​​​​​​2016 ISSEI conference 

The University of Lodz, Poland

Workshop: The Question of Life in 17th-Century Mechanism

Chair: Syliane Malinowski-Charles
Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Canada

The 17th century saw the rise of a new conception of the world in learned Europe: a world entirely ruled by the laws of nature, determined by the strict mechanical concepts of physics. In this context, Descartes’s so-called “animal machines” exemplify one of the major problems arising from the denial of Aristotle’s “substantial forms”: namely, the disappearance of the soul, which used to be understood as the life-principle of bodies. But clearly, both humans, animals and plants are moved by a life principle, which now had to be separated by the mechanicists from the soul and integrated into bodies themselves--or denied altogether. Descartes himself argued that men have souls, but it is not their souls that make them perform the motions and behaviors that keep them alive. Just like animals and plants, their bodies obey strict mechanical laws, and these laws integrate life in such a way that their bodies, once constituted, keep preserving themselves.

            How such life-preservation is achieved at the physical level is a puzzle. Depending on authors, the answer varies, and is more, or less, convincing. It is probably less convincing, indeed, in Descartes than in Hobbes and Spinoza, who both have recourse to the notion of conatus or the “endeavor to live”, or in Leibniz, who purposely reintegrated souls in order to explain life, to the point that his notion of mechanism was transformed into a form of universal animism. The newly-discovered “principle of inertia” in physics also offered an intriguing possibility for explaining the conservation of life in living beings, according to some authors, including, arguably, Hobbes and Spinoza.

The main theme of this panel is thus as follows: outside the traditional Aristotelian framework, how was it possible for 17th-century philosophers to conceive of life? How could life be integrated in bodies, which were otherwise understood as mere machines? Was this integration achieved by treating all bodies, whether apparently alive or not, as having a similar capacity to preserve themselves? How did this new problem combine with the renewal of interest in life transmission and in the development of the fetus? These are some of the questions that speakers in this panel are invited to address, both in English and in French. 

Please submit a 350-500 word abstract (in English or in French) by 1 April 2016 to Syliane Malinowski-Charles, at Syliane.charles@uqtr.ca