Certainty, Belief and Knowledge in the 18th Century Masterclass

The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus

Joseph Wright, English, 1771, Oil on canvas, 500 x 418 in. 1883-152

Friday 15 July 2016
Muniment Room (S401)
Level 4, Lobby B (Southern Vestibule)
The University of Sydney

Dario Perinetti (University of Quebec in Montreal) and Anik Waldow (Sydney)

In the early-modern period, questions about knowledge were raised in the midst of a deep social, political and intellectual transformation in Europe. The religious crisis, the consolidation of experimental science, the birth of incipient forms of social science, the unfolding of the new idea of the moral and political autonomy of human agents and communities provide a particular backdrop against which time-honored questions about knowledge could be rehearsed. The immediate effect of the profound transformation and crisis described above is the unsettling experience that many beliefs that had been taken for granted became, all of a sudden, objects of puzzlement, skeptical suspicion, overt criticism and controversy. No wonder, then, that we find the problem of certainty at the center of the philosophical stage.

It is notoriously difficult, however, to get clear on what "certainty" meant for early-modern philosophers. For they often appeal to subtle distinctions of kinds and degrees of certainty that they take as common knowledge but which are obscure for a contemporary reader. We shall be concerned with the particular ways early-modern philosophers understood the notion of certainty by focusing on three pivotal questions. First, do different areas of inquiry-metaphysics, mathematics, natural science and moral philosophy-have different kinds of certainty as their satisfaction condition? Second, can different kinds of certainty be equally certain or the distinction in kind imply too a distinction in degree? Finally, what are the metaphysical assumptions underlying the distinction between kinds of certainty?

We will also see that this layered understanding of what are the satisfaction conditions for different kinds of knowledge generates interesting problems. The conflicts between the different kinds of certainty are pervasive in early-modern debates about the respective titles of revelation, sense perception, intuition, testimony, demonstration and philosophical speculation in advancing claims to knowledge. At the same time, these conflicts reveal the reciprocal dependence of epistemology and more general conceptions of the natural and the human worlds such as we find in theology, in natural philosophy, in metaphysics and in morals.

Participation Requirement:
The class will be discussion focused, with presentation elements and group work tasks. It is specifically designed for Honours and Postgraduate students, although Undergraduate students who specialise in related areas are also welcome. In order to be able to successfully participate, please study the readings below and send us one question about each one of them by 13th July.

Please prepare the class with the following readings:
Daston, Lorraine (1998). "Probability and Evidence", in Daniel Garber & Michael Ayers (eds) The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 1108-1144.

Perinetti, Dario (2014). "Ways to Certainty", in Aaron Garrett (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Eighteenth Century Philosophy. Routledge Philosophy Companions. London: Routledge, p. 265-93.

Serjeantson, R.W. (2006). "Proof and Persuasion", in Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park (eds), The Cambridge History of Early Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 132–75.

Shapiro, Barbara (2002). "Testimony in seventeenth-century English natural philosophy: legal origins and early development", Studies in the History and the Philosophy of Science, 33(2): 243-263.

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Past Workshops

Natural history and the life sciences in the long eighteenth century

18 August 2015
Muniment Room (S401)
Level 4, Lobby B (Southern Vestibule)
The University of Sydney

Room Location: The Muniment Room is accessible via either the Northern (Lobby A) or Southern (Lobby B) Vestibules' staircases on the Eastern side of the Quadrangle Building.

A work-in-progress workshop sponsored by the Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science and the Sydney Intellectual History Network.

This workshop will examine the nature and diversity of natural history as practised and theorised in the period from Leibniz to Herder and Kant, with a special focus on the relation between natural history and the life sciences in the period. In addition to addressing the impact of developments in natural history on traditional disciplinary domains such as botany, this workshop will explore the role of natural history in debates about generation, vitalism and the emergence of anthropology.


  • Peter Anstey (Sydney)
  • Stephen Gaukroger (Sydney)
  • Jennifer Mensch (UWS)
  • Dalia Nassar (Sydney)
  • Mike Olson (Macquarie)
  • Justin Smith (Paris VII)
  • Anik Waldow (Sydney)

9.00–9.45 Justin Smith (Paris VII) Leibniz as Prospector
9.45–10.30 Peter Anstey (Sydney) The Methodology of Charles Bonnet


11.00–11.45 Stephen Gaukroger (Sydney) Comparative Natural History and the Question of the Human Species
11.45–12.30 Anik Waldow (Sydney) Reason in Nature: Herder on Species Borders and Forces


2.00–2.45 Dalia Nassar (Sydney) Interpreting Nature: ‘Hermeneutics’ and the Study of Nature in Herder and Goethe
2.45–3.30 Michael Olson (Macquarie) Physiological Anthropology


3.45–4.30 Jennifer Mensch (Western Sydney) Like Mother, Like Daughter: Degeneration and Regeneration in Wollstonecraft’s and Shelley’s Medical Imaginary

Kant’s Philosophy of Nature: 2015 Masterclass with Professor Eckart Förster and Dr Dalia Nassar


9-11 June 2015
The University of Sydney

The Masterclass is organized for a small group of advanced graduate students working on dissertations in German idealism, with special emphasis on the philosophy of nature.

In remarks in the Encyclopedia Hegel credits Kant’s "construction" of matter and his notion of "inner purposiveness" with revitalizing the idea of a Naturphilosophie. "With this concept of inner purposiveness," Hegel writes, "ant has resuscitated the idea in general and especially the idea of life" (#55A). In turn, Kant’s "construction" of matter in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science has the "merit of having made a beginning toward a concept of matter and of having revived with this attempt the concept of a Naturphilosophie" (#262A).

The masterclass will take Hegel’s remarks as its starting point and motto, and pose the following questions:

  • In what sense were Kant’s dynamic account of matter and notion of inner purposiveness essential for the development of a philosophy of nature?
  • How did Kant “construct” matter and on what ground did he develop a notion of inner purposiveness?
  • What did Kant mean by inner purposiveness, and what is its relation to a possible/impossible “construction” of a living body?
  • Did his results in fact furnish the seeds of a philosophy of nature, or did they, rather, offer conflicting and ultimately untenable accounts of the natural world?

Participants will be expected to have read the second part of the Critique of Judgment as well as Chapter 2 (“The Metaphysical Foundations of Dynamics”) of the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science before the masterclass. The masterclass will be devoted to an intensive discussion of key themes in these two texts, and to student presentations on these themes.

The masterclass will take place over three days (June 9, 10, 11) and will be followed by a conference on the Nature and the Philosophy of Nature in German Idealism and Romanticism (June 15-17, 2015).

Ancient Historicity

Friday 10 October 2014
Woolley Common Room
The Woolley Building
The University of Sydney

A free workshop organized by the Power Institute, Putting Periodisation to Use and Undoing the Ancient.

Since Winckelmann (at least) scholars have tussled with historicizing the ancient. But how are we to account for, and make sense of, ancient cultures’ understanding of their own historicity – their own periodizations? Indeed, what is Historicity, and what are the stakes of historicizing cultures? The Ancient Historicity workshop will seek to address the questions, supported by a keynote talk exploring prehistoric Nubian and ancient Egyptian notions of Historicity by Whitney Davis, Professor of History & Theory of Ancient & Modern Art, University of California at Berkeley, and Visiting Professor, University of York (UK).
Professor Davis’ talk will be followed by a roundtable with responses and reflections by Professor Ian McLean, Michael Turner and Professor Mark Ledbury. The workshop will conclude with a discussion session with participants. For the discussion session, participants will read and discuss a theoretical text that informs Davis’ work, and respond from their own expertise areas – including ancient art of classical civilizations and Aboriginal art in Australia.

Keynote talk: Professor Whitney Davis

Ancient Historicity: History in Petroglyphs at the Second Cataract of the Nile, 8000-2000 BCE

Whitney Davis is Professor of History & Theory of Ancient & Modern Art, University of California at Berkeley, and Visiting Professor, University of York (UK). He is the author of seven books and nearly a hundred articles on aspects of prehistoric, ancient, and modern arts, the history and theory of art history and visual culture and the history and theory of sexuality. His most recent book, A General Theory of Visual Culture, won the monograph prize of the American Society for Aesthetics in 2012.

Roundtable: responses and reflections

Chair, Dr. John Gagné, University of Sydney

Professor Ian McLean (Professor of Art History, University of Wollongong)
Michael Turner (Senior Curator, Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney)
Professor Mark Ledbury (Power Professor of Art History and Visual Culture
Director of the Power Institute for Art & Visual Culture)

Discussion and questions

Reception: drinks and canapés for all attendees

Hirsch, Eric and Stewart, Charles. Ethnographies of Historicity, 16 (2005), 261-74.

Human Nature and the Construction of the State: Hobbes and Spinoza Workshop

spinoza and hobbes

Tuesday 26 August 2014
Muniment Room
Room S401
Level 4 via Lobby B (Southern Vestibule)
The University of Sydney

This event has been made possible with the support of the Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science and the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney.


Program (PDF)

Poster (PDF)

The Future of the History of Ideas Workshop

1532 cranach melancholy

Lucas Cranach, the Elder, 1532, Melancholy, Oil on panel. 20 x 38 in. Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst

Monday 11-Tuesday 12 August 2014
The Professorial Board Room
(upstairs from the Nicholson Museum)
The University of Sydney

Intellectual history has been undergoing a transformation over the past decade. There is now an increasing emphasis not only on the importance of the non-textual contexts in which ideas develop, but also on the relationship between social, cultural and intellectual change. While scholars have advocated widely the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to the generation of new ideas and to the solving of problems, they have paid little attention to the difficulties involved in this process or the best ways to engage with it. This workshop brings together a group of scholars from different fields in order to explore several interdisciplinary approaches to the history of ideas. Our aim is to engage historians, art historians, and philosophers in the reading of texts and images in order to show the range of perspectives shed by particular disciplinary approaches on the history of ideas, and to think through the problem of communicating big ideas in the modern world.

Academics from the University of Sydney were joined by:

Program (PDF)

Poster (PDF)

Organising committee: Dr Francesco Borghesi (Italian Studies), Prof Stephen Gaukroger (History and Philosophy of Science), Dr John Gagné (History) and Prof Jennifer Milam (Art History).

Nation and Empire in the Age of Internationalism

marshall plan

Spreckmeester. Whatever the weather, we only reach welfare together (1950). George C. Marshall Foundation

Monday 21 July 2014
CCANESA Boardroom
Level 4, Madsen Building
The University of Sydney

Held under the auspices of the Laureate Research Program in International History, the Sydney Intellectual History Network and the Nation-Empire-Globe Research Cluster.

This workshop investigates the socio-political relationship between nationalism, internationalism and imperialism from the nineteenth century to the present. Panels of historians, legal scholars and political theorists from Australia and abroad will address the following questions:

  • Did nationalism give birth to international human rights norms?
  • How internationalist is international law?
  • How did the end of colonialism transform the nation-state?
  • Is the European Union a successor to continental European empires?
  • Does supra-nationalism threaten the democratic nation-state?
  • Does the rise of the of the 'global' mean the demise of the 'international'?

Program and Paper Abstracts (PDF)

Enlightenment Cosmopolitanisms and Sensibilities

Salon de madame geoffrin

Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier, French, 1812, Salon de Madame Geoffrin, Oil on canvas, 51 x 77.2 in. MM 59.3.1

Wednesday 11-Thursday 12 June 2014
Lower Common Room
Sancta Sophia College

8 Missenden Road
Camperdown NSW 2050

The character of practiced cosmopolitanism during the Enlightenment often appears to amount to little more than an extension of early modern courtly internationalism infused with a new language of ideas. Further investigation reveals the desire on the part of Enlightenment cosmopolites to open borders in the name of economic, political, intellectual and artistic progress. This workshop explores cosmopolitanism in practice during the long eighteenth century in Europe and, through circulation, beyond its borders. It seeks out lived experiences of cosmopolitanism in the evidence of visual, social and textual expressions, and then asks how to interrogate this evidence. What were the opportunities through which border crossings became fixed in the minds of participants and observers? How was Enlightenment cosmopolitanism in practice inflected with different forms of sensibility?

Program (PDF)

Participants include:

Cosmopolitan Moments: Instances of Exchange in the Long Eighteenth Century
Emerging Scholar Workshop

Thursday 12 June 2014

Lower Common Room
Sancta Sophia College

8 Missenden Road
Camperdown NSW 2050

In these sessions, emerging scholars explore discrete instances of cultural interaction in the long eighteenth century (visual, textual, political, philosophical, social). How do we define the nature of the exchange? Is it cosmopolitan? Areas of analysis include roles of actors and agents, bi-lateral or unilateral action, acceptance, rejection and the medium of transmission.

Program (PDF)

Poster (PDF)

Rethinking the Long Reformation: Mobile Communities, Elastic Boundaries

Hollar The Augsburg Confession

Wenceslas Hollar, Czech , unknown, 40 x 28 cm P231

2 informal talks and a roundtable
Thursday 5 June 2014
Common Room, John Woolley Building

Gary K. Waite (University of New Brunswick), 'Exile, Emotion, Enlightenment: The Radical Reformation(s) as a Watershed Event'

Nicholas Terpstra (University of Toronto) 'Purity, Contagion, Purgation: Redefining (the) Reformation'

In these informal presentations, Gary K Waite and Nicholas Terpstra will explore the potential of rethinking the Reformation’s value as an analytical tool.

Waite will examine the radical reformation as a transformational force in redefining attitudes to religion, the cosmos, and the devil. Using the case of a key spiritualist, David Joris (1501-56), Waite will propose that experiences of persecution, exile, and intolerance contributed significantly to what we call the enlightenment, and will suggest the value of blurred periodisations.

Terpstra will propose that by articulating the cultural constituents of the Reformation, we can rethink when the Reformation as a period happened, and in such a way as to make non-Christians (Jews and Muslims) more fundamental to the narrative. The goal of both presentations – as well as the informal roundtable/discussion to follow – is to exert pressure upon the periodisation of the Reformation and to explore new and alternative conceptualisations.

Presented by the Department of History and 'Putting Periodisation to Use: Testing the Limits of Early Modernity', an interdisciplinary research group funded by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Collaborative Research Scheme and part of the Sydney Intellectual History Network.

In Conversation with Professor Nicholas Terpstra and Professor Gary Waite

Wednesday 4 June 2014
Kevin Lee Room
University of Sydney

Gary K. Waite (University of New Brunswick)
Nicholas Terpstra (University of Toronto)

In this masterclass session for Postgraduate and Honours students, Professors Waite and Terpstra will speak to students about how they made their way from optimistic students to full-fledged scholars. They will also discuss their research and writing in Renaissance and Reformation history.

Finding form for historical lives: a workshop with Tony Birch and Ross Gibson

Thursday 27 March 2014

How do we find a form for representing historical lives, especially those lives that have left only traces in the archive? Or does the form find us? In this workshop, novelist, poet and academic Tony Birch (The University of Melbourne) and author, film-maker and academic Ross Gibson (The University of Sydney) talk about how they have found form for historical lives forgotten and remembered in writing projects, collaborative image-based works, and interactive installation pieces. Tony and Ross will address in particular how to use different media to translate our ideas for public audiences beyond academia.

The workshop is aimed mainly at postgraduate students interested in thinking experimentally about the archives you are working with (broadly conceived) and the imaginative experiences that encountering your archive has inspired. What will you do next with what you have discovered? And how will you go about it?

Please contact Miranda Johnson for further information.

This workshop is generously supported by Global Sensibilities Group, a Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Collaborative Research Group; and Race and Ethnicity in the Global South, a project supported by an ARC Laureate Fellowship at The University of Sydney.

Workshop with Manfred Frank

Manfred Frank

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Centre for Modernism Studies
Webster 139
The University of New South Wales

Professor Manfred Frank will discuss with interested postgraduate students and academic staff sections 566-8 of Novalis's Fichte Studies. Interested students and academics are welcome to participate.

Contact Sean Pryor if you would like to attend.