Cartesianism and chymistry


Mihnea DOBRE*

Abstract. One of the most difficult, yet interesting change in the seventeenth-century natural philosophy was that of chemistry. This essay focuses upon Cartesian re-evaluation of the philosophical disciplines, arguing that, from a systematic perspective, chemistry cannot find a place in natural philosophy. Chemistry, in its seventeenth-century form of “chymistry” shares a number of common features with other traditions and practices. Descartes and his first-generation of followers discussed in this essay – Jacques du Roure, Robert Desgabets, and Jacques Rohault – will react precisely to this discipline of “chymistry,” opposing it to their physics built on a combination between theory of matter and mechanical explanations. The very restrictive Cartesian theory of matter will come into tension with any intermediate explanatory entity, such as the chymical principles. This essay will investigate such tensions, arguing that they are caused by both ontological and epistemological commitments. For example, the principles of the chymists contradict the one material extension of the
Cartesian world. At the same time, Cartesians require a more thorough reductive process then the one provided by chymical explanations. In this sense, chymistry is good for practical purposes, but fails in providing an explanation in natural philosophy and, hence, to represent a science.
Keywords: Descartes, chymistry, natural philosophy, Rohault, chymical principles,
matter theory

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