The Experimentalist as Humanist: Robert Boyle on the History of Philosophy

Dmitri Levitin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Historians of science have neglected early modern natural philosophers' varied attitudes to the history of philosophy, often preferring to use loose labels such as ‘Epicureanism’ to describe the survival of ancient doctrines. This is methodologically inappropriate: reifying such philosophical movements tells us little about the complex ways in which early modern natural philosophers approached the history of their own discipline. As this article shows, a central figure of early modern natural philosophy, Robert Boyle, invested great intellectual energy into his depiction of the history of philosophy. Boyle's historical worldview was mediated through an array of textual traditions: classical, patristic, humanist and contemporary. Drawing extensively on his manuscript notes, this is examined for three topics. First, from his turn to natural philosophy in the late 1640s, Boyle combined a sceptical attitude towards philosophy's potential – stemming from humanist historicisations of the ‘speculative’ heritage of Greek philosophy – with a belief in natural philosophy's efficacy as a spiritual exercise, as performed by ancient ‘priests of nature’. Second, Boyle's attitude to the history of matter theory was far more complex than any simple comparison with ‘ancient atomism’ can convey. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Boyle held Epicurus to be a speculative and reductionist philosopher, leading him to posit a different lineage for a non-reductionist corpuscularianism which depended on exploitation of non-standard historiographical traditions. Appreciating this allows us to make an intervention in the ongoing debate about the relationship between corpuscularianism, chymistry and experiment in Boyle's philosophy. Third, Boyle's historicisation of supposedly anthropomorphic philosophies in his famous Free Enquiry (1686) exploited recent theological historiography, most importantly Samuel Parker's combination of the history of idolatry with the history of Greek philosophy, which itself relied on developments in continental sacred history. It was this historicisation, rather than any philosophical realities, which led to the positing of the mechanical philosophy as more compatible than Aristotelianism with Christian doctrine.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-34
Number of pages34
JournalAnnals of Science
Early online date27 Jul 2012
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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