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.

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