World makers: Early Modern Philosophers and their Cosmological Projects

Oresme sfera elementalaCourse given by: Dana Jalobeanu

Guest speakers: Kirsten Walsh (Institute for Research in Humanities, University of Bucharest), Michael Deckard (Fullbright Fellow, University of Bucharest)

Faculty of Philosophy

Splaiul Independentei 204

Wednesday from 2 pm (room Constantin Radulescu Motru)


This is a third year optional course designed for the students following the module of theoretical philosophy (but other students, graduates or undergraduates are welcome to attend). The main aim of the course is to discuss the major figures, ideas and debates of the scientific revolution. We will focus on some of the important scientific and philosophical figures who contributed to the “scientific revolution” of the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

General description

This is an interdisciplinary, undergraduate, problem-based, theoretical course on the Scientific Revolution. Its main aim is to discuss, compare and evaluate some of the major figures, ideas and debates which led to the emergence of early modern science, by encouraging students to read and engage with primary texts. We begin with some standard questions: What does it mean to be a natural philosopher in seventeenth century? Was natural philosophy a profession, a vocation or a (Christian) duty? How many competing roles of natural philosophers/scientists one can identify in early modern Europe?  Are these roles fundamentally different or do all natural philosophers have something in common?

Our work hypothesis is that most of the proponents of the “new” natural philosophy (early modern science) were world-makers, i.e. they aimed to replace the traditional view of the universe; they aimed to reform the received knowledge, and sometimes also the received social and intellectual roles of knowledge makers.

This work hypothesis will guide our readings. Students will be encouraged to engage in the investigation of texts in the same way in which an explorer is investigating new, almost uncharted territories. The course work will consist in a series of activities intended to chart “the worlds” of the early modern philosophers/scientists.


Course organization

The course is organized in 12 units: each unit consists of a combination of a lecture (2 hrs) and one reading-group type seminar. Each unit is devoted to a particular text. The lecture will set the text in historical and philosophical context, stressing its important points and interesting (and sometimes unanswered) questions. This introduction is intended to give students a “map” of the text and some instruments of orientation in this particular world-view, but also to flash out the major problems, questions and challenges of each of the proposed texts.

The seminar will be organized as a reading group. The reading materials for each unit consist of a primary text and two or three secondary literature sources, chosen from the relevant literature on a given subject.

On the basis of these materials, students will be encouraged to engage in the active, collaborative and imaginative investigation of the primary texts, and to discover for themselves the problems and the challenges posed by reading early modern philosophy/early modern science.

Using reading-group activities, students will be shown (in an interactive manner) that reading primary texts (even with the help of secondary literature) is challenging and often extremely difficult because it requires a large number of skills whose formation falls, strictly speaking, outside the borders of a given discipline. This is why the investigation of early modern texts is a fundamentally interdisciplinary, team-work activity. Both the lectures and the reading-groups will be organized in such a way to encourage and facilitate team-work, pairing students’ complementary skills and asking them to find ways to help each other in their investigations and writing activities.

Each seminar will begin with a 20 minutes presentation of an author/representative figure of the scientific revolution and will continue with a discussion of the texts. Students are required to write and prepare such presentations (ppt. also required), trying to set the required readings in a historical context aiming to facilitate de understanding.


Course syllabus

Date Course and seminars Readings
07.10 Introduction: From the Scientific Revolution to the “scientific revolutions”: historiographical debates. Natural philosophy and early modern science. The iconic figures of the scientific revolution.


14.10 The cloister and the university: the received view of the world (I)


14.10 Seminar: Historiographical biases and the access to the primary sources


B.J.T. Dobbs, “The Janus Faces of Genius”
21.10 Teaching and learning natural philosophy in the traditional setting. What is natural philosophy before the scientific revolution?
21.10 The cloister and the university: the received view of the world (II)


Reisch, Margarita philosophica (translation and commentary by Cunningham and Kusukawa)
28.10 The public life and the contemplative ideal of knowledge: Francis Bacon


28.10 Seminar: Francis Bacon


Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (also: Bacon’s letter to Launcelot Andrewes on Seneca, Demosthene and Cicero).
04.11 The Renaissance “mathematician” and the “new world:” Astronomy, astrology and practical mathematics from Copernicus to Kepler


Secondary reading:

Omodeo, Chapter 2


04.11 Seminar: Johannes Kepler Kepler, Astronomia nova, Introduction
11.11 Teaching the new science, from the university to the court: Galileo Galilei, mathematician and/or philosopher


Secondary reading: Biagioli, Galileo’s instruments of credit, Introduction, Chapter 1

Supplementary reading:

11.11 Seminar: Galileo Galilei Galileo Galilei, Dialogue on the two new world systems, Day 1
18.11 Natural magic and experimental philosophy: Giovan Battista della Porta and William Gilbert


Giovan Battista della Porta, Natural Magic, introduction (the course will be organized as a reading group too!!)
18.11 Seminar: William Gilbert, experimental philosophy and cosmology William Gilbert, De magnete, book VI, ch. 1-3

Secondary reading: Freudenthal, Gilbert’s cosmology

Suppementary reading: Gatti, Giordano Bruno and the Renaissance Science, chapter IV (Bruno and Gilbert’s group)


24.11 The Christian virtuoso and the new science in England. Robert Boyle and the early Royal Society


24.11 Seminar: Robert Boyle, Christian virtuoso Boyle, Christian virtuoso
02.12 The first “professional”: Robert Hooke’s experimental philosophy and the Royal Society
02.12 Seminar: Robert Hooke Hooke, Micrographia (Preface)

Hooke,  A general scheme…

09.12 World makers: Descartes and Newton
09.12 Seminar: Descartes and Newton Descartes, Le Monde (chapters 1, 6, 7)

Newton, De gravitatione

16.12 The private and the public face of the natural philosopher: Newton


16.12 Seminar Newton Dibner Ms 1031 b

Hypothesis on Light

06.01 Utopia and the Royal Society: Oldenburg, Evelyn, Wilkins, Beale on the reformation of knowledge, the advancement of learning and various utopian ‘scientific’ projects


Secondary reading: Lynch, Solomon’s Child
06.01 Seminar on the utopian plans of the FRS Henry Oldenburg – correspondence

RH – the continuation of New Atlantis

Cowley – the plan for organizing Royal Society

13.01 Communicators and promoters of the new science. The public face of science


13.01 Women philosophers
20.01 Colloquium


Seminar presentation: introduce the author (30% of the evaluation)

The seminar will begin with a 20 min presentation of the author whose text is under discussion. Students are required to choose one author and to prepare such a presentation, focusing on the context of the text for the seminar and the relevant details for its understanding. In introducing an author it is important to emphasize what was his/her general plan/project and how does our reading relate to that more general plan. Also, I would like to know more about the intellectual context in which our author’s ideas have developed, about his intellectual sources, friends and foes, about his successes (in his own time: was he read? Did he have students and followers?) and failures (What did he hoped to achieve? How much did he manage to do? What prevented him to do more?  How did he/she reflect on the causes of his/her failure?). Try to reconstruct a portrait as free as possible from the various biases of the various historiographies.

Analyze a primary source (from the bibliography) (30% of the evaluation)

Write a 4-6 pages ‘introduction’ to a primary source from the bibliography. Explain its main ideas, define its terms, place it in the context (among the author’s other writings, for example), provide the reader with the appropriate footnotes (definitions, explanations of terms, references to the background etc.) and the running commentary that would help her understand the text better. Show at what points in your analysis the reader might benefit from reading secondary literature and why. What are the difficult problems this text is posing? What kind of problems are they? (terminological, conceptual, contextual, interpretative) What do we need in order to solve them?  Draft a list of questions and a bibliography which might help the reader solve some of these questions.

Discuss secondary literature referring to a primary source (30 % of the evaluation)

Select and discuss two secondary sources referring to the author/primary source you have worked on. Use the bibliography and ask for help when you need it.