Meeting 36

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DATE: Tuesday, May 4

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: Plants in Early Modern Natural Philosophy: Mechanico/Chymical Investigations

SPEAKERS: Oana Matei (Vasile Goldis Western University of Arad & University of Bucharest) and Fabrizio Baldassarri (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice):


Particles and Spirits: Fundamental Processes of Nature in Mid-Seventeenth Century Studies of Plants

Oana Matei

Gardening, plant cultivation, experiments that involve vegetables, trees, herbs and flowers do not seem, at first glance, to be very philosophical. However, in England, in the second part of the seventeenth century, a significant number of natural philosophers (such as Robert Boyle, John Evelyn, Kenelm Digby, Nehemiah Grew, John Woodward) were actively involved in such activities and were not interested just in the utility that such experiments could bring. Their concern went even beyond the study of external and internal features of plants.  I propose to look at experiments with plants in the second part of the seventeenth century as attempts to investigate the fundamental processes of nature. Although sometimes with different backgrounds, theoretical assumptions and metaphysical allegiances, in their endeavours, naturalists used plants as laboratories that illustrate processes of nature and where fundamental transformations take place and can be investigated. Apart from the instrumental use of plants, mid-seventeenth century natural philosophers adopted an operational vocabulary emerged from experimental practices and that, in spite of their different theoretical presuppositions, allowed them to communicate experimental results and knowledge. To support this claim, I will discuss the cases of John Evelyn and John Beale in relation to other early fellows of the Royal Society, such as Robert Boyle and Kenelm Digby.

Herba Impatiens, Mimosa, and Tulips: Plants in Cartesian Mechanical Philosophy of Nature (1618-1662)

Fabrizio Baldassarri

In this paper, I aim to explore a crucial section of the study of botany, namely the mechanical understanding of plant life that developed in the Cartesian context. In presenting the case of a few specimens discussed by Descartes and early Cartesians, I show their attempts to provide a complete mechanization of their nature—namely the structure, functioning, scents, and flavor of plants. This is particularly interesting, insofar as Descartes’s natural philosophy has a theoretical and speculative approach to nature, devising a general framework in which all bodies could be encompassed, with little discussions of particular cases. The need to deal with such cases, generally triggered by Mersenne’s curiosity, at least for the case of Descartes himself, is therefore meaningful from both a methodological and a natural philosophical points of view. Embedded within mechanical interpretations of the life of plants, I present Descartes’s discussion of the ambretta flower and the Mimosa pudica, comparing this investigation with Beeckman’s description of the herba impatiens, another type of noli-me-tangere; then, I focus on Regius’s mechanical description of the Mimosa pudica; finally, I deal with Florent Schuyl’s description of tulips. I also show how much this mechanical approach to vegetal bodies influenced the science of plants in the second half of the seventeenth century.

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