Skip to main content Accesibility Help
  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: March 2008

3 - Scientific Explanation from Formal Causes to Laws of Nature

from Part I - The New Nature
Scientific innovators in the period 1500-1800 rejects Aristotle's account of the four kinds of causes as a source of acceptable theories in the specific sciences. This chapter considers three notable changes in early modern scientific explanations. The first was a change in the overall purpose of scientific research that was initiated by those critics of Aristotelianism who relinquished Aristotle's goal of understanding the form of each natural substance. A second notable change consisted in the replacement of long-standing Aristotelian explanations of specific kinds of natural phenomena. Finally, a third notable change in early modern scientific explanations was signaled by natural philosophers' waning interest in metaphysical discussions of the nature of causality itself. The chapter shows how to define laws of nature crucially depended on the concept of God as an extrinsic final cause and on the concept of matter as an extrinsic efficient cause.
Recommend this book

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.

The Cambridge History of Science
  • Online ISBN: 9781139054010
  • Book DOI:
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to *
Aquinas Thomas, SaintDe principiis naturae, critical Latin text, ed. Pauson, John J. (Textus Philosophici Friburgenses, 2) (Fribourg: Société Philosophique, 1950), chap. 5.
Aquinas, ThomasDe principiis naturae, chap. 4, translated in Aquinas on Matter and Form and the Elements, ed. Bobik, Joseph (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998).
Aristotle, Metaphysics, 5.2, trans. Ross, W. D., in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Barnes, Jonathan, 2 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), 2.
Bacon, FrancisThe Works of Francis Bacon, ed. Spedding, James, Ellis, Robert L., and Heath, Douglas D., 14 vols. (London: Longmans, 1857–74), 4, I.
Bernard Cohen, I.The Birth of a New Physics, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985).
Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature (London: Printed by H. Clark for John Taylor, 1686).
Boyle, RobertA Disquisition about the Final Causes of Natural Things (London: Printed by H. C. for John Taylor, 1688).
Brockliss, L. W. B.French Higher Education in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
Caesar Scaliger, JuliusExotericarum exercitationum liber XV de subtilitate ad Hieronymum Cardanum [1557].
Conimbricense, CollegiumCommentarii… in duos libros De generatione et corruptione (Lyons: Buysson, 1600).
Conimbricense, CollegiumCommentarii… in octo libros Physicorum, 2 vols. (Lyons: Buysson, 1594).
Cook, Harold J.The New Philosophy and Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England,” in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. Lindberg, David C. and Westman, Robert S. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Copenhaver, Brian P. and Schmitt, Charles B.Renaissance Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Coulston Gillispie, CharlesThe Edge of Objectivity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960).
Croce Birch, AndreaThe Problem of Method in Newton’s Natural Philosophy,” in Nature and Scientific Method, ed. Dahlstrom, Daniel O. (Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, 22) (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991).
Daston, Lorraine and Park, KatharineWonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998).
Daston, Lorraine and Katharine, ParkUnnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in Sixteenth-and Seventeenth-Century France and England,” Past and Present, 92 (1981).
Daston, LorraineBaconian Facts, Academic Civility, and the Prehistory of Objectivity,” Annals of Scholarship, 8 (1991).
Des Chene, DennisPhysiologia: Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996).
Descartes, RenéPrinciples of Philosophy, 1.24–8, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. Cottingham, John, Stoothoff, Robert, Murdoch, Dugald, and Kenny, Anthony, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984–91), I.
Descartes, RenéOeuvres de Descartes, ed. Adam, Charles and Tannery, Paul, 12 vols., rev. ed. (Paris: J. Vrin/CNRS, 1964–76).
Descartes, RenéPrinciples of Philosophy, trans. Miller, Valentine Rodger and Miller, Reese P. (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991).
Dijksterhuis, E. J.The Mechanization of the World Picture, trans. Dikshoorn, C. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961).
Drake, StillmanGalileo at Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).
Edward Cranz, F.A Bibliography of Aristotle Editions, 1501–1600 (Bibliotheca Bibliographica Aureliana, 38) (Baden-Baden: Verlag Valentin Koerner, 1971).
Emerton, Norma E.The Scientific Reinterpretation of Form (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984).
Ferguson, JohnThe Margarita Philosophica of Gregorius Reisch: A Bibliography,” The Library, 10 (1929).
Galilei, GalileoLetters on Sunspots, excerpts translated in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, ed. Drake, Stillman (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957).
Galilei, GalileoDialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems – Ptolemaic and Copernican, trans. Drake, Stillman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953).
Galileo, , Two New Sciences, trans. Drake, Stillman (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974).
Garber, DanielDescartes’ Metaphysical Physics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Grendler, Paul F.Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300–1600 (The John Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, 107) (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).
Guerlac, HenriNewton and the Method of Analysis,” in Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. Wiener, Philip P., 5 vols. (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1973–74), 3.
Guicciardini, NiccolòAnalysis and Synthesis in Newton’s Mathematical Work,” in The Cambridge Companion to Newton, ed. Cohen, I. Bernard and Smith, George E. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Guiducci, Mario (and Galilei, Galileo), Discorso delle comete… [1619].
Hume, DavidA Treatise of Human Nature [1739–40], ed. Selby-Bigge, L. A., rev. text by Nidditch, P. H. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).
Jo Teeter Dobbs, BettyThe Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
Laertius, DiogenesLives of Eminent Philosophers, Loeb Classical Library nos. 184–5, trans. Hicks, R. D., 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1925), 2.
Lear, JonathanAristotle: The Desire to Understand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Lewis Saunders, JasonJustus Lipsius: The Philosophy of Renaissance Stoicism (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1955).
Lipsius, JustusManuductionis ad stoicam philosophiam libri iii [1604].
Lipsius, JustusOpera omnia, 4 vols. (Wesel, 1675), 4.
Lloyd, G. E. R.Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).
Locke, JohnAn Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2.8.9 (4th rev. ed., London, 1700), ed. Nidditch, Peter H. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).
Loux, Michael J.Primary Ousia (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991).
Lucretius Carus, TitusOn the Nature of the Universe [De rerum natura], trans. Latham, R. E. and rev. Godwin, John (London: Penguin Books, 1994), bk. 2, II.
McGuire, J. E.Force, Active Principles, and Newton’s Invisible Realm,” Ambix, 15 (1968).
McGuire, J. E.Natural Motion and Its Causes: Newton on the ‘Vis Insita’ of Bodies,” in Self Motion: From Aristotle to Newton, ed. Gill, Mary Louise and Lennox, James G. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994).
McMullin, The Impact of Newton’s Principia on the Philosophy of Science,” Philosophy of Science, 68 (2001).
McMullin, ErnanNewton on Matter and Activity (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978).
Merchant, CarolynThe Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1980).
Milton, John R. in his “Laws of Nature,” in The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, ed. Garber, Daniel and Ayers, Michael, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Murdoch, John E.The Medieval and Renaissance Tradition of Minima Naturalia,” in Late Medieval and Early Modern Corpuscular Matter Theories, ed. Lüthy, Christoph, Murdoch, John E., and Newman, William R. (Leiden: Brill, 2001).
Newman, William R.Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).
Newton, IsaacIsaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, ed. Koyré, Alexandre and Cohen, I. Bernard, with Whitman, Anne, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), 2.
Newton, IsaacOpticks, 3.31 (4th ed., London, 1730; repr. New York: Dover Publications, 1979).
Newton, IsaacThe Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, trans. Cohen, I. Bernard and Whitman, Anne (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
Newton, , Principia, (London, 1726).
Nicholas, JardineEpistemology of the Sciences,” in The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, ed. Schmitt, Charles B., Skinner, Quentin, Kessler, Eckhard, and Kraye, Jill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Nifo, AgostinoExpositio super octo Aristotelis Stagiritae libros de physico auditu: Averrois… in eosdem libros proemium ac commentaria [1552], fols. 96v, 97v, 112r, 213r, translated in Emerton, , Scientific Reinterpretation of Form.
Osler, Margaret J.Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy: Gassendi and Descartes on Contingency and Necessity in the Created World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
Pacius, JuliusAristotelis Naturalis auscultationis libri VIII [1596] (repr., Frankfurt: Minerva, 1964).
Pacius, JuliusAristotelis Peripateticorum principis organum [1597] (repr., Hildesheim: Geory Olms, 1967).
Pérez-Ramos, AntonioBacon’s Forms and the Maker’s Knowledge Tradition,” in The Cambridge Companion to Bacon, ed. Peltonen, Markku (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Reisch, GregorMargarita philosophica, 2.5, 3rd Basel ed., expanded by Oronce Finé (Basel: S. H. Petri, 1583).
Schmitt, Charles B.Aristotle and the Renaissance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).
Sennert, DanielOpera omnia, 4 vols. (Lyons: Hugetan and Ravaud, 1650), 3.
Suárez, FranciscoDisputationes metaphysicae (Salamanca: Joannes and Andreas Renault, 1597).
Suárez, FranciscoOn Efficient Causality: Metaphysical Disputations 17, 18, and 19, trans. Freddoso, Alfred J. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994).
Sumida Joy, LynnGassendi the Atomist, Advocate of History in an Age of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
Wallace, William A.Causality and Scientific Explanation, 2 vols. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972 and 1974), vol. 1.
Waterlow, SarahNature, Change, and Agency in Aristotle’s Physics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).
Wear, A.French, R. K., and Lonie, I. M., eds., The Medical Renaissance of the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
Westfall, Richard S.Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
Zabarella, Opera logica, col. 489, translated in Randall, John Herman Jr., The School of Padua and the Emergence of Modern Science (Padua: Editrice Antenore, 1961).
Zabarella, JacopoDe rebus naturalibus libri XXX [1607] (repr., Frankfurt: Minerva, 1966).
Zabarella, JacopoOpera logica [1597] (repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1966).