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Mathematical Treasure: Descartes' Principia Philosophiae

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a natural philosopher who attempted to interpret and describe the universe in mathematical principles. His most comprehensive work on this subject was Principia Philosophiae published in Amsterdam in 1644. The Principia was divided into four parts:

  • “The Principles of Human Knowledge,”
  • “The Principles of Material Things,”
  • “Of the Visible World,” and
  • “The Earth.”

The title page of Descartes’ Principia is shown above.

Descartes conceived of the universe as being filled with an ether-like substance that flowed in vortices and carried the sun, moon, and planets along. Page 92 (above) contains an illustration of possible space vortices. This theory was in direct opposition to that proposed by Isaac Newton, which maintained that gravity was the driving force of the universe. These theories divided the scientific communities of the European continent and Great Britain.

These images are provided through the courtesy of the History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries, and the special considerations of Kerry Magruder, Curator, and Carilyn Livesey, Coordinator of the Collection. These materials may be viewed in their entirety at the History of Science Collections website.

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Descartes' Principia Philosophiae," Convergence (November 2014)