Experiment in Cartesian Courses: The Case of Professor Burchard de Volder

The Circulation of Science and Technology (2010)
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Abstract
In 1675, Burchard de Volder became the first university physics professor to introduce the demonstration of experiments into his lectures and to create a special university classroom, The Leiden Physics Theatre, for this specific purpose. This is surprising for two reasons: first, early pre-Newtonian experiment is commonly associated with Italy and England, and second, de Volder is committed to Cartesian philosophy, including the view that knowledge gathered through the senses is subject to doubt, while that deducted from first principles is certain. On the surface, it is curious that such a man would bring experiments to university physics. After all, in demonstrating experiments to his students, he was teaching them through their senses, not reason. However, if we consider the institutional context of de Volder’s teaching, we come to see de Volder’s Cartesian experimentalism as representative of a certain form of pre-Newtonian Dutch Cartesian science, as well as part of a larger tradition of teaching through observation at the University of Leiden. Considering de Volder’s institutional context will help us see that de Volder’s experimentalism was not in spite of his Cartesianism, but motivated by it. This paper will describe de Volder’s physics curriculum, the Theatre in which it was taught and how his work predates similar efforts in other European Universities. The second part will consider three aspects of the culture at the University of Leiden: a tradition of teaching through observation, a particular reception of Cartesianism, and an eclectic approach to the New Philosophy. The concluding portion shows how de Volder would have understood his enterprise in Cartesian terms.
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