- The Search for the Historical Gassendi
Writing about the history of science and the history of philosophy involves assumptions about the role of context and about the relationships between past and present ideas. Some historians emphasize the context, concentrating on the intellectual, personal, and social factors that affect the way earlier thinkers have approached their subject. Analytic philosophers take a critical approach, considering the logic and merit of the arguments of past thinkers almost as though they are engaging in contemporary debates. Some philosophers use the ideas of historical figures to support their own philosophical agendas. Scholarly studies of the French natural philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) exemplify many of these approaches.
What, then, is context? At the most basic level, the context is the text itself. The most acontextual scholars examine only snippets of the text. Interested in ideas about necessity, arguments for the existence of God, or ideas about matter and gravity, they mine the writings of historical figures for their views on these questions without considering the author’s aim for the book or project as a whole. This approach has frequently characterized discussions of Gassendi’s philosophy. His major work, the Syntagma Philosophicum, is a massive treatise in difficult neo-Latin, daunting to all but the hardiest (or most foolish) of scholars. Consequently, of those philosophers and historians who deal with Gassendi at all, many rely on the bits that have been translated into English or French or those that deal with specific topics and seldom consider the entirety of his work, but the work as a whole gives the parts their meaning. Gassendi aimed to develop a complete philosophy to replace Aristotelianism. He accepted the ancient idea that a complete philosophy consists of three major parts: Logic, Physics, and Ethics. He organized his magnum opus accordingly (Gassendi 1964, [End Page 212] 1:26–30). In the manner of the humanists, he sought an ancient model for his philosophizing (see Osler 2000, pp. 93–208; Gassendi  1964, 1:30). For a variety of reasons—including the fact that he found Epicureanism the ancient philosophy most compatible with his own voluntarist theology—he selected the Greek atomist and hedonist Epicurus (341 B.C.–270 B.C.) for his model (Osler 1994, p. 42). As a Catholic priest, Gassendi sought to transform Epicureanism into a theologically acceptable philosophy. The project of baptizing Epicurus was thus the aim and goal of the Syntagma Philosophicum. 1
An important reason for the relative neglect of Gassendi’s philosophy stems from the paucity of texts available in modern languages. The difficulty and length of his writing poses an obstacle to many scholars. Fortunately, a slow but steady stream of new translations is providing an improved basis for considering his philosophy. Although his exchange with Descartes—the Fifth “Objections” to the Meditations and Descartes’ “Reply”—is readily available in most modern languages, it gives a limited and somewhat distorted view of his philosophy. The exchange follows Descartes’ agenda in the Meditations and thus fails to convey the nature either of Gassendi’s Epicurean project or of his concerns and involvement with the sciences of the day. Seeing Gassendi only in relation to Descartes has distorted his image in much English-language scholarship, where analytic philosophers have considered his philosophy only in terms of his reaction to Descartes (in whose ideas they tend to be far more interested) without appreciating the broader compass of his philosophy. Further study of the relative roles of Gassendi and Descartes in seventeenth-century thought as well as their influence on later thinkers is needed to elucidate the nature of the seventeenth-century intellectual community as well as the sources of modern philosophical prejudices (see Osler 2010).
Bernard Rochot published facing-page translations of two of Gassendi’s works: the Exercitationes paradoxicae adversus Aristoteleos (1624), Gassendi’s first published work which is a skeptical attack on the Aristotelians; and the Disquisitio Metaphysica (1644) (see Gassendi 1959, 1962). Despite some inevitable flaws in Rochot’s translations, these books made important aspects of Gassendi’s writings accessible to a wider audience. Unfortunately, they did not deal explicitly with either Gassendi’s Epicurean project, a topic...