Born at Digne, he was first a
Canon in his native town, then Professor of philosophy at Aix, then,
later, of astronomy and mathematics at the Collège de France.
His education in a mainly humanist mould played a decisive role in
making his choices in a philosophical context. In his readings of
Seneca, Plutarch, Cicero and Lucretius, as well as Erasmus, Charron
and Montaigne, Gassendi drew ideas and suggestions which show themselves
to be extremely influential in the formation of his own mature philosophical
system. These authors' works lead Gassendi towards a structure of
thought strongly inclined towards empiricism and streaked with scepticism,
in addition to his criticism of aristotelian and scholastic metaphysics.
The need to flee from the aristotelian tradition
let him turn towards other thinkers, and, in particular, towards Epicurus.
Gassendi recognised in the Greek thinker's atomism a particularly
rich research programme for the nascent experimental science. The
discoveries performed by the microscope in those years were interpreted,
by Gassendi and many of his contemporaries, as a serious validation
of atomism, and contributed to the enormous success which the Canon
of Digne's theses had with European intellectuals of the day.
Gassendi's research is of outstanding interest
above all in the fields of astronomy and dynamics. In the former,
he carries out accurate and long-term observations, which he recorded
in minute detail. In the field of the physics of motion, on the other
hand, his work signals, above all, the confirmation of the science
of motion worked out by Galileo.
Gassendi developed an interesting notion
of space, which he considered as an infinite three-dimensional void,
absolutely immobile and homogeneous, which exists in itself, even
in the absence of bodies to define the parts. This metaphysical intuition
in some way heralds the Newtonian notion of "absolute space". It was
shared, too, by other figures in the debate over the existence of
the vacuum in the first half of the seventeenth century (Otto von
Guericke, for example). In opposition to cartesian physics - which
identifies matter and extension, rejecting immediately even the possibility
of an "empty space" - Gassendi's notion held that the "void" was acceptable
in the very idea of space.