Recent research has shown that the development of mechanical philosophy and the origin of modern science in the seventeenth century is much indebted to the late Aristotelian philosophers of the sixteenth century. The proposed research will step further back in history and aims to show the indebtedness of mechanical philosophy to developments initiated by William Ockham (c. 1287-1347) and his influential successor John Buridan (c. 1300-1358).

The project traces some fundamental changes in the metaphysics of substance (power and quantity) and causality (laws of nature and teleology) from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries. These changes were necessary to break the grip of Aristotelian physics and prepare the ground for the two main components of the seventeenth century’s mechanical philosophy, namely, corpuscular or atomist theories of matter and notions of laws of nature. Contrary to the standard view, which attributes the scientific revolution to internal changes in physical explanation, and sees the metaphysical changes in substance and causality as consequent to these, the proposed project aims to make plausible the claim that the metaphysical shift seen in the fourteenth century was a prior and necessary condition for the later developments in physics.

To substantiate these claims the project identifies three major conceptual changes that took place in the early fourteenth century and which all are crucial for the mechanical philosophers of the seventeenth century. The first of these is the concepts of power and activity, the second is the concepts of substance and quantity, and finally the concepts of natural laws and teleology. Given the remarkable similarities between Ockham and Buridan and later early modern thinkers like Descartes, the project assumes that this is not a coincidence and traces the historical developments of these ideas from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. The project hence naturally divides into a conceptual part, explaining and developing the conceptual similarities between Ockham and Buridan on the one hand and seventeenth century mechanical philosophers on the other, and a historical part devoted to exploring the historical connections between these thinkers.

The proposed research will begin with Ockham and Buridan and then push into new ground by studying the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century followers of these philosophers. Although Renaissance scholars have explored the humanists of this period, the natural philosophy and metaphysics of this century is unfamiliar and little explored by historians of science and philosophy. The proposed research project will identify the main thinkers and the relevant works. It will then collect these works, which are not readily available, and make them available through a new web site. It will then through close textual study proceed by drawing out the transmission of ideas from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. The research will then culminate in the natural philosophy of the later sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries. The aim is to connect with and deepen the understanding of late sixteenth-century natural philosophy initiated by Dennis Des Chene’s earlier work and to reconceive our understanding of the seventeenth century’s mechanical philosophy.

The outcome of the proposed project will be an edited volume based on an international workshop held in the third year of the project, two PhD dissertations, articles and conference presentations. The project will also set up a web site, which will aim to become a major source of information in the primary research area and time period. The web site will include information about the project and its activities, but also scanned texts of the major sources and some translations.

Henrik Lagerlund (Principal Investigator, Western University)
Benjamin Hill (Collaborator, Western University)
Dennis Des Chene (Collaborator, Washington University)
Helen Hattab (Collaborator, University of Houston)
Calvin Normore (Collaborator, University of California, Los Angeles)


“The Turn to Epistemology in the 14th Century: Two Underlying Motives”, in Alexander Hall and Gyula Klima (eds.) Skepticism, Causality, and Skepticism about Causality, in Proceedings for the Society for Medieval Logic and Metaphysics, Vol. 10 (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012: 47-55).

 “Material Substance”, in J. Marenbon (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012: 468-485).

“The Unity of Efficient and Final Causality: The Mind/Body Problem Reconsidered” in British Journal for the History of Philosophy 19:4 (2011): 585-601.

  “The Changing Face of Aristotelian Empiricism in the Fourteenth Century” in Quaestio 10 (2010): 315-327.



 “Averroes, Buridan and Albert of Saxony on Material Substance”, Montreal Workshop on Nominalism, UQAM, Montreal, 3-4 May, 2013.

 “Late Medieval Nominalism and the Emergence of Modern Empiricism” (invited talk), Department of Philosophy, Marquette University, April 4, 2013.

 “Some Conceptions of Body in the 14th Century” (invited talk), Midwest Seminar on Aristotle and the Aristotelian Tradition, Marquette University, April 3, 2013.

 “Averroes and the Development of a Late Medieval Mechanism” Conference on The Bright Dark Ages at Asia Research Institute, Singapore National University, Feb. 27-March 1, 2013. 

 “The Changing Face of Empiricism: Nominalism and Substance in the Later Middle Ages”, (invited talk) Department of Philosophy, McMaster University, Nov. 16, 2012.

 “Nominalism and Albert of Saxony on the Common Signification of Singular Terms”, Conference on Universals in the 14th Century, Scoula Nomale Superiore, Pisa, Italy, 3-5 Sept. 2012.

 “Albert of Saxony on Substance and Nominalism” (invited talk), Department of Philosophy, Oslo University, June 8, 2012.

“Substance and the Development of Modern Science”, Center for History and Philosophy of Science, Radboud University, Nijmegen, Nov. 11, 2011.

 “A Mereological Account of Substance: Buridan, Descartes and Wiggins”, invited lecture Department of Philosophy, Uppsala University, Nov. 8, 2011.

“The Turn to Epistemology and the Rise of Skepticism in the Late 13th Century”, Medieval Congress, Kalamazoo, 9-12 May, 2011

Benjamin Hill and Henrik Lagerlund, “The Mechanization of Philosophy Between 1300-1700”, Research Day (Arts & Humanities, FIMS, and Education) (2011).

 “Material Substance in the 14th and 17th Centuries”, Colloquium Talk, Department of Philosophy, University of Queensland, Brisbane, March 25, 2011. 

“Substance in Later Medieval and Early Modern Philosophy”, Eastern APA Boston, 27-30 December, 2010.

 “Material Substance”, Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy Workshop, Toronto, 12-14 November, 2010.

 “The Changing Face of Empiricism in the Later Middle Ages”, invited talk at Ranas Castle, Uppsala, August 12, 2010.