Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Philosophy, Science and the Sciences

Juliane Küppers

Juliana Küppers Thesis: Empirical Adequacy in Gassendi’s Epistemology and Philosophy of Science

My research project focuses on the early modern reception of ancient philosophical theories in natural philosophy and epistemology; specifically, how Pierre Gassendi merged the ancient Sceptic’s challenges to claims of certain knowledge with Epicurean epistemology and physics. On these grounds he developed a philosophy of science he deemed fit for the 17th century. This study necessarily includes a discussion of the question: What is the justification of an avowed anti-dogmatist like Gassendi for the core of his life’s work in natural philosophy, a modified version of Epicurean atomism? In other words: How can Gassendi postulate the existence of the atom when this central aspect of his theory of matter is unobservable in his time and thus cannot be known?

Currently I am in the process of writing my Ph.D. thesis. It includes analyses of texts and passages in part never before published in an English translation; these will appear in translation in an appendix. The works I study are mainly the early Exercitationes paradoxicae adversus Aristoteleos (1624; sceptical challenges against scholastic theories of knowledge), the mid-career De motu impresso a motore translato (1642, treatise on kinetic experiments and a compound account of projectile motion) as well as the Canonica in the Syntagma Philosophiae Epicuri (1649; Epicurean epistemology), and the late stage Institutio Logica (a treatise on conducting thinking and scientific inquiry well, posthumously published in the logic chapter of Gassendi’s 1658 magnum opus Syntagma Philosophicum).

Due to the fact that no translation into English or any other modern language has yet been published of Gassendi’s main work, the Syntagma Philosophicum, there is still much research to be done on this influential empiricist and his philosophy of science. So far, Gassendi has been described by Detel (1978, 2002) as following the hypothetical-deductive method; and by Fisher (2005) as applying abductive reasoning or, more concretely, appealing to an IBE strategy (inference to the best explanation). Underlying both their analyses is the premise that Gassendi, in contemporary terms, is a scientific realist tout court.

I argue that there are various reasons to reconsider this premise regarding Gassendi’s epistemology. I propose to take constructive empiricism (van Fraassen, 1980) into consideration for a better understanding of Gassendi’s approach to scientific inquiry and the possible progress of knowledge. In my thesis I discuss three main topics: 1. Gassendi’s nominalism, exemplified in his discussion of mathematical objects and the formation of concepts and ideas of universals, which might be illuminating for his view on unobservable objects and processes; 2. his commitment to never reaching certainty in knowledge from his early to late philosophical career; 3. the issue that Gassendi’s descriptions of atoms and larger, conglomerate, observable objects are not scalar invariant.  

After review of this evidence, I suggest that Gassendi – today mostly known for modifying Epicurean materialist theories –, takes up antirealist positions in his epistemological writings. More specifically, his discussion of the possible accumulation of knowledge and the progress of science might be described in terms of contemporary constructive empiricism as succinctly summarized by van Fraassen (1980, 12): “Science aims to give us theories which are empirically adequate; and acceptance of a theory involves as belief only that it is empirically adequate.“

With my doctoral thesis I aim to provide English translations of central passages of Gassendi’s philosophy of science and a novel interpretation outlined above based on extensive textual analysis.

General research interests: ancient Epicureanism and Scepticism, Lucretius’ De rerum natura, ancient theories of matter; anti-Aristotelianism and new theories of knowledge and science in the early modern period; the history and philosophy of theories on matter and motion; contemporary philosophy of science.

CV

Education and Fellowships

since 2016

Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy, RTG Philosophy, Science and the Sciences
(Humboldt Universität zu Berlin / Freie Universität Berlin)

2017/18

Harvard University, Visiting Fellow
(Department of the Classics, Department of the History of Science)

2015

M.A. in Classics, Freie Universität Berlin

2012

B.A. in Literature (major), Latin (minor), Freie Universität Berlin

2009

State-certified Distance Learning Degree in Journalism

Scholarships

2016-2020

DFG Scholarship (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – German Research Foundation)

2017/18

Einstein Foundation Scholarship for Harvard Fellowship, fall term
DFG Exchange Scholarship

2017

Center for International Cooperation /
EU Brussels Office of the Freie Universität Berlin for academic outreach program

Work experience

2011-2016

Freie Universität Berlin: press office, editorial office, science journalism

2008-2010

Universal Music / Deutsche Grammophon: public relations, event management

2003-2008

Sony Music: product management, public relations, event management for musicians in NYC, London, Berlin

Contact: juliane.kueppers@fu-berlin.de