Phil. 401: The Scientific Revolution and the Mechanical Philosophy

Course Mechanics

Course Description

At almost every university in the English-speaking world, philosophy majors are required to take a course on "modern" philosophy, beginning around the time of Descartes and ending with Kant. Most philosophy students, therefore, learn about Descartes' views on mind and body, Locke's social contract theory, and Kant's defense of a priori, synthetic knowledge. Relatively few philosophy students, however, study Galileo's telescopic observations of sunspots, Boyle's airpump experiments, or Hooke's observations with the microscope. This leaves many philosophy students with a substantially incomplete understanding of the modern period. Although modern philosophers made important contributions to abstract metaphysics, epistemology, and political philosophy, their work was equally important in shaping modern science, and their views were influenced in important ways by an explosion of developments in sixteenth and seventeenth century empirical science.

This course is an overview of the "Scientific Revolution'' in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, with a special focus on astronomy. We will study how the spread of Copernicanism was related to the eventual rejection of Aristotelianism and the growing adoption of the "mechanical philosophy" propounded by Boyle, Locke, and Descartes, among others.

The course presupposes no background in any science.

Course Goals

By the end of the quarter, students should be able to explain in what ways the mechanical philosophers agreed and disagreed with Aristotle and scholastics about

Course Requirements

The central requirement of the course is to read the assigned texts carefully. Before each class period, I will ask you to answer two to five short questions about the readings. Most of the questions require only one sentence to answer, and none require more than a paragraph. Please bring both the assigned readings and your answers with you to class. Some students view frequent assignments/assessments as "busy work" or as an instructor's attempt to gauge which students are working hardest. That is is not my intention at all. The philosophy of mathematics is a complex subject, and consequently, many of the assigned readings are somewhat difficult. When faced with hard-to-understand texts, it is easy to become discouraged and to give up. One of my central duties, as an instructor, is to ensure that you do not give up when concepts and/or arguments are initially difficult to understand. The purpose of the nightly questions is threefold: (i) to encourage you to read the assigned texts closely and actively, (ii) to prepare you for class discussions in which we will clarify and build upon the readings, and (iii) to provide me with feedback about which concepts are most difficult for students to understand.

You will not be able to understand the course material without attending class. I teach some courses (e.g., introductory logic) in which I recognize that, for some very bright, motivated and hard-working students, attending class is not always necessary. This is not such a course. The assigned readings are extremely difficult for a number of reasons, and without class discussion and lecture, you will likely learn very little. To encourage you to attend and to make sure you are active in class discussions, I will often ask you a question at the end of class about the material that has been covered that day, and I will give you fifteen minutes to write a short response to said question.

Finally, you must write three short papers to pass the course. More details about the topics of the three papers can be found on the course website.

Submitting Assignments

Reading assignments are due at the beginning of class. You should bring a typed, hard copy of your assignment to class; your answers should not exceed the front side of one page. During class, I may ask you to turn over your reading assignment and respond to a question about the material from class. You can write your response in pencil or pen.

All papers should be submitted electronically via Canvas. Please do not email me your papers unless you already have tried to upload them via Canvas. When a class exceeds even a small number of students (e.g., ten), it is difficult for an instructor to organize and maintain a record of students' work if it is submitted via email.


I use rubrics when assigning you grades on more substantial assignments (e.g., papers and presentations). Rubrics contain detailed descriptions of which skills you are performing well and which are in need of improvement. I encourage you to look at the rubrics before you write your papers so that you know exactly how you will be assessed. Even better, find a partner and grade each other's papers using the provided rubrics. Doing so gives you experience evaluating philosophical work and will improve your own writing.

I do not regrade assignments, but I would be happy to clarify why you received the grade that you did.

Your final grade will be calculated via a weighted average using the following weights:

It is necessary to write all three papers in order to pass the course. Your final grade will be converted to a four point scale using the following equation: Four Point Scale = Percentage/10 - 5.5.

For example, if your final percentage is 90%, then your final grade will be 3.5 = 9/10 - 5.5.

Course Files


Below is a table indicating readings and assignments that are due each class. If you are a registered student in the class, then you can download the readings from the link in the "Course Files" section above.

Date Topic Readings Assignment
1/3 Introduction to class themes Course Syllabus None
1/5 Ancient astronomical data and the Two-Sphere System

Discussion Questions
Kuhn. The Copernican Revolution. Chapter 1.
You may skip the preface.
Reading Assignment 1
1/10 The Problem of the Planets

Discussion Questions
Kuhn. The Copernican Revolution. Chapter 2.
Reading Assignment 2
1/12 Aristotle and the Two-Sphere Sytem

Discussion Questions
Kuhn. The Copernican Revolution. Chapter 3.
Reading Assignment 3
1/17 Copernicus

Discussion Questions
Kuhn. The Copernican Revolution. Chapter 5.
Reading Assignment 4
1/19 The Telescope and Heliocentrism

Discussion Questions

Lecture Slides
  • Excerpt from "The Sidereal Messenger." The Essential Galileo. Chapter 4. Pages 45-70 and 83-84.
  • ges 97-102.
  • Galileo. "First Letter." In On Sunspots. Eds. Reeves and Van Helden. Pages 1-2 and 97-102.
Reading Assignment 5
1/24 Heliocentrism after Copernicus

Discussion Questions
Cardinal Bellarmine. "Letter to Foscarini." In Science in Europe, 1500-1800. Ed. Maclom Oster. Pages 71-73.

  • Excerpt of letter to Dutchess Christina.
  • In Science in Europe, 1500-1800. Ed. Maclom Oster. Pages 66-71.
  • "Considerations on the Copernican Opinion, Part I.'' In the The Essential Galileo. Section 5.2. Pages 148-156.

Descartes. Principles of Philosophy. Part III. Pages 248-256.
Reading Assignment 6
1/26 Post-Copernican Theories of Motion

Discussion Questions
  • Principles of Philosophy. Part II. Articles 36-45. Pages 240-244.
  • Excerpt from Le Monde. Pages 112-115.
Galileo. Excerpt from "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems." In Science in Europe, 1500-1800. Ed. Maclom Oster. Pages 77-82.
Reading Assignment 7
1/27 First Paper Due by Midnight
Assignment Description

Recommended (but optional) revision tips:
1/31 Catchup Class

Discussion Questions
None. None.
2/2 The Barometer and the Airpump

Discussion Questions
Pascal. Excerpt from "Story of the Great Experiment on the Equilibrium of Fluids." In Science in Europe, 1500-1800. Ed. Maclom Oster. Pages 133-135.

James Conant. "Robert Boyle's Experiments in Pneumatics." In Harvard Case Histories In Experimental Science. Vol. I. Ed, James Conant. Pages 1-22, 38-42, and 57-62.
Reading Assignment 8
Cancelled Class The Microscope Hooke. Excerpts from Micrographia.

Reading Assignment 9
2/7 Aristotle on Logic and Explanation.

Discussion Questions
Christopher Shields. "Aristotle." Sections 1-4 and 7-9. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Reading Assignment 10
2/9 Atomism and Corpuscularanism

Discussion Questions
Epicurus. "Letter to Herodotus." In Hellenistic Philosophy. Pages 5-19.

Boyle. "The Grounds for and Excellence of the Corpuscular or Mechanical Philosophy."
Reading Assignment 11
2/14 Catch-up class: Atomism and Corpuscularanism Review readings from last class. None.
2/16 Primary and Secondary Qualities

Discussion Questions
Galileo. Excerpt from "The Assayer." In Science in Europe, 1500-1800. Ed. Maclom Oster. Pages 73-75.

Galileo. "History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots." In The Essential Galileo. Chapter 3. Pages 101-102.

Locke. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
  • Book II. Chapter VIII. Articles 8-26.
  • Book IV. Chapter III. Articles 11- 14.
Descartes. Meditations on First Philosophy. First Meditation. Pages 12-16.
Reading Assignment 12

Second Paper Due by 5PM
Assignment Description


Argument Reconstruction Example

Reconstructing Argument Exercise
2/21 Francis Bacon's Epistemology.

Discussion Questions

Lecture Slides
Bacon. Novum Organon.
  • Book I. Aphorisms 1-3,14-15, 19, 31, 39-44, 50, 100-103.
  • Book II. Aphorisms 1, 11-13 (you may skim the long lists), 18, and 20.
Reading Assignment 13
2/23 Descartes' Epistemology

Discussion Questions
  • Rules for Direction of the Mind. Rule 4. Lines 371-375.
  • Principles. Part I. Articles 1-9 and 71-74. Pages 193-195 and 218-222
  • Discourse on method. Part II. Pages 126-132.
Reading Assignment 14
2/28 The Scientific Revolution Shapin. The Scientific Revolution. Chapter 1 (Skip the introduction).
Please note that this read is available as an EBook through UW's library.
Reading Assignment 15
3/2 The Scientific Revolution Shapin. The Scientific Revolution. Chapter 2. Reading Assignment 16
3/3 Final Paper Due by Midnight
Assignment Description
3/7 "Revolutionary" Interpretations of the 16th-18th Centuries Butterfield. The Origins of Modern Sciecnce, 1300-1800. Introduction and Chapter 10.

Koyre. From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. Introduction and Final Chapter.
Reading Assignment 17
3/9 A Non-Revolutionary Interpretation Shapin. The Scientific Revolution. Introduction and Chapter 3.

Appiah. There is no such thing as western civilisation.