Fundación Canaria Orotava
de Historia de la Ciencia

Mechanics and natural philosophy:accommodation and conflict

From Natural Philosophy to Science

Sponsored by


The Programme will address an important, but difficult question, namely, which were the factors involved in transforming natural philosophy into physics as we know it today? The Programme will focus its research efforts on the period of the formation of European “natural philosophy,” the cradle of modern scientific thought. The cornerdates usually given for this period are 1200 and 1700. They indicate roughly the introduction of Aristotle’s works into the nascent universities, and the establishment of stable scientific institutions such as the Royal Society or the Académie des Sciences, whose activities were characterised by experimentation, mathematical modelling, the publication of research results (in vernacular scientific languages), and the publication and the sponsoring of scientific collaboration. The year 1700 is a convenient date to indicate the disappearance of a university-based, Latin-speaking, essentially Aristotelian approach to nature.

Research activities of the Programme will be clustered in the following four teams:

  1. Mechanics, machines, and natural philosophy: studies the medieval, Renaissance, and early modern developments of mechanics, and pays special attention to key concepts such as motion, space, matter, time, and force and their relation to natural philosophy.

  2. Mind and body: explores two entities and their interactions, which nowadays have become an issue involving several scientific disciplines, but which in pre-modern times belonged to the single discipline of natural philosophy.

  3. The anatomy of scientific knowledge: logic and method: investigates the evolution of notions such as truth, certainty, authority, and objectivity, the methodological requirements of (physical) science, and the role of experience and experiment and of mathematical discourse in different models of scientific explanation.

  4. Contexts and contents of natural philosophy: addresses the political, religious, sociological, and institutional factors, in brief, the cultural context at large, which fostered natural philosophy and helped to determine its physiognomy.

During the course of the Programme, each team will annually organise one workshop. The total number of workshops will be sixteen. In addition, the Programme will facilitate invited lectures and short-term research visits by the participants of this Programme, and the sponsoring of Ph.D. candidates to attend workshops. The Programme will be concluded by a large conference, which aims at providing a synthesis of the results obtained by the workshops organised over these four years. At a previous meeting of the Steering Committee and the team leaders, that was co-sponsored by the ESF, the following workshops have been outlined (only the titles are provided here):

(More information: 'From Natural Philosophy to Science')

Team 1: Mechanics, machines and natural philosophy. Teamleader: Sophie Roux


2004: Mechanics and Natural Philosophy: Accommodation and Conflict (Tenerife)

2004: Mechanics and Cosmology (Florence)

2005: The Mechanisation of Natural Philosophy (Grenoble )

2006: The Machine as Model and Metaphor (Berlín)

2006: Thought Experiments (Athens)

One of the central elements in the transformation of natural philosophy into science is what Dijksterhuis has called “The Mechanization of the World Picture”. Indeed, in the seventeenth century, mechanics became the paradigmatic science par excellence. Natural philosophy increasingly relied on mechanical explanatory models, depicted both the microcosm and the macrocosm as machines, and tried to imitate the science of mechanics by reducing all natural phenomena to mathematically describable interactions between rigid bodies. In the process, the science of mechanics, which had been thriving particularly in the Hellenistic world and continued to exist in a more subdued way in the Arabic and Latin Middle Ages, developed in various new directions. The bases of medieval and Renaissance mechanics were quickly enlarged and mathematised, while the medieval image of the machina mundi was given completely new meanings.

This team will trace these developments, compare the medieval, Renaissance, and especially the early modern developments of mechanics with one another, and pay special attention to the key concepts of mechanics and to their relation to natural philosophy (notably motion, space, matter and force). The first conference (“The World of Pre-Classical Mechanics”) will study the long-term relations between mechanics and natural philosophy from Antiquity to the European Renaissance. The second (“Mechanics and Cosmology”) will investigate the relation between terrestrial mechanics and the emergence of a new cosmology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The third conference (“Mechanical Conceptualisations”) will consider the key concepts of the “mechanical” science, comparing these to current concepts in medieval and Renaissance Aristotelianism. The last conference (“The Machine as Model and Metaphor”) will investigate all relevant aspects of machine models in natural philosophy.

Team 2 Mind and Body Teamleader: Henrik Lagerlund

This team investigates the fascinating relationship between the scientia de anima and the scientia naturalis, which until the seventeenth century had a common fate. The conferences outlined below will examine, often for the first time, the various efforts that were made in the period 1200-1700 to analyze cognition in its relation with natural philosophy and science. The conferences are systematically ordered according to several relationships that can be discerned between the basic components in any account of cognition, namely the knowing subject, the natural world, and its representations. Given these components, one might speak of the relation between the world and the subject, between the subject and its representations, and between the representations and the world. Each conference will focus on one specific relationship. The first conference (“Theories of Perception”) will deal with the question of how the natural world affects the perceiving subject. The second conference (“Scepticism and the Mirror of Nature”) will treat the question of how mental representations may or may not correctly reflect the natural world. The third conference (“The Mental Landscape”) deals with the subject’s cognitive access to its mental representations. The fourth conference will bring together the threads of the previous ones, addressing the development and changing status of the science of the soul itself.

Team 3: The Anatomy of Scientific Thought: Logic and Method Team leader: Frans de Haas

The series of four conferences envisaged for this team is aimed at integrating philosophical and historical research of the development of science from Antiquity, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the Early Modern Period. This integration requires that new areas of research of periods and concepts which have been neglected in the past be opened up. The first conference presents a general survey of the main problems concerning the reception of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, the focal point of any discussion on method and empirical inference from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. The results of this conference will lay the foundation for the more particular questions to be dealt with in the remaining conferences. The 2004 conference treats general questions concerning the logic of inquiry, whereas the subsequent conferences look at the concrete application of methods of inquiry and presentation in two specific fields of science, namely biology, alchemy and medicine on the one hand (2005), and mathematics (2006) on the other.

Team 4: Contexts and Contents of Natural Philosophy Team leader: Sachiko Kusukawa

This team examines the relationship between the context and content of natural philosophy 1200-1700. To what extent were the diffusion, acceptance, development of theories, facts and methods affected by the various ‘sites’ in which inquiries into nature took place? How did publication, communication, instruments, technical language and diagrams help establish disciplinary, professional and community identities and their practices? How important were medical, theological and institutional contexts in transforming natural philosophy into ‘science’? The investigation of such contexts, although indispensable for an understanding of the development of natural philosophy into science, runs the risk of opening up an infinite field of enquiry. The aim of each conference, therefore, is to make the various contextual questions manageable by focusing on core questions and attempting to answer them through exemplary cases and comparative analyses.

Steering Committee

Johannes Thijssen (University of Nijmegen), Chairman Joël Biard (University of Tours/Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance) Paolo Galluzzi (Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza/University of Florence) Simo Knuuttila (University of Helsinki) Michael Langkjaer (University of Copenhagen) Ian Maclean (All Souls College, Oxford) Antoni Malet (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona) Jürgen Renn (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science) Tatiana Sedova (Slovak Academy of Science, Bratislava)

Programme Coordinator: Cees Leijenhorst (University of Nijmegen)



Workshop in La Orotava, Tenerife. Canary Islands

January 30 - February 1, 2004.


In the thirteenth century, the few existing pieces of mechanical knowledge were dispersed among distinct bodies of knowledge; by the end of seventeenth century, mechanics, at this point defined as the science of motion, was the physical science par excellence. The workshop “Mechanics and Natural Philosophy: Accommodation and Conflict” is devoted to the various and sometimes conflictual traditions that have contributed to this long-term emergence of the science of mechanics.


WORKSHOP07One of the central elements of the transformation of natural philosophy into science is what has been called the “mechanization of the world picture”. This mechanization was preceded by a transformation of mechanics: in the middle of the thirteenth century there was nothing like a science of mechanics, not only because the word “mechanical” was reserved to manual arts, but because the existing pieces of knowledge concerning what we would now call “mechanics” were dispersed among various bodies of knowledge; by the end of seventeenth century, mechanics, at this point defined as the science of motion, was the paradigmatic physical science. The workshop “Mechanics and Natural Philosophy: Accommodation and Conflict” is devoted to the various traditions that have contributed to the long-term emergence of the science of mechanics. In order to identify these traditions, to describe the material routes that they have followed and to understand their relationships, we shall pay attention to the following points:

  1. The status of mechanics. Problems that are now referred to as “mechanical” used to be distributed among a variety of treatises, including logical or theological ones. Had these various theoretical contexts any effect on the mechanical concepts formation? For example, which effect did the insertion of the science of weights into the Latin quadrivium have on its accommodation to the Aristotelian natural philosophy? What were the consequences of the 16th century claim that mechanics is, not an art, but a theoretical science?

  2. Words and concepts. Certain words (eg., gravitas secundum situm, impetus, momento) are often associated with a given physical theory, as if the words contain the theory in a nutschell. On the one hand however, concepts have histories of their own, which may be different from histories of words; on the other hand, one word can have various meanings in various contexts. Had translations from the Greek and Latin to the vernacular languages, or from one language to the other, any effect on the concepts transformations? What does explains the longevity of some words? How does the meaning of a concept change when the theoretical context changes?

  3. Use of mathematics. Until the invention of the infinitesimal calculus, the Euclid’s theory of proportions had been the main tool for the analysis of motion as well as for the science of weights. Was it the only mathematical theory used in mechanics? Could it be applied to all mechanical problems without modification? Why were mathematical proofs sought after? What was considered as a sound mathematical proof? If mechanics is partly physical and partly mathematical, how is the transition from physics to mechanics assured?

  4. Models and principles. Classical mechanics is founded on a limited number of concrete models (a lever, an inclined plane, a thrown ball, a sling, a pendulum, etc.). But the expression “concrete models” tends to hide the problem. “Concrete models” refer to basic sense experiences, but they are figures in books as well, and they are linked to general physical principles. How does a basic sense experience become a model? What are the respective roles of text and figure in the transmission of a model? When does a concrete model become a physical principle? What happens if several models compete in the explanation of a new experience?


FRIDAY, 01.30.04

9.30-9.45 Welcome and opening address

9.45-10.40 Jürgen Sarnowski Talk: “The Theory of Impetus: Origins, Development, Consequences”

10.40-11.35 Jean Celeyrette Talk: “The Emergence of Bradwardine’s Law”

11.35-12.05 Coffee

12.05-13.00 Christiane Vilain Talk: “The Comparison between Curved and Straight Motions in the Aristotelian Tradition of the Renaissance”

13.00-14.00 General discussion

14.00-15.20 Lunch 15. 15.30-16.15 Victor Navarro-Brotons Discussion of sources: “Mechanics and natural philosophy in sixteenth century Spain: some preliminary notes and questions"

16.15-17.45 Peter Damerow and Brian Fuchs Discussion of sources: “Mechanics without theory” Peter Damerow, Brian Fuchs, Jürgen Renn and Peter McLaughlin Discussion of sources: “The emergence of theoretical mechanics”

SATURDAY, 01.31.04

9.00-9.55 W. Roy Laird Talk: “The Nature of Mechanics and the Mechanics of Nature in the Sixteenth Century”

9.55-10.40 Romano Gatto Talk: “An original Archimedean mechanical work: Stigliola’s De Gli Elementi Mechanici”

10.40-11.20 Coffee

11.20-12.15 Mario Helbing Talk: “Natural Philosophy and Mechanics at the Faculty of Arts in Pisa from 1580 to 1592”

12.15-13.10 Pier Daniele Napolitani Talk: “The Archimedean Tradition and the Transition from Natural Philosophy to Science”

13.10-14.00 General discussion

14.00-15.20 Lunch


Jürgen Renn and Jochen Büttner Discussion of sources: “The representation of mechanical knowledge by deductive theories” Mohamed Abattouy and Jürgen Renn

Discussion of sources: “The Arabic transmission and transformation” Jochen Büttner, Jürgen Renn, Peter Damerow and Peter McLaughlin

Discussion of sources: “The challenge of the mechanics tradition in early modern times”

SUNDAY, 02.01.04

9.00-9.55 Geert Van Paemel Talk: “Jesuit views on the science of mechanics”

9.55-10.40 Antoni Malet Talk: “Between mathematics and experiments: Late 17th-century hydrostatics and pneumatics”

10.40-11.00 General discussion

11.00 Departure to the Teide

14.00-16.00 Lunch at the Parador of the Teide

16.00-17.00 Final discussion

LOCAL ORGANIZER Fundación Canaria Orotava de Historia de la Ciencia

Director: José Montesinos Sirera

C/. Calvario 17, 38300 La Orotava. Tenerife – España

Tl.: (+34) 922 322 862

Fax: (+34) 922 334 475