Seminar on History and Philosophy of Science
Abstract: The rise of the science of mechanics in the seventeenth century has often been seen as the final defeat of Aristotelian natural philosophy. Yet much of the discussion of machines and mechanics in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries centered on an ancient Greek text that was widely ascribed to Aristotle. The Mechanical Problems, consisting of an introduction on the wonders of circular motion followed by brief analyses of thirty-five "problems" or puzzling phenomena drawn largely from contemporary technology, was the focus of paraphrases, commentaries, and other learned discourses throughout the sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth. Even Galileo, a fierce opponent of certain Aristotelian doctrines, cites the work as an important authority on mechanics. In this talk I will discuss the significance of the commentary tradition on the Mechanical Problems for understanding Renaissance debates about the nature of mechanics and its conceptual foundations, with specific reference to the art-nature polarity, the place of mechanics among the sciences, and the theoretical analysis of the balance and lever. A study of the ways in which the Mechanical Problems was understood – and misunderstood – in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can shed new light on the nature and dynamics of Renaissance Aristotelianism.