This week's splendid philosopher (cf. the rules), Mary Domski, is fast becoming the leading scholar of the intersection of early modern mathematics (including Kant) and philosophy, and along the way one of the world's leading debunkers of myths: for example, one of her earliest publications, refutes the influential misunderstanding that Newton has a “constructivist” account of geometry. On Newton’s behalf she drives a wedge between constructability and intelligibility. One of her most important papers is about to appear in a volume that I co-edited. (Okay, so I am biased!) Against the myth promoted by Voltaire (and echoed by lots of later scholars) of a happy union between the thought of Locke and Newton, she argues that that Locke’s eventual endorsement of Newton’s claims was very qualified. She shows that in Locke there are grounds for the development of a distinct, philosophic critique of Newton that, in my view, is visible throughout the eighteenth century.
On of my favorite papers, is her article on Descartes’ early mathematics and metaphysics. She reads the practice in Descartes’ Geometry and Le Monde in light of each other and uses these to reevaluate Descartes’ methodological statements. (It is also a lovely exposition of the reception of the Pappus-problem!) She clears the ground for a proper understanding of how Descartes’ way of ‘operationalizing’ intelligibility could have had such an intellectual grip over early modern mechanical philosophy. In particular, on her reconstruction of Descartes, mathematical intelligibility constrains the (metaphysically) possible. While Mary does not argue this, the position she attributes to Descartes involves a far-reaching redefinition or re-conceptualization of nature in terms of a limit that cannot be breached. (Something my colleague, Maarten Van Dyck, has been claiming about Galileo.) So, against a lot of recent, revisionary literature that tries to link Descartes rather closely to the Scholastics, Mary brings out Descartes’ modernity on crucial matters.
Mary’s forthcoming piece on “Observation and Mathematics” in the 17th century is a very impressive piece of revisionary history of philosophy and science. It is by far the best treatment I have seen of the differences and similarities among Bacon, Boyle, Locke and Newton. I was especially struck by her emphasis on the significance of Bacon to the mathematical treatment of nature. (She is generous in acknowledging the importance of Rees’ pioneering essay—it had appeared in an obscure journal.) I am fully persuaded by Mary’s argument that Bacon’s role in preparing the way for the revolution in the mathematical sciences is more significant than many of us have realized.
Finally, Mary has also contributed to methodology: two chapters in Discourse on a New Method, the substantial introduction co-authored with Michael Dickson and her own chapter, articulate a fresh methodological orientation in which history of philosophy can be “living” philosophy. She shows by example in her study of Newton (and Barrow) that philosophy is not merely a set of doctrines, but also a practice. These (doctrine and practice) together can be creatively incorporated in which the past becomes a kind of epistemic regulative ideal.