Beeckman, Descartes and Physico-Mathematics
The phrase, “there are very few physico-mathematicians,” written by Isaac Beeckman in his Loci communes on the occasion of his encounter with Descartes in November 1618 is well-known. The language appears to be new, and is not found in Beeckman before this date. He comments on Descartes in this way:But the compliment is odd. Beeckman had meditated on this subject for about a decade and a half; from the very first remark in his Journal (probably from 1608 to1610), he wondered why all of the arts are not subordinated to one another, why there is not “a general science or art of all mathematics, and again, of mathematics and physics, and again of physics and ethics, and again of physics and alchemy, etc.” But obviously, Descartes had had much less experience with these kinds of questions. This compliment shows the constant care with which Beeckman drafted his reading notes, experiments, and reflections over 30 years. He sometimes judges other authors on their way of harmonizing mathematics and physics, and in a more particular way, on the ways in which they agree with the small number of philosophical theses that he considers his own and to which he returns again and again. With regard to Bacon and Stevin, he writes that the first did not try hard enough to join mathesis to physics (he believed, for example, that the cause of the interval of an octave was obscure), while the second was too devoted to mathematics and dealt too rarely with physics. Thus, the phrase “this way of investigation (hoc modo studendi)” in the quotation, is what is most important. In fact, it is not just a question of unifying mathematics and physics in general, but the specific way in which it is done. In making his judgment about Descartes, Beeckman enters him into a very select list of authors, those who are most important for him in the renovation of science, and gives him the particular distinction of being a kind of alter ego. But is Beeckman right to assume, or to presuppose, that he and Descartes have a common style?