GRACIJA ATANASOVSKA (Potsdam), Corporeity, Animality, and Language in Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jakob von Uexküll’s Theories of Nature.

The topic of the corporeal body as a site of experiencing and articulating the world has been gaining more and more significance in the academic community in the past 20-30 years. From queer theory, to the theory of affect, ecocriticism, eco-philosophy, biosemiotics, neuroscience and many others, the body has rightly gained back its place in the intellectual debates of numerous disciplines, both in the humanities and the natural sciences. A lot of these approaches see the body as a site where language is being generated, including non-human languages as types of signification that go beyond mere verbal or written communication. I find the relation between the body, animality and language a fascinating one, which is why I tried to explore it in more detail through the specific philosophies and theories of nature of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacob von Uexküll. My paper, titled Corporeity, Animality and Language in Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jakob von Uexküll’s Theories of Nature, aims to elaborate on their most important concepts concerning the body as a living signification system. In particular, in this paper I am exploring Uexküll’s theory of the Umwelt, as well as Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the chiasmic ontology of nature and interanimality. Both Uexküll and Merleau-Ponty consider meaning to be inherent to the natural world and to the bodies which are co-constitutive parts of it. Theirs is a science and philosophy that sees meaning as an emergent phenomena stemming from the various ways bodies articulate themselves and communicate with each other. This is an onto-epistemological perspective that thoroughly decentralizes humanity’s place in nature. Uexküll and Merleau-Ponty attempt to rethink the ontology of the human and try to relocate it in the animal continuum, rather than seeing it as standing apart on its own ontological and epistemological grounds.

LUCA BEISEL (Tel Aviv), “Full of Systems as the Universe”. Alexander Cozens (1717-1786) and the Procedural Generation of Nature.


SALVATORE CARANNANTE (Pisa), “The efficient nature”. The role of Plotinus in Bruno’s doctrine of natural production (De la causa, II).

In the second dialogue of Cause, Principle and Unity, starting from the distinction between theology and philosophy, which deal, respectively, with God, «first cause and first principle», and nature, the «proximate cause and principle», Giordano Bruno chooses to leave aside the theological research related to faith and concerning «things above the sphere of our intelligence», preferring to explore nature as «vestige» and «shadow» of the unknowable Deity, who is in fact acknowledgeable to man only as much as it «shines in the element and the bosom of nature». Firmly convinced that «the authentic knowledge of things» is based on the recognition of the cause and principle that originated such things, Bruno adopts the point of view of the «natural philosopher», who «is not required to produce all causes and all principles, but merely the physical ones, and among them, only those that are principal or pertinent».

The «principle and cause of natural things» is epitomised by the «world soul», described in the fourth dialogue as «the act of everything and the potency of everything», «present in its entirety in everything», embodying that «unity» of which «knowledge […] is the object and term of all philosophies and all meditation on natural things». The description of the world soul, its characteristics and its operations convey the entirety of Bruno’s reflections on universal natural becoming and on the mechanisms that are at the core of universal life. Bruno dedicates the second dialogue of his book to examining this spiritual force, firstly as cause, focussing on the universal intellect, its spiritual principle, which «governs and moves» the universe as an «extrinsic part» in clear separation from its effects; secondly, as principle, an «intrinsic and formal part of the universe», «in so far as it animates and informs it». In his attempt to describe the double aspect of the world soul – and as he often does in his modus philosophandi – Bruno draws on and deals with a vast array of philosophical sources, transforming and manipulating them in order to support his concluding argument.

During this talk will be highlighted the role played in this context by Plotinus’ Enneads, with special reference to the group of treatises (II 9; III 8; V 8; V 5) written against the Gnostics, where the philosopher 1) strongly criticises their idea of the sensible nature as a realm of darkness and chaos 2) goes on to argue the presence in nature of a vital force operating in a spontaneous way and bringing harmony to the universe, reproducing the magnificence of the intelligible world.

Focusing on the passages in Cause, principle and unity where a reference is made to what “Plotinus writes against the Gnostics” through the means of paraphrases or quotation, the paper attempts to demonstrate that Bruno uses the Enneads, in particular the treaties II 9 and III 8, as a point of departure for the exposition of his very own theory of universal animation and natural production, conceived as the effects of the world soul’ spontaneous activity in nature.

JORDAN COHEN (University of California), Knowledge in the Making: The Organization of Philosophical Debates.

This project attempts to reconstruct how philosophical debates essentially worked in Classical Athens. Debates would have been an essential part in the building of knowledge making, where those in similar intellectual milieu would be able to engage with one another and build their ideas. It is these debates that are the groundwork for the written treatises we still have access to today. There are very few recordings of debates, and most dialogues in Greek are written as a literary work, rather than as a record of events. However, I propose that by reading what is incidentally recorded in these dialogues, looking at how things are said, instead of what things are said, we can begin to read and understand the normative social structures that would have guided these philosophical debates in antiquity. This work uses the Platonic dialogues and analyzes instances of audience and speaker interaction to build a standard frame for philosophical debates in ancient Greece.

DOMINIC DOLD (MPIWG), Levels of organisation in 13th-century science.


VIKTORIIA DREMOVA (Central European University), The Limits of Description. Spontaneous generation in Early Modern Texts.


LARISSA GNIFFKE (HU Berlin), Natural Theology in Thomas Aquinas.

My talk at the Summer School aimed at providing a short introduction to what we now call “Natural Theology” in Thomas Aquinas, especially in the light of the distinction between “an est” and “quid est” knowledge of God. This distinction allows Aquinas to affirm human knowledge of God’s existence (an est), while at the same time asserting complete ignorance of God’s essence and nature (quid est). One of the main problems of this position is its alleged contradiction with the doctrine of Divine Simplicity. The latter is a centerpiece in Aquinas’s concept of God and composed in order to contrast the Divine way of being (actus essendi) with the ontology of the angelic and material realm. Aquinas needs to emphasize this contrast in order to introduce God as the first and uncaused cause. The doctrine of Divine Simplicity claims total simplicity of God, which means that he has no complexity or composition of parts at all and that all he is is being itself (esse ipsum subsistens) and nothing else but being (esse tantum). Hence, God’s essence simply is his existence (sua igitur essentia est suum esse).

The question raised by this will then be: How can we know of God, whether he is (an est), but not, what he is (quid est), for it seems that the answer to both questions would be the same, since whether God is (esse) and what he is (essentia) are identical. To deny quiddative knowledge of God while asserting knowledge of God’s existence evokes a contradiction in the light of the identity of essence and existence in God as indicated by the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity. In my reading, Aquinas offers a solution to this problem, that has far-reaching consequences for his view on what kind of knowledge humans can have of God and how theology as a science yields and structures this knowledge. Aquinas points out that the contradiction described above is based on an equivocation of two distinct meanings of the term “esse” or “ens”. One mode of being or existence is to be something within the and in accordance with the scheme of the Aristotelian Categories.

Substances and their accidental forms will be of this kind of being. In another meaning, being is said of something, that can be affirmed in a statement truthfully. Blindness will serve as an example here, since blindness, being a privation, clearly is not being in the first meaning, for there is no way to describe blindness within the Aristotelian Category framework. Nevertheless, there are true statements about blindness: When attributing blindness to blind animals, we do, in fact, speak truthfully, although blindness has no positive being within the Aristotelian Categories.

When it comes to God, human knowledge does entail true statements about God, most fundamentally “God is”, which provides an answer to the question “an est”, although God’s essence, nature and being in the first sense (although God does not fall into the Aristotelian Categories) remain concealed.

Natural Theology is then concerned with truths about God (ens ut verum) instead of his way of being (ens ut actus essendi), since the latter is in no way known to humans through nature. This means, instead of investigating God’s nature and properties, what Natural Theology in Aquinas does is to investigate statements about God and whether they can be affirmed truthfully. To speak within the Summer School’s terminological framework: Natural Theology cannot deal with God’s nature directly (as other sciences can, in some sense) but rather with the results of the human practice of “Structuring Nature”, that is, in that case, with propositions formed on the grounds of observing natural phenomena and engaging in scientific inference.

NIKLAAS GÖRSCH (Lübeck), Joachim Jungius’s View on Nature in the Context of Natural History.

This project is subordinate to the SNF Sinergia project, entitled “In the Shadow of the Tree: The Diagrammatics of Relatedness as Scientific, Scholarly, and Popular Practice”. It is subdivided into four research groups at the universities of Luzern, Zürich, Basel and Lübeck. The present PhD-project’s objectives are answers to questions about the impact of Joachim Jungius’s research on Natural History and where Jungius can be situated in the development of botany, which became an independent science at some stage between Andrea Caesalpinus and Carl Linnaeus.

Jungius (1587-1657) studied mathematics in Rostock and Gießen and medicine in Padua and became a polymath, working on several scientific fields, e.g. physics, chemistry, mathematics, botany and zoology. In 1622, he founded the first German Academy of Science in Rostock, the so called Societas Heuretica. Jungius had been well-known, for instance, by Locke, Leibniz, Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt. This project wants to ask why botanists like John Ray and Carl Linnaeus read Jungius’s works and how they used his ideas for their systematization of plants.

The systematisation of the overwhelming number of different species was the topic of time. There was a discussion about the parts which can be used for the division of plants. With his “De plantis libri” (1583) Andrea Caesalpinus introduced the separation between the classification of plants and the utilitarian use of herbs and plants in general. That is a main difference to the ancient and medieval approaches and was only the beginning of the research on the classification of plants.

Jungius divided plants on the basis of morphological reasons. His aim was a reformation of science and a reformation of understanding the nature. And during this project it shall be examined how exactly Jungius brought the spaces of different disciplines together, and how he influenced botanists later, e.g. John Ray. In his work “Historia plantarum” (1686) Ray mentions Jungius respectively his “Isagoge phytoscopica”, which had been published eight years before. Carl Linnaeus introduced the binomial nomenclature. His method works with combinatorics on the one hand and the description of plants on the other as a way of systematisation and categorisation, as Staffan Müller-Wille has already pointed out.

One important aim of the botanists was to discover the order of nature and to find new ways of structuring the various kinds of plants, what Carl Linnaeus called the Systema Naturae. It can be seen as a process of abstraction and decontextualisation, which included an intention to structure the nature itself, to bring order in that complexity of species. Linnaeus knew that his own system of plants was still artificial, but he thought that one day botanists possibly find the real „natural“ Systema Naturae. Jungius played a role in that process and this project is going to try to find out, which role he did play exactly.

THOMAS HENDERSON (Durham), Nature, Society and Men – Looking at Gender in Medieval Science?


NIEK KERSSIES (Nijmegen), Machine Discovery: The Limitations and Possibilities of Machine Learning in the Automation of the Sciences.

As a participant in the Structuring Nature summer school I gave a talk which surveyed the limitations and possibilities of machine learning programs in the automation of the scientific process. Supporters of such a replacement give an argument related to those given by so-called Big Data enthusiasts. The basic case: in the 21st century, we have incomprehensible amounts of data. Where datasets used to be gathered and explored by humans, there are now amounts of data that cannot possibly be read in its entirety. At the same time, we have programs that can do this for us, namely, machine learning networks. It might be easier, then, to leave the reading to these machines, giving up human comprehension of the world but gaining more precise models.

This argument is then applied to sciences. First, social sciences, handling things such as natural language or behavior, involve large datasets with often not entirely logical structures. What machine learning can do for us is bypass the painstaking process of the formulation of such a thing as a grammatical or theoretical structure, and let the model learn inductively from a very large set of instances of actual language use or other human behavior, after which it can emulate (or “predict”) this. A successful example of such a program is Google Translate, and indeed one of the clearest voices in favour of machine learning social sciences is Peter Norvig, who was head of research at Google at the time he wrote his piece on the subject.

 Second, the Big Data argument is applied to the exact sciences: Chris Anderson for example argues in an infamous Wired article that since natural science used to produce economical mathematical formulas to reduce nature to something visualisable in the limited mind of a human scientist, this basic process can be replaced by programs that do not possess such a limit and can instead look at Big data directly, giving a more accurate picture of the world. The problems in such arguments lie in two things: their claims about the possibilities of machine learning, and those about the scientific method. I look at the viability of both, in that order.

In my talk I explained that there is indeed a certain analogy between the statistical inference that is central to most sciences, and the architecture of a machine learning program. This look under the hood, however, also shows that strictly such a program is not “learning”, or, for that matter, discovering; it is being trained and supervised, told to output a certain hypothesis already discovered by the more opaque process of human cognition. And so we currently see applications like text classifications and mapping gene sequences, in which machine learning programs apply a given relation between given types of variables to large datasets, which really only vary in being different values for these variables. If we are to automate anything else- the variables themselves, and the formulation of the hypothesis that is the structure between them- more complicated programs must be created than these basic supervised classification networks.

As to the claims about the scientific method, I argue that Anderson and Norvig are modern proponents of the centuries old position of scientific inductivism. In the early authors now regarded as the founding fathers of the scientific method, a success of experimental method and observation gave birth to the idea that one need only look at nature to draw the right conclusions about its workings (a method contrasted with the late scholastic tradition, which was seen to take place more in text than in the real world). Anderson and Norvig are enthused by the success of machine learning and are tempted to bypass a deductive theoretical understanding in favour of direct results from data, much like early scientists favoured such an epistemology in contrasting themselves with the metaphysical systems that preceeded reality in Aristoteleans and Carteseans. Later and especially in 20th century authors such as Karl Popper, reacting to the similar  position of the logical positivists, this path from data to knowledge was problematized. I mention Popper specifically because of his insistence on the irreducible role of the creative cognition of the human scientist involved in research, an insistence which translates perfectly to the true challenges facing the automation of science today. In other words, those parts of the scientific process that have historically been philosophical problems because they were hard to conceptually model, become in the new context of AI those problems that are hard to cognitively model.

HYEJIN KIN (Halle-Wittenberg), Re-viewing the Concept of Biodiversity and Nature’s Contributions to People.


ALINA THERESE LETTNER  (Kassel), The Biosemiotic Thrust of Buddhist Phenomenology.


GERD MICHELUZZI (Vienna), Quasi naturalis iuris? Medieval Cast Shadows between Art and Science. 

Cast shadows ever since the late nineteenth century were regarded as constitutive elements of mimetic concepts of art, and, in this respect, distinctive features of early modern painting. Accentuating pictorial lighting and central perspective as necessary preconditions, art historical research has commonly assumed that cast shadows’ post-classical return was provoked by iconographic requirements (Gombrich 1995, Stoichita 1997, Sharpe 2017), most prominent within the Florentine Cappella Brancacci (c. 1424–1427). Medieval painting, in contrast, was considered as shadowless. Hence, earlier examples like Pietro Lorenzetti`s illusionistic bench (c. 1320) in San Francesco in Assisi were doubted, neglected or misjudged, which also resulted in the fact that possible sources were either ignored or considered as to disprove their existence (Büttner 2013). However, recent evidence of authenticity, discussed in Gerd Micheluzzi’s forthcoming dissertation (2020), not only challenges this general narrative but also raises the question, whether and to which extend basic knowledge on shadows and optics caused or contributed to the renewed late medieval interest into such phenomena. Focusing on the intersection of art history and natural philosophy in Early Christianity and the Middle Ages, the presentation entitled “Quasi naturalis iuris? Medieval Cast Shadows between Art and Science” critically re-evaluated both sources and artistic outcome.

Although written at a time when cast shadows are commonly thought to be of minor importance, it has been shown that St. Ambrose in his Hexameron (c. 389 AD) already considered shadows as a natural force (vim naturae), which obligates artists to depict them, as they otherwise lack certain artistry (IV, 3, 11). Even though direct relations to artistic production are scarce, discussing shadows’ nature, cause and geometry follows a rather long tradition. Referring to recent studies by Dominique Raynaud (2018), Gerd Micheluzzi has demonstrated that such notions build on Euclid’s doctrine of the rectilinear propagation of light (c. 300 BC). Starting at least with Theon of Alexandria’s Opticorum recensio (c. 364 AD), this proposition was repeatedly proven by the geometry of shadows, which – depending on the relative size of light and illuminated object – convergent diminish, divergent increase or remain infinitely parallel. Passed down by the writings of Alkindi and Alhazen, this paragraph re-entered western natural philosophy in the 13th century almost unchanged. Notable authorities in the perspectiva naturalis like Witelo, Bacon and Pecham were not only closely connected to the papal court but also the Franciscan Order in Assisi (Hills 1987, Lindberg/Tachau 2013, Bergdolt 2018). Hence, direct connections between 13th century writings on natural philosophy, artists, their patrons or advisors are possible (Cooper 2018). However, as proposed in the presentation, indirect reception seems even more likely, as the predominant theme undoubtedly was light and illumination. Prominently introduced by Giotto in the Cappella degli Scrovegni (1303–1305), artists of the fourteenth century increasingly started to grapple with the coherence of the beholders’ and pictorial space by means of light (Hills 1987, Cooper 2018). Given that Lorenzetti’s illusionistic bench likewise responds to the lower church’s former window, the cast shadow may also be considered as a reaction to current artistic developments, since the available knowledge on cause, nature and geometry of shadows was hardly applicable.

EILEEN MORGAN (Notre Dame), Comme sil estoit vif: Peacocks, Natural Science, and the Edible Art of Altering Nature.

A form of banquet entertainment that could be comprised of live animals, human performers, puppets, sculptures, painted set pieces, fire displays, mechanical devices, and certain edible dishes, medieval entremets were masterpieces that combined artistry with technical expertise and a strong sense of whimsy. By examining several different medieval recipe books’ instructions for how to prepare and present a roasted peacock in its own plumage as if it were alive (which I take as representative of medieval entremets) in this paper I show some of the ways in which the significance of entremets derived from the very liminality of the category.

This paper begins by considering the discourses of art, artifice, nature, and science invoked in recipes for the peacock entremets. I propose that the success of the peacock entremets in fact depended on the banquet attendees’ knowledge of the natural world and recognition that the entremets subverted the natural order. In essence, knowledge of discourses in natural philosophy amounted to an aesthetic category in the courtly contexts for which these entremets were designed. Next, I explore the evidence for this aesthetic sensibility in the recipe books’ instructions for preparing and presenting the peacock entremets, which emphasize subtlety, refined technique, and deception in pursuit of creating a lifelike yet uncanny effect.

This paper concludes that such entremets were designed to invoke a violation of nature and natural boundaries through the use of artifice in their construction, but that this artifice was intended to be somewhat evident: artifice itself constituted a distinct aesthetic category. By analyzing the techniques through which the artifice was achieved, in this paper I shed additional light on medieval understandings of the relationship between art and artifice as well as that between nature and science.

CLAIRE SABEL (University of Pennsylvania), The World and its Furniture: Matter and Method in the Seventeenth Century Earth Sciences.


THOMAS SEISSL (Vienna), How to Give a Non-circular Definition of Time: Simplicius’ Criticism of Aristotle’s Account of Time and a Possible Way Out.

In Aristotle’s discussion on the nature of time, he prominently defines time as “a number of motion in respect of its before and after” (Phys. 219b1-2). Many scholars take this as an unpromising starting point, since the relational terms of “before” and “after” seem to imply a temporal criterion for the definition of time. Thus, the prevailing interpretation among commentators is that Aristotle’s definition of time is viciously circular (Owen, Annas, Corish). This objection goes back to the late ancient commentator Simplicius (see In Phys. 712, 14-17).

More recently, scholars aim to defend the Aristotelian definition of time from the charge of circularity by showing that Aristotle develops a concept of “before” and “after” in an atemporal sense (Roark, Coope). The foundation of the Aristotelian theory of time, so the argument goes, lies in his concepts of magnitude and motion. Since time follows (akoloutheĩ) motion and motion follows magnitude, motion is continuous (sunekhés) and so is time (see Phys. 219a10-19). Aristotle’s grasp of the “following”-relation is crucial here: It indicates an ontological dependence. Accordingly, to say that x follows y – in this broad sense – amounts to claim that certain features of x can be explained by corresponding features of y, because of being a feature of x (causally) depends upon or emerges from being a feature of y. Aristotle’s stating that time follows motion does not constrict to a merely epistemological claim, but rather to an explanatory claim of priority. Thus, Aristotle’s definition of time is freed from the objection of being flatly circular.

In my talk, I argue that the modern attempts to defend Aristotle’s definition of time from circularity by clarifying his concept of continuity tend towards the right direction but miss a decisive step forward. As he states in Metaphysics (1071b10-12) and Physics (265a33), motion is continuous, insofar it is circular (kúklōͅ) what – in turn – accounts for stating that time is continuous. As a result, Aristotle’s theory perfectly fits a conception of time identical to the celestial movements of the superlunary spheres laid out in Plato’s Timaeus (37d.38b). In Timaeus, the circular movement is metaphysically basic for all other motions (33b). Therefore, I argue, Aristotle’s account of time is by no means anti-Platonic, as scholars commonly put it (Annas, Coope), but tenable with reference to Platonic cosmology. In the end, Simplicius is correct in arguing that Plato’s and Aristotle’s concepts of time are not mutually exclusive, but agree in essential aspects (see In Phys. 1336,35-1339,24).

The crucial point for rereading Aristotle in a decisively Platonic fashion lies in the concept of numerical order of reality, prominently held by Platonic tradition (see Tim. 37c-d.53b-57e). During the Summer School it was broadly discussed whether structuring features are manifest in nature itself or imposed by epistemic restrictions of the intellective subject. A Platonic reaction seems to be straightforward: the cosmos is rationally structured by the World Soul’s imposition of numerical order that is intelligible for the human intellect. It is commonly argued that Aristotle, in his discussion on natural principles, attacks the Platonic picture by arguing in favor of a constructivist concept of number, i.e. that time is a mere measure for the human intellect. My reading of Aristotle shall point to the opposite: Aristotle’s argument, in fact, is arguably pursuing a Platonic strategy

VERITY WALSH (Stanford), Technical nomenclature and/as system building in Pliny’s Naturalis historia: An ancient case study and early modern comparandum.


ALTUG YILDIRIM (FU Berlin), Creation of a World Picture: Cases of Photoemission Experiments.


WENRUI ZHAO (Columbia), The Investigation of the Eye and Vision in Animals in Early Modern Europe.