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God and Nature in the Thought of Robert Boyle TIMOTHY SHANAHAN THEREIS WIDESPREADAGREEMENTamong historians that the writings of Robert Boyle (1697-1691) constitute a valuable archive for understanding the concerns of seventeenth-century British natural philosophers. His writings have often been seen as representing, in one fashion or another, all of the leading intellectual currents of his day. ~There is somewhat less consensus, however, on the proper historiographic method for interpreting these writings, as well as on the specific details of the beliefs expressed in them. Studies seeking to explicate Boyle's thought have been, roughly speaking, of two general sorts. On the one hand there are those studies of a broadly "intellectualist" orientation which situate his natural philosophy within the intellectual context provided by metaphysics, religion, and early modern science. In this connection his corpuscularianism has been shown to be motivated by specific epistemological , theological, as well as empirical concerns. One of the central aims of such studies has been to show that apparently discordant elements in his scientific thought are rendered coherent by referring them to such "non-scientific" commitments. Among studies of this sort might be mentioned the works of John Hedley Brooke, E. A. Burtt, Gary B. Deason, J. E. McGuire, R. Hooykaas, Robert H. Kargon, Eugene M. Klaaren, P. M. Rattansi, and Richard S. Westfall. ~ ' See, for example, E. Klaaren, The Religious Origins of Modern Science(Grand Rapids, Mich,: Eerdmann's, 1977) 199; E. A. Burtt, The MetaphysicalFoundations of Modern Science, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1954), 167. 2 John Hedley Brook, "Newton and the Mechanical Universe," in Towards a Mechanistic Philosophy (Milton Keynes: The Open University, 1974), 74-77; E. A. Burtt, 187-96; R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise ofModern Science(Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1972), 1719 ; Robert H. Kargon, Atomism in England from Hariot to Newton (Oxford, 1966); E. M. Klaaren, 164-76; J. E. McGuire, "Boyle's Conception of Nature," Journal of the History of Ideas 33, no. 4 (Oct-Dec 1972); P. M. Rattansi, "Paracelsus and the Puritan Revolution," Ambix, xi 0963): 94-32; [547] 548 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY ~6:4 OCTOBER ~988 Other studies adopt what may be called a "social contextualist" approach. These studies emphasize the wider cultural context in which Boyle wrote, and explain particular metaphysical, theological, and scientific features of his writings by reference to the social, political, and economic motives he can be supposed to have embraced. In this genre must be mentioned broader studies of seventeenth-century England by James Jacob, Margaret Jacob, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin, and Charles Webster.3 A sense of the kind of conclusions scholars have reached using this approach can be conveyed by considering the following explanation of Boyle's view of the relationship between God and nature. According to James and Margaret Jacob: "[Conservative reformers like Boyle] developed a metaphysics of God and matter that authorized a conservative interpretation of the social hierarchy and answered the radicals by rendering their social views untrue in terms of the conservative metaphysics . In other words, a conservative matter theory was constructed which 'outlawed ' radicalism from the universe."4 According to Shapin: To the social groups for whom Boyle spoke the radical sectarian threat had to be opposed, and one way of opposing it was to produce and disseminate a philosophy of nature and God which insisted that material entities were 'brute and stupid', that God was not immanent in nature, and that, therefore, nature, like a congregation and civil society generally, required for its activity the superintendence of external ordering and animating agencies.... The natural philosophy of Boyle and the early Royal Society was generated with a view to these social and moral uses; it was evaluated partly on the basis of how well it could be used in those contexts.5 On this approach Boyle's view of the relationship between God and nature is understood as derivative from social and political motives arising from an "The Intellectual Origins of the RoyalSociety,"Notes and Recordsof the Royal Societyof London 23 (Dec. 1968): 129-43; Richard S. Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England (Binghamton, N.Y.: YaleUniversity Press, 1958),83-92. 3 James Jacob, "The Ideological...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 547-569
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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