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Petrus van Musschenbroek (1692-1761) as educator: the role and use of textbooks

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Abstract

The Dutch Republic played an important role in the dissemination of Newton’s philosophy. There, it found its earliest proponents, who were instrumental in the spread of his ideas on the continent. One of these figures was Petrus van Musschenbroek (1692-1761), who took up professorships at the universities of Duisburg, Utrecht, and Leiden. In a letter to Newton written at the beginning of his career, Musschenbroek explicitly stated that it was his aim to spread the ‘Newtonian philosophy’ in the university, and from there to the rest of Dutch society. As part of his attempt to spread this new philosophy, Musschenbroek wrote several textbooks. These were reprinted in other European countries and translated, making them one of the chief vehicles through which Newton’s ideas spread throughout the continent. In this paper, I focus on these textbooks and analyse them in relation to Musschenbroek’s aim of introducing Newton’s ideas in the context of the university and to a broader audience in the Dutch Republic. More specifically, I on the one hand look at the several editions of his Latin textbook which were, as their titles suggest, explicitly written for use in the university (in usus academicos). On the other hand, I look at the two Dutch versions of the textbook written by Musschenbroek “in the service of [his] countrymen” (ten dienste der landgenooten). With regard to the university textbooks, a comparison is made with the textbooks used by Musschenbroek’s predecessors, in order to spell out how the new ‘experimental physics’ differed from the physics taught by Aristotelian or Cartesian professors. Special attention is given to the presentation and organisation of the material in the textbooks. In his orations, Musschenbroek severely criticised philosophers’ excessive inclination towards system-building, arguing instead that one should focus on gathering empirical evidence and performing experiments. In a pedagogical context however, systematicity was an important ideal, and the ordering and systematisation of one’s subject matter was seen as an important task of a professor. By looking at the organisation of the textbooks, I show how Musschenbroek tried to balance the ideal of systematicity in education with his criticism of system-building in philosophy. With regard to the Dutch textbooks, I compare their contents with the textbooks written for use in the university. Musschenbroek explicitly states that the former are more elaborate and thorough than the latter, as they are written for amateurs rather than young students. In the preface to the Dutch textbooks, Musschenbroek refers to societies of scientific amateurs and the courses given to interested burghers by John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683-1744) during his tour in the Dutch Republic. I analyse the content of Mussschenbroek’s Dutch textbook in relation to this audience of amateurs and the practices of education in experimental philosophy they had instituted outside the context of the university. Taken together, this provides a general picture of the role and function of the textbooks written by Musschenbroek in his attempts to educate both young university students and the broader public in the ‘Newtonian philosophy’.

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