Meeting 49

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DATE: Tuesday, December 7

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Logic, Diagrams and Geometry in Early Modern Thought

SPEAKERS: Vincenzo De Risi (CNRS & Max-Planck-Gesellschaft) & David Rabouin (CNRS & ERC Philiumm)


Geometry without Diagrams from Patrizi to Leibniz

Vincenzo De Risi

In the talk I discuss the philosophy and practices concerning diagrams in early modern geometry. I argue that in the course of the seventeenth century an important transformation in mathematical epistemology took place, leading more and more philosophers to distrust the explanatory power of diagrams, and more and more mathematicians to do without them in their demonstrations. I link this new approach to diagrammatic reasoning to the most important revolution that took place in geometry in the modern age: the transformation of this discipline from a science of figures into a science of space. I also discuss the development of logic during the seventeenth century in relation to the abandonment of diagrammatic practices in geometry, and argue that the emergence of a new logic of relations is in part due to this transformation of mathematical epistemology. I consider especially the thought of philosophers and mathematicians such as Oronce Fine, Francesco Patrizi, Claude Richard, Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

On the dream of a ‘purely intellectual’ mathematics in Descartes

David Rabouin

This talk is a follow up to several studies I did on the role of imagination in Descartes’ mathematics, in connection to the relation between geometry and algebra. I would like to approach this question in a more philosophical and less technical context. More specifically, I would like to focus on the famous passage in the Méditations Métaphysiques where Descartes tackles the issue of the relationship between “pure intellect” and “imagination” by mentioning mathematical examples. I am struck by the persistence of a reading of this passage which, to my mind, goes in a deeply wrongheaded direction. According to this interpretation, Descartes criticizes the role of imagination in mathematics and, by the same token, defends an alternative way of doing mathematics; a kind of “purely intellectual” mathematics. Based on this background, one then assumes that this is what Descartes did when algebraizing geometry: ie., replacing the role of imagination by that of the intellect. Contrary to this view, I will argue that Descartes is not referring to a new mathematics in the Méditations. Moreover, Descartes is not opposing a mathematics based on the pure intellect to a mathematics based on imagination. He is opposing two usages of imagination in mathematics (in order to make clear the epistemological difference between two faculties of the mind). Finally, I will claim that what Descartes says in the Méditations is fully compatible with what he claims elsewhere, that is to say that in mathematics imagination can function as an “aid” to the intellect. I will show that this stance is fully compatible with his own practice as a mathematician.

Meeting 48

Note that the session will be in English and French, and end 30 minutes earlier than usual.

We are using the same link as last spring. If you don’t have it, email us at

DATE: Tuesday, November 30

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Van Helmont and Cantemir’s Views of the Being of Time

SPEAKERS: Ovidiu Achim (University of Bucharest), Vlad Alexandrescu (University of Bucharest) & Georgiana Hedesan (University of Oxford)


Aristotle did not deem Time to have a being of its own, making it subordinate to movement and to some extent, to the soul. Later Aristotelians straightforwardly proclaimed that Time was an accident. This view was more or less accepted by High Scholastics, though later Scholasticism started to depart from it. By the early modern period, dissent to Aristotle’s views became more and more widespread, leading to the novel notion of ‘absolute Time,’ of which Isaac Newton is a famous representative.

The panel will first address Jan Baptist Van Helmont’s (1579-1644) doctrine of Time, and its links with the notion of Eternity. Scholarly treatments of early modern views on Time tend to ignore his contribution to the subject, despite his authorship of a treatise called specifically ‘De tempore’. Walter Pagel’s rather idiosyncratic translation of the treatise and attempt to explain it (1948) has generally found no echo in histories of philosophy, perhaps because Pagel framed it as part of the history of medicine. However, Van Helmont’s treatment of Time deserves attention as an original contribution to the topic. It is particularly fascinating that Van Helmont takes the radical step of endowing Time with being, disentangling it from its Aristotelian association with movement.

In the second part of our panel, we will discuss the views of Time, as developed by Dimitrie or Demetrius Cantemir’s (1675-1723), polymath and Prince of Moldavia. Cantemir was a close reader of Van Helmont, going as far as to transcribe a large amount of Van Helmont’s magnum opus Ortus medicinae in manuscript form. Influenced by Van Helmont’s treatment, Cantemir dedicated the fourth chapter of his philosophical manuscript Sacrosanctae Scientiae indepingibilis imago (1699) to this subject. Like Van Helmont, Cantemir tied his views of Time to his project of reforming philosophy and bringing it in closer alignment with Christian theology, thus creating a new ‘sacrosanct science’. While making use of several Helmontian ideas, Cantemir goes beyond Van Helmont to provide a thorough critical commentary of Aristotle’s views of Time, before reaffirming the notion of Time as having separate being, and tying it, like Van Helmont, to Eternity.

Our panel draws on preliminary findings related to the 2021-2023 project Prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1675-1723) and the Search for an Eastern Christian Reform of Knowledge. The project involves the analysis of Cantemir’s contribution to the pan-European attempt to reform natural philosophy by grounding it in Eastern Orthodox theology. Cantemir’s attempt drew upon Jan Baptist Van Helmont’s vision of a ‘Christian philosophy’, which he employed to create his own synthesis of ‘sacred science’. 

Meeting 47

We are using the same link as last spring. If you don’t have it, email us at

DATE: Tuesday, November 23

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Logic and Methodology in the Early Modern Period. A discussion on the occasion of the Perspectives on Science special issue (vol. 29:3; 2021)

SPEAKERS: Roger Ariew (University of South Florida), Elodie Cassan (ENS Lyon), Sorana Corneanu (University of Bucharest), Rodolfo Garau (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)


In connection with Perspectives on Science special issue on Logic and Methodology in the Early-Modern Period (vol.29 :3 ; 2021;, our purpose in this panel is to show that while the role taken by logic towards philosophical modernity is still commonly downplayed, it is crucial to its building. In so doing, we intend to contribute to a broader reassessment of the importance of early modern logic—one which frames these doctrines as particular answers to long debated questions concerning science, method, and the education of minds.

Our project is twofold. First, we argue for the necessity of the writing of a philosophical history of early-modern logic. We emphasize, from this view point, the lack of heuristic efficiency of the current histories of logic in the early-modern period standard narratives. We shed light on the limited light provided by hermeneutic categories created and made use of in order to account for the writing of new types of logic during the period, such as the categories of « logic of ideas » and of « facultative logic ». In our view, these categories have the merit to reveal that the purpose of logic in the seventeenth century was largely that of determining how to make use of intellectual materials in order to reason without error. But, on the other hand, first, they do not suffice to making sense of everything that is going on in the field of logic during that period. Second, while showing that logic in this period is a reality with a mixed form, a hybrid stuff, they push into the background the question of the specific consistency of the new shape taken by this discipline.

Secondly, in order to uncover this shape, we address the following questions : why, despite such widespread rhetoric of the rejection and rupture with the logical tradition, did early modern philosophers devote so much attention to logic in the construction of their systems of knowledge? What kind of change and continuity in the understanding of the role of logic does this reflect? What does this gesture tell us about the building of the philosophical discourse? We address these issues by the resort to case studies. Major early modern philosophical figures are considered : Bacon, Descartes and Gassendi.

Meeting 46

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DATE: Tuesday, November 16

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Considerations of Substance in Early Modern English Philosophy: Cudworth, Trotter, Conway

SPEAKERS: Olivia Branscum (Columbia University), Sofía Calvente (Universidad Nacional de La Plata) & Natalia Strok (Universidad de Buenos Aires)


Monism, Panpsychism, and Mind-body Problems: The Case of Anne Conway

Olivia Branscum

Let’s consider panpsychism to be the view that mental capacities (and perhaps consciousness) are fundamental in and ubiquitous to the natural world. [N.b.: the dual requirements of fundamentality and ubiquity derive from a definition offered by William Seager (2020).] Conceived this way, panpsychism might seem like a solution to the mind-body problem: if ‘everything thinks,’ after all, then classic substance interaction issues appear to lose their urgency. In this talk, I argue that proposing panpsychism as a solution to ‘the’ mind-body problem is insufficient. Rather, we must scrutinize the fundamental ontology that attaches to a particular panpsychist system, thereby assessing its risk factors for multiple mind-body problems as part of a holistic evaluation of the system’s theoretical and practical suitability. I first highlight the ways in which different forms of monism produce their own mind-body problems, looking briefly at two forms of idealism (like those sometimes attributed to Berkeley and Leibniz) and mechanistic materialism as concrete examples. While monistic panpsychisms in general do address the interaction problem, other serious issues can arise, including problems with emergentism (how do physical or mental qualities emerge from immaterial or psychically inert substances?) and/or the superfluity of corporeal perceptions. After canvassing the mind-body problems encountered by various ontological options, I then sketch the system of Anne Conway to suggest that her distinctive monism about creation — taken together with the form of panpsychism that, as I argue, she espouses — fares better against mind-body problems than some prominent alternatives do. The presentation will close with an acknowledgment of several difficulties faced by Conway’s system.

Catharine Trotter Cockburn’s puzzle: immaterial unintelligent substance, thinking matter and hierarchy of beings

Sofía Calvente

Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1679-1749) offers a novel and disruptive conception of substance that blurs any sharp distinctions between matter and spirit. This conception is reflected in her understanding of space expressed in Remarks upon some Writers (1743), where she defines it in terms of a non-thinking immaterial substance that acts as a transition link between non-thinking material substance and thinking immaterial substance. In order to put forward this definition of space, she resorts to the Platonic thesis that the universe is organized as a hierarchy of all possible types of beings, which are distinguished from each other by degrees only. Her novel conception of substance already finds a precedent in her first writing, A Defense of Mr. Locke’s Essay (1702) where she argues that thought is not necessarily linked to immateriality and therefore there is no contradiction in endowing matter with the power to think. These statements allow us to find an unifying thread in her metaphysical thought, since the dissociation of thought from immateriality opens the way to proposing the existence of an immaterial and non-thinking substance: space. However, the consistency of her metaphysics is threatened by her adherence to the Great Chain of Being thesis, since the hierarchy of beings implicit in that thesis seems to clash with the possibility of thinking matter, because matter is placed in the lowest step within the scale of beings. My aim is to evaluate whether Cudworth’s thesis that immaterial substance is an active principle that works in matter -producing thought, in the case of human beings- may be a good alternative to solve this inconsistency or other alternatives might be sought.

Souls, subtle bodies, and hierarchy of beings in Ralph Cudworth

Natalia Strok

Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688) is one of the main figures of the so-called Cambridge Platonism of seventeenth century. He proposes a dualist metaphysics that departs from Desacartes’ dualism of res extensa and res cogitans. In the Cambridge Platonist philosophy immaterial substance is active, just active, without needing to be mental or even conscious (this is the case of the plastic nature, for example), although it achieves different degrees of complexity. On the other hand, material substance is passive, it is bulk and extension. According to the Platonic tradition, Cudworth presupposes a hierarchy of beings, where matter finds the last place and rational souls the first, when dealing with the created world. Nevertheless, it is interesting that incorporeal substance works inwardly in matter, and souls are always united to some kind of body, so it is not possible to find a soul without a body, although, logically and in the scale of beings, souls are superior to bodies. In this way there is a chain of beings where the two substances are always together. In this paper I would like to understand the meaning of this necessity of the union and search for different kinds or configurations of bodies, which accompanies different configuration that the incorporeal substance presents. It is interesting that Cudworth does not sustain extension for immaterial substance, as his fellow Henry More would do, but finds a certain “essential profundity” or “βάθος”, in Simplicius terms, as a characteristic for this substance.

Meeting 45

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DATE: Tuesday, November 9

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Risk in Early Modern Philosophy and Science

DESCRIPTION: Pioneering works in the sociology of risk describe risk society as a uniquely modern  phenomenon resulting from technological, economic and political developments over the last  two centuries (Beck 1992 [1986]; Giddens 1991). Meanwhile, a few recent studies have  suggested in one way or another that early modern risk can and should be reconsidered from a  number of disciplinary perspectives, and that it can shed light on later developments (Walter  2008; Niget and Petitclerc 2012; Bertrand 2014; Nacol 2017). This panel will consider how  sophisticated approaches to risk and risk management manifested in early modernity on a  variety of fronts: the metaphysical and theological, the natural philosophical, the environmental and institutional, and the medical. 

SPEAKERS: Corinna Guerra (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice), Marie-Louise Leonard (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice), Pietro Daniel Omodeo (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice) & Jonathan Regier (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)


Risk and Experiment in a Volcanic Cave 

Corinna Guerra (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)

Near Naples, there is a volcanic origin cave known as the Grotta del Cane, or Cave of the Dog,  where a mysterious vapour, hanging low to the ground, could kill (notably, the namesake dogs).  For many centuries, scholars from all over the world, although mainly from Europe, were  drawn there to witness the famous phenomenon, which allowed people to see with their own  eyes the passage from life to death just by means of an animal’s respiration—many dogs died  demonstrating the mortal threat at play. The simple reason for this deadly hazard was invisible  because it was a transparent gas, revealing its dangerous properties by entering the body in an  unknown manner. The deadly effect on a dog was not always the test case; many different  kinds of scientific experiments were performed by local scholars for foreign visitors, and the  grotto quickly and widely became a notable site for chemical studies. But what about the  relationship between scholars, inhabitants, visitors and risk represented by this place? How  could the danger of this “vapour” be managed before the birth of the chemistry of gases? The  goal of this paper is to describe by means of travel journals, chemical writings, books about  volcanic elements, reports about experiments en plein air, the history of the Cave of the Dog  as a site of scientific enquiry.

Health and the Workplace in Early Modern Venice

Marie-Louise Leonard (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)

This paper explores the relationship between work and health in early modern Italy. In 1700 the physician Bernardino Ramazzini published a treatise on the diseases of workers. He argued that when questioning patients’ doctors should ask what they did for a living and that people should be able to work without detriment to their health. Taking Ramazzini’s treatise as a starting point, I examine how doctors situated work activities and locations within their theoretical and diagnostic frameworks to explore the development of occupational health in early modern medicine. The revival of Hippocrates’s, Airs, Waters, and Places in the mid-sixteenth century brought concerns about healthy environments to the fore. Did increased focus on environmental suitability alter concerns about working locations? Taking those who worked for Venice’s health office as a focus, this paper analyses cultures of prevention relating to the workplace in early modern Venice.

Risk Management and the Lagoon of Venice 

Pietro Daniel Omodeo (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)

My talk deals with the issue of risk management of the lagoon of Venice from the Middle Ages  to the end of the Ancient Regime, especially focusing on early modernity. In the sixteenth  century a new institution was created, the Magistrate for the Waters, that was tasked with  overseeing all hydraulic interventions to preserve the lagoon. I here consider whether the Magistrate can be described as a techno-scientific institution aimed at minimizing all possible  risks, and if it can be examined from the perspective of the Machiavellian image of river  engineering as a means to channel the consequences of fortune and, to some extent, make them  predictable.

Girolamo Cardano on Disasters

Jonathan Regier (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)

In this talk, I would like to consider what Girolamo Cardano has to say about disasters (calamitates), what these reveal about his views on nature, reason and the divine, and also what they tell us about how he sees his own expertise. I will divide this talk into two parts. The first will consider personal disasters, those that threaten the individual; these arise from unique, singular causes. The second will concern mass disasters, what he calls “calamitates communes”; these, he writes, result from general causes that affect many people. More than any other form of prognostication, dreams play a starring role in his autobiography (De vita propria), and, as Cardano writes in his treatise on dreams (Somniorum Synesiorum), they always and only tell us about the personal future, the future that directly concerns the dreamer. What is entailed, for Cardano, when a dreamer glimpses the shadow of a future disaster? The answer to this question goes to the foundation of his natural philosophy. As for mass catastrophes, he treats them rather comprehensively in his De rerum varietate and his commentary to Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos, the In Ptolemaei de astrorum iudiciis. These disasters, as mentioned, draw from very general causes, whether terrestrial or astrological. Here, my interest will be in how the individual fits within these large-scale events, and how Cardano allots to the individual some agency in the face of them. I will conclude with a few thoughts on the naturalization of risk and the Roman Inquisition’s response to Cardano on the subject of disasters.

Meeting 44


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DATE: Tuesday, November 2

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 7 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Plato in Italian Universities: Francesco Patrizi and the others

SPEAKERS: Luka Boršić (Institute of Philosophy, Zagreb) & Eva Del Soldato (University of Pennsylvania)


From Vimercato to Gaudenzi: Studying Aristotle with Plato in the Italian Renaissance

Eva Del Soldato

Until recently, scholarship has paid little attention to the presence of Plato and Platonism in Italian Renaissance Universities. In many cases the affaire Patrizi was used a hasty explanation for Plato’s scarce institutional role, and the short life of the few Platonic chairs was seen as proof of a marginal presence. Yet, limiting an investigation to the chairs of Platonism does not offer a full picture about the presence of Plato within university halls. Indeed, reportationes and other documents show that especially in the second half of the sixteenth century Plato became an important presence in university courses throughout the Italian peninsula, even if the curriculum was still focused on Aristotelian texts. Knowing Plato was perceived as a key to gain a better understanding of Aristotle and became a common pedagogical approach. This paper uses some case studies, from Francesco Vimercato to Paganino Gaudenzi, to highlight the presence of Plato in the university milieu.

Francesco Patrizi on Plato

Luka Boršić

My talk will be an overview of how Francesco Patrizi, one of the most renown Renaissance Platonist, related to Plato. In my talk I will cover three aspects of Patrizi’s approach to Plato’s philosophy. First, a few words will be said about Patrizi’s lectures on Platonic philosophy after Pope Clement VIII’s founded the chair for Plato’s philosophy at the Sapienza in Rome in 1591. In the second part of my talk, I will deal with the curious case that exactly this proclaimed Platonist only superficially touched upon Plato’s philosophy in his first most influential philosophical work, Discussiones peripateticae, whereas in his second most important work, Nova de universis philosophia, the most extensive discussion about Plato and his works can be found in three appended texts under the more general title “Mystica Aegyptiorum et Caldaeorum a Platone voce tradita, ab Aristotele excepta et conscripta philosophia” at the end of the voluminous book. Finally, I will end with some more general comments about Patrizi’s Platonism in distinction to Marsilio Ficino, on the one hand, and the “concordists” on the other.

Meeting 43

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DATE: Tuesday, October 26

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Early Modern Correspondence and Open-Ended Inquiries Therein

SPEAKERS: Ovidiu Babeș (University of Bucharest) & Monica Solomon (Bilkent University)

Solid Explanations: Descartes on Mathematically Modelling the Fall of Water

Ovidiu Babeș

My presentation focuses on an episode of mixed-mathematical practice in Descartes’ correspondence: the explanation of the freefall of water. In a 1643 exchange with Constantijn Huygens and Marin Mersenne, Descartes provided a quantitative explanation of the phenomenon of water flowing out of a filled vertical tube. I argue that this episode helps delineate the precise role of mixed-mathematics and natural philosophy in Descartes’ natural scientific practice. I show that his mixed-mathematical explanation is not natural philosophically innocent, making use of many conceptual maneuvers and demonstrative strategies which transgress disciplinary boundaries.

Traditionally, such exercises belonged to mixed-mathematics, a bundle of disciplines that were subordinated mathematics and physics. Mixed-mathematics had little to do with establishing the natural causes of phenomena. One might suspect this is especially true in the case of mixed-mathematics framed as patchy problem-solving, a practice at the heart of Mersenne’s scientific activity in the 1630s and 1640s. After all, Mersenne (and Constantijn Huygens) simply wrote to Descartes asking for a mathematical explanation of the motion of water in freefall. The issue had practical outcomes, and seemed disconnected to any explanatory ambition in natural philosophy.

However, if one studies the development of Descartes’s explanation, the role of natural philosophical concepts and commitments becomes more and more salient. For instance, Descartes packed his physical account of liquidity within his mathematical treatment of the freefall of water, thereby creating important conceptual gaps between how liquid bodies and solid bodies behave in freefall. These gaps resulted in several properties of bodies of liquids which were emergent on the collection of single drops of liquid. Descartes’ systematic natural philosophy does not have the available conceptual resources to account for these emergent properties. Instead, his mixed-mathematical explanation of the flow of water navigated around this constraint by quantitative means. Even if Descartes’ explanation delves into physics as deeply as it can, it does not delve into Descartes’ own physics.

The Hooke – Newton correspondence of 1679

Monica Solomon

I will follow the Hooke-Newton correspondence of 1679 with an eye towards interpretations of the original question posed by Hooke and the follow-up exchanges. Several scholars (De Gandt 1995; Guicciardini, 2005, 2020; Gal 2002;  Marshall Miller 2014; Nauenberg 1994, 1998, 2005; Westfall 1971 to name but a few) have scrutinized this series of correspondence mainly because of the two great (and peculiar) personalities and their priority disputes.

In his first letter, Hooke asks Newton, among other things, for “[his] thoughts of that [hypothesis or opinion of his] of compounding the celestiall motions of the planets of a direct motion by the tangent & an attractive motion towards the centrall body.” Part of the question seems to be that of understanding trajectories as composed of certain motions. It is less clear at which level of generality we should try to answer the question and whether those motions have anything to do with forces (And if so, with which or what kind of forces?)

Throughout the exchange we discover that the original question, which seemed like a well-defined problem in geometry, turns out to be anything but. As we witness Hooke and Newton trying to explain trajectories of bodies under gravity as an attractive force with a center, we also see the difficulties involved in finding the right quantities that make our problems tractable in term of geometrical representations of trajectories. Instead of making Newton or Hooke the characters of this narrative, I will focus on the details of the problem, its interpretation, and possible solutions.

The methodological lesson is that the standards for judging replies as answers or solutions to a specific problem can hardly fit into disciplinary boundaries. Consequently, exchanges such as this one (and correspondence materials more broadly) reveal a far more dynamic disciplinary landscape, one in which physics and mixed-mathematics are sometimes in tension, but never far apart from each other. In particular, a consequence of this analysis is that we should probably give up on describing such processes or series as an example of “mathematization.” 

Meeting 42

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DATE: Tuesday, October 19

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Skepticism and the Passions in Hume’s Philosophy

SPEAKERS: Charles Goldhaber (University of Pittsburgh), Manuel Vasquez Villavicencio (University of Toronto), Anik Waldow (University of Sydney) & Margaret Watkins (Seattle Pacific University)


Spirits and Skepticism in Hume’s Treatments of the Passions 

Margaret Watkins 

In the Treatise, Hume avoids physiological explanations of our perceptions and experiences. But why?  Does physiology simply not fall within the scope of his investigation? Or is he skeptical about the  validity of “natural philosophy” in general? He seems to express such skepticism in “Of the Rise and  Progress of the Arts and Sciences,” and some Treatise passages suggest that attempting to “penetrate  into the nature of bodies” will add little to our understanding of human nature, even as it generates  the possibility of embarrassing mistakes.

Yet we do find a few forays into explicit physiology in the Treatise, as well as language that seems  dependent on contemporary anatomical theories. I will argue that Hume sometimes uses this language literally, and that interpreting him in this way can help us understand aspects of his theory of the  passions. In particular, we tend to read past his references to “animal spirits”—those refined liquids  thought to play a role in voluntary motion, sensation, and passions. If we notice these references at  all, we tend to assume that they are metaphorical, standing in for phenomenological concepts that  might be described in other ways. But sometimes the re-description is not easy at all, which suggests  that Hume is using current theories of anatomy as plausible explanations. A survey of Treatise 2’s  references to animal spirits in comparison with related treatments in the Dissertation on the Passions suggests that Hume recognized that he had been relying heavily on physiology in parts of the Treatise and wished to avoid appealing to this increasingly controversial hypothesis within physical anatomy.  The changes leave him without much explanation for how calm passions motivate or how we can  develop “strength of mind.” But he can still support a deterministic story of the operation of the  passions based on observed correlations, which is what he needs for grounding a theory of moral  judgment where our actions reliably follow those passions that themselves reliably spring from our  character. Hume’s later text supplies this grounding with more skeptical care.  

Hume’s sceptical methodology and the moderation of the passions 

Manuel Vásquez Villavicencio 

David Hume opens A Treatise of Human Nature with a quite surprising affirmation: the philosophy and  the sciences of his time, despite the achievements of the Scientific Revolution, are still in a state of  alarming imperfection. According to him, even “those systems, which have obtained the greatest credit,  and have carried their pretensions highest to accurate and profound reasoning” had only a “weak  foundation” and were the victims of innumerable contradictions (T intro 1). To remedy this situation,  I contend, Hume adopts a new approach to philosophical methodology as the foundation of his  science of human nature. This new approach to philosophical methodology materializes in a sceptical  methodology that Hume presents in the introduction to the Treatise. In this paper, I offer a reconstruction of this methodology to claim that along with considerations about the nature of the  appropriate research objects and explicative strategies for his science of man, Hume includes the  moderation of the passions playing a role in the motivation of philosophical research, especially  curiosity. I claim that this is the case because, although being the essential motor of our epistemic  pursuits, curiosity can become the source of important misconceptions and unpleasant emotional  states such as those which, based on the psychological theories of his time, Hume calls “melancholy”  and “despair.” Hume’s sceptical methodology thus understood is a response to the fact that, according  to him, the philosophers who preceded him did not sufficiently recognize the fundamental role of  human nature in all our epistemic pursuits. For him, I argue, one should give a privileged position to  the study of human nature while recognizing that human nature comprises deeply interwoven  intellectual, emotional, and social aspects.

How not to be an uncouth Monster? Hume and Buffier on Epistemic Role of the Sentiment of Humanity 

Anik Waldow 

Although Buffier is not normally considered an influence on Hume, new evidence suggests that Hume  possessed a copy of Buffier’s Grammaire françoise and had access to his Éléments de metaphysique during  his time in La Flèche. In the Éléments, as well as his influential Traité des premières verités, Buffier uses the  concept of the monster to specify the features of human reason and the need to accept the guidance  of the sentiment humain in the formation of epistemically significant judgements. In this paper I compare  Hume’s famous uncouth monster passage to Claude Buffier’s reflections on monsters as creatures  who lack thoughts and sentiments that other humans can share. The aim of this comparison is to  understand better the account of epistemic judgement Hume continued to rely on even after the sceptical despair of Book I. I argue that this account essentially revolves around the belief that we  have to acknowledge the other as a cognitive equal if we want to enter into an epistemic relationship  with the world. In forming this relationship, the sentiment of humanity and the ability to share  opinions and feelings across different individuals plays the crucial role of enabling the mind to self identify as reasonable and engage in a process of reflective correction. This type of correction is not  dissimilar to the correction that forms part of Hume’s general point of view. It involves the mind’s  readiness to take up different perspectives and to negotiate conflicting evidence by following the  guiding influence of a sentiment common to all. While this interpretation does not provide a solution  to the sceptical challenge, it details the features of a process through which commendable epistemic  judgements can be formed. 

Abstract of “Hume’s Real Riches” 

Charles Goldhaber 

While describing his “fortunes” and “disappointments” in “My Own Life,” Hume draws  attention to a feature of his character which he values above any degree of fame or material wealth.  This is his “naturally…cheerful and sanguine temper” (MOL 6, Mil xxxiv). An “open, social, and  cheerful humour” (MOL 21, Mil xl), Hume explains, buoyed him against reproach and obscurity,  encouraging continued study. He thus views it as “a turn of mind which it is more happy to possess,  than to be born to an estate of ten thousand a year” (MOL 9, Mil xxxvi). Hume’s appraisal here agrees  with the Sceptic’s in his four essays on human happiness: “A propensity to hope and joy is real riches:  One to fear and sorrow, real poverty” (Sc 22, Mil 167). 

Such remarks, I argue, suggest that Hume had a substantive conception of the good life,  consistent with his moral theory: A cheerful disposition is agreeable and useful to oneself and others,  and enables one’s other talents to be so as well. The remarks also raise important questions about the  point of philosophy. I argue that Hume viewed his philosophy as playing a moderate role in the inculcation of a cheerful disposition. Contra interpreters such as James Harris, Hume does not agree  with his Sceptic’s denial that it is “in a man’s power…to correct his temper” (Sc 28, Mil 169).  Philosophy can to a degree “regulate our sentiments” by “plac[ing] opposite characters in proper  contrast” (EHU 1.1, SBN 6), as Hume’s four essays on happiness do. And, in an ironic twist,  philosophy can correct our tempers by revealing its own limitations. This humiliation through  skeptical philosophy can “abate [the] pride” of those “inclined, from their natural temper, to  haughtiness and obstinacy,” encouraging an open and social “modesty” (EHU 12.24, SBN 162).


Meeting 41

We are using the same link as last spring. If you don’t have it, email us at

DATE: Tuesday, October 12

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Newton on Hypotheses

SPEAKERS: Areins Pelayo (University of Illinois) & Kirsten Walsh (University of Exeter)


The Metaphysical and Empirical Criteria in Newton’s Hypotheses

Areins Pelayo

Newton disdained ‘Cartesian hypotheses,’ yet admitted that hypotheses were useful if examinable  by experiments. Throughout his career, Newton tinkered with two theses: the corpuscularity of light and  the aether—two ideas that some commentators agree Newton treated as hypotheses. In this paper, I  propose six implicit criteria (four metaphysical and two empirical) that these two hypotheses satisfy,  which makes sense of Newton’s conflicting remarks on hypotheses. My proposal combines the partial  pictures of Cohen (1999, 1969), Dobbs (1991), Janiak (2008), Shapiro (1993), and Walsh (2014). The  four metaphysical criteria are (i) Non-contradiction, (ii) Parsimony, (iii) Mechanism, and (iv) Divine  Conformity. The two empirical criteria are (v) the Analogy of Nature and (vi) Experiment. I pay special  attention to how Newton’s theology and alchemy inform these criteria. For instance, because God could  not directly cause gravity, Newton speculated that an aether was its cause. I thus show, with these six  criteria, why it made sense for Newton to reject Cartesian hypotheses.

The Instrumental Roles of Newton’s Optical Hypotheses

Kirsten Walsh

Early modern experimental philosophers often appear to commit to, and utilise, corpuscular and mechanical hypotheses. This is somewhat mysterious: such hypotheses frequently appear to be simply assumed, odd for a research program which emphasises the careful experimental accumulation of facts. Isaac Newton was one such experimental philosopher, and his optical work is considered a clear example of the experimental method. Focusing on his optical investigations, I identify three roles for hypotheses. Firstly, Newton introduces a hypothesis to explicate his abstract theory. The purpose here is primarily to improve understanding or uptake of the theory. Secondly, he uses a hypothesis as a platform from which to generate some crucial experiments to decide between competing accounts. The purpose here is to suggest experiments in order to bring a dispute to empirical resolution. Thirdly, he uses a hypothesis to suggest an underlying physical cause, which he then operationalises and represents abstractly in his formal theory. The second and third roles are related in that they are both cases of scaffolding: hypotheses provide a temporary platform from which further experimental work and/or theorising can be carried out. In short, the entities and processes included in Newton’s optical hypothesis are not simply assumed hypothetical posits. Rather, they play instrumental roles in Newton’s experimental philosophy.

Meeting 40

We are using the same link as last spring. If you don’t have it, email us at

DATE: Tuesday, October 5

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Émilie du Châtelet’s Epistemic Foundations

SPEAKERS: Clara Carus (Paderborn University), Anne-Lise Rey (Université Paris Nanterre) & Aaron Wells (Paderborn University)


Émilie du Châtelet’s Account of Knowledge in Light of her Determination of ‘a Being’

Clara Carus

In this paper I aim to shed light on Du Châtelet’s account of knowledge through her understanding of ‘a being’. In paragraph 35 of her Institutions Physiques Du Châtelet determines a being [un Etre] as that which can exist and whose determinations do not entail a contradiction. Along with her predecessor Wolff, she deems the determination of a being (a ‘thing’ in Wolff) to rest on a rational principle of non-contradiction: if I can prove that an idea is free of contradiction it is possible and thus a being – if an idea entails a contradiction it is a chimera. A being thus need not be actually physically present to be a being – its beingness rests solely on its possibility on the basis of non-contradiction of its determinations. The actuality of a being on the other hand is explained on the basis of the principle of sufficient reason. Du Châtelet’s understanding of a being in its possibility and in its actuality subsequently serves as the foundation of her definition of essence, attributes and modes, as well as substance and paints a clear picture of her account of knowledge of the natural world, as I will present in this paper. 

Du Châtelet’s epistemic situation : Power and limits of knowledge

Anne-Lise Rey

The project of this intervention is to question the epistemic status of the knowing subject in “Institutions de physique”. It is a question of asking whether it stems from a form of epistemic impotence specific to our condition of being human endowed with a limited understanding or if this limitation is not, on the contrary, the starting point of a redefinition of our power to know.

Science and the Principle of Sufficient Reason: Du Châtelet’s Departures from Wolff

Aaron Wells

Emilie Du Châtelet takes the principle of sufficient reason to be one of the two foundations of all our reasoning. In this she agrees with Wolff, who is widely agreed to be a key influence on the substance–accident–mode ontology of her Institutions. So we might expect that Du Châtelet understands the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) along basically Wolffian lines.

In this talk I lay out some ways in which, to the contrary, Du Châtelet breaks with Wolff regarding the scope and epistemological content of the PSR. I also suggest, in a more promissory way, that these differences have major consequences for how Wolff and Du Châtelet conceive of the relationship between the PSR and science. A final goal of the paper is to give a clearer account of some basic features of Du Châtelet’s PSR.

First, regarding scope: Wolff takes the PSR to range over all possible properties, including simple positive properties that exist necessarily and immutably. These properties, roughly, are the building blocks of the essences of possible substances. Therefore, Wolff’s PSR governs necessary and not just contingent features of the world. Du Châtelet agrees with Wolff that there are some necessary and immutable simple positive properties. However, she takes the PSR to hold only in the realm of the contingent. Moreover, her PSR ranges in the first instance over propositions or judgments, and only indirectly, insofar as these propositions are true, over their referents).

Second, regarding epistemological content: Wolff takes the PSR to guarantee a grasp of real grounds: objective properties, and dependence relations among them, that our cognitive faculties can track. These dependence relations are transitive. By contrast, Du Châtelet takes the PSR to guarantee the possibility of answers to certain questions (namely how- and why-questions); these answers enable understanding. While sometimes the means to answering these questions will appeal to real grounds, such as causes, this is not always true. Strictly false hypotheses, or merely ideal mathematical claims, can enable understanding. When understanding is indexed to success in answering how- and why-questions, rather than to real grounding relations such as causation, there is no reason to expect that it will be transitive. 

To gesture at some broader implications: Wolff famously defines science as “the habit of demonstrating propositions, i.e., the habit of inferring conclusions by legitimate sequence from certain and immutable principles;” these principles typically involve real definitions that express essences (Discursus Praeliminarius §30). Wolff’s PSR plays a key role in backing his ambitious conception of science. The PSR is needed to prove that there are real essences, and that we can represent these essences and their connections in a unified deductive scientific theory. By contrast, since Du Châtelet’s PSR only pertains to the contingent, ranges over propositions rather than their referents, and fails to guarantee a grasp of transitive real grounding relations, it is not apt to back such an ambitious conception of science. And indeed, Du Châtelet does not advocate an ambitious Wolffian conception of science and explanation. Fully exploring how and why she does so, however, is a project for another time.