Institutionalising experimental philosophy: the sovereignty of Newtonian methodology in Petrus van Musschenbroek’s work

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In this paper, I discuss Petrus van Musschenbroek’s (1692-1761) defence of Newton’s experimental philosophy, in relation to his views on natural laws and their dependence on the power and will of God. At the time van Musschenbroek started his academic career, several universities in the Dutch Republic had been plagued by intellectual and institutional struggles between Aristotelians and Cartesians. In contrast to these philosophies, van Musschenbroek presents experimental philosophy as an enterprise characterised by harmony and consent. This harmony in experimental philosophy is premised on the order in nature. Natural phenomena are governed by universal and unchanging laws instituted by God. Therefore, as a diligent study of natural phenomena, experimental philosophy cannot but produce agreement. Divine law guarantees order in science. The order in the world is based on a free and arbitrary act of will by God, whose will and power are beyond our comprehension. The sovereign and free will of God is used by Van Musschenbroek to ban a priori reasoning (and therefore Cartesianism) from philosophy and guarantee the sovereignty of the method of experimental philosophy. I will situate van Musschenbroek’s insistence on the stabilising nature of Newtonian experimental philosophy, and his invocation of natural law and God’s sovereignty in the broader religious and political landscape of the Dutch Republic. More specifically, I will focus on the place and function of the university within the Dutch society. Van Musschenbroek’s (and other Dutch Newtonians’) use of the concept will be shown to be part of a strategy to institutionally implement the new experimental philosophy by exploiting the nature and specific embededness of the university.

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