Matter in motion : The problem of activity in seventeenth-century English matter theory
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 ~o wards a belief in a concept of active
matter or include in their 3ystems some kind of physical
principle capable of activating matter.
After the Intr.o duction, 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 religiopolitical
views: Anglican-conservative on the one hand
andSectarian-radical on theother. It is argued that
these historiographical positions are inadequate because
they are based on false assumptions about the nature of
seventeenth-century matter theory.