Monday, January 15, 2018

Isaac Beeckman: From wonder to no wonder

The house on the corner is Beeckman’s birthplace in Middelburg.

When I recently wanted to visit Middelburg, an old and beautiful town in the southwest of the Netherlands, I wondered whether there might be a well-known philosopher who came from there. So I searched on the Internet and, indeed, I found one: Isaac Beeckman, who was born there in 1588. I hear you say: “Isaac who?” You needn’t to be ashamed if you have never heard of him, for Beeckman did not publish his ideas and outside a little circle of philosophical experts hardly anybody knows his name. Nevertheless he had an important impact on philosophy because of his relations with many outstanding philosophers of his time. He had such a big influence on the development of science and philosophy that Gassendi called him even the greatest philosopher he ever met. If you have heard of Beeckman, it is probably because of his friendship with Descartes. Some call him even his teacher. Anyway, he stimulated Descartes’s enthusiasm for science and designed mathematical puzzles for him.
Beeckman’s contributions would have remained rather unknown, if in 1905 his journal hadn’t been found again by Cornelis de Waard. Since this journal – which Beeckman kept from 1604 till 1634 – is very detailed, we know much about his discoveries, ideas and relations. So we know that Beeckman first met Descartes in Breda, a town in the south of the Netherlands, where Beeckman then lived and Descartes was garrisoned as a soldier. It is said that both men met when they were looking at a mathematical problem on a poster on the marketplace and Descartes asked Beeckman to translate it for him from Dutch into Latin. They got talking and the next day Descartes brought Beeckman the solution. They stayed friends till Beeckman died in 1637 (in Dordrecht), although their friendship was difficult and sometimes broken off (especially in 1630).
Beeckman studied theology, literature and mathematics in Leiden, and later also medicine in Middelburg and then in Caen in France, where he graduated in 1618. Since he couldn’t get a vicarage because of a theological conflict with the church, he first became a candle maker and begun to repair water pipes. Returned from Caen he became a teacher at the Latin School in Utrecht. However, more important is that he was a very curious man (and maybe this was one of the reasons that he found no time to publish his ideas) and he did much research and study in all kinds of fields. So he was active with experiments and the theory of physics, music, medicine and philosophy, but he tried also to find a proof that God existed. In Leiden Simon Stevin and Rudolph Snel (Snellius) were among his teachers and later he corresponded with, for example, the mathematician Marin Mersenne, the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the philosophers Pierre Gassendi and Francis Bacon and the physicians William Harvey and William Gilbert.
In this blog I cannot do more than drawing attention to this philosopher who was so important for the development of philosophy. Therefore, I have to limit myself to mentioning only some of his most important contributions and ideas:
- Beeckman’s idea that matter is composed of atoms.
- His mechanistic world view.
- Beeckman gave a new and correct description of inertia, namely that every moving object follows a straight line, unless other forces work on it. However, he accepted the false idea that also a circular movement is a basic movement (not seeing that it is caused by a centripetal force).
- His analysis how a pump works. Beeckman rejected the prevailing view that water avoids a vacuum but explains the working with the help of the idea of air pressure.
- His explanation of the relation between the sound of a string and the length of the string.
- Beeckman made the first weather station in the world, yet before Torricelli invented the barometer.
It’s no wonder that such ideas brought Beeckman into conflict with the Calvinistic church in the Netherlands, which had completely opposite ideas on how the world was constituted and had to be explained. In his diary on 19 November 1626 he succinctly wrote down what the heart of the problem was:
“In philosophy you have always to go from wonder to no wonder. I mean, you must examine so long till what appears strange to you no longer appears strange to you. However, in theology you have to go from no wonder to wonder.

It’s difficult to find information on Beeckman on the Internet, so I gathered it by taking here and there some relevant facts from Dutch websites on Beeckman, from the Wikipedia on Beeckman (Dutch and English versions), from several books in my library (mainly on Descartes) and from Beeckman’s journal (on

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