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'The Infinite Variety of Formes and Magnitudes': 16Th- and 17Th-Century English Corpuscular Philosophy and Aristotelian Theories of Matter and Form

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In this article, I argue that the interest on the part of Bacon, Hill, and Warner in corpuscularian interpretations of natural phenomena and their similarity to certain views later held by Digby or Boyle offer a strong indication for the existence of an 'independent English atomistic milieu', a view that fits more closely Porter & Teich's recent model of national contexts for early modern science than Kargon's traditional picture of English atomism as a foreign import. In the course of this article, I consider Francis Bacon's anti-Aristotelian polemic in the light of his continued adherence to a conception of material form and his essentially Aristotelian metaphysics, as well as the relationship between his conception of form and his corpuscular theories of matter. This is followed by an examination of Walter Warner's natural philosophical manuscripts. Particular attention is paid to his Averroist distinction between assistant form (which has the role of an active, organizing, kinetic principle) and insistent forms (passive material formation, according to the nature of the substance and its internal combination or mixture of parts) in his treatment of the atoms of vital spirits and of the transmission of light, an idea that has interesting links to the scholastic notion of the sphaera actiuitatis. It is shown how Warner replaced the assistant form/sphere of activity with an energic principle, which he called vis and which took over many of the characteristics of the formative principles it replaced. I then compare Warner's use of vis with Nicholas Hill's, for whom it represented a hypostatic principle, i.e. an instrument of divine agency in the physical world. Such a strong view of divine causation enabled Hill to undertake a more radical critique of Aristotelian form than was available to Warner. My discussion ends with a look at Boyle's critique of the modern Aristotelian doctrine of forms, and his re-interpretation of form in terms of atomic configuration and the modifications of local motion. I end by suggesting that the 'phasing out' of Aristotelian notions of form, and their replacement with ideas of force or local motion opened the way for a similar 'phasing out' of divine causation, by making force a self-sufficient explanatory principle.

Affiliations: 1: Birkbeck College, University of London


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