Dutch philosopher and scientist

(10 December 1588 – 19 May 1637)

– studies theology at Leiden (1607-1610); Medical Doctor at University of Caen (1616-1618); teaches at the Latin School in Utrech (1619), in Rotterdam (1620-1627) where he founded “Collegium Mechanicum”; 1627-1637 he was rector of the Latin School in Dordrecht

– he is an atomist (with qualifications): speed and direction of motion, and not size and shape of atoms, constitute the explanans; elastic conglomerations of atoms (“molecules” in modern terms) are the basic units of matter; the shift toward quantification; Beeckman provides the first modern formulation of the law of inertia as early as 1613

Beeckman meets Descartes in 10 November 1618 in Breda and they have many cordial meetings, discoursing on mathematics and physics until the end of 1618 when Beeckman left Breda. In 1619 they continue a cordial correspondence until Descartes left Netherlands for Bohemia. Descartes dedicated to Beeckman Compendium Musicae as a gift for New Year’s Eve of 1619

They meet again in autumn 1628 when Descartes return in Netherlands. At this time Descartes has access to Beeckman’s Journal and sent him a treatise on algebra.

In October 1629 they start the dispute over the influence of Beeckman that reached climax in two letters of Descartes to Beeckman from autumn 1630. After that incident they remained on civilized terms (e.g. Beeckman visit Descartes to show him Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems) but Descartes continue to mention Beeckman in letters as plagiarist.

The conflict begin with a letter from Mersenne that mentions a letter of Beeckman, in which the latter told Mersenne that he “communicated” to Descartes certain scientific problems. Descartes over-reacted and demanded back his Compendium Musicae and their correspondence stopped. But in the meantime Mersenne visited Beeckman and saw the Journal, while Beeckman wrote to Descartes to invite him to work together again. These events enraged Descartes.

In September 1630 Descartes writes the first insulting letter in which he denies to have learned anything from Beeckman. Beeckman replies. Given the facts that we know about Beeckman, he seems to be a very modest and peaceful man and probably he just remembered Descartes some things he showed him in 1618 (probably the corpuscular nature of sound and the hyperbola).

In 17 October 1630 Descartes writes to Beeckman a long and very insulting letter in which he denies any influence, denies any intellectual capacity to Beeckman and considers his manuscript as a collection of garbage.

Possible explanations:

a) psychological: ‘it is a really classic example of psychological projection, for clearly the obsession with “praise” and “being taught” is Descartes’ own, not Beeckman’s’ (Cohen, 196); Beeckman had acted as a father figure for Descartes in 1618/19, and it is possible that his reaction to Beeckman may be overdetermined by his relation to his father. (Gaukroger 224)

b) editorial: in the summer of 1628, Beeckman had in plan to publish some of his work. If Descartes knew about that plan and given the fact that his World was using similar premises and demonstrations as Beeckman, those letters were intended to, and they succeeded to, block Beeckman’s plan. (Klaas van Berkel)

Beeckman’s Journal: Beeckman kept a journal from 1604 until 1634 where he wrote his scientific, religious and philosophical ideas. Although he published nothing during his life, parts of his journal were published by his brother with the title “Mathematico-physicarum meditationum, quaestionum, solutionum centuria” (Utrecht 1644). The Journal is rediscovered in 1905 and published in four volumes by Cornelius de Waard as “Journal tenu par Isaac Beeckman de 1604 a 1634”.

Beeckman-Descartes correspondence:

24 January 1619 (to Beeckman)

26 March 1619 (to Beeckman)

20 April 1619 (to Beeckman)

23 April 1619 (to Beeckman)

29 April 1619 (to Beeckman)

6 May 1619 (to Descartes)

September-October 1630 (to Beeckman)

October 1630 (to Descartes, fragment quoted by Descartes in a letter to Mersenne)

17 October 1630 (to Beeckman)

22 August 1634 (to Beeckman)

Descartes ‘says he has never met anyone other than myself who pursues his studies in the way I do, combining Physics and Mathematics in an exact way. And for my part, I have never spoken with anyone apart from him who studies in this way’ (JIB, I 244)

They worked on mathematics and its applications (mechanics, musics, physical problems, kinematics of uniformly accelerated motion, hydrostatics, construction of a proportional compass). The are three main problems that Beeckman proposes to Descartes: a mathematical-physical treatment of music theory, falling bodies and hydrostatics. Descartes was an excellent mathematician but it was Beeckman who oriented his studies to the mathematical treatment of physics.

Beeckman’s … project can be summed up as the explanation of macro-geometrical regularities in terms of a micro-mechanical model, and he was almost certainly the first person in Europe to pursue this approach in detail. (Gaukroger 70)

Descartes was not aware in 1618 of Beeckman’s micro-corpuscular theory of sound1, adding a revision which takes the theory into account only after the completion of the Compendium Musicae. Descartes “stays firmly within the realms of mathematics, evidently either unable or unwilling to make the crucial transition to a consideration of the problem in terms of the physical nature of sound.” (Gaukroger 79-80)

The problem of free fall: Beeckman asks Descartes how to determine the distance the stone will fall in one hour if one knows how far it will fall in two hours, assuming the principle that a moving body will move eternally in a void, and assuming that there is such a void between the earth and the falling stone. see AT X 58-61 AT X 219

The hydrostatics manuscript AT X 67-74: the ‘hydrostatic paradox’ , which shows that a fluid, by means of its pressure, can exert a total pressure on the bottom of its container that is many times greater than its weight.

1He had developed a corpuscular theory of sound and a pulsation theory of its transmission during the 1610s.