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Born: 1592, Champtercier, Provence, France

Died: 1655, Paris, France

Major Works: Exercitationes paradoxicarum adversus Aristoteleos (1624), Disquisitio Metaphysica, seu dubitationes et instantiae adversus Renati Cartesii metaphysica et responsa (1644), De vita et moribus bus Epicuri (1647), Syntagma philosophicum (1658)

Major Ideas

Aristotelianism is useless as a philosophy or basis for science.

Skepticism, in a mitigated form, allows for limited knowledge.

Epicurean atomism is the best hypothesis for explaining the natural world.

Epicureanism can be modified so that it is compatible with Christian beliefs.

Pierre Gassendi is best known for his revival of the atomic theory of Epicurus, advanced as a hypothetical system for modern science. He developed this view as a way of dealing with the results of applying skepticism to Scholastic philosophy. He avoided the consequences of complete skepticism by advancing a mitigated skepticism, what he called a via media between dogmatism and skepticism. Gassendi, a Catholic priest, also Christianized ancient Epicurean thought by rejecting its views about the nature of the soul and the role of Divine Providence. Instead he accepted the teachings of his church on faith. He was one of the most serious critics of Descartes's philosophy.

Gassendi studied at Digne and Aix in Provence. He was a prodigy and was appointed a professor at the age of twenty-one. In 1614, when he was twenty-two, he received a doctorate in theology at Avignon, and was ordained as a priest two years later. He became professor of philosophy at Aix in 1617, and remained there until 1623, when the university was taken over by the Jesuits. His course there developed into a massive critique of Aristotelian philosophy and a statement of his mitigated skepticism. He published the first part, criticizing the basic features of Aristotle's system, in 1624. The second part, developing his skepticism, was set aside because of the condemnation, of anti-Aristotelianism in Paris in 1624, and was published posthumously in his complete works in 1658.

After leaving his university post, Gassendi became part of an avant-garde scientific group patronized by Peiresc in Provence. In 1625, Gassendi visited Paris, and there formed a lifetime friendship with Father Main Mersenne, a central figure in the scientific revolution and in the development of modern ideas. Gassendi worked with various scientists and mathematicians, and produced important observations in astronomy tending to confirm the Copernican theory. He joined Mersenne in fighting off alchemists and astrologers. He also wrote a sharp critique of Herbert of Cherbury's De Veritate.

From his attack on Aristotelianism, and his development of a skepticism about metaphysical knowledge, he became interested in presenting a theory that could avoid skeptical criticism and provide a basis for modern scientific knowledge. He found such a theory in the writings of Epicurus. For the rest of his life, he was editing Epicurus's texts, establishing the most correct information about Epicurus, answering arguments leveled against Epicureanism, and developing a modified Epicureanism.

Gassendi was made provost of the Cathedral of Digne in 1634. In 1645, he was appointed to the chair of mathematics at the Royal College (now the College de France). In 1641 he was asked by Mersenne to write out his opinions of Descartes's new metaphysical system, which had just appeared in Descartes's Meditations. Gassendi attacked Descartes's theory from both a skeptical and a materialist point of view. His objections, the fifth set appended to the 1641 edition of the Meditations, outraged Descartes, who wrote a very nasty reply. Gassendi expanded his critique into a full-fledged work, the Disquisitio Metaphysica of 1644, which was perhaps the most complete answer to Descartes developed at the time.

After this, Gassendi began publishing a series of works on Epicureanism, starting with his thorough humanistic study De Vita et moribus Epicuri in eight books in 1647. In the best learned tradition of the time, Gassendi sifted out the facts from fictions about the historical Epicurus. In 1649 he published a most careful, analysis of the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius's Lives of the Philosophers, the book on Epicurus and Epicureanism, from which most of the criticisms of Epicureanism had come. In the same year he published a systematic exposition of Epicurus's philosophy with an answer to those who claimed this philosophy was anti-Christian.

Gassendi's most complete presentation of his own ideas and his interpretation and modernization of Epicureanism, appeared only after his death, in a work he had been composing for years, Syntagma philosophicum, which takes up the first two folio volumes of the complete works, published in 1658.

Exercitationes paradoxicarum adversus Aristoteleos

In the first part of this work, Gassendi followed in the tradition of the Renaissance humanists Francesco Patrizi and Pierre de la Ramee (Peter Ramus) in seeking to demonstrate the weak, dubious, and erroneous features of Aristotelianism. He criticized the jargon of the Scholastics and their arguments and inquiries. He attacked the Aristotelians for slavishly following their master instead of openly inquiring about the world. He showed the unclarity of some of Aristotle's definitions, the uselessness of his demonstrations, and the contradictions in his philosophy. It is a most detailed, almost stupifying critique.

The second book moves from textual analysis to a skeptical examination of the whole Aristotelian enterprise. Using the skepticism developed in the ancient Greek texts of Sextus Empiricus, together with the modern skeptical efforts of Montaigne, Charron, and Sanches, Gassendi first sought to show the artificiality of Aristotelian logic and its worthlessness as a means of discovering truths. Proofs, according to Aristotle, begin with universal propositions, such as "All men are mortal." But we can tell if this is true only if we have examined every case, past, present, and future--all men who ever have or will or could exist. Since this cannot be accomplished, we can never arrive at a universal proposition from which to commence our proof. In fact, the conclusion of a syllogism, such as "Socrates is mortal," is not really a conclusion, but is part of the evidence for the universal premise. Hence, Aristotle's method of demonstrating truths turns out to be circular.

From this examination of Aristotle's method, Gassendi concluded that "knowledge such as Aristotle describes it cannot exist." He applied a range of skeptical objects to undermine the possibility of science, or knowledge, in Aristotle's sense. Our faculties can be doubted, our information can be doubted. Hence, as Francisco Sanches a generation earlier had said, nihil scitur (nothing is known).

Having developed a complete skepticism against Aristotelianism, Gassendi then introduced his "mitigated skepticism," namely, that we possess a kind of knowledge in spite of all of the difficulties. Although we cannot know the essences of things, what they really are, and why they are what they are, nonetheless we do know how they appear to us. Sciences can be developed on the basis of these limited data. We can find sufficient certainty and evidence in terms of appearances to deal with questions that concern us. Gassendi applied his "mitigated skepticism" even to mathematics, saying "whatever certainty and evidence there is in mathematics is related to appearances, and in no way related to genuine causes or the inner natures of things."

Gassendi began to see Epicurean atomism as the best way of understanding or relating experiences. Epicureanism was for him a hypothetical system rather than a metaphysical one. He felt that Epicurus's views had been misrepresented and misunderstood. Hence, before he could present his hypothetical Epicureanism, he had first to do a great deal of scholarly, humanistic research to establish the correct texts of Epicurus and to interpret them. He was also concerned to obviate the Christian religious objections to Epicurus's philosophy. Hence, in interpreting his view, he sought to show that, if restricted and modified, it could be compatible with orthodox Christianity.

Gassendi's life of Epicurus, his materialist critique of Descartes's views, and his edition of the Epicurean texts were preparations for the presentation of Gassendi's atomistic philosophy.

Syntagma philosophicum

Gassendi's final work, the Syntagma philosophicum, begins with a book on logic, evaluating the ways of finding truth. He discusses Aristotelian, Stoic, and Epicurean theories and shows how they were criticized by the skeptics. As long as one is trying to find out the real nature of things, one is bound to fail. But if one will accept a shadow of truth, rather than truth itself, one can gain positive results. Gassendi proposed a via media between skepticism and dogmatism that he found in the empirical side of Epicureanism. If one restricts inquiry to what can be known in the world of appearances, then it is possible to establish some standards for judging what is true and what is false, and on this basis one can develop a tentative science.

Gassendi applied his hypothetical view of a science of appearances to working out a theory of the empirical natural world that would encompass the results of such figures as Copernicus, Galileo, Gassendi himself, and other early modem scientists. Instead of offering a metaphysical theory, as Descartes or Hobbes did, Gassendi offered an atomic model as a way of connecting various phenomena. The atomic world was described in terms of visible properties. And relations among atoms were offered as ways of explanation of natural phenomena. Gassendi thought it was possible to describe all that is known about nature in this manner. One can predict future observations on the basis of this hypothetical atomism. As long as one does not turn the hypothetical atoms into metaphysical atoms, one does not become enmeshed in dogmatic and unverifiable theorizing.

Gassendi's tentative atomism rivaled Cartesianism and Scholasticism as the best way of understanding man's knowledge of nature during the seventeenth century. Some of the Jesuits, who forced the condemnation of Cartesianism in the latter part of the seventeenth century, proposed Gassendi's atomism as the best science to be taught and studied. For better or worse, Gassendi's view was replaced by Newton's physics, in part because there did not seem to be any way of really applying Gassendi's model to nature, since one did not know what atomic configurations best accounted for what observations. It was only with the development of modern chemistry in the nineteenth century that scientific atomism began to develop as a serious way of explaining phenomena.

In ancient times, Epicureanism atomism had been condemned as irreligious. When the views of Epicurus and Lucretius were revived during the Renaissance, similar complaints were made about ancient atomism. Gassendi took it upon himself to explicate what Epicurus in fact said, to answer misguided criticism, and to modify Epicureanism by reference to modern scientific knowledge and to traditional Christian doctrines. In areas where Epicureanism was clearly in opposition to Christian teaching, Gassendi abandoned such parts of the theory and said that he accepted whatever the Church taught. He did not accept Epicurus's view of the physical and mortal nature of the soul and of the non-Providential nature of the course of events. He was willing to some extent to utilize Epicurus's empirical theology, as a way of explaining how people come to their notions about God.

Although it might seem that Epicureanism, as a materialist view, would have to conflict with Christianity, Gassendi provided a reconciliation by dropping parts of Epicureanism. The Church never challenged his orthodoxy or censured his works, but some scholars since have assumed that he must have been a freethinker. His views were disseminated all over Europe. Some of his work was translated into English, and provided the basis for a Neo-Epicureanism that was accepted by many leading English-speaking thinkers. John Locke, among others, was influenced by his views and adopted some of them in his own empirical philosophy.

In the eighteenth century, Gassendi's views were replaced by Newtonianism as the philosophy of modern science. Gassendi's writings, ponderous humanistic philological tomes, were set aside for shorter expositions and arguments. Gassendi has been remembered as an early materialist (albeit a hypothetical one), as the reviver of Epicurean atomism, and as one of the most acute critics of Descartes. He is just beginning to be read and studied again and to be awarded his rightful place as one of the major figures in the making of the modern mind.

Further Reading

Jones, Howard. Pierre Gassendi: An Intellectual Biography. Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1982. Concentrates on Gassendi's intellectual development.

Joy, Lynn S. Gassendi the Atomist, Advocate of History in an Age of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An excellent recent study showing the philosophy behind Gassendi's way of presenting his ideas.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Chapters 5 and 7 deal with Gassendi's mitigated skepticism.

Spink, J. S. French Free-Thought from Gassendi to Voltaire. London: Athlone, 1960. Portrays Gassendi as being in the line of freethinkers before the Enlightenment.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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