Our Perspective

By derivation from the Authentic Cosmos, one within itself, there subsists this lower Cosmos, no longer a true unity. It is multiple, divided into various elements, thing standing apart from thing in a new estrangement.
Plotinus, Enneads III 2,2

Who is able to put himself in this kind of “standpoint of the cosmos in itself” and what could such a standpoint mean?
Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks XI

No single astronomical system, the Copernican as little as the Ptolemaic, can be taken as the expression of the ‘true’ cosmic order, but only the whole of these systems as they unfold continuously according to a definite connection.
Ernst Cassirer, Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff, ch. 7

These three quotations provide an excellent preamble to the intellectual foundations that guide our research in the ERC consolidator endeavor “Institutions and Metaphysics of Cosmology in the Epistemic Networks of Seventeenth-Century Europe” (Early Modern Cosmology).

  • Following Plotinus, we understand that the cosmological discourse from antiquity until the present day was embedded in theological and metaphysical frameworks;
  • Gramsci introduces an essential critique of the ideological assumption that an extra-historical access to nature is possible;
  • and Cassirer confirms the necessity of investigating the objectivity of cosmology — understood as the study of the world as whole — in terms of cultural processes.

Our endeavor draws on these insights to interpret the competing discourses on early modern cosmology in their institutional and metaphysical contexts.

Bartolomeu Velho Volvelle, Figura dos corpos celestes, 1568.

The threshold of modernity in Europe was marked by acute political and ideological fragmentation, which gave rise to confessional and cultural clashes that transformed cosmological inquiry. Although knowledge is the collective endeavor par excellence, early-modern styles of thought could not be brought together owing to irresoluble hegemonic conflicts.

The economic, political, and spiritual stakes of the science of the time can be seen in the example of mathematical astronomy, which was indispensable for navigation and cartography and therefore an essential instrument of colonial expansion; in addition, its philosophical implications at the level of cosmological worldviews were burdened with theological and metaphysical ramifications.

In the seventeenth century, the inquiry into the physical and philosophical consequences of post-Copernican astronomy established new and more solid foundations for cosmology, which were implicated in very severe conflicts over the reconcilability of natural inquiry and the religious dogma.

Elias Ehinger, The Comet of 1618 over Augsburg, 1618 (Wikicommons).

The divergent epistemic cultures that emerged in early modernity were institutionalized in the form of scholarly networks, which include the Protestant connections between northern European universities, the global organization of Jesuit colleges, and forms of resistance in academic centers struggling for their autonomy from religion following the Venetian model of philosophical freedom at Padua. Although the seventeenth century stands as a milestone in the social and metaphysical history of cosmology, we are equally interested in the antecedents that led to this dramatic century and its later repercussions.

The intricate development of cosmological knowledge cannot be explained as a ‘pure’ development of thought. Early modern controversies over the order of the world reveal the profound historicity of all cosmological conceptions, including how their shifting ideological-political definitions and cultural dimensions act as the objective motor for transformative epistemic processes. Therefore, any study of the early-modern constitution of collective standpoints on the world requires a complementary methodological reflection upon political epistemology

Raffaello, detail from Scuola di Atene, 1509-1511 (Wikicommons).

The ERC project Early Modern Cosmology achieves a political-cultural reconstruction of the cosmology of the past as well as a clarification of the conceptual tools that are necessary for the comprehension of past struggles for scientific hegemony. Thus, our concrete historical studies serve as a springboard to address certain problems that have emerged in knowledge theory at the confluence of social constructionism, post-modern relativism, and neo-positivism.

By adapting and reworking our three leading quotes to relate to this particular juncture in time and epistemology, we can frame our historical enquiry using three leading questions:

  • Are political antagonisms, ideological struggles, and religious tensions a hindrance to scientific development or the fuel that ignites it?
  • How can the objectivity of science as a cultural product be secured?
  • What kind of truth of and about nature emerges from the history of the human exploration of the cosmos?