What was anti-Aristotelianism?

Anti-Aristotelianism was a reaction against the ways in which medieval interpretations of Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) had for centuries been accepted unquestioningly by catholic scholars.

Who was Pierre Gassendi?

Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) was a Catholic priest who was highly influential in justifying empirical science to religious dogmatists. He studied at Digne and Aix and became

Dante Alighieri is sometimes named as the inspiration for the founding of the Rosicrucians (iStock).

Dante Alighieri is sometimes named as the inspiration for the founding of the Rosicrucians (iStock).

How did Pierre Gassendi's compromises about the nature and limits of knowledge help the development of science?

Gassendi had shown how the development of science could take place without disturbing core religious beliefs. Like his fellow skeptics, Gassendi believed in God. Science could coexist with religion because science did not have to claim absolute truth, the way religion did.

professor of rhetoric at Digne when he was 21. After he received his doctorate in theology at Avignon and was ordained a priest, he became professor of philosophy at Aix. He also pursued astronomical research. His Exercitationes Paradoxicae Adversus Aristoteleos (1625) set out all that he thought was dubious and mistaken in Aristotle's writings. His principle attack on Aristotle was against the possibility of certain knowledge in science. Gassendi argued against Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) in his claim that certainty was neither possible nor necessary in science. At the same time, he sought to defend atomism against Church doctrine. Gassendi developed what came to be known as a mitigated or moderate skepticism that supported the conclusions of scientific inquiry.

Why did Pierre Gassendi promote mitigated skepticism?

Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) and his colleagues placed a high value on the new science of the time, which included the heliocentric (sun-centered solar system) theory after the Copernican revolution, the atomic theory holding that the activities of all matter were determined by its smallest particles—or atoms—and a rejection of those parts of the Aristotelian views of science that were in disagreement with these views. Gassendi's use of skepticism to attack Aristotle, and his use of moderate skepticism to support the new science, therefore made perfect sense. It helped Gassendi's cause that he was well liked and highly regarded among his colleagues in the Catholic Church, as well as by some of the more extreme skeptics of his day, and that he was careful not to go against Church doctrine. Indeed, while defending the new science on the one hand, and insisting that no scientific knowledge could be certain on the other, Gassendi was able to live and think in both the traditional Catholic world and the new scientific one.

What was mitigated or moderate skepticism as explained by Pierre Gassendi?

Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) argued that certainty or necessary truths could not be discovered in science. (A necessary truth is a belief or statement that it would be logically self-contradictory to deny—a necessary truth must be true.) Gassendi argued that all we can know is how things appear, not how they are in themselves. (In other words, we cannot know the hidden qualities of things.) We have no way to reason from what we experience to what has caused our experience, if we have not experienced that cause. Thus, if we have experienced the effect of something, but not the cause itself, we have to admit that we do not know the cause. Nevertheless, we can develop some useful bodies of information about appearances, especially if we augment that knowledge with atomism as a hypothesis.

In Syntagma Philosophicum Gassendi asks if there is any certain criterion to tell truth from falsehood. Clearly, some things are obvious, even to skeptics, such as "the sun is shining." It is what is concealed from us that causes difficulty: for example, whether the total number of stars is an odd or even number. Things like that can never be known. But, there are other things that are not evident that we can know by "signs." Our perception of sweat, for instance, is a sign that we have pores in our skin. There are also naturally non-evident things—such as the hidden fire that causes the smoke we see—that we know through indicative signs. While we do not know that the atomic world exists, we can infer it from indicative signs in the world we do perceive. Gassendi thought that it would be needlessly metaphysical to speculate about the property of atoms, such as claiming that they are mathematical. He also insisted that atomic explanations do not apply to the human soul, which he believed was indivisible and immortal, as held by Church doctrine.

How did other philosophers and scientists react to Pierre Gassendi's views?

Jean de Silhon (1600-1667)and René Descartes (1596-1650) tried to develop positive knowledge claims that would avoid Gassendi's skepticism. Silhon argued that knowledge was possible because it existed in logic and the sciences. Descartes based his entire philosophy on an attempt to demonstrate the existence of certain scientific knowledge that would not conflict with Church doctrine. In the end, the Jesuits upheld Gassendi's view that certainty is impossible and condemned Descartes.

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