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Early Modern: Émilie du Châtelet, Part 1

In this first of two videos, Andrew Janiak introduces Emilie Du Chatelet, a French philosopher, and her contribution to the debate about the principle of sufficient reason. This video is a part of a series of videos coming from Project Vox (Duke), a project recovering the lost voices of women philosophers.

Speaker: Dr. Andrew Janiak, Creed C. Black Associate Professor of Philosophy, Duke University.

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Video transcript

(intro music) This is Andrew Janiak in the philosophy department at Duke University, where we are leading Project Vox. This is part one of Emilie du Chatelet, a French philosopher who worked in the middle of the eighteenth century. Madame du Chatelet was a member of a famous aristocratic family in France and was often associated with the French author Voltaire. For many generations, in fact, scholars saw her primarily in two ways: one, as a collaborator of Voltaire's, rather than a major figure in her own right; and two, as the most important translator of Isaac Newton in France. Now in fact she was a collaborator of Voltaire's for many years, and in fact she did translate, from cover to cover, Principia Mathematica. However, more recently, scholars have recognized that Madame du Chatelet actually was a philosopher of her own. Her main work is called Institutions de Physique, or Institutions of Physics. One of the most fascinating aspects of the work is that it actually shows a deep engagement not only with Newtonian ideas, for example about the nature of matter, the laws in motion, and the law of universal gravitation, among other things, but also with the ideas of Leibniz. Now, in France at this time, Leibniz had not had as much influence as we would expect from his status in the philosophy canon today. And in fact, Madame to Chatelet was probably the first major thinker in France to take Leibniz's ideas seriously. Christian Wolff, probably the most important follower of Leibniz's after his death, wrote to Madame du Chatelet and praised her 1740 book for taking the ideas of Leibniz seriously. But the great conundrum that Madame du Chatelet faced was something along the following lines: how do we accept Newtonian ideas about the physical world and also take seriously the metaphysical ideas found in Leibniz and Wolff, especially the all-important Principle of Sufficient Reason. The principal of sufficient reason, or PSR, as philosophy students around the world will know, tells us that there is a reason for everything to be the way it is, rather than otherwise. And of course, in 1715 and 1716, Leibniz and the great Netwonian Samuel Clarke held an extensive debate with one another concerning such issues as how the principle of sufficient reason should be interpreted. As a result of the influence of the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, most philosophers in Europe believed, at that time, that one had to choose either a Leibnizian point of view on philosophy, which would center on his interpretation of the principle of sufficient reason; or a more Newtonian-influenced view, which would either just eschew the principle of sufficient reason altogether or provide something closer to Clark's interpretation of it. and what is unique about Madame du Chatelet, in the middle of the eighteenth century, is that she rejected this presupposition. She believed one could be influenced both by Leibniz and by Newton, without choosing either side. Subtitles by the Amara.org community