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Posts tagged: History of Philosophy

Is ‘nothing’ relative? (VII): The Controversy between Knorr and More on the creation of nothing

In the previous posts of this series, we have encountered various candidates for ‘nothing’ in the context of creatio ex nihilo: we have seen how the term is used in its strictest sense by the Thomists and the Calvinist Keckermann, whereas Scotists interpret ‘nothing’ as states of the Divine mind. Several thinkers (Taurellus, Timpler, or Lubinus) assign a central role to matter as the proper denotation of nihil in the context of creation. And in the last post of this series we have seen that Athanasius Kircher provides a synthesis of these approaches, adding another element in the mix, namely space.

The tradition I want to focus on in this blog post, namely the Lurianic Kabbala and its reception by Christian thinkers at the end of the 17th century, agrees with Kircher on the idea that space is an important starting point of creation. But it goes one step further. It makes explicit the assumption that the process of creation itself contains the creation of nothing (a thesis that, as we have seen in the last post, was only implied by Kircher).

These problems are discussed in a series of texts from the Kabbala denudata, published between 1677 and 1684 by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth and Francis van Helmont. The doctrine is expanded in a Lurianic tract presumably from the 17th century, the Liber Druschim and is known in the Cabbalist tradition as zimzum.1 Henry More criticises this hypothesis in his Quaestiones et Considerationes paucae. His concerns are answered by Knorr in the Ad Considerationes et Quaestiones […] Amica Responsio ad D. Henricum Morum. The final reply by More is contained in his Ulterior disquisitio.

In analysing the debate between Knorr and More, it might be helpful to remind us that both writers base their views on fundamentally different methodological premises. Knorr’s intention is primarily philological - to extract meaning from texts that are fairly alien from the perspective of Christian theology. This ‘intercultural sensitivity’ becomes plain in his question to More whether some obscurities in the text may best be explained by different cultural or linguistic attitudes that a well-meaning interpreter has to overcome:

An stylus linguarum orientalium commode possit examinari juxta ἀκρίβειαν Philosophiae Scholasticae?2

More dismisses this objection with a fair amount of hand-waving, confessing to his own ignorance about the cultural background of the Cabbalist tradition, but at the same time pressing the point that some notions must be common to mankind (with a special emphasis on natural knowledge or, as we may say today, ‘hard science’):

Quod stylum linguarum Orientalium attinet, equidem hic ingenue propriam profiteor imperitiam. Haud tamen credibile censeo, quin certae quaedam notiones sint omnibus gentibus cujuscunque linguae communes, ne principia naturalis scientiae videantur pro linguarum varietate variari.3

I confess to the same imperitia acknowledged by More. So the following remarks will not try to do justice to e. g. the Mystical dimension of the Kabbala. This does not mean that I wholeheartedly buy More’s arguments against ‘cultural relativism’. But we should keep in mind that most early modern readers of the Kabbala denudata might have shared More’s general attitude, namely to condense the teachings of the texts into theses and arguments in order to integrate them into the tradition of prisca philosophia, the Esoteric wisdom of the ancients.

Creatio nihili

From an orthodox Christian perspective, the starting point of the reflections on creation in the Liber Druschim is already quite problematic. Space exists before the world exists. The Deity is extended, because it is the ‘Divine light’ that fills this space completely (omne ubi) and homogeneously (it is at every point of space ‘similar to itself’ (ubique sibi similis).4 At some point of time, the Divine light chooses to create worlds by emanation. The intention and the efficient cause (causa impulsiva) in this is to display its perfection. The light releases in its center an empty space (locus quidam vacuus):

Cum autem in mentem veniret Extenso huic, quod vellet condere mundos, et emanando producere Emanantia, atque in lucem proferre Perfectionem potentiarum suarum activarum, et Nominum atque Cognominum suorum, quae erat causa impulsiva creandi mundi, […] tum compressa quadantenus Lux ista, a puncto quodam medio circumcirca ad latera recessit; atque sic relictus est Locus quidam vacuus, dictus spatium inane, aequidistans a puncto illo, excate in medio ejus constituto.5

So at the beginning of creation God does not expand, but limit Himself. This results in the creation of an empty space.6 Instead of a creatio ex nihilo, the Liber Druschim argues for a creatio nihili. The space left by God is exactly spherical, because the retreating light is homogeneous (so that all points making up the border between light and vacuum have the same distance from the center of the sphere). It is the place (Ubi) of all results of creative processes (that in the Cabbalistic tradition are distinguished as emanation, creation, formation, and production). These results are deemed to be spherical, too, so that they fit into the space left for them by the Divine light:

Compressio autem illa undiquaque sibi aequalis fuit circa centrum dictum per omne spatium, adeo ut locus ille vacuus, exacte esset circularis sub perfectissima aequalitate: […] cum contractio ista Infiniti statuatur undiquaque sibi fuisse aequalis, unde et circularis: […] Apparet igitur Contractionem illam Infiniti statuendam esse circularem: cujus rei causa non est alia, quam in Infinito ipso, sicut dictum est. […] Datur tamen et alia ratio figurae istius Sphaericae, nimirum quod illa, quae Emanatura erant intra locum istum vacuum, futura erant figura Sphaerica sicut jam dictum: ista autem quam proxime debebant applicari Infinito illa circumdanti, idque ubique aequaliter, aequali namque irradiatione frui debebant ab Infinito ex omni parte; […] 7

More’s refutation (I)

Henry More is sceptical: The idea that God creates an empty space in order to create worlds in it contradicts basic assumptions about the Divine light. It confuses extension and impenetrability. And even if such an event should take place, it would not leave ‘nothing’.

More denies the possibility of zimzum, because it contradicts the assumption that the Divine light is immutable and homogeneous: If all regions filled by the Divine light are equal, there is no cause, why a particular region should be chosen as the place for creation.8 Moreover, it is not clear, why the doctrine is required at all: If the Divine light is spiritual, it can be present in a region of space, even if this region is occupied by a portion of matter. This raises the suspicion that the doctrine of zimzum presupposes not merely an extended Deitiy, but a corporeal one (the difference between being extended and being corporeal consisting in impenetrability).9 And, finally, the space resulting from such a contraction of the Divine light, should not be regarded as ‘nothing’. According to his own theory of space, space is a necessary and spiritual entity and not a mere ‘nothing’. But space, understood in this fashion, must then be identical with God.10

Finally, it should be noted in passing which aspects of the Liber Druschim are not criticised by More (and thus seem to be taken for granted), namely the pre-existence of space and the fact that God is an extended substance.

Knorr’s reply

Knorr adresses More’s objections in his Ad Considerationes et Quaestiones in Tractatum I. Libri Druschim R. Isaaci Loriensis Amica Responsio ad D. Henricum Morum. First, he points out that Jewish thinkers do not believe that the resulting space is fully vacuous. God’s presence in this space is diminished, but traces of the Divine remain like traces of fragrance if the bearer of the fragrance is not present anymore.11 The immutability of the Divine light emphasised by More is questionable, too: Knorr adduces several examples from Scripture showing that God is capable of changing the mode of presence in the world (the burning bush, the ark of the covenant, on Mount Sinai, the transfiguration of Christ). And he points out that God is present in a different manner to the universe as a whole, blessed souls, the saints etc.12

These arguments only show that the contraction of the Divine light is a viable hypothesis. But Knorr believes that there is a reason for adopting it, namely because it allows for a more reasonable explanation of the distribution of matter in the universe. According to Lurianic thinking, matter is concentrated at the center of the universe. More’s alternative seems to require that it is dispersed on the lowest level of emenations - this, or so Knorr holds, is much more difficult to explain.13

More’s refutation (II)

More reasserts his position in his Ulterior disquisitio. The analogy between traces of Divine presence in the space created by compression of the Divine light and traces of a fragrance does not help Knorr’s position, because it reenforces More’s point that Knorr is committed to the corporeality (and not merely the extension) of the Divine light.14 The passages from Scripture quoted by Knorr concern the world after creation has taken place. Before creation, the infinite light is, however immutable. Its omnipresence could not be diminished either before or after creation. The appearance of God in the burning bush or the ark of the covenant all take place in the spatiotemporal world, they are, technically speaking, operationes ad extra.15 It is improbable that God saw any need before creation to vary the intensity of its presence, because there were no creatures to be illuminated by that and His own glory was sufficient for him.16


We have seen that the Lurianic Kabbala makes explicit the principle that was only implicitly endorsed by Kircher, namely that the first step of creation consists in the creation of ‘nothing’ itself - and if we disregard Knorr’s defensive move about traces of the Divine light in this vacuum, this is ‘nothing’ in the absolute, non-privative sense. More criticises this doctrine, because, for him, it implies not merely that God is extended (this is a concession he is willing to make), but that He is corporeal. Bodies are impenetrable, whereas spirits can be in the same place as a portion of matter (and presumably at least space as a spiritual entity existed before creation). That God retreats from a portion of space would only be necessary, if He and His creation could not be present in the same portion of space. Moreover, the Lurianic view jeopardises God’s immutability. Knorr’s reply focuses on this point: Since the Old Testament gives numerous examples for a spatiotemporal presence of God, an analogous mutation is not unthinkable with regard to the pre-creational Divine light. And the Lurianic view has the advantage that it can better explain the distribution of matter in the cosmos.

If we leave out the additional complication that traces of the Divine light may be present in the space created by a retracting God, the question of what ‘nothing’ is for the early modern Cabbalist can be answered quite easily: It is a region of the world in which God is absent. Does this mean that only regions of the world that are filled with the Divine light can be regarded as being ‘something’? The next post will show that at least one Cabbalist, Francis van Helmont, was willing to draw that conclusion. His views carry some weight with respect to the question why there is something rather than nothing, because he was a close friend and collaborator of the young Leibniz.

  1. Cf. Edel, Susanne, Die individuelle Substanz bei Böhme und Leibniz (Franz Steiner Verlag, 1995), 50ff

  2. Amica Responsio, 79

  3. Ulterior Disquisitio, 182

  4. Cf. Liber Druschim, 32: “Scito, quod antequam emanarent emanantia, et creata essent creata, Lux suprema extensa fuerit plenissime, et impleverit omne Ubi, adeo ut nullus daretur Locus vacuus in Notione Lucis, nullumque spatium inane, sed omnia essent plena Luce illa Infiniti hoc modo extensa, cui sub omni notione sua finis non erat, eo, quod nihil esset, nisi extensa illa Lux, quae una quadam et simplici aequalitate ubique sibi erat similis; atque ista vocabatur Or Haensoph Lux Infiniti.” 

  5. Liber Druschim, 32

  6. Cf. Liber Druschim, 33: “Instituta igitur tali contractione atque compressione, per quam locus quidam vacuus spatiumque in medio Infinito relinqueretur inane; jam sane Ubi quoddam constitutum erat in quo existerent Emanantia, Creata, Formata, et Facta.” 

  7. Liber Druschim, 32f

  8. Cf. Quaestiones et Considerationes, 65: “Jam vero cum hic Or-haensoph naturae sit necessariae ac immutabilis et ubique sibi similis, qui fieri potest, ut retrahat seipsum a puncto ullo, quo adeo vastam relinquat concavitatem, in qua Mundis creandis sit locus?” 

  9. Cf. Quaestiones et Considerationes, 65: “Quasi Natura Dei crassa esset ac corporea, nec mundi, ubi ipse sit, esse possint.” 

  10. Cf. Quaestiones et Considerationes, 66: “Postremo, vacuum illud quod imaginantur, postquam Deus se a puncto quopiam subtraxerit, non est mera Non-Entitas sed substantia incorporea et necessario existens […]. Unde sequeretur, quod Spiritus sit necessario existens et tamen distinctus a Deo, quod est impossibile.” 

  11. Cf. Ad Considerationes et Quaestiones, 89: “Ubi perpendendum: Evacuationem istam a Juadaeis ita explicari; non quasi spatium istud Deo plane sit vacuum; sed quod gloriosissima infiniti luminis copia ibi saltem sit diminuta, sicut cum evacuato vitro fragrantis olei pleno non plane tollitur sed saltem diminuitur fragrantia.” 

  12. Cf. Ad Considerationes et Quaestiones, 89: “Et annon Deus sicut mutavit modum praesentiae suae, qua quondam fuit in rubo ardente, in Arca foederis, in monte Sinai, in loco transfigurationis Christi etc. ita etiam diminuere potuit modum praesentiae suae intra hoc vacuum? praesertim cum et nunc alio modo praesens dicatur universo; alio sanctis, alio beatis etc.” 

  13. Cf. Ad Considerationes et Quaestiones, 89f: “Et profecto hac hypothesi materia in centrum relegatur angustum, cum contraria hypothesis eandem in circumferentia Emanationum collocet amplissimam, conceptu sane dificillimo.” 

  14. Cf. Ulterior Disquisitio, 200: “Et certe similitudo tua, qua rem excusare velis, non minus sapit corporeitatem, dum gloriosissimam Infiniti Luminis copiam tantum minus contendis non in totam tolli, sicut cum evacuato vitro fragrantis olei pleon, non plane tollitur sed tantum diminuitur fragrantia.” 

  15. Cf. Ulterior Disquisitio, 200: ” Mutabiles vero Dei praesentias tantum fuisse post Mundum conditum et meras esse operationes ad extra.” 

  16. Cf. Ulterior Disquisitio, 200: “[…] respondeo fuisse ante ullum Mundum conditum, immutabilem quandam Divinitatis Lucem sive gloriam, quam nefas est existimare ulla ex parte minui posse, sed eandem prorsus ubique est et ante et post Mundum conditum, nec ullam aliam fuisse ante Mundum conditum praeter hanc essentialem. […] Quando vero nulla fuit externa Creatio, incredibile est Deum tunc ullas induisse mutabiles et variabiles glorias aut praesentis, cum nulla esset Creatura cui irradiaret, suaque Essentialis gloria abunde sibi sufficeret.” 

Early Modern Angelology (V): The Theology of Angels and Its Philosophical Relevance

PDF on Google Docs.

In this postscript to my previous posts on early modern philosophical angelology (on Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz, and the ‘fundamental angelological problem’) I want to provide some theological context for the question of whether angels have a body. Early modern theology is written from the point of view of the Christian believe. Nevertheless, it provides valuable insights for the historian of early modern philosophcial angelology.

In this post, we will see that, for Christians, the idea that angels may be corporeal is not in itself heretical. If conversely the immateriality of angels is a tenet of religious belief, theologians that do not want to hold on to an Aristotelian view of the world must accept that there are created entities that exist nowhere in the world.

1. Why the corporeality of angels is not heretical

As far as I can see, historians of philosophy are by and large unaware of the fact that a minority of early modern theologians affirmed the corporeality of angels - an insight that may help to put the ‘naturalising’ tendencies of early modern philosophical angelology into perspective: The immateriality of angels is no theological dogma. To defend their corporeality is no heresy.

Both Hobbes and Leibniz accept what I have called the ‘principle of locality’: Only those things are part of the world (Leibniz) or universe (Hobbes) that are (Hobbes) or stand in a relation to (Leibniz) a body. Both, Hobbes and - to a lesser extent - Leibniz, deny the immateriality of angels. Descartes defends it.

For readers of Hobbes and Leibniz, the belief that angels are corporeal was in itself neither an indication of atheism nor of heresy. So Curley seems to be in error, when he reads arguments for the corporeality of angels as implicit arguments for a corporeal Deity (see e. g. his 'I durst not write so boldly' [Word DOC]). It certainly is true that the overwhelming majority of early modern theologians accepted the immateriality of angels. But dissent did exist, so denial of angelic immateriality was not equivalent to denying the existence of immaterial substances alltogether.

Hobbes’ acknowledgement of the weakness of reason in this context is in fact quite close to the views of the Dominican theologian Sisto da Siena (Sixtus Senensis) who recommended an agnostic stance in this matter in his Bibliotheca Sacra (first published in 1566, cf. the 1610 edition, p. 329). And even in Britain, Hobbes’ views on angels were not heretical (see the 'Ordinance for the punishing of Blasphemies and Heresies, with the several penalties therein expressed' from  1648, which does not mention angelological matters at all).

The Reformed theologian Girolamo Zanchi (De operibus Dei intra spatium sex dierum, p. 62) agreed with Sisto that certainty in this question may very well be unachievable. Nevertheless the conflicting authorities are dutifully reported: Sisto mentions the Platonists, Aristotle, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, Vives, Peter Lombard, Lactantius, Basile, Michael Psellus, Ficino, Caelius Rhodiginus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Gregory of Nazianzen, Theodoret, Bede, John Damascene, and Dionysius the Aeropagite. Without further argument (ingenue) he concludes that the corporeality of angels may be more probable. But any error in this respect will not lead to heresy, because we do not know for certain what the right answer may be.

Cajetan had a less sceptical attitude. In his commentary on Ephesians 2,2 (fol. 260r) e argued that evil spirits (daemones) do have bodies. And this can be shown by sound philosophical reasoning (crediderim […] id consonare verae philosophiae rationi).

His argument is based on the assumption that corporeal spirits fill a lacuna in the order of being: There are living things that have only vegetative functions, but no sensitive capabilities (namely plants). Others, like sponges, are stationary like plants, but they are endowed with sensitive faculties (De part. an. 681a ff). At least one substance in the world has intellective, but no locomotive powers (namely God). Hence it makes sense to presume that there should be things that can change their place without requiring sensitive faculties: demons.

It is remarkable that Cajetan bases his argument on purely natural premisses. This suggests that, although he limits his argument to evil spirits, it should be applicable to angels as well: It would be difficult to accept that only evil spirits contribute to the perfection of God’s creation. So even though it is certainly true that the overwhelming majority of early modern theologians accepted the immateriality of angels, there were dissenting voices in the debate even within theology - the most radical position being articulated by a very influential Catholic thinker arguing from a philosophical point of view which anticipates to some extent Leibniz’s later insights.

2. Why supernatural angels may be superfluous

Leibniz did know Senensis (A IV 465). And he did know that ecclesiastical authority in this matter was inconclusive (G II 319). Why then did he shy away from fully naturalising angels, as we have seen in the third blog post of this series?

One conceivable answer may lie in a letter by Des Bosses (G II 321) that quotes the Jesuit Martin de Esparza in order to suggest that there might be a way to make Leibniz’s angelology compatible with Jesuit teachings. Esparza’s Quaestio V deals with the question how to distinguish angels from each other. The details of this intricate problem are irrelevant here. Esparza states that angels on the lowest level of the angelic hierarchy stand in a relation to a determinate body, even though these angels are not the form of such a body (which distinguishes them from the hypostatic union between soul and body of a human being). Des Bosses quotes only selectively, and bravely states that the same should be true for the two higher-ranked groups of angels as well. This, however, is not what Esparza himself says:

Quia vero Angeli supremae, et mediae hirarchiae referuntur in ratione illuminantis ad Angelos tertiae hierarchiae, ad eum modum, quo dictum est, posteriores istos referri ad homines, et ad caetera corporalia in ratione directoris, ac motoris: concluditur, Angelos etiam supremae, et mediae hierarchiae posse similiter esse ediscernibiles invicem, atque logice indivuatos, […] (p. 109)

So in fact, the individuation of angels from the two highest ranks of the angelic hierarchy is based not on them standing in relation to a body, but rather on standing in a particular relation (‘illumination’) to angels which in turn stand in a relation to a determinate body. Hence, if Leibniz wishes to make his own angelology compatible with Jesuit doctrine, he must concede that it is supernaturally possible that there are angels which stand in a particular relation only to their prime matter, whereas their relation to bodies is mediated by other angels (leading to the difficulties mentioned in the third post of this series).

3. Why immaterial angels are nowhere

Even though Descartes’ angelology may have shown how immaterial angels can be efficient in space in spite of their immateriality, Descartes seems to avoid studiously any answer to the question where angels belong in the world: The fact that every region of space - i. e. the world at large - is susceptible to acts of angelic agency does not in itself give us any hint about the customary place of angels in the world. But the answer Descartes should have given is obvious: Since Cartesians must accept the ‘principle of locality’, they must acknowledge that angels as such (‘in themselves’) are in fact nowhere.

This consequence is discussed by the Dutch theologian Christoph Wittich in his Theologia pacifica (all quotes in the following can be found on p. 147).

For Wittich, angels can only be present in space, if they are bodies:

Substantialis praesentia angelorum non potest definiri spatio, nisi statuant angelorum substantiam esse corpoream; […]

The first argument brought forward for this thesis is an explicit formulation of the ‘principle of locality’:

[…] 1. quia locus sive spatium non differt a corpore, ergo posito corpore ponitur, negato corpore negatur: […]

The notions of space (or place) are coextensive with the concept of a body, so that everything present in space is a body and incorporeal entitities cannot be a part of space: The same had been said by Hobbes.

Even though this argument may suffice, Wittich brings forward a second one:

2. Angelorum tota natura consistit in cogitatione, unumquodque autem est praesens per id quod possidet, non autem per id quod non habet; cogitatione autem non potest esse praesens, nisi quando per cogitationem suam aliquid efficit.

Here we see why Wittich makes a claim about praesentia substantialis: Thought is the essence of an angel. When we ask, how an angel can be ‘substantially present’ in space, we want to know how thought can be spatially present. Thought can be present in space only insofar, as it has spatial effects. But all spatial effects are effects on bodies, because the principle of locality implies that body and space are identical.

So angelic thought can be present in space if and only if an angel acts on bodies (the reverse question, whether angelic minds can be present in space by being acted upon is not adressed by Wittich). In other words, anyone subscribing to the ‘principle of locality’ must accept that angels are only in a place, when they act on this place - a consequence Descartes apparently had chosen to ignore:

sunt ergo angeli in loco, quandocunque operantur in loco respectu istius operationis; sed quando non operantur, sed tantum cogitant intra se, opus non habent loco; […]

Angels are in a place, whenever they act in relation to a region of space. If they do not act in a region of space (i. e. if they are ‘just thinking’), angels are not in a place and hence no part of the world.

4. Conclusion

We have seen why early modern philosophical angelology can only be understood fully, if its theological counterpart has been taken into account: Whether a claim is heretical in a given confessional context, depends on this confessional context (Hobbes). What philosophers believe may depend on what theologians require them to believe (Leibniz). Theological writings may furnish insights into ‘rational theology’ that cannot be found in the philosophical texts themselves (Descartes).

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

Learned Women in Early Modernity: Forgotten Sources

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, commemorating the achievements of women in the sciences. Since EMTO is about sources, this may be a fitting occasion to present some digital versions of early modern texts about female scholarship (broadly construed). So here is my list with a special emphasis on Germany (footnote: right now, importing new digital texts into EMTO is a somewhat flaky procedure, but these texts will appear in our repository in good time).

These texts have mostly been published in the second half of the 17th century (with the exception of the Gynæceum by Modius which was published in 1586). A cursory search suggests that these sources have not been at the center of attention within the community of early modern researchers.

That’s a pity.

I suspect that these sources may be interesting in several dimensions:

  • Compared to e. g. Italy and France, these German documents of at least some awareness of the intellectual capabilites of women are quite late. The question is why?
  • Even though all of them contain a catalogue of female scholars from antiquity onwards, they seem to approach their subject matter in slightly different perspectives: The dissertation by Thomasius and Sauerbrei includes philosophical reflections on the topic, whereas others like Herbinius seem to take a more matter of fact attitude.
  • It might be interesting to note how many of the lemmata in these catalogues have made it into subsequent encyclopedias like the Zedler-Lexicon.

In sum: a closer look at these texts may suggest interesting new research perspectives. I am not yet quite sure, how to go on from here. But I don’t take this as a bad sign, because EMTO is intended as a platform for facilitating and inspiring collaboration and the exchange of ideas (cf. our general 'call for participation'). So if you are willing to have a look at some of these sources, suggest ideas how to work on them etc., please do leave a note in the comments.

There are several ways to turn eventual results of research into something (more or less) tangible:

  • You may write guest posts for this blog (like colleagues did here or here).
  • You can put up drafts for open peer review (on EMTO preprints).
  • Finished results can be published online via Sophikon, the nascent information hub for philosophy in Germany.

When leaving a comment, you will be asked to leave your e-mail-address or some other contact information. This won’t be published, but it allows me to keep in touch with you. Alternatively, please mail me at

Two final remarks: for searching, I have relied mostly on this article by Anna-Maria Köppel for  an exhibition in 1982 (!). So: please spread the word on this. It ‘s about time.

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

Sitting on the moon?

In a recent blog post, Dennis des Chene replies to reflections by Mohan Matthen on the question whether some common sense intuitions may be resilient to refutation through science. In this context, Dennis comes up with an interesting thought experiment. Imagine a man sitting on the moon with his head pointing towards the Earth. For Dennis, the Aristotelian, it is clear that he is then “committed to holding that […] my feet are above my head (‘above’ being understood Aristotelian-wise); […]”. And this is meant to be true, because ‘up’ and ‘down’ are absolute notions (for an Aristotelian).

Graphics courtesy of Nadine Michael

Of course the idea that I’m sitting on the moon and have to assume that my feet are above my head seems to be pretty counterintuitive. But is it really? After all, we must take into account that sitting on the moon and facing the Earth is a fairly uncomfortable situation, at least for Aristotelians. Humans are made of two elements, earth and water. Both these elements tend to move towards the center of the universe. So it seems that the natural posture for Aristotelians on the moon is this:

We can see, everything is in order here: My feet are beneath my head, the moon is above it. The idea that my feet are above my head when sitting on the moon isn’t as far-fetched as it seems, as soon as it is clear that sitting on the moon is a posture against nature - as much as a headstand on Earth.

Now imagine that the Aristotelian on the moon looses his grip and falls towards Earth.. The following passage from the Physics gives us an idea of what should then happen:

ἔστι δὲ τὰ τοιαῦτα οὐ μόνον πρὸς ἡμᾶς, τὸ ἄνω καὶ κάτω καὶ δεξιὸν καὶ ἀριστερόν· ἡμῖν μὲν γὰρ οὐκ ἀεὶ τὸ αὐτό, ἀλλὰ κατὰ τὴν θέσιν, ὅπως ἂν στραφῶμεν, γίγνεται (διὸ καὶ ταὐτὸ πολλάκις δεξιὸν καὶ ἀριστερὸν καὶ ἄνω καὶ κάτω καὶ πρόσθεν καὶ ὄπισθεν), ἐν δὲ τῇ φύσει διώρισται χωρὶς ἕκαστον. (208b14-19)


Nor do such distinctions (up and down and right and left, &c.) hold only in relation to us. To us they are not always the same but change with the direction in which we are turned: that is why the same thing may be both right and left, up and down, before and behind. But in nature each is distinct, taken apart by itself.


For Aristotle, spatial terms express properties of substances rather than relations between substances, even though the common sense presumes the exact opposite. But this means that ‘natural place’ is determined not only with respect to ’ up’ and ‘down’, depending on the proportion of elements in the thing in place. Rather, substances have a natural ‘right’ and a natural ‘left’.

Johann Paschius defends this thesis in his 1685 dissertation “De loco”:


Paschius discusses two arguments for his view:

1. The argument from geographic orientation:

In II De Caelo, Aristotle teaches that movement of the spheres originates ‘on the right’ and all other cardinal points can be derived from that.

Idem alibi docet [sc. Aristoteles] dextrum id esse, unde principium motus est; hinc facile reliquas Loci differentias in Mundo à natura positas reperies, videlicet Ortus dextrum, Occasus sinistrum Septentrio faciem, Meridies dorsum, Zenith verticem, Nadir pedes cinget atque teget.

Moreover, in another text Aristotle teaches that the right is, whence the principle of motion comes from. Therefore, you will easily find the other differences of place as they have been posited by nature: the east encompasses and covers the right, the west the left, the north the front, the south the back, the zenith the top, the nadir the feet.

What Pasch seems to argue here is that there is a natural position in the world for human bodies: Facing north is more natural than facing south.

2. The argument from the spatial organisation of organisms:

[…] quod natura in ipsis animalibus hoc tam accurate observet, ut partibus singulis certum assignet locum et situm, huic dextrum, illi sinistrum, isti superiorem, alteri inferiorem; hanc retrò, aliam anté collocet. Si autem in quibusdam individuis earundem transpositio eveniat, illa pro monstris habentur.

[…] nature takes this [observer-independence of spatial properties] into account very accurately, as far as animals are concerned: She assigns a place and position to bodily parts, for this [sc. part] the right, for another the left, for this one a superior (sc. position), for another an inferior one. One part is placed at the back, another one in front. If in some individuals parts are transposed, such individuals are taken to be monsters.

The intuition behind the idea that there is a natural right-hand side of an organism is not as far-fetched as it seems at first glance. Imagine a teacher in front of his class, asking them to rise the left hand. This will always mean the left hand from the pupil’s point of view.

What does all this mean as far as the Aristotelian hanging from the moon is concerned? Imagine that he falls towards the earth. Aristotle’s theory of natural place (and natural non-relational local properties) suggests that it is more natural to land on one’s feet than on one’s head. Additionally, we should expect that our nose points towards the north, whereas our back-side points southwards.

But this landing position cannot be explained, or so it seems to me, by natural forces. The mixture of elements in a human body only explains the plain fact that it tends to fall towards the center of the earth. But how do we account for the fact that the spatial orientation of the body in falling (and landing) seems to be predetermined as well?

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

William Harvey’s Medical Aristotelianism

Guest post by Benny Goldberg from the Department for History and Philosophy of Science, Pittsburgh

In this blog post, I want to continue with Stefan’s recent theme of the role of experience in early modern Aristotelianisms (and there were many!). In particular I want to consider the role of experience in one rather unique Aristotelian, the English anatomist, physician and philosopher William Harvey (1578-1657), discoverer of the circuit of the blood in his (1628) De motu cordis. Harvey is unique not least because his name was associated not with the Aristotelian school at all, but rather with the new experimental philosophy. It is essential, then, that we keep distinct Harvey’s own self image as an Aristotelian, and his image as reflected in the work of others, as a new experimental philosopher, and even as a mechanical philosopher. To understand Harvey we must understand both of these images, of course, but here my concern is only with the image of Harvey we find in his own works. This is the first post of a few I have planned discussing Harvey’s Aristotelianism and his conception of experience. In this first installment, I provide some background on Harvey’s philosophy and the nature of his Aristotelianism.

Robert Boyle called Harvey ‘our English Democritus’—and this, despite the fact that Harvey was a lifelong opponent to corpuscular philosophies. Most likely, then, Boyle was pointing to Harvey not as any sort of atomist, but rather as a searcher into nature’s secrets, a great experimentalist and observer of animal bodies and their functioning. And though it is rarely if ever mentioned by those who lauded his name in this way, Harvey was a deeply committed Aristotelian.

In a moment we shall unpack some aspects of Harvey’s Aristotelianism, for as Stefan has demonstrated, this term covers a wide variety of positions and methods in the early modern period. But I want to note at the outset that, over the course of his career, Harvey’s commitment to Aristotle becomes, if anything, stronger. Thus we find in his last work, the Exercitationes de generatione animalium (1651), that the Praefatio contains some of Harvey’s most explicit thoughts on method, which he expresses by means of an attempt to make cohesive the doctrines on knowledge of universals and particulars of the Posterior Analytics and the Physics, a traditional problem for followers of the Peripatetic. Clearly, in this work at least, Harvey understood his own method in terms of Aristotle’s.

Though Harvey studied at Cambridge what must have been an entirely traditional course on natural philosophy, we know that he was influenced rather more by the Aristotelianism he imbibed at his training in Padua just after the turn of the century (1600-1602). Harvey was thus explicitly anti-Scholastic, writing in the margins of a copy of his own De generatione that “The elenchic disputations of the Scholastics in which they drag truth by the neck to confirm a hypothesis has the result that in this way we can prove or defend anything we choose.”i Instead, as Andrew Cunningham has argued in his (1985) paper “Fabricius and the ‘Aristotle Project’ in Anatomical Teaching and Research at Padua,” Harvey’s indoctrination into Aristotle at Padua was deeply influenced by the new humanist translations of Aristotle, especially his books on animals. Cunningham argues that Fabricius’ project was to resuscitate the methods and project that Aristotle puts forward in these animal books, a project which is obviously incomplete and full of incorrect assertions. Thus, for both Harvey and Fabricius, the goal was not to defend Aristotle’s doctrines (except insofar as they were proven correct by experience) but rather to extend and expand upon Aristotle’s (distinctly teleological) project of explaining living things.

Harvey’s training in anatomy and natural philosophy by Fabricius was part of the latter’s attempt to fix the errors of previous anatomists, such as Vesalius and Colombo, by adopting the methods and standards of Aristotle’s explanations of animal bodies and souls as found in the Parva naturalia, the De partibus animalium, and the De generatione animalium. So, for instance, Fabricius’ argued that anatomists must move beyond knowledge merely of structure (often called historia) to knowledge of actions and uses (actiones, usus or utilitas, though, in fact, the terminology is both complicated and used differently by different authors, and even sometimes within the same work). Knowledge of uses and actions, although expressed using the Galen derived terminology of the physicians, is, in fact, a distinctly Aristotelian model of scientific knowledge, and can be understood as knowledge of final causes and the efficient causes that bring them about.

Indeed, the De usu partium, which is one of the key sources for this terminology, is perhaps Galen’s most Aristotelian work. We must not dismiss the influence of Galen on Harvey, for Harvey’s training took place in a distinctly medical context—and, in the early modern period, Galen was nearly synonymous with medicine. Harvey’s Aristotelianism is, in fact, deeply influenced by Galen’s philosophy and methods, though this influence is hard to detect since he never talks about Galen in the same way as Aristotle, and, furthermore, Galen’s own philosophy is deeply Aristotelian in many ways. Again, like with Aristotle, Harvey’s agreements with Galen are not so much on substantive doctrines—for all know that Harvey’s De motu cordis was aimed at proving Galen’s (and Aristotle’s) doctrines on the heart to be false—but rather on matters of method. The most important work to note here is Galen’s De placitis hippocratis et platonis, a work in which he takes Aristotle to task for failing to abide by his own methods. But, though Galen justifies his methods based on Aristotle’s conception of science and scientific explanation, he is just as innovative a thinker, and his influence on Harvey and early modern anatomy should not be underestimated.

We conclude this first post, then, with this thought, namely, that Harvey must be located in the context of Renaissance medical humanism, a blend of Aristotle and Galen and other Ancient philosophers. Later in life, responding to a query from John Aubrey on what philosophers to read and learn from (found in the Brief Lives), Harvey bid Aubrey “…to goe to the fountain head, and read Aristotle, Cicero, Avicenna, and did call the neoteriques shitt-breeches.”ii The referent of ‘neoteriques’ is a bit obscure, but we have good reason to include here not only those, from our perspective, who seem new and innovative, thinkers such as Descartes or Gassendi, but the much wider class of writers contemporary to Harvey, such as Laurentius, Scaliger, and Fernel. Even Fabricius does not merit remit from Harvey’s gaze, and many times throughout the De generatione Harvey takes his teacher to task not only for getting the facts wrong, but for not even understanding the appropriate way to explain various natural phenomena. (So, for instance, Harvey criticizes him for using material causes where efficient and final ones are needed.) Harvey’s philosophy then, while definitely and distinctly Aristotelian, embraces a wide variety of Ancient sources and philosophies, and Harvey’s erudition and wide reading can be glimpsed from the wide range of figures he cites, from Augustine to Hippocrates to Pliny and beyond. Like many of those from a medical background (and in distinction to those with more traditional training), Harvey’s philosophy was eclectic. His respect for the Ancients, though both deep and broad, was a matter of adopting that philosophy which worked. Harvey was, we might say, interested not in whose philosophy could be justified most completely through disputations (no wringing of truth by the neck), but rather he was interested in that philosophy which helped him best understand, explain, and investigate the natural world. His commitment to Aristotle was one that he thought justified and reinforced by his experiments and experiences, a matter not of reflexive belief but of confidant empirical warrant, supported by his long career and his many dissections and experiments.

In the next installment, I will delve more specifically into how Harvey conceives of experience and its relation to scientific knowledge.

iThese annotations are found in the copy of De generatione animalium (1651) in the Pybus Collection at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, probably made in 1653. Some of the notes, including this one, are found in: Harvey 1981 [1651], Disputations Touching the Generation of Animals, Trans. and Ed. Gweneth Whitteridge, p.455.

iiAubrey, John (1898), Brief Lives Vol. I, Ed. Andrew Clark, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 300.

Early Modern Experimental Philosophy: Aristotelian Views (VIII) - Why should we care?

Two weeks ago, I have promised some remarks on methodological aspects and perspectives for further research.

The first question that comes to mind is, of course, why an analysis of the concept of experience in early modern metaphysics should be relevant at all. The easiest way to answer this somewhat tricky question is to reflect on why (and to whom!) this topic may seem irrelevant. Research on early modern metaphysics neglects the concept of experience for a reason - namely because it concentrates on metaphysics as an a priori science of universals: Taking e. g. Suárez as a starting point, the question for the metaphysician is how knowledge of first principles is possible. Suárez’ answer, as we have seen, points to the self-evident connection of the concepts applied in these principles. In this perspective, the question whether experience may have an auxiliary function is of secondary importance.

Research on early modern history of science is correspondingly rather interested in particulars (see Gideon Manning’s comments on the origin of the experimental-speculative distinction). Maybe, historians of science tend to concentrate on  aspects of early modern Aristotelianism that bear a recognisable resemblance to our present-day concept of science. But these aspects (physica particularis) in fact cannot be neatly separated from their conceptual foundations which are discussed in metaphysics and logic.

So the early modern Aristotelian concept of experience in metaphysics sits in a blind spot, so to speak (which may be the reason why, to my knowledge, it has escaped attention up to now - I stand to be corrected on that, of course). And the most plausible explanation I can provide right now is that it is mostly our present-day concerns rather than the disciplinary structure of early modern thought itself that determines the focus of our attention. Applying such a strategy is worthwhile, because it helps to convey a sense of how these present-day concerns may be related to the distant past. But it comes at a price, because it underestimates the interdependence of various parts of the early modern ‘system of knowledge’ (think e. g. of the topos of medicine as a cure for the body and moral philosophy as a cure for the soul discussed in textbooks on moral philosophy).

But things are even more complicated. In handbooks on the history of early modern philosophy and early modern science alike, we often find introductory overviews of ‘the’ early modern Aristotelian framework. Again, there is nothing wrong with that - as long as such overviews are taken with caution, i. e.  as an abstraction that serves certain legitimate expository ends. But following the late Charles B. Schmitt we should remind ourselves that the historical facts, strictly speaking, do not allow such abstractions. There are substantial differences between ‘early modern Aristotelianisms’ as well as within these traditions: Suárez and Fonseca both are late 16th century Jesuit thinkers, but nevertheless there are areas of disagreement, as we have seen. So the historical reconstruction of early modern Aristotelianism must begin to pay as much attention to debates between Aristotelians as to points they may have had in common. In my view, then, we should begin to take both the systematicity and heterogeneity of early modern Aristotelianism into account in order to contribute to a deeper understanding of early modern thought in general.

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter