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Debates, Polemics and Controversies in Early Modern Philosophy

Débats, polémiques et controverses dans la philosophie moderne

Third International Conference of the European Society for Early Modern Philosophy

Troisième conférence internationale de la Société européenne pour la philosophie moderne

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Published on Tuesday, September 25, 2012


The general objective of the conference is to take an overview of the present historiographical situation regarding the study of controversies and to contribute to a reappraisal of the study of controversies in the history of early modern philosophy. It will aim not only at mapping the many philosophical controversies of the early modern period, but as well at making explicit the different methodological approaches that can be used to analyse controversies and at evaluating the different explanatory merits of those methodological approaches.



The general objective of the conference is to take an overview of the present historiographical situation regarding the study of controversies and to contribute to a reappraisal of the study of controversies in the history of early modern philosophy. It will aim not only at mapping the many philosophical controversies of the early modern period, but as well at making explicit the different methodological approaches that can be used to analyse controversies and at evaluating the different explanatory merits of those methodological approaches.

1. Why should we study philosophical controversies?

At least since the 1970s, studies of scientific controversies have become a well-defined domain within Studies of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), Science and Technology Studies (STS), and History and Philosophy of Science (HPS). In these fields, the analysis of controversies has come to be seen as an important methodological tool to grasp processes that are not always visible within the sciences.  By contrast,  the study of controversies does not yet constitute a major genre in the history of philosophy. There are some excellent isolated studies of controversies in the history of philosophy, but the most frequent genre remains a monograph devoted to an author or to a concept.  

As in the sciences however, the study of controversies in philosophy can help to reconstruct and understand the historical elaboration of new concepts, new methods, new arguments and new systems. Indeed, a controversy drives into a corner the philosophers who are involved in it; they are obliged to make explicit what was implicit or even unthought in their previous writings. Hence, the study of controversies fully belongs to the history of philosophy insofar as it aims at giving a rational reconstruction of a philosophical thought.

Moreover, it can bring to the fore some usually hidden dimensions of philosophy, for example tacit conventions concerning its writing, or broad assumptions about its social functions. Thus, some socio-historical questions concerning the practices of philosophy may be addressed through the study of a controversy: Who was engaged in this controversy and through which medium? What was its forum? Which institutions, in a broad sense, played a role in it? How did external constraints and eventually censorship intervene in it?

Finally, the study of philosophical controversies can be the occasion for testing tools borrowed from the contemporary pragmatic turn in the philosophy of language and for elaborating new formal tools.

To sum up, the study of controversies is an important part of history of philosophy; it opens it up to intellectual history, as well as to more formal analysis.

2. What is meant by “debates”, “polemics” and “controversies”?

A debate/polemic/controversy should be distinguished from other forms of intellectual exchanges by the three following characteristics:

i) By contrast with fictional dialogues and criticisms addressed to dead authors, a debate/polemic/controversy unfolds between at least two real living authors, with the result that neither of them can fully control its outcome.

ii) By contrast with peaceful consensual exchanges, a debate/polemic/controversy includes confrontation, dissension and disagreement. This opposition plays out at different levels: it may be personal or impersonal; it may concern the relevance and extension of a concept or to the truth of a proposition; or it may relate to the content of a philosophy or to its communication.  

iii) By contrast with protracted discussions, a debate/polemic/controversy has a bounded nature: even when it deals with a so-called timeless problem, it is localised in space and time.

That said, there are some differences betweens a “debate,” a “polemic,” and a “controversy.” And beside these three terms, there are still other terms used to describe exchanges that may present the three characteristics just mentioned: “discussion,” “dispute,” “quarrel,” etc.  As these terms are not synonymous, they invite us to introduce distinctions according to the answers that are given to the following questions:

— Are there recognised procedures for regulating and even closing the controversy? Unlike a discussion, what is commonly called a dispute is in principle endless, even when it comes to an accidental end, for example, through the death of the disputants. For, unlike “discutants,” the “disputants” do not agree on which procedures should be adopted to regulate or even to close their controversy.

— What is the aim of the controversy? A discussion can aim at achieving a consensus, when the discutants agree, not only on the procedures to be adopted to close the controversy, but also on certain broad assumptions. A discutant can also aim at reaching a tolerant settlement; in that case, each discutant recognises that the broad assumptions on which the other discutants rely are legitimate, even though he does not personally accept them.

— What kind of forum is chosen for the controversy? Is public opinion of some kind referred to in the controversy and if so what is its function? Even if they are embodied in publications, some controversies may be classified as “private,” insofar as they involve only the authors concerned. But there are also debates that involve a form or another of “public opinion,” whose delineation is a matter of debate as well.

— How are rational arguments interwoven with more eristic considerations? The rational aim of a controversy is to settle a set of problems, whereas the eristic aim of a quarrel or a polemic is to defeat one’s adversaries. Hence, “quarrel” and “polemic” usually refer to conflicts between two embittered personalities, but a polemical dimension exists in most controversies.

Different answers to these questions can be combined in many ways. Further, today’s terminology does not always correspond to terminologies used in the past, and these terminologies vary from one language to another.  For these reasons, no strict typology of controversies will be imposed on the participants in the conference. Nevertheless, the three terms used in its title, “debates,” “controversies” and “polemics” express the formal diversity of controversies and invite the participants to give a formal characterisation of the controversies under study.

3. Why were there so many philosophical controversies in the early modern period?

While the early modern period is sometimes still presented as the period when the rational foundations of our contemporary world were discovered and immediately expressed in beautiful systems, it might be considered as the Golden Age for debates, polemics and controversies. The Republic of Letters was resounding with fearless discussions, acrimonious disputes and endless quarrels.

The Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the new philosophies calling into question the ancient authorities, produced many controversies, whether for promoting new philosophies against the ancient ones, for defending the ancient philosophiees against new ones, for identifying the essential characteristics of the ancient philosophies, or for deciding which among the new philosophies should be privileged. Replacing authority by reason has indeed some consequences. The principle of authority amounts to saying: “it is so because it is so”. But once authority has been replaced by reason, reasons should be given for everything.

In such contexts, early modern philosophers mobilised ancient as well as new material forms of communication. The scholastic oral disputations and the religious quarrels of the Renaissance were still in use; the exchange of letters was developed in an unprecedented manner; short publications in pamphlets and in newly arisen journals began to be formalised. As philosophy was practiced outside from the Schools, the boundaries between controversies within the world of the learned and more public debates were sometimes blurred.

The practices of early modern philosophers engaged in controversies would thus gain from being compared to the practices of their predecessors in the Renaissance and of their followers in the Enlightenment.





Wednesday the 30th

Thursday the 31th

Friday the 1st


Welcome Address

Plenary lecture I (60’)

M. Dascal

Discussion (30’)


Plenary lecture II (60’)

U. Goldenbaum

Discussion (30’)


Plenary lecture III (60’)

M. R. Antognazza

Discussion (30’)




Papers 1 & 2

— Papers 1

M.-F. Pellegrin (30’+15’)

R. Schüssler (30’+15’)


— Papers 2

D. Heider (30’+15’)

J. Schmutz (30’+15’)

Papers 3 & 4

— Papers 3

J. Halford (30’+15’)

B. Gide (30’+15’)


— Papers 4

J. Olsthoorn (30’+15’)

R. Glauser (30’+15’)


Papers 5 & 6

— Papers 5

D. Collacciani (30’+15’)

A. Strazzoni (30’+15’)


— Papers 6

L. Hess (30’+15’)

A. Ferraro (30’+15’)



Lunch Break


Colloquia 1 (metaphysics)

& 2 (natural phil.)


— Colloquium 1

S. Hutton (30’+15’)

I. Agostini (30’+15’)



— Colloquium 2 

C. Lüthy (30’+15’)

D. Bellis (30’+15’)

Colloquia 3 (moral phil.)

& 4 (epistemology)


— Colloquium 3

G. Boros (30’+15’)

S. Ebbersmeyer (30’+15’)


— Colloquium 4 

M. Chottin (30’+15’)

L. Berchielli  (30’+15’)

Colloquia 5 (politics)

& 6 (sciences)


— Colloquium 5

J. Terrel (30’+15’)

H. Dawson (30’+15’)



— Colloquium 6 

S. Corneanu (30’+15’)

R. Andrault (30’+15’)




Colloquia 1 (metaphysics)

& 2 (natural phil.)


— Colloquium 1

J.-P. Anfray (30’+15’)

F. Piro (30’+15’)


— Colloquium 2 

V. Viljanen (30’+15’)

S. Schmid (30’+15’)

Colloquia 3 (moral phil.)

& 4 (epistemology)


— Colloquium 3

M. Pécharman (30’+15’)

P. Kail (30’+15’)


— Colloquium 4 

F. Wunderlich (30’+15’)

V. Lähteenmäki (30’+15’)

Colloquia 5 (politics)

& 6 (sciences)


— Colloquium 5

C. Larrère (30’+15’)

M. Schabas (30’+15’)


— Colloquium 6 

M. Valleriani (30’+15’)

K. Vermeir (30’+15’)



Plenary meeting ESEMP




Conference dinner




Marcelo Dascal (Tel Aviv) : t.b.c.

Maria Rosa Antognazza (King’s College London), “Insightful objections are always useful”: debates, polemics and controversies in Leibniz

Ursula Goldenbaum (Emory University), Exploring Public Debates to Understand the Philosophical Argument



Marie-Frédérique Pellegrin (Lyon), La querelle des femmes est-elle une querelle ? Le rôle de la philosophie dans l’histoire du féminisme

Rudolf Schüssler (Bayreuth), Jesuit opinion pluralism and the controversy over probabilism


Daniel Heider (University of South Bohemia), The Controversy in Baroque Scotism: Bartholomew Mastrius (Bonaventure Belluto) and John Punch on Universal Unity and Second Intentions

Jacob Schmutz (Université Paris-Sorbonne), La controverse du péché philosophique : retour sur un des grands débats théologiques de la fin du XVIIe siècle


Jake Halford, The role of the dialogue genre in constructing controversy and conflict in the period 1640-1665

Benoit Gide (Lyon), Les silences polémiques de Hume et Reid concernant le sens commun et le scepticisme


Johan Olsthoorn (Leuven), The Problem of Spurious Replies in Hobbes’s Exchanges with Bishop Bramhall

Richard Glauser (Neuchatel), Volition and Last Judgment in Locke and van Limborch


Domenico Collacciani (Paris), Les traités de la lumière entre Descartes et Huygens, Vossius, de Bruyn et Petit

Andrea Strazzoni (Pisa), A logic to end controversies: Clauberg’s logica vetus et nova as means to settle the disputes on Cartesian Philosophy


Leopold Hess (Varsaw), The notion of nature in Leibniz’s polemics with his contemporaries

Angela Ferraro (Nantes/Rome), Le « raisonneur » et l’« anatomiste » : la dispute Lémery-Winslow sur la génération des monstres (1724-1743)



General Topic Description

From our point of view, as well as that of the age itself, a great part of the controversies of the early modern period could be ascribed to the metaphysical domain. This is the case with many debates that we label as belonging to the area of ‘philosophy of mind’, or of the philosophy of nature. As is well-known, leaving aside some more technical (mathematical or experimental) discussions, the major debates concerning the general framework for the ‘new science’ until eighteenth-century were framed in metaphysical, if not theological terms. Through these discussions alone, a methodical distinction between the fields of metaphysics and the different scientific fields has been painstakingly established. In this section we have chosen, at least to some extent, to leave out some debates that – although actually ‘metaphysical’ - are dealt with in other sections of this conference, and we thus restrict ourselves to topics belonging to metaphysics in our more restricted sense.

In the early modern period, metaphysics itself was in search of a new disciplinary and methodological definition, moving from its first reshaping as a systematic discipline within the Scholastic learning, to its ambivalent Cartesian foundation, either as the science of the ‘first things to be known’ or the science of immaterial beings, laid down at the roots of the ‘tree’ of human knowledge. From the mixing of these different models, passing through the major post-Cartesian ‘systems’, the new academic framework of a ‘general metaphysics’ and a ‘special’ one surfaced, the latter focusing on the objects of theology, psychology and cosmology. Meanwhile, however, radical criticisms levelled against metaphysical assumptions paved the way for the final detachment of empirical sciences from their anchoring in the metaphysical framework.

Metaphysical controversies are all the more interesting in such an age of complex paradigm changes. Thus, when different approaches meet in discussion, the last philosophical assumptions of one stance are likely to reveal at best.

This is the case in many of the great controversies of the age: among many of them, we have chosen to focus on the More/Descartes debate, where an essentially sympathetic attitude by More concerning Descartes’ new philosophy leaves room for basic disagreements about topics which are seminal to later cosmological and psychological developments, such as: infinity, the nature of matter and its relationship to senses, the soul of animals.

Another example is the series of controversies around the topic of ‘middle knowledge’. This topic has been chosen for a series of different reasons: first of all, it is one of the few cases where Scholastics and ‘new philosophers’ share the same field and the same conceptual framework and language, hence it is a privileged field to follow the interactions between different intellectual traditions, and the related phenomena of continuity/discontinuity; secondly, while being a sophisticated metaphysical topic - having also relevant echoes in present-day metaphysics and being interwoven with the interdisciplinary issue of free will - it was also, in terms of the last aspect, deeply rooted in the wider theological and ideological debates of the age.

Topic I: A Case Study for the Early Modern Clash of Metaphysical Paradigms: Themes from the Descartes/More Discussion (1648-1649)

Igor Agostini (Lecce), The discussion on the infinity of the world in the More-Descartes correspondence

Sarah Hutton (Aberystwith), Matters of Substance: Body in the Correspondence of Henry More and Descartes

Topic II: Middle Knowledge: A Common Field of Debate for Different Philosophical and Theological Traditions

Jean-Pascal Anfray (Paris), La science moyenne et les modalités : contrefactuels, mondes possibles et concepts individuels

Francesco Piro (Salerno), Why should God know the truth on counterfactual conditionals? Keilah’s possible siege, the controversy on Middle Knowlege and the varieties of Anti-Molinism

COLLOQUIUM 2 : EARLY MODERN DEBATES, POLEMICS AND CONTROVERSIES IN NATURAL PHILOSOPHY (Chairs : Christian Barth, Berlin, and Dominik Perler, Berlin/Princeton)

General Topic description

Unlike their scholastic predecessors, early modern philosophers subscribing to the program of the “new science” rejected the hylomorphist view that natural processes are to be described and explained in terms of matter and form. They unanimously claimed that the methods of mechanistic physics should be applied. This makes it tempting to assume that these philosophers agreed in their account of nature and natural processes. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. There were especially two issues that were highly debated in this period. Our section will focus on them, thus paying attention to controversies among mechanistic philosophers of nature.

The first issue concerns the theory of matter. What exactly is matter? Is it constituted by a homogenous material plenum that is infinitely divisible, as corpuscularianists like René Descartes assumed? Or does matter ultimately consist of indivisible atoms, as atomists like Pierre Gassendi held? Every attempt to answer these questions immediately poses the methodological problem of how to deal with them. Is the question concerning the nature of matter an empirical one that is to be approached by means of experimental devices such as microscopes, or is it a strictly non-empirical question that is to be settled by pure thinking? Closely linked to the debates about matter is the controversy about the possibility of a vacuum since corpuscularianists typically held that a vacuum is impossible. But how are these claims connected? Does corpuscularianism really entail the impossibility of a vacuum, and atomism its possibility? Or do the typical commitments of atomism and corpuscularianism depend on further, perhaps implicit assumptions? Focusing on controversies among defenders of these positions helps to answer these questions, because in controversies authors are often pressed on questions that they would tend to bypass. For this reason a close examination of these debates can turn out to be a veritable source of philosophical-historical insights.

The same holds for the second issue we want to analyze in our section. This is the theory of causality, which was also a highly debated topic among early modern authors. How should we understand causal relations in nature? Do natural things have genuine causal powers that bring about certain effects? Or is their causal activity rather due to God, as occasionalists (like Nicolas Malebranche) or semi-occasionalists (like Louis de la Forge) maintained. Or does this question rest on an altogether flawed presupposition, as Spinoza would have it, who took singular things to be mere modes of God that express his infinite power? Or should we rather leave these controversies about the nature of causality behind us by acknowledging that the only idea of causality we can have is the one of a regular succession between certain types of events, as Hume argued? And what about final causality? Is the notion of a final cause intrinsically mistaken, as Spinoza thought, or can we make sense of this notion when we talk about the actions of minds, as Leibniz argued? The early modern period is full of debates about the correct understanding of causation. It was the engagement in this on-going controversy that allowed early modern authors to fathom the strengths and weaknesses of different accounts of causality and to devise ever more sophisticated theories of causality.

Topic I: Matter

Delphine Bellis (Ghent), Les débats sur la nature de la lumière dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle : autour de Descartes, Gassendi et Boulliau

Christoph Lüthy (Nijmegen), Hylemorphism, atoms, corpuscles: a survey of the polemical front-lines in the years 1640-50

Topic II: Causation

Stephan Schmid (Berlin), Essence, Power, and Natural Teleology in Spinoza - Approaching a Controversy from a Late Scholastic Perspective

Valtteri Viljanen (Turku), The Early Modern Rationalists and the Formal Cause: Were They Ever Really Against It?


General Topic Description

Early modern philosophers were preoccupied with the gap between the vernacular and rational understanding of the concepts and distinctions of moral experience, including free will and the social emotions of love and benevolence, and the various understandings of these concepts when embedded in Christian theology. The need to accommodate or to resist theological interpretations generated controversy, but so too did the attempts to re-articulate moral concepts within what was increasingly not only a secular but also a scientific framework. The influential interpretation of the human body as a machine for living, sensory experience as impelling its movements, and the emotions as sources of information about the environment rather than as unwanted disruptions of its proper functioning, powerfully influenced the direction of debates. The sense of liberation from theological shackles was countered by the worry that the liberated entity might be only a machine with a delusory sense of its own moral freedom.

The discovery or rediscovery of the social emotions, meanwhile, was an element of the emerging anthropology of early modern thought and the attempt to construct a normative ethics from within human life, rather than in terms of supernatural command and the consequences of disobedience, or at least to demonstrate the compatibility of these two very different frameworks. The papers will address the clashes between theological and secular understandings of moral concepts and also the controversies generated by the efforts to rethink the human being as a part of nature, subject to its laws.

Martine Pécharman (Paris), Hobbes, White et Bramhall sur la question de la cause du mal. De la controverse sur le meilleur des mondes possibles  à la controverse sur la liberté et la nécessité.

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer (Munich), The autonomy of immaterial machines. Leibniz and the debate about free will

Gábor Boros (Budapest), The Masham-Norris-Malebranche Controversy on Love

Peter Kail (Oxford), What is controversial about the moral sense?


Topic I : The Controversy between Anthony Collins and Samuel Clarke about the Nature of the Mind (Udo Thiel)

General Topic Description

After the Cartesian attempt to replace the Aristotelian conception with the notion of the mind or soul as a complete and immaterial substance, the nature of the mind became a central topic of philosophical debate in Early Modern Philosophy. At the end of the seventeenth century Locke suggested that the soul might be a material entity or that ‘thinking matter’ is possible, i.e. that the notion does not involve a contradiction. As John Yolton has shown, Locke’s suggestion, in combination with the development of a new conception of matter and of developments in physiology, led to more self-confident and powerful materialist accounts of the human mind in the course of the eighteenth century.

The debate between Anthony Collins (1676-1729) and Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) is situated at the beginning of this development and proved to be immensely influential on subsequent discussions about the nature of the mind (e.g. in Joseph Priestley). It took place from 1706-1708 and was inspired by Henry Dodwell’s An Epistolary Discourse, proving from the Scripture and the first Fathers, that the Soul is a Principle naturally Mortal (London 1706). Dodwell’s thesis about the natural mortality of the soul drew criticism from Samuel Clarke, while Collins defended Dodwell. Collins was a follower of Locke on many issues but unlike Locke was committed to a materialist understanding of the mind. Clarke, by contrast, argued that the suggestion about the possibility of thinking matter was very implausible, to say the least. As the controversy continued, Dodwell dropped out of the picture and Collins and Clarke focused on a whole range of epistemological and metaphysical issues related to that of the nature of the mind, including consciousness, self-consciousness, personal identity, fre will and determinism.

Vili Lähteenmäki (Jyväskylä), The Nature of Consciousness in the Clarke Collins Debate

Falk Wunderlich (Mainz), Clarke, Collins, and the Controversy on Thinking Matter

Topic II: The Molyneux Question / Le problème de Molyneux (James Hill)

General Topic Description

The Irish philosopher William Molyneux sent the following question to John Locke in a letter of 1693:

Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of ivory, nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube and which the sphere. Suppose then, the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man to be made to see. [I ask] whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe which the cube.

Locke’s inclusion of this question in the second edition of his Essay on Human Understanding of 1694 brought it to the attention of the philosophical public. A lively debate ensued about how the question should be answered. Not only Locke, but also such luminaries as Leibniz, Berkeley, Hutcheson, Voltaire and Condillac all addressed the question posed by Molyneux, and plentiful reasons were offered for both a positive and a negative answer.

In the course of the debate a number of things became increasingly clear. It was soon apparent that Molyneux had under-described the scenario in his original question in certain critical ways.  It was not clear, for example, if the subject could survey the two objects from different perspectives, observe them in motion (and thus see the rolling of one and not of the other) or, indeed, if he or she was to be given time to reflect and make inferences about what was seen. Nor was it clear whether the subject would be informed at the outset that a globe and a cube lay on the table in front of them.

More importantly, it became apparent during the debate―and has since in retrospect become clearer still―that the philosophical significance of the Molyneux Question can be understood in multiple ways. It seems to raise the issue of whether sight, unaided by the other senses, is able to directly perceive three dimensional spatial properties. It also raises the question, internal to vision itself, of the nature of the relation between the perception of colour (or light and shade) and  the perception of shape. In addition it questions whether there are ‘common sensibles’ and, possibly, whether there is a faculty of ‘common sense’ as delineated by the Aristotleans. The Molyneux Question can also be interpreted in a broader way to be asking whether judgement is implicit in sense perception, and thus whether perception involves unconscious mental activity.

While the Molyneux Question began as a thought-experiment, it (or something like it) was to become the subject of a real experiment. In 1728 the surgeon William Cheselden removed cataracts from the eyes of a congenitally blind boy who was then visually confronted with physical objects for the first time. However this did not resolve the debate. Instead, Cheselden’s account of the details of the surgical operation and its aftermath, along with the evidence of the young boy, themselves became subject to further disputed interpretations.

Laura Berchielli (Clermont-Ferrand), La question de Molyneux et son statut de controverse

Marion Chottin (Paris), Trouble dans la métaphysique : Condillac face au problème de Molyneux

COLLLOQIUM 5 : EARLY MODERN DEBATES, POLEMICS AND CONTROVERSIES IN POLITICS (Chairs : Susan James, London, and Pierre-François Moreau, Lyon)

General Topic description

Une des caractéristiques de la philosophie politique au début de la modernité est que, tout en traitant encore les thèmes traditionnels (le meilleur gouvernement, le cycle des gouvernements, les rapports entre Eglise et pouvoir laïque), elle les juxtapose ou les subordonne à des questions nouvelles, qu’elle importe de domaines jusque là extérieurs à elle ou en cours de fondation : le droit et l’économie politique. L’insertion de ces objets nouveaux dans une discipline traditionnelle en modifie considérablement la configuration : penser la politique sous les catégories du droit privé, comme le fait la théorie du contrat, met au centre de la réflexion une forme très déterminée d’individu (le sujet de droit) ; réfléchir sur la liberté du commerce ou la propriété prend en compte une extension nouvelle des questions qui concernent souverain et citoyen.

Among the many controversies that shaped early-modern political philosophy, debates about the very nature of political agreement are surely one of the most pervasive.  Can people agree to the terms of political association, as the contract tradition so often assumes? Is there some rational ground of their agreement? Or is politics fundamentally a matter of coercion? Hannah Dawson and Jean Terrel will explore two complementary aspects of this issue that have on the whole been marginalised. Hannah Dawson will show how the adversarial genre of disputation was used as a means of establishing truth, and thus calming controversy about the basis of political association. Coming at the same general issue from another direction, Jean Terrel will examine the various ways in which social contract theories assume that everyone can be brought to agree to the terms of the social contract, thus suppressing the problem of controversy or disagreement among individuals. Why isn’t this assumption more often challenged within the contract tradition?

Alongside its focus on the relations between states and citizens, early modern political philosophy became increasingly concerned to theorise the idea of an economy, and here, too, a number of interconnected controversies arose.  One of the most vital concerned the nature and use of money. What sorts of monetary contracts are conducive to human flourishing and what monetary policies can best advance the common good? Margaret Schabas will explore the development of these debates in the Scottish Enlightenment, focusing particularly on the contribution of David Hume. The issues she discusses in turn bear on a broader problem, which itself gave rise to controversy: how are economies best studied?  In particular, is political economy a science? Catherine Larrère will address this problem, taking as her case study the Galiani’s and Turgot’s quarrel over the corn trade during the 1760s.

Topic I: Theories of Social Contracts

Jean Terrel (Bordeaux), Le discours classique du contrat social et le problème de la division sociale

Hannah Dawson (Edinburgh),

Topic II: Econonomy

Margaret Schabas (University of British Columbia), A Cautious, Jealous Virtue:  Hume on Justice and Property

Catherine Larrère (Paris), La dispute de la fin des années 1760 sur la liberté du commerce des grains et l’économie politique comme science


General Topic description

It is interesting to note that the mere presence of a session on history of science in a conference on history of philosophy devoted to DPCs already reflects one crucial debate that stretches from the early modern time up till ours: the contested boundaries between science and philosophy. Now, it is obvious that our stating this in terms of “science”, as if this was a monolithic block, is in itself already the result of multifaceted, often controversial processes. To bring this out, we want to focus on less straightforwardly “scientific” practices, that not only have often been devaluated from a historiographic point of view, but the relative worth of which was already the focus of intense debate in the early modern period.

We are interested in the DPCs that arise at the boundaries of the field of philosophy for a number of reasons. Firstly, to understand why certain considerations were deemed proper to philosophy, while others had to be excluded. Secondly, to see how these DPCs helped shape the development of philosophy, not only through the negative moment of excluding certain types of considerations, but also by incorporating aspects of these other practices. Yet, thirdly and maybe most importantly, we do not necessarily want to look at these exchanges exclusively through the lens of what (afterwards) became philosophy as we know and recognize it, but also try to understand the stakes from the point of view of these “inferior” practices.

(I) In a first part of the session we will focus on a discipline whose role in the “scientific revolution” has, until recently, often been undervalued. Indeed medicine shares with magic and engineering the characteristic of being related to a practical aim (healing). In addition, physicians (both of the body and of the mind) had to answer many accusations, and especially those of impiety and atheism. Historians of medicine generally try to understand how a consensus emerged about what we consider nowadays as major scientific discoveries (as for example the discovery of blood circulation). In contrast, we would like to show how DPCs which arose between less famous scientists about what we could consider as exotic or curious objects are crucial to understand two aspects:

- first, motives of resistance against a discovery

- second, what is at stake in major philosophical discussions of the time (links between matter and spirit, between nature and God, the nature of life and death etc.).

(II) In the second part, we will look at respectively magic and engineering. While obviously quite apart in a number of ways, there are also important points of convergence: both had an explicitly operative rather than contemplative focus, both had important links with the idea of wonder, and both forced a reconsideration of the ideas of matter and spirit (may be less obvious in the case of engineering, but one only has to consider the role of imagination and the notion of “génie” that is central in its denomination). 

Topic I: Medicine

Sorana Corneanu (Bucharest), Medicine of the Mind and Medicine of the Body in the Late Renaissance

Raphaële Andrault (Paris), La vie et ses marges : le modèle circulatoire à l’épreuve de la transfusion sanguine

Topic II: Alternative practices

Koen Vermeir (Paris), The mesmeric imagination revised

Matteo Valleriani (Berlin), 16th-Century Professionals and Natural Philosophers : A Debate about Nature


    Grenoble, France (38)


  • Wednesday, January 30, 2013
  • Thursday, January 31, 2013
  • Friday, February 01, 2013


  • histoire de la philosophie, controverses, XVIIe siècle


  • Sophie Roux
    courriel : sophie [dot] roux [at] ens [dot] fr

Information source

  • Sophie Roux
    courriel : sophie [dot] roux [at] ens [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Debates, Polemics and Controversies in Early Modern Philosophy », Conference, symposium, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, September 25, 2012, https://calenda.org/209678

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