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Atomism, motion and causation : Pierre Gassendi's original Epicureanism in the age of the scientific revolution

Jo Coture (UGent)
(2022)
Author
Promoter
(UGent) and Delphine Bellis
Organization
Project
Abstract
In the early decades of the seventeenth century, the French humanist and natural philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) decided to devote an important part of his intellectual career to an all-embracing renovation of the ancient philosophy of Epicurus. Among other things, Gassendi provided a detailed reconstruction and revision of Epicurus’ atomic theory. Unquestionably, Gassendi charged himself with a delicate task. Not only did the state of Epicurus’ philosophical corpus demand profound philological and historical skills. The content of Epicurus’ atomic system also raised questions. Due to the inseparable property of weight, Epicurus’ atoms were able to move downwards naturally. They did so autonomously, without any help or interference from a providential God. But how did Gassendi, as a seventeenth-century philosopher, position himself with respect to this autonomous physical world of his Greek ancestor? Could his atoms also be active or would this entail that God became a superfluous artifice? How did Gassendi see the relationship between his atomic matter, its motion and the causes behind it? In this dissertation, I provide answers to these much-debated questions in scholarship on Gassendi. I present and analyse a wide range of primary sources, including both Gassendi’s published works and his unpublished manuscript De vita et doctrina Epicuri. In this way, I uncover in detail the precise meanings and chronological evolutions of Gassendi’s terms, concepts and theories. In the dissertation, these analyses are spread over three interconnected and mutually enhancing chapters. First, I consider how Gassendi dealt with Epicurus’ original theory. In particular, I look at Gassendi’s reconstructions and revisions of the direction of Epicurus’ natural atomic motion and the weight of his atoms. Second, I investigate the similarities and differences between Gassendi’s atomic theory and his developments on the motion of concrete bodies, for which he reconsidered Galileo’s analyses of movement and in which he advanced the principle of inertia, albeit not in a systematic way. Third, I examine Gassendi’s discussions of causes in the atomic realm, both on the level of physical and divine causation. Overall, these analyses show that Gassendi developed a theory of atomic motion in which atoms could naturally move in any direction and in which Epicurus’ weight was replaced by a more general motive principle, variously called impetus, vis and mobilitas. Although Gassendi often wavered in the precise articulation of his standpoint, this motive principle was au fond an efficient cause that was intrinsic to at least certain atoms and that was imparted and co-conducted by God, the providential creator of the natural world. In other words, for Gassendi, at least certain atoms were intrinsically active (and not inert), but this atomic activity did not undermine God’s position and influence vis-à-vis the physical world. On the contrary, the activity in question squared well with the concurrentist perspective on God’s causal influence that Gassendi adopted.
In de eerste decennia van de zeventiende eeuw besloot de Franse humanist en natuurfilosoof Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) een belangrijk deel van zijn intellectuele carrière te wijden aan een algehele vernieuwing van de antieke filosofie van Epicurus. Gassendi voorzag onder meer een gedetailleerde reconstructie en herziening van Epicurus’ atoomtheorie. Het lijdt geen twijfel dat Gassendi zich belastte met een delicate opdracht. Niet alleen vereiste de toestand van Epicurus’ filosofische corpus diepgaande filologische en historische vaardigheden. Ook de inhoud van Epicurus’ atomaire systeem riep vragen op. Door de onafscheidelijke eigenschap van gewicht waren Epicurus’ atomen in staat om zich op natuurlijke wijze naar beneden te bewegen. Zij deden dit autonoom, zonder enige hulp of tussenkomst van een voorzienige God. Maar hoe positioneerde Gassendi zich als zeventiende-eeuwse filosoof ten opzichte van deze autonome fysische wereld van zijn Griekse voorganger? Konden zijn atomen ook actief zijn of zou dat betekenen dat God een overbodige kunstgreep werd? Hoe zag Gassendi de relatie tussen zijn atomaire materie, haar beweging en de achterliggende oorzaken? In dit proefschrift geef ik antwoorden op deze veelbesproken vragen in het hedendaagse onderzoek naar Gassendi. Ik presenteer en analyseer een brede waaier aan primaire bronnen, waaronder zowel Gassendi’s gepubliceerde werken als zijn niet-gepubliceerde manuscript De vita et doctrina Epicuri. Zo ontrafel ik op gedetailleerde wijze de precieze betekenissen en chronologische evoluties van Gassendi’s termen, concepten en theorieën. In het proefschrift zijn deze analyses verdeeld over drie onderling samenhangende en elkaar versterkende hoofdstukken. Eerst ga ik na hoe Gassendi omging met Epicurus’ oorspronkelijke theorie. In het bijzonder kijk ik naar Gassendi’s reconstructies en herzieningen van de richting van Epicurus’ natuurlijke atomaire beweging en het gewicht van diens atomen. Ten tweede onderzoek ik de overeenkomsten en verschillen tussen Gassendi’s atoomtheorie en zijn ontwikkelingen over de beweging van concrete lichamen, waarvoor hij Galileo’s analyses over beweging herbekeek en waarin hij het traagheidsbeginsel presenteerde, zij het niet op een systematische manier. Ten derde bestudeer ik Gassendi’s besprekingen over oorzaken in de atomaire wereld, zowel wat betreft fysische als goddelijke oorzakelijkheid. Over het algemeen blijkt uit deze analyses dat Gassendi een theorie van atomaire beweging ontwikkelde waarin atomen zich op natuurlijke wijze in alle richtingen konden voortbewegen en waarin Epicurus’ gewicht werd vervangen door een meer algemeen bewegingsprincipe dat impetus, vis en mobilitas werd genoemd. Hoewel Gassendi vaak aarzelde in de precieze formulering van zijn standpunt, was dit bewegingsprincipe au fond een efficiënte oorzaak die intrinsiek aanwezig was bij ten minste een bepaald aantal atomen en die werd toegediend en mee werd geleid door God, de voorzienige schepper van de natuurlijke wereld. Met andere woorden, voor Gassendi waren ten minste een bepaald aantal atomen intrinsiek actief (en niet inert), maar deze atomaire activiteit ondermijnde Gods positie en invloed ten opzichte van de fysische wereld niet. Integendeel, de activiteit in kwestie paste goed bij het perspectief van het concurrentisme dat Gassendi aannam met betrekking tot Gods oorzakelijke invloed.
Keywords
History of Science, Scientific Revolution, Early Modern Atomism, Pierre Gassendi, Epicurus, Atomic Activity, Motion, Divine Concurrence

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Citation

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MLA
Coture, Jo. Atomism, Motion and Causation : Pierre Gassendi’s Original Epicureanism in the Age of the Scientific Revolution. Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, 2022.
APA
Coture, J. (2022). Atomism, motion and causation : Pierre Gassendi’s original Epicureanism in the age of the scientific revolution. Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Ghent, Belgium.
Chicago author-date
Coture, Jo. 2022. “Atomism, Motion and Causation : Pierre Gassendi’s Original Epicureanism in the Age of the Scientific Revolution.” Ghent, Belgium: Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy.
Chicago author-date (all authors)
Coture, Jo. 2022. “Atomism, Motion and Causation : Pierre Gassendi’s Original Epicureanism in the Age of the Scientific Revolution.” Ghent, Belgium: Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy.
Vancouver
1.
Coture J. Atomism, motion and causation : Pierre Gassendi’s original Epicureanism in the age of the scientific revolution. [Ghent, Belgium]: Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy; 2022.
IEEE
[1]
J. Coture, “Atomism, motion and causation : Pierre Gassendi’s original Epicureanism in the age of the scientific revolution,” Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Ghent, Belgium, 2022.
@phdthesis{8766723,
  abstract     = {{In the early decades of the seventeenth century, the French humanist and natural philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) decided to devote an important part of his intellectual career to an all-embracing renovation of the ancient philosophy of Epicurus. Among other things, Gassendi provided a detailed reconstruction and revision of Epicurus’ atomic theory. Unquestionably, Gassendi charged himself with a delicate task. Not only did the state of Epicurus’ philosophical corpus demand profound philological and historical skills. The content of Epicurus’ atomic system also raised questions. Due to the inseparable property of weight, Epicurus’ atoms were able to move downwards naturally. They did so autonomously, without any help or interference from a providential God. But how did Gassendi, as a seventeenth-century philosopher, position himself with respect to this autonomous physical world of his Greek ancestor? Could his atoms also be active or would this entail that God became a superfluous artifice? How did Gassendi see the relationship between his atomic matter, its motion and the causes behind it? In this dissertation, I provide answers to these much-debated questions in scholarship on Gassendi. I present and analyse a wide range of primary sources, including both Gassendi’s published works and his unpublished manuscript De vita et doctrina Epicuri. In this way, I uncover in detail the precise meanings and chronological evolutions of Gassendi’s terms, concepts and theories. In the dissertation, these analyses are spread over three interconnected and mutually enhancing chapters. First, I consider how Gassendi dealt with Epicurus’ original theory. In particular, I look at Gassendi’s reconstructions and revisions of the direction of Epicurus’ natural atomic motion and the weight of his atoms. Second, I investigate the similarities and differences between Gassendi’s atomic theory and his developments on the motion of concrete bodies, for which he reconsidered Galileo’s analyses of movement and in which he advanced the principle of inertia, albeit not in a systematic way. Third, I examine Gassendi’s discussions of causes in the atomic realm, both on the level of physical and divine causation. Overall, these analyses show that Gassendi developed a theory of atomic motion in which atoms could naturally move in any direction and in which Epicurus’ weight was replaced by a more general motive principle, variously called impetus, vis and mobilitas. Although Gassendi often wavered in the precise articulation of his standpoint, this motive principle was au fond an efficient cause that was intrinsic to at least certain atoms and that was imparted and co-conducted by God, the providential creator of the natural world. In other words, for Gassendi, at least certain atoms were intrinsically active (and not inert), but this atomic activity did not undermine God’s position and influence vis-à-vis the physical world. On the contrary, the activity in question squared well with the concurrentist perspective on God’s causal influence that Gassendi adopted.}},
  author       = {{Coture, Jo}},
  keywords     = {{History of Science,Scientific Revolution,Early Modern Atomism,Pierre Gassendi,Epicurus,Atomic Activity,Motion,Divine Concurrence}},
  language     = {{eng}},
  pages        = {{VI, 308}},
  publisher    = {{Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy}},
  school       = {{Ghent University}},
  title        = {{Atomism, motion and causation : Pierre Gassendi's original Epicureanism in the age of the scientific revolution}},
  year         = {{2022}},
}