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PDF Pierre Gassendis Philosophy and Science: Atomism for Empiricists

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Return to Book Page. This look at Gassendi's philosophy and science illuminates his contributions to early modern thought and to the broader history of philosophy of science. Two keys to his thought are his novel picture of acquiring and judging empirical belief, and his liberal account of criteria for counting empirical beliefs as parts of warranted physical theories.

By viewing his philosoph This look at Gassendi's philosophy and science illuminates his contributions to early modern thought and to the broader history of philosophy of science. By viewing his philosophical and scientific pursuits as part of one and the same project, Gassendi's arguments on behalf of atomism can be fruitfully explained as licensed by his empiricism. Get A Copy. Hardcover , pages. Published November 11th by Brill Academic Publishers. More Details Original Title.

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Other Editions 1. Friend Reviews. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. Gassendi borrows heavily on themes set out by earlier Italian space and time theorists, including Campanella, Bruno, Telesio, and Patrizi. One possible advance is suggested by his discussion of such an ontology as a prelude to his matter theory: space and time are pre-conditions for the existence of substance, rather than properties of substances as the Aristotelians would have it.

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In this regard, Rochot proposes that Gassendi's ontology provides atoms as stable entities and absolute space-time as a stable environment, which together allow for a greater reliability of empirical data hence a greater reliability of our data reception. The notion is that those data have some fixity at the source, at least, given that the space-time environment that contains material elements giving rise to such data are unbended by relativistic position to anything else. Naturally, such fixity would be only a necessary condition, and even fails to provide guarantees at the level of basic sensory data, which Gassendi recognizes in his discussion of the Skepticist tropes.

Gassendi's notion of non-relative space stands in direct contrast to the Cartesian plenist account, which suggests that space just is place, as defined by the extension of the resident and universal matter. This contrast bears a clear result relative to matter theory: Descartes is locked into a view of matter as infinitely divisible, in order to account for the absence of void or, what amounts to the same thing, the omnipresence of matter.

Gassendi, on the other hand, is free to pose the existence of atoms and the void, where matter is located in space but is neither defined by nor definitive of that space. Broadly speaking, Gassendi expresses some three notions of logic in the Syntagma. The first, enunciated in the history of logic section that appears immediately prior to the Institutio Logica , suggests a picture of logic along heuristic and didactic lines, in the manner of Ramus, whose theory Gassendi lauds as a guide to organizing and presenting existing knowledge O I 59ab. The second suggests that logic consists in the Aristotelian syllogistic, the understanding thereof, and related methodological concerns.


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The third suggests that logic consists in the study and use of causal reasoning, and related methodological concerns—most notably including an exposition of regressus demonstrativa theory in the manner of Zabarella and Nifo this notion expressly contradicts his Exercitationes view that such causal reasoning cannot be justified. These latter two notions yield the main thrust of the Institutio though the discussion of demonstration in Book IV has clear Ramist debts.

They also have great currency for Gassendi, who typically crafts his use of syllogism and causal inference and method after his Institutio conceptions, or at least signals that he intends to do so.

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The same may not be said for his Ramist conception. For although he makes ample use of rhetoric, he does not turn to definition, distribution, or division for the purposes of diagramming or expounding existing knowledge—per the logic of Ramus—in any way that matches his interest in the traditionally Aristotelian conception of analysis as problem-solving.

It has been suggested that a fourth notion—a psychologistic account of cognitive operations, and perception in particular—is a prominent goal of Gassendi's logic Michael, While such discussion forms part of the Institutio presentation, it is by no means the main goal of the work or of Gassendi's conception of logic. This can be seen from the thrust and length of his discussion of the first three elements, and in particular syllogistic and causal reasoning, and their attendant methodologies.

Gassendi's science is philosophically noteworthy in the way that Descartes' or Kepler's science is, drawing on a robust set of views on the nature of the world and what we know of it. His scientific work in astronomy, optics, and mechanics is of particular import in suggesting how we should pursue a purely empirical picture of the world, within the limitations of our sensory access and the constraints of tradition.

The principal elements of Gassendi's astronomy include a global embrace of empirical method, advanced instrumentation, and measurement, an interest in unusual celestial phenomena, and a partially masked defense of Copernicanism.

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His embrace of an empiricist astronomy can be gauged by his voluminous recorded observations—some presumably with the telescope lenses sent by his friend Galileo—carried out in concert with a league of fellow observers strung across Europe and the Near East. A primary goal of these recorded observations was to confirm and extend the Rudolphine Tables, the project set up by Tycho Brahe and completed by Kepler, to facilitate calculation of the planet's positions which goal in itself suggests Gassendi's adherence to a Keplerian heliocentrism.

Another facet of Gassendi's empiricist astronomy was his denunciation of astrology as crafted independent of any ideas from the senses, impervious to correction by experiment or observation, and thus as failing to qualify as natural or experiential knowledge. This view brought him into direct and bitter conflict with Jean-Baptiste Morin, who also suspected Gassendi of an arch-Copernicanism that was not only against Church teaching but would obviate the astrological structures central to Morin's theories.

Gassendi's close interests in observation also led to employing the camera obscura to gauge variations in the apparent diameter of the moon—in accordance with its orbit of the Earth and the apparent diameter of the Sun. Further, in his work with Peiresc, Gassendi tackled the problem of determining longitude by reference to lunar eclipses, later working towards this goal with Claude Mellan on the first effort to chart the moon. Based on his correspondence with observers as far away as the Levant, he located the source of the illumination at very high altitude, above the Northern Polar region.

In , he observed the rare phenomenon of parhelia , or false suns, which he explained in his Parhelia seu soles…, in terms of the reflection of sunlight by ice or snow crystals at high altitude. This account, shown to be accurate in the nineteenth century, relies on the views of Gassendi and Peiresc—based on their microscopical observations—that crystal formations of snow and ice are highly reflective.

The great triumph of Gassendi's scanning of the skies was his observation of Mercury's transit before the Sun , the first such recorded observation and a confirmation of Kepler's prediction of the planetary orbits in accordance with the Three Laws. This confirmation in turn enabled the subsequent calculations Halley and Gallet, of the distance between the Earth, the Sun, and the other planets. The most controversial element of Gassendi's astronomy concerns whether, and to what extent, he may be counted as a defender of Galileo and the Copernican view.


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  • There is little question that he sympathized with Galileo, and that he was fully aware of the merits of Copernicanism, at times defending the view and some of its main planks openly. Yet he was also clearly concerned with allegiance to Holy Writ as interpreted by the Church, and to this end offers a Church-friendly account of the condemnation that focuses not on the underlying heliocentrism but on particularities of the Galilean model O V 60b. His considered judgment is that the Tychean model is preferable to the Ptolemaic model, but also to the Copernican model—in the latter case simply because the heliocentric picture does not fit with Church teachings.

    He hastens to suggest, however, that those teachings are themselves warranted by our own current empirical evidence—the implication being that such truths and the concomitant rejection of Copernicanism might well be revisable.

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    Closely related to Gassendi's interests in astronomy are a number of issues in optics, where he sought to articulate a physiological model of vision and a physical model of light. In so doing, Gassendi contributed to early modern efforts that would eventuate in distinguishing these two ends of traditional optics.

    His integrated optics model follows an Epicurean and Lucretian intromission view, that vision is a function of rays of light atoms or image-bearing atoms that are received by our internal apparatus for vision. The structure of this apparatus was of great concern to Gassendi and his early collaborator on naturalist projects, Peiresc. The premise of their work was that Kepler was largely correct in postulating an optical image that gathers many rays into a coherent representation in the eye, focused on the retina by the crystalline lens.

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    What troubled Gassendi and Peiresc, however, was the notion that such an image as cast upon the retina would be inverted, leaving the problem of identifying how we see the world as right-side up. Seeking a physiological solution—as against any psychological capacity that rights the inverted image—they suggested that the retina itself acts as a mirror which rights the inverted image projected upon it. Another aspect of this integrated approach to optics was a reliance on internal perceptual phenomena to account for external phenomena regarding appearances, illusory or otherwise. This was not a universally-held view, even in the age of the optics of light and vision.

    In addition to Gassendi's interest in parhelia, he also sought to explain apparent discrepancies in the size of the sun and moon at different hours by reference to visual experience produced by light phenomena De apparente magnitudine… , Thus, these bodies appear larger on the horizon than at their apogee because the pupil dilates from the differential exposure to the light at the horizon. In fact, all such apparent differences are produced by the distance effect of surface features of the area from which the celestial body is viewed.

    One key driver of such an appeal to the interaction of light behavior and our visual apparatuses is Gassendi's view that some explanatory role must be played here by the common atomic structure underlying the images intromitted into our eyes and the light rays cast by celestial bodies which are understood as creating such images. Gassendi's mechanics shows the strong influence of the Galilean programme. He addresses the law of free-fall twice, first in a faulty treatment in De Motu , and next in corrected fashion in De proportione qua gravia decidentia accelerantur In the earlier work, Gassendi focuses on forces compelling the falling body, which he takes to comprise the attractive force of magnetism and the propelling force of air behind the falling body.

    This combination of forces, he suggests, allows for the Galilean law that the distance traveled by bodies in free-fall is proportional to the time of fall squared. However, Gassendi mistakenly takes increases in velocity and in distances to be equivalent, leading him to manufacture a false need for greater velocity attained than what would be produced by the attractive forces alone.

    In De Proportione , he acknowledges this error, amends his calculations, and retreats to a causal account that rests on the single force of the terrestrial magnetic attraction. This is not one of Gassendi's empirical triumphs, though—in neither work does he make any specific reference to observations or experiments.

    One notable success in the experimental domain is his performance of the Galilean test of dropping a stone from the mast of a moving ship, recorded in De Motu. Once dropped, Gassendi shows, the stone conserves its horizontal speed equal to that of the ship, before being released and its motion describes a parabola given its downward fall. This result successfully refutes one simple anti-Copernican argument, by showing that the Earth can move without superadding motion to terrestrial objects otherwise in motion which superaddition, opponents of Copernicanism correctly maintained, would generate much havoc in the motion of terrestrial objects.

    This much Galileo surmised in his original thought experiment, though the performance was excellent publicity for the Galilean perspective and an opportunity for Gassendi to think through the issues at stake. In this regard, Gassendi was able to take a step beyond Galileo's conclusions, drawing from this test a generalized principle of inertia the Galilean version of inertia was fundamentally circular, given that bodies in motion would trace the earth's curve.

    Gassendi saw that the motion of the dropped stone at a sustained speed—in the absence of any contrary force or obstacle—is an instance of inertial motion, albeit one where the motion is compositional describing the parabola. Indeed, neither compositionality nor directionality had any impact on inertial motion, Gassendi concluded: any body set in motion in any direction continues, unless impeded, in rectilinear path. Other accomplishments in physics included a compelling measurement of the speed of sound showing that sound travels at the same speed, no matter the nature of its pitch , and the first satisfactory interpretation of the Pascalian barometry experiment.

    In establishing the elasticity of air as a gas and accumulated void as a result of particle displacement, Gassendi evokes his ontology of atoms and the void. Such themes, as well as empiricist threads of Gassendism, were attractive to a number of late seventeenth century physicists and physicians viz. Still others, especially Cartesians such as Desgabets and Cordemoy, were rather distasteful of those themes, as were hard-line theologians such as Louis Le Valois.

    As Lennon , Brockliss , and others have noted, Gassendi's overall influence in the French education system was not a match for the Cartesian alternatives, and his views were considered especially unworthy after his atomist views gained currency in England. The British success of Gassendism had three textual sources.

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    There was as well a group of atomist enthusiasts in the Newcastle Circle, and a small existing British Epicurean club, whose members included Kenelm Digby and Nathaniel Highmore. This backdrop of sympathetic sources, not entirely faithful to the original, allowed a substantial and diffuse influence of Gassendi's views in British thought. We see Gassendism shaping the work of lesser figures such as Francis Glisson who embraced a vis motrix and Thomas Willis who crafted a materialist theory of neural transmission based on Gassendi's view Wallace but also such major thinkers as Boyle, Locke, Newton, Hume, and Reid.

    Those sources of influence themselves were sufficiently diffuse that it is difficult to make precise Gassendi's imprint on these later authors, except where they explicitly acknowledge their debts. Boyle finds Gassendi's thinking agreeable in three respects. First, he embraces Gassendi's criticism of Descartes' ontological argument as rooted in an assumption as to the nature of God impervious to proof. Second, he follows in the Gassendist model of placing empiricism and experiment at the center of a viable scientific method. Third, he praises Gassendi's corpuscularian theory as a worthy ontology for the mechanical model of explanation, hastening to add that further experimentation should give sufficient demonstration of the verity of atomism.

    Indeed, he refuses to judge between the Gassendist and Cartesian alternatives, presumably on the grounds that we cannot produce evidence to decide the issue of matter's infinite divisibility. As Locke is concerned, it is by now well established that he may have read Gassendi directly, and almost certainly read Bernier. The evidence of influence shows up in some central Lockean theses: the corpuscularian philosophy here he follows Boyle as surely as he does Gassendi , primary and secondary qualities distinction a view also held by Boyle, Descartes, Galileo, and others still , and broad commitment to empiricism, including the negative thesis against innate ideas and the positive thesis identifying sensory data as the primary source of ideas.