Getting Real about Descartes’ Radical Copernican Realism: Untimely Meditations for the Descartes and Scientific Revolution Industries
Many Descartes experts act as though the last 109 articles of Book III and the first 57 articles of Book IV of Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy do not exist. These deal with the causes of the equilibrium of planetary orbits and the lack thereof in the case of comets (that is, vortices—a highly technical construct); the magnetic properties of stars and planets; sun spots and how their accretion and dissipation cause not only novae but the just discovered variable stars, as well as, on occasion, the extinguishing of the host star and the birth of a planet. All such planets, including the Earth, then undergo the same pattern of terraqueous formation. (Descartes offers not ‘a theory of the Earth’ as many believe, but a theory of each and every planet in his universe.)
These matters of mid-level theory, integration of recently discovered dramatic matters of fact, and grand systematic natural philosophizing may not interest most modern Descartes scholars, but they were what concerned René and his readers, who knew that he was bidding to create a hegemonic system of natural philosophy in the form of the most radical, technically accomplished and empirically grounded version of a realist Copernicanism yet published. His ‘philosophical’ denial of the motion of the Earth is located in widely read passages earlier in the text. But these form a Cartesian ‘mask’, intended as pre-fabricated evidence for legal and inquisitorial fora, as anyone with juridical/bureaucratic experience —then or now—might realize.
Bio John Schuster
John A. Schuster is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He studied mathematics, physics, European history and history of science, at Columbia, then early modern European economic and social history and history of science at Princeton. He taught at Princeton, Leeds, Cambridge, and the University of New South Wales, before retiring to full-time research in 2011, in the School of History & Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Science, University of Sydney. He is also an Honorary Fellow of Campion College, Sydney, the only private Liberal Arts college in Australia. He was President the Australasian Assoc. for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science on seven occasions. He has well defined reputations for his publications on the scientific and natural philosophical career of Descartes; the process and historiography of the Scientific Revolution; and the rhetorical and political functions of scientific method. He was one of the first to link the work of Thomas Kuhn to issues in the sociology of scientific knowledge. He has extensive experience in the design of curricula in the history, philosophy and sociology of science and has written two textbooks to that end. He was a visiting Fellow at the Descartes Centre, University of Utrecht in 2008.