Figura in Natural Philosophy

Dennis Des Chene

Washington University in St Louis


Among the modes of extension are figure, size, and motion. Like size and motion, figure was thought to be eminently suited for use in explanation – easy to understand, simple, free of the obscurities attaching to qualities and powers. Figure (and sameness of figure), crucial to defining natural kinds, has undoubted advantages in a geometrized natural philosophy. An examination of the uses of figure in seventeenth-century natural philosophy suggests, however, that in fact it was a complicated notion, and that the intuitive appeal of figure masks a complexity which it took several centuries to map out. In a epilogue, I reinforce the point by looking at two contemporary discussions of shape.