Bucharest Colloquium 2008

Bucharest Colloquim in Early Modern Philosophy 2008

Vanishing bodies and the birth of modern physics.

Experimental philosophy, speculative philosophy and the missing matter theory of the seventeenth century


The various attempts to find a new and suitable definition of physical bodies given by the seventeenth century indicate a major problem in natural philosophy. In replacing the Aristotelian conceptual framework with various alternatives, the new philosophy opened up a string of natural questions concerning the nature of body, its properties and constituents, as well as closely related philosophical questions concerning the proper way of constructing a new physics. The debate lasted for more than a century, shaping the evolution of early modern philosophy and the emergence of mathematical physics. Most of the leading seventeenth-century philosophers contributed to the debate, from Francis Bacon and the Baconians of the Royal Society to Descartes and its followers, Spinoza or Leibniz. The problem had wide philosophical, theological and physical implications ranging from questions of individuation and identity to cosmology and the nature of forces, from the laws of nature to the fate of souls and the resurrection of bodies.

In addressing this issue, natural philosophy divided along interesting epistemological lines. On the one hand, some early modern philosophers in search of a definition and a conceptual structure of their discipline looked for general principles and hypotheses concerning the nature of matter and space; on the other hand, experimental philosophers framed new methodological approaches with interesting consequences for both philosophy and science. A close historical survey of the way in which these two, sometimes conflicting and sometimes complementary, approaches developed should shed an interesting light upon the origins and developments of the new observational and quantitative approach to matter theory that emerged in the eighteenth century. This survey will also have implications for our assessment of the utility of the competing historiographical and methodological categories that are used to explain the different approaches to matter theory in the period.

Indeed, one is tempted to find dramatic labels for what was surely a dramatic struggle. The problem of finding a new definition of bodies was transformed, by the 1660s into one of the major ‘flash points’ of natural philosophy, a sectarian war amongst competing anti-Aristotelian factions and competing matter theories. By the end of the century, however, a paradoxical situation had arisen with the emergence of the new physics: a physics dealing with ‘vanishing bodies’. This expression alludes to the most important development within the debate, namely, Newtonian mechanics, which provided a compelling dynamical analysis of the behaviour of large material bodies, while at the same time treating them as mathematical entities and providing no insight into their precise nature.

Significant progress has been made in recent years in understanding the varieties and origins of early modern matter theories, but much work remains to be done. The reconstruction of the complex history of early modern matter theory remains a desideratum for historians of early modern thought, as one of the main pieces in a puzzle which should give us a fuller account of the prehistory and emergence of modern science. Moreover, such a reconstruction requires collaboration. Our project aims at pulling together people who can address the issue from various perspectives (history of philosophy, history of science, theology, history of political thought), working with different methodologies, on different texts from the same period.


The colloquium

The Bucharest Colloquium in Early Modern Philosophy continues a series of meetings and summer seminars organised by the Research Centre Foundations of Modern Thought (University of Bucharest), New Europe College (Bucharest) and Princeton University. The present project, which aims to continue this tradition, is initiated by a scientific committee from around the world: Princeton University, University of Otago, New Zealand, University of Bucharest and University of Notre Dame.

Location: New Europe College, 21 Plantelor Street, Bucharest. Details will be posted soon.

Organising institutions:

Research Centre for the Foundations of Modern Thought http://modernthought.unibuc.ro/

New Europe College, Bucharest

University of Otago, New Zealand

Princeton University

Supporting institutions:

University of Notre Dame, USA

Nanovic Institute, USA

Scientific committee:

Prof. Peter Anstey, New Zealand

Prof. Daniel Garber, Princeton

Dr. Dana Jalobeanu, Bucharest

Prof. Vlad Alexandrescu, Bucharest

Prof. Ioan Panzaru, Bucharest

Invited speakers:

Peter Anstey (University of Otago, New Zeeland)

Roger Ariew (University of South Florida)

Katherine Brading (University of Notre Dame)

Stephen Gaukroger (University of Sydney)

Daniel Garber (Princeton University) Guido Giglioni (Warburg Institute, London)

Eric Schliesser (University of Leiden)

Richard Serjeantson (Cambridge University)