The Nature of Things Themselves: Robert Hooke, Natural Philosopher

Part of the Science Networks. Historical Studies book series (SNHS, volume 39)


Despite the fact that Hooke was one of the important natural philosophers of the seventeenth century,1) very little has been written on his philosophy per se, as distinct from his discoveries in natural philosophy, that is, his 40-year practice of experimental philosophy. Given Hooke’s general obscurity, we should not be very surprised that his philosophical thinking has been neglected, but at least as strong a reason is that in his busy life there was little time for the contemplation that might have led to more systematic and abstract thought about natural philosophy and how philosophical (or scientific) knowledge was to be acquired and understood. And finally, while Hooke may have debated such issues with friends over coffee, he was by nature of a rather practical bent. Nonetheless, very few if any of his speculations and discoveries were simple or naive, that is, unconnected to other phenomena or to some larger idea. Like Galileo before him, Hooke understood the implications of his own discoveries and those of his contemporaries. The only notable exception to this statement would seem to be the mathematization of natural philosophy carried out by Newton when Hooke was in his 50s.


Seventeenth Century Natural Philosopher Experimental Philosophy Diver Species Improve Natural Philosophy 
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  1. 4).
    PW, pp. 3–70. Although there are references to contemporary events which allow this dating, there is no way to know whether these writings were added to over time or not.Google Scholar
  2. 5).
  3. 6).
    “The Method of Improving Natural Philosophy,” PW, p. 44.Google Scholar
  4. 8).
    On “registering,” see also Shapin and Schaffer (1985).Google Scholar
  5. 9).
    PW, pp. 57–61.Google Scholar
  6. 10).
    Waller, PW, p. 65. Hooke made such a promise as early as Micrographia. Waller’s comments as editor, inserted at this point, which raise the issue “of what Use, if not Necessity, Theories and pre-conceived Hypotheses are (contrary to the opinion of some Learned Persons) in order to the making of more proper Observations and ordering more convenient Experiments...” (p. 65), very clearly referes to some of Hooke’s comments on the subject in other places.Google Scholar
  7. 11).
    PW, p. 61.Google Scholar
  8. 12).
    PW, p. 73.Google Scholar
  9. 14).
    PW, pp. 83–4. In this passage, Hooke interjects “as a great Man has done, or at least would be thought so to have done ...,” referring to Descartes. He added that “when he came to the ultimate and most visible Effects, he found himself ... that he was much at a loss and unable to get out, and extricate himself.”Google Scholar
  10. 15).
    PW, p. 84.Google Scholar
  11. 16).
    Waller, PW, p. 330. It is interesting to compare this with what Newton had to say about the analytic and synthetic ways. For example, see Centore (1970), p. 21. fn. 14. See also our comments on Newton, below.Google Scholar
  12. 17).
    “A Discourse of Earthquakes,” in PW, R. Waller, ed (1705), p. 280. Also Drake (1996), pp. 160. The “Discourse” as published by Waller is a collection of lectures by Hooke presented between 1668 and 1700 (Rappaport, 1986). Altogether an excellent statement of the idea that experiments are “theory-laden.”Google Scholar
  13. 19).
    It is interesting to note that Hooke had taken Newton to task for describing light as a body in his lectures on light in 1671/2 (Newton to Oldenburg, Corresp. 1, 92–102; PT 6 (1671/2), pp. 3075–87. Hooke’s comments are found in Hooke to Oldenburg, Corresp. I, 110–114; also HCO.Google Scholar
  14. 20).
    Evidently 27 April and 4 May 1681; See Birch, 4, p. 82, 84. “Mr. Hooke read another discourse about his theory of light.”Google Scholar
  15. 21).
    And “Heat is a property of a body arising from the motion or agitation of its parts.” Micrographia, p. 37. Newton expressed a similar view in his Opticks of 1705. Lucretius had been known since the fifteenth century and atomism had a number of adherents in the seventeenth century, including Pierre Gassendi.Google Scholar
  16. 23).
    PW, 172. One should note that there are serious pagination problems in this portion of the Posthumous Works, which is printed in facsimile in Waller (1705).Google Scholar
  17. 24).
  18. 25).
    PW, 175. In this discussion, Hooke considers the Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and English versions of the creation story in Genesis.Google Scholar
  19. 26).
    Evidently 3 May 1682. PW, pp. 136–7.Google Scholar
  20. 27).
    PW, 171. Earlier (p. 165), he calls this fluid “the quite fluid Aether.”Google Scholar
  21. 28).
    As pointed out by Centore (1970), for example.Google Scholar
  22. 29).
    January 1677/8; Birch , 3, 370–1.Google Scholar
  23. 30).
    PW, p. 138. Birch, 4, p. 153.Google Scholar
  24. 32).
    See especially, Drake (1996), Chapter 6, “Hooke’s Theory of Evolution and Attitude Toward God and Time.” For example, in his “Discourse on Earthquakes,” Hooke wrote the following: “We will, for the present, take the Supposition to be real and true, that there have been in former times... divers Species of Creatures, that are now quite lost, and no more of them surviving upon any part of the Earth. Again, That there are now divers Species of Creatures which never exceed at present a certain Magnitude, which yet in former Ages of the World, were usually of a much greater and Gygantic Standard ... we will grant also a supposition that several Species may really not have been created of the very Shapes they now are of, but that they have changed in great part their Shape, as well as dwindled and degenerated ... We will further grant there may have been, by mixture of Creatures, produced a sort of differing in Shape ... from the true Created Shapes of both of them.” (PW, p. 435). See also extensive comments in Drake, 1996.Google Scholar
  25. 33).
  26. 34).
    Buchwald and Cohen (2001).Google Scholar
  27. 35).
    See Westfall’s “Background to the Mathematization of Nature,” Westfall (2001) for a fuller study of this issue.Google Scholar
  28. 36).
    Smith (2001) p. 288.Google Scholar
  29. 37).
    Blay (2001). On perturbation methods, see M. Nauenberg, “Newton’s perturbation methods for the three-body problem and their application to lumar motion.”Google Scholar
  30. 38).
    Opticks , p. 404–5.Google Scholar
  31. 39).
    Motte/Cajori translation (Cajori, 1947), p. 400. In the new translation by I.B. Cohen and Anne Whitman (1999), the passage is on p. 796. There is no essential difference between the two translations.Google Scholar
  32. 40).
    Ibid, Cohen and Whitman, pp. 381–2. In the Motte/Cajori translation (Cajori, 1947), it is rendered thus: “I have in this treatise cultivated mathematics as far as it relates to philosophy... the ancients considered mechanics in a twofold respect; as rational, which proceeds accurately by demonstration, and practical... In this sense rational mechanics will be the science of motions resulting from any forces whatsoever, and of the forces required to produce any motions, accurately proposed and demonstrated... I consider philosophy rather than arts and write not concerning manual but natural powers, and consider chiefly those things which relate to gravity, levity, elastic force, the resistance of fluids, and the like forces ... and therefore I offer this work as the mathematical principles of philosophy ...” It is worth adding that we are reading Newton, who in this case was writing in Latin, in modern translation, while Hooke wrote almost entirely in English and we read his words exactly as he wrote them.Google Scholar
  33. 41).
    Westfall (1971), p. 143.Google Scholar
  34. 42).
    I.B. Cohen, preface to the Opticks (Dover, 1979), pp. xvi and 1. See also Franklin and Newton (Cohen, 1956).Google Scholar
  35. 43).
    Opticks (Dover, 1979), p. 379.Google Scholar
  36. 44).
    There are some notable examples, for example a paper on cubic equations in the Royal Society’s Classified Papers, Vol XX, No. 81. Another is his copy of a paper by L’Hospital on the calculus, which, in fact, has on occasion been misinterpreted as Hooke’s own.Google Scholar

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