Introduction II.C:

1. Inanimate Matter

An alternative, mechanical philosophy, was developed by Gassendi (1592–1655) and especially by Descartes (1596–1650).

According to the mechanical philosophers, all the properties of matter are secondary — and therefore fundamentally illusory — except for size, shape, and motion, the only primary properties. That is, the material world is conceived of as bits of quality-less stuff, defined only by its shape, position, and motion in collision with other such bits.  There is no "action at a distance."  Sound familiar?  It's very much like the contemporary scientific view of matter.  (Long-distance interactions are explained in terms of local interaction with fields, but the existence of fields is observable only through the motion of particles.)  Therefore, matter is fundamentally inert and void of any interesting quality; certainly it has no occult properties or sympathies, such as supposed in natural magic.  As Descartes (Pr. Phil., Pt. 4, §187) said, "there exist no occult forces in stones or plants, no amazing and marvelous sympathies and antipathies, in fact there exist nothing in the whole of nature which cannot be explained in terms of purely corporeal causes, totally devoid of mind and thought."  On the other hand, we have the obvious experience of our own minds, and so Descartes found it necessary to postulate the existence of mind as well matter, a position known as Cartesian dualism, the theory that there are two fundamentally different "stuffs": animate mind and inanimate matter.  It has been claimed that this vision of a "lifeless, barren world ... was a revolution in male thought of the most momentous significance," and it was "a proposal of such breath-taking audacity and implausibility that it cries out for explanation" (Easlea 1980, 150).

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