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He was born of poor parents at Champtercier, near Digne, in Provence. At a very early age he showed remarkable mental powers and attended the college at Digne. He showed particular aptitude for languages and mathematics, and the college allegedly invited him to lecture on rhetoric at the age of sixteen. Soon afterwards he entered the University of Aix-en-Provence , to study philosophy under P Fesaye. In 1612 the college of Digne called him to lecture on theology. Four years later he received the degree of doctor of theology at Avignon, and in 1617 he took holy orders. In the same year he answered a call to the chair of philosophy at Aix, and seems gradually to have withdrawn from theology.
He lectured principally on the Aristotelian philosophy, conforming as far as possible to the orthodox methods. At the same time, however, he followed with interest the discoveries of Galileo and Kepler, and became more and more dissatisfied with the Peripatetic system. The period of revolt against the Aristotelianism of the schools had begun, and Gassendi shared to the full the empirical tendencies of the age. He too began to draw up objections to the Aristotelian philosophy, but did not at first venture to publish them. In 1624, however, after he had left Aix for a canonry at Grenoble, he printed the first part of his Exercitationes paradoxicae adversus Aristoteleos. A fragment of the second book later appeared in print at La Haye (1659), but Gassendi never composed the remaining five, apparently thinking that the Discussiones Peripateticae of Francesco Patrizzi left little scope for his labours.
After 1628 Gassendi travelled in Flanders and in Holland. During this time he wrote, at the instance of Marin Mersenne, his examination of the mystical philosophy of Robert Fludd (Epistolica Exercitatio, in qua precipua principia philosophiae Roberti Fluddi deteguntur, 1631), an essay on parhelia (Epistola de parheliis), and some valuable observations on the transit of Mercury which Kepler had foretold. He returned to France in 1631, and two years later became provost of the cathedral church at Digne.
Gassendi then spent some years travelling through Provence with the duke of Angoulême, governor of the region. During this period he wrote only the one literary work, his Life of Peiresc, which has has received frequent reprintings and an English translation. In 1642 Mersenne engaged him in controversy with René Descartes. His objections to the fundamental propositions of Descartes appeared in print in 1642; they appear as the fifth in the series contained in the works of Descartes. Gassendi's tendency towards the empirical school of speculation appears more pronounced here than in any of his other writings.
In 1645 he accepted the chair of mathematics in the Collège Royal at Paris, and lectured for many years with great success. In addition to controversial writings on physical questions, there appeared during this period the first of the works for which historians of philosophy remember him. In 1647 he published the well-received treatise De vita, moribus, et doctrina Epicuri libri octo. Two years later appeared his commentary on the tenth book of Diogenes Laërtius, De vita, moribus, et placitis Epicuri, seu Animadversiones in X. librum Diog. Laër. (Lyons, 1649; last edition, 1675). In the same year he had publihed the more important Syntagma philosophiae Epicuri (Lyons, 1649; Amsterdam, 1684).
In 1648 ill-health compelled him to give up his lectures at the Collège Royal. He travelled in the south of France, spending nearly two years at Toulon, the climate of which suited him. In 1653 he returned to Paris and resumed his literary work, publishing in that year lives of Copernicus and of Tycho Brahe. The disease from which he suffered, a lung complaint, had, however, established a firm hold on him. His strength gradually failed, and he died at Paris. A bronze statue of him was erected by subscription at Digne in 1852.
Montmort published Gassendi's collected works, most importantly the Syntagma philosophicum (Opera, i. and ii.), in 1658 (6 vols., Lyons). N Averanius published another edition, also in 6 folio volumes, in 1727. The first two comprise entirely his Syntagma philosophicum; the third contains his critical writings on Epicurus, Aristotle, Descartes, Fludd and Lord Herbert, with some occasional pieces on certain problems of physics; the fourth, his Institutio astronomica, and his Commentarii de rebus celestibus; the fifth, his commentary on the tenth book of Diogenes Laërtius, the biographies of Epicurus, NCF de Peiresc , Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Georg von Feuerbach , and Regiomontanus, with some tracts on the value of ancient money, on the Roman calendar, and on the theory of music, with an appended large and prolix piece entitled Notitia ecclesiae Diniensis; the sixth volume contains his correspondence. The Lives, especially those of Copernicus, Tycho and Peiresc, received much praise.
After the revival of letters Gassendi became one of the first to treat the literature of philosophy in a lively way. His writings abound in those anecdotal details, natural yet not obvious reflections, and vivacious turns of thought, which made Edward Gibbon style him, with some extravagance certainly, but also with some truth -- "Le meilleur philosophe des littérateurs, et le meilleur littérateur des philosophes".
Gassendi holds an honourable place in the history of physical science. Although he added little to the stock of human knowledge, the clearness of his exposition and the manner in which he, like Bacon, urged the importance of experimental research, provided an inestimable service to the cause of science. To what extent any place can be assigned him in the history of philosophy remains more doubtful. The Exercitationes excited much attention, though they contain little or nothing beyond what others had already advanced against Aristotle. The first book expounds clearly, and with much vigour, the evil effects of the blind acceptance of the Aristotelian dicta on physical and philosophical study; but, as occurs with so many of the anti-Aristotelian works of this period, the objections show the usual ignorance of Aristotle's own writings. The second book, which contains the review of Aristotle's dialectic or logic, throughout reflects Ramism in tone and method. The objections to Descartes -- one of which at least, through Descartes's statement of it in the appendix of objections in the Meditations has become famous -- have no speculative value, and in general stem from the crudest empiricism. His labours on Epicurus have a certain historical value, but the want of consistency inherent in the philosophical system raised on Epicureanism deprives it of genuine worth. Along with strong expressions of empiricism we find him holding doctrines absolutely irreconcilable with empiricism in any form. For while he maintains constantly his favourite maxim "that there is nothing in the intellect which has not been in the senses" (nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu), while he contends that the imaginative faculty (phantasia) is the counterpart of sense -- that, as it has to do with material images, it is itself, like sense, material, and essentially the same both in men and brutes; he at the same time admits that the intellect, which he affirms as immaterial and immortal -- the most characteristic distinction of humanity -- attains notions and truths of which no effort of sensation or imagination can give us the slightest apprehension (Op. ii. 383). He instances the capacity of forming "general notions"; the very conception of universality itself (ib. 384), to which he says brutes, who partake as truly as men in the faculty called phantasia, never attain; the notion of God, whom he says we may imagine as corporeal, but understand as incorporeal; and lastly, the reflex action by which the mind makes its own phenomena and operations the objects of attention.
The Syntagma philosophicum, in fact, remains one of those eclectic systems which unite, or rather place in juxtaposition, irreconcilable dogmas from various schools of thought. It sub-divides, according to the usual fashion of the Epicureans, into logic (which, with Gassendi as with Epicurus, is truly canonic), physics and ethics. The logic, which contains at least one praiseworthy portion, a sketch of the history of the science, is divided into theory of right apprehension (bene imaginari), theory of right judgment (bene proponere), theory of right inference (bene colligere), theory of right method (bene ordinare). The first part contains the specially empirical positions which Gassendi afterwards neglects or leaves out of account. The senses, the sole source of knowledge, supposedly yield us immediate cognition of individual things; phantasy (which Gassendi takes as material in nature) reproduces these ideas; understanding compares these ideas, each particular, and frames general ideas. Nevertheless, he admits that the senses yield knowledge -- not of things -- but of qualities only, and that we arrive at the idea of thing or substance by induction. He holds that the true method of research is the analytic, rising from lower to higher notions; yet he sees and admits that inductive reasoning, as conceived by Bacon, rests on a general proposition not itself proved by induction. In his dispute with Descartes he did apparently hold that the evidence of the senses remains the only convincing evidence; yet he maintains, and is natural from his mathematical training it, that the evidence of reason is absolutely satisfactory. The whole doctrine of judgment, syllogism and method mixes Aristotelian and Ramist notions.
In the second part of the Syntagma, the physics, appears the most glaring contradiction between Gassendi's fundamental principles. While approving of the Epicurean physics, he rejects the Epicurean negation of God and particular providence. He states the various proofs for the existence of an immaterial, infinite, supreme Being, asserts that this Being is the author of the visible universe, and strongly defends the doctrine of the foreknowledge and particular providence of God. At the same time he holds, in opposition to Epicureanism, the doctrine of an immaterial rational soul, endowed with immortality and capable of free determination. It is altogether impossible to assent to the supposition of Lange (Geschichte des Materialismus, 3rd ed., i. 233), that all this portion of Gassendi's system contains nothing of his own opinions, but is introduced solely from motives of self-defence. The positive exposition of atomism has much that is attractive, but the hypothesis of the calor vitalis (vital heat), a species of anima mundi (world-soul) which he introduces as a physical explanation of physical phenomena, does not seem to throw much light on the special problems which he invokes it to solve. Nor is his theory of the weight essential to atoms as being due to an inner force impelling them to motion in any way reconcilable with his general doctrine of mechanical causes.
In the third part, the ethics, over and above the discussion on freedom, which on the whole is indefinite, there is little beyond a milder statement of the Epicurean moral code. The final end of life is happiness, and happiness is harmony of soul and body (tranquillitas animi et indolentia corporis). Probably, Gassendi thinks, perfect happiness is not attainable in this life, but it may be in the life to come.
The Syntagma remains thus an essentially unsystematic work, and clearly exhibits the main characteristics of Gassendi's genius. He was critical rather than constructive, widely read and trained thoroughly both in languages and in science, but deficient in speculative power and original force. Even in the department of natural science he shows the same inability steadfastly to retain principles and to work from them; he wavers between the systems of Brahe and Copernicus. That his revival of Epicureanism had an important influence on the general thinking of the 17th century may be admitted; that it has any real importance in the history of philosophy cannot be granted.
Sorbière recounts Gassendi's life in the first collected edition of the works, by Bugerel, Vie de Gassendi (1737; 2nd ed., 1770); as does Damiron, Mémoire sur Gassendi (1839). An abridgment of his philosophy was given by his friend, the celebrated traveller, Bernier (Abrégé de la philosophie de Gassendi, 8 vols., 1678; 2nd ed., 7 vols., 1684). The most complete surveys of his work are those of GS Brett (Philosophy of Gassendi, London, 1908), Buhle (Geschichte der neuern Philosophie, iii. 1, 87-222), Jean Philibert Damiron (Mémoires pour servir a l'histoire de philosophie au XVII siècle), and PF Thomas (La Philosophie de Gassendi, Paris, 1889). See also Heinrich Ritter, Geschichte der Philosophie, x. 543-571; Feuerbach, Gesch. d. neu. Phil. von Bacon als Spinoza, 127-150; FX Kiefl, P. Gassendis Erkenninistheorie and seine Stellung zum Materialismus (1893) and "Gassendi's Skepticismus" in Philos. Jahrb. vi. (1893); C Güttler, "Gassend oder Gassendi?" in Archiv f. Gesch. d. Philos. x. (1897), pp. 238-242.
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