My questions deal more properly with pre-Newtonian modern physics in its Cartesian or Hobbesian versions.

The word "mechanical" comes from a Greek word meaning "machine". However, the received definition of mechanical philosophy does not contain the concept of a machine. This school of thought is said to adopt the principle according to which

everything in nature can be explained by the size, the shape and the movement of bodies or material objects (one body acting on the other, through collision).

Thus, which concept of a "machine" allows calling "mechanical" such a principle?

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    $\begingroup$ I'm far from home due to covid lockdown and I can't consult my library and give a more detailed answer, anyway I suggest the classic and wonderful book of Dijksterhuis The Mechanization of the World Picture (see the third column in the linked page for a partial answer) $\endgroup$
    – user6530
    May 17, 2020 at 18:32

1 Answer 1


The etymology of the word "mechanics" is irrelevant here. In 18th century, when this concept prevailed "mechanics" meant a part of physics as we know it now: mechanics created by Galileo and Newton.

The word itself arises in Hellenistic Greece, when the only part of mechanics known at that time was statics. It had a lot of technical applications (building, war engines, etc.) so mechanics was associated with machines. Essentially the same machines were available in the 18th century, with an important addition: clocks and watches, and other clockwork mechanisms. Comparison of the Solar system with a clockwork was common among philosophers at that time.

But the scope of mechanics was already much wider: it included celestial mechanics first of all.

  • $\begingroup$ FYI, I've encountered in 1800s literature (physics texts, Cambridge Tripos and other exams, etc.) the word "machine" used for things like lever, wheel & axle, pulley, inclined plane, screw, etc. $\endgroup$ May 26, 2020 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Dave L Renfro: you are right: this is the ancient meaning (probably already outdated by 1800). Then this meaning changed. $\endgroup$ May 27, 2020 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ probably already outdated by 1800 --- Perhaps, but I've seen it used in several of the kinds of things I mentioned. In fact, and this is what I glanced at when I wrote my comment, these items are section titles to Chapter XIII (Machines) in the 1900 book Elements of Physics by Charles Hanford Henderson (1861-1941) and John Francis Woodhull (1857-1941). Incidentally, I got a reasonably nice hardback copy of the first printing (the book had no later editions, but was reprinted several times) (continued) $\endgroup$ May 27, 2020 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ of this book at a nearby used bookstore about a year ago. My interest in having a copy (besides the very low $2.00 price and a 21 September 1900 dated school name handwritten on the inside front cover, verifying first printing status) was that around 1900 was a pivotal transition time for many concepts in physics and chemistry, and I was curious how these were discussed: periodic table of elements (see pp. 12-14), atomic theory (see p. 8, "protyle" on p. 11, heat discussion lower p. 147), ether (pp. 54-55 and many other places), lack of vectors, lack of examples involving cars/planes, etc. $\endgroup$ May 27, 2020 at 7:32
  • $\begingroup$ For those not clear on when certain things occurred, I mention that things like the use of vectors in physics texts, definitive verification of the "molecular hypothesis", X-rays (actually appears, see pp. 340-341), infusion of cars and planes into textbook word problems, "solar system" view of atoms, periodic table of elements, and some other things all occurred pretty much in the first two decades of the 1900s. Of course, the limited use of mathematics in this particular book might have meant an absence of vectors being mentioned even if the book was written in the early 1920s. $\endgroup$ May 27, 2020 at 7:38

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