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KeywordsAtomism Natural philosophy Ramism Dutch Golden Age
Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637) was a Dutch philosopher and scientist, who, by combining his scholarly activities with an intimate knowledge of materials and natural processes, was able to devise a corpuscular and completely mechanical philosophy of nature, or philosophia physico-mathematica (Dijksterhuis 1961). Being exemplary of the intersection of theory and practice in the emergence of early modern science, he was able to inform important thinkers such as Descartes, Mersenne, and Gassendi. The subjects covered by Beeckman include, among many others, alchemy, architecture, astrology, atomism, candlemaking, chemistry, divination, (hydraulic) engineering, language, mathematics, mechanics, medicine, meteorology, music, optics, philosophy, physics, superstition, and theology.
Isaac Beeckman was born on December 10, 1588, in Middelburg in the southwestern Netherlands, then a flourishing trade center. After attending a local Latin school, he went on to study theology at the University of Leiden in 1607. His chief interest, however, was mathematics, to which he dedicated most of his free time. He studied arithmetic, geometry, and navigation for several months with Jan van den Broecke, after which he embarked on a meticulous self-study of mathematics at the hand of a list of authors personally recommended to him by the Leiden professor Rudolph Snellius. These authors were to have a significant impact on Beeckman’s future scholarly development, whether it was, for example, Heron of Alexandria, Petrus Ramus, or Simon Stevin himself.
After his graduation in 1610, Beeckman returned to Zeeland, learned the craft of candlemaking from his father, and set up a workshop in Zierikzee. Not much later, in 1612, he went on a tour down to Saumur and back up through Paris, London, and Amsterdam. While the Huguenot Academy in Saumur potentially prepared Beeckman for his preacher examinations back in the Republic, his Journal reveals an interest in the natural world. For example, he describes stones that may move on themselves and reports the recipes for both spiritus vitrioli and a universal medicine based on saltpeter. After passing the aforementioned examination in 1613, he preached on Sundays and spent the rest of the week in his workshop close to Middelburg. Candlemaking quickly receded to the background and made place for his father’s business, which entailed constructing and maintaining water systems for breweries and private homes across the country. By 1616, he had handed over the candlemaking workshop to his assistant and focused entirely on his negotia mechanica, or mechanical affairs, as he began to call them. As a result, Beeckman found himself in the increasingly blurry area between scholar and craftsman, operating in the so-called trading zones of knowledge exchange postulated by Long and Smith (Long 2011; Smith 2004). While the scholar’s understanding of nature can be reconstructed through the study of contemporary literature, the artisan’s world view can only ever be envisaged conceptually through the attentive deciphering of the meanings hidden in the practical undertones of their physical labor. In Beeckman’s diary, however, there is no divide between his artisanal science, on the one hand, and his scientific artisanship on the other.
Beeckman’s interest in the mechanics of nature also found its way into the study of medicine, which began to take form in 1613 and culminated in a doctoral degree awarded by the University of Caen in 1618 with a dissertation on tertian fever, as well as five corollaries on motion, vacuum, suction, optics, and musical consonances. Although Beeckman was now considered a medical doctor, he explicitly avoided practicing as such, so as not to become “enslaved by the sick.” Contrary to his own promise, however, he occasionally gave medical advice to his family and friends. On his return to the Netherlands in 1618, Beeckman met René Descartes in Breda, where the latter had enlisted as a volunteer in Prince Maurice’s French regiment. Descartes was allowed to read Beeckman’s journal, and they discussed, among other subjects, mechanics, music, and mathematics. Descartes’s Compendium musicae, written later that year and offered to Beeckman as a New Year’s present, seems to have been the fruit of their encounter. Contact broke off in 1619, when Descartes left the country, and was only reinstated again in 1628. Conflict broke out by the end of 1629 after Beeckman, in correspondence with Marin Mersenne in 1628, pointed out that the mathematical problems the latter had enclosed were already discussed by Beeckman and Descartes in 1618. Descartes must have shared those questions with Mersenne, Beeckman argued, without mentioning their origin. Mersenne added insult to injury by insinuating that Beeckman implied to have been Descartes’ teacher. Descartes lashed out and their friendship ceased to be.
A new career path opened up in 1619, when Beeckman became vice-principal at the Latin school in Utrecht. When his brother Jacob was appointed principal of the Latin school in Rotterdam a year later, Isaac decided to leave Utrecht in order to help his brother in his new post, teaching the highest grade without pay. By 1624, he had acquired the position of vice-principal again, although throughout this time, he continued to study mechanics, lay water conduits, and give advice on technical projects. His extracurricular interest in the mechanical studies took, for example, the form of the Collegium Mechanicum founded in 1626 in Rotterdam as a center for the discussion and improvement of knowledge of practical mechanics. Beeckman felt however that he was the only real contributor to the Collegium, and when he left to become principal of the Latin school in Dordrecht in 1627, the Collegium disintegrated.
In Dordrecht, he became part of the highest social circles, meeting intellectuals like Andreas Colvius, Johan van Beverwijck, and Johan de Witt. The latter’s sons, Cornelis and Johan, even attended Beeckman’s Latin school in 1635. The magistrate of Dordrecht erected a tower on the roof of the school in 1628 so that Beeckman could perform meteorological and astronomical observations more accurately, an activity that would lead to accusations of divination by the local population. From 1636 onward, his health began to decline, and on May 19, 1637, Isaac Beeckman died of consumption, aged 48.
Apart from various extant letters, the only source of Beeckman’s thought is his manuscript journal, or Loci Communes, begun in 1604 (De Waard 1939–1953). Rather than treating it as a commonplace book, however, it became a notebook for his studies. Written both in Dutch and Latin, the journal offers an insight not only into the mind of an early modern scientist but also into the life of a seventeenth-century Dutchman trying to make sense of his place in the universe. While the material was not intended for publication, Beeckman made an effort to cite his sources and to correct himself in case of mistake. He was a critical, self-conscious thinker, aware of the need to record his scientific research. As an autodidact, Beeckman was meticulous about his study methods and made sure to study whenever he found the time in his busy schedule. And although the journal appears chaotic due to the quick alternation of unrelated topics, the ideas themselves are coherent and fit within an overarching world view. Furthermore, by enriching the journal with numerous drawings and illustrations, his concepts become picturable.
Although many of his initial studies were borrowed from ancient literature and early modern writers, Beeckman’s science was not merely bookish. His workshop activity, in fact, allowed him to study a wide range of phenomena. The latter were translated into his activity as a mechanic while informing his philosophy of nature through the transposition of theory into practice. Principles of inertia, atomistic theories of matter, and the derivative of the law of falling bodies worked out with Descartes, flowed into a coherent system of scientific craftsmanship. The combination of artisanal and scholarly epistemology is what differentiates Beeckman from other early seventeenth-century thinkers.
Central to Beeckman’s mechanical philosophy of nature is the picturability of his theories: he would not allow anything in his philosophy that he found to be unrepresentable to the imagination as if it were observed (Van Berkel 1983, 2013). His approach, for which he coined the phrase philosophia physico-mathematica, required nature to be observed through the lens of physics and mathematics combined. For this reason, he criticized Bacon for not being sufficiently versed in mathesis and Stevin for being too obsessed with the mathematical side of things (Beeckman f. 315v). In part, Beeckman’s picturability of scientific theories can be traced back to Ramus, whose reduction of grammar and literature to tree diagrams and illustrations, in particular, and his philosophy at large were not only adopted by Beeckman but also by Stevin and the Dutch early modern scientific community as a whole.
In the eyes of Beeckman, mind was knowledge in its broadest sense and inclusive of the “invisible and visible, the divine and human” (Beeckman ff. 285v-286r). He divided the mind in two parts: conscientia, on the one hand, concerned with divine things, which it “believes simply, not because it understands, but due to some supernatural instinct” (ibidem), and scientia, on the other hand, consisting of reason, subject to which is the totality of philosophy. Therefore, we may only admit to philosophy that which is apodictic and “presented to the intellect so open and naked, as similarly the visible is presented to the eyes” (ibidem). Philosophia is furthermore divided into physica, the study of corporeal things, and mathematica, the study of their quantities. The latter is, of course, necessary for the former, in that through mathematics alone can physics be apprehended in its totality. Finally, physica investigates both the microcosm and the macrocosm, the former resonating with the latter. Since it is endowed with a subtler essence, the microcosm can only be fully understood with complete knowledge of the macrocosm. Thus, the study of the macrocosm figures as the prime example for the study of the microcosm, which Beeckman called medicine, “of all arts the ultimate and most excellent” (ibidem).
Isaac Beeckman was the first to conceive of a completely mechanical philosophy of nature in which all phenomena involve atomistic matter moved by physical contact. He fundamentally broke with Aristotelianism by affirming the existence of the vacuum, as well as a new principle of inertia, stating that in a vacuum, objects stay in motion until they are prevented from doing so. Moreover, in Beeckman’s view, only God could create a perpetuum mobile, such as the celestial spheres.
Objects, moving in space, consist of completely passive atoms whose characteristics depended entirely on their geometrical qualities. While Beeckman was not all too concerned about the exact number of atoms, nor about their shape, he postulated four kinds of atoms corresponding to the four elements. What mattered was that, depending on the spatial configuration of these atoms, all known substances could be made. Rather than infinite possible arrangements, however, God made fundamental parts which then necessarily came together through the working of nature. Hence no individual species had to be made, since all living beings were made of a limited number of fundamental parts, such as eyes and leaves. God, on the contrary, created man differently from animals by adding a divine particle.
While there can be variations within a species, there are no intermediate forms between, e.g., a man and a dog. Beeckman compared this to constructing geometrical shapes such as the Platonic solids. With either 4, 8, or 20 triangles, respectively, a tetrahedron, octahedron, and icosahedron can be constructed, while any intermediate number of triangles cannot form a polyhedron. What follows is that it is not the atom, or the triangle, which is characteristic of the substance, but the formation of these atoms into substance-specific combinations. Thus, as argued by Henk Kubbinga (2002, 2009), Beeckman can be seen as the first to have suggested the existence of molecules.
One of Beeckman’s most telling scientific contributions may very well have been his mathematical proof of the inverse relationship between string length and number of vibrations (Cohen 1984). His proof involved a schematic drawing of several strings accompanied with a mathematical explanation. In his interpretation of the phenomenon, however, the string creates material particles of sound rather than sound waves. When the string cuts the surrounding air into globules, a longer string takes more time to return to its equilibrium point, therefore cutting the air fewer times, creating relatively bigger globules. A string half the length returns to the equilibrium twice as often, producing globules half the size. Moreover, the string only produces these particles when it is in motion, and since the string accelerates and decelerates depending on its distance from the equilibrium, there exists a certain sound-silence pattern in the sound globules. In the case of an octave, the particles enter the ear at a 1:2 ratio, meaning that the lower pitch has one particle for every two particles of the upper.
Another dilemma Beeckman tackled was the plethora of problems relating to the division of the octave, musical scales, tuning, and temperament. His solution was a list of 216 different modes, the modus modorum, constructed with both a minor semitone (15:16) and a major semitone (25:27), their difference being a syntonic comma. He argued that with these modes, all songs or psalms can be sung. While this system did not allow for complex music with modulations, it was ideal for Beeckman, since his taste in music was mostly limited to that of the austere Calvinist psalter. On that note, he was keen to observe a discrepancy between the vulgar manner of singing and the theoretical notation: The church community, by natural volition, melodiously corrected the music printed either in error or due to improper composition. Certain musical elements, while ignored by the theoretician, were natural to Man.
Since atoms are supposed to bounce off each other, they cannot be absolutely hard. To accommodate this contradiction, Beeckman attributed a spongelike nature to atoms, so that they could temporarily compress. This concept was also beneficial to his theories of sight and hearing, in which case the sensory organs were stimulated through a medium like light or air, causing a species sensibilis to appear in the mind, devoid of the materiality of the observed object.
Light consists of the smallest fire particles, igniculi, so small that they can pass through the pores of matter. The light particles are emitted from a source, like the sun or a candle, and reflected toward our eyes by the object we see. The qualities of light, such as the color and intensity, depend on the amount of particles, the angle of incidence, and the reflection from the surface and pores of the object. In the case of sound, the air needs to be set in motion by, e.g., a string. When a string is struck, it cuts the surrounding air into particles, which are then dispersed into all directions like the light of a candle flame. In Beeckman’s own words: “Sound is exactly the same air as was [present] in the speaker’s mouth” (Beeckman f. 41v). Some of these particles enter the ear and bounce off the eardrum, effectively sending vibrations down the ossicles toward the inner ears, where the spirits take over the impulse and pass it through the brain.
Beeckman managed to combine ancient atomism with Christianity to such a degree that, after meeting him, Gassendi adopted the same reconciliation. To explain existence as a whole, Beeckman developed a mechanistic philosophy of nature centered around the idea of God as a creator. Interestingly, Beeckman focused more on God’s creation than on God Himself, which enhances the negative character of his theology, acknowledging the existence of God through the presence of His signs in nature but excluding the possibility for the human mind to penetrate the mystery of His essence.
The world created by God as a mechanical clockwork can be studied minutely by the philosopher. When the true causes cannot be determined accurately, Beeckman argued for the use of analogies to stand in their place. Only the ignorant would shift their explanations of natural phenomena to the realm of the unknowable and resort to words like “wonder,” “miraculous,” and “magic” (Beeckman f. 136r-136v). It would furthermore be entirely inappropriate to invoke God’s will to explain natural phenomena, because we cannot know His will, let alone His essence (Beeckman f. 283r-285v).
Although Beeckman’s philosophy dictates that nothing in nature occurs without physical contact, the case of the soul is an exception. Indeed, due to the addition of the particles of divine nature, the human soul parallels not only the microcosm and the macrocosm but also the divine itself. God, who gave Man eyes and rationality to understand the true workings of the world, can be understood more clearly by studying his creation. Man therefore learns to decrypt the mechanical structure of divine nature through the arts and sciences, which, through his eyes and hands, provide humankind with an indirect knowledge of God.
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- De Waard C (ed) (1939–1953) Journal tenu par Isaac Beeckman, 4 vols. Martinus Nijhoff, Den HaagGoogle Scholar
- Dijksterhuis EJ (1961) The mechanization of the world picture (trans: Dikshoorn C). Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
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- Long PO (2011) Artisan/practitioners and the rise of the new sciences, 1400–1600. Oregon State University Press, OrvalisGoogle Scholar
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