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Commerce, Medicine, Science in the Dutch Golden Age Essay

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Updated: Jan 17th, 2021


In this groundbreaking book, which is a leading authority on the history of medicine and science, Harold J. Cook scrutinizes how the flourishing scientific investigation in the Dutch Republic in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries accompanied and replicated the growth of trade and commerce in the country. Professor Cook painstakingly draws the connection between these areas of human activity and argues brilliantly and realistically that the growth of commerce laid the foundation for the growth of science globally. This paper analyses the understandings of the history of science and ideas.

The Rise of Science During the Early Modern Period

The early modern people defined “passions” as the forces, which developed change not only in their minds but also in their whole bodies, and it did not only encompass individuals but all things (Cook 2007, xii). In writing Matters of Exchange, Harold J. Hook purposed to face up to the present understandings of the rise of science during the early modern period. He gives an immensely enlightening analysis of science and medicine in the Dutch Golden Age. “The new philosophy” of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries appertains to the period of the scientific revolution that was taking place in the world. Older doctrines were being replaced by new ideas in various fields of study and this formed the foundation of the current philosophical ideologies. In the growth of the “new philosophy,” merchants played a pivotal role in advancing it since for them to accomplish their ends; they had to come to terms with the new philosophy. Originally, the taste was perceived to reflect attributes that are internal and bodily. The meaning of this word has changed to mean the ability to possess fine internal judgments about material things.

The thesis of the book states that Dutch commerce that was practiced in the seventeenth century was an important force that facilitated the growth of modern medical science. The author particularly chose the Netherlands because of its longtime practice of commerce. Also, the country had several naturalists, anatomists, and physicians whose presence within the Dutch Republic made them increase in knowledge as well we spread their expertise to other countries. The Universities at that time valued knowledge that could see them advance intellectually and come up with new ways of solving problems. The original meaning of the word “fact” was to refer to something that is merely inferred. It gained a new meaning in the late sixteenth century to imply something that had taken place. This change became important to new economies since they were now able to value both material goods and matters of fact. The author says that objectivity means knowledge coming from bodily experience and not anything, that is apart from it. The knowledge comes from the study of objects of nature.

Kennen refers to knowledge of acquaintance while weten refers to knowledge of causal explanation. Philology is deciphering the meaning of certain words. The rise of natural history made it possible for the analysis of information got from the investigation of natural things to take place. The herbarium was a botanical garden used in the teaching of the elements of the new philosophy. The major theological concern about investigations of nature was the search for many forces that existed in nature and could hamper religious faith. Christianity, however, recognizes that God is the sole creator of nature and He controls the forces of nature. Undertaking autopsy is a concern in the religious world in that the body is seen as sacred; therefore, treating it contemptuously is a desecration. Additionally, dead bodies were believed to possess healing powers. Tasteful objectivity is the descriptive knowledge of natural objects got by personal credit, the sharing of information, and collective decision making based on plain and precise descriptive language. Sir Francis Bacon was the lord chancellor of England. He said, “Real knowledge arose from the going out and the gathering in of things and information about them, followed by pondering them, checking them, refining them, and going out for yet more matters of fact” (Cook 2007, 40). The author claims that a new approach is based on modern tendencies that are threatening to confound the traditional approaches, with better outcomes.

Understanding of Exchange

The classical understanding of exchange is that it is the purest and most concentrated aspect of all the interactions wherein serious interests are at stake. Georg Simmel claims that exchange can be life-enhancing in several ways, but on the condition that it occurs between more-or-less equal partners. Although bad interactions do not qualify as exchange relationships, they entail interchanges shaped by the movement of objects, or the lack of such movement. “Passions” were movements that came from the body and the mind, which indicates that life is united instead of divided, and the powers are present in a person’s whole being. Passions prompt action and thought of accomplishing a goal while interest excites the curiosity or attention of someone. Therefore, the forces due to interest drive one to have a passion for something. Travelers encountered many things during their journeys. They often told stories of their voyage to the people they met on the way. In transferring information from one place to another, they contributed to the growth of knowledge.

Commensurability is the difficulty experienced when one wanted to convert the value of one set of coins into another. It occurred because the coins had varying amounts of noble metal in them. The problem was dealt with by coming up with methods of currency conversion in which people were allowed to settle accounts even with the use of diverse coins. Promises and credibility are important because they are characteristics that make the merchant prosper in his trade as they make him trustworthy. The merchants displayed their credibility by having signs of honesty in gesture, word, as well as dress. They got their credibility from years of practicing consistency of word and deed and avoiding various malpractices. This is related to science in the sense that credibility among scientists is a form of the commodity to be exchanged. Merchants and scientists share the values of travel, a fresh look at things, exchange, compatibility, credibility, the anticipation for increased material wealth, and liking for plain and accurate language. The economic magic referred to as the national debt linked the people of the United Provinces together. The national debt, managed by the government, was shared equally. The citizens of U.P. agreed to live with high levels of taxation with grumbling, but without rebellion, since they were ultimately the beneficiaries.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established to reduce the rivalry that existed between the merchants and captains that made it difficult for them to consolidate their efforts in fighting common threats. The VOC was given powers to negotiate treaties, establish strong fortifications, enlist soldiers, and serve in the capacity of the foreign power east of the Cape of Good Hope. Athenaem was an advanced school of learning in Amsterdam that specializes in fostering the teaching of wisdom from self-interest. Casparus Barlaeus, considered as one of the best minds during his time, was one of the professors appointed to lecture at Athenaem University. He argued that the pursuit of self-interest is right and natural as it forms the root of science by contemporaries. Natural value appertains to fulfilling the innate characteristics of someone or something. Self-interest propagates it. Tulipmania was the craze that occurred among farmers when they discovered a particular type of tulip that had special attributes of smell, beauty, and color. Merchants moved from place to place taking the knowledge they had gained with them. In the process, scientific facts could be relayed to different places.

Public Anatomies

The lesson of the public anatomies emphasized that human abilities were associated with its material form. Rene Descartes was a French philosopher who claimed that the world is ruled not ruled by reason, but by passions. He theorized that passions came from the material world itself, which then became the vital ingredient for behavior and thought in individuals. This theory received a hostile reception by the religious community since the position he took opposed the view that humans are to be ruled by rational virtue. Pierre Gassendi, a French philosopher, was one of the people who accompanied Descartes on his journey to the north since there was a developing interest in France. Descartes had a preoccupation with body and passions in the dreams of his youth. Descartes lived in the Dutch Republic for most of his adult life. Here, he developed the materialistic view of human and animal philosophy and he wrote famous philosophical books that were mainly influenced by local information and conversations. He also shifted from his earlier version of knowledge by contemplation and focused on analyzing the details of nature.

Galileo’s condemnation in 1633 made Descartes leave one of the parts of the complete system of natural knowledge. On the other hand, he did a publication that illustrated the direction in which his anatomical and physiological studies were taking. The right reason is a human faculty, which is divine and discloses the world by making it known since it forms part of the world. This principle enables us to actualize our potential since it is an ontological property of divine origin. The right reason is an innate virtue that dictates the right behavior towards fulfilling our full potential. Descartes had the view of empirical verification in knowing what is right, but not by right reason and that, all these perceptions should start from God. Pierre Charron gave an objection to the capacity of people to use the right of reason in claiming that humans are unable to use efficiently their “right to reason.” Descartes puts across a moral argument about the source of the illness by saying that states of mind can resemble types of mental illness. He argues that God created the mind; therefore, God is the source of all illnesses. Henricus Regius was a Dutch philosopher and a professor of medicine who most of the time had correspondence with Descartes. The basic argument in his Physiologica was on coming up with intellectual independence from scholastic philosophy. He proposed an alternative to Cartesian epistemology as well as metaphysics.

Descartes view passions on the issue of how humans are ruled. He said that passions are in essence good since they can teach us how to live long and happy lives and that music can be used to move the passions in people. Seneca’s philosophical thoughts greatly influenced the direction that Descartes and Gassendi took in understanding philosophy. Seneca was a great thinker on the issues of complexity of nature and the position of gratefulness in having fulfilling human relationships. They analyzed Seneca’s way of life and thoughts in connection with contemporary learning and to the psychology of human emotions. Descartes draws a relationship between passions and volition by the suggestion that passions give the necessary sustenance to volition, which is important in effecting any action to be taken by an individual. Pieter de la Cort, a Dutch economist, and businessman argued that the wealth of his home country could prosper if the people embrace free competition and the republican form of government. He suggested that practicing free competition could deal with the various self-interests of individuals.


During the last three decades of the eighteenth century, The Netherlands had a conservative reaction to various issues that were affecting their country. The Dutch demonstrated complete dislike for the influences that were trying to transform their society from what they had considered right for all time. These problems could be attributed to the lack of efficient institutions in the country that was capable of changing the Dutch conservative views. William of orange fuelled the debate by proclaiming that the sovereignty of the Dutch Republic ought to be respected, rather than being trodden underfoot by invaders. Balthasar Bekker was a Dutch divine and commentator of various philosophical and theological issues. He publicly opposed superstition and he was at the forefront in the attempts of ending persecutions related to witchcraft in his country and abroad. In his book, Betoverde world, he analyzed the phenomena attributed to the spiritual agency and criticized the belief in sorcery and the doctrine of possession by the devil. Bekker questioned if the devil exists. This work received hostile reception by the religious community in that he was accused of spreading non-biblical ideas and he was tried for blasphemy.

Herman Boerhaave was a Dutch botanist, humanist, and physician, who was prominent across Europe. He was for the idea of conducting post-mortem examination on patients in which he illustrated the connection between symptoms and lesions. At his first academic oration, he was very critical of the philosophy of Spinoza and he collaborated with De Volder in denouncing Epicurean philosophy. During the oration, the Calvinist Boerhaave raised issues that opposed the idea of materialistic philosophy. This oration turned against the Epicurus theory that proclaimed that both the body and mind are made of particles, as it would lead to denial of divine precepts. Boerhaave moved from epicurean ethics to epicurean physics because, on at least two occasions, he was accused of embracing epicurean ethics. These incidences dramatically changed his life. For him to be publicly seen as supporting epicurean ethics, could imply being regarded as an atheist. In his latter carrier as a medical practitioner, he adhered to the thesis principle.

During Boerhaave’s academic oration after his appointment at the University of Leiden, he argued that other areas of study are linked to medical studies, and from then, he started to give lectures in botany, physics, and chemistry. In “The Grumbling Hive,” Bernard Mandeville puts across two arguments. The first is that reason is involved only in natural reason, not the right reason, and secondly, that passions govern human nature. He argues that the power of passions can dominate natural reason. He claims that working with greater passion, (pride), has more material benefits to patients than offering only advice that appeals to natural reason. Mandeville states that the difference between quacks and good practitioners is not found in likable character, but in the honest capability of intervening in nature efficiently. His view about the relationship between passions and the natural reason was controversial because that view was fostering the materialistic type of lifestyle. Niewentijt released a book that argued for the existence of God and contravened the teachings of Mandeville. In that way, his views differed from those of Mandeville. The great philosophers, Mandeville, Boerhaave, and Niewentijt, in as much as they were looking for various ways of proving His existence, both were in common agreement that God exists.

New Knowledge

The concern of the advocates for the old way of knowing about the new science was that the new science was capable of giving the explanation that necessarily led away from the knowledge of the good that was innate in the immortal soul. Consequently, this made them worry that it could lead to the total disregard of the old values and eventually to atheism. The author says that this kind of knowledge was dominant in Europe because the merchants as well as those who were engaging in expanding commerce were more enthusiastic to spread the knowledge they had got to different places across the continent of Europe. Also, the new knowledge garnered increased attention from the public and those concerned with daily experiences, especially those in the medical profession.


Science, as we realize nowadays, is biased and this recognition drove Cook to integrate meticulously the history of commerce, science, and medicine in the Netherlands during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his observation of science, he posits that “the new philosophy” came from passions and interests of both the mind and the body. He illustrates how the values of commerce were similar to the guidelines of the new philosophy. The advance in scientific investigation remained vital, but the transactions that were taking place did more than simply stack facts. The movements of goods and the collection of objects altered the ways individuals perceived knowledge and molded the generation. These activities fostered new ways of looking for knowledge and ultimately bequeathed knowledge with new meanings.

I find the author’s argument to be persuasive. The author comes up with a vast amount and an array of materials and uses his expertise as a biographer and scholarly knowledge in history and science to lay a foundation for his case. Cook’s desirable command of wide-ranging historical literature is evident throughout the book particularly in his skill to locate every, person, every object, and every thought in its rightful place.

Reference List

Cook, Harold J. 2007. Matters of exchange: commerce, medicine, and science in the Dutch Golden Age. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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