Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Mechanism and Materialism: British Natural Philosophy in the Age of Reason

Mechanism and Materialism: British Natural Philosophy in the Age of Reason

Copyright Date: 1969
Pages: 344
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Mechanism and Materialism: British Natural Philosophy in the Age of Reason
    Book Description:

    Robert Schofield explores the rational elements of British experimental natural philosophy in the 18th century by tracing the influence of two opposing concepts of the nature of matter and its action-mechanism and materialism. Both concepts rested on the Newtonian interpretation of their proponents, although each developed more or less independently. By integrating the developments in all the areas of experimental natural philosophy, describing their connections and the influences of Continental science, natural theology, and to a lesser degree social and institutional changes, the author demonstrates that mechanistic concepts dominated interpretations from about 1687 to 1740, when they were replaced by materialistic concepts. A revival of the mechanistic approach early in the next century made England a fertile field for ideas on the dynamic interaction of forces.

    Originally published in 1970.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-7102-5
    Subjects: Physics

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Preface
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Newton’s Legacy
    (pp. 3-16)

    The eighteenth century, by common consent, was an Age of Reason, a time when Enlightened men sought the solution to all their problems in the exercise of man’s mind. This was true in religion and politics, in the arts and economics; it was also true in science. One might almost say this last was sufficiently obvious, and indeed it is for Continental science, where the mathematicians turned Newton’sPrincipiainto analytical mechanics and even the experimenters demonstrated, in part through their errors, the uses of theory. But Continental science was inspired by Descartes’ equation of thought and existence. In Britain...

  5. PART I Mechanism and Dynamic Corpuscularity, 1687-1740

    • CHAPTER TWO Diffusion of a Newtonian Creed
      (pp. 19-39)

      Newton might have reconciled the disparate elements of his theory of matter and trained a school of Newtonians to spread the canonical version of the new science. There is no evidence that he attempted to do so. Possibly his personal views did not contain the published inconsistencies which ultimately were to divide his followers; certainly, though he encouraged and aided defenders of his ideas, he failed to appreciate the advantages of assembling them into a unified and consistent band of disciples.¹ In any event, individual Newtonians, scattered throughout Britain, were left without constraint to present their separate and idiosyncratic versions...

    • CHAPTER THREE Elaboration of a Theory
      (pp. 40-62)

      The diffusion of dynamic corpuscularity from Newton’s writings into the common sense of early eighteenth-century British natural philosophy was, as we have seen, carried through high and low-level textbooks and even in theological writings. At their best, however, in a Worster or a Rowning, none went much beyond a detailed affirmation of what Newton had left indeterminant in his queries or a simpler exposition of something Newton had himself derived. To establish the theory and to fulfill its function of suggesting, stimulating, or directing inquiry, it was necessary that Newtonian matter theory be translated into terms other than those in...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Experimental Newtonianism
      (pp. 63-88)

      George Cheyne’s progress from kinematic mechanism toward vitalistic materialism, by way of Newtonian dynamic corpuscularity, was, in part, occasioned by religious considerations. At the end of the period, however, other natural philosophers had moved in a parallel direction for better, or at least more scientifically defensible, reasons. For, in the end, it must have seemed that dynamic corpuscularity had failed in an essential regard. The most convincing aspect of Newton’s work had been its quantitative agreement between theory and observation. The Cartesians had been mathematical, the Boyleians experimental, but the two methods had not joined in a rigorous natural philosophy...

  6. PART II Aether and Materialism, 1740-1789

    • CHAPTER FIVE Second Thoughts and the New Revelation
      (pp. 91-114)

      Between 1735 and 1745 there was a shift in the social and intellectual temper of eighteenth-century Britain. About the causes of this change, “I will not feign an hypothesis” nor conjecture on their relationships, but the phenomenon is manifest in a wide variety of indicators. Arthur O. Lovejoy refers to a “romantic” movement which “began pretty definitely in England in the seventeen-forties,” and quotes the opinion of Edmund Gosse that “Joseph Warton’s youthful poem, The Enthusiast, written in 1740 . . .[was] the first clear manifestation of the great romantic movement. . . .”¹ Other literary historians are not, perhaps,...

    • CHAPTER SIX Newtonian Pagans and Heretics
      (pp. 115-133)

      Few styles of taste or thought are so thoroughly assimilated that there do not exist, at the same time, undercurrents of dissenting opinion. Such opinions flow submerged and, on the whole, unnoticed; but should the dominant current weaken, they may surface at least to disturb consensus if not to start a contrary fashion. The existence of such currents, anti-Newtonian in an Age of Newton, is well-known in Continental natural philosophy, but their eddies in eighteenth-century Britain are often passed unobserved. The reason is fairly obvious. Examination of the British dissenters from Newtonianism reveals the essential sterility of their effort. As...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Early Continental Interactions
      (pp. 134-156)

      For the greater part of the eighteenth century British science was effectively insulated from the best work of Continental scientists. Early in the century the Newtonianism of Britain stood in opposition to the continuing influence of Descartes and the lively objections of Leibniz and his followers across the channel. The result was the kind of negative influence already seen in the pugnacious anti-Cartesianism of most early Newtonian texts, in Samuel Clarke’s use of Rohault as a foil for introducing Newton’s ideas, in Clarke’s and Keill’s and Freind’s arguments with Leibniz, and in Desaguliers’ experiments before the Royal Society defending Newton...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Imponderable Fluids
      (pp. 157-190)

      During the middle years of the eighteenth century, the material concepts described in the last three chapters were reified in the imponderable fluids created by midcentury British natural philosophers to explain the phenomena of electricity, magnetism, and heat. Unlike the subjects of physiology and chemistry, where an increasing multiplicity of phenomena came to dim the once bright hope of reductionism, these problems of “physics” had, by the inherent nature of the phenomena themselves, always resisted comprehension by the methods of dynamic corpuscularity. Materialism, in the form of Newtonian aether, of non-Newtonian active substance, of Dutch fire, or indeed of varying...

    • CHAPTER NINE Vital Physiology and Elementary Chemistry
      (pp. 191-232)

      During the ascendancy of dynamic corpuscularity few areas were more prolific in ingenious mechanistic speculation than physiology and chemistry. With the shift in intellectual climate, in none was the flight from mechanism more explicit and complete. When the transition began, about 1740, the standard authorities cited in British works on physiology were Borelli, Bellini, Pitcairne, and James Keill, and those on chemistry were John Keill, Freind, and Boerhaave.¹ The progress of change, by 1760, is indicated by the nearly unanimous substitution, for these authorities, of Stahl, Hoffmann, and von Haller in physiology and Stahl, Geoffroy, and Macquer in chemistry. The...

  7. PART III Neo-Mechanism, 1760-1815

    • CHAPTER TEN Forces, Fluid Dynamics, and Fields
      (pp. 235-276)

      Materialist explanations for phenomena were to retain their superiority over mechanist ones throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. Nor is this particularly surprising. Quality-bearing substances had always been easier to conceive than quality-causing mechanisms and, with the application of conservation considerations, such substances had become easier to quantify as well. No doubt the questions the materialists answered were not those that the dynamic corpuscularians had asked, and, in thus evading the problems of reductionism, the materialists clearly were betraying the hopes of a century of anti-Aristotleian natural philosophers. But for most of the subjects of primary concern to...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Interregnum, 1789-1815
      (pp. 277-298)

      During the nineteenth century mechanism again reached an ascendency, but with explanations quite unlike those which had characterized the dynamic corpuscularity of eighteenth-century mechanical philosophy. Whether in electrodynamics, thermodynamics, or chemical dynamics, the emphasis was on forces and energy, their manifestations, modifications, and interactions; next to nothing was said (or believed) of a material substratum in which such forces might inhere. The “classical” physical sciences of the nineteenth century retained the dynamics, but not the corpuscularity of the eighteenth and, in their development, were dependent upon frames of thought characteristic of their own age. Nonetheless, in their inception, these dynamical...

    (pp. 299-322)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 323-336)