Descartes Did Not Invent Modern Philosophy


Christia Mercer (Columbia), writing in “The Stone” at The New York Times:

René Descartes has long been credited with the near-single-handed creation of modern philosophy. Generations of students have read, and continue to read, his famous “Meditations” as the rejection of medieval ways of thinking and the invention of the modern self. They learned that he doubted all traditional ways of knowing before pivoting to the modern subjective individual. Tumbling into a “deep whirlpool,” the doubter of the “Meditations” has no secure footing until he hits upon a single firm and indubitable truth: He is most essentially “a thinking thing.” The modern individual is born, with the rejection of the past as its midwife.

It’s a dramatic story. But it’s false.

Descartes’s contemporaries in the 17th century would have been stunned to hear these accomplishments credited to him. Although he was rightly famous in his time for some of his scientific and mathematical ideas, many considered his philosophical proposals about the radical difference between mind and body implausible and unoriginal. Even his scientific ideas were often ranked on par with others. For example, the English philosopher Anne Conway considered Hobbes’s and Spinoza’s account of corporeal nature to be equally influential, and similarly mistaken.

Another contemporary, the German Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, agreed, sometimes comparing Descartes’s proposals to those of long-forgotten thinkers like Kenelm Digby. Others noted his debt to past thinkers. In his “Dictionary,” Pierre Bayle writes of complaints about Descartes’s “pirating” of ideas from earlier sources. Fast forward a century or so to Kant, who does not consider the author of the “Meditations” to be worth much attention.

So if Descartes did not invent modern philosophy, how was this false narrative created and sustained?

The remainder of the column is a look at the sociological factors that go into the creation of a canon, and a lesson in how “our understanding of history evolves.”

Discussion welcome.

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