Date of this Version

March 2002

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Details

This Article is published in History of Science

Harrison, Peter (2002) Voluntarism and Early Modern Science, History of Science Vol 40 (1) pp. 63-89.

© 2002 Science History Publications Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

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[Introduction] The notion that divine voluntarism played a central role in the development of the empirical sciences is now commonplace amongst historians of the early-modern period. In a 1934 issue of Mind, M. B. Foster first proposed a link between the voluntary activity of God, the contingency of the created order, and the requirement that science be empirically based. In the 1960s, in what was the first of a number of influential articles on the significance of medieval voluntarism, Francis Oakley also drew attention to the impact of this view of the Deity on the natural and political philosophy characteristic of modernity. At that time Oakley made this observation about certain developments in medieval theology: “This was the beginning of that fruitful stream of voluntarist natural law thinking, which, although it made its way with profound effect into the ethical, political and scientific thought of the modern world, has attracted less than its due share of attention from the historians of these subjects.” Since then, a number of historians have taken up Oakley’s challenge and elaborations of his thesis are to found in many authoritative accounts of early modern science. So firmly entrenched has this thesis become that in a recent review article the historian John Bossy defers to the widespread view that “the fathers of science depended on a nominalist and voluntarist natural theology”, confidently declaring that “the story about the Ockhamist revanche first expounded by Francis Oakley ... has surely now sufficiently established itself”.

There are a number of elements to the ‘voluntarism and science’ thesis, and several different ways of characterizing divine voluntarism. Most versions of the thesis, however, discern a common logic in the position of early modern empiricists and their medieval forbears: from the concern to preserve the freedom of the Deity follows the claim that none of his creative acts is necessitated; from the unconstrained activity of the Deity follows the contingency of the natural order; from the contingency of the natural order follows the requirement that nature be investigated empirically. The plausible logic of this position is reinforced by establishing the trajectory of this line of thought and identifying the relevant historical actors. Thus the origins of voluntarism are located amongst the medieval ‘nominalists’, whence it is said to have found its way into early modern thought through the theology of the Protestant Reformers. Those seventeenth-century figures thought best to exemplify the thesis, on account of their dual commitments to voluntarism and to the empirical investigation of nature, are typically Pierre Gassendi, Robert Boyle, Isaac Barrow, and Isaac Newton.

In this paper I will suggest that the voluntarism and science thesis is attended with numerous difficulties. First, there were significant early modern voluntarists who were not empiricists. Second, the central categories ‘voluntarism’, ‘necessity’,and ‘contingency’ are used with such imprecision and ambiguity as to render many versions of the thesis virtually meaningless. Third, the now familiar story about the impact of various forms of medieval voluntarism on the thought of the early modern period is in much of its detail simply wrong. Fourth, close examination of the expressed positions of a number of those early-modern empiricists thought to exemplify the thesis shows that they were not voluntarists in any significant sense of word. Finally, voluntarism is inconsistent with the physico-theological motivations of most early modern natural philosophers, and in particular those usually mentioned in connection with the thesis. In short, the voluntarism and science thesis is fatally flawed and its major contentions should be abandoned. The bulk of this paper will be given over to making this case. However, I also hope to demonstrate that there are important insights in the thesis, and in the final section I will briefly sketch out an alternative proposal for the influence of theological conceptions on the development of experimental philosophy in which these more important insights are preserved.



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