Document Type



Master of Arts



Date of Defense


Graduate Advisor

Minsoo Kang


Rowan, Steve

Acsay, Peter


During the seventeenth century in Europe, three major theories of matter were in contention for the dominant natural philosophy: the hylomorphism of the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy, the mechanism of the Cartesians and other mechanical philosophers, and the vitalism of the Hermeticists and alchemists. The debate over matter between these three views of the physical world, as well as the argument over their associated epistemologies, fueled the scientific revolution. The fact that alchemy was a viable contender for the dominant natural philosophy of the time—an era that is supposed to be marked by strides forward to a more “rational” and “scientific” view of nature and away from religion, pseudo-science, and “superstition”—is a difficult concept for the modern reader to reconcile. However, history has shown that not only was alchemy taken seriously by many thinkers important to the scientific revolution, but that it was also a crucial element in the developments leading up to the modern scientific paradigm. This study focuses on one of the alchemists of the seventeenth century, the Englishman Thomas Vaughan, showing how his alchemical writings detail, in the religious and philosophical language of early modern alchemy, the alchemical vitalist conception of matter, and that these works therefore constitute an alchemical natural philosophy. In the process, I show that his ideas, as well as the epistemological premises behind them, were products of the specific cultural and intellectual context in which Vaughan wrote, and that they therefore can only be properly understood in light of that contextual framework. This idea underlies both the methodological approach and layout of the research.

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