Huygens A Scientist Among the Philosophers
Philosophy Now|December 2021 / January 2022
Hugh Aldersey-Williams traces the philosophical connections of a polymath.
Hugh Aldersey-Williams

When the Dutch astronomer and physicist Christiaan Huygens died in 1695 at the age of sixtysix, the German philosopher Gottfried von Leibniz called his loss ‘inestimable’, and hailed him as the equal of Galileo and Descartes. “Helped by what they have done,” Leibniz wrote, “he has surpassed their discoveries. He is one of the prime ornaments of the age.” Indeed, Huygens discovered the rings around Saturn and detected the first moon of that planet. He also created the first accurate pendulum clock, among many other inventions. He described centrifugal force, was the first to employ mathematical formulae in the solution of problems in physics, and devised a foresighted wave-based theory of light. It is largely thanks to his contemporary Isaac Newton that we have mostly overlooked his achievements today. Newton habitually failed to acknowledge the contribution others had made to his discoveries, and Huygens was among those to suffer this fate. This, together with the cult of Newton’s ‘genius’ that grew up during the eighteenth century, ensured that the Englishman’s flawed ‘corpuscular’ theory of light prevailed over Huygens’ version, to the detriment of progress in optics for the next century, since, in contrast to Newtons’ theory, Huygens’ wave theory was substantially correct.

Also unlike Newton, who never travelled much beyond London and Cambridge, Huygens was a well-connected internationalist in science. He was hired by Louis XIV’s powerful minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, to direct the newlyfounded French Academy of Sciences, as well as becoming the first foreign Fellow of the Royal Society (of science) in Britain. He maintained collaborations and correspondence with astronomers, mathematicians, and scholars throughout Europe. His location in The Hague, at the heart of the prosperous and tolerant Dutch Republic, undoubtedly helped, with a constant traffic of thinkers passing through or seeking refuge there from religious or political persecution in other countries.

Huygens’ intellectual exchanges also incorporated a number of the most important philosophers of the age. His interactions with philosophers were of several kinds. First, there were those who were interested in scientific questions, who provided inspiration and on occasion, cooperation or collaboration. A subset of these could be categorized as ‘science wannabes’ – philosophers who wished to master mathematical methods, envying their rigour, or who felt a need to understand the scientific basics of natural phenomena, if only to avoid error in setting out their own ideas. Then there were yet others with whom Huygens felt himself to be in intellectual harmony.

Descartes

Undoubtedly the philosopher who had the greatest impact on Huygens’ life and work was René Descartes, who had fled from France to the Dutch Republic in 1629, the year of Huygens’ birth. Descartes soon became friends with Christiaan Huygens’ father, Constantijn, a poet and diplomat with the ruling House of Orange. They worked together in an (unsuccessful) attempt to design a more perfect astronomical lens, and Constantijn was able to use his powerful connections to ensure that Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637) was published both in Holland and France.

Through the influence of his father and his tutors in mathematics, Christiaan soon became a convinced Cartesian. As a boy, he read Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy when it appeared in 1644. In this book Descartes set out his scientific theories. Huygens responded to its logic and clarity, as well as to the boldness of Descartes’ ambition to construct a new and universal understanding of nature. Although as an adult he may never have met Descartes in person in Holland, Huygens became a sufficient admirer of the Frenchman that in 1649, after completing his college studies, he set off on a journey to seek him out at the Swedish court in Stockholm, where he was occasionally teaching philosophy to the Queen. However, the trip was cut short, and the following year it was learned that Descartes had died.

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