chapter  12
16 Pages

Controversies on Nature as Universal Legality (1680–1710)

BySophie Roux

Two distinct interests can justify a study of the emergence and the development of the notion of Nature’s law. This notion is omnipresent in moral and political texts in the eighteenth century, so its origin can perhaps be sought by supposing, as is suggested by these texts, that this notion was in fact developed in the field of physical science from which it was later exported.2 It is clear that this direction is rich in illusions if we do not maintain sufficient distance from the object studied, which in this case is particularly ideological. Ill-controlled retrospection has also paved the way of the second direction, that taken by historians working on the origins of modern science. Two types of preconceived assumption have defined their studies: first, a historical assumption which holds that the seventeenth century experienced a scientific revolution that gave science its modern form;3 second, a philosophical assumption which holds that law is the epistemological entity at the heart of physics.4 These two types of prejudice come together in the thesis that the invention of a new concept of law, or even a new idea of Nature as universal legality, constituted the foundation of the new science.5 This thesis was particularly represented by Ernst Cassirer, who noted in Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Kepler and especially in Galileo Galilei, an idea of Nature as an immanent whole, totally determined by laws whose universality and necessity were the prerequisites of understanding.6