The Problem of Bodies from Newton to Kant

Collaborative Group

Dr. Marius Stan, Dr. Katherine Brading




This project inquires into the notion of body at the heart of classical physics and philosophical engagements with that notion. The key thesis advanced by philosophers Marius Stan and Katherine Brading is that by 1700 neither metaphysics nor mathematical physics had a coherent and robust notion of body, understood either as physical bodies or those of moral and political agents. They identify this lacuna in the metaphysics of science as the “problem of bodies.” The project explores the resources and solutions available in the Enlightenment for solving this problem. Drawing on Brading’s expertise in early modern thought and philosophy of physics, and on Stan’s background in history of physics, the project focuses on scientific theorists (including Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Leonhard Euler, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, Pierre-Simon Laplace, and Siméon Denis Poisson) and philosophers attuned to that science (such as Christian Wolff, Emilie du Châtelet, and Immanuel Kant). Using the “problem of bodies” as an investigative tool, the research uncovers and then assesses the entanglement between philosophies of matter and mechanical theory as both sought to recover a robust notion of body in the eighteenth century. Thereby, it offers a novel, revisionary account of the relationship between philosophy and mechanics in the Enlightenment, and of the split that arose between physics and philosophy. The project’s outcome will be a jointly authored monograph; in addition, the scholars expect to outline and defend a new problematic and research agenda for historians and philosophers of classical science. Award period: July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2019