« Letters by Early Modern Philosophers » (Nicosia, Cyprus, July 2012)

This workshop on “Letters by Early Modern Philosophers” will take place during the ISSEI conference of 02-06 July 2012. You will find more info at the conference site at http://issei2012.haifa.ac.il/. The precise date of the workshop will be announced later on. We are especially interested in papers which discuss (a) letter(s) written in the 17th century discussing controversial items at the border between early science and early modern philosophy, such as those by Galileo, Descartes, Mersenne, Boyle, Spinoza, Newton, Huygens, Hobbes, Oldenburg, Leibniz, and so on.

Art, science, and philosophy are considered today to be three very distinct disciplines. In the early modern era, though, philosophy was not yet distinguished from science. Philosophy was even used as a synonym for early science. Likewise, many well-known early scientists such as Leibniz, Pascal and Descartes were important philosophers. Art also seemed to be much closer to science than it does today. Several early scientists such Galileo and Boyle used literary elements such as dialogues involving fictional characters telling fictional stories in order to explain what they regarded as scientific facts. Physicists such as Christian Huygens even employed science-fiction. Can a discussion of the way scientific controversies were realized in the seventeenth century help us to reflect on our supposedly strict distinction between art, science, and philosophy?

 As the New Science developed in the seventeenth century, new scientific organizations and societies arose that served as forums for meeting and discussion. Moreover, several new literary forms arose in which scientific topics were discussed. For example, inspired by the essays of the French philosopher Montaigne, Robert Boyle started to write essays and tracts on specific scientific topics. Likewise, the first secretary of the Royal Society launched a scientific journal, The Philosophical Transactions, which still exists. Today, such publications provide the dominant form of communication among scientists, but in the seventeenth century these publications were a novel form of communication in comparison to the longstanding tradition of letter-writing that continued to thrive at this time.

Not only did the writing of letters help to inform people; it also created networks. Clear examples include La République des Lettres or the network around Mersenne or Oldenburg. Less well-known networks include the more heterogeneous Hartlib circle and the Diodati circle.

In our workshop we would like to focus on some of the letters that are at the border between art, science, and philosophy. In these letters, as with all letters, the writer tells his story about a subject, himself, and others to somebody else. However, it is noteworthy that letters were often published in the seventeenth century. This meant that anybody could read them. Letters were a kind of literary genre. Moreover, some letters, such as Nicholas Steno’s famous letter to Spinoza, were addressed to specific, existing people with the understanding that addressee would never read it.

Most philosophers and early scientists at this time were much more informal in their letters than in their main works, even when tackling the same topics in each. In these letters there is often much more of a focus on personal attacks, expression of personal opinion and personal emotions, anecdotes, ethical and theological considerations, imagination, and so on — forms of expression generally recognized as more typical of art than of science or philosophy, although these letters can hardly be categorized as pure fiction.

Therefore, an analysis of some these letters might help us to reflect on the imaginative in scientific inventions as well as on the real in art and literature. Such an analysis would thus be a fine fit for a conference on the three narratives “Art, Science and Philosophy”.

Please send an abstract of 500 words maximum to filip.buyse1@telenet.be if you wish to contribute to the workshop. The deadline for submitting your abstract is April 15, 2012. Participants whose abstract is accepted will receive an answer before May 15, 2012.

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