Meeting 69

Please note that the seminar is now at 1:30 PM ET.

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DATE: November 22

TIME: 1:30 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8:30 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL:  Cartesianism, Baconianism and the new science: Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy

SPEAKERS: Dana Jalobeanu (ICUB-Humanities & Department of Theoretical Philosophy, University of Bucharest), Christoffer Basse Eriksen (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Oana Matei (ICUB-Humanities, University of Bucharest and Vasile Goldis Western University of Arad)


History of philosophy pictures much of the seventeenth century in terms of the spreading tides of Baconianism and Cartesianism; one permeating from France into England, the other from England to the Continent. Two parallel movements that had nothing in common: one was either a Baconian, experimental philosopher, or a Cartesian, speculative thinker. In this session we are going to challenge, indirectly, this canonical interpretation by reconstructing the views of a Baconian-Cartesian (or Cartesian-Baconian) natural philosopher: Henry Power (1623-1688). Trained as a medical practitioner, in Cambridge, dr. Power had a longstanding interest in Cartesian natural philosophy while, as we are going to show, he was in many ways a Baconian… and perhaps other things as well.

Henry Power’s manuscripts and the making of the Experimental philosophy

Dana Jalobeanu (ICUB-Humanities & Department of Theoretical Philosophy, University of Bucharest)

For most of his contemporaries, Henry Power was the author of a single book, the Experimental philosophy. In this paper, I will show that this book is just the tip of a very large iceberg. It contains carefully organized experimental series based on research that Power did for almost twenty years. By looking at some of Power’s manuscripts I aim to illuminate the composition and structure of this curious book, showing that it was explicitly put together as a Baconian project, i.e, a science built on carefully constructed natural and experimental histories. In my talk, I will focus mostly on the first part of the Experimental philosophy, showing that what looks like random microscopical observations are, in fact, interestingly connected experimental series aiming to uncover the causes of generation and the nature of the animated beings. Taken together, these investigations can be seen as continuing one of Bacon’s unfinished projects, that of a science of life.

Perfectly epitomized: Atoms and preformation in Henry Power’s natural philosophy

Christoffer Basse Eriksen (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

Since the 1628 publication of De motu cordis, English anatomists were testing the limits and possibilities of William Harvey’s theories of circulation and generation. One of these anatomists was Henry Power, who wrote his first treatise as a defence of the Harveian model of the body, and who continued to tease out its consequences throughout his career. Interestingly, these enquiries led Power to formulate a theory of preformationist generation. In this talk, I argue that Power’s theory of preformationism was intimately linked to his theory of atoms as he argued that “these fructifying particles or Atomes, (be they never so minute) are indeed the whole plant perfectly there epitomized.” The theory also served as one of the impetuses for his program of microscopical observations. Through microscopes, he believed, it was possible to see generation play out as the mere enlargement of already existing preformed atoms. In the talk, I trace how Power developed these ideas throughout his career: From his first botanical observations made as a student at Cambridge, to his correspondences with Thomas Browne, and finally to his only published work, the Experimental Philosophy (1664).

Corpuscles and spiritual matter: Henry Power’s observations on plants in Experimental Philosophy

Oana Matei (ICUB-Humanities, University of Bucharest and Vasile Goldis Western University of Arad)

This presentation inquires into Power’s microscopical observations on plants included in his Experimental Philosophy, suggesting that, in explaining the natural process of plant generation, Power worked not only with corpuscularian hypotheses but also with an approach that stresses the spiritual character of matter. I suggest that experiments with plants were not used by Power to reconcile Cartesian corpuscularianism with a neo-Platonic approach to spiritual matter. Instead, their purpose was rather to clarify, with the help offered by microscopcial observations, the nature of seeds and their role in the process of generation of plants, whether containers of the ultimate division of matter (atoms) or “cabinets,” “laboratories” where nature produce diverse things. The Cartesian theory of atoms as the last divisions of matter together with the view on living beings as machines with similar structures prove for the preformist approach to seeds as containers of the small living being that will go through a process of enlargement. However, some observations on plants included in Experimental Philosophy seem to point in the direction according to which seeds have vitalist properties and perform transformations in matter.


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