De Volder’s Cartesian Physics and Experimental Pedagogy

  • Tammy NydenEmail author
Part of the Studies in History and Philosophy of Science book series (AUST, volume 31)


In 1675, Burchard de Volder (1643–1709) was the first professor to introduce the demonstration of experiment into a university physics course and built the Leiden Physics Theatre to accommodate this new pedagogy. When he requested the funds from the university to build the facility, he claimed that the performance of experiments would demonstrate the “truth and certainty” of the postulates of theoretical physics. Such a claim is interesting given de Volder’s lifelong commitment to Cartesian scientia. This chapter will examine de Volder’s views on experiment and show that they are not Newtonian or inductivist, as is sometimes claimed. While de Volder thinks we need deductive reasoning from first principles to provide evidence of the certainty of the content of our physical theories, he also contends that we need experiment to provide evidence of the certainty of the existence of the particular bodies those theories discuss. This approach to experiment is based on a distinction between rational certainty and the certainty of material bodies in the actual world. While this account is deeply influenced by Descartes, it is importantly different than Descartes’ distinction between absolute and moral certainty. De Volder’s “Cartesian Empiricism” is best understood as a continuation and further development of a long tradition of teaching through observation at Leiden.


Seventeenth Century Scientific Equipment Mathematical Deduction Philosophy Faculty Rational Certainty 
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.



This work was supported with an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, an American Philosophical Society Franklin Research Grant, an Obermann Center Fellowship at the University of Iowa and research support from Grinnell College. I would like to thank Mihnea Dobre, Paul Lodge, Gary Hatfield, and Sujeev Wickramasekara for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyGrinnell CollegeGrinnellUSA

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