Force (God) in Descartes' physics

It is difficult to evaluate the role of activity - of force or of that which has causal efficacy - in Descartes’ natural philosophy. On the one hand, Descartes claims to include in his natural philosophy only that which can be described geometrically, which amounts to matter (extended substance) in motion (where this motion is described kinematically).’ Yet on the other hand, rigorous adherence to a purely geometrical description of matter in motion would make it difficult to account for the interactions among the particles that constitute Descartes’ universe, since the notions of extension and kinematical motion do not in themselves imply any causal agency. There is, after all, no reason to expect that a particle whose single essence is extension, even if we suppose it to be moving, should impart motion to another particle, while conversely, there is no reason to expect a resting particle to hinder the motion of an impinging one. Descartes' hankering for an austere ontology of matter in motion is in danger of excluding causal agency (force, conceived dynmically) from matter. To the modern reader it may seem obvious that Descartes did not get himself into such a fix, since matter in motion so readily reminds us of kinetic energy or of some more primitive notion of force. Yet by no means is it obvious that Descartes attributed causal efficacy to matter in motion per se. Serious scholars have held opposite positions on this issue. Westfall, Gabbey, and others’ have argued that although on the metaphysical plane Descartes attempted to eliminate force from his mechanical universe, nonetheless ‘force is a real feature’ of his mechanical world. The thrust of this view is that Descartes conceived of force as ‘the capacity of a body in motion to act’, by means of impact, upon other bodies. An opposing interpretation, defended here, is that Descartes did in fact deny causal agency to moving matter per se, restricting agency to immaterial substances such as the human mind, angels, and God. The intention of this interpretation is not to de-emphasize the role of matter in motion in Descartes’ explanation of nature, but rather to stress the fact that Descartes did not conceive of this moving matter dynamically.
Keywords Force in physics  Leibnizean dynamics  Geometrically conceived matter  God as causal agent behind motion  Occasionalism  Descartes, R
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1016/0039-3681(79)90013-X
 Save to my reading list
Follow the author(s)
My bibliography
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Revision history Request removal from index
Download options
PhilPapers Archive

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy on self-archival     Papers currently archived: 16,667
External links
Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library
References found in this work BETA
Alan Gabbey (1971). Force and Inertia in Seventeenth-Century Dynamics. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 2 (1):1-67.

View all 14 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA
Tad M. Schmaltz (2003). Cartesian Causation: Body–Body Interaction, Motion, and Eternal Truths. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 34 (4):737-762.
Ken Levy (2005). Is Descartes a Temporal Atomist? British Journal for the History of Philosophy 13 (4):627 – 674.

View all 12 citations / Add more citations

Similar books and articles
Andrew R. Platt (2011). Divine Activity and Motive Power in Descartes's Physics. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 19 (4):623 - 646.
Richard Arthur (2007). Beeckman, Descartes and the Force of Motion. Journal of the History of Philosophy 45 (1):1--28.
Emily R. Grosholz (1988). Geometry, Time and Force in the Diagrams of Descartes, Galileo, Torricelli and Newton. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1988:237 - 248.
John J. Conley (1994). The Silence of Descartes. Philosophy and Theology 8 (3):199-212.
Cecilia Wee (2012). Descartes's Ontological Proof of God's Existence. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 20 (1):23 - 40.
Gary Hatfield (1988). Science, Certainty, and Descartes. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1988:249 - 262.
Ilyas Altuner (2012). The Relation of God and Being in Descartes. Igdir University Journal of Social Sciences (2): 33-51.
Tom Sorell (1987). Descartes. New York ;Oxford University Press.

Monthly downloads

Added to index


Total downloads

38 ( #87,235 of 1,726,249 )

Recent downloads (6 months)

2 ( #289,836 of 1,726,249 )

How can I increase my downloads?

My notes
Sign in to use this feature

Start a new thread
There  are no threads in this forum
Nothing in this forum yet.