Translation project 2: Philosophical cosmology. Fundamental texts

b5-dana-jalobeanu-cosmologie-filosofica-290x415In the second part of 2015 our main activity at the research seminar was working on the Translation project 2, the selection of fragments for the three volumes of philosophical cosmology (fundamental texts). We have read and investigated texts selected for volume 1 (Philosophical cosmology in the Renaissance) and volume 2 (Cosmology in Early Modern Europe), ranging from mid sixteenth century mixed mathematics and treatises on the sphere to late seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century.

In November 2015, volume I (Philosophical cosmology in the Renaissance) has been submitted to the publisher. For a short summary of volume I see here. Volume I is co-edited by Dana Jalobeanu and Doina-Cristina Rusu.

Forthcoming publications in this series include:

  1. Mihnea Dobre, ed. Cosmologie filosofică. Texte fundamentale: Vol. II Cosmologia de la Descartes la Newton XVII-XVIII, Editura Universității din București, 2017.
  2. Dana Jalobeanu, Mihnea Dobre eds., Cosmologie filosofică. Texte fundaemntale : Vol. III Cosmologia de la Newton la Kant.

Bran Seminar Report 2015

In the recent Bran seminar, the Bucharest-Princeton Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy (12-17.07.2015), our research team was well represented. We continued to explore the multi-faced transformations of the early modern science, discussing how experiment, mathematics, metaphysics, natural histories, theology, and metaphysics came together into the discourse of the new science of the seventeenth century. Such a discussion took place in the reading group on “Genesis and the new science. The case of Cartesian philosophy,” which was coordinated by Mihnea Dobre (University of Bucharest) and Daniel Garber (Princeton University).


Mihnea Dobre: In the reading group, we discussed various texts from the Philosophical Transactions, Descartes’s correspondence, fragments from Descartes’s writings, and a book written by the Cartesian Géraud de Cordemoy. All the selected fragments concerned the relation between the new philosophy of the seventeenth century and the scripture. In particular, we focused on the relation between the corpuscularian theories advanced by Descartes and his followers and the first chapter of Genesis.

In 1670, the Philosophical Transactions presented two recent books that were dealing with the mosaic history of creation. These books were written accordingly to the new mechanical philosophy and they revealed obvious links with Cartesian philosophy. One of the main claims Oldenburg made in these books was that the story presented by Moses in the Genesis 1 was explained philosophically by the new science. Moreover, as one can learn from the review of the Cartesius mosaizans, they claimed that corpuscles and laws of motion are all that God had to create and the world was set into existence. As the title of the book suggests, this reading was inspired by Descartes’s natural philosophy. However, Descartes did not manage to give himself a full account of this issue. In the reading group, we explored the various places – especially from Descartes’s correspondence – were he referred positively to the explanatory power of his philosophy, which would include an account of the mosaic history of creation. In any case, his claims were defended and further developed by his philosophical heirs. We referred to one of these accounts, Géraud de Cordemoy’s Letter to a learned friar…. By exploring this connection between Cartesian natural philosophy and the Biblical history of creation, our reading group raised important questions about the relation between philosophy and theology, reason and revelation, history and observation.

Francis Bacon’s typology of pneumatic substances

For Bacon, spirit in general is a “breath compounded of an airy and a flamy substance” (OFB VI 321). One extreme is that of the air (rather cold and inactive), the other that of fire. But the mixture of air and fire is not mechanical (OFB XII 355); it is a complete mixture (which cannot be simply evaluated in terms of more air/less fire; or more fire/less air, but has a ‘mysterious’ character, OFB XII 352, 376 etc.). In between ‘air’ and ‘fire,’ we have a whole range of spirits: the non-living ones “are nearly consubstantial to air,” while the “vital spirits come closer to the substance of fire.”(OFB XII 354-5) One fundamental principle in Bacon’ natural philosophy is that there is no tangible body devoid of spirit. By contrast, spirits can be ‘free’ or ‘enclosed’ in matter. Meanwhile, spirits also come in all sorts of shapes and forms: and although Bacon sometimes attempted classifications of pneumaticals (i.e. according to their rarity in HDR) it is clear that their diversity resist any form of unique classification.

In the late natural histories, one can find series of experiments which seem to attempt to classify pneumaticals according to their properties. In some cases, the classification takes into consideration observational properties of pneumatics (hence, the resulting ‘classification’ will be called ‘phenomenological’). In some other cases, (esp. Sylva) the principle of classification seem to be the prevailing process (i.e. physical classifications). There is arguably also an attempt to divide spirits and matter in metaphysical terms.

It is not only that these classifications are not unique, they are also overlapping. However, the recurrence of such attempts to classify spirits in the late natural history seem to signify that Bacon was persuaded of the importance of achieving some form of classification, or typology of pneumatic substance.

Meanwhile, Sylva constantly insists on the diversity of spirits and the diversity of properties characterizing spirits. Spirits are “nothing else but a natural body, rarefied to a proportion, and included in tangible parts of bodies;” in addition, they are many differences between spirits: “they be no less differing one from the other than the dense or tangible parts.”(SEH II 381)

Phenomenological classifications

  1. Classification of spirits according to their rarity (HDR)
  2. Classification of spirits according to their heat (sources of heat, how the heat is processed…) (OFB XII 359)

Close distillation (forcing matter/spirit to react to heat in a close container) (SS I 99), and other experiments with closed containers destined to mix air and flame or watery and oily

  1. Classification of spirits according to the qualities of the mixture of air and flamy (which gives it empirical characteristics such as “greediness,” “lassitude” …).

Physical classifications

  1. Classification according to the organization of spirit in matter (branched, cells, cut-off)
  2. Classification according to the even/uneven distribution of spirit in matter and the fineness of the spirit AND/OR strenght[1]
  3. Classification according to the processes that gets activated

Spirits are said to be the causes of all processes (SS I 98) (but whether a process or another takes over is also a property of spiritual substance?)

Classification in terms of activity (resulting from the activated appetites)

[1] Spirits “weak” “clinging loosely, … practically consubstantial with plain air,” “dwelling mainly the outer parts of the body.;” “transient guests” in bodies – Versus spirits “stronger,” “further inside,” “submerged and buried deeper in the solid parts of the thin.” (OFB VI 291) Also, there is a rule in HVM which links the even/non-even distribution of the spirit with its properties/activity – abundance of spirit non-evenly distributed makes the spirit more predatory OFB XII 361.

Metaphysical classification (?)

Spiritus vitalis/Spiritus mortualis (HVM, OFB XII 351)

(Also: (DVM OFB VI 352-3) – vital spirit, peculiar to living things OFB VI 357 – differs from the other spirits not only because it is differently organized, but because it has an inner warmth and because it feeds upon “the moist parts and joice of the living body” (OFB VI 359))

HVM: Rule/Canon IV: In all living things there are two kinds of spirits: non-living ones (Mortuales) of the kind found in inanimate substances, and the superadded vital spirits.

Vital spirit is something different from all the spirits that exist in inanimate bodies because: it needs aliment, it is somehow closely connected with the body (being ‘in charge’ of the body and all the other spirits), it ‘rules’ the other spirits and the body.

Thus we should know that there exist in flesh, bones, membranes, organs, and every single part of the human body, spirits which pervade them while they live, and which are identical to those which exist in those parts – flesh, bone, membrane and the rest – when they are separate and dead, and identical to the ones remaining in the corpse. But the vital spirit, though it rules and has some consent with them, is very different from them, as it is integral and self-consistent [integralis, & per se Constans]. Now the non-living and vital spirits differ in two main ways: the first is that the non-living spirits are not in the least self-continuous, but are as it were cut off and surrounded by the grosser body which intercepts them rather as air is intermixed in snow or froth. But all vital spirit is self-continuous through certain channels which it pervade, without being completely intercepted. This spirit too is of two kinds: the one is just branched and runs through little thead-like tubes [Ducturs, & tanquam Lineas]’ the other has in addition a cell [Cellam] so that it is not just self-continous but is also gathered together in some hollow space and, relative to the body, in an appreciable quantity; and in this cell is the source of the rivulets which go their separate ways from there. This cell is mainly in the cerebral ventricles, which in humbler creatures are narrow, such that the spirits seem to be diffused through the whole body rather than concentrated in cells, as we see in snakes, eels, and flies whose individual parts still move after being cut away. (OFB XII 351-353)

Although Bacon attempts to reduce this fundamental difference to physical and phenomenological differences, it is not entirely clear that this is a successful enterprise (or an enterprise that can succeed). In principle, the differences are:

  • Of organization (non-living spirits are cut off and not organized) and distribution (within the body; how well distributed are the vein, how far away from the cells etc. see DVM)
  • Of composition (all spirits are a mixture of air and flame, and the living one are closer to the nature of flame, but Bacon emphasizes that this is not a mechanical mixture and hence “when this rule states that vital spirits come closed to the substance of flame, it must be taken to mean that they do so more than the non-living ones, and not that they are more flamy than airy” (OFB XII 355).
  • Of behavior/appetites (the non-living spirits have two appetites/desires – to multiply, and to fly and meet with connaturals; living spirits have more appetites, for example they are “absolutely terrified of leaving its body” – which means that living spirits are “principal” spirits of bodies and they are metaphysically united with their bodies)
  • Of heat/warmth (OFB VI 357)

Another major difference is said that non-living bodies/spirit do not need aliment, while the others do (but, however, spirits in inanimate bodies ‘eat-up’ matter)

DVM: But it is unquestionably the case that among the difference of the spirit there are two in particular which have the greatest importance: for spirits differ in body or in force, for we find that some are more biting, lively and robust while others are duller and weaker. And that very force proceeds either from the nature of the thing, or from the length of time that has elapsed since the death of the body. Alternatively, spirits vary in fraction or comminution, for we find bodies in which the spirtis are more diffused and dispersed so that the portion of spirit in any given part is less than it might be, but other bodies in which the spirts have more space and larger concentrations. But again, we find that the distribution of spirits with reference to their sites is more uniform in certain bodies so that the spirits are diffused more evenly in particular parts of the body; but in other bodies they are distributed less evenly so that the residences of the spirit are more spacious in one place and more confined and circumscribed in another. (OFB VI 282-3)


Hypothesis 1: As with many of his new concepts, Bacon seems to use “spirits” in more than one way; using a range of traditional, loose meanings (spirits are the breath of life, they are the source of activity in the Universe and they originate “in the stars,” there are living spirits and non-living spirits etc.) and a more specific, technical meaning (a class of material substances characterized by rarity, heat (potential or actual heat), active powers, the capacity to diffuse at considerable distances, and other several properties such as greed which Bacon attempts to express in terms of combinations of attributes).

Hypothesis 2: There are small but significant differences between DVM and HVM on the one side and SS on the other regarding the fundamental and derivative properties of pneumaticals. These differences can originate in the fact that in SS Bacon asks different questions and is interested in different aspects of the workings of spirits than in the other two works. Thus, there is no equivalent of spiritus mortualis at work. Meanwhile, there seem to be a distinction between the principal spirit of a body and other spirits which might (or might not) inhabit the same body. The principal spirit can be the living spirit of DVM and HDR. Meanwhile, there clearly are other organized spirits at work in the same body (a scion grafted on a stock poses this problem of two principal spirits ‘fighting’ and one is overcoming the other).

Sylva Sylvarum has a number of experiments which seem to be saying that there is no metaphysical distinction between vital spirits and the others, that there is indeed a merely variation in the mixture of air and flame at work, and that one can simply vary the proportion of the two in the mixture

SS1.30 “although air and flame being free will not well mingle; yet bout in by a body that hath some fixing, they will. For that you may best see in those two bodies (which are their aliments) water and oil; for they likewise will not well mingle of themselves, but in the bodies of plants and living creatures they will.”

A Cartesian challenge to the early modern philosophy of experiment

Much has been written about seventeenth-century experiments and experimental philosophy. My paper for the CELFIS seminar of October 8 aimed at engaging with that tradition. In particular, I was concerned with the recent discussion by Peter Anstey of the so called BBH model of the experimental philosophy (BBH stands for the name of Bacon, Boyle, and Hooke). As a reaction to Thomas Kuhn and Peter Dear, Peter Anstey’s article provides a very nice introduction into the Baconian experimentation and its main developments in the second half of the seventeenth century. Both Boyle and Hooke engage with a form of experimentation that is labelled here “Baconian.” It is not, however, the purpose of this small blog post to engage with the details of Anstey’s article, but rather to try to complement his analysis with a new example of experimentalism that can be found in a completely different source. This is the case of the experimental work of the Cartesian natural philosopher, Jacques Rohault.

In my lecture, I’ve referred to two experiments that were performed by Rohault: with pneumatic devices, on the one hand, and with glass drops, on the other hand. It is well known that Boyle was the main contributor to the pneumatic or baroscopic experiments of the 1660s. Hooke was among the first to examine glass drops and to provide an explanation for both the production of the small glass objects and for the curious phenomena produced by those. Interestingly, Rohault deals with both of these issues in experimental terms.

Now, one might very well wonder why is important that a Cartesian philosopher was providing an explanation for some intriguing experiments; after all, he is a Cartesian, therefore a speculative philosopher (see the Otago blog here and here), and he would explain all phenomena according to the principles of Cartesian physics. Yet, this classification of seventeenth-century philosophers into “experimental” and “speculative” should not be an impediment in searching for explanations in one’s writings. But there is more than that and I argued in my paper that it is precisely Rohault’s experimental approach to the study of the two phenomena that would make difficult to draw a clear boundary between his work and the works of the most representative experimenters of the BBH model.

I have argued elsewhere that Rohault treats the study of the properties of the air in experimental terms. He does not simply jump from the conclusions derived in the general part of Cartesian physics (which is most often claimed that he does), but actively engage in experiments and observations.

With respect to the study of glass drops, Rohault is also concerned to perform all the needed observations before providing an explanation. This is also what Hooke did in his Micrographia.

As a tentative conclusion for this very sketchy blog-post, I claim that based on these two experiments, Rohault should be placed in the same context with Boyle and Hooke, so as a representative of the BBH model. If, on the contrary, one would like to point to his “Cartesianism,” then, one simply overlooks his experiments and this would raise new worries for the use of historical categories: if one dismisses some experimental practices only on the basis of placing the practitioner to one or another camp, then, the problem is not any more with the use of experiment in natural philosophy, but with the way various natural philosophies of the period were classified in our histories.

Naturalism: Cardano, Telesio, and Bacon


Some notes on the reading group Naturalism: Cardano, Telesio, and Bacon (Bucharest-Princeton Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy, Bran 8-13 July 2014).


Proponents: Daniel Garber, Mihnea Dobre, Doina-Cristina Rusu.

The reading group examined some of the views of Girolamo Cardano, Bernardino Telesio, and Francis Bacon. We selected passages from Cardano’s De subtilitate (book II), Telesio’s On the nature of things (chaps. 8-16), and Bacon’s Sylva (experiments 30-32, 800-830) and the Novum Organum II. From the point of view of our research project, From Natural History to Science: the emergence of experimental philosophy, this was very important as it put in comparison Bacon’s views with some of his sources. We were especially interested in exploring the views of the three philosophers with respect to spirits, qualities, principles, and elements. We discussed the relation between heat, fire, and motion. Further, we compared the nature of air and the notion of “perception” in the three philosophers, asking how this would entail more experimental possibilities.

Our discussion was framed by the cosmological views of Cardano and Telesio. In Cardano, we were interested in his tripartite division of the elements (earth, air, and water) and what would be the status of fire (seen as a quality) in this new cosmological image. Cardano’s investigation of fire and his attempt to provide new experimental techniques for studying it allowed us to raise one of the main questions of the Bucharest-Princeton Seminar; namely, what “naturalization” means? Is this a worthy concept to describe the various attempts of early modern philosophers to pursue a more systematic empirical investigation of nature?

With Telesio we turned to explore the nature of air as the intermediate medium between the sky and the earth. We addressed the problem of how heat and cold act in the world and cause all the phenomena, and we opened the question of subtlety in experimental context. This question was further addressed in the case of the passages selected from Francis Bacon. His use of the weather-glass for exploring the effects of air and heat was discussed in the selected passages. The issue of measurement and how to perform accurate observations with the instruments was singled out in our discussion.


In the mid-seventeenth century, the problem of vegetable philosophy was very much debated inside the Hartlib Circle. Samuel Hartlib, the center of a wide circle of correspondents, acted as a publicizer, sharing, printing, and even budgeting a significant number of interesting and novel ideas, and in this way helping the wider dissemination of inventions and ideas. In 1650 Hartlib turned his attention from ecclesiastical and pedagogical projects to husbandry and vegetable philosophy.

What exactly is vegetable philosophy? And what is its relation with the tradition of husbandry? This field of study does not have a place in today’s classification of knowledge. It is not botanic, because its objectives are diverse (metals, stones, natural ores). It is not just agriculture, because it has a manifested inclination for alchemical experiments. And, to complicate things even further, it is not simply natural philosophy, because it has a practical and operative side, concerned with technological advancement and amelioration.

Vegetable philosophy emerged inside the Hartlib Circle and has been used to define a new field of interest, which could connect alchemical interests, extraction of metals, natural magic, cultivation of the land, the Baconian tradition of experimentation and dedication to the open character of knowledge and benefit of mankind. Vegetable philosophy is essentially technological and anti-speculative, experimental and operational, orientated towards production of specific results, recipes, and technologies transferable form one situation to another and even from one domain to another.

The concept of vegetable philosophy has been first used by Ralph Austen:

‘The Learned, and incomparable Author Sr Francis Bacon hath left unto men such Rules, and helps in all kinds of Learning, that they will be much wanting to themselves, if Arts, and Sciences improve not, very much above what they have been in former ages: And as the foresaid worthy Author was eminently seen in all Arts and Sciences, so his delight was especially (as is recorded of him) in Vegetable Philosophy, which was as it were, his darling delight, having left unto us much upon Record in his Naturall History; some part whereof referring to Fruit-trees, Fruits, and Flowers, I have, (by encouragement from himself) endeavoured to improve unto publique profit, according to what understanding, and experience I have therein … And seeing I perceive (since you have been pleased to honour me with your acquaintance) that your Genius is towards things in nature, to promote them, in order to the Common good, and that I have encouragements in my labours thereabout, (both as to the Theory and Practise) I humbly, present these following Observations into your hands, and am (for all your favours).’[1]

Which is the relation between husbandry and vegetable philosophy? Is vegetable philosophy just a sub-domain of husbandry (along with other sub-domains such as botanic, agriculture, metallurgy)? Or knowledge of husbandry is a prerequisite for vegetable philosophy?

[1] Austen, R., Observations upon some part of Sr Francis Bacon’s Naturall History, as it concernes fruit-trees, fruits, and flowers …, Oxford, Hall for Thomas Robinson, 1658, Dedication To the honourable Robert Boyle Esq. sonne to the Lord Boyle of Corke.

Francis Bacon and the use of measurement in experiments

One central component of experimental philosophy is measurement. Various properties, quantities, degrees and qualities were counted and measured with more or less exactitude starting with the early modern period (see for example, the analysis of temperature measurement in A.Borrelli, “The weatherglass and its observers in the early seventeenth century”, in: Claus Zittel, Gisela Engel, Nicole C. Karafyllis and Romano Nanni (eds.), Philosophies of technology: Francis Bacon and its contemporaries, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2008) 67-130 (Intersections 11/1)). Seen in itself, measurement was almost universally considered a tool meant to improve knowledge and to give strength to different arguments and to rebut others. This attitude was shared by Francis Bacon too, as I briefly attempted to show in a small presentation I have made for the 4th Bucharest Colloquium in Early Modern Science. One can infer this from the following example taken from Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum:

“It is strange how the ancients took up experiments upon credit, and yet did build great matters upon them. The observation of some of the best of them, delivered confidently, is, that a vessel filled with ashes will receive the like quantity of water that it would have done if it had been empty. But this is utterly untrue; for the water will not go in by a fifth part. And I suppose that that fifth part is the difference of the lying close or open of the ashes…” (Sylva Sylvarum, SEH 34).

There are many other examples of experiments in which Bacon used to invoke the measurement and counting of quantities in order to champion his ideas (see for instance, entries 1, 19, 21, 32, 33, 46, 59, 60, 76, 88, 104-110, 156, 159, 248, 306, 307, 309, 310, 318, 324, 363 etc, to give just few examples taken from the first three centuries of Sylva). Here are two more extended examples:

“Dig a pit upon the sea-shore, somewhat above the high-water mark, and sink it as deep as the low-water mark; and as the tide cometh in, it will fill with water, fresh and potable… I remember to have read that trial hath been made of salt water passed through earth, through ten vessels one within another, and yet it hath not lost his saltness, as to become potable: but the same man saith, that (…) salt water drained through twenty vessels hath become fresh… But it is worth the note, how poor the imitations of nature are in common course of experiments, except they be led by great judgment, and some good light of axioms. For first, there is no small difference between a passage of water through twenty small vessels, and through such a distance as between the low-water and high-water mark…” (Sylva Sylvarum, SEH 1-2)


“The continuance of flame, according unto the diversity of the body inflamed, and other circumstances, is worthy the inquiry; chiefly, for that though flame be (almost) of a momentary lasting, yet it receiveth the more and the less: we will first therefore speak (at large) of bodies inflamed wholly and immediately, without any wick to help the inflammation. A spoonful of spirit of wine, a little heated, was taken, and it burnt as long as came to one hundred and sixteen pulses. The same quantity of spirit of wine mixed with the sixth part of a spoonful of nitre, burnt but to the space of ninety-four pulses. Mixed with the like quantity of bay-salt, eighty-three pulses. Mixed with the like quantity of gunpowder, which dissolved into black water, one hundred and ten pulses. A cube or pellet of yellow wax was taken, as much as half the spirit of wine, and set in the midst, and it burnt only to the space of eighty-seven pulses. Mixed with the sixth part of a spoonful of milk, it burnt to the space of one hundred pulses. Mixed with the sixth part of a spoonful of water, it burnt to the space of eighty-six pulses… So that the spirit of wine simple endured the longest; and the spirit of wine with the bay-salt, and the equal quantity of water, were the shortest.” (Sylva Sylvarum, SEH 366)

I propose the following table as a tool for a concise representation of Bacon’s measurement of the continuance of flame:

  • Spirit of wine = 116 pulses
  • Spirit of wine + 1/6 nitre = 94 pulses
  • Spirit of wine + 1/6 bay-salt = 83 pulses
  • Spirit of wine + 1/6 gunpowder = 110 pulses
  • Cube of yellow wax + ½ spirit of wine = 87 pulses
  •  Cube of yellow wax + wine + 1/6milk = 100 pulses
  • Cube of yellow wax + wine + 1/6 water = 86 pulses


This raises a plenty of interesting questions dealing with the way Bacon uses measurement that is worth to be discussed. Here is a tentative list with few of them:

–          What type of measurements does Bacon employ?

–          What type of quantities or qualities is subjected to measurement by Bacon?

–          What other examples of Bacon’s measurements can be represented by such tables?

–          In what theoretical cases is measurement invoked?

–          How important is the exactitude in the measurements?

–          When does measurement help in constructing an argument and when does it help in rejecting other’s arguments?

–          Is measurement an effective tool in building up the theory of matter?

–          Is measurement used independently of Bacon’s theory of matter?

The examples of measurements Sylva Sylvarum presents can be a good starting point for the discussion of these points. Different answers to these questions can also set the stage for a comparative analysis between Bacon’s use of measurement and other philosophical treatments of it.

We would love to hear your comments, suggestions and thoughts on these matters, so please leave us a comment.

On the reception of Bacon’s views in 1625

A while ago, in the Scientiae 2013 conference-panel on “Francis Bacon’s Art of Discovery: origins and development,” I’ve raised the problem of talking about “Baconianism” in the second half of the seventeenth century. The context discussed in that paper was that of the French Cartesianism, a very implausible source for such a discussion, if we are taking seriously the traditional stories about the seventeenth-century thought. The cases discussed in that paper – Nicolas Poisson, François Bayle (via Samuel de Fermat), and Descartes himself – reveal an interesting approach to “Baconianism,” which I would like to complement in this blog-post with several new questions. More recently, in a panel-discussion at the 4th Bucharest Colloquium in Early Modern Science, I’ve asked some questions about Mersenne’s early reception of Bacon’s views on method.

In 1625, Marin Mersenne published his treatise on La Vérité des sciences, which, in the ch. 16 of Book 1 deals with Bacon’s method. From the text, Mersenne’s sources seem to be Bacon’s Great Instauration and The Advancement of Learning. Mersenne’s first objection to Bacon is that most of the things he says are not needed or insufficient. Mersenne explicitly refers to medicine as refuting Bacon’s views: “il se trompe en plusieurs choses, comme quelques excellens Medecins ont reamarqué, lors qu’il parle de la Medecine, & qu’il dit que l’histoire, & l’experience de plusieurs choses qu’il nomme, n’a point encore été faite” (p. 209).

Why would medicine come to represent such a clear evidence against Bacon’s views?

What kind of medicine is discussed here?

There are various objections raised by Mersenne to Bacon, but for this blog-post, I would like to point only to another passage, where he praises the Englishman’s experimental activity on/ with animals, vegetables, and different materials of alchemical use: “Ce que je trouverois bon en sa doctrine, est qu’on feît toutes sortes d’experiences pour découvrir comment les esprits des plantes, & des animaux exercent leurs operations: & leur multitude: comment & par quelle vertu les eaus Royalles, fortes, & toutes celles que l’Alchymie nous donne, dissolvent l’or, l’argent, le cuivre, l’étain, le fer, & les autres métaus, & mineraus: porquoy elles ne dissolvent pas le verre, les pierres, les plantes, &c.” (p. 211).

Why is Mersenne highlighting these aspects? Is this because Bacon picks up some experiments and practices from outside of the philosophical domain and adjusts them as proper philosophical problems?

If this means doing experiments on all sorts of materials, to which one has to try various operations – in other words, variation both within the materials involved and in the experimental procedures – something that has been done by other natural philosophers (and craftsmen) of the early modern period, then what makes it “Baconian”?

And as a final question, these passages seem to suggest that Bacon’s experimentalism says something to his seventeenth-century contemporaries when he talks about medical and alchemical problems. Why are these two disciplines receiving more emphasis in the reception of Bacon’s views rather than other philosophical disciplines?

We would love to hear your comments, suggestions and thoughts on these matters, so please leave us a comment.

Research seminar: The Sources of Sylva Sylvarum

In parallel with our translation project, the first year of 2013 will be dedicated to the exploration of the sources of Sylva Sylvarum. Each member of the team will work on particular strings of experiments, trying to trace their sources, the background knowledge and the questions they are supposed to answer/pose. Each week the team will meet and discuss particular experiments (strings of experiments) and their presumptive sources.

Such an investigation has both historical and philosophical relevance. Identifying Bacon’s sources is of a vital importance for a scholarly edition of Sylva Sylvarum and our project needs to perform this investigation. However, even more relevant is the philosophical problem of Bacon’s sources.

Francis Bacon’s handling of sources: borrowed material

Sylva Sylvarum contains substantial quantities of “borrowed material.” Unfortunately, thorough exploration of this material and of the ways Bacon handled his sources was undermined by layered strata of prejudices regarding Baconian natural history. From nineteenth-century onwards, Bacon’s natural histories were regarded as simply miscellaneous “collections” of “facts,” stories and hearsay observations, mostly borrowed from books. Similar prejudices were attached to Bacon’s notion of “experimentation;” doubts about Bacon’s experimental activities were already formulated in the nineteenth-century by Justus Liebig and were reiterated by Bacon’s Victorian editors James Spedding and Robert Leslie Ellis. As a result, Sylva was classified as belonging to the tradition of ‘popular’ books of curiosities, natural magic and secrets. Ellis and Spedding also claim that “in truth, a considerable part of it is copied from the most celebrated book of the kind, namely Porta’s Natural Magic.”[i]

By contrast, Graham Rees has shown in a seminal article that many of Sylva’s “experiments” are “complex, multi-faceted entities,” originating not only in books but also in Bacon’s own “observational and experimental work.”[ii] Moreover, by comparing the published text with an existing manuscript, Rees has shown that “there can be no question of Bacon trying to pass off second-hand material as his own,” that Bacon was “particularly fastidious about signaling borrowed material.”[iii]

Clearing Bacon’s name from accusations of plagiarism it is not enough to understand the way he dealt with sources. Spedding and Ellis have identified some of the sources of Sylva Sylvarum (although by no means all, as Rees’ has shown in his seminal paper). They have not, however, compared the handling of “observations” and “experiments” in the “source” and in Bacon’s text. As a result, they sometimes failed to see, for example, that in many of the places where Bacon “borrows” from Della Porta, he suggested experiments meant to refute Della Porta’s claims or even to refute Della Porta’s experimental findings. In some other places he begins with a question or suggestions “borrowed” from Aristotle Problemata only to move the direction in a completely different direction.

Francis Bacon’s handling of the sources: the commonplace book tradition

Francis Bacon’s handling of the sources is very similar with the common-place book tradition. It is consistent with his own belief that natural history begins with reading and collecting stories, facts and observations from books. Such facts, observations, ideas etc. are then the starting point in the activity of the experimenter. In this way, the “sources” are not so much Aristotle, Della Porta, Cardano, Pliny etc. but Bacon’s own Kalenders of doubts and Kalenders of problems: common-place books with collections of problems, questions, doubts, ideas etc. to be treated as starting point for natural history.

In The Advancement of Learning such calendars of problems and doubts are part of natural philosophy. Bacon argues that the registering of “doubts” has benefic effects for natural philosophy:

doubts are as so many suckers or sponges, to drawe use of knowledge, insomuch as that which if doubts had not preceded, a man should never have advised, but passed it over without Note, by the suggestion and sollicitation of doubts is made to be attended and applied (OFB IV 91)

As a result, he recommends certain catalogues, collections of Kalenders of doubts. As for the calendar of problems, Bacon indicates that a good exemplar of such a “kalender” is Aristotle’s Problemata. Such calendars of doubts and problems are gathered from books and they have to be supplemented with an interesting calalogue of opinons (errors). How to gather such a catalogue?

To which Kalender of doubts or problemes, I advise be annexed another Kalender as much or more Materiall, which is a Kalender of popular Errors, I meane chiefly, in naturall Historie such as passe in speech & conceit, and are neverthelesse apparently detected & convicted of untruth, that Mans knowledge be not weakened nor imbased by such drosse and vanitie. As for the Doubts or Non liquets generall or in Totall, I undertand those differences of opinions touching the principles of nature, and the fundamentall points of the same, which ahve caused the diversitie of Sects, Schooles, and Philosophies, as that of Empedocles, Pythagoras, Democritus, Parmenides, and the rest.

In other words, the collection of doubts should be supplemented by a collection of philosophical opinions (errors). In order to explain why do we need such a calendar of errors, Bacon uses a very interesting astronomical analogy: in the same way in which “the same Phenomena in Astronomie” are equally satisfied by the theories of Ptolemy and Copernicus

So the ordinarie face and viewe of experience is many tiems satisfied by severall Theories & Philosophies, whereas to finde the real truth requireth another manner of severitie & attention. For, as Aristotle saith that chidren at the first will call every woman moether; but afterward they come to distinguish according to truth: so Experience, if it be in childhook, will call every philosophie Mother; but when it commeth to ripenesse, it will discerne the true Mother. (OFB IV 92)

In other words, acccording to his own theory in The Advancement of Learning Bacon is interested in two things when reading: to identify problems and “doubts” from where investigation of nature can begin afresh and gain momentum; and to identify, classify and study various philosophical errors (in dealing with the facts and phenomena of nature).

My suggestion is that the way Bacon deals with his sources in Sylva Sylvarum is an application of this theory. This is the working hypothesis I propose for our next few encounters.






[i] Bacon, F., Works, vol. II, 326.

[ii] Rees, G., “An Unpublished Manuscript by Francis Bacon: Sylva Sylvarum Drafts and Other Working Notes”, Annals of Science 38 (1981):377-412, 388.

[iii] Rees, G., “An Unpublished Manuscript by Francis Bacon: Sylva Sylvarum Drafts and Other Working Notes.”

P. Melanchthon (1497-1560)

Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Divine Providence and the Foundations of Modern Science

 Peter Harrison’s book The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Oxford University Press, 2007) brought forth a very attractive thesis for the explanation of the origins of early modern philosophy, namely the idea that the interest for the natural philosophy primarily emerged from anthropological preoccupations and not from epistemological concerns. The thesis championed is that, due especially to Protestant influence, the concerns regarding early natural philosophy were determined by the aim to vindicate the dramatic consequences the Fall had upon human capacities. More exactly, the argument goes, ‘The experimental approach [forming this natural philosophy]… was deeply indebted to Augustinian views about the limitations of human knowledge in the wake of the Fall…’ (p. 8). Despite the argument and the examples mainly refer to the English settlement, the thesis is taken to hold for Continental Europe too (pp. 4-5). A very interesting example for this is that of the Reformator Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), shortly presented in the 3rd chapter of Harrison’s book (esp. pp. 97-103). Melanchthon was one of Luther’s closest friends and the author of the first Protestant credal statement, expressed in the Augsburg Confession (1530). He had remarkable skills in Ancient Greek, a language that he taught at the University of Wittenberg, together with other courses on natural philosophy that he taught after he took upon himself the mission of reforming the curricula of the German universities (see Kusukawa, 1995). Melanchthon’s openness to the natural sciences (mathematics, medicine, astronomy, astrology etc) was partly determined by some events (Peasant’s War) occurring in his biography but also by his specific theological understanding of the Fall. Although he had the same opinion with Luther that the Fall destroyed the divine image implanted by God in man at the moment of creation, he nonetheless took a more positive stance with regard to the consequences of this event by postulating that some ‘vestiges’ of the divine light remained in the human soul under the form of principles or notions. He considered that these notions play the role of conditions for the possibility of attaining knowledge (Frank, 1995).

Harrison is aware that these theological justifications for gaining knowledge through sciences coming from Melanchthon ‘is a slightly different perspective from that which will be developed by English Calvinists, for whom the scope of natural philosophy is itself determined by theological anthropology’ (p. 99).

One of the aims of our research on P. Melanchthon is to investigate into the details of this difference. More exactly, we intend to read into Melanchthon’s emphasis upon sciences seen as depositories of God’s providence the theological justification for a whole Protestant programme of natural philosophy. Therefore, we intend to explore a more positive scenario, according to which approaches to early modern philosophy originate in the power of the human mind to decipher God’s providence as instantiated in the sciences. We will thus try to answer to questions of the following type:

-what is the relationship between divine providence, inborn notions and the sciences in Melanchthon’s and also in his fellows’ thought?

-is Melanchthon’s natural philosophy based solely on mathematical knowledge or it also deals with experience-based knowledge? (see the post on ‘universal experience’)

-what examples of Melanchthon-type arguments for the natural philosophy can be found in the early modern English thought, especially given the fact that Melanchthon might have had some influence in the English world? (see Tredwell, 2006)

-what are the features of the method of astrology in Melanchthon’s reply to Pico della Mirandola?

-what is the relationship Melanchthon posits between divine providence and man’s capacity for ruling nature? ( ‘… if someone were to pay attention to them [Astrological indications], he would have a great support for ruling nature’ (P. Melanchthon, The Dignity of Astrology (1535), translated in Kusukawa (1999, pp. 121-2))



Harrison, P., The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Frank, G., Die Theologische Philosophie Philipp Melanchthons (1497-1560), Leipzig: Benno 1995.

Kusukawa, S., The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: the case of Philip Melanchthon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Kusukawa, S., (ed.), Philip Melanchthon. Orations on Philosophy and Education, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Tredwell, K. A., The Melanchthon’s Circle’s English Epicycle, Centaurus 2006, 48 (1), pp. 23-31.