GEMS in portraits: Jonathan Regier

MC_KeplerThis spring, GEMS was more than happy to welcome Jonathan Regier as a new member. We seized the opportunity to ask him who inspires him and what drives him in his research. Jonathan did his PhD in history and philosophy of science at Université Paris Diderot, with a thesis titled Cause in Kepler’s Natural Philosophy. Afterwards, he joined Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as a post-doctoral fellow at their Institute for Advanced Study. In early 2017, he came to UGent with a BOF fellowship. He will begin an FWO fellowship in October 2017 at UGent, in the department of philosophy and moral sciences. His academic interests revolve around the mathematisation of natural philosophy in the sixteenth century.

How did your interest for your research arise?
I came across Kepler’s Platonic-solid model of the solar system early on, when I was doing my Master’s degree. The model is the visual centerpiece of Kepler’s first book, Mysterium cosmographicum, which appeared in 1596. Using the Platonic solids—five uniquely symmetrical polyhedra that share a world-making role in the Timaeus—Kepler meant to bolster Copernican astronomy by showing how it expressed the divine blueprint of the universe. In many ways, Kepler was a product of his age. In other ways, he was like modern-day theorists who look to exotic mathematical objects to help them understand natural order. In the sixteenth century, and for most of the seventeenth century, it was not at all given that nature was somehow deeply mathematical or (if it was) how it might be. One way Kepler solved this problem was to claim that those Renaissance engines of nature, souls, were essentially geometrical. For Kepler, plants, animals and planets have mathematical instinct at the core of their being, and he thought this is why we all respond to music, regardless of our ability to understand the mathematical foundation of harmony. His animism (an imperfect term) and his use of medical concepts helped him to explain how nature manifests mathematical things and forces. Kepler contradicts our general comprehension of the history of physics as an evolution towards an ever more mechanical understanding of nature. Kepler was not a physician (although he did know about medical theory), but working on him made me ask about physician-philosophers in the sixteenth century. Once towering figures like Gerolamo Cardano and Jean Fernel, were mathematicians, natural philosophers, and very successful physicians to high ranking nobility. This powerful patronage guaranteed an intellectual freedom that was unimaginable to most university professors. The focus of my current research has shifted more generally to this interconnection between mathematics, natural philosophy and medicine in the sixteenth century.

Do you consider your research in general as interdisciplinary and/ or groundbreaking?
To be honest, I am hesitant to call any work groundbreaking. Eventually, every scholarly enterprise builds upon previous studies. Rather, the concept of ‘groundmaking,’ or ‘groundclearing’ seems to be more appropriate to describe academic ambition. At least it is an ambition of mine to conduct groundmaking research.

Have you ever experienced a ‘Eureka moment’ during your research?
Yes, I had one when I was studying the concept of space and spatiality in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If I asked you to define space in your own words, without giving it too much thought, what would you say? I’m assuming your most intuitive answer will be the same as mine: space is something empty, filled with things. This is, however, definitely not the answer you would have gotten from most people in the early modern era. The idea of space as primarily empty did exist, with a small minority, at least since the atomists. However the dominant vision of space in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was that it was a plenum, rather than a vacuum. Their (more or less Aristotelian) idea of space was that it was full of stuff. Mathematicians actually had to work hard to conceptualise our modern idea of empty space. The concept was long called ‘imaginary space,’ as it was believed to exist only in your mind (and in the mind of God). To realise that my intuition about the definition of space was in fact a cultural construction and that it was entirely different from the early modern intuition, was a real eye opener to me.

What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read? And the most recent one?
What a difficult question to answer. I read so many good things. When I read a truly inspiring book it is almost as if it becomes a part of me. If I have to make a choice, I will chose Dante’s Divina Commedia and Milton’s Paradise Lost as the most inspiring books I have ever read, though, as I said, there are many others. In fact, when you pay attention to them, both these books have a lot of space and spatiality in them. The most recent study would be an essay collection by comparative religion scholar Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (1982). I was partly inspired to read the book because of an interview I saw with Smith, where he made the point that there has never been a monotheistic religion, “except in a philosopher’s phantasy,” because monotheism lacks narrative potential. The role of supporting characters is not to be underestimated in any religious context. Anyway, I very much recommend Imagining Religion for insights like that.