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Mathematics at TCD 1592-1992

years of
by T. D. Spearman

and the new

The 17th century was a time of change, accompanied by intense debate, within the universities. Hitherto the medieval tradition had prevailed: the studies were firmly set within the Aristotelian tradition, scholastic learning was the order of the day. But across Europe these foundations were beginning to crumble in the wake of the renaissance and of the revolution in scientific thought and understanding following the discoveries and insights of Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo (1564-1642) and Newton (1642-1727). The reformation had undermined the concept of absolute authority and led to a more questioning attitude, with increased respect for individual judgement. The philosophers Francis Bacon and René Decartes provided the methodological framework for a new science based on enquiry and observation of the natural world, emphasising an inductive rather than a deductive approach and starting from a scepticism which was open to possibilities lying beyond the accepted wisdom. Newton's discovery of the law of gravitation and his explanation of planetary motion was seen by his contemporaries as compelling evidence for a creator of infinite power and wisdom. The fact that the same law of motion should apply to bodies vastly distant from each other and apparently quite independent, seemed to demonstrate that they must all have been first put in motion by the same unerring hand. A century later Romantic artists and writers like William Blake, while fully recognising the significance and power of Newton's theory, reacted against what they saw as the inhumanity of the scientific mentality.
In Trinity the academic curriculum was defined in the statutes. These had been substantially revised in 1637 by Archbishop Laud who was then Chancellor. Laud was the Archbishop of Canterbury, a high church prelate, authoritarian in manner, whose inflexibility was to lead to his impeachment and execution by Cromwell's parliament. Prior to Laud, the College, closely liked to Cambridge, inclined towards a puritan and intellectually questioning outlook. It took its logic from Petrus Ramus whose Dialectica was strongly anti-Aristotelian. Laud, an autocrat, and an Oxford man to boot, would have none of this; Aristotle was firmly re-established and set the tone for the whole course of studies. Several of the Fellows of the College were, nevertheless, sympathetic towards the New Learning. Symner's position was clearly stated in a letter, written in 1648, to Sir Robert King: `In all these studyes my scope is for reall and experimental learning. I abhor all those ventosities, froth and idle speculation of ye schooles ... in such studyes for this 2000 years the purest witts have spent theyr golden and precious houres, and yet are as far to seeke, as those were in Aristotles dayes.' Newton's Principia first arrived in Dublin in April 1687 when William Molyneux admitted to having difficulty with some of the mathematics in it but he was also rather pre-occupied with the unsettling political events in Ireland at the time.

Next: William Molyneux and the Dublin Philosophical Society

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