Forgotten Master: Léon Brunschvicg on Philosophy, Mathematics, and the Science

How can researchers come together to form a network to reestablish Léon Brunschvicg as one of the preeminent philosophers at the turn of the 20th century?

Léon Brunschvicg (1869-1944) was, alongside Henri Bergson, the central figure in Francophone philosophy at the turn of the 20th century. His work represents a shift from the “Spiritualist” and Positivist philosophical heritage of the 19th century to a historicised neo-Kantianism that lay the foundations of historical epistemology, the distinctive brand of French philosophy of science. He developed his philosophy through the reinterpretation of early modern thinkers (especially Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, and Kant), and the philosophical reflection on the scientific revolutions that took place between the end of the 19th and the early 20th century.

The impact of Brunschvicg’s legacy cannot be overstated, as an entire generation of thinkers had to define themselves in relation to his work; he supervised the doctoral theses of J. Cavaillès, G. Bachelard, and R. Aron, whereas M. Merleau-Ponty, J. -P. Sartre, and S. De Beauvoir, who were also his students, partly developed their own philosophies in opposition to his.

Persecuted by the Nazis during the Vichy period and maligned by the Leftist philosophers in the post-war period, Brunschvicg’s work is virtually unknown in the Anglophone world. Interest in his philosophy, however, is starting to gather pace.

What will the project involve? 

This project takes the form of a workshop that aims to gather Anglophone and international researchers to promote the historical and philosophical research on Brunschvicg’s work, and to develop concrete projects around various domains of interest, notably:

  1. Early 20th century reinterpretations of early modern thinkers.
  2. The relation and the rift between science and philosophy after the golden age of positivism.
  3. The account of human progress through the progress of mathematics. A secondary aim is to create a small working group for future work in early 20th century French philosophy, including both early career and senior researchers.

Current participants involved are located in the UK, France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Australia. This project seeks to build an international network of research across different disciplines (History, Philosophy, Modern Languages). The intention is to use this network to develop further research and funding.

These participants are:

Cristina Chimisso (Open University)
Matt Hare (Kingston University)
Pietro Terzi (University of Paris Nanterre)
Marjolein Holvoet (University of Ghent)
Massimiliano Simons (University of Maastricht)
Lucie Fabry (University of Burgundy)
Knox Peden (University of Queensland)

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Tzuchien Tho (Philosophy, University of Bristol) has previously published on mathematical and physical aspects of Leibniz’s philosophy. His current work surrounds the mathematical, methodological and metaphysical problems surrounding physical causality in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Federico Testa (Modern Foreign Languages, University of Bristol) is an academic of philosophy who’s research focuses on twentieth-century French thought and political theory and explores the modern and contemporary revival of Hellenistic philosophy.

What is to come?

Léon Brunschvicg was a Jewish philosopher persecuted for his heritage. In the post-war period, his emphasis on idealism was sidelined as insufficiently materialist by the mainstream Marxist philosophers in France. By focusing on this thinker, the researchers address a thinker unjustly maligned and largely ignored in the Anglophone world.

The workshop/conference is a mix of seasoned researchers who have written important works on the topic as well as junior researchers. The gathering together of researchers from the disciplines of History, Philosophy, and French, on this topic is itself rare. Hence the presentation of papers to each other is a key outcome of the workshop.

In the course of the workshop, the participants will collectively discuss the possibility of turning the event into a collected volume perhaps with further collaborators.

The key aspect of the workshop will be the creation of a working group for funding and publication. The last two hours of the workshop will be dedicated to a meeting to pursue further funding through AHRC, British Academy, DFG, FWO, etc. Publication projects and further workshops will also be developed with the top researchers on this topic.