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Perspectives on Science 12.2 (2004) 131-134

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Galileo in Paris

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Galileo Galilei has been at the center of our conception of the so-called scientific revolution for generations. This has given rise to an enormous literature on his thought. But as important as that literature is, it is also important to understand how Galileo's thought was itself understood and received by his contemporaries. Particularly significant here is Galileo's reception in Paris, which was just beginning to flourish as a scientific center at the moment when Galileo's greatest works appeared in print. The studies that follow are contributions to an effort to understand the different meanings that Galileo and Galileanism had for some of his first readers, who were attempting to digest his thought and use it to nourish their own. They include Daniel Garber's essay on Marin Mersenne's changing attitudes toward Galileo in the 1620s to the 1640s and Domenico Bertoloni Meli's paper on Galileo and Mersenne's use of numerical tables. Also analyzed are the influences of Galileo on the natural science and methodology of Thomas Hobbes, the expatriate Englishman living in Paris, by Douglas Jesseph, and Pierre Gassendi's investigation of Galileo's theory of tides, by Carla Rita Palmerino.

Missing from this list of reactions to Galileo are those of René Descartes, that most famous Frenchman who was living in the Netherlands from the late 1620s to just before his death, though communicating regularly with Paris. Descartes is notorious for having uttered some fairly negative comments about Galileo; I would like to recall these briefly just for the sake of completeness. For example, in reaction to Galileo's 1638 Two New Sciences, Descartes said:

Generally speaking, I find that he philosophizes much more ably than is usual, in that, so far as he can, he abandons the errors of the Schools and tries to use mathematical methods in the investigation of physical questions. On that score, I am completely at one with [End Page 131] him, for I hold that there is no other way to discover the truth. But he continually digresses, and does not take time to explain matters fully. This, in my view, is a mistake: it shows that he has not investigated matters in an orderly way, and has merely sought explanations of some particular effects, without going into the primary causes in nature; hence his building lacks a foundation. Now the closer his style of philosophizing gets to the truth, the easier it is torecognize his faults, just as it is easier to tell when those who sometimes take the right road go astray than it is to point out aberrations in the case of those who never begin to follow it
(To Mersenne, 11 October 1638, Descartes 1996, 2:380, trans. in Descartes 1989, 124-25; see also To Mersenne, 15 November 1638, Descartes 1996, 2:433, 443).

The above assessment was not an isolated comment, Descartes having previously said something similar with respect to Galileo's 1632 Two Chief World Systems. For one, he chided all philosophers, including Galileo, if they tried to explain particular phenomena without delving into the primary causes of nature—in other words, if they built without a foundation: "I can only say that neither Galileo nor any other can determine anything clear and demonstrative regarding this [the retardation of a body's motion caused by the air], without knowing first what weight is and what are the true principles of physics" (To Mersenne, 22 June 1637, Descartes 1996, 1:392). Likewise, also with respect to the Two Chief World Systems, Descartes in the main had begrudgingly praised Galileo for following the right path and not simply accepting received opinions:

M. Beeckman came here on Saturday evening and lent me the book by Galileo. But he took it away with him to Dordrecht this morning; so I have only had it in my hands for thirty hours. I was able to leaf through the whole book; and I find that he philosophizes well enough on...


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