Matter in motion: The problem of activity in seventeenth-century English matter theory

Henry, John Christopher (1983). Matter in motion: The problem of activity in seventeenth-century English matter theory. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis considers some of the ways in which leading seventeenth-century English mechanical philosophers tried to account for the various motions of matter which played such a fundamental role in their philosophies. It argues that the Cartesian mechanical philosophy, in which matter is considered to be completely passive and inert and the amount of motion in the universe is constant (being merely transmitted and transferred by impacts), gained no full committed adherents in England. Only Thomas Hobbes tried to develop a similarly 'strict' mechanical system based on a concept of passive matter and his system completely failed to win support. All the other major thinkers examined in this study either show a marked tendency towards a belief in a concept of active matter or include in their systems some kind of physical principle capable of activating matter.

After the Introduction, in which the scope of the enquiry is delineated, Chapter 1 argues that the mechanical philosophers attempt to explain everything in terms of 'matter in motion' presented them with the metaphysical problems of defining matter and accounting for its motions. Subsequent chapters show the ways in which Hobbes, Sir Kenelm Digby, Walter Charleton, Henry More, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Sir William Petty and Isaac Newton tried to account for the motions and other activities of matter. In the Conclusion it is reasserted that the concept of passive inert matter was never a major feature of seventeenth-century mechanical philosophy.

This thesis also addresses itself to recent historiographical trends about the extra-scientific origins of the Scientific Revolution in seventeenth-century England. In particular it considers the attempts by recent commentators to show that a dichotomy between 'strict' mechanists who believed in passive matter and those who believed in active matter was merely a reflection of widely differing religio-political views: Anglican-conservative on the one hand and Sectarian-radical on the other. It is argued that these historiographical positions are inadequate because they are based on false assumptions about the nature of seventeenth-century matter theory.

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