A free enquiry into the vulgarly receiv’d notion of nature

July 16, 2008

Robert Boyle published this title in 1686 ‘to make you the clearest Representation I can, of what Men generally (if they understand themselves) do, or with Congruity to the Axioms they admit and use, ought to conceive Nature to be.’

In it he railed against the Aristotelian, metaphorical styling of nature, writing that, amongst his contemporaries, ‘the vulgar Notion of Nature may be conveniently enough expres’d by some such Description as this.’

Nature is a most wise Being, that does nothing in vain, does not miss of her Ends; does always that which (of the things she can do) is best to be done; and this she does by the most direct or compendious ways, neither employing any things superfluous, nor being wanting in things necessary; she teaches & inclines every one of her Works to preserve it self. And, as in the Microcosm (Man) ’tis she that is the Curer of Diseases, so in the Macrocosm (the World,) for the conservation of the Universe, she abhors a Vacuum, making particular Bodies act contrary to their own Inclinations and Interests, to prevent it, for the publick Good. (pp.58-9)

Boyle then questions the way men talk about Nature as an agent.

It may therefore, in this place, be pertinent to add, That such Phrases, as, that Nature, or Faculty, Suction, doth this or that, are not the only ones, wherein I observe, that Men ascribe to a notional thing, that which, indeed, is perform’d by real Agents; as, when we say, that the Law punishes Murder with Death, that it protects the Innocent, releases a Debtor out of Prison, when he has satisfied his Creditors (and the Ministers of Justice) on which, or the like occasions, we may justly say, That ’tis plain that the Law, which, being in it self a dead Letter, is but a notional Rule, cannot, in a Physical sense, be said to perform these things; but they are really performed by Judges, Officers, Executioners, and other Men, acting according to that Rule. (pp.62-3)

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