Several questions regarding a passage by Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle once wrote in one of his papers:

That, then, which I chiefly aim at is to make it probable to you by experiments (which I think hath not yet been done) that almost all sorts of qualities, most of which have been by the Schools either left unexplicated, or generally referred to I know not what incomprehensible substantial forms, may be produced mechanically – I mean by such corporeal agents as do not appear either to work otherwise than by virtue of the motion, size, figure, and contrivance, of their own parts

— Selected Philosophical Papers of Robert Boyle [On Google Books]

I have several difficulties regarding the meaning and grammar of above-mentioned passage:

The best way I can understand I know not is as a parenthetical phrase. Is that correct? Why not I don’t know? Even so I could not make a proper sense of the sentence. There should be something referring in the phrase generally referred to I know not what incomprehensible substantial forms to the outer which, but here it seems that there is no such reference.

In the next sentence we read such corporal agents as do not …. I think there is a subject omitted in this case: such corporal agents as that which do not …. Is that correct? Is there a general rule regarding this omission?


It’s preferable to ask your questions separately, rather than all together, but I will endeavour to answer.

I know not is the older form of I do not know. I’m not sure when it really went obsolete (you occasionally find it in 19th century writing, but I think it was archaic then). It’s not a parenthetical phrase, but (part of) an adjectival phrase modifying “incomprehensible insubstantial forms”: “I don’t know what kind of … forms”. Here it’s really a rhetorical flourish meaning “various”, with a connotation of disapproval: maybe something like “outlandish” or “ridiculous” catches the meaning.

“Generally referred to” refers back to “qualities”. The Schools either leave the qualities unexplained or refer them to those ridiculous insubstantial forms.

“Such NP as VP” is another literary trope, not obsolete but now rare. “As” has the force of a restrictive relative pronoun. Your paraphrase is accurate, but I would probably say “Those corporeal agents that do not … “

Source : Link , Question Author : Kaveh , Answer Author : Colin Fine

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