How the world became mathematical
My title, of course, is an exaggeration. The world no more became mathematical in the seventeenth century than it became ironic in the nineteenth. Either it was mathematical all along, and seventeenth-century philosophers discovered it was, or, if it wasn’t, it could not have been made so by a few books. What became mathematical was physics, and whether that has any bearing on the furniture of the universe is one topic of this paper. Garber says, and I agree, that for Descartes bodies are the things of geometry made real ( Ref). That is a claim about the world: what God created, and what we know in physics, is nothing other than res extensa and its modes. Others, including Marion, hold that in modern science, here represented at its origins by Descartes, representation displaces beings: the knower no longer confronts Being or beings but rather a system of signs, a “code” as Marion calls it, to which the knower stands in the relation of subject to object. The Meditations, or perhaps even the Regulæ, are the ﬁrst step toward the transcendental idealism of Kant. Most of this paper will be devoted to a more concrete question. Physics in the seventeenth century increasingly became a matter of applying mathematical knowledge to the solution of physical problems. The “mixed sciences” of astronomy, optics, and music, sciences then distinct from physics, became models of understanding for all of natural philosophy. My interest here is in one aspect of that development: how particular physical situations are transformed into mathematical. I will look at the work of Descartes and Isaac Beeckman, contrasting their visions of “physico-mathematics”.
|Keywords||philosophy of science mathematization early modern natural philosophy|
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