Henry More and the Limits of Mechanism

  • Alan Gabbey
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas/Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 127)


My title refers to the limitations of the mechanical philosophy as a source of explanations of natural phenomena, and to More’s serious reservations about the mechanical philosophy on those grounds. He was certainly not alone in finding explanatory weaknesses, and corresponding ontological deficiences, in a natural philosophy that purported to account for the natural world in terms of the motion, rest, and position of corporeal particles in various structural combinations, the essential natures of such particles being extension and/or impenetrability. The mechanical philosophy, of whatever variety, was seen by many in the seventeenth century to be ill-equipped to account for everything within the domain of phenomena over which its protagonists claimed exclusive rights of explanation. As its development showed, the effectiveness of mechanical explanations was to lie not in comprehensiveness, but in a selective delimitation of the problem domain, and in following through the implications of an awareness that plausible and appealing explanatory structures on their own were insufficient, but required in addition an ontological content that would permit mathematical description or effective experimental investigation and control,1 without compromising theological or philosophical commitments, where these were thought to be at issue.


Seventeenth Century Mechanical Explanation Mechanical Philosophy Philosophical Commitment Ontological Content 
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  1. 1.
    See however the excellent article by Christoph Meinel for fresh insight into the reality behind the supposed empirical proofs of atomism in the early seventeenth century, “Early Seventeenth-century Atomism: Theory, Epistemology and the Insufficiency of Experiment”, Isis 79 (1988): 68–103.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Charles Webster, “Henry More and Descartes”, 376.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    More, MG, p. vii.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    More to Hartlib, 5 Nov. 1659, in Webster, “Henry More and Descartes”, 375.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    More, CSPW, IS, 59.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Ibid., 61–2.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    More, Democritus Platonissans, sig. A2r-v Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See further Gabbey, “Philosophia Cartesiana Triumphata”, 190–3 (especially notes 36 & 37), 206–214.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    ‘Libere dicam quod sentio: omnes quotquot exstiterunt, aut etiamnum existunt, Arcanorum Naturae Antistites, si ad magnificam tuam indolem comparentur, Pumilos plane videri ac Pyg-maeos... Omnia profecto tarn concinna in tuis Philosophiae Principiis, Dioptricis, & Meteoris, tamque pulchre sibi in ipsis naturaeque consona sunt, ut mens ratioque humana iucundius vix optaret laetiusve spectaculum’. AT(NP), 5:237. My translation.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Gabbey, “Philosophia cartesiana triumphata”, 188.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Gabbey, 191–3.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
  13. 14.
    Descartes, then in Sweden, was unable to reply to the relevant parts of this letter. See AT(NP), 5:383, 632–7; Gabbey, 206–7.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    AT(NP), 8:314–5.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    Ibid., 5:389.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    More, CSPW, AA, 46.Google Scholar
  17. 19.
    See John Henry, “Occult Qualities”, and his paper in this volume.Google Scholar
  18. 20.
    More CSPW, AA, 46. In the 41st experiment of his New Experiments Boyle put a lark, a sparrow and a mouse into a subsequently evacuated vessel to demonstrate the life-bearing function of air: op. cit., 328–34. In “A Digression Containing Some Doubts Touching Respiration” (ibid., 335–83) Boyle writes of ‘the wise Author of Nature, who, in the excellent contrivance of the Lungs, and other parts of (those admirable Englines) Animals, manifests himself to be indeed what the Eloquent Prophet most justly speaks him, Wonderfull in Councel, and excellent in working [Isaiah 28:29]’. The account of the air-pump sucker experiment in AA carries the marginal reference to “Exper. 23” (More, CSPW, AA, 44). This is an error (not picked up in the Errata), the experiment in question being in fact No. 33 (Boyle, New Experiments, 236–58).Google Scholar
  19. 21.
    More, CSPW, IS, 196–7.Google Scholar
  20. 22.
    Ibid., 197.Google Scholar
  21. 23.
    Ibid., 198–9. This famous experiment, which was performed by several experimenters during the seventeenth century, was mentioned by Descartes in his letter to Mersenne of 13 July 1638 (AT(NP), 2:226). In the letter to Mersenne of April 1634 he noted that the experiment would be worth carrying out (ibid., 5:287). Shortly after (May 1634) he sent to Mersenne specifications of how it should be performed (ibid., 5:293–4). More would have come across the July 1638 letter in the first volume of Clerselier’s edition of Descartes’ letters (1659), and the two 1634 letters in Clerselier’s second volume (1659).Google Scholar
  22. 24.
    More, CSPW, IS, 193. (My italics).Google Scholar
  23. 25.
    William Harvey, A Second Disquisition to John Riolan, in The Works of William Harvey ed. Robert Willis (London, 1847), 109–141. The First and Second Disquisitions first published Cambridge, 1649.Google Scholar
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    Gabbey, 247.Google Scholar
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    More, DD, vol. 1, “The Publisher to the Reader”, sig. A6v.Google Scholar
  26. 30.
    Hyrne to More, 19 Aug. 1671, Christ’s College, Cambridge MS 21, no. 19.Google Scholar
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    More to Hyrne, 21 Aug. 1671, C.U.L. MS, Gg.6.11.Google Scholar
  28. 32.
    Cf. note 4.Google Scholar
  29. 33.
    AT(NP), 5:383, from Gabbey, 211.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 213.Google Scholar
  31. 35.
    ‘Quod vero addit externam aliquam esse vim, sive a Deo sit, sive a substantia aliqua incorporea a Deo creata, qua materia in motum excitatur... ac si Divina illa vis singula corpora immediate impelleret quae moventur, magna erit difficultas; frustra enim essent mutui corporum impulsus’, AT(NP), 5:646, 356.Google Scholar
  32. 36.
    John Henry, ‘Occult Qualities’.Google Scholar
  33. 37.
    More, CSPW, IS, 11.Google Scholar
  34. 38.
  35. 39.
    Hyrne to More, 19 aug. 1671, C.U.L. Ms Gg. 6.11. ff. 2v–3r.Google Scholar
  36. 40.
    More to Hyrne, 21 Aug. 1671, C.C.C. Ms 21, no. 19 ff. 1r-v.Google Scholar
  37. 41.
    Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump, 216.Google Scholar
  38. 42.
    Ibid., 224.Google Scholar

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© Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht 1990

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  • Alan Gabbey

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