On Indivisibles and Infinitesimals: A Response to David Sherry, “The Jesuits and the Method of Indivisibles”
In “The Jesuits and the Method of Indivisibles” David Sherry criticizes a central thesis of my book Infinitesimal: that in the seventeenth century the Jesuits sought to suppress the method of indivisibles because it undermined their efforts to establish a perfect rational and hierarchical order in the world, modeled on Euclidean Geometry. Sherry accepts that the Jesuits did indeed suppress the method, but offers two objections. First, that the book does not distinguish between indivisibles and infinitesimals, and that whereas the Jesuits might have reason to object to the first, the second posed no problem for them. Second, seeking an alternative explanation for the Jesuits’ hostility to the method, he proposes that its implicit atomism conflicted with the Catholic doctrine of the sacrament of the Eucharist, and was therefore heretical. In response to Sherry’s first criticism I point out that the Jesuits objected to all forms of the method of indivisibles, and that the distinction between indivisibles and infinitesimals consequently cannot explain the fight over the method in the seventeenth century. With regards to the Eucharist, I agree with Sherry that the Jesuits were indeed concerned about the method’s affinity to atomism and materialism, though for a different reason: these doctrines were antithetical to their efforts to impose divine hierarchy and order on the world. In as much as the technical details of the miracle of the Eucharist mattered, they provided no grounds for objecting to a mathematical (rather than physical) doctrine.
KeywordsInfinitesimal Indivisibles Jesuits Cavalieri Clavius Euclidean geometry
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