The Role of Mathematics in Maupertuis’ Epistemology and Natural Philosophy
Abstract. The aim of this paper is to pinpoint the pervasive connections between Maupertuis‟s theory of knowledge and his particular way of unifying Newtonian science by means of a physico-metaphysical principle, i.e. the Principle of Least Action (PLA). It focuses on how epistemology fits into the discussion on the principle. Maupertuis‟s writings on this topic show a constant effort to balance between a purer form of empiricism and a mitigated („rationalizing‟) one. On the one hand, the role of mathematics in the acquisition of knowledge is deeply connected with an empiricist viewpoint opposed to the mathematicism in the understanding of the natural world ascribed to Descartes and Wolff, but on the other hand, the applicability of mathematics in nature has to be considered an undeniable fact. The way to harmonize these seemingly divergent accounts is to set up a general principle that will allow mathematics to recommend itself as the most suitable cognitive instrument – namely, the metaphysical principle of simplicity. In the paper I will emphasize the rationale for the special status of this principle and why it acts like a bridge between epistemology and natural philosophy. Furthermore, I will try to offer a more precise understanding of the explanatory strategies employed by Maupertuis and examine why the PLA was chosen as a landmark case for their application.
Keywords: Maupertuis, epistemology, empiricism, laws, PLA, mathematics, simplicity