Meeting 17

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DATE: Tuesday, November 3

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

PANEL : Descartes: Language, Sense and Imagination

SPEAKERS: Igor Agostini (University of Salento) & Hanoch Ben-Yami (Central European University)


Sense and Imagination in Meditation II

Igor Agostini (University of Salento)

This paper proposes to read the passage of Descartes’s Meditation II from AT VII 27, l. 18 to AT VII 29, l. 18 (B Op I 716-718) as a sort of ‘phenomenological description’, made by the meditator, of his mental acts, aiming at a redefinition of sensibility and imagination. This redefinition do not simply lead to their inclusion in the res cogitans (as cogitationes), but to a resignification which allows their unification and, at the same time, their distinction under the cogitatio, or in other words, which allows to distinguish them from one another and both from the intellection.

Language, Sign and Representation in Descartes

Hanoch Ben-Yami (Central European University)

In the first chapter of his The World, Descartes compares light to words and discusses signs and ideas. This made scholars read into that passage our views of language as a representational medium and consider it Descartes’ model of representation in perception. This interpretation, however, fails to do justice to the text, in several ways. I show, by contrast, that Descartes does not ascribe there any representational role to language; that to be a sign is for him to have a kind of causal role; and that he is concerned there only with the cause’s lack of resemblance to its effect, not with the representation’s lack of resemblance to what it represents. I support this interpretation by comparisons with other places in Descartes’ corpus and by reference to earlier authors, his likely sources. This interpretation may shed light both on Descartes’ understanding of the functioning of language and on the development of his theory of representation in perception.

Meeting 16

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DATE: Tuesday, October 27

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

PANEL : Reason, Passions and Law in Hobbes and Spinoza

SPEAKERS: Salvatore Carannante (University of Pisa), Claudia Dumitru (Princeton University), Daniel Garber (Princeton University)


Equality and Private Judgment in Hobbes’s State of Nature

Claudia Dumitru (Princeton University)

In the absence of any intersubjective standard, in the Hobbesian state of nature “every man’s own reason is to be accounted, not only the rule of his own actions, which are done at his own peril, but also for the measure of another man’s reason, in such things as do concern him” (De cive II.1, fn). This talk examines an argument from epistemic symmetry that Hobbes sketches in favor of this position in Elements of Law and, with some modifications, in De Cive. I place particular emphasis on the role equality plays as a premise in this argument and on the relationship between equality and Hobbes’s conception of right reason.

Human Nature and Civil Society: Hobbes vs. Spinoza

Daniel Garber (Princeton University)

Spinoza’s political philosophy owes a great deal to his contemporary, Thomas Hobbes. For Spinoza, as for Hobbes before him, the commonwealth is the result of individuals who come together and create structures that enable them to live together in relative peace. And for Spinoza as for Hobbes, the character of this commonwealth is a consequence of a certain conception of human nature, the urge people have to persist in being. However, I shall argue, there is a crucial difference at the foundations. For both Hobbes and Spinoza, political philosophy is grounded in a conception of human nature that itself is ultimately grounded in human biology and psychology, and ultimately in the laws of physics. But for Hobbes, human nature is a stable and unchanging grounding for politics: take away society, and we return to being the same creatures we were before entering into society. However, for Spinoza it is quite different, I would claim. For Spinoza we are genuinely changed in fundamental ways by our participating in society.

“On the divine law”. Facets of law in Spinoza’s TTP IV

Salvatore Carannante (University of Pisa)

Focusing on the Chapter 4, On the divine law, of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the talk is aimed at exploring the various facets (natural, moral, civil) of the concept of law, seen as the intersection of different and relevant aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy. Special attention will be paid to (1) the manifold definition of law (2) the strict connection between these dense pages of the TTP and the metaphysics of the Ethica; (3) the key role likely played by Averroist sources in Spinoza’s reflection about the ‘divine law’. 

Meeting 15

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DATE: Tuesday, October 20th

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

SPEAKER: Christoph Lüthy

TITLE: “How Lucian’s ‘True Story’ Became True in the Seventeenth Century. And False.”


In the Greek satirist Lucian’s own words, his “True Story” was “true” because he was honest about lying all the way through. His tale, which was a parody on Greek travel literature and mythology, was about sailors who had travelled into the Atlantic, found new islands there, were lifted up to the Moon and the Sun, where they had adventures with Lunarians and Solarians before returning to Earth. His story consisted of one long string of impossibilities.

But after the New World had been discovered, and after the telescope gave apparent ocular proof of the similarity of Earth and Moon, Lucian’s story was read very differently. To the early-modern reader, it was evident that there did exist islands out in the Atlantic and that by the looks of it, the moon might well be inhabited.

In this lecture, I will discuss the way in which the Scientific Revolution led to a re-evaluation of Lucian’s jocular tale, how that tale in turn informed the stories of such scientific phantasies as Kepler, Goodwill, or Wilkins, and how utopian writings, science fiction and the call for scientific reform entered into a rich literary dialogue.

As we will see, however, in the end, Lucian’s laughter triumphed once more: to an author such as Swift, the expectations of the scientific community and their utopianism looked as “true” as Lucian’s story: grounded in phantasy, not in reality.

Meeting 14

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DATE: Tuesday, October 13

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

PANEL: Leibniz: metaphysical physics or physical metaphysics?

SPEAKERS: Christian Henkel (University of Groningen), Richard Arthur (McMaster University), Daniel Garber (Princeton University), Anne-Lise Rey (Université Paris Nanterre).


Reconciling Physics and Metaphysics in Leibniz’ Philosophy

Christian Henkel (University of Groningen)

According to Leibniz, physics and metaphysics have different objects and they are by and large separate. However, metaphysics plays an important role in grounding physics. In important ways the distinction between physics and metaphysics mirrors the relation between bodies and monads, the latter of which include minds. Force as one of the most essential elements both in Leibniz’ physics and metaphysics, however, seems to straddle between these two realms. What then are we to make of the relation between physics and metaphysics?

Setting aside Leibniz’ objections against physical influx, and occasionalism, this discussion paper will explore three ways in which Leibniz could reconcile physics and metaphysics, each of which gains support from Leibniz own pronouncements to this effect: occasional causation, pre-established harmony, and idealism. I will point out that while each of these has its own specific advantages, it also comes at a certain cost.

Form, Force and Motion in Leibniz’s Physics

Richard Arthur (McMaster University)

In my presentation I will address the claim Leibniz makes for a connection between his reintroduction of substantial forms and his new physics of force. This will involve first getting clear on his criterion for a true motion in distinction from a merely apparent one, and how true motion so understood differs from absolute motion. These distinctions set the relationship between force and the cause of motion in a different light, undermining (inter alia) the claim of Garber (1995; though not 2009) and Roberts (2003) that the frame of reference in which the forces determine true motions can never be identified. 

Is Leibniz’s Physics Consistent with his Monadology?

Daniel Garber (Princeton University)

Leibniz’s dynamics, the science of force, included a metaphysics of body from its beginning in the late 1670s. On that view, body was grounded in active and passive force, a view that reached its fullest expression in the “Specimen Dynamicum” of 1695. At the same time, Leibniz was also developing a metaphysics of body grounded on the notion of a genuine individual, as expressed in the Correspondence with Arnauld in the late 1680s and in the Système Nouveau (1695). At first these two metaphysical perspectives seemed consistent and complementary. However, I argue, when monads emerged in the late 1690s, it became increasingly clear that there was a problem at the foundations of Leibniz’s metaphysics of body. I argue that Leibniz spent his last years attempting to put the two programs together, and never arrived at a fully satisfactory result.

Dynamics, Action, and Monads in Leibniz’s Physics

Anne-Lise Rey (Université Paris Nanterre)

In this talk I challenge the idea that Leibniz’s dynamics is incompatible with his monadological project. To criticize this position, I argue for the importance of the conceptualization of action (actio)in Dynamica de potentia (1690) and its implications for monadological metaphysics itself.

Meeting 13

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DATE: Tuesday, October 6th

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

SPEAKERS: Raz Chen-Morris (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) & Mattia Mantovani (KU Leuven)

TITLE: Optics and Perception in Kepler and Descartes


From Renaissance Shadows to Baroque Refractions

Raz Chen-Morris (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

At the core of Alberti’s system of artificial perspective is an ideal of complete transparency, where even abstract and invisible entities such as a point or a plane bisecting a pyramid can be directly grasped by the human power of sight. Paradoxically, in this new visual economy, opacity and shadows acquire new import in making the transparent visibly appear as it gradually evolves through various stages of opacity. Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato and his investigations of ways to project and analyze shadows undercut Alberti’s celebration of transparency. Instead, shadows, opacity and deception emerge as the defining elements of human visual experience of a world, in which invisible Machiavellian machinations are the elusive operating force constitutive of the phenomenal realm.

In 1604 Johannes Kepler tackled this situation by boldly asking how knowledge could be possible in an opaque world. Kepler’s Ad Vitellionem paralipomena replaced the ideal of transparency with measuring of shadows within the camera obscura. Within Kepler’s Camera, however, Renaissance contemplative attitude of the projected shadows on a wall is preserved in an attempt to differentiate between real pictures and virtual images, between knowledge and phantasy. In 1611, responding to the challenge of Galileo’s telescope, Kepler re-casted his optics by translating shadows into refraction, thus creating a baroque ideal of knowledge that advocates human operation and manipulation of phenomena as the foundation for a new mode of knowing. 

My paper will follow this moment of translation of Renaissance shadows into Baroque refractions in Kepler’s Dioptrice, probing its significance and its ramification on the new science of the 17th century,  asking in what ways can this moment serve us in redefining what Baroque really is and what makes it  a viable historiographical concept. 

The Institution of Nature. Descartes on Human Perception

Mattia Mantovani (KU Leuven)

The paper considers Descartes’ theory that brain-states are “instituted by nature” in such a manner as to bring about certain mental states, whereby Descartes intended to account for the mismatch between what bodies are (nothing but “extended things”) and how we perceive them to be. I spell out this theory by studying its evolution throughout Descartes’ writings and its relation to the Scholastic background. In particular, I suggest that Descartes’ theory of an “institution of nature” should be understood as a response to Antonio Rubio’s claim that species are “naturally designed” so as to cause the perceiver to assimilate the object’s form. After discussing a few alternative interpretations, I show that, with his theory of an “institution of nature”, Descartes did not intend to account for the perception of (embodied) minds in general but rather for that of the human mind specifically, thereby paving the way for a species-dependent account of perception.

Meeting 12

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DATE: Tuesday, September 29th

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

PANEL: Early Modern Wonder

PANEL CHAIR: Alex Douglas (University of St. Andrews)


Before Wonder: Pre-Cartesian Taxonomies of the Passions

Daniel Samuel (Warburg Institute)

In The Passions of the Soul (1649) published just a few months before his death, René Descartes declared there to only be six fundamental passions: wonder, love, hatred, joy, sadness and desire. Prior to this work however, there had already been a two thousand year tradition of attempting to analyse and classify the passions in the west. In my paper, I will show how Descartes both entered into and also transformed this tradition. After describing the major taxonomies of the passions that dominated the ancient and medieval periods I will examine how the passions were organised in the first half of the seventeenth century by looking at two types of textual genres; namely, the regimen for health and the vernacular treatise on the passions. Finally, I will show how the specific passion of wonder markedly differentiates Descartes’ own list from those that were produced before him.

Malebranche on the Uses and Abuses of Wonder

Gabriella Wyer (Birkbeck College)

In the Search After Truth, Malebranche devotes significant attention to wonder, our passionate reaction to the perception of novelty. In many respects, his account of this passion follows Descartes’s, and I begin by considering in just what ways their views overlap. Ultimately, however, Malebranche’s attitude towards wonder is more polarised than Descartes’s: he is both more insistent as to the positive uses of wonder and more exasperated by its drawbacks. On the one hand, Malebranche is clear that, for physiological reasons, one must cultivate wonder in order to apply the mind. Only by means of wonder can Fallen human beings focus their attention and, as the occasional cause of God’s communication of knowledge to us, attention is crucial. On the other hand, we have a tendency to wonder at the wrong kinds of things: cabinets of curiosities, ancient philosophies, and the night sky. Because the passion of wonder is often followed by the passions of esteem and veneration, this master passion is responsible for the promotion of many of the activities on which Malebranche believes Fallen human beings waste their time.

Descartes on Wonder’s Stupor

Lauren Slater (Birkbeck College)

On first reflection, you might think that wonder is a negative passion for Descartes. In the Passions of the Soul, Descartes warns of the dangers of wonder and astonishment; it can turn us into motionless statues or gratuitous collectors. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that wonder is one of the most scientifically relevant passions that Descartes discusses. Indeed, wonder plays an essential role in scientific discovery & must be cultivated by those who seek new knowledge. In this short talk, I offer an overview of the passion of wonder, as described by Descartes, and discuss how it stills and spurs us.

Spinoza: Wonder as an Epistemic Hinge

Steph Marston (Birkbeck College)

Spinoza includes an account of wonder in Part 3 of the Ethics, On the Affects. But this appears to be either an eccentric or a merely conventional move, given that he denies that wonder is, properly speaking, an affect. I propose that Spinoza’s treatment of wonder alerts us to the epistemic significance of affect in his philosophy. In general terms, affect underpins and sustains our epistemic commitments, for good or for ill. In the specific case of wonder, the absence of affect acts as an epistemic ‘hinge’: an opportunity for us to revise and improve our understanding.

How Wonder Relates to Heidegger’s Critique of Cartesian Philosophy

Richard Elliott (Birkbeck College)

Heidegger casts deep suspicion over the Cartesian conception of wonder. Despite never explicitly describing this conception as ‘Cartesian’, Heidegger elsewhere describes Descartes as having postulated the ‘most extreme development’ of a problematic series of intellectual and practical presuppositions towards inquiry. This neatly extends to the status of Cartesian wonder as a fundamental passion. I will tersely characterize the status of wonder for Descartes. Then I will offer an exposition of Heidegger’s main beef with this way of thinking about wonder as a prefiguring passion that ought to be overcome through philosophical reflection. I will contrast this with Heidegger’s own conception of wonder as a ‘modified grasp of everydayness’. In conclusion, I offer a potential second kind of wonder, implicitly offered up by Descartes at the conclusion of the Third Meditation, that might better align with Heidegger’s own conception of wonder.

Meeting 11

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DATE: Tuesday, September 22nd

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

SPEAKER: Enrico Pasini (University of Turin/ILIESI)

PAPER: “Philosophical Poetry in the Early Modern Period”

ABSTRACT: Philosophical poetry is a curious kind of stuff. Sometimes poets do philosophy; sometimes philosophers write poetry. In this intersection lies the subject. The Golden Age of philosophical poetry is, in the common view of historians of philosophy, set in Ancient Times: not precisely Gilgamesh, but obviously Greek—and up to a point the always lesser Latin—philosophy. Yet in the Early Modern, not to mention Modern and Contemporary times, philosophical poetry is a widespread practice; it has various functions, different modes, and is practiced with different degrees of commitment—sometimes in an important way. This hints to an interesting question, from which my interest in this topic was initially sparked: i.e. the loss of graphodiversity in the field of today’s philosophy.

Meeting 10

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DATE: Tuesday, September 15th

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

SPEAKERS: Charles T. Wolfe (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice) & Omar Del Nonno (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)


Problems in the History of Materialism

Charles T. Wolfe (ERC EarlyModernCosmology (GA 725883) and Ca’Foscari University, Venice)

It is difficult to separate ‘materialism’ as a diverse eighteenth-century philosophical movement from the many polemical arguments surrounding it throughout the century. Like its cognates ‘atheist,’ ‘Hobbist’ and ‘Spinozist’, ’materialist’ was often used more as a pejorative term and a placeholder than as a philosophical position. The polemical dimension is present both in period texts (e.g. Henry More and Ralph Cudworth) and, more surprisingly, in works of the history of philosophy up until the twentieth century (which attack it as a species of libertinism, or as a denial of human agency, the latter critique emanating both from Marxist, phenomenological and Christian positions): it is hard to separate mainstream scholarly assessment from the general tone of opprobrium in what became the received, mainstream vision of the subject, from Friedrich Lange’s Kantian History of Materialism (1866), which was devoted to tracing out the ultimate limitations and aporias of materialism, to other, post-Kantian and Hegelian histories in the nineteenth century but also well into the twentieth. In this talk I reflect, partly in light of my recent publication Lire le matérialisme (2020) (a) on the possibility of understanding the philosophical import of the history of materialism (including the methodological challenge of understanding a doctrine through its critiques), (b) on the idea of ‘types’ or ‘varieties’ of materialism (mechanistic versus vital, metaphysical versus non-metaphysical, cosmological versus psychological, Lockean versus Epicurean, science-based or not, etc.), and (c) on whether or not materialism is condemned to being a “discontinuous tradition,” as Günther Mensching once put it.

Spinoza’s Account of the Imagination and its Baconian Roots

Omar Del Nonno (ERC EarlyModernCosmology (GA 725883) and Ca’Foscari University, Venice)

Bacon’s influence on Spinoza’s Tractatus de intellectus emendatione, Spinoza’s first and unfinished work, is acknowledged by many scholars. Nevertheless, Bacon’s influence on the development of Spinoza’s thought is contested. In my presentation, I focus on the development of Spinoza’s account of the imagination which plays a pivotal role in the Ethics. Spinoza’s mature conception of the mind, and the human nature extensively differ from the Bacon’s, because Spinoza considers the mind a mode of God’s attribute of thought, and not a thinking substance. However, I will argue that Spinoza’s account of the imagination in the Ethics is indebted to Bacon in respect of his consideration of the knowledge from universal notions. In fact, Spinoza develops − from the TIE to the Ethics − an account of the imagination in which the knowledge by means of experientia vaga and by means of conventional and arbitrary signs is extremely relevant to clarifying the cause and nature of universal, inadequate notions. I will contend that Bacon’s account of experientia vaga and his theory of idols – in particular, his consideration of words as carriers of distorted representations of reality– have played a pivotal role in Spinoza’s account of the imagination from the TIE to the Ethics.


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DATE: Tuesday, July 28

TIME: 12 PM Princeton time (EST) / 7 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2) for approx 2 hrs

PANEL: Italian Affairs: Philosophers and Institutions

SPEAKERS: Jonathan Regier (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice) & David McOmish (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)


Jonathan Regier: “The Philosophy of Threat: Girolamo Cardano and the Roman Inquisition”

Abstract: Girolamo Cardano was the most widely-read natural philosopher of the latter sixteenth century. His literary output and fame stretched across numerous disciplines—medicine, astrology, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, mathematics—and his ideas continued to exert major influence well into the seventeenth century. As diverse as his projects and interests were, a common theme unites them: the individual, by Cardano’s reckoning, lives in a network of visible and invisible threats, from illness and accident, to chance events, to faults of foresight and memory, to professional perils, to the vagaries of ambition and desire. In this talk, I would like to discuss a few examples of how Cardano thought philosophy could counter the threats of daily life. These examples, in turn, were seized upon by Inquisition censors, who operated with a different view of a threatened humanity and how to protect it.

David McOmish: “A Venetian Network and the Reform of Education in Early Modern Edinburgh: The Case of Patrick Sands and his Paduan Circle”

Abstract: This talk will examine evidence of the activities of an network of friends and family operating in Europe and Scotland in the late 16th and early 17th century. The evidence, largely taken from newly discovered source material, reveals a picture of a clearly defined geographical pathway of knowledge exchange from the Venetian Republic to Scotland, spanning a generation (1589-1620). The talk will chart how several key debates within intellectual circles in both Northern and Southern Europe (comets, post-Aristotelian cosmology, new ideas in relation to it) were imported to Edinburgh and will offer some tentative discussion on how these ideas were processed in formal education across the 17th century.