Perfect Solidity: Natural Laws and the Problem of Matter in Descartes' Universe

History of Philosophy Quarterly 13 (2):187 - 204 (1996)
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In the Principles of Philosophy, Descartes attempts to explicate the well-known phenomena of varying bodily size through an appeal to the concept of "solidity," a notion that roughly corresponds to our present-day concept of density. Descartes' interest in these issues can be partially traced to the need to define clearly the role of matter in his natural laws, a problem particularly acute for the application of his conservation principle. Specifically, since Descartes insists that a body's "quantity of motion," defined as the product of its "size" and speed, is conserved in all material interactions, it is imperative that he explain how solidity influences the magnitude of this force. As a means of resolving this problem, Descartes postulated an idealized condition of "perfect solidity" which correlates a body's "agitation" force (a forerunner of Newton's concept of non-accelerating, or "inertial" motion) with the interplay of its volume, surface area, and composition of minute particles. This essay explores this often misunderstood aspect of Descartes' physics, as well as the special function of idealized conditions in his collision rules. Contrary to those commentators who regard "perfect solidity" as a stipulation on bodily impact, this notion, it will be argued, is primarily concerned with the internal composition of macroscopic bodies, and only indirectly with their collision characteristics. Along the way, many of Descartes' hypotheses will be shown to display a level of sophistication and intricacy that, despite their essential incompatibility, belie several of the common misconceptions of Cartesian science.
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