Heroes of Science: Pierre Gassendi

Pierre Gassendi,  was one of the prodigies of the early seventeenth century. He was born in 1592 in Provence, went to college at Digne, and by the age of sixteen was lecturing there. After studying theology at Aix-en-Provence, he taught theology at Digne in 1612. When he received his doctorate in theology, he became a lecturer in philosophy at Aix, and then canon of Grenoble. Quite early in life, Gassendi began his extensive scientific researches, assisted and encouraged by some of the leading intellectuals of Aix, like Peiresc. The philosophy course that he taught led Gassendi to compile his extended critique of Aristotelianism, the first part of which appeared as his earliest publication in 1624, the Exercitationes Paradoxicae adversus Aristoteleos. This was followed by several scientific and philosophical works, which gained Gassendi great renown in the intellectual world and brought him into contact with the man who was to be his lifelong friend, Father Marin Mersenne. In 1633, Gassendi was appointed Provost of the Cathedral of Digne, and in 1645, professor of mathematics at the Collège Royal in Paris. Gassendi retired in 1648 and died in 1655.

In spite of his tremendous role in the formation of “the new science” and “the new philosophy,” Gassendi’s fame has survived mainly for his criticisms of Descartes’ Meditations and not for his own theories, which throughout the seventeenth century had rivaled those of his opponent. He is also remembered for the part he played in reviving the atomic theory of Epicurus. But, by and large, until quite recently, Gassendi’s status as an independent thinker has been most neglected. Perhaps this is due in part to Descartes’ judgment of him, and in part to the fact that he usually presented his ideas in extremely lengthy Latin tomes, which are only now being translated into French.

But Gassendi, in his lifetime, had an extremely important intellectual career, whose development, perhaps more than that of René Descartes, indicates and illustrates what J. H. Randall called “the making of the modern mind.” Gassendi started out his philosophical journey as a sceptic, apparently heavily influenced by his reading of the edition of Sextus brought out in 1621, as well as by the works of Montaigne and Charron. This phase of “scientific Pyrrhonism” served as the basis for Gassendi’s attacks on Aristotle as well as on the contemporary pseudoscientists and made Gassendi one of the leaders of the Tétrade. However, he found the negative and defeatist attitude of humanistic scepticism unsatisfactory, especially in terms of his knowledge of, and interest in, the “new science.” He announced then that he was seeking a via media between Pyrrhonism and Dogmatism. He found this in his tentative, hypothetical formulation of Epicurean atomism, a formulation that, in many respects, comes close to the empiricism of modern British philosophy.

– Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism

Note: adding a new category that will offer historical and critical biographical details on the history of science and key players within that history.

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