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Chapitre D'ouvrage Année : 2022

What to Do with the Mechanical Philosophy?


The mechanical philosophy that emerged during the Scientific Revolution can be characterised as a reductionism according to which all physical phenomena are to be explained in terms of corpuscles of different sizes, shapes, and motions. It provided early modern natural philosophers with a unified view of nature that contrasted primarily with the Aristotelian view of nature, but also with other naturalist, hermetic, mystic, occultist, Paracelsian, and chymical accounts. Indeed, early modern natural philosophers devised mechanical explanations of almost every kind of phenomena; even supranatural phenomena, such as transubstantiation, or phenomena today described as paranormal, like the action of sympathetic powder on a wound, the influence of the stars on terrestrial events, or the identification of thieves with a divining rod, were given mechanical explanations. Confronting this explanatory deluge, historians adopted two opposing narratives. The first narrative amounted to view the mechanical philosophy as a well-identified category that captured something about early modern natural philosophy. The critical narratives of the last thirty years, however, have deconstructed both the belief that it is an adequate historical category and the conviction that it made a positive contribution to the sciences. First, in an era that privileged microscopic case studies over sweeping panoramas, and emic over etic categories, ‘mechanical philosophy’ came to be thought of as lacking any real descriptive significance. Second, from an evaluative point of view, it has been claimed that the mechanical philosophy had no impact on the development of the new sciences. Considering these descriptive and evaluative challenges, taking the mechanical philosophy at face value is historically inadequate and philosophically naïve. Hence the questions addressed in this chapter: What to do with the mechanical philosophy? Does it have to be dropped completely as a category? And, if not, how is it to be used? My view is that it captures something of the transformations that we put under the umbrella of the Scientific Revolution, but that it is not possible to treat it as a naturally given category. Rather, to be employed usefully, it needs conceptual clarification and historical specification.
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hal-03321773 , version 1 (09-01-2023)


  • HAL Id : hal-03321773 , version 1


Sophie Roux. What to Do with the Mechanical Philosophy?. Marshall Miller, David; Jalobeanu, Dana. Cambridge History of Philosophy of the Scientific Revolution, ‎ Cambridge University Press, 2022, 1108420303, 978-1108420303. ⟨hal-03321773⟩
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