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About us Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies Organization Staff PhD Research Christianity and the History of Ideas

Joas van der Schoot

Philosophy and theology in the work of Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695)

It has been regularly claimed in comprehensive studies of the European Enlightenment that seventeenth-century mechanistic and ‘radical’ philosophy were irreconcilable with early modern theology and religion. In recent scholarship, such sweeping claims have frequently been contradicted, and researchers have pointed to the importance of religion for early modern natural philosophy. The outlined research sides with this revisionist position, and addresses the need for new perspectives on the relation between religion and philosophy in the early Enlightenment period. The project therefore aims to develop nuanced analyses of how ideas associated with radical philosophy were combined with existing religious and theological traditions.

This research focuses on the thought of Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), against the backdrop of contemporary philosophical debate. The benefits of this focus are twofold. First, it will re-instate Huygens as a major seventeenth-century thinker, and correct the dominant image of Huygens as a solely pragmatic scientist who brilliantly studied isolated natural phenomena, but who refrained from formulating more comprehensive ideas about the world that he studied, and who did not concern himself with matters of theology and philosophy. Secondly, a close study of Huygens´s philosophical ideas will provide valuable insights in the shifting relations between scientific, philosophical, and theological ideas in the second half of the seventeenth century. Taking its starting point in the often neglected speculative philosophical and cosmological works of his later years, especially the posthumously published Kosmotheoros ('Worldviewer'), and a text-critical analysis of the available editions and manuscripts, the proposed project will explore Huygens's fundamental ideas about nature, philosophy, science, God, and mankind.


This research will take the form of a discourse analysis of Huygens’s philosophical texts in the context of important contemporary texts. This approach enables me to also connect his thought to its wider historical context. The first and most important part of the project will focus on the Order of Nature and the more formal and technical aspects of Huygens’s ideas. The second part of the project will also pay attention to the practical, religious, and moral consequences of these ideas for Huygens. His thought will be related to seventeenth-century ideas on anthropology, ethics, and theology. The philosophical ideas expressed in Huygens's final writings, the broader connection of these ideas to his previous (scientific) work, and the comparison of Huygens's thought to contemporary philosophical and theological debate together offer the possibility of a more balanced understanding of Christiaan Huygens as not only a scientist, but also a seventeenth-century intellectual. Moreover, this research will move beyond Huygens and aim to generate further insights in seventeenth-century debates on the natural and divine order, and the relation between philosophy, science and theology.

In summary, the general objective of this project is therefore twofold: to develop a more balanced understanding of the thought of Christiaan Huygens; and to provide further insights in the relation between religion, science, and philosophy in the Early Enlightenment.

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Last modified:20 November 2019 7.26 p.m.