Reading Descartes: The Case of Colin Campbell

By Philippe Schmid |

Biography of a Student

Teaching at Scottish universities underwent a period of change during the seventeenth century. While Aristotelian philosophy and scholastic methods of teaching were still dominant until the end of the century, many developments in natural philosophy were introduced into the curriculum. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, many Scottish students were familiar with the thought of Descartes, Newton and Locke, as Christine Shepherd has shown. The teaching of physics saw some of the largest shifts, with new work regarding light, colour, gravity and cosmology being taught to students. At the University of St Andrews, the intellectual circle around James Gregory (c. 1638–1675) and William Sanders (c. 1640–1705) was responsible for a series of important publications in the fields of mathematics and physics.

A volume of notes by the student Colin Campbell gives a rare insight into the science curriculum of the late seventeenth century. Colin Campbell was born in 1661. He was the eldest son of Duncan Campbell of Edramucca, growing up in a well-off family of Scottish lawyers. He matriculated at St Leonard’s College in 1676 and so became a part of one of the three constituent colleges of the University of St Andrews (it was only in 1747 that St Leonard’s College and St Salvator’s College merged to form United College). When Campbell came to St Leonard’s College, where Sanders and his allies taught, he entered a thriving intellectual environment. Sanders had just become Gregory’s successor to the Regius Chair of Mathematics in 1675. Campbell took lectures in philosophy with Alexander Cockburn (died 1689), who belonged to a group of progressive tutors at St Leonard’s College. He may also have attended lectures in astronomy with James Gregory. He graduated in 1679, winning the silver arrow competition. Campbell was clearly a gifted pupil, yet he would be forgotten today, if not for the elegantly bound volume of notes that was left in the care of the St Andrews Special Collections Library.

Newtonian Interests

The notes are bound in brown leather and carry Campbell’s initials on both boards, the two blind-stamped initials framing a floral vignette in the centre. The volume contains the notes which were taken by Campbell during his lectures with Cockburn. They cover the fields of logic, metaphysics and physics, shedding light on the teaching at St Andrews during the years immediately before the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687. They also illustrate the practices of students in lecture halls, revealing a pupil who begins his notes for a new part of the lecture with diligence, even with a lovely sense of detail, yet later reverts to doodling, and exercising his signature, towards the end of the same lecture. He often illustrated his initials, and introduced the subject-matter of each lecture with a hand-drawn title design, where the text is inserted into a trigonal shape.

There are many mathematical diagrams in the lectures on physics, which were drawn with care. It is especially notable, that the physics lectures are specifically discussing the optics of Isaac Newton (1643–1727). Cockburn gave his lectures in the winter of 1678, during Campbell’s final year at the university. Newton had only just published his theory of light in the Philosophical Transactions in 1672, 1675 and 1676. The section on optics treats light, colour, reflection, refraction and vision, but the last subchapter of the lecture deals exclusively with Newton’s new findings, being titled: ‘Explanation of Newton’s, the Enlighsman’s [sic], teaching about the refraction of light and the colours.’

One of the diagrams, which were drawn by Campbell, was directly taken from Newton’s seminal article in the Philosophical Transactions, where two prisms were used to study the refraction of light (see featured image above). Campbell had the rare privilege to study Newtonian optics at a Scottish university some ten years before the latter’s magnum opus, the Principia Mathematica, was published in 1687. The lectures of Cockburn are accordingly evidence of an early reception of Newtonian physics in Scotland.

Dictates of Alexander Cockburn, Lectures on Metaphysics. University of St Andrews Library, ms38976.

Cartesian Framework

Yet, the intellectual framework of the lectures was strongly influenced by the French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650). Both the lectures on logic and metaphysics were Cartesian in nature. By the 1670s, teaching at the University of St Andrews was predominantly Cartesian. A dissertation that was written by William Sanders in 1674 was based on readings of Descartes, especially the Discourse on Method. The library of St Leonard’s College, where Sanders and Cockburn taught, held at that time a series of works by Descartes, such as the Opera Philosophica (1656), or the Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (1650), giving further evidence of Descartes’ popularity. Cockburn himself had also established a Cartesian definition of light in his Theses Philosophicae in 1675. He realised, however, that there was a divergence between these different theories of light, calling Newton the ‘adversary’ of Descartes. He even discussed the refraction of light, illustrating Newton’s experiment with the two prisms, which reveals a rather slow and step-by-step reception of Newton’s optics.


 St Andrews University Library, ms38976
List of graduates in Theses Philosophicae. University of St Andrews Library, TypBE.C03WW. 

In order to graduate in 1679, Colin Campbell had to defend a thesis over which Cockburn presided. The dissertation describes how Descartes cannot explain certain phenomena which Newton can. By now, Newton’s experiment is called by its name, the ‘crucial experiment’ or experimentum crucis. Both the lectures which Campbell heard with Cockburn in 1678 and his final thesis in 1679 show how Newton had only gradually changed the minds of tutors and students. Newton’s experiment was at first described in terms which clearly betrayed a Cartesian understanding of light.

In his Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes (1688), Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757) had warned that to enshrine a modern scientist like Descartes in place of ancient authorities such as Aristotle could once again lead to a new sort of narrow-mindedness. The discussion of the new findings by Newton in the lectures which Campbell wrote down for posterity makes clear, that the early modern canon of science did not evolve in a revolutionary way, but grew rather haphazardly. Reading Newton at St Andrews in the 1670s meant to read him from a Cartesian point of view.

Philippe Schmid was educated at Basel and Munich, before moving to the University of St Andrews as a PhD candidate in Modern History in 2018. His thesis is supervised by Andrew Pettegree and Graeme Kemp and studies learned book collecting culture in early modern Germany. From 2017 to 2018 he was a fellow at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel.


Cant, Ronald Gordon, The University of St Andrews. A Short History (Edinburgh & London, 1970).

Hall, A. Rupert, All Was Light: An Introduction to Newton’s Opticks (Oxford, 1993).

Sabra, A. I., Theories of Light: From Descartes to Newton (Cambridge, 1981).

Shepherd, Christine M., Philosophy and Science in the Arts Curriculum of the Scottish Universities in the 17th century, PhD thesis (Edinburgh, 1974).

Shepherd, Christine M., ‘Newtonianism in Scottish Universities in the Seventeenth Century’, in R. H. Cambell & A.S. Skinner (eds.), The origins and nature of the Scottish Enlightenment (Edinburgh, 1982), pp. 65–85.

Smith, A. Mark, ‘Descartes’s Theory of Light and Refraction: A Discourse on Method’, Transactions of the American Mathematical Society, 77 (1987), pp. 1–92.

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