Meeting 36

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DATE: Tuesday, May 4

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: Plants in Early Modern Natural Philosophy: Mechanico/Chymical Investigations

SPEAKERS: Oana Matei (Vasile Goldis Western University of Arad & University of Bucharest) and Fabrizio Baldassarri (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice):


Particles and Spirits: Fundamental Processes of Nature in Mid-Seventeenth Century Studies of Plants

Oana Matei

Gardening, plant cultivation, experiments that involve vegetables, trees, herbs and flowers do not seem, at first glance, to be very philosophical. However, in England, in the second part of the seventeenth century, a significant number of natural philosophers (such as Robert Boyle, John Evelyn, Kenelm Digby, Nehemiah Grew, John Woodward) were actively involved in such activities and were not interested just in the utility that such experiments could bring. Their concern went even beyond the study of external and internal features of plants.  I propose to look at experiments with plants in the second part of the seventeenth century as attempts to investigate the fundamental processes of nature. Although sometimes with different backgrounds, theoretical assumptions and metaphysical allegiances, in their endeavours, naturalists used plants as laboratories that illustrate processes of nature and where fundamental transformations take place and can be investigated. Apart from the instrumental use of plants, mid-seventeenth century natural philosophers adopted an operational vocabulary emerged from experimental practices and that, in spite of their different theoretical presuppositions, allowed them to communicate experimental results and knowledge. To support this claim, I will discuss the cases of John Evelyn and John Beale in relation to other early fellows of the Royal Society, such as Robert Boyle and Kenelm Digby.

Herba Impatiens, Mimosa, and Tulips: Plants in Cartesian Mechanical Philosophy of Nature (1618-1662)

Fabrizio Baldassarri

In this paper, I aim to explore a crucial section of the study of botany, namely the mechanical understanding of plant life that developed in the Cartesian context. In presenting the case of a few specimens discussed by Descartes and early Cartesians, I show their attempts to provide a complete mechanization of their nature—namely the structure, functioning, scents, and flavor of plants. This is particularly interesting, insofar as Descartes’s natural philosophy has a theoretical and speculative approach to nature, devising a general framework in which all bodies could be encompassed, with little discussions of particular cases. The need to deal with such cases, generally triggered by Mersenne’s curiosity, at least for the case of Descartes himself, is therefore meaningful from both a methodological and a natural philosophical points of view. Embedded within mechanical interpretations of the life of plants, I present Descartes’s discussion of the ambretta flower and the Mimosa pudica, comparing this investigation with Beeckman’s description of the herba impatiens, another type of noli-me-tangere; then, I focus on Regius’s mechanical description of the Mimosa pudica; finally, I deal with Florent Schuyl’s description of tulips. I also show how much this mechanical approach to vegetal bodies influenced the science of plants in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Meeting 35

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DATE: Tuesday, April 27

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: Leibniz on Laws and Spiritual Causation

SPEAKERS: J. Brian Pitts (University of Lincoln, University of Cambridge, University of South Carolina) & Andrew Chignell (Princeton University)


The Mind-Body Problem and Conservation Laws: An Outline in Light of the Growth of Physical Understanding

J. Brian Pitts

The success of science, especially physics, is often invoked as contrasting with the degeneration of world-views involving immaterial persons, whether purely spiritual or embodied.  A perennially popular question from the 17th century to the 21st is how, if at all, human minds can interact with bodies in light of physical conservation laws.  (Recently popular property dualism, if not epiphenomenalist, faces a similar question.)  This question has survived and helped to bring about a transition from a time in which educated opinion generally took interactionist mind-body dualism for granted to a time in which mind-body interactionism is widely rejected.  Leibniz was an early proponent of this objection in defense of a non-interactionist dualist view, pre-established harmony, a view popular in 18th century Germany for a time before the recovery of interactionism. 

This work aims to survey how this conservation law issue has been treated over the centuries, especially how it did (or did not) reflect relevant theoretical and experimental knowledge pertaining to conservation laws, as well as how well it worked as an argument (which, e.g., ought not to beg the question).  Leibniz’s Theodicy presents his objection as due to a growth in physical knowledge about conserved quantities since Descartes’s day: whereas Descartes accepted a conserved quantity of motion, Leibniz accepted a conservation of a directed vector quantity (momentum) as well as vis viva (an ancestor of energy), which was controversial.  In the 19th century, energy conservation was accepted.  In the later 19th century with the rise of electromagnetic waves, the handful of global conservation laws associated with point particles acting at a distance was replaced (in serious physics) with local conservation laws for each part of the world separately; in favorable circumstances the local laws can be integrated into a global law.  The local laws are (in those favorable circumstances) logically stronger, but they also permit milder failure modes.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, a connection between conserved quantities and symmetries of physical laws came to be understood, especially in connection with the principle of least action culminating in Noether’s work in 1918, which also included a converse:  a symmetry implies a conserved quantity and vice versa.  Also quantum mechanics appeared, with unclear implications.

Besides Leibniz, the issue engaged Euler, Kant, Maxwell, Helmholtz, Broad, and others, and continues to appear frequently in the contemporary philosophy of mind.  While the understanding available from physics has grown or in some cases changed, the philosophical treatment has remained largely static in roughly the physics of the 1860s among both friends and foes of interactionist dualism (with occasional exceptions).  General Relativity, now over a century old, also affects the discussion, albeit not in ways previously proposed.  This paper aims to survey the growth of knowledge on the conservation law mind-body issue. 

Leibniz on Miracles in the Best Possible World 

Andrew Chignell

Leibniz makes repeated efforts to stretch the frame of his rationalist-determinist picture to accommodate the traditional portrait of God as miraculously intervening in the natural world.  His goal is effectively to save the appearances of religious doctrine (or at least avoid direct conflict with biblical orthodoxy) while sticking to his metaphysical principles.  In this paper I consider Leibniz’s way of putting these two commitments together and argue that it is coherent: he can have his miracle doctrine and eat his deterministic cake too.  However, the combination results in a certain amount of epistemic inhospitableness, at least for finite minds.  This raises questions about whether it could really obtain in the best possible world. 

Meeting 34

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DATE: Tuesday, April 20

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: Hadot, Spiritual Exercises, and Philosophy as a Way of Life

SPEAKERS: Sorana Corneanu (University of Bucharest), Dana Jalobeanu (University of Bucharest), Paul Lodge (University of Oxford)


Reading, meditation and enactment: Hadot’s formative exegetics

Dana Jalobeanu (University of Bucharest)

In my paper I am trying to reassess some of Pierre Hadot’s contributions to the history of philosophy from the perspective of the ‘practice turn’ we are all living through in the later years (especially those of us dealing with history of science). I will be looking at a particular class of spiritual exercises (“imaginative spiritual exercises”) and show what we gain if we think of them as recorded (philosophical) practices. 

“Spiritual exercise” is an umbrella term designating a wide array of practices of reading, research and meditation having in common a personal, existential engagement, described in terms of an imaginative, emotional and cognitive repositioning of the practitioner with respect to “the whole” (Nature, or Universe). Spiritual exercises constitute, according to Hadot, one of the trademarks of a philosophical way of life. Much has been said about these spiritual exercises, and Hadot followers and critiques attempted to define, classify and describe them. So, in looking at a particular class of spiritual exercises I am following in the footsteps of those who attempted to clarify and classify spiritual exercises. 

Meanwhile, I also intend to address a more general set of problems having to do with our ways of reading and interpreting texts. I begin with Hadot’s proposal for a “formative exegetics,” i.e., a way of reading based on two guiding principles: 1) ancient texts record philosophical practices (spiritual exercises) and 2) these recordings are done through a process of “bricolage” through which one re-assembles set building blocks (references, quotes, formulas, topics coming from a limited number of sources). Reading becomes thus a process of disentangling, from the bricolage, the philosophical practices (i.e., spiritual exercises) recorded in a text.  In my talk I will try to put these principles at work, showing on a set of choice examples what are the steps of Hadot’s  “formative exegetics,” and what insights do we gain if we read texts in this way. 

Lived logic: the discipline of assent and the cure of error

Sorana Corneanu (University of Bucharest)

Philosophy as a way of life, Hadot tells us, is the counterpart of theoretical philosophical discourse. If, according to the Stoics, for example, the latter is comprised of logic, physics and ethics as bodies of arguments, the former consists in living logic, physics and ethics, i.e., in engaging in the types of practical exercises that will train us to think and speak well, to contemplate the cosmos, and to engage in just actions. In this talk, I would like to take up the ‘lived logic’ component of the art of living as Hadot construed it. What does it mean for logic to be lived? In other words, how are we to understand the idea that the stuff of logic – our thinking, judging, reasoning, arguing, etc. – can be taken up as a transforming practice? Moreover, is this supposed to be a purely intellectual practice, or are there crossovers with the other quarters of the mind, such as the passions and the imagination? I propose to investigate these questions with the help of Epictetus on the discipline of assent in the Discourses and Galen on the cure of error in The passions and errors of the soul, to which I will add some comments on the historiographic and conceptual gains that looking at logic as a practice can afford. 

Philosophy as a 21st Century Way of Life?

Paul Lodge

The expression ‘philosophy as a way of life’ emerged in the writings of Pierre Hadot primarily as a tool for making sense of some of those who are standardly referred to as ‘ancient philosophers’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, it has since served as a source of inspiration for how philosophy might be conceived, and indeed rejuvenated, today. After introducing a recent project which has this as its express aim, I discuss an article by two of the people involved in it, Stephen Grimm and Caleb Cahoe, in which an attempt is made to articulate three principles that should underwrite such a conception.

Meeting 33

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

DATE: Tuesday, April 13

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: From Axim to Axum: Two Early Modern African philosophers

SPEAKERS: Jonathan Egid (King’s College London), Dwight K. Lewis Jr. (University of Central Florida)


In Search of Zera Yacob: On an Early Modern Ethiopian Philosopher, and the Question of Whether or not he Existed

Jonathan Egid (King’s College London)

The Hatata Zera Yacob is a philosophical autobiography composed some time in the 1620’s by a Tigrayan däbtära – an itinerant and unordained scholar of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. It presents a system of rationalistic naturalism in ethics and epistemology, based around the principle of ‘the goodness of natural creation’. The author develops a cosmological argument, a kind of theodicy and criticises established religion for its irrationality and unnaturalness, demonstrating familiarity with both Catholic and Orthodox theology, as well as Islam, Judaism and ‘the religion of the Indians’. He sketches a naturalistic ethics based on the idea of moral vision; an approach developed into a social ethics by his follower Wadla Heywat in a companion treatise.

It is, according to some, one of the most important and unfairly neglected classics of world philosophy, the first autobiography and first philosophical treatise in sub-Saharan Africa, and a precursor of the most cherished ideals of the European Enlightenment. Or is it? In 1916 and 1920 the Italian orientalist and colonial administrator Carlo Conti Rossini published two articles apparently demonstrating that the work was a forgery, composed over two centuries later by the Capuchin missionary Giusto d’Urbino. Most philologists came to agree with Conti Rossini’s assessment, and many still do, but after the publication of Claude Sumner’s five-volume Ethiopian Philosophy in the seventies, many have come to reembrace the Hatata as an important work of African philosophy. Today the scholars are divided on the authorship of the text and the ongoing debate between ‘sceptics’ and ‘traditionalists’ marked by a certain testiness.

This talk outlines the philosophical content of the text, and presents an interpretation of the work as a regionally inflected form of early modern rationalism, proposing an account of a ‘connected history’ of rationalism across western and central Eurasia. I am interested in discussing what the debate over the authenticity of this (possibly) early modern Ethiopian philosophical text tells us about the nature of philosophical authorship, the historiography of ‘world’ philosophy and how we should approach texts of uncertain provenance as philosophers and as historians of philosophy.

Anton Wilhelm Amo: Between Two Philosophies 

Dwight K. Lewis Jr. (University of Central Florida)

Diversity and the concept of race are, or should be, central concerns both for philosophy and in our current political reality. Within academic philosophy and our global community, these concerns are expressed in the growing demand for the representation of marginalized peoples and ideas. Until recently, historians of philosophy, have not spent the time necessary to uncover racialized philosophers or to thoroughly engage the history of philosophy in a way that aims to reattune philosophy to these gaps. By reattuning philosophy to these gaps, and by mitigating philosophy’s continuous disengagement with particular concepts and people, we have the opportunity to broaden our epistemic scope, philosophical reflections, and be a part of justice creating. 

This talk aims to deepen our philosophical reflections by engaging the philosophical ideas, legacy, and life of Anton Wilhelm Amo. Amo – the first West African to obtain an advanced degree at a European university – graduated from the University of Wittenberg in Germany, then lectured on natural philosophy at three German universities and published three philosophical texts. Engaging Amo’s philosophical work is as crucial as engaging with his personal narrative because philosophy breathes out of a lived experience: it is fundamentally phenomenal, dialectical, and constituted contextually. For this reason, philosophical works and ideas gain value and proximity to truth when tied to a philosopher’s biography and the surrounding philosophical context.

To accomplish these aims this talk will need to be embedded in the important context of Amo’s life. We will engage Amo’s philosophy and narrative to reveal his connection to Western and Africana philosophy. His connection to Western philosophy is quite clear, but it is not so clear in relation to Africana philosophy. We will ask. Does Amo do Africana philosophy? In what ways is his philosophy Africana philosophy? I will conclude by bringing this argument forward and posing some questions about canon formation in relation to Africana philosophy. Does western philosophy have to be at the foundation of Africana philosophy for it to be accepted and acceptable in western philosophy? How has western philosophy shaped the perspective of Africana philosophy? 

Meeting 32

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

DATE: Tuesday, April 6

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: Picturing Wonder – Rendering the Counter-Intuitive Visible in Early Modern Philosophy  

ORGANIZER: Stephanie Koerner (Liverpool School of Architecture, UK)

SPEAKERS: Susanna Cecilia Berger (USC), Glenn W. Most (University of Chicago), Edward Wouk (University of Manchester)


Today there is quite widespread agreement that new insights of the histories of early modern science and philosophy can throw important light on long standing problems in the historical study of art. However, much less attention has been given to possibility that new insights of the cultural convictions that motivated critical innovations in picturing ‘the more than meets the eye’ can help address still outstanding historical and philosophical issues raised but still not directly addressed by extensive rethinking ‘illustrations’ in early modern science and philosophy (e.g., Biagre 1996; Jones and Galison 1998; Doniger et al 2016). For instance, what were the roots of the emphasis that such iconic figures in mainstream accounts of early modern science and philosophy as Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and Newton placed on the indispensable roles of pictures in making discoveries about and demonstrating the plausibility of seemingly counter-intuitive things and processes? This workshop introduces several lines of research, which broach this broad question from perspectives offered by a hypothesis that quite a number of early modern philosophers’ perspectives on the significance of innovations in picturing the ‘more than meets the eye’ (or seemingly counter-intuitive things and processes) may have shared roots with what Dante called “visible speech” in his praise of Giotto’s achievements in art in conceptions of ‘wonder’ in ancient epic poetry and philosophy.  

Martin Kemp’s path breaking book, The Science of Art (1990) provides this workshop with useful points of departure. One comes from the chapter on “Perspective from Albrecht Dürer to Galileo,” and brings together two observations. On the one hand, Kemp (1990: 92) stresses that during Galileo’s times innovations in the production and application of pictorial realist techniques in the arts may have been exceeded by those taking place at the heart of new lines of astronomical, geographic, engineering and philosophical practices. But, “the evidence of the period… indicates that it was only when the painters’ techniques had been thoroughly absorbed into a different functional context and placed on a methodological base” that they became essential to these fields’ development. Put in terms used above, it may not have been until early modern scientists, engineers, producers of atlases of all sorts, and philosophers had “absorbed” the wider relevance of picturing practices that they developed their own convictions concerning and usages of picturing ‘the more than meets the eye’ to investigate things and processes that exceeded ordinary perception (or seemed to be counter-intuitive – even impossible), and to demonstrate the plausibility, for instance, of Galileo’s telescopic astronomy and Descartes’ mechanical philosophy.  

This workshop also picks up on issues raised in the session, “Wonder in Early Modern Philosophy,” in the Princeton-Bucharest Seminar Series (29 September 2020). Emphasis falls upon questions about convictions concerning – and ways of using – pictures in early modern philosophical engagements with ‘wonder’.


Introduction – Seeing the Counter-intuitive in Early Modern Science and Philosophy Anew

Stephanie Koerner (Liverpool School of Architecture, UK)

This introduction uses examples of ‘picturing wonder’ (the counter-intuitive or ‘more than meets the eye’) in ancient Greek visual culture, Aligheri Dante, Giotto di Bondone, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei  and Rene Descartes.

Wonder (thauma, θαῦμα) in Ancient Greek Epic Poetry and Philosophy

Glenn W. Most (University of Chicago)

It has long been conventional to attribute roots of associations of wonder with the tasks of philosophy  to Plato and Aristotle. However, numerous significant connotations of wonder had deep roots in early Greek epic, in which words of the family θαῦμα (thauma) occur fairly often to denote a specific variety of joyous, overwhelmed surprise. Derived from θεάομαι (theaomai), a verb that means “to gaze upon” but also “to contemplate, to observe,” these terms indicate a rapturous, astonished admiration: never for an unexpected outcome, or indeed for an event of any sort, but instead always for some entity, a person or an object. Emphasis often falls on attributing this admiration to a sensory perception, originally sight, though with time this is enlarged to include hearing; in most cases, the subjects that feel the surprise are one or more human beings and the single, indeed singular object that provokes it is divine in nature or origin or fabrication– or else monstrous – in any case something that far transcends ordinary humanity. This presentation provides an introductory exploration of something of the diversity of connotations and functions of ‘wonder’ in ancient Greek epic poetry and philosophy.

Printing the Sacred Image in Dominicus Lampsonius’s Picture Theory

Edward Wouk (University of Manchester)

The Bruges-born humanist Dominicus Lampsonius is widely regarded as one of the first historians of Netherlandish art. Yet, his picture theory, developed around the medium of print, has hitherto received little attention. This talk focuses on Lampsonius’s seemingly counter-intuitive theorisation of the printed image– hitherto dismissed for its ephemerality – as “immortal.” It argues that the early introduction of Counter Reformation measures to reform the visual arts opened a space for Lampsonius to reconceive hierarchies among artistic media, practices, and regional traditions. It further situates his concept of “immortality” within a second-wave print revolution implicated in new processes of canon formation.

On the Counter-Intuitive Popularity of Anamorphic Images in Counter-Reformation Circles

Susanna Cecilia Berger (USC)

In late sixteenth-century Italy, the rhetorical foundations of sacred visual art were laid out directly by Gabriele Paleotti (1522–1597), the Bishop of Bologna, who wrote in his famous post-Tridentine treatise that images “are supposed to move the hearts of observers to devotion and the true cult of God”. Given the long-standing elevation of clarity in the West from Aristotle onwards as a rhetorical virtue and the concomitant criticism of obscurity as an obstacle to persuasive discourse, the popularity in Counter-Reformation circles of anamorphic images, which plunge observers into states of perceptual confusion, is somewhat counter-intuitive. This talk argues that the contrast between confusion and clarity evoked by anamorphoses made the experience of distinctness or clear perception without obscurity particularly palpable. I also contend that visual discernment gained through anamorphoses was understood to assist in a movement toward an experience of an inner, spiritual discernment.

Biagre, Brian. S. ed. 1996. Picturing Knowledge: Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art and Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Doniger, Wendy, Galison, Peter and Susan Neiman (eds.) 2016. What Reason Promises. Essays on Reason, Nature and History. Berlin: Degruyter.
Jones, C. and Galison, P. (eds.) 1998. Picturing Science and Producing Art. London: Routledge.
Kemp, Martin 1990. The Science of Art. Optical themes from Brunellischi to Seurat. Yale University Press.

Meeting 31

We are back to our regular time: 1 PM EST which is again 8 PM in Bucharest.

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

DATE: Tuesday, March 30

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: Spinoza on Becoming More Rational

SPEAKERS: Luis Ramos-Alarcón (UACM), Jack Stetter (Loyola University New Orleans), Jacob Zellmer (University of California, San Diego)


Spinoza on Language

Luis Ramos-Alarcón (Autonomous University of Mexico City)

Some scholars have understood that Spinoza’s extreme rationalism, nominalism, and conventionalism make his philosophy incapable to use language for philosophical and scientific purposes; insofar he considered language a source of inadequate knowledge, falsity, and error. Thus Spinoza finds a contradiction in his inevitable use of language to express his philosophy. This paper has four aims: first, propose an explanation on why language is inadequate knowledge for Spinoza; second, present differences between inadequacy, falsity, and language error; third, argue on the Spinozian use of the geometrical method as a solution for the adequate use of language in philosophical and scientific work; finally, show the problems and limits of this solution for metaphysical discussions.

Spinoza’s Reign of Ignorance Thesis

Jack Stetter (Loyola University New Orleans)

The paper interrogates the way Spinoza frequently distinguishes between philosophers and non-philosophers, according to which there are the lucky few who are guided by reason, and then there the rest of us, the vulgus or plebs. For the purposes of this talk, I turn to the manner that we might think Spinoza could try to justify this view in light of his conception of the conditions under which the imagination effectively supports the work of reason. As I see it, the puzzle is to know how Spinoza can maintain that we form fewer ideas of bodily affections in the imagination that support the work of reason than we form ideas of bodily affections in the imagination that impede the work of reason. Turning to Ethics Part 4, I show that the answer comes in the form of Spinoza sorting between the (fewer) number of things he thinks we can conceive insofar as they are “useful” to us or “agree” with us (that is to say, the things we conceive insofar as they share properties in common with human nature) as compared with the (greater) number of things Spinoza thinks we conceive that “disagree” with us and to which we must “accommodate” ourselves. I conclude by speculating that Spinoza may have been ultimately dissatisfied with this arrangement. Thus, I suggest that Spinoza took to writing the Political Treatise as a way of developing a more robust account of how, by means of collective action, the number of things which we conceive insofar as they agree with us can be significantly increased, democracy being the ideal candidate for the development of a more extensive reason-supporting regime of imagination.

Spinoza and the Problem of Imperfect Rationality

Jacob Zellmer (University of California, San Diego)

Some commentators have argued that philosophy for Spinoza can undermine the faith beliefs that are required by most people for virtuous living, that is, Spinoza’s “doctrines of universal faith” (DUF). As such, imperfectly rational persons who venture into philosophy may have their faith destroyed but will not be rational enough to live virtuously by the guidance of reason; they will be left morally adrift by Spinoza’s philosophy. I argue for a way of reading Spinoza that solves this problem. First, Spinoza’s DUF are open to a wide range of interpretation. The doctrines themselves are minimal claims which are neither true nor false. Nevertheless, interpretations of the DUF (i.e., specifications of the content of the DUF) can support a non-anthropomorphic God and so be consistent with Spinoza’s philosophy. Second, a non-anthropomorphic God can be obeyed (i.e., God can be understood as prescribing virtuous living) because the “Word of God” is written on each person’s heart. Third, the motivation to obey does not diminish as one grows more rational. Belief in Spinoza’s “fundamental tenet of theology,” which claims that obedience is sufficient for salvation, provides motivation to continue obeying and living virtuously even while philosophy and theology separately yet cooperatively revise interpretations of the DUF. Putting these arguments together: An imperfectly rational person who is growing more rational will be motivated to revise their interpretations of the DUF without losing faith in the doctrines themselves. Given that obedience requires belief in the DUF, the imperfectly rational person can continue obeying and living virtuously.

Meeting 30

NOTE that this session is at 1 PM EST as usual, which means an hour earlier than usual for Europe (7 PM in Bucharest). America moves to Daylight Saving Time two weeks before Europe does.

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

DATE: Tuesday, March 23

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 7 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: From Descartes’ Matter and Laws to Cartesian Cosmology

SPEAKERS: Mihnea Dobre (University of Bucharest), Andreas Hüttemann (Köln University), Nicholas Westberg (Boston College)


Cartesian Matter and Causality: Revisited

Nicholas Westberg (Boston College)

Andrew Platt argues (One True Cause,OUP 2020) that Cartesian matter is a “causal power” of material motion and change. His interpretation is based in the passages about laws of nature in the Principles of Philosophy (2.36 – 2.53) which appear to treat bodies as explanations of motion and change. This paper challenges Platt’s reading on two points. First, Platt’s interpretive procedure is questionable. He attributes causal properties to bodies based upon the descriptions of bodies given by the laws of nature passages. I argue that this use of these passages is not warranted. Second, there are metaphysical reasons why Cartesian matter cannot be a cause of motion or change. If we distinguish between true causes and necessary conditions for causation, we realize that Cartesian matter cannot be a cause. (It is largely because Platt does not draw this distinction that he is forced to interpret matter as being causal.) As I argue, one criterion for determining whether something is a cause is determining whether it necessitates anything. Based upon the account of res extensa from Part 1 and Part 2 of the Principles, it seems that matter cannot meet this criterion. Matter thus cannot be a cause. My reading of the Principles is corroborated by Descartes’ correspondences with Regius and More, where he appears to rule out the possibility of matter being a “power” or a “principle of action.”  I conclude by explaining that Platt’s insights can be preserved with the notion of a necessary condition. A necessary condition is still explanatory, though it is not a true cause. Matter is thus best interpreted as the necessary condition for the application or operation of a law of nature in a particular physical situation.

On the Relevance of God’s Immutability for Descartes’ Derivation of the Laws of Motion

Andreas Hüttemann (Köln University)

It is frequently argued that Descartes deduces his laws of motion from God’s immutability. In this paper I will argue that while the appeal to immutability clearly does play a role in Descartes’s argument for establishing his laws of motion its role is different from what it is usually supposed to be.What Descartes derives directly from the consideration of God’s immutability is (i) the immutability of laws and (ii) a methodological rule that gives him a criterion to single out the correct hypotheses about the content of those laws which account for what he calls ‘plain experiences’

Natural Philosophy and Cartesian cosmology: Rohault and the popularization of Cartesianism

Mihnea Dobre (ICUB-Humanities, University of Bucharest)

This paper aims to explore one type of dissemination of Cartesian natural philosophy in the second half of the seventeenth century. It focuses on the reception of Cartesian cosmology and offers an analysis of the interplay between natural philosophy and cosmology in the works of Jacques Rohault (1618-1672). Famous for his popular conferences in the 1660s Paris, Rohault published his natural philosophy in the Traité de physique (1671). The book had a tremendous success and was quickly translated into Latin (1674), with a second Latin translation in 1697, prepared by Samuel Clarke. Not only that the famous Newtonian took the time to translate the Cartesian text, but he annotated it in several subsequent editions, up to the 1720s, when the first English translation was printed (1702, 1710, 1718, and 1723). This paper examines Rohault’s account of Cartesian cosmology in the second part of the treatise. I discuss the various sets of annotations to the treatise (Antoine Le Grand’s and Samuel Clarke’s), but also the development of Rohault’s own views. The main goal of the paper is to provide a plausible reading for the diversity of early modern editions of Rohault’s Traité as an updated textbook aimed to introduce a general public into the new cosmology. I examine Rohault’s use of recent astronomical observations in his treatise, and how Le Grand and Clarke complemented the text with their sets of notes. At a more general level, this analysis offers a more nuanced view regarding the spread of Cartesian natural philosophy and cosmology in the early modern period.

Meeting 29

NOTE that this session and the one next week are at 1 PM EST as usual, but this means they are an hour earlier than usual for Europe (7 PM in Bucharest). America moves to Daylight Saving Time two weeks before Europe does.

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

DATE: Tuesday, March 16

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 7 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: Cudworth on Matter, Mind, Animals, and Selves

SPEAKERS: Anna Corrias (University of Toronto), Matthew Leisinger (York University), Marleen Rozemond (University of Toronto)


Cudworth against Thinking Matter

Marleen Rozemond, University of Toronto

In his True Intellectual System of the Universe, Cudworth argued energetically and extensively against the possibility of thinking matter.  He did so by relying on a mechanistic, or what he called “atomistic” notion of matter and the Cartesian line of thought that the properties or states of matter must be modification of its nature.  Mental states fail this test.   Central to his argument is his reliance on the “ex nihilo” principle: nothing can come from nothing.

Cudworth on the Souls of Animals and their Afterlife

Anna Corrias,  Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Toronto.

Against Descartes’s notorious view (as received by his contemporaries) that animals are machines, Cudworth argues that animals share with humans the sensitive and vegetative faculties of the soul. Being incapable of thinking, animal souls are certainly epistemologically inferior to human souls. However, they are no less substantial. Against those who argue that substantiality implies immortality, Cudworth presents a rich account of the afterlife of animal souls which, he says, survive the death of the body but only for a short period of time.

Cudworth’s Theory of the Self

Matthew Leisinger, York University

In his (largely unpublished) freewill manuscripts, Cudworth develops a novel theory of the self, which he identifies with “the soul as comprehending itself” or “the whole soul reduplicated upon itself”. I focus in particular on the relationship between Cudworth’s theory of the self and his views about reflective consciousness, reflection, and consciousness. I argue for three key claims: (i) reflective consciousness is partially constitutive of the Cudworthian self; (ii) the Cudworthian self is able to reflect upon itself; (iii) not all conscious states of the soul properly constitute the Cudworthian self.

Meeting 28

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

DATE: Tuesday, March 9

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: ‘Say not that you are a light unto yourself’: Seventeenth Century Conceptions of Humility in Epistemology and Politics

SPEAKERS: Julie Walsh (Wellesley College) and Eric Stencil (Utah Valley University)


In Sermon 67, Section 8, Saint Augustine mediates on pride and humility. He writes:

“Of course, as far as you are concerned, and your capacities, you are in darkness. I mean, what else is being foolish, but being in mental darkness? In any case, that’s what he [God] said of them: Calling themselves wise, they became foolish. And before they [the proud] said this, what else had he [God] said about them? And their foolish minds were darkened (Rom 1:21). Say that you are not your own light. At the most you are an eye; you are not light. What’s the use of an open and healthy eye, if there’s no light? So say it; you don’t get any light from yourself, and cry out what is written, You will light my lamp, O Lord; with your light, Lord, you will light up my darkness (Ps 18:28). I mean, all I have is darkness; you are the light dispelling the darkness, lighting up me; it’s not from me that light comes to me, but the only original, uncreated light is in you.” (page 219)

In this sermon, Augustine’s topic is Matthew 11:25: “I confess to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the knowing, and revealed them to little ones.” The question driving section 8 is “Who are the little ones?” Augustine’s answer: the humble. On Augustine’s view, to call yourself wise is to become foolish. In our key text above, Augustine tells his reader that those who take themselves to be wise have their minds darkened; God reveals nothing to them. Instead, God favors the “little ones,” the humble, with light (219). The humble see that they are eyes, not lights. The proud see themselves as lights, that is, as sources of power and knowledge, which makes them fools.

We take Augustine to be underlining the importance of what we will call ontological humility. Humility about the nature of one’s ontological status, that is, being, means acknowledging and accepting the limitations that come with being the sort of being that one is. For us humans, our being is finite. So, to practice ontological humility is to structure our aims and methods according to our limitations as finite beings with finite faculties and capabilities. Other species of humility fall under the genus of ontological humility. Of central interest to us in this paper is epistemic humility, which requires that we be humble about the sorts of things we can know, and a subset of epistemic humility, political humility, which calls for humility with respect to how much finite beings can know about the appropriate way to organize a community.

We look at three understudied moments in early modern philosophy when the call for these sorts of humility are underlined. First, we look at epistemic humility in Pierre Nicole and Antoine Arnauld’s Port Royal Logic. Both Nicole and Arnauld were associated with the Jansenist movement—a Catholic movement partially borne of a Cornelius Jansen’s Augustinus. While the general Cartesian nature of the Port Royal Logic’s epistemology is unmistakably Cartesian, we argue that the authors offer a mitigated scope of reason on account of their commitment to ontological humility. Second, we turn to Malebranche, looking at (1) his explicit exhortation of Augustine’s dictum in The Search after Truth, and (2) on what we take to be a related appeal to political humility, which comes out most explicitly in his Treatise on Ethics. Third, we look to the writings of the Port Royal nuns, and show that their preoccupation with Augustinian-style humility is focused on feminist political humility, in particular with respect to their involvement in the debate over the condemnation of Jansen’s writings.

Our discussion of the assorted treatments of humility in the Logic, Search, Treatise and in the writings of the Port Royal nuns reveal, that the seventeenth-century European revival of interest in Augustine’s work was not monolithic.In particular, we wish to show that the call for humility from Arnauld and Nicole originates in their desire to embrace much of the emerging Cartesian world view, while holding on to their theological commitment to the rational opacity of theological matters; for Malebranche, the call is tied to his interest in demonstrating that human beings are utterly dependent on God, which, in turn, forces his hand to show how such dependence is consistent with the empirical fact that in a political system, human beings are dependent,at least to a certain extent, on one another; for the Port Royal nuns, the call is tied to their efforts to assert spiritual and intellectual autonomy in the face of demands for obedience from the archbishop of Paris. All told, among the broadly Augustinian tradition in 17th century Europe, far from being a notion confined to ethical theory, conceptions of humility permeate a range of philosophical questions.

Meeting 27


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

DATE: Tuesday, March 2

TIME: 1:30 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8:30 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: Parallel Influences: Ancient Greek Geometry in the Port-Royal Logic and Spinoza’s Ethics

SPEAKERS: Laura Kotevska (University of Sydney) and Raffi Krut-Landau (University of Pennsylvania)


In this session, we describe some of the underappreciated consequences of early moderns’ examination of ancient Greek geometry. Focusing on Arnauld and Nicole’s Logic, and Spinoza’s Ethics, we show that Euclid inspired insights beyond mathematics that encompassed reflections on reasoning well and the nature of eternity. 

Geometry and the Art of Thinking

Laura Kotevska

Dismayed by “encounter[ing] nothing but faulty minds who have practically no ability to discern the truth”, Arnauld and Nicole penned the Logique, ou l’art de penser. Their principal goal was to cultivate their readers’ good sense, mental accuracy, and capacity for self-understanding. The Elements of Euclid, I argue, played a significant role in Arnauld and Nicole’s prescriptions for thinking well. The Port-Royalists looked to the Elements as the standard of demonstrative certainty and to geometry as the science, par excellence, for accustoming the mind to sound demonstrations and arriving at the truth. A discussion of what this meant for the seventeenth-century reader of the Logique concludes the talk.

Hidden Figures: Spinoza on Geometrical Construction and Potentiality

Raphael Krut-Landau

Spinoza famously believes that everything that can exist, must. Nevertheless, he sneaks into his metaphysics certain things that could exist, but don’t. Or so I will argue. I make my case by discussing two unnoticed sources of Spinoza’s metaphysics. The first is Aristotle’s theory of geometrical construction, the influence of which shows in Ethics 2p8s. The second is Proclus’s commentary on the first book of Euclid’s Elements, the influence of which can be seen in 5p31s, where Spinoza says he will fictionally describe the eternal mind “as if it were now beginning to be.”