Meeting 38

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DATE: Tuesday, September 21

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Robert Boyle: Philosophy and Experiment

SPEAKERS: Marina Paola Banchetti-Robino (Florida Atlantic University), Michelle DiMeo (Science History Institute), William Eaton (Georgia Southern University)


Fish, Function, and Philosophy: The Petty/Boyle Dissections

William Eaton

A turning point in the history of science occurred in the cold, damp, conditions of Dublin during the winters of 1653, when William Petty painstakingly taught Robert Boyle anatomy. Together they dissected a few human cadavers, dogs, pigs, and a lot of fish. Up to that point, Boyle’s scientific work had been largely theoretical. He read scientific books up to 12 hours a day, suffering headaches from reading so much. But this work was different. It was hands-on applied Baconiansm. Boyle would later claim that he learned more about the universe cutting up fish with Petty than in all the books he had ever read. Though seldom given much attention due to his spectacular achievements at Oxford just a few years later, I think we can learn a lot from these early experiments. They solidified Boyle’s endorsement of the mechanical philosophy and influenced his approach to science (not just his chymistry, but his work in pneumatics, medicine, and other areas). He learned firsthand the need for more than one experiment, the value of unsuccessful experiments, the fact that individual specimens and background conditions vary greatly, to not rely on authority for scientific truth, that the best authority is your own experience in a careful observation, and that empirical evidence should be the deciding factor between completing mechanical explanations. Boyle’s progress in science accelerated when he started using empirical evidence to decide between competing mechanical explanations. I argue that this occurred for the first time when he realized Harvey’s mechanical explanation of the circulation of the blood was correct, and Descartes’s equally mechanical theory was mistaken. Under Petty’s guidance he saw with his own weak eyes that the heart is more like a pump than it is a furnace. Pumps over percolation, in the cold Irish winter.

The Role of Negative-Empirical Concepts in Sennert and Boyle

Marina Paola Banchetti-Robino

This presentation examines the role played by negative-empirical concepts in the chymical philosophy of Daniel Sennert (1572-1637), which mediates between the strictly Aristotelian and the strictly Democritean theories of matter by modifying the notion of substantial form and by employing an operational definition of substances as the limits attained by the analytical method of the laboratory. Sennert appropriates this ‘negative-empirical conception of chemical substance’, as Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers have called it, from the tradition of Scholastic alchemy.  Sennert’s work anticipates the important role that the idea of negative-empirical concepts would play in later early modern chemistry, particularly in the chymical philosophy of Robert Boyle.  In fact, negative-empirical concepts would acquire particular explanatory power in one of Sennert’s most influential experimental procedures, the ‘reduction to the pristine state’, an experiment that was later appropriated by Boyle to provide empirical support for his mechanistic notion of essential form.  The paper will show that, far from being insignificant in the history of early modern chymistry, the work of Sennert had important influence on later chymists and, in particular, on the work of Robert Boyle who adopted both the experimental procedure of reduction to the pristine state and a negative-empirical conception of chymical atoms to support a mechanistic but non-reductionist conception of chemical substances.

Boyle’s Medical Recipes as Experiments Proving the Corpuscular Philosophy

Michelle DiMeo

This paper will focus on several interrelated medical texts that Boyle published in the final years of his life. By applying Boyle’s methods for the experimental process onto his medical recipe trials, I show how Boyle used practical experiments like recipes to prove his theories on the corpuscular philosophy. Boyle’s thoughtful articulation of method provides a rare view into how natural philosophers contextualized the personal experience and direct observation used in “household science” within developing theoretical frameworks.  

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