Meeting 40

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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. 

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