What’s So Special about GFPJ Special Issues? — James Dodd
GFPJ special, or dedicated issues are often the most interesting, for a number of reasons. They tend to be carried through with a robustness of purpose, and that from a long series of editors who—unlike many academic journals today—rarely if ever have been lacking in direction since the journal began in 1972. These special issues often serve as important barometers of intellectual currents, interests, even obsessions giving shape to the philosophical community at The New School at any given time; and over time, they often provide an interesting basis for a comparison, or even dialogue across generations of students (and also faculty).
As a case in point, take two issues on materialism: the first, “The Renewal of Materialism,” edited by Charles T. Wolfe and published in 2000; the second, “Matter and Materialism in the Aristotelian Tradition,” edited by Benjamin Grazzini and published just five years later. Both volumes are inspired by the maturation of research over roughly the previous two decades in late medieval and Renaissance history of science, and both recognize the pressure such research has put on our assumptions about the role of materialism in the history of ideas. Yet one only needs to read the introductions to the respective volumes to get a sense that there is a wide variety of intellectual motivations that can lead one to a pique of interest in these matters, and accordingly strikingly different ways in which the complexity of early modern philosophy and the history of science can be explored. Each volume displays a richesse of erudition and key insights, from the argument in the older volume regarding the importance of medicine in shaping the meaning of materialism in the Renaissance (beginning with the essay by Annie Bitbol-Hespérès, but also including those of Roselyne Rey and Alexandre Métraux), to the reconstruction of the various jousts between Aristotelian hylomorphism and atomism that marked early modern physics in the newer volume. The one, marked by an eclectic fascination with the unexplored and the marginal, the monstrous and the unclassifiable, is nicely complemented by the other, which is more driven by the task of rethinking and re-founding a larger, more synthetic narrative concerning the rise of modern science and philosophy.
The erudition, both editorial and philosophical, is a common characteristic in these and other volumes. It is also often accompanied by a touch of mischievousness. A good example of this is the special volume from 1987, “Topics in the History and Philosophy of Science,” which includes a remarkable essay by Francois De Gandt on Newton’s geometrical treatment of force (a discussion not for the mathematically faint of heart), but also a translation by Pierre Adler of Hegel’s 1801 Dissertatio Philosophica de Orbitis Planetarum. “Why,” asks Adler, in the opening to his introduction in which he barely keeps his bibliophilic playfulness under control, “publish this cryptic, seldom read, discussed or studied text of Hegel’s, this scandalous piece of writing, which may be cause for embarrassment to Hegelians who know of its existence”—one here surmises that if the Hegelians at the Graduate Faculty did not know about it already, they certainly do now—“and which was deleted from inclusion in the German paperback edition (Theorie Werkausgabe, Suhrkamp Verlag) of Hegel’s works?” Adler does not give a good answer, but he does seize with relish the opportunity to tell the story of how Hegel, in his dissertation, attempted to replace the arithmetical series of the Titius-Bode law predicting the orbits of the planets with a more “philosophical” series of numbers derived from Plato’s Timaeus. The substantive (at least from an empirical point of view) difference between the two hypotheses is that Titius-Bode predicts an orbit between Mars and Jupiter, whereas Hegel’s model affirms a large gap, which seemed to correspond better to what was known empirically at the time. Now, if it were not scandalous enough to reach all the way back to Plato for making hypotheses in modern astrophysics, then the discovery of Ceres by Giuseppe Piazzi, precisely where Titius-Bode predicted it would be, would appear to seal Hegel’s reputation as, at best, an incompetent dabbler in matters physical, “unworthy of untying Newton’s shoes” as Adler puts it. Not only that, but as luck would have it, Piazzi discovers Ceres in 1801, the very same year Hegel wrote and defended his Dissertatio, though Hegel remained ignorant of this fact for some years.
Adler’s mischievousness is, however, soon eclipsed by his better judgment, and footnote 38 to the translation (not footnote 37, as it is claimed in footnote 6 to the Introduction, a rare error from one of the better editors in the Journal’s history) includes a more balanced assessment of Hegel’s philosophy of nature, in particular regarding its appeal to a mix of arithmetical, numerological, theological, and philosophical concepts that he in fact shares with Kepler, Huygens, and even Titius and Bode. And in the end, this translation of Hegel’s “scandalous” work is a significant contribution to what has since, certainly since 1987, grown into a complex and nuanced discussion of the role of German Idealist philosophies of nature in the development of the natural sciences during the nineteenth century. In the contemporary discussion Hegel, and Schelling for that matter (who may be the inspiration for turning to the Timaeus), are taken less often to be mere philosophical dreamers spinning a priori yarn, and more often as part of a complex development in which a mechanistic model of the world was being replaced by a more organic or dynamic conception, a shift that was the conditio sine qua non for the flourishing of science both physical and biological in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.*
That still doesn’t mean, of course, that Hegel was much of an astrophysicist.
*On the roots of this transformation in the previous century, see Stephen Gaukroger’s The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1680–1760 (Oxford, 2010). And since everything really begins with Kant, see the rich collection of essays in The Kantian Legacy in 19th Century Science, ed. Michael Friedman and Alfred Norman (MIT, 2006), in particular the essay by Frederick Beiser “Kant and Naturphilosophie.” For a more systematic account, see Robert Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago, 2002).
G.W.F. Hegel, “Philosophical Dissertation on the Orbits of the Planets (1801), Preceded by the 12 Theses Defended on August 27, 1801,” trans. Pierre Adler, in “Topics in the History and Philosophy of Science,” special issue, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 12:1–2 (1987), pp. 269–309.
Alexandre Métraux, “The Emergent Materialism in French Clinical Brain Research (1820-1850): A Case Study in Historical Neurophilosophy,” in “The Renewal of Materialism,” ed. Charles T. Wolfe, special issue, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 22:1 (2000), pp. 161–89.
James Dodd is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of Violence and Phenomenology (Routledge, 2009; paperback 2014) and Crisis and Reflection: An Essay on Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences (Kluwer, 2004). He is currently working on a book on phenomenology and architecture.