Mechanical Philosophy in an Enchanted World: Cartesian Empiricism in Balthasar Bekker’s Radical Reformation

Part of the Studies in History and Philosophy of Science book series (AUST, volume 31)


Balthasar Bekker is seen as one of the seminal thinkers sparking off the early (radical) Enlightenment, the battle against superstition and the ‘disenchantment’ of the world. The secondary literature has interpreted him a Cartesian rationalist, focussing on his a priori treatment of theology and metaphysics. In this article, I stress the importance of Bekker’s Cartesian empiricism instead, which will allow me to reassess the traditional historiography. I show that Bekker was not a forerunner of the enlightenment, but instead aimed at radicalizing the reformation. He did not battle superstition in the enlightenment sense of the term, but inveighed against what he considered corrupted forms of religion. Furthermore, he did not disenchant the world in the sense of freeing it from occult and magical powers, powers which Bekker accepted and explained in natural terms. For Bekker, instead, disenchantment meant denying all demonic activity in the world. He argued that belief in the action of the devil was a pagan remnant in Christianity, which had to be weeded out in order to purify Protestantism. In this article, I argue that not only Bekker’s Cartesian metaphysics or hermeneutics, but especially his Cartesian empiricism buttressed his project of disenchanting the world. His theological and philosophical empiricism was necessary in order to shield his system from otherwise fatal criticisms. In particular, I show here how the mechanical philosophy provided him with the tools to develop his empirical approach to natural philosophy. Even if he did not initiate the Enlightenment, Bekker’s work did play a crucial role in early modern discussions of Cartesianism, reformed theology and the radical reformation, and some of his ideas would be taken up by later Enlightenment thinkers.


Evil Spirit Violent Emotion Mechanical Philosophy Dutch Republic Bible Interpretation 
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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CNRSParisFrance

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