ABSTRACT

Robert Boyle’s Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature (1686) is one of the key texts of the Scientific Revolution. In it, Boyle took issue with various views of the natural world, prevalent both in antiquity and in his own time, which saw nature as a wise, benevolent and essentially purposeful being. Associated with such views were commonplace expressions like ‘Nature does nothing in vain’, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’ or ‘Nature is the wisest physician’. Boyle argued that such conceptions were superfluous. In his view, natural phenomena could best be explained by seeing nature as an automaton, operating by mechanical processes under the ultimate control of an infinite, personal God. The Free Enquiry thus ‘provided the theological and philosophical underpinnings for the corpuscular philosophy that lay at the heart of all of Boyle’s work in natural philosophy’, in the words of a modern scholar, Margaret Osler. Contemporaries, too, were aware of the work’s significance, like the translator of the Latin edition of the work, Boyle’s protégé, the Scottish physician and writer David Abercromby, who wrote, having summarised the book’s argument: ‘I therefore look upon this work as the new system of a new philosophy which fundamentally overthrows the foundation – namely, Nature – of all views hitherto held in philosophical matters.’ 1