Constraining mathematical imagination by experience: Nieuwentijt and van Musschenbroek on the abuses of mathematics

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Abstract

Like many of their contemporaries Bernard Nieuwentijt (1654-1718) and Pieter van Musschenbroek (1692-1761) were baffled by the heterodox conclusions which Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) drew in the Ethics. As the full title of the Ethics-Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata-indicates, these conclusions were purportedly demonstrated in a geometrical order, i.e. by means of pure mathematics. First, I highlight how Nieuwentijt tried to immunize Spinoza's worrisome conclusions by insisting on the distinction between pure and mixed mathematics. Next, I argue that the anti-Spinozist underpinnings of Nieuwentijt's distinction between pure and mixed mathematics resurfaced in the work of van Musschenbroek. By insisting on the distinction between pure and mixed mathematics, Nieuwentijt and van Musschenbroek argued that Spinoza abused mathematics by making claims about things that exist in rerum natura by relying on a pure mathematical approach (type 1 abuse). In addition, by insisting that mixed mathematics should be painstakingly based on mathematical ideas that correspond to nature, van Musschenbroek argued that Rene Descartes' (1596-1650) natural-philosophical project (and that of others who followed his approach) abused mathematics by introducing hypotheses, i.e. (mathematical) ideas, that do not correspond to nature (type 2 abuse).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3595-3613
Number of pages19
JournalSynthese
Volume196
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Keywords

  • Bernard Nieuwentijt
  • René Descartes
  • Early eighteenth-century Dutch Republic
  • Pure vs. mixed mathematics
  • Spinoza
  • Pieter van Musschenbroek

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