Tuesday, January 6th, 2015 | Peter Anstey | No Comments
Peter Anstey writes …
The mechanical philosophy, at least since the work of Marie Boas Hall and E. J. Dijksterhuis, has played a prominent role in the historiography of early modern natural philosophy. By contrast, experimental philosophy has been largely absent. Take, for example, Richard Westfall’s The Construction of Modern Science (Wiley, 1971). It has a whole chapter dedicated to the mechanical philosophy whereas the term ‘experimental philosophy’ appears only once in the entire book –– on the penultimate page –– and this is in a quote from Newton’s ‘General Scholium’ in a discussion of Newton’s concept of force and the term’s presence is irrelevant to Westfall’s narrative. It is also rather telling that the term ‘experimental philosophy’ does not even appear in the 662 pages of Floris Cohen’s The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (Chicago, 1994).
It is interesting to reflect, therefore, that the English terms ‘experimental philosophy’ and ‘mechanical philosophy’ came into common use around about the same time, in the late 1650s. Moreover, when the new experimental philosophy emerged in England in the 1660s it was frequently associated with and even conflated with the mechanical philosophy. (Experimental philosophy was also commonly identified with corpuscular philosophy, though this is not our concern here.) Robert Hooke famously spoke of ‘the real, the mechanical, the experimental Philosophy’ in the Preface to Micrographia of 1665. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the two had come to be fairly clearly demarcated. The Newtonian John Keill, for instance, lists four ‘sects’ of his day, two of which are the experimental philosophers and the mechanical philosophers (Introductio ad verum physicam, Oxford, 1702, p. 2).
The process by which this ‘decoupling’ occurred is quite convoluted and this is the first in a series of posts that will attempt to set out some points of reference from which we can understand how experimental philosophy and mechanical philosophy came to be clearly demarcated.
Let us begin with two Henrys, Henry More and Henry Stubbe. More was not a practitioner of experimental philosophy: in fact, he was not a natural philosopher at all. He was, however, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Stubbe was a physician and critic of the Royal Society and experimental philosophy. Now when Henry Stubbe attacked the Royal Society, and in particular its apologist Joseph Glanvill, he claimed that Henry More had given up his association with the Society because of the Society’s commitment to the mechanical philosophy which tended to atheism (Stubbe, Legends no Histories, London, 1670, p. 173).
More responded to Stubbe’s claims in a letter to Glanvill (c. 1671):
he [Stubbe] looks upon that Mechanick Philosophy which I oppose, to be the Philosophy the Royal Society doth profess, or would support. But the Philosophy which they aim at, is a more perfect Philosophy, as yet to be raised out of faithful and skilful Experiments in Nature, which is so far from tending to Atheism, that I am confident, it will utterly rout it and the Mechanical Philosophy at once, in that sense which I oppose, namely, as it signifies a Philosophy that professeth, That Matter having such a Quantity of Motion as it has, would contribute it self into all those Phaenomena we see in Nature. (Glanvill, A Praefatory Answer to Mr Henry Stubbe, p. 155)
More opposes a mechanical philosophy that is competent to explain everything and leaves no place for a deity. But this does not mean that he opposes mechanical explanations tout court. Alluding to a passage that Stubbe quotes from Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal-Society of London he says:
I believe indeed most of us, I am sure my self does conceive, that Generation, Corruption, Alteration and all the Vicissitudes of corporeal Nature are nothing else but Unions and Dissolutions … of little Bodies or Particles of differing Figures, Magnitudes, and Velocities. But this thus bounded is not the Mechanical Philosophy, but part of the old Pythagorick or Mosaick Philosophy … (p. 156)
More is happy to acquiesce in corpuscular explanations, so long as their limitations are recognised. He goes on:
I think it is plain, what Mechanical Philosophy that is, that may incline Men to Atheism, and that is not the experimental Philosophy, which the Royal Society professes. (p. 157)
Clearly More accepts both the corpuscular explanations of a mitigated form of mechanism and experimental philosophy. Just how he conceives the relation between the two, however, is not clear from this letter.
When we turn to Stubbe we find a similar lack of differentiation. For example, earlier in Legends no Histories, Stubbe claims that no prince has ever been called great because he used ‘any knick-knacks of Experimental or Mechanical Philosophy alone’ (p. 4).
What these passages show is that for some writers the relation between mechanical philosophy and experimental philosophy was not clearly defined. They also illustrate how tempting it would be for those scholars who view the emergence of modern science through the lens of mechanism to reduce experimental philosophy to mechanical philosophy.
It may even be that part of the explanation of the relative neglect of experimental philosophy in the historiography of early modern natural philosophy is the tendency to conflate it with mechanical philosophy. In my next post I shall examine Robert Boyle’s view of the relation between mechanical and experimental philosophy.