Figura in Natural Philosophy

Dennis Des Chene

Washington University in St Louis

Abstract: 

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.