Essay Review ID: CBB018190213

A Contextualist History of Cartesian Philosophy: Roger Ariew's Descartes and the First Cartesians (2018)


The title Descartes and the First Cartesians only partly reflects the scope of the research presented in Roger Ariew's latest book. To be sure, this study does offer a new and extensive account of the work of the first Cartesians and thus a new perspective on the historical phenomenon that was seventeenth century Cartesianism. Yet it does so on the basis of a vast survey of the Scholastic context from which the new philosophy emerged. The investigation of Cartesianism is thus given shape by the inquiry into Scholasticism (somewhat vague at first, the term is subsequently presented in all its nuances). From this point of view, Descartes and the First Cartesians takes up and completes the research Ariew presented in his 1999 Descartes and the Last Scholastics. At first sight, then, the field surveyed is the transition from one way of doing philosophy, one that is reaching its end, to the new philosophy just beginning. The guiding question seems to be whether and how Descartes's philosophy succeeded in replacing Aristotle's. Yet, as Ariew has demonstrated throughout his work, while there is indeed a transition taking place in the seventeenth century, it is in no way the case that one knowledge replaced another. The approach of Descartes and the First Cartesians thus consists in studying the transition from the viewpoint of an unchanging element, in defining a trait that characterizes philosophy before and after Descartes. In considering the relationship of the new philosophy to Scholasticism, Ariew focuses on a specific context: the teaching of philosophy in the seventeenth century. He thus examines a sizable corpus of textbooks published before and after Descartes with the aim of measuring the effects of the encounter between Cartesian thought and a well-established traditional structure of [End Page 521] knowledge. At the center of his study is the well-known fact that Descartes initially conceived of his own textbook as an annotated edition of an earlier text (his choice had fallen on Eustache de Saint-Paul's Summa quadripartita) and only later settled on publishing an autonomous work. The major strength of this method of research derives no doubt from the fact that the Cartesians were openly "rivaling" with the Scholastics (Ariew 2014, p. xvi). Historians of Cartesianism are well familiar with the polarization of the debate. On the one hand, the Cartesians—Du Roure, Arnauld, Clerselier, and Rohault—explicitly and forcefully took up their master's teachings (Azouvi 2002). On the other, the anti-Cartesians—Huygens, Oldenburg, Huet, and, starting the 1660s, the Jesuits—openly called out and criticized their adversaries' sectarianism. Ariew turns this particular feature of the reception of Descartes into a principle for selecting his corpus. In fact, he remarks, there is no necessary and sufficient condition for calling an author "Cartesian." Whether on the issue of doubt or of the cogito, of the divisibility of matter, and so on, there will always be an assuredly Cartesian author who will nonetheless reject one of these ideas central to Descartes's philosophy. Yet the set of problems to be discussed in the book requires that the central category "Cartesian" leaves no room for doubt: "My rule of thumb is to think of 'Cartesian' as an actor's category in the intellectual universe of the seventeenth century. The authors I cite as Cartesians published works with Descartes' name prominently displayed in their titles or subtitles; they saw themselves as Cartesians and others saw them as such" (Ariew 2014, p. xvi). The first two chapters deal with Scholasticism before Descartes. The first describes Descartes's position within the institutional setting, throwing light on the didactic practices of the religious orders that at the time enjoyed a de facto monopoly over education: the Oratorians, the Doctrinaires, and above all the Jesuits. In the second chapter, the author gives an account of the four part textbook prior to Descartes. The two last chapters show how a Cartesian textbook was constructed, first in the Principles of Philosophy, then in the work of the first Cartesians.

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Book Ariew, Roger (2014) Descartes and the First Cartesians. unapi

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Authors & Contributors
Schmaltz, Tad M.
Strazzoni, Andrea
Brockliss, Laurence W. B.
Ruler, Han van
Lewis, Eric P.
Blank, Andreas
Perspectives on Science
British Journal for the History of Philosophy
Science and Education
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Medicina Historica
Galilæana: Journal of Galilean Studies
Oxford University Press
Cambridge University Press
H. Champion
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
de Gruyter
Natural philosophy
Mechanism; mechanical philosophy
Descartes, René
Ariew, Roger
Desgabets, Robert
Locke, John
Boyle, Robert
Régis, Pierre Sylvain
Time Periods
17th century
18th century
Early modern
Université de Paris

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