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  • Boyle on Occasionalism: An Unexamined Source
  • Peter Anstey*

1. Introduction

The question of Robert Boyle’s attitude to occasionalism 1 is central to our understanding of his corpuscular hypothesis, yet there has been little or no consensus in the secondary literature regarding Boyle’s attitude. 2 The doctrine of occasionalism is that matter is causally inefficacious and that God is the only causal agent in nature. It is a doctrine that was particularly attractive to those Cartesian philosophers in the latter part of the seventeenth century who sought to find an active role for God in nature, for it both avoided the remoteness of the deist’s god and provided a ready explanation of the miraculous. Since Boyle was a mechanical philosopher, a Christian, and strongly influenced by Descartes, it seems likely that he too would have found occasionalism attractive; but there is no sustained discussion of occasionalism in his published works. It is therefore of singular importance that three folios in volume 10 of the Boyle Papers comprise a paper containing an explicit philosophical treatment of this doctrine. 3 It appears that Boyle considered these folios to be of sufficient importance to have them translated into Latin, perhaps to be circulated [End Page 57] among some of his non-English speaking acquaintances. Furthermore, this discussion of occasionalism is not simply of philosophical interest for its bearing on our interpretation of Boyle’s corpuscular philosophy, but it also has a degree of intrinsic philosophical interest in its own right. Moreover, the folios are of historical interest as a further important piece of evidence for the reception and dissemination of occasionalist ideas in Britain in the latter half of the seventeenth century. It is fitting therefore that they should be published.

What follows is the reproduction of folios 38–40 from volume 10 of the Boyle Papers. This is prefaced by a short editorial introduction and is followed by a philosophical commentary, a short history of Boyle’s reception of oc-casionalist ideas and a review of recent interpretations of Boyle’s natural philosophy on the issue of occasionalism. Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion of Boyle’s philosophical method and method of work. This section attempts to resolve the apparent tension between the guarded defense of occasionalism offered in the folios published here and the incompatible doctrines espoused in Boyle’s published works.

2. Editorial Introduction to Boyle Papers volume 10, folios 38–40

In folios 38–40 of volume 10 of the Boyle Papers there is a sustained discussion of the thesis that “God himself is the only proper and immediate cause” among things corporeal. In Michael Hunter’s guide to the microfilm edition the folios are identified as a “[f]ragment of discourse discussing Cartesian views” and the reader is there referred to folios 42–46. 4 However, Edward B. Davis has correctly identified these latter folios as draft material for Boyle’s Final Causes. 5 Hunter has confirmed that the hand that wrote these reflections on occasionalism is that of A, an amanuensis who was in Boyle’s employment from c. 1680 and that some of the corrections are in the same hand. This is strong evidence that the passage was composed in the late 1670s or the 1680s. 6 The passage is written on a bifoliate followed by a single leaf linked to the former by a catchword. The hand is legible, and the pages contain only a small number of corrections. The passage itself consists of ninety-one lines. It is endorsed “A Fragment” in pencil, bears no title, and most likely was never completed. At one point Boyle tells us of the grounds of occasionalism that “there will be occasion to enlarge on them when I come to vindicate them,” something which he does not complete in the lines that follow. Rather the discussion comes to an abrupt halt after five and a half lines into the third folio. [End Page 58]

Hunter has also identified a Latin translation of these folios in Boyle Papers, volume XXIX, folios 77–82v. The translation is in hand L, who has not been identified but who worked for Boyle in the 1680s. 7 It is...

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