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Godly Men and Mechanical Philosophers: Souls and Spirits in Restoration Natural Philosophy

  • Simon Schaffer (a1)
Abstract
The Argument

Recent historiography of the Scientific Revolution has challenged the assumption that the achievements of seventeenth-century natural philosophy can easily be described as the ‘mechanization of the world-picture.’ That assumption licensed a story which took mechanization as self-evidently progressive and so in no need of further historical analysis. The clock-work world was triumphant and inevitably so. However, a close examination of one key group of natural philosophers working in England during the 1670s shows that their program necessarily incorporated souls and spirits, attractions and congruities, within both their ontology and their epistemology. Any natural philosophical strategy which excluded spirits and sympathies from its world was condemned as tending to subversion and irreligion. This examination shows that the term ‘mechanical philosophy’ was a category given its meanings within local contexts and carries no universal sense separate from that accomplished by these natural philosophers. It also shows how the experimental praxis was compelled to treat souls and spirits, to produce them through experimental labor, and then to extend these experimentally developed entities throughout the cosmos, both social and natural. The development of mechanical philosophy cannot be used to explain the cognitive and social structure of this program, nor its success: instead, the historical setting of experimental work shows how a philosophy of matter and spirit was deliberately constructed by the end of the seventeenth century.

The Argument

Recent historiography of the Scientific Revolution has challenged the assumption that the achievements of seventeenth-century natural philosophy can easily be described as the ‘mechanization of the world-picture.’ That assumption licensed a story which took mechanization as self-evidently progressive and so in no need of further historical analysis. The clock-work world was triumphant and inevitably so. However, a close examination of one key group of natural philosophers working in England during the 1670s shows that their program necessarily incorporated souls and spirits, attractions and congruities, within both their ontology and their epistemology. Any natural philosophical strategy which excluded spirits and sympathies from its world was condemned as tending to subversion and irreligion. This examination shows that the term ‘mechanical philosophy’ was a category given its meanings within local contexts and carries no universal sense separate from that accomplished by these natural philosophers. It also shows how the experimental praxis was compelled to treat souls and spirits, to produce them through experimental labor, and then to extend these experimentally developed entities throughout the cosmos, both social and natural. The development of mechanical philosophy cannot be used to explain the cognitive and social structure of this program, nor its success: instead, the historical setting of experimental work shows how a philosophy of matter and spirit was deliberately constructed by the end of the seventeenth century.

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Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
  • URL: /core/journals/science-in-context
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