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Reading Nature’s Book

Galileo and the Birth of Modern Philosophy

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Fred Ablondi

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) is widely recognized as one of the greatest scientific thinkers in history. Intriguingly, when offered a place in the Medici court in 1610, he requested the title of «Philosopher and Chief Mathematician.» Reading Nature’s Book: Galileo and the Birth of Modern Philosophy is the first book-length study written with undergraduates in mind that examines the philosophical implications (both theoretical and historical) of Galileo’s scientific discoveries, including many matters that were later taken up by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophers. This close analysis of Galileo’s philosophical insights demonstrates the prominent place his thought should have in the history of early modern philosophy.
Reading Nature’s Book provides contextual material for college and university students enrolled in modern philosophy courses, introducing them to ideas and concepts that dominated philosophical discussion during the era. Furthermore, students and scholars interested in the history of philosophy of science will also benefit from a decidedly philosophical approach to such a leading scientific figure. Many of the topics explored by Galileo continue to be of philosophical interest today, including scientific methodology and the relation between science and religion.
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Chapter Two: A Dispute over Buoyancy

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← 19 | 20 →CHAPTER TWO

On floating bodies, which did away with levity and reduced the list of factors relevant to buoyancy to a single entry, specific gravity, was to terrestrial physics what Sidereus nuncius was to cosmology.

—J.L. HEILBRON 2010, P. 200

In 1611, just as the storm over his astronomical findings was growing, Galileo became engaged in another debate, one that is far less known today than is the controversy brought about by The Starry Messenger. Having moved to Florence in September of 1610, Galileo wintered not with Archduke Cosimo in Pisa but as a guest at the villa of his close friend Filippo Salviati. After spending the spring of 1611 in Rome, he returned to Salviati’s for the summer, and it was at this time that a dispute over the cause of buoyancy arose. Salviati was in the habit of bringing together some of the leading Florentine intellectuals for discussions. On the occasion in question, Galileo was talking with two Aristotelians from Pisa about condensation and rarefication, and the discussion turned to the topic of why some bodies, and ice in particular, float in water.

The Aristotelians, following their master, argued that ice floats as a result of its shape. Galileo disagreed; he claimed that the reason that ice floats in water is because its density is less than that of water. This, however, was in contradiction to Aristotle, who held that ice is condensed, not rarified, water, and as...

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