Mechanical philosophy

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The mechanical philosophy is a form of natural philosophy which compares the universe to a large-scale mechanism (ie a machine). The mechanical philosophy is associated with the scientific revolution of Early Modern Europe. One of the first expositions of universal mechanism is found in the opening passages of Leviathan by Hobbes published in 1651.

Natural philosophy ancient philosophical study of nature and physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science. It is considered to be the precursor of natural science

Natural philosophy or philosophy of nature was the philosophical study of nature and the physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science. It is considered to be the precursor of natural science.

Machine tool using energy to perform an intended action

A machine is a mechanical structure that uses power to apply forces and control movement to perform an intended action. Machines can be driven by animals and people, by natural forces such as wind and water, and by chemical, thermal, or electrical power, and include a system of mechanisms that shape the actuator input to achieve a specific application of output forces and movement. They can also include computers and sensors that monitor performance and plan movement, often called mechanical systems.

<i>Leviathan</i> (Hobbes book) Book by Thomas Hobbes

Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil—commonly referred to as Leviathan—is a book written by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and published in 1651. Its name derives from the biblical Leviathan. The work concerns the structure of society and legitimate government, and is regarded as one of the earliest and most influential examples of social contract theory. Leviathan ranks as a classic Western work on statecraft comparable to Machiavelli's The Prince. Written during the English Civil War (1642–1651), Leviathan argues for a social contract and rule by an absolute sovereign. Hobbes wrote that civil war and the brute situation of a state of nature could only be avoided by strong, undivided government.


Some intellectual historians and critical theorists argue that early mechanical philosophy was tied to disenchantment and the rejection of the idea of nature as living or animated by spirits or angels. [1] Other scholars, however, have noted that early mechanical philosophers nevertheless believed in magic, Christianity and spiritualism. [2]

Intellectual history refers to the history of ideas and thinkers. This history cannot be considered without the knowledge of the humans who created, discussed, wrote about, and in other ways were concerned with ideas. Intellectual history as practiced by historians is parallel to the history of philosophy as done by philosophers, and is more akin to the history of ideas. Its central premise is that ideas do not develop in isolation from the people who developed and use them, and that one must study ideas not only as abstract propositions but also in terms of the culture, lives, and historical contexts.

Critical theory philosophy that sociological understandings primarily use should be social reform

Critical theory is the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities. As a term, critical theory has two meanings with different origins and histories: the first originated in sociology and the second originated in literary criticism, whereby it is used and applied as an umbrella term that can describe a theory founded upon critique; thus, the theorist Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks "to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them."

In social science, disenchantment is the cultural rationalization and devaluation of religion apparent in modern society. The term was borrowed from Friedrich Schiller by Max Weber to describe the character of modernized, bureaucratic, secularized Western society, where scientific understanding is more highly valued than belief, and where processes are oriented toward rational goals, as opposed to traditional society, where for Weber, "the world remains a great enchanted garden".

Mechanism and determinism

Some ancient philosophies held that the universe is reducible to completely mechanical principles—that is, the motion and collision of matter. This view was closely linked with materialism and reductionism, especially that of the atomists and to a large extent, stoic physics. Later mechanists believed the achievements of the scientific revolution of the 17th century had shown that all phenomena could eventually be explained in terms of "mechanical laws": natural laws governing the motion and collision of matter that imply a determinism. If all phenomena can be explained entirely through the motion of matter under physical laws, as the gears of a clock determine that it must strike 2:00 an hour after striking 1:00, all phenomena must be completely determined, past, present or future.

Matter substance that has rest mass and volume, or several other definitions

In classical physics and general chemistry, matter is any substance that has mass and takes up space by having volume. All everyday objects that can be touched are ultimately composed of atoms, which are made up of interacting subatomic particles, and in everyday as well as scientific usage, "matter" generally includes atoms and anything made up of them, and any particles that act as if they have both rest mass and volume. However it does not include massless particles such as photons, or other energy phenomena or waves such as light or sound. Matter exists in various states. These include classical everyday phases such as solid, liquid, and gas – for example water exists as ice, liquid water, and gaseous steam – but other states are possible, including plasma, Bose–Einstein condensates, fermionic condensates, and quark–gluon plasma.

Materialism is a form of philosophical monism which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions. According to philosophical materialism, mind and consciousness are by-products or epiphenomena of material processes without which they cannot exist. This concept directly contrasts with idealism, where mind and consciousness are first-order realities to which matter is subject and material interactions are secondary.

Reductionism Philosophical view explaining systems in terms of smaller parts

Reductionism is any of several related philosophical ideas regarding the associations between phenomena which can be described in terms of other simpler or more fundamental phenomena.

Development of the mechanical philosophy

The natural philosophers directly concerned with developing the mechanical philosophy were largely a French group, together with some of their personal connections. They included Pierre Gassendi, Marin Mersenne and René Descartes. Also involved were the English thinkers Sir Kenelm Digby, Thomas Hobbes and Walter Charleton; and the Dutch natural philosopher Isaac Beeckman. [3]

Pierre Gassendi French philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, priest, and scientist

Pierre Gassendi was a French philosopher, priest, astronomer, and mathematician. While he held a church position in south-east France, he also spent much time in Paris, where he was a leader of a group of free-thinking intellectuals. He was also an active observational scientist, publishing the first data on the transit of Mercury in 1631. The lunar crater Gassendi is named after him.

Marin Mersenne French theologian, philosopher, mathematician and music theorist, often referred to as the "father of acoustics"

Marin Mersenne, Marin Mersennus or le PèreMersenne was a French polymath, whose works touched a wide variety of fields. He is perhaps best known today among mathematicians for Mersenne prime numbers, those which can be written in the form Mn = 2n − 1 for some integer n. He also developed Mersenne's laws, which describe the harmonics of a vibrating string, and his seminal work on music theory, Harmonie universelle, for which he is referred to as the "father of acoustics". Mersenne, an ordained priest, had many contacts in the scientific world and has been called "the center of the world of science and mathematics during the first half of the 1600s" and, because of his ability to make connections between people and ideas, "the post-box of Europe". He was also a member of the Minim religious order and wrote and lectured on theology and philosophy.

René Descartes 17th-century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist

René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–1649) of his life in the Dutch Republic after serving for a while in the Dutch States Army of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. One of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age, Descartes is also widely regarded as one of the founders of modern philosophy.

Robert Boyle used "mechanical philosophers" to refer both to those with a theory of "corpuscles" or atoms of matter, such as Gassendi and Descartes, and those who did without such a theory. One common factor was the clockwork universe view. His meaning would be problematic in the cases of Hobbes and Galileo Galilei; it would include Nicolas Lemery and Christiaan Huygens, as well as himself. Newton would be a transitional figure. Contemporary usage of "mechanical philosophy" dates back to 1952 and Marie Boas Hall. [4]

Robert Boyle Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor

Robert Boyle was an Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor. Boyle is largely regarded today as the first modern chemist, and therefore one of the founders of modern chemistry, and one of the pioneers of modern experimental scientific method. He is best known for Boyle's law, which describes the inversely proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of a gas, if the temperature is kept constant within a closed system. Among his works, The Sceptical Chymist is seen as a cornerstone book in the field of chemistry. He was a devout and pious Anglican and is noted for his writings in theology.

Atom smallest unit of a chemical element

An atom is the smallest constituent unit of ordinary matter that has the properties of a chemical element. Every solid, liquid, gas, and plasma is composed of neutral or ionized atoms. Atoms are extremely small; typical sizes are around 100 picometers.

Clockwork universe

In the history of science, the clockwork universe compares the universe to a mechanical clock. It continues ticking along, as a perfect machine, with its gears governed by the laws of physics, making every aspect of the machine predictable.

In France the mechanical philosophy spread mostly through private academies and salons; in England in the Royal Society. In England it did not have a large initial impact in universities, which were somewhat more receptive in France, the Netherlands and Germany. [5]

Royal Society English learned society for science

The President, Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as the Royal Society, is a learned society. Founded on 28 November 1660, it was granted a royal charter by King Charles II as "The Royal Society". It is the oldest national scientific institution in the world. The society is the United Kingdom's and Commonwealth of Nations' Academy of Sciences and fulfils a number of roles: promoting science and its benefits, recognising excellence in science, supporting outstanding science, providing scientific advice for policy, fostering international and global co-operation, education and public engagement.

Hobbes and the mechanical philosophy

One of the first expositions of universal mechanism is found in the opening passages of Leviathan (1651) by Hobbes (1651); the book's second chapter invokes the principle of inertia, foundational for the mechanical philosophy. [6] Boyle did not mention him as one of the group; but at the time they were on opposite sides of a controversy. Richard Westfall deems him a mechanical philosopher. [7]

Hobbes's major statement of his natural philosophy is in De Corpore (1655). [8] In part II and III of this work he goes a long way towards identifying fundamental physics with geometry; and he freely mixes concepts from the two areas. [9]

Descartes and the mechanical philosophy

Descartes was also a mechanist. A substance dualist, he argued that reality was composed of two radically different types of substance: extended matter, on the one hand, and immaterial mind, on the other. Descartes argued that one cannot explain the conscious mind in terms of the spatial dynamics of mechanistic bits of matter cannoning off each other. Nevertheless, his understanding of biology was mechanistic in nature:

"I should like you to consider that these functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels." (Descartes, Treatise on Man, p.108)

His scientific work was based on the traditional mechanistic understanding that animals and humans are completely mechanistic automata. Descartes' dualism was motivated by the seeming impossibility that mechanical dynamics could yield mental experiences.

Beeckman and the mechanical philosophy

Isaac Beeckman's theory of mechanical philosophy described in his books Centuria and Journal is grounded in two components: matter and motion. To explain matter, Beeckman relied on atomism philosophy which explains that matter is composed of tiny inseparable particles that interact to create the objects seen in life. To explain motion, he supported the idea of inertia, a theory generated by Isaac Newton. [10]

Newton's mechanical philosophy

Isaac Newton ushered in a weaker notion of mechanism that tolerated the action at a distance of gravity. Interpretations of Newton's scientific work in light of his occult research have suggested that he did not properly view the universe as mechanistic, but instead populated by mysterious forces and spirits and constantly sustained by God and angels. [11] Later generations of philosophers who were influenced by Newton example were nonetheless often mechanists. Among them were Julien Offray de La Mettrie and Denis Diderot.

The mechanist thesis

The French mechanist and determinist Pierre Simon de Laplace formulated some implications of the mechanist thesis, writing:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of the past and the cause of the future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

See also

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Physics is the fundamental branch of science. The primary objects of study are matter and energy. Physics is, in one sense, the oldest and most basic academic pursuit; its discoveries find applications throughout the natural sciences, since matter and energy are the basic constituents of the natural world. The other sciences are generally more limited in their scope and may be considered branches that have split off from physics to become sciences in their own right. Physics today may be divided loosely into classical physics and modern physics.

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Natural science Branch of science about the natural world

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Voluntarism is "any metaphysical or psychological system that assigns to the will a more predominant role than that attributed to the intellect", or equivalently "the doctrine that will is the basic factor, both in the universe and in human conduct". This description has been applied to various points of view from different cultural eras in the areas of metaphysics, psychology, political philosophy and theology.

Isaac Beeckman was a Dutch philosopher and scientist, who, through his studies and contact with leading natural philosophers, may have "virtually given birth to modern atomism".

<i>The World</i> (Descartes) book by René Descartes

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In optics, the corpuscular theory of light, arguably set forward by Descartes (1637) states that light is made up of small discrete particles called "corpuscles" which travel in a straight line with a finite velocity and possess impetus. This was based on an alternate description of atomism of the time period. This theory cannot explain refraction, diffraction and interference.

Corpuscularianism is a physical theory that supposes all matter to be composed of minute particles. The theory became important in the seventeenth century; amongst the leading corpuscularians were Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and John Locke.

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  2. Josephson-Storm, Jason (2017). "Chapter 2". The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. University of Chicago Press. ISBN   0-226-40336-X.
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  9. Andrew Janiak; Eric Schliesser (12 January 2012). Interpreting Newton: Critical Essays. Cambridge University Press. p. 34 with note 3. ISBN   978-0-521-76618-0 . Retrieved 16 April 2013.
  10. Berkel, Klaas (2013). Isaac Beeckman on Matter and Motion : Mechanical Philosophy in the Making. Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 76–77. ISBN   978-1421409368.
  11. Josephson-Storm (2017), p. 43