Robert Boyle’s Experimental Philosophy Revisited


“Robert Boyle”, eds. Michael Hunter and Elizabeth Boran, Intellectual History Review, Volume 25, Issue 1 (2015), ISSN: 1749-6977 (print), 1749-6985 (online), 131 pp.


As the two editors inform us in the preface, this special issue arose out of a colloquium held at the Edward Worth Library in Dublin, in December 2011, to mark the 350th anniversary of the publication of Robert Boyle’s most famous work, The Sceptical Chymist (London 1661). It contains seven articles and a substantial introduction and covers a good number of important aspects in the field of early modern studies: the evolution of Robert Boyle’s thought, his ‘conversion’ from moral to natural philosophy, his formative relation with his older sister, Lady Ranelagh, his way of reading and writing, his theology, his experimental practices, and some of his reception and immediate posterity.
The first two articles deal with the immediate context of Robert Boyle’s formation as a natural philosopher. In his opening paper, Michael Hunter revisits the much debated subject of Boyle’s early ‘conversion’ to natural philosophy. In many ways, the article is a rewriting of Hunter’s earlier paper on the same subject, taking into consideration subsequent debates and responding to criticism.1 At stake is the moment of Boyle’s shift of interest from moral to natural philosophy, but also Boyle’s links with such groups as the ‘Invisible College’, the Hartlib Circle and the Oxford Group (later to become the early Royal Society). After discussing some of the criticism formulated against his earlier “How Boyle Become a Scientist?”,2 Hunter concludes by standing behind his old thesis, i.e., that of a ‘Great Divide’ in Boyle’s life, taking place in 1649; a rift dividing an earlier philosophical career and a later “scientific career,” marked by an “obsessive experimentalism” (p. 14).

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