The Cartesian Natural Laws

  • Edward Slowik
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 181)


In chapter 1, it was necessary to briefly present Descartes’ theory of space and relational motion in order to better grasp the motivation underlying Newton’s argument against relationalism. If we intend to construct a Cartesian science immune to Newton’s problem, however, an in-depth examination of the details of Descartes’ natural philosophy is required. Only when all the components of the Cartesian theory have been revealed and their functions explained can the relationalist proceed to assemble a coherent version of Descartes’ theory. Before we can effectively study, or even construct, a Cartesian spacetime, moreover, it is necessary to investigate the origin and specific content of his views on force and material interaction. These ideas represent a sort of framework or foundation on which a Cartesian spacetime must be built. Among these ideas, the Cartesian laws of nature figure prominently; for they form the basis of all applications of Descartes’ relational theory of motion to the physical world. In this chapter, consequently, the content of the Cartesian natural laws will be analyzed in an attempt to uncover an effective means of resolving the dilemma imposed by Newton’s argument (although the working-out of any promising candidates will have to await Part III).


Circular Motion Circular Path Inertial Motion Rectilinear Motion Impetus Theory 
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  1. 1.
    One must be careful to distinguish the role of the Aristotelian “natural motions” in this synopsis: for example, the movements of the basic element “earth” towards the center of the universe, its “natural place,” constitutes one of these natural motions. In short, natural motions do not require an outside or foreign cause (i.e., an imposed force), because they originate from some sort of internal principle intrinsic to the body. Once a terrestrial body has reached its natural place, however, it will remain in a state of rest unless moved by an external force, a “violent motion.” Upon removal of this force, the body will once again seek its natural place.Google Scholar
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    See, J B. Barbour, Absolute or Relative Motion?, ibid., 196–203. I have also borrowed Barbour’s terminology, here (i.e., “pusher”). In addition, it should be noted that Aristotle did not embrace an impetus theory as later proposed by the Scholastics. He sought the cause of the violent motions (as opposed to the natural motions) in an outside, external agent continuously in contact with the moving body, but not contained within the body (e.g., a hand, the air). See, R. Sorabji, Matter, Space,and Motion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 220–227. On impetus theory, see A. Maier, On the Threshold of Exact Science, trans. by S. D. Sargent (Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1982) chap. 4; and, J. E. Murdoch and E. D. Sylla, “The Science of Motion”, in Science in the Middle Ages, ed. by D. C. Lindberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 206–265.Google Scholar
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    The apparent utilization of an “elasticity” type notion in Descartes’ theory of internal “resistance” will also be discussed in chapter 4. See, G. W. Leibniz, “Critical Thoughts on the General Part of the Principles of Descartes,” in G. W. Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1969) 383–412.Google Scholar
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    One must be cautious in attributing a composite structure to determinations, however. Although Descartes will allow a determination to be decomposed into constituent parts, he is not willing to ascribe to these parts an independent ontological status separate from the single motion of the body. In other words, the component parts of the determination of a single motion are not to be confused with the determinations of the several component parts of a single motion. Since a body’s actual motion is not divisible, the component parts of its determination are only meaningful in relation to that one actual motion. For a lucid discussion of this distinction, see, P. Damerow, et al., Exploring the Limits of Preclassical Mechanics (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992) 119–120.Google Scholar
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    R. Descartes, Optics, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol.], eds. and trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 159. In this example, the ball travels more slowly after penetrating the sheet since it has transferred to it some of its quantity of motion.Google Scholar
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    Or, better yet, “center-fleeing” motions/tendencies, to avoid the philosophical implications of the modern understanding of the term “centrifugal”.Google Scholar
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    Westfall suggests that this aspect of Descartes’ hypothesis is one of the last conceptual remnants of the Aristotelian/Scholastic theory of “natural circular motion” (i.e., a form of circular “inertia” that the Medievals commonly believed the motion of the planets to represent). R. Westfall, The Concept of Force in Newton’s Physics (London: MacDonald, 1971), 82. Nonetheless, Descartes’ theory only ascribes a single component of a body’s “striving” to a circular path (at an instant). Given the combination of all the tendencies towards motion, the body will not move in a circular inertial motion if unconstrained (as demonstrated in the case of Descartes’ stone upon release from the sling). See section 3.4.Google Scholar
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    It should be noted that Gabbey’s interpretation of Cartesian force is rather complex and involves numerous additional postulates. For instance, Gabbey also understands force as a consequence of God’s sustaining creative act (which grounds all existing things), and as a mode of body comparable to the closely related modes of “existence” and “duration.” See, Gabbey 1980, 236–238.Google Scholar
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    Besides their generally wrong predictions, there are numerous inconsistencies in Descartes’ collision rules. On e of the first and best critiques of these rules belongs to Leibniz 1969, 383–412.Google Scholar
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    That is, by declaring these states intrinsically or fundamentally “opposite” or “contrary” (as it can be interpreted from the French or Latin), Descartes reasons that motion and rest are mutually exclusive phenomenon that cannot transform or change into the one another when isolated from external influences. For a complete discussion of the role of the Scholastic logic of contraries in Descartes’ natural philosophy, see, P. Damerow, et al., 1992, 82–91.Google Scholar
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    J Herival, The Background to Newton’s ‘Principia’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965) 47, 54. Westfall also points out this misreading of Descartes’ theory; 1971, 93–94, fn. 49.Google Scholar
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    W. R. Shea 1991, 281–282.Google Scholar
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    The concept of “solidity” in Cartesian natural philosophy is quite complex. See, chapter 4 for an attempt to clarify this, and related, notions.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Edward Slowik
    • 1
  1. 1.Winona State UniversityWinonaUSA

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