’s Gravesande on the Application of Mathematics in Physics and Philosophy

Noctua 4 (1-2):17-55 (2017)
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Willem Jacob ’s Gravesande is widely remembered as a leading advocate of Isaac Newton’s work. In the first half of the eighteenth century, ’s Gravesande was arguably Europe’s most important proponent of what would become known as Newtonian physics. ’s Gravesande himself minimally described this discipline, which he called «physica», as studying empirical regularities mathematically while avoiding hypotheses. Commentators have as yet not progressed much beyond this view of ’s Gravesande’s physics. Therefore, much of its precise nature, its methodology, and its relation to Newton’s actual work remains unclear. This article discusses one particular methodological element that ’s Gravesande himself often stressed in detail, namely the use of mathematics in philosophy and physics. In doing so, it takes exception to the claim that mathematics played only a minor role in ’s Gravesande’s work, a view put forward in recent historiography. Besides that, this article casts new light on the interpretation of ’s Gravesande’s philosophical notion of «mathematical reasoning», a notion that has remained somewhat obscure thus far.


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