Gassendi’s Theory of Space: its Genesis and some Aspects of its Reception

Delphine Bellis

Radboud University, Nijmegen

Gassendi is often viewed as a bit of an antiquarian, because of his interest in reconstructing Epicurean philosophy. Since he made no major contribution to the new science of the 17th century, it might seem at first sight that his conception of space fits the interpretative framework Edward Grant applied to medieval and early modern theories of space as a whole, as being “the product of a fusion of ancient pagan Greek speculations with Christian theology.” If this statement is not entirely inadequate when applied to Gassendi, I want to show in this paper that Gassendi’s notion of space was also shaped according to physical requirements coming from the new science. In his Syntagma Philosophicum, Gassendi proposed a theory of space that departed radically from the Aristotelian notion of place. Gassendi stated that space is a homogeneous three-dimensional entity, which can be filled with bodies but is independent of them and can remain void. He proposed a new ontological conception of space as being neither a substance nor an accident because it has no positive nature, but can subsist without any body. Space is eternal, uncreated, and independent of God. I first suggest that this conception of space was original precisely insofar as it overcame the traditional dichotomy identified by Grant according to which extra-cosmic void was “God-created, independent, separate” or else was “God-filled, dependent.” Gassendi’s space is therefore in a sense a priori, as the necessary condition for anything material to exist. At the same time, space, for Gassendi, remains something objective, which is not mind-dependent. Gassendi constitutes thus an important conceptual step in the pathway which leads from Aristotelian and Cartesian conceptions of space to the Kantian a priori subjective form of sensible intuition. Now, before reaching this final formulation, Gassendi’s concept underwent several evolutions, from the manuscript of the De vita et doctrina Epicuri, where he was still strongly indebted to the Epicurean conceptions of space and time as accidents, to the 1649 Animadversiones and the posthumous publication of the Syntagma philosophicum in 1658, which rejects the Epicurean conception and devises a new ontological framework to account for space and time. In this paper I propose to illustrate these evolutions by a comparison of the three texts. Then I want to argue that these changes are linked to Gassendi’s interest in scientific matters, in particular Galileo’s formulation of the law of the free fall of bodies and experiments on the vacuum. In the second part of this paper, I present some examples of the reception of Gassendi’s theory of space that stress either its metaphysical, its theological or its physical dimension, thus disconnecting dimensions that were tightly intertwined in Gassendi’s theory. I will study more specifically Charleton’s presentation of Gassendi’s theory of space based on the Animadversiones, and the “doutes” Bernier expressed on Gassendi’s theory in his Abrégé de la philosophie de Gassendi.