Aristoteliansm in Service of Atomism? Gorlaeus on Knowledge of Universals

Helen Hattab

University of Houston

David Gorlaeus (1591-1612), early seventeenth century atomist and notorious novatore, presents an unusual view regarding the role of experience in scientific knowledge. He denies scientific knowledge of essences, as scientia is strictly about accidental being. Accidents are mere co-existences, i.e., relational properties arising from compositions of atoms. However, Gorlaeus does not advocate an observational/experimentalist approach to knowledge of such co-existences. Scientia must proceed from precepts, each of which should be a necessary axiom. Co-existences are apprehended by the understanding through 'notions' and scientific knowledge is attained when the understanding arranges these notions into a composite in such a way that one can then determine whether the disposition of the composition of notions matches the things themselves. In this paper, I argue that we can account for the understanding’s acquisition of the notions that, for Gorlaeus, constitute the building blocks of scientific knowledge, if we attribute to him a late Scholastic Aristotelian view of universals. First I lay out Gorlaeus’ view of scientia, which follows from his metaphysics and bears some resemblance to key elements of Descartes’ and Hobbes’ scientific methods. Then I turn to a puzzle that arises from Gorlaeus’ broader theory of knowledge. On the one hand, Gorlaeus retains visible and tactile species posited by Aristotelian theories of sensory perception; on the other hand, he rejects the passive intellect which, at least on Thomist views, serves to bridge the gap between the phantasm or material sensible species of the object and the intelligible species or universal produced by the active intellect. To make matters worse, Gorlaeus rejects the real existence of universals on the grounds that everything that exists is singular. At the same time he affirms that the intellect engages in abstraction and implies that the mind attains objective scientific knowledge of things by arranging different ‘notions’ it has of things. Such ‘notions’ are not listed among Gorlaeus’ innate principles so they must ultimately be derived from the sensible species of objects by some process of abstraction. Sadly, Gorlaeus nowhere spells out how this is supposed to work. However, I show that a late Scholastic Aristotelian theory of universals held by the influential Jesuit, Francisco Suárez, is consistent with various commitments evident from Gorlaeus’ texts dealing with universals. By attributing to Gorlaeus an adaptation of Suárez’s account of universals, we can explain why Gorlaeus was not driven to place heavy emphasis on observation and experimentation in articulating his view of scientific knowledge, even though the ‘notions’ or universal concepts that compose his scientific knowledge must be derived from experience.