The Church, Culture and Science: Pierre Gassendi, priest, mathematician and astronomer

On 7th Nov 1631 – Pierre Gassendi, priest, mathematician and astronomer, made the first observation of the transit of a planet, Mercury.

From the Adelaide Review:

The planets orbit the Sun in roughly the same plane and every so often planets closer to the Sun will pass between it and the outer planets. From Earth, there are only two possible candidates for this phenomenon; Mercury and Venus. This is called a transit and the inner planet will appear as a dark spot moving across the much larger disc of the Sun. 

Transits of Mercury occur once or twice each decade. This high frequency is due to Mercury being so close to the Sun and orbiting so rapidly (a ‘year’ on Mercury lasts just under 88 days). But Mercury is tiny and observing its transit requires some skill. The first recorded Transit of Mercury was in 1631 by the French astronomer Pierre Gassendi who was working from a prediction by Johannes Kepler.

And more about Pierre Gassendi, who is better known as a philosopher, by Peter King of  Oxford University:

Gassendi was born in Champtercier, near Digne in Provence; he was educated first at Digne, then at home, and finally at the Universities of Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, where he studied philosophy and theology. He received his doctorate in philosophy from Avignon in 1614, and was ordained a priest in 1615. His intellectual promise was recognised early, for at sixteen he taught rhetoric at Digne, and at nineteen he was appointed to teach philosophy at Aix. Somewhat unwillingly he accepted a professorship in mathematics at the Collège Royale in Paris (for which he was recommended by Cardinal Richelieu). In Paris he met and befriended Marin Mersenne, and became part of his extensive network, corresponding with Galileo and Kepler among many prominent scientists. This helped him to develop his interest in astronomy; he was an excellent observer, and an acute defender of the Copernican system against its critics (though he seems not to have fully accepted it himself). In 1631 he became the first astronomer to observe the transit of Mercury across the Sun (as predicted by Kepler).

Mersenne encouraged him to abandon maths and science in favour of philosophy, and Gassendi became the author of one of the sets of Objections to Descartes’ Meditations. This wasn’t a happy experience for him, though; his Objections were published without his agreement (and without his more detailed responses to Descartes’ Replies, the “Instances”). Not only that, but he was the only Objector to be named, and Descartes’ replies to him were particularly abrasive. Gassendi later expanded his Objections and the Instances into a book,Disquisitio Metaphysica (1644).

His disagreements with Descartes were wide-ranging; aside from a number of important issues in their scientific theories about the nature of the world, they differed deeply concerning the nature of philosophical and scientific method. Although Gassendi shared much with Descartes, including an opposition to the Aristotelianism of the time, he was best known as a champion of Epicurus, whose philosophy he developed in a way that attempted to bring it into line with Christian thought. At the centre of this position is a mechanistic, atomistic view of the world, though Gassendi added to it a belief in the immortality of a spiritual soul which lay outside the physical. Nevertheless, he rejected both Descartes’ argument for dualism and his account of the relationship between mind and body.

The chief disagreement between the two philosophers, though, was epistemological. Gassendi especially rejected Descartes’ use of universal doubt, and his appeal to knowledge gained through reason alone. Systematic doubt was acceptable, but to doubt everything was unreasonable – indeed, not clearly possible. As a special case of that, perhaps, he held the Aristotelians and Descartes alike guilty of rejecting the help of as wide a range of writers as possible: Epicurus of course, but also Plato, Democritus, and other ancient writers. Descartes had thrown out the baby with the bath-water; in rejecting the appeals to authority of the Aristotelians, he’d gone too far the other way, and tried to do everything unaided. As for reaching knowledge through the use of reason alone, Gassendi’s mature view was that, though reason must play its part, all knowledge must start with the senses (though in his earlier work he’d taken a much stronger sceptical approach to sense-based knowledge).

 

 

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18 Responses to The Church, Culture and Science: Pierre Gassendi, priest, mathematician and astronomer

  1. toadspittle says:

    .

    “At the centre of this position is a mechanistic, atomistic view of the world, though Gassendi added to it a belief in the immortality of a spiritual soul which lay outside the physical. Nevertheless, he rejected both Descartes’ argument for dualism and his account of the relationship between mind and body.”

    Does anyone know on what grounds Gassendi rejected cartesian dualism, in view of this apparent agreement on the status of the soul?

  2. toadspittle says:

    .
    Many thanks to CP&S for putting me onto Gassendi, of whom I knew nothing but his name.
    After my question above, thought I’d better not be lazy, and look for myself, so..

    “The libertins, (who included Gassendi) promoted a morality determined by reason, stripped of theological considerations, and defined on an individualist basis. In their commitment to intellectual liberty, they professed a diverse mix of metaphysical and epistemic views, especially materialism, skepticism, rationalism, deism, and Epicureanism — each party to the group offering a different mix.”

    Toad likes the sound of all that. Still can’t pin down the Descartes difference over the soul.

    More research needed. But clearly a man worth studying in depth.

  3. Pastorious says:

    Gassendi was bold to correspond with Galileo, but he had his finger in so many philosophical pies that it must have been hell to pin anything on him, which is why he stayed out of trouble of course.

  4. toadspittle says:

    .
    As far as I can find out, there seems to be no biography of Gassendi, of any description.
    Can this be so?
    Some studies on his works, that’s all.
    Much more interesting than Romney and Obama, which is all the rage here, right now.
    God knows why.

  5. Jerry says:

    Pierre Gassendi, 1592-1655: An intellectual biography, Howard Jones (1981)

  6. JabbaPapa says:

    Gassendi was an “intellectual Epicurian”, which means that he was influenced by the ideas of Epicurianism, but not by its moral conceptions.

    Gassendi’s arguments with Descartes are probably less substantial than they were personal — according to Gassendi, “I think therefore I am” is no more meaningful than “I take two sugars in my tea, therefore I am” … except that taken from our point of view of being aware of constant daily internet trolling as a matter of course, Gassendi’s argument here is just some 17th century troll-baiting.

    Descarte’s cogito is not, of course, invalidated by Gassendi being a smart-arse…

    More substantially, the properly philosophical arguments and disagreements between Descartes and Gassendi involved the still emerging atomic theory (and these have since been resolved, to wit they were each of them wrong in whichever parts of their theories) ; and the relationship between the soul and the body ; and the intellect and the imagination.

    These last arguments have not really been resolved, although Descarte’s position that the imagination was of no significant importance does seem fairly dodgy — and this is where Gassendi’s influence from Epicurianism is at its most obvious, because he elevated imagination as being of the same importance as intellect within each human person.

    Gassendi was a materialist where Descartes was a nominalist, so that I’d personally disagree somewhat with both of them concerning the relationship between body and soul — Gassendi denied that the soul has the power to move bodies, which is inherently heretical, and I believe conceptually and objectively wrong even from a non-theological point of view (assuming no outright rejection of the concept of the soul itself, that is) ; whereas Descarte’s fundamental posit, that the soul as an intellect is transcendentally aware of reality via perception and observation, whilst globally correct in my opinion, fails to take into account the existence of some essentially material elements of human consciousness, where no discrete action of the soul is philosophically necessary, not to mention the material components of intellect itself within physical reality.

    Ultimately, Descarte’s strong identification of the soul with the intellect is too radical, whereas Gassendi’s objections to this proposal are overly exaggerated in both scope and effect ; each philosopher’s solution to the question of the relationship between the soul and the mind is a radical one, and based not at all on any meditation on the Mystery of Trinitarian theology and its implications for the nature of our own individual incarnations, but they are based on the inherent limitations and flaws of human reasoning alone in the face of that Mystery.

    A solution to the question of the relationship between the Spirit and the Flesh in the unicity of each individual incarnation, as well as in the Incarnation of The Christ, would require an access to knowledge that simply has not been provided to mankind.

  7. Pastorious says:

    Fascinating comment J. Well explained.

    I only take issue with a minor point which jars. You say, according to and quoting Gassy , “I think therefore I am” is no more meaningful than “I take two sugars in my tea” etc. This cannot be a quote from Gassy, as tea and sugar were not around for him to taste. I question that he said that; could be wrong of course.

    Incidentally, a much better translation of “I think therefore I am” is “I am thinking, therefore I am”. Not the same thing.:)

  8. toadspittle says:

    Thanks to Jerry and Jabba, both.

    “Gassendi was an “intellectual Epicurian”, which means that he was influenced by the ideas of Epicurianism, but not by its moral conceptions.” Jabba tells us.

    Toad suspects, nothing more at this stage, that Gassendi was very much influenced by the moral conceptions of Epicurius, derived from the ideas (how could he not be?) – but was shrewd enough not to admit it.
    Otherwise, he might have been, as Voltaire calls it, put to The Question.
    Which was generally nasty and painful, and often fatal.

    However, Toad is fairly confident both were wrong about The Soul. (Which can’t move things.)
    But we won’t go into that.
    And Gassendi was right about atoms. They do exist.

  9. Pastorious says:

    Just to confirm your suspicion that Gassy was “very much influenced…by Epicurus”, it says in the article that “he was best known as a champion of Epicurus, whose philosophy he developed…”.

  10. Pastorious says:

    Just for clarity, J.

    In the article, Peter King refers to “an atomistic view of the world” and you refer in your post to “the still emerging atomic theory”. Are you actually talking about the same thing?

  11. JabbaPapa says:

    You say, according to and quoting Gassy , “I think therefore I am” is no more meaningful than “I take two sugars in my tea” etc. This cannot be a quote from Gassy, as tea and sugar were not around for him to taste

    Well spotted !!!

    Have a Gold Star for your report book …

    It was a modernising periphrase — he actually used “I go for a stroll, therefore I am”.

  12. JabbaPapa says:

    Incidentally, a much better translation of “I think therefore I am” is “I am thinking, therefore I am”.

    errrrrmmmm …. NOPE. (trust me, I’ve studied the values of the French verbal moods and tenses in EXCRUCIATING detail at the Sorbonne … )

  13. Jerry says:

    I’ve studied the values of the French verbal moods and tenses in EXCRUCIATING detail at the Sorbonne …
    :-) There should be a “Jabba quote of the day calendar”, these lines would be great for society dinner parties. Delivered loudly whilst spilling ones drink of course

  14. Pastorious says:

    My book runneth over with Gold Stars. But thanks, Teech. :) “I spot, therefore I am.”

    And my question of 12.18? Some confusion between ‘atomic’ and ‘atomist’ perhaps? And you’re not the only one, as John Lennon assured us.:)

    Another Gold Star?

  15. Pastorious says:

    GASP! Excuse me Jabba, I was quite overcome.

    You said you used a “modernising” epiphrase! GULP! They know where you live…..!!! :)

  16. JabbaPapa says:

    Toad : Toad suspects, nothing more at this stage, that Gassendi was very much influenced by the moral conceptions of Epicurius, derived from the ideas (how could he not be?) – but was shrewd enough not to admit it.

    No, not really — because among his various qualities, Gassendi was a great optimist and believer in human nature and good cheer, so that the excesses of Epicurus and those of the later far more hedonistic Epicurians (up to present day) did not belong to his nature, neither as a man nor as a philosopher.

  17. Pastorious says:

    :)

  18. Pastorious says:

    Jabba, you say you studied the “values of the French verbal moods and tenses” etc.
    But Jabba, Descartes wrote his famous dictum in Latin. Cogito ergo sum. You will agree.

    So you were wasting your time, a teeny bit perhaps, studying French verbs at the Sorbonne. It was of little help here.

    You see, the Present Continuous ‘I am thinking’ is a better translation than ‘I think’, which suggests that you think briefly and stop.The Present Continuous shows that I think (and continue to think) therefore I am(and continue to be).

    Think about it? Continuously? :)

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