A Brief Summary Of Koyre’s From the Closed World To The Open Universe


Because Alexandre Koyre’s brilliant From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (1957) can, for those who aren’t scholars in the history of science or in the history of ideas (and I am certainly not the former), I’d like to provide a way of understanding the text below. In essence, I surface what I take to be the three central questions that Koyre seems to be implicitly asking.

The Final Paragraph: The New Cosmology, Summarized

You need only read the final paragraph of the text to see where the story of the paradigm shift in cosmology as we cross the threshold into modernity ultimately leads:

The Infinite Universe of the New Cosmology, infinite in Duration as well as in Extension, in which eternal matter in accordance with eternal and necessary laws moves endlessly and aimlessly in eternal space, inherited all the ontological attributes of Divinity. Yet only those–all the others the departed God took away with him.

Koyre, From Closed World, p. 276

There is much to unpack here. We can begin to do so by citing a longer, more recent work by B. Alan Wallace, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher as well as an able expositor of contemporary science.

A Picture of Scientific Materialism

Wallace succinctly summarizes the scientific materialism that, since the nineteenth century, has not only won out but also become ideological common sense for most Westerners:

Existence is purely physical–there is no other reality. The sources of this reality are the laws of nature, forces that are entirely impersonal, having no connection whatsoever with the mind of human beings, their beliefs, or values. These laws operate in isolation from any supernatural, spiritual influences, all of which are illusory. Life in the universe is an accident, the outcome of mechanical interactions among complex patterns of matter and energy. The life of an individual, one’s personal history, hopes and dreams, loves and hates, feelings, desires–everything–are the outcome of physical forces acting upon and within one’s body. Death means the utter destruction of the individual and his or her consciousness, and this too is the destiny of all life in the universe–eventually it will disappear without a trace. In short, human beings live encapsulated within a vast, alien world, a universe entirely indifferent to their longings, unaware of their triumphs, mute to their suffering. Only by facing this reality and accepting it fully can humans live rationally.

B. Alan Wallace with Brian Hodel, Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality (Boston: Shambhala, 2008), pp. 24-5

In this passage, we can easily make out the coordinates of the New Cosmology: infinitude, materialism, acosmism, and atheism.

My Interpretation of Koyre’s Central Questions

In my reading of From the Closed World, Koyre is asking three basic questions:

1. The Infinite Universe: Is, for thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth and indeed for us today, there a cosmos or a universe–that is to say, a finitist conception or an infinite conception?

The reason this question matters has to do, I divine, with what I’ll term aesthetic comprehensibility. A finitist conception of the cosmos is fit, orderly, elegant, and graspable. In short, such a conception presents Reality as a home, at least at the level of intelligibility, for human beings and for other sentient beings.

A oft-cited line in Pascal’s Pensees, originally published in 1670, bears out the existential stakes: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” For what we have inherited is a mathematically infinite universe, one that “infinite in Duration as well as in Extension” lacks the aesthetic comprehensibility on offer in the Ptolemaic cosmos. For this reason, when we peer out into the distant night sky, we can seem ‘lost,’ ‘in exile,’ or as if this ‘cold, indifferent universe’ bears no relation to our meager, apparently time bound existences.

2. The Status of Materialism: Does the Closure Principle hold universal sway?

That is, can we account for all of reality by appealing only to material forces? Though Newton didn’t think so (thus the immaterial, or supernatural, force of gravity that he defended), a certain Cartesian materialism clearly captured the imagination of European elites by the nineteenth century.

The result for us today is, quite shockingly, an all-pervasive materialism.

3. The Status of God: Is God the author and architect of the created world, or is God irrelevant?

As we discover in Michael Buckley’s tome At the Origins of Modern Atheism (1987), it’s not as if atheism was ‘proven’ or theism ‘disproven.’ Rather, by the nineteenth century–and we’re experiencing this tragic result in our time–the question of God’s existence had become irrelevant. Hence, Koyre quotes Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1823) who, when asked about the role of God in his system, told Napoleon : “Sire, je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothese” (Sir, I had no need of that hypothesis.)

Strange yet very sad to say, the most important existential-metaphysical questions–Does God exist? And what is God?–have gone into hiding for us today.