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Early Modern: Émilie du Châtelet, Part 2

Video transcript

(intro music) This is Andrew Janiak from Duke University and Project Vox. This is part two to our discussion of Madame du Chatelet. As we heard in part one, the most interesting aspect of Madame du Chatelet's Foundations of Physics is that she decided she would be neither a a pure Newtonian nor a pure Leibnizian philosopher. Rather, she would forge her own path. Madame du Chatelet was fully convinced that there was one important missing element in the Newtonian approach to thinking about philosophy. Before we can understand it, however, there's one thing we have to keep in mind. Isaac Newton, to us today, was a great scientist. But in the eighteenth century, everyone understood that Newton and his followers stood for an approach to understanding nature. They stood for the idea, for example, that there are forces of nature that human beings can come to understand, that these forces might act across very, very great distances. They stood for the use of observation and experiment. This approach to understanding nature was very different from what we found in Descartes in the seventeenth century, or what would be found in Newton's greatest rival, Leibniz, in the beginning of the eighteenth century. So with that background, let's think more about Madame du Chatelet's view about what was missing in the Newtonian system. Although Newton was correct in saying that there is a universal force of gravity that maintains the planetary orbits, and although he was also correct in saying that there are three laws of motion along the lines that a physics student would recognize today, she also thought that the Newtonians were wrong to accept certain aspects of nature as what we would now call "brute facts." That is, they were willing to accept various features of the natural world as having no deeper explanation. And Madame du Chatelet believed that Leibniz and his followers were correct in saying that we couldn't accept brute facts. She thought we had to have some deeper explanation of the natural world and its phenomena, along the lines required by the principle of sufficient reason So the most important aspect of Madame du Chatelet's Foundations of Physics is trying to find a way to use the principle of sufficient reason to provide a deep explanation for natural phenomena, of a kind that is missing in the Newtonian in world. You might wonder why someone like Clarke was missing this deeper explanation, since, in his letters to Leibniz, he did endorse the principle of sufficient reason. But from Madame du Chatelet's point of view, he has the wrong interpretation of it, as Leibniz had already suggested, and as a result, he really doesn't provide a deep explanation for natural phenomena. He simply says that, well, the explanation is they are due to the Divine Will. But the Divine Will remains inscrutable from a Leibnizian point of view, and Madame du Chatelet held a Leibnizian view of the principle of sufficient reason. She thought, therefore, that merely referring to the Divine Will was not sufficient. We had to have a deeper understanding of natural phenomena, one that would explain the reason even that God would choose to make certain things the case. In this way, Madame du Chatelet forged an intriguing middle path between the Leibnizian view and the Newtonian view that was prominent in her day. And most intriguingly, finally, in that way she actually prefigured some of the work that we would associate with Kant later in the eighteenth century. Subtitles by the Amara.org community