- Pierre Gassendi's Philosophy and Science: Atomism for Empiricists
Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), a French Catholic priest from Haute Provence, is best known as the natural philosopher who restored the philosophy of Epicurus by attempting to make it compatible with Christian orthodoxy. Writing in the style of a Renaissance humanist, he worked out his own philosophy in dialogue with classical thinkers. His posthumous Syntagma Philosophicum (1658) was the culmination of his lifelong Epicurean project, in which he developed a complete philosophy — logic, physics, and ethics — to replace the Aristotelianism that had dominated the university curriculum since the thirteenth century. In recent years, several scholars have considered Gassendi's philosophy in light of his anti-Aristotelianism, his use of the history of philosophy, the theological context of his work, and the relationship between his ethics and his physics.
In Pierre Gassendi's Philosophy and Science, Saul Fisher rejects what he calls "the contextualist" approach, proposing instead to analyze and criticize Gassendi's thought on the basis of logic and modern philosophy of science. He states that "to present the philosophical richness of Gassendi's thought is to depict his philosophical and scientific pursuits as part of one and the same project" (xxi). His "exploration of Gassendi's thought assumes the view that the history of philosophy is an ongoing conversation across the generations" (xxiii). The result is a frustratingly anachronistic analysis of Gassendi's philosophy and natural philosophy that will unfortunately be of little interest to readers of this journal.
Fisher tends to exaggerate the views of the scholars against whom he is arguing. This misrepresentation is a product of black-and-white thinking. He sees his approach as simply opposed to the interpretations of most other scholars. There is no reason, however, why his analysis of Gassendi's philosophy cannot share the stage with more contextualized studies.
Fisher focuses on Gassendi's atomism, about which he asks two critical questions: one, is it compatible with Gassendi's empiricist theory of knowledge? and two, is Gassendi consistent in applying his inertial physics to motion at the atomic level? To answer these questions, Fisher provides a lengthy analysis of Gassendi's philosophy. In an account of Gassendi's writings on logic and method, Fisher [End Page 1283] produces a clear picture of Gassendi's strict empiricism, and what Richard Popkin called his "mitigated skepticism," which led to the innovative assertion that all claims to knowledge are at best probable. Fisher argues that Gassendi's empiricism is based on his theory of perception, which in turn is based on his atomism. But since Gassendi attempted to provide empirical foundations for his atomism, in the end, Fisher claims, the relationship between Gassendi's atomism and empiricism is circular.
Turning to the laws of motion, Fisher argues that Gassendi's account of motion at the atomic level is not consistent with the inertial physics that he develop for describing macroscopic bodies. This inconsistency results from Gassendi having adopted the Epicurean notion that atoms are endowed with an internal tendency to move in a straight line, and that this tendency is incompatible with the principle of inertia.
Fisher's arguments for both theses involve debates within modern philosophy of science as well as a close analysis of Gassendi's texts. The value of subjecting Gassendi's (or any other historical figure's) work to modern criticism is not clear to me. Contradictions or circular arguments in the work of an historical figure should prompt the historian to search for the underlying tensions in the subject's assumptions or goals. An analysis of this sort would add depth to our understanding of Gassendi's project and assumptions.
Pierre Gassendi's Philosophy and Science needs to be whipped into shape by a good editor. The text contains errors in spelling and grammar as well as some irritating choices of words. For example, throughout the book Fisher uses the term scalar consistency to refer to the uniformity of the laws...