of our solar system could not be dispersed at equal distances from each other, and that in some areas stars were closer together.[3] Subsequently, Wright extended the ordered structure of our solar system, by analogy, to the structure of a supposed star-system, in which solar systems were in orbit around a divine centre (Plate XXV). Wright also proposed a view of the Milky Way as a structure of concentric spheres, in which the divine centre was surrounded by one or several orbiting shells of stars (Plate XXVII).[4] He later came to prefer this explanation, but in the Original Theory he left the two versions equally probable, and it was the flat, disc-shaped structure which received the attention of Kant and others.[5]

Plate XXVII: Wright’s depiction of the universe as the divine centre surrounded by concentric spheres of stars. Rather than a single plane, the spherical structure surrounded the divine centre in all directions and had similar empty spaces between each supposed ‘shell’ of stars. Again, earth would be found close to either edge of one these shells, resulting in the visual phenomena of the Milky Way when looking towards the shell’s centre, and denser collection of stars. (Wright, Original Theory, p. 64)

What exactly was the divine centre of the Milky Way, according to Wright? He answered this question in the final chapters of the Original Theory. Given that the Milky Way was either flat and circular, or spherical, he proposed that the centre was the seat of the ‘Sacred Throne of God’, from which a ‘paternal Power productive of all Life, Light, and the Infinity of Things’ spread to the rest of the universe.[6] Because of this centre the ‘Laws of Nature have their Origin’, and the universe is set into ‘regular Order and just Harmony’.[7] Evidently, Wright believed that this centre was the cause of order and structure in the universe. Moreover, the distinctions between the physical ‘zones’ of the Milky Way--the divine centre, the starry region, and the outer bounds--made way for a theological structure. The moral perfection of the planets and their supposed inhabitants followed in descending order, from the most perfect in the centre (heaven), followed by those in the circular band of celestial objects including our own planet, and the least perfect in the outer region (hell).[8] This is perhaps the most significant way in which Wright’s fusion of theological and science led to a concrete formulation of the structure of the universe.[9]

Wright believed a primary purpose of astronomy was its potential to improve our virtues and morality, as an underlying belief associated with his worldview was that the human soul could move between the different theological and physical zones after death.[10] Astronomy was practiced, then, not just to discover the arrangement of God’s universe, but also to teach us how to reach the “better” regions in our afterlives.

Wright’s Original Theory was a significant source for Kant’s theory of the physical structure of the Milky Way. Wright’s flat and circular conception of the Milky Way, as presented in Plate XXV, served as the basis for Kant’s physical structure of the Milky Way in his Universal Natural History. His interpretation of Wright came from a summary of Wright’s Original Theory in a German newspaper, which he cited in the introduction of the Universal Natural History.[11] Kant did add slight changes to the supposed structure of the Milky Way, suggesting that the stars were spread throughout its entirety, rather than in a circular band. This minor variance has caused significant confusion for historians and astronomers trying to establish the extent of Wright’s influence on Kant. Approaches to this influence have usually dealt solely with the physical conceptions of the Milky Way in Wright and Kant’s work, and often to the detriment of understanding their theological similarities.

It has been mistakenly claimed that ‘Kant… considered himself entitled to examine in purely natural terms the proposals of Wright concerning the structure of our system’.[12] While not explicitly labelling the centre as, for example, the ‘divine seat of Providence’, Kant held that, at the beginning of time, matter was spread uniformly throughout the universe, before God created a singular point of matter with higher density, from which the rest of the universe would gradually fall into order.[13] In progressive stages, order and harmony – as derived from the natural laws of attraction and repulsion in Newtonian cosmology – would spread from this centre to the outer rims of the universe, where irregular matter would be shaped into celestial objects (stars, planets, moons, etc).[14] In Kant’s cosmology, this process was in continuous motion as the part of the Divine Creation. Although Kant articulates his point with less reference to divinity, the structure seen as emanating from the centre is strikingly similar to Wright’s. The relationship between the physical and theological principles is significant because Kant’s centre served as the basis for his theological conception of the universe.

Kant’s theological structure of the universe was also significantly influenced by Wright’s cosmology. According to Kant, the ‘fineness’ of a soul was directly related to the density of the matter of the corporeal body it was located in. Consequently, one would find an increasingly higher degree of virtuous and moral perfection in the supposed inhabitants of planets the farther away from the centre of the universe one went.[15] This theological order is again very similar to Wright’s, although with the degree of moral perfection reversed. It is of great interest as Kant also believed that human souls could traverse from one astronomical region to another.[16] On the one hand, the physical laws of attraction and repulsion explained the movement of matter and the creations of celestial objects. On the other, the gradual perfection of the universe was as much a theological and moral process as a physical one. Kant’s basis for an evolutionary cosmology was therefore both scientific and theological.

The influence of Wright on Kant is far greater than what has been previously assumed. There are similarities in both their physical conceptions of the Milky Way, and in their theological understandings of the universe. Through his influence on Kant, it thus appears that Wright was involved in developing the origins of the evolutionary cosmology of the 19th-century. Evolutionary cosmology grew tremendously as a theory over the century following Wright and Kant’s publications, and discussions of it often focused its religious implications. Some works created heated controversies for their alleged blasphemy or impiety in suggesting that the universe was in a state of constant change, like Robert Chamber’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. It is interesting to consider then the theological significance in the arguments of Wright and Kant which helped shape the origins of evolutionary cosmology. An interesting area for future research would be to see how these origins related to, or shaped, the discourse on evolutionary cosmology which followed.




1 For some early accounts see, Augustus De Morgan, see, Augustus De Morgan, ‘An Account of the Speculations of Thomas Wright of Durham’ in Philosophical Magazine, 32 (3), 1848, pp. 241-252; historian Vera Gushee, see, Vera Gushee, ‘Thomas Wright of Durham, Astronomer’ in ISIS, 33, 1941, pp. 196-218; and historian F. A. Paneth, see F.A Paneth, ‘Thomas Wright of Durham and Immanuel Kant’ in Durham University Journal, N.S. 2, 1941, pp. 111-125; and F.A. Paneth ‘Thomas Wright’s “Original Theory” of the Milky Way’ in Nature, 166 (4210, 1950, pp. 49-50;. Back to Page.

2 Simon Schaffer, ‘The Phoenix of Nature: Fire and Evolutionary Cosmology in Wright and Kant’ in Journal for the History of Astronomy, vol 9, no. 3, Oct. 1978, pp. 180-200. Back to Page

3 For the manuscripts and his theological writings, see, ‘Thomas Wright manuscripts’, Durham University Library: Archives and Special Collections (Palace Green, Durham); of particular interest is WRM.6/1-28, the “Notes Variorum”. Back to Page

4 Thomas Wright, An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, Founded upon the Laws of Nature: and Solving by Mathematicla Principles the General Phænomena of the Visible Creation, and Particularly the Via Lactea, Cambridge Library Collection – Astronomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 48. Back to Page

5 Wright, Original Theory, p. 64. Back to Page

6 Michael Hoskin and G.D. Rochester, ‘Thomas Wright and the Royal Society’ in Journal of the History of Astronomy, 23, (1992), pp. 167-172, (p. 167); Thomas Wright, Second or Singular Thoughts Upon the Theory of the Universe, ed. by Michael Hoskin (London: Dawson of Pall Mall, 1968). Back to Page

7 Original Theory, p. 78-9; for the ‘Sacred Throne of God’, see, Harry Woolf, ‘Thomas Wright’s Theological Cosmology.’ ISIS, vol 63, no. 2, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972), pp. 235-41, (p. 237). Back to Page

8 Original Theory, p. 79. Back to Page

9 Woolf, p. 237. Back to Page

10 For Hoskin, see, Michael Hoskin, ‘The Cosmology of Thomas Wright of Durham’, p. 44; for Schaffer, see, Schaffer ‘Phoenix of Nature’, p. 181. Back to Page

11 For Wright, see, Original Theory, p. 35 and 47; for Schaffer, see, also ‘Phoenix of Nature’, p. 181 and 188. Back to Page

  1. See, Immanuel Kant, ‘Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens or Essay on the Constitution and the Mechanical Origin of the Whole Universe According to Newtonian Principles (1755)’ in Kant: Natural Science, ed. by Eric Watkins, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 182-308, (p. 201 and 216). Back to Page

13 Hoskin, ‘Cosmology of Thomas Wright’, p. 48. Back to Page

14 Kant ‘Universal Natural History’, p. 261. Back to Page

15 Kant, p. 265. On the borrowing of attraction and repulsion from Newtonian philosophy, see, Kant, p. 204. Back to Page

16 Kant, p. 279-80. Back to Page

17 Kant, p. 273 and 307. Back to Page