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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Daniel
Daniel
4 years ago

“…Kant, who does not consider the author of the “Meditations” to be worth much attention”.

The index of the Cambridge ed. of the first Critique counts 15 references to Descartes . Not as many as Leibniz (20-ish) or Hume (close to 30), but still amounts to some attention at the very least…Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  Daniel
4 years ago

Kant’s first paralogism addresses Descartes’ view of the substantive ego, at least a view that’s closely associated with Descartes.
Kant’s arguments against the analyticity of mathematical truths are also partly directed against Descartes.

Just a couple key examples of serious attention given to Descartes.Report

NW Clerk
NW Clerk
4 years ago

Thomas Reid (1710-96) sure thought Descartes was an important figure, and points to him as the progenitor of the modern “theory of ideas” that led to the skepticisms of Hume and Berkeley (see his 1765 Inquiry into the Human Mind). Also, Hobbes corresponded with Descartes and took Descartes scientific atomism as a model for his political philosophy–which he wanted to be equally atomisitic. And Descartes was also a model for Spinoza, who was trained in the scholastics but jettisoned their methods for Descartes. While Descartes may have only intended to give a grounding for the new mechanistic science of Galileo, the effect was a new way of looking at things generally. Where else does one peg the start of this “something new”?Report

Paul Whitfield
Paul Whitfield
Reply to  NW Clerk
4 years ago

In masses, not monuments, obviously. (Spencer not Carlyle, so to speak.) Isn’t that all and only Mercer’s general point?Report

Babette Babich
Babette Babich
4 years ago

Everyone is indebted to everyone. The claim to inventing anything is absurd. And one does this to the extent that one finds a supposedly better candidate for said invention or indeed points out the lack of esteem in what competitors (and since Aristotle, philosophers have been competitors — who is first, who is better, who is (this is Aristotle’s move, most like me…) held a contender.

What makes Descartes the ‘inventor’ of what we name ‘modern’ philosophy is just his founding focus on the cogito — everything leads to me, see Aristotle ref above) –, i.e., the I think, the selfie of philosophy.Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
4 years ago

I urge readers to read the whole column in the Stone before leaping to Descartes’s defense. Mercer is specifically talking about a particular way of reading Descartes, which valorizes the Meditations over the work for which he was known in his day, the Principles of Philosophy and credits Descartes with the discovery of the subjective self. She points out that this notion was anticipated by earlier philosophers, many of whom are women. There is much to chew over the case that she makes in the entire piece–go and read it.Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  Margaret Atherton
4 years ago

sure thing but the “dramatic story” she claims is “false” is also one hardly anyone seriously believesReport

Gradstudent_ontheway
Gradstudent_ontheway
Reply to  Margaret Atherton
4 years ago

I learned a lot from Professor Mercer’s column, and especially the point that you mentioned is illuminating. As one accustomed to no more than ‘the canonical narrative’, my worry is whether Descartes’ subjectivity per se is considered the innovative contribution by Descartes in the scholarship. My impression has been that methodological skepticism’s interesting point does not consist in its subjectivity, but its non-compromising epistemological stance (whatever it may be). It would be very grateful if those well-versed in the topic could enlighten me on this issue.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Margaret Atherton
4 years ago

The thing is, it’s hard to assess these claims without textual references, though I suspect that the Stone editor may have cut a lot of this essay down. Mercer gives us a list of women authors, no doubt brilliant and important in their own right, but she gives us no reference to any text where they can clearly be seen anticipating Descartes’ meditative-skeptical epistemology. Margaret, can you help us out here? Where in Julian of Norwich, Hadewijch of Brabant, Catherine of Siena or Teresa of Ávila should we be looking?Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

I’m not an expert on any of these women, I’m afraid. However, I think what Mercer was locating as the alleged source of Descartes’s modernism was his uncovering the “modern subjective individual” rather than a characteristic “meditative-skeptical-epistemology (which has also been questioned as the best way to see what Descartes was up to.) She is proposing that many of the women she mentions develop similar ways of forming new beliefs through meditative exploration. (And Christia, I hope I haven’t misrepresented you, all I ever wanted was for people to read what you wrote.)Report

Plotinus
Plotinus
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

There’s more on this subject here – Christia Mercer. “Descartes’ debt to Teresa of Ávila, or why we should work on women in the history of philosophy”. Philosophical Studies 174 (10):2539-2555 (2017) – https://philpapers.org/rec/MERDDT [with a link to a PDF version]

The Stone should, I think, be in the habit of at least including references to the more scholarly work on which its pieces draw or which they discuss.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Plotinus
4 years ago

Thank you Margaret and Plotinus, for your very helpful comments. I suspected that the Stone’s format made it virtually impossible for Mercer to defend her claims in any detail.Report

Jon
Jon
4 years ago

“Descartes has long been credited with the near single-handed creation of modern philosophy.” By whom? I don’t know anyone who has ever said this. First, cite. Second, straw man.Report

Jeremy Henkel
Jeremy Henkel
Reply to  Jon
4 years ago

By whom? Kuno Fischer, Ernst Cassirer, and Etienne Gilson are three people the author cites in her article.Report

Nick
Nick
Reply to  Jeremy Henkel
4 years ago

No, they haven’t quite said that and are not even quoted as having said so. Cassirer’s quote comes close but his view of systems and history of philosophy was idiosyncratic.Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
4 years ago

If you google Who is the father of modern philosophy, what comes up is Descartes. Now we could either attack me and google for suggesting this is a way of thinking about “common knowledge” or we could try to pay attention to what Mercer’s piece is about. Again I renew my request to do the latter.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Margaret Atherton
4 years ago

Are you suggesting that one couldn’t “pay attention to what Mercer’s piece is about” and still reasonably conclude that Descartes is the father of modern philosophy, in the relevant sense?Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

No, Daniel, I’m suggesting that bitching about the title here is not the same thing as paying attention what the piece is about although of course can be a lot of fun for those who get off on scoring points.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Margaret Atherton
4 years ago

Fair enough!Report

Paul Whitfield
Paul Whitfield
4 years ago

Thinking of it in terms of the range of Introduction to Philosophy texts I’ve read, and Mercer’s point about canon creation, Descartes is definitely attributed more than history attests. I know *he* thought he was being original, but that’s not all it takes to *be* original, and the case for bias canon creation in Western philosophy has been so well-put by feminist philosophers – what it meant for someone like Heidegger, *for example*, to say Descartes began modern metaphysics – I’m surprised Mercer’s article is getting the press it is here and in comments. I don’t know why I’m surprised, of course.Report

Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

Great piece. Still, Mercer doesn’t address one, perhaps main, sense in which Descartes is thought as father of modern philosophy, which is: merging the idea of subjectivity qua questioning tradition (which is surely not invented by Descartes, or Teresa of Avila, but goes back to the ancients) with modern, scientific conception of the world to think of subjectivity as a non-material (non-mechanistic) thing. To go from thinking of the soul as breath or form as part of a teleological conception of nature to thinking of the soul as a thing set apart from a non- teleological conception of nature. At least in the 20th century, to many of Descartes’ critics, like Ryle, Heidegger, Rorty, Dreyfus, this is what they were attacking.

Perhaps this Rylean view gets Descartes wrong; some recent scholars argue for an embodied Descartes. But there is an important way in which thinkers in the standard story from Descartes to Kant kind of ran these two senses of subjectivity (thinking for oneself and not fitting into mechanistic world) together in a way that is distinctly modern.

Did the modern women philosophers Mercer mentions also pre-date Descartes in making this conflation? That would be really interesting.Report

SCM
SCM
4 years ago

As a frequent philosophy blog commentator and someone with extensive experience leading the occasional Descartes discussion section, I don’t even need to read the Mercer piece to know that it is both absurdly exaggerated and trivially true. She probably hasn’t even read all the people who I would think really have to be read if I were to take time out of my busy philosophy blog commentating schedule to do some research on Descartes, whoever they may be. And, frankly, I am outraged — or rather just a little too jaded to be outraged — that the feminist agenda continues to denigrate these hallowed figures and make the entire corpus of philosophy just go limp.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  SCM
4 years ago

Hallowed figures? We are talking about Descartes, right, famous for thinking for oneself, bucking tradition, creating new movements?

One of the best lines in Mercer’s piece: “The richness and diversity of early modern philosophy were bound to become evident, engendering a growing awareness of the inadequacy of the standard story.” Descartes, Locke pushed the scholastics out of fashion and reinterpreted history. Carnap, Wittgenstein, Heidegger tried to do that to Descartes, Locke, etc.. Now others are trying in new ways. More power to them.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  SCM
4 years ago

Just realized, maybe SCM’s comment is sarcastic. In that case, apologies for missing that.Report

SCM
SCM
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

I prefer the term “sardonic” … 😉Report

KH
KH
4 years ago

There’s a significant literature on this, which agrees generally with Mercer though she never cites it. Bruce Kuklick published “Seven Figures and How they grew” in 1984. That tells a certain story, improved by Knud Haakonssen in the into to his anthology of eighteenth-century philosophy. My “Hegel and the Modern Canon” (Owl of Minerva 2013) reframes some of it by putting the neo-Kantian story (the one Mercer recites) against its neo-Hegelian competitor.Report

Peter
Peter
4 years ago

As a philosopher but not an historian of philosophy, it seems to me like Descartes’ place in the canon is due to two things, neither of which depend much on any of these historical questions of originality. First he combines the ideas he presents into an economical system that is at the same time both accessible for beginning undergraduates and yet competent and provocative enough to make whole careers for professionals at the highest levels. Second, Descartes’ brief, pithy organization of these ideas, and his willingness to publish criticism from figures like Hobbes and Arnauld along side them — is central to understanding the larger conversation that is early modern philosophy. OR, at least, is a great pedagogical tool for interesting and introducing students in that conversation. Even if Descartes did nothing original, which single work of 100 pages by which of his more original sources could do all of that?Report

jose leonardo pacheco
jose leonardo pacheco
4 years ago

Greetings from Venezuela, i want to say that i have agree about the idea thaht Descartes wasn`t the first modern philosopher, becouse the ideas only are the extension of the Saint “Agustin” (i don`t know how write it) and the logical tink of Descartes is the extension of the way of think of Jesuist orderReport