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École normale supérieure


From the Mechanical Philosophy to Early Modern Mechanisms

Early modern natural philosophers put forward the ontological program that was called “mechanical philosophy” and they gave mechanical explanations for all kinds of phenomena, such as gravity, magnetism, the colors of the rainbow, the circulation of the blood, the motion of the heart and the development of animals. For a generation of historians, the mechanical philosophy was regarded as the main alternative to Aristotelian orthodoxy during the so-called Scientific Revolution and mechanical explanations were presented as paving the way for the use of experiments and mathematics in the understanding of natural phenomena. However, the historical category of mechanical philosophy was later criticized as being too broad, while early modern mechanical explanations were condemned by more epistemologically oriented minds for being incompatible with, or at least not necessarily connected to, the use of experiments and mathematics. In the last ten years, just as the new mechanistic literature emerged in philosophy of science, there has been a reevaluation of early modern mechanical explanations in a domain that had been until then considered as peripheral to the so-called Scientific Revolution, namely the domain of biology, anatomy, physiology and medicine. Although they were neither confirmed nor predictive, some early modern explanations in these domains appear to have a cognitive value similar to the value of contemporary mechanistic explanations.

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