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The Mechanical Philosophy

Page history last edited by Kristy Carey 12 years, 3 months ago


Starting in the early seventeenth century, the worldview of most natural philosophers began to change. During this time, there was a switch to a cosmology in which nature operates like a machine, where all natural phenomena are explained by the interaction of minute, atomic particles. This idea is called mechanical philosophy, and its goal was to remove the occult properties of matter that had puzzled natural philosophers for centuries.



René Descartes (1596-1650)

Considered the founder of modern philosophy, Descartes was one of the major proponents of mechanical philosophy. One of his major influences was Dr. Beakman, a Dutch physicist who focused on contact action between particles. Descartes found Beakman's views to be superior to Aristotelian ideas, and wanted to create a natural philosophy that would erase the prevelant ideas of Aristotle. As a reaction against philosophical skepticism, Descartes sought absolute certainty in his system. In Discourse on Method, Descartes tried to achieve this feat by utilizing an extended form of the Skeptics systematic doubt. He scrutinized everything he knew and discarded a fact if it contained any uncertainty. This process left him with one undeniable truth: cogito, ergo sum (I think or I am thinking, therefore I exist). Descartes concluded that thought was an absolute truth because he was aware of using it while utilizing systematic doubt. Relying on this base, he built up his own axioms, and drew his own conclusions about the nature of the world. He reasoned starting with God and then reconstructed how the world is put together in relationship to a person's senses. He also rejected the one-to-one correspondance between knowledge and experience.


Descartes reasoned that matter contains two properties: extension and number. He explained that these were the only clear and distinct properties that matter had. He also explained that the earth contained two substances, "res cogitas" and "res extensa." "Res cogitas"  considered the thinking substance, and "res extensa" the extended substance, or the material world. Secondary qualities, such as color or heat, were not properties of the bodies themselves, according to Descartes, but qualities merely perceived by humans. 


In Descartes' later works, such as Le Monde (1633) and the Principles of Philosophy (1644), he described some consequences to his philosophical system.  He mentioned that if we suppose that matter is an extension, then space and matter are infinite, making the universe also infinite. He also claimed that since space is divisble, matter is also infinitely divisible, which denys the existence of atoms.  Descartes proposed that because space is entirely filled by infinite space and matter that a true void may not exist. In his system, there was only one kind of matter. Descartes put forth that all change is brought about by corpuscular interactions initiated by God's initial motion. He concluded from this that animals are, being a part of this corpuscular world, nothing more than machines, whereas humans are separated as machines with minds. Descartes, wishing to entirely replace the Aristotelean corpus, also presented the first plausible alternative to Aristotle's cosmic spheres. Descartes proposed a "swirling vortex" of second matter that led the planets along their orbits.


Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655)

Although Gassendi's work and theories were hardly novel ventures in philosophy, his results are quite similar to Descartes.  Gassendi's method involved combing and picking through the ancient texts and compiling them into theories. His focus on atomism and the Epicureans led to his adoption of the ancient atomic theory. Later, he integrated the theory into mechanical philosophy. Gassendi also relied on magical and occult traditions and believed that some aspects of the world are meant never to be completely known.


Robert Boyle (1627-1691)

Boyle was a very wealthy nobleman and landlord as well as a religious young man until 1651. He was introduced to chemistry and alchemy in 1651 by the American alchemist, George Starkey. For his philosophical views, Boyle looked to the corpuscular alchemy of Starkey, the ideas of Descartes, Gassendi, and Daniel Sennert. His most famous work was the Skeptical Chemist, which argued against the Aristotelian view of elements.  In The Origin of Forms and Qualities (1666) he stated that the three properties of matter included size, shape, and motion.




Primary Sources



Key Terms and Definition


Mechanical philosophy:  Philosophy of the seventeenth century in which natural phenomena stems from the microscopic interactions of particles.

Res Cogitas:  In the world according to Descartes, the thinking substance or soul.

Res Extensa:  Descartes' extended substance, or matter, and the material world.

First Matter:  One of the three types of matter according to Descartes; the emission matter that acts by creating a pressure in space related to the sun.

Second Matter:  The second of the three types of matter acording to Descartes, it is responsible for transmission and fills all space, transmits light and is responsible for the circular motion of the earth.

Third Matter:  This is the third type of matter according to Descartes, which is the reflective matter and represents all that we see in the world and all visible matter. 




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Comments (7)

Grant Berry said

at 10:00 am on Nov 17, 2008

Pretty basic intro. There's still plenty to talk about.

liz mastroianni said

at 7:09 pm on Nov 17, 2008

just looked over whats already here. added a little overall but not much and changed some of the wording, needs more tho.

Garrett McCormack said

at 8:42 pm on Nov 17, 2008

just added some definitions

Allie Haberthier said

at 10:53 pm on Nov 17, 2008

I just added some more information...and I don't know why it randomly underlined one of my sentences, but I can't undo it because it won't let me...

Jessica Germer said

at 1:45 am on Nov 18, 2008

i added a few things, but what i added at the end it kept it underlined along with the previous sentence and i also can't figure out how to undo it...

jgm829@... said

at 12:41 pm on Nov 18, 2008

I added a little info on Descartes and fixed some grammar. I tried to fix the underlined part at the end, but could not manage to do so.

Alyson Collins said

at 2:13 pm on Nov 18, 2008

Wasn't at lecture so I couldn't add any info, but I saw that verb tenses changes incorrectly from sentence to sentence and changed that and corrected a little grammar/typos.

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