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.”

Meeting 26

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

DATE: Tuesday, February 23

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

PANEL: Panpsychism in the Renaissance

SPEAKERS: Paul Richard Blum (Loyola University Maryland), Elisabeth Blum (Palacký University Olomouc), Tomáš Nejeschleba (Palacký University Olomouc), Martin Žemla (Charles University, Prague)


  1. A lecture (20-30 minutes) by Paul Richard Blum on the metaphor of God in Giordano Bruno.
    Hans Blumenberg stated that philosophical theology cannot avoid what he called absolute metaphors because, by definition, it cannot reach the ultimate referent the unspeakable God. Metaphor is all there is. Therefore, images are concepts of reason, and ideas, substances, attributes, etc. are to be seen as images and, consequently, they share the properties of imagination such as relationality. Seeing God in images and metaphors, therefore, is not inappropriate but, rather, the divine way of knowing. This has consequences for the structure of the world: for Bruno, cognition is idealized causation to the extent that the cognitive principles are also the powers of reality. This amounts to panpsychism. Panpsychism is more than some sort of animation in the world; it is the intelligence of creation. This intelligence – in the active and passive meaning – is what makes the world real and the condition for the understandability of the world and the divine. Therefore, panpsychism and pantheism are two aspects of the same philosophy, in which ‘god’ is a metaphor for the recognizability of the world, and things are metaphors for the presence of God.
  2. Comments and contributions to the discussion by
    • Martin Žemla on Paracelsus: The “light of nature” and the “signaturae rerum” are concepts that imply all things to be endowed with an animating principle.
    • Elisabeth Blum on Tommaso Campanella: Panpsychism relates to magic, theism, pantheism or panentheism, and the Christian notion of a trinitarian God.
    • Tomáš Nejeschleba on Jan Amos Comenius: Comenius borrowed the term “panspychia” from Francesco Patrizi; panpsychism was the philosophical background of his pedagogy.

Meeting 25

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

DATE: Tuesday, February 16

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

PANEL: Exclusion and Inclusion in the History of Philosophy

SPEAKERS: Karen Detlefsen (University of Pennsylvania), Daria Drozdova (HSE University, Moscow), Chike Jeffers (Dalhousie University)

CHAIR: Lisa Shapiro (Simon Fraser University)


Early Modern canon in Russian/Soviet textbooks on history of philosophy

Daria Drozdova, HSE University, Moscow

In the talk I’m going to address the question of the relationship between the historical narratives and canons in history of philosophy. I will examine approaches to teaching the history of early modern philosophy in Russian and Soviet universities in the 19th and 20th centuries, using several textbooks and lecture courses as examples. In the 19th century, the teaching of the history of Early Modern philosophy in Russia was deeply influenced by the German-speaking tradition. At the same time there were numerous approaches to how the history of philosophy and its internal logic should be interpreted. After 1917, a single dogmatic tradition of interpreting and teaching Western philosophy in a Marxist vein gradually crystallized in the Soviet Union. The resulting modification of the understanding of philosophy and its history had hardly affected the list of those who were considered to be the greatest minds of the Early Modern philosophy (Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume), although it has changed their evaluation according to their contribution to the development of dialectical materialism. More significant changes can be found in the interpretation of prior or subsequent philosophy. Taking Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno as examples, I will examine how changes in the dominant narrative alter their significance in the scholar representation.

Cugoano and Early Modern Philosophy

Chike Jeffers, Dalhousie University

This paper will explore the question of how to situate Africana figures in the story of early modern philosophy by focusing on the example of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano. I will discuss the usefulness of comparing Cugoano with other early modern thinkers like John Locke and Jonathan Edwards. I will also discuss how Cugoano situates his work within a nascent tradition of black writing in English that is equally relevant to understanding his philosophical contribution.

Method, Genre and the Scope of Philosophy in Early Modern European Women Philosophers 

Karen Detlefsen, University of Pennsylvania 

Philosophy today recognizes specific genres and methods as distinctively philosophical. These are relatively recent constructions. Philosophy, as practiced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe did not always conform to these contemporary disciplinary norms. By reading these norms—for example, those that characterize analytic philosophy—back onto the philosophical past, the fullness of that past is occluded. Anchoring our understanding of philosophy in the early modern period not in genres (e.g. treatises) or in methods (e.g. rational argumentation toward a conclusion), but rather in content (i.e. questions or concerns that are distinctively philosophical), allows us to better recover the philosophical contributions of erstwhile neglected figures. Further, understanding an author’s audience and purposes can help inform why the author might have used the genres and methods that she used in order to produce her philosophy. 

In this paper, I examine a few especially telling examples of the variety of ways in which women in early modern Europe produced their philosophy. In the process, I argue that philosophical writing in this period appears in a wide range of genres, utilizing a wide range of methods, and that a full history of our discipline must acknowledge these contributions to the history of our discipline. 

Meeting 24

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

DATE: Tuesday, February 9

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

PANEL : Leibniz on Corporeal Substance and Organism: Between A Priori Reasoning and Empirical Evidence

SPEAKERS: Alessandro Becchi (Independent scholar, Florence), Osvaldo Ottaviani (University of Milan)

Recommended reading: Leibniz’s letter to Rudolf Christian Wagner (translation available here).


A metaphysician looking downwards. Some remarks on Leibniz and microscopy

Alessandro Becchi (Independent scholar, Florence)

In my presentation I will focus on the steady interest, shown by Leibniz since his youth, for the microscope: an observational instrument that in the second half of the seventeenth century triggered a second revolution in scientific and philosophical thought, after the great revolution operated by the telescope. This second revolution, which revealed the “infinitely small” to the eyes of the natural philosophers, marked the origin of entirely new sciences. Leibniz was fully aware of the immense cognitive and technical perspectives opened by the new observational tool, perspectives that – in his opinion – far exceeded those of astronomical observatories. I will try to show how this predilection for the microscope has its roots in Leibniz’s very mindset. His interest in microscopy was accompanied by the direct acquaintance with some great microscopists of the time and their pioneering works: Robert Hooke, Jan Swammerdam, Marcello Malpighi, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek. From each one of them Leibniz derived fundamental information about the “microcosm” of nature – information which he readily used as empirical support of some central metaphysical tenets of his mature system: the idea that the ultimate atoms of reality have biological features, the fundamental continuity of nature at all its levels, the doctrine of the preexistence of living beings, the infinite complexity of those “divine machines” represented by plants and animals. On this last point Leibniz makes a strong criticism of the Cartesian conception of living beings (conceived on the model of human artifacts), reformulating in an original way the classical problem of the relationship between art and nature. In continuity with the Aristotelian tradition (even if through a different kind of argument than Aristotle), Leibniz maintains that the difference between human artifacts and natural organisms is a difference of gender, not only one of degree. I believe that all these topics can help us to put into a sharper focus important aspects of the relationship between the history of philosophy and the history of science in the early modern age, and to better grasp the complexity of some historiographical and epistemological categories, such as that of “rationalism”.

Leibniz’s late metaphysics and ontology of life.
Unpublished materials from the correspondence with R. C. Wagner

Osvaldo Ottaviani

In my talk, I would like to discuss Leibniz’s late philosophy, especially his theory of substance and his ontology of living beings, focusing on unpublished materials related to the correspondence with Rudolf Christian Wagner. Leibniz’s correspondence with Wagner has been usually regarded as involving only technical issues, as the construction of Leibniz’s calculating machine; the only philosophically remarkable exception being represented by Leibniz’s well-known letter to Wagner of June 4, 1710. In the current process of publishing the Leibniz-Wagner correspondence in series III of the Akademie Ausgabe, however, other two letters (written between 1704 and 1705) have been edited, where Leibniz discusses philosophical topics, like his theory of the preformation of the animals, and the universal connection of all things. Furthermore, I discovered the original draft of Leibniz’s letter to Wagner of June 1710, which also contains a remarkable series of definitions of the philosophical notions discussed in the letter (simple and composite substances, life, entelechy, primary matter, etc.). A particularly interesting feature of this text is a quite original distinction between three elements, substantians, substantia, and substantiatum. This threefold partition is connected to Leibniz’s distinction between simple substances (monads) and composite substance, which, in his later texts, is often rephrased in terms of a distinction between the substance and the substantiatum (i.e. what is composed of simple substances).

First of all, I would like to show how these materials from the Leibniz-Wagner correspondence allow us to connect Leibniz’s ontological reflections, expressed in a long series of drafts containing definitions of philosophical notions (most of which still unpublished) with his late texts concerning the distinction between primary and secondary matter, as well as with his account of living beings and universal animation. Second, I will focus on the original draft of the letter to Wagner, taking into account his account of substantiata as a sort of leading thread of Leibniz’s philosophical reflections in his late years, where his theory of substance is deeply intertwined with his account of life and organic nature.