Natural Philosophy, Deduction, and Geometry in the Hobbes-Boyle Debate

In: Hobbes Studies
Marcus P. Adams Department of Philosophy, University at Albany, State University of New York,

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This paper examines Hobbes’s criticisms of Robert Boyle’s air-pump experiments in light of Hobbes’s account in De Corpore and De Homine of the relationship of natural philosophy to geometry. I argue that Hobbes’s criticisms rely upon his understanding of what counts as “true physics.” Instead of seeing Hobbes as defending natural philosophy as “a causal enterprise … [that] as such, secured total and irrevocable assent,” I argue that, in his disagreement with Boyle, Hobbes relied upon his understanding of natural philosophy as a mixed mathematical science. In a mixed mathematical science one can mix facts from experience (the ‘that’) with causal principles borrowed from geometry (the ‘why’). Hobbes’s harsh criticisms of Boyle’s philosophy, especially in the Dialogus Physicus, sive De natura aeris (1661; hereafter Dialogus Physicus), should thus be understood as Hobbes advancing his view of the proper relationship of natural philosophy to geometry in terms of mixing principles from geometry with facts from experience. Understood in this light, Hobbes need not be taken to reject or diminish the importance of experiment/experience; nor should Hobbes’s criticisms in Dialogus Physicus be understood as rejecting experimenting as ignoble and not befitting a philosopher. Instead, Hobbes’s viewpoint is that experiment/experience must be understood within its proper place – it establishes the ‘that’ for a mixed mathematical science explanation.

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