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Margaret Cavendish's materialist critique of van Helmontian chymistry

By Stephen Clucas

Abstract

A striking omission in the scholarship on the reception of the chymical philosophy of Jan Baptista van Helmont in England in the seventeenth century is the work of the mid-seventeenth-century natural philosopher Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. In her Philosophical Letters (1664), Cavendish offers an extended critique of Van Helmont's work (whose Ortus Medicince had recently been translated into English by John Sadler). In this paper, I compare Cavendish's criticisms with those of Robert Boyle in his Sceptical Chymist (1661). Both Boyle and Cavendish attacked Van Helmont for the obscurity of his chymical vocabulary and concepts, and attacked his seminalism. Although their critiques had much in common, they diverged in their attitudes to Van Helmont's experiments. As an opponent of the experimental philosophy, Cavendish had little interest in the quality of Van Helmont's experimental claims, whereas Boyle was critical of their unreplicability. I also try to show that the two writers had very different polemical agendas, with Boyle defending his vision of chymistry based on a corpuscularian natural philosophy, and Cavendish being as much concerned with establishing her religious orthodoxy as with defending the truth claims of her own materialist vitalism. For Cavendish, Van Helmont was an example of the dangers of mingling theology and natural philosophy

Topics: eh
Publisher: Maney Publishing
Year: 2011
DOI identifier: 10.1179/174582311x12947034675596
OAI identifier: oai:eprints.bbk.ac.uk.oai2:4289
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