Imaginable Impossibilities and Thought Experiments


The project, “Imaginable Impossibilities and Thought Experiments“, aims to investigate the tradition of the Oxford Calculators and the influence their works had on early-modern logic in Europe. The Oxford Calculators were a group of scholars active at Oxford between 1325 and 1350. Among the most notable Calculators were T. Bradwardine, W. Heytesbury, and R. Swineshead, as well as many other English philosophers of the time, such as R. Kilvington, J. Dumbleton and R. Billingham.

An element of novelty in the sophismata of the Calculators is that purely logical techniques were applied to the discussion of mathematical and physical issues, such as the quantitative analysis of qualities or the relations between motion, resistance and velocity. Moreover, their sophismata often involved the use of thought experiments, in which many sorts of intricate non-naturalistic cases and impossible scenarios were posited as conceivable or imaginable, and some theoretical inferences were drawn from them.

It is still unclear, however, whether and to what extent these imaginative scenarios were aimed at challenging and revising parts of the Aristotelian physics. Another element that has not been addressed in detail is whether these authors were referring to a consistent and systematic theory of modalities, and which connections there were between their use of modal terms and the theories and logics of modalities available in the late 13th and 14th century.

From a historical viewpoint, the tradition of the Calculators is particularly important because of its influence on early-modern scholars and its contribution to the rise of modern science. Indeed, the Calculators’ achievements in the areas of mathematics and physics, together with their thought-experiment methodology, became widely influential on the Continent (and especially in North Italian universities) during the 15th century, and contributed to the shift from medieval scientific paradigms to a modern scientific view.

An accurate study of this topic will allow us to determine in which way and to what extent the Calculators influenced later natural philosophers, and therefore to uncover the Medieval and European roots of the Scientific Revolution. Besides its historical interest, the project is related to many philosophical issues that are significant in the contemporary debate, such as the ones concerning the nature and varieties of modalities, or the role that thought experiments play in philosophical and scientific methodology.