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

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


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.


Ferrous Sulphate Mechanical Principle Work Principle Mechanical Hypothesis Stage Technician 
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  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
  2. 2.
    Montaigne is the best-known source for this sense of the term. In the Essais, I, 3 he writes: “Et le philosophe Lycon prescrit sagement à ses amis de mettre son corps où ils adviseront pour le mieux, et quant aux funerailles de les faire ny superflues ny mechaniques” Montaigne, Oeuvres complètes [Thibaudet e.a.], p. 23. Consult also Huguet, Dictionnaire de la langue française; Greimas e.a., Dictionnaire or Richelet, Dictionnaire françois. This sense of ”mechanical“ seems to be missing in 16th— and 17th—century English, where one of the meanings of “mechanical” was “mean” in the sense of inferior, low, or base, but apparently not quite in the sense of cheap or stingy (oED). I am indebted to Valentine Rodger, University of Western Ontario, for providing me with information and sources relating to the “mean” sense of mécanique in French literature. See also Sophie Roux’s contribution in this volume, sects. 1.4, 1.5. According to Griet Galle, writing on Peter of Auvergne’s negative attitude towards mechanics (Galle, “The Division of the Sciences”), there was a widespread assumption in the medieval period that the term “mechanical” derived from mechus, an adulterer. See also Allard, “Les Arts mécaniques aux yeux de l’idéologie médiévale.”Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For more on this background and on the slippery question of Newton’s conception of the discipline of “mechanics” see Gabbey, ”Newton’s Mathematical Principles’. Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    For other examples taken from writers of the time, see Gabbey, “Newton, Active Powers” pp. 336–337Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Boyle, The Works [Hunter e.a.], v, p. 360; Boyle, Selected Philosophical Papers [Stewart], p. 76.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Dibner Mss 1031 B, f. 5v. Quoted from the transcription in Dobbs, The Janus Face, Appendix A, p. 268. To improve readability of this extended quotationGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    without altering the meaning, I have ignored deletions, incorporated the interlineations, inserted a few commas, and modernized the spelling.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Galilei, Discoveries and Opinions [Drake], pp. 276–277.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    On the problem of “the mechanical philosophy” see Roux, La philosophie mécanique, I, pp. 3o–32.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Boyle, The Works [Hunter e.a.], II, p. 87.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    The equivalence is confirmed by the fact that the title About the Excellency and Grounds of the Mechanical Hypothesis, appended to The Excellency of Theology Compared with Natural Philosophy (1674), becomes About the Excellency and Grounds of the Corpuscular or Mechanical Hypothesis at the head of the first page of the main text. See Boyle, Selected Philosophical Papers [Stewart], p. 245.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Boyle, The Works [Hunter e.a.], y, p. 302; Boyle, Selected Philosophical Papers [Stewart], p. 17.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Boyle, Selected Philosophical Papers [Stewart], p. 133. Italics in original.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    See Gabbey, “Philosophia Cartesiana,” pp. 171–173, 234–236.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Froidmont to Plemp for Descartes, 13 September 1637, Descartes, Oeuvres [Adam e.a.], I, pp. 402, 406.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Si nimis crassa mea philosophia ipsi videtur, ex eo quod figuras, et magnitudines, et motus, ut mechanica consideret, illud damnat quod supra omnia existimo esse laudandum, et in quo me praecipue effero et glorior: nempe, quod eo philosophandi genere utar, in quo nulla ratio est, quae non sit mathematica et evidens, cujusque conclusiones veris experimentis confirmantur; adeo ut quicquid ex ejus principijs fieri posse concludi, fiat revera, quoties activa passivis, ut par est, applicantur. Miror ipsum non advertere illam, quae hactenus in usu fuit, Mechanicam, nihil aliud esse quam verae Physicae particulam, quae cum apud vulgaris philosophiae cultores nullum locum reperiret, apud Mathematicos se recepit. Mansit autem haec pars Philosophiae verior et minus corrupta, quam caeterae, quia cum ad usum et praxim referatur, quicumque in earn peccant, sumptuum jactura plecti solent, adeo ut si contemnat meam philosophandi rationem ex eo, quod sit similis Mechanicae, idem mihi esse videtur, ac si eamdem contemneret ex eo, quod sit vera,’ Descartes to Plemp for Froidmont, 3 October 1637, Descartes, Oeuvres [Adam e.a.], I, pp. 420–421.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    “Confido ipsum non adeo magnam occasionem reperturum pinguiusculam & mechanicam philosophiam meam contemnendi,” ibid., p. 43oGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Note that the first edition of Le mecaniche (c. 1593) appeared in Mersenne’s French translation of 1634 (Mersenne, Les Méchaniques de Galilée). Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Everyday examples are “nice and warm” “fast and loose, ”rack and ruin.” For Latin examples see Gildersleeve e.a., Latin Grammar, p. 436. I am indebted to Pascale Gabbey for ferreting out the technical term for this intriguing figure of speech.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    See further Sophie Roux’s discussion of the same texts in her contribution to this volume.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    See fn. io above.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    For details see Gabbey, “Descartes’ Physics” especially pp. 319–320.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Such a theory would have to cover oblique collisions, but Descartes’ efforts in that direction were singularly unimpressive. See Gabbey, “Force and Inertia” pp. 256–257.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    For a detailed account of Descartes’s difficulties with the problem of free fall, see Palmerino, “Infinite Degrees of Speed;” pp. 282–295.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Gabbey, “Descartes’ Physics” pp. 319–320.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    See Galluzzi, Momento, pp. 309 ff. I am indebted to Carla Rita Palmerino for underlining this point.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Boyle, The Works [Hunter e.a.], vI, p. 455. Italics in original.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    My thanks to Jochen Büttner for underlining the importance of this point.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Lectiones mathematicae (1664–1666), Barrow, The Usefulness, pp. 21–23.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Mechanica: sive, de motu, tractatus geometricus, part 1, ch. 1 (“De motu generalis”), Wallis, Opera Mathematica, I, p. 575.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    These remarks on Boyle, Barrow and Wallis are extracted from Gabbey, “Newton’s Mathematical Principles,” pp. 311–314.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2004

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  • Alan Gabbey

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