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Tag Archives: corpuscular hypothesis

Antoine Le Grand, Robert Boyle and Speculative Philosophy

Peter Anstey writes…

Antoine Le Grand (1629–1699) was probably the most important Cartesian philosopher living in England in the latter decades of the seventeenth century. A Franciscan who was domiciled in England from 1656 until his death, he published a series of Latin works in the 1670s defending Descartes’ philosophy using the traditional approach of arguing from first (Cartesian) principles. The books include:

  1. Institutio philosophiae, London, 1672 (2nd edn 1680)
  2. Historia naturae, London, 1673 (2nd edn 1680)
  3. Dissertatio de carentia sensus & cognitionis in brutis, London, 1675.

Updated versions of these three books were subsequently brought together in an English translation that appeared in 1694 under the title An Entire Body of Philosophy According to the Principles of the Famous Renate Des Cartes, published by the entrepreneur Richard Blome. The title is apt because Le Grand’s magnum opus does indeed present a complete Cartesian philosophy, including metaphysics, logic, natural philosophy, and ethics.

Two of his works are of particular interest to students of early modern experimental philosophy. The first is his Historia naturae, variis experimentis & ratiociniis elucidata secundum principia stabilita in Institutione Philosophiae (The history of nature elucidated by various experiments and reasoning, according to the principles established in Institutes of [Cartesian] Philosophy). The first 1673 edition of this work was dedicated to Robert Boyle who is described in the dedication as a promoter of experimental philosophy [experimentis Philosophia]. The second 1680 edition is not dedicated to Boyle, but mentions the illustrious Bacon in its dedication to John Lumley.

One might expect, therefore, that Le Grand’s book will take the form of a Baconian natural history, after the manner of Boyle’s own natural histories. Yet what Le Grand presents is structured in a similar way to an Aristotelian textbook of natural philosophy but one founded upon Cartesian natural philosophical principles. The salient feature, however, is that it includes copious references to experiments that others have performed, all of them brought to the task of establishing the truth of Le Grand’s form of Cartesianism: ‘my intention in this work …. is to show that all the phenomena we observe throughout [nature] conform well to the principles in [my] Institutes of Philosophy‘ (Historia naturae, 1673, Preface).  Le Grand’s Historia naturae then, can hardly be described as a contribution to the natural historical program of the experimental philosophers. It is to my knowledge, however, the earliest Cartesian natural history written in the wake of the emergence of experimental philosophy.

The second book of interest is Le Grand’s compilation, An Entire Body of Philosophy According to the Principles of the Famous Renate Des Cartes. The first part, the Institution of Philosophy, contains ten sub-parts. The last three sub-parts concern the nature of humans: the human body, the human mind, and ethics. When we drill down to the final chapter of the sub-part that pertains to the human body, we find that it concerns the nature and use of medicines.

Le Grand, An Entire Body of Philosophy, London, 1694

This chapter is of singular interest because it contains a long discussion of specific medicines, that is, those remedies that were thought by some physicians to be especially efficacious in the cure of particular diseases. It turns out, however, that this long discussion of specifics is a plagiarised summary of the first dissertation of Boyle’s book On the Reconcileableness of Specific Medicines to the Corpuscular Philosophy (1685). Worse still, the publisher Richard Blome, claims on the title page that the whole book has been translated from the Latin originals, including ‘large Additions of the Author, never yet Published’. However, there is irrefutable evidence that the plagiarised material from Boyle’s Specific Medicines was taken directly from the original English edition, i.e. none of this material derives from a Latin original. So, what Le Grand has to say about specifics is exactly what Boyle said about them, sometimes word-for-word! Whether Le Grand is responsible for this or it is a presumptuous addition written or sanctioned by Blome is unknown, though the interweaving of the paraphrases with verbatim quotes from Boyle suggests that it does not derive from Le Grand himself who preferred to write in French and Latin.

Nevertheless, there are two important features of this act of plagiarism that pertain to speculative philosophy. First, where Boyle used the corpuscular hypothesis to explain the mode of operation of specific medicines, Le Grand appropriates Boyle’s corpuscular explanations in the defence of Cartesianism. Here we have a very good example of the compatibility of corpuscularianism and Cartesianism that Boyle highlighted in his early expositions of the speculative corpuscular hypothesis. (See Boyle’s Certain Physiological Essays, Works of Robert Boyle, eds Hunter and Davis, London, 1999–2000, 2: 87.)

Second, in spite Le Grand’s appropriation of some of the experimental evidence cited in Boyle’s book, it should not be thought that we have here a Cartesian doing experimental philosophy. For Boyle is explicit in a number of places in Specific Medicines that he is writing a speculative work providing speculative corpuscular explanations of the operation of specifics: ‘the ensuing discourse is for the main of a Speculative nature’ (ibid., 10: 353). Le Grand is doing the same. In fact, this characterises much of Le Grand’s use of experimental observations in the rest of his Entire Body of Philosophy: experimental evidence is not considered in its own right but is almost always brought to the aid of his defence of Cartesianism.

For example, like Jacques Rohault, he argues that the Torricelian experiment does not provide evidence for the existence of a vacuum because the glass tube has pores ‘which are penetratrable by the Subtil matter’ (An Entire Body of Philosophy, Part II, 6 = Historia naturae, 1673, 15). This use of experimental evidence is precisely what experimental philosophers opposed and the reason why Boyle was quite clear that he was indulging in speculation in Specific Medicines. In this Le Grand resembles some of the Cartesians in France;  he was well apprised of the fruit of the new experimental philosophy of his day, but rather than contributing to it, he appropriated it in defense of Cartesianism.

If any readers know of other Cartesian natural histories from the 1670s I would be very keen to hear from you.