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What Was “Mechanical” about “The Mechanical Philosophy”?

  • Alan Gabbey
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 239)

Abstract

During their first Entretien sur la pluralite des mondes, Fontenelle explains to the Marquise that contemplating Nature is like going to the Opera. You delight in the stage effects without worrying about how they are produced, unless you are a stage technician who has strayed into the parterre and who wonders how a particular effect was achieved. Natural philosophers are like the stage technician, except that in their case the machinery that produces Nature’s stage effects is so well hidden that the Platos, the Aristotles, and other illustrious figures of the past, such as the Pythagoreans, have never been able to agree on what that machinery might be. If these philosophical sages were to visit the Opera together, some would claim that a flight of Phaeton through the air, say, was due to an occult levitating power; others would say it was because Phaeton was composed of numbers in some manner; others, that Phaeton has a certain affinity for the flies, and is unhappy when he is not up there; yet others, that he has a horror of there being a vacuum up in the flies, so he must fill it, even though flying is not his strong suit. And there would be a hundred other explanatory fantasies that surprisingly have not destroyed the reputation of the whole of Antiquity. However, the latest word on Phaeton’s flight, from Descartes and other modern philosophers seeing the same opera, would be that it is all done with cords, weights and pulleys. Which is precisely how it is done.

Keywords

Ferrous Sulphate Mechanical Principle Work Principle Mechanical Hypothesis Stage Technician 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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References

  1. 1.
    “A ce compte, dit la Marquise, la philosophie est devenue bien mécanique? Si mécanique, répondisje, que je crains qu’on n’en ait bientôt honte. On veut que l’univers ne soit en grand que ce qu’une montre est en petit, et que tout s’y conduise par des mouvemens réglés qui dépendent de l’arrangement des parties. Avouez la vérité. N’avez-vous pas eu quelquefois une idée plus sublime de l’univers, et ne lui avez-vous point fait plus d’honneur qu’il ne méritait? J’ai vu des gens qui l’en estimaient moins, depuis qu’ils l’avaient connu. Et moi, répliqua-t-elle, je l’en estime beaucoup plus, depuis que je sais qu’il ressemble à une montre. Il est surprenant que l’ordre de la nature, tout admirable qu’il est, ne roule que sur des choses si simples” Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, Premier Soir (“Que la Terre est une Planète qui tourne sur elle-même et autour du Soleil”), Fontenelle, Oeuvres complètes [Depping], II, p. 11.Google Scholar
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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2004

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  • Alan Gabbey

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