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Isaac Beeckman on Matter and Motion

Mechanical Philosophy in the Making

Klaas van Berkel

Publication Year: 2013

The contribution of the Dutch craftsman and scholar Isaac Beeckman to early modern scientific thought has never been properly acknowledged. Surprisingly free from the constraints of traditional natural philosophy, he developed a view of the world in which everything, from the motion of the heavens to musical harmonies, is explained by reducing it to matter in motion. His ideas deeply influenced Descartes and Gassendi. Klaas van Berkel has succeeded in unearthing and explicating Beeckman's scientific notebooks, allowing us to follow how he developed his new philosophy, almost day by day. Beeckman was almost forgotten until the discovery of his notebooks in the early twentieth century. Isaac Beeckman on Matter and Motion is the first full-length study of the ideas and motives of this remarkable figure. Van Berkel's important study first relates Beeckman's life, placing him in the religious, intellectual, educational, and social context of the Dutch Republic in its golden age. Van Berkel then analyzes the notebooks themselves and the nature and development of Beeckman's "mechanical philosophy." He demonstrates how Beeckman's artisanal background and religious convictions shaped his natural philosophy, even as the decisive influence stems from the educational philosophy of the sixteenth-century French philosopher Peter Ramus. Historians of science and the philosophy of science will find the substance of Beeckman's thought and the unraveling of its growth and development highly interesting. Van Berkel's account provides a new and comprehensive interpretation of the origins of the mechanical philosophy of nature, the philosophy that culminated in the work of Isaac Newton.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This book has been long in the making. It goes back to my student days at the University of Groningen in the 1970s, when as a research assistant I was to asked to take a quick look at what Isaac Beeckman’s printed Journal might reveal about his relationship with René Descartes. ...

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pp. 1-7

The so-called scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is and will forever remain one of the major episodes in modern history. The more we know about it, the harder it becomes to say exactly what happened in the century and a half between Copernicus and Isaac Newton, but we do know that the new science that emerged in that period had a tremendous impact. ...

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1. The Making of a Natural Philosopher, 1588–1619

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pp. 8-27

To the modern visitor, Middelburg, the capital of the Dutch province of Zeeland, appears quiet and friendly, perhaps even picturesque. Compared to the bustling city of Rotterdam, an hour away by car or train, Middelburg is a small city frozen in time. The medieval abbey with its cloister and the slender church steeple, the city hall in late Gothic style, ...

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2. Schoolteacher and Craftsman, 1619–1627

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pp. 28-45

While Beeckman and Descartes discussed natural philosophy in Breda, farther north, in Holland and Utrecht, the great religious conflict of the Twelve Years’ Truce entered its final phase. In the summer of 1618, Maurice of Nassau, the military leader of the Dutch Republic, took the side of the Counter-Remonstrants, the hard-liners among the Dutch Reformed. ...

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3. Among Patricians and Philosophers, 1627–1637

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pp. 46-75

Dordrecht, as the oldest city in the province, enjoyed many privileges in the assembly of the States of Holland. The city had the right to appoint the state pensionary—the highest administrator of the States—who also acted as the leader of the delegation of the States of Holland to the States General, the general assembly of the Dutch Republic. ...

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4. Principles of Mechanical Philosophy I: Matter

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pp. 76-103

Isaac Beeckman’s ideas about the natural world come to us in a chaotic, disordered manner, even in the printed pages of the Centuria and the Journal. However, these ideas themselves were not chaotic and confused. Beeckman’s notes and speculations present a remarkably coherent though not systematically developed philosophy of nature. ...

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5. Principles of Mechanical Philosophy II: Motion

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pp. 104-129

Given that the mechanical philosophy begins with the assumption that matter is purely passive, what then is the cause of change in matter? Change cannot be the result of any inherent tendency in matter to change, which would contradict the assumption that there are no inherent qualities or powers in matter. ...

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6. Sources for a Mechanical Philosophy

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pp. 130-163

As a mechanical philosopher, Beeckman claimed to be self-taught. He wrote in 1620 that “in philosophy and medicine I have had no teacher whosoever, and in mathematics I had a nonacademic teacher for three months only, thirteen years ago.”1 Earlier, he had admitted to Descartes that he had never spoken with anyone else about his way of integrating physics and mathematics.2 ...

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7. Beeckman and the Scientific Revolution

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pp. 164-186

Is the Ramist inspiration for Beeckman’s mechanical philosophy important? Such an assessment ultimately depends on Beeckman’s place in what historians still refer to as the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Was his an isolated case with minimal historical impact, or did his ideas play an important role in early modern natural philosophy? ...


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pp. 187-248

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Bibliographic Essay

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pp. 249-256

The obvious place to begin any research on Isaac Beeckman’s natural philosophy is the Journal tenu par Isaac Beeckman de 1604 à 1634, publié avec une introduction et des notes par C. de Waard, 4 vols. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff , 1939– 53). This excellent edition includes scientific and technical notes as well as remarks of a more personal nature. ...


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pp. 257-265

E-ISBN-13: 9781421409610
E-ISBN-10: 1421409615
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421409368
Print-ISBN-10: 1421409364

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 9 line drawings
Publication Year: 2013