September 25, 2017

Descartes and the Rise of the 'New Philosophy'

Earlier this year, Christia Mercer published a fascinating article on the influence of Teresa of Avila on Descartes. Mercer shows (in my view convincingly) that the structure of Descartes's Meditations is patterned after Teresa's The Interior Castle, an extremely popular text at the time, especially in Jesuit circles such as the college where Descartes was educated. This line of influence has been missed by scholars because philosophers are dismissive of women and of religious mystics, and Teresa was both. (I hasten to add: scholars are often quick to forget that certain male philosophers such as Plotinus and Augustine were undeniably also mystics.) Mercer has now written an essay on The Stone (the New York Times philosophy blog) presenting some of the same material for broader audiences.

A thread present in the journal article, but receiving greater emphasis in The Stone, is the extent to which this finding about Descartes and Teresa (and other related findings) calls for the rejection of a certain traditional narrative about the history of early modern philosophy. Again, I agree. However, I want to comment here on Mercer's discussion of the origination of the traditional narrative. I am genuinely uncertain whether I am disagreeing with her or merely adding some additional nuance and detail to the account. Mercer claims in The Stone that "The longstanding story about Descartes's creation of a 'new philosophy' that broke radically with medieval 'ways of thinking' and that marked 'the dawn of modern times' was promoted by philosophers who came after Kant." The earliest specific time period she specifies for the 'promotion' of this story is the 1820s. This strongly suggests to the reader that this story originated after Kant (but note that Mercer's actual claim is only that it was 'promoted' by certain post-Kantian thinkers). Here I want to argue that a precursor of this narrative already existed by the late 17th century (though with certain important differences), and explore some of the implications of this fact for the historiography of philosophy.

The first point that needs to be recognized if we are to understand the emergence of the narrative in question is that in the 17th and 18th centuries, 'modern' or 'new' philosophy is the name of a controversial school of thought. When we use the term 'early modern philosophy' to refer to all philosophy that takes place during this period, we obscure the fact that there were self-consciously anti-modern philosophers active in the 17th and 18th centuries, and these people were doing serious philosophical work. For instance, John Sergeant (1623-1707) defended a version of the Aristotelian species theory of perception and Peter Browne (d. 1735) defended the view that testimony (which he called 'authority') is an independent and fundamental source of epistemic justification. One cannot deny that these people were philosophers. Yet they explicitly criticize 'modern' philosophy. Further, as late as 1733 Browne is defending philosophical positions with patristic citations. (Peter Browne, don't you know it's 1733 and not 1233?!) But Browne also has serious philosophical arguments, just as Thomas Aquinas, despite his reliance on authority, offers serious philosophical arguments. One cannot deny that Sergeant and Browne are philosophers, but it is misleading to describe them as 'modern' philosophers.

So what is 'modern' (or 'new') philosophy? I was prompted to investigate this question a little while back by an invitation from Kirsten Walsh to participate in a HOPOS panel on alternative narratives of early modern philosophy. My interests are primarily in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. (I am the Berkeley guy, after all), so I decided to investigate the question of how 'modern'/'new' 'philosophy'/'science' was understood in this period. I did this by searching Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online for works containing these terms in the title or subtitle, and looking at how this school of thought was described and which philosophers were taken as its key advocates. (Note that my search was limited to English language sources.) I have no idea when (or if) I might get around to writing this up as a proper journal paper (so many papers to write, so little time to write them in!), so I thought this would be a good opportunity to present a little summary of the most interesting works I found, and the conclusions I drew from them.

  • Simon Patrick, A Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude-Men: Together with Some Reflections upon the New Philosophy (1662). This was the true gem of the bunch, and one of the earliest explicit historical reflections on New Philosophy (and also latitudinarian Anglicanism). Also, it contains the amazing Tale of the Aristotelian Clock-mender. Patrick's overall narrative is the story of an early 17th century Scientific Revolution that overturned the old Aristotelian worldview and set philosophy on a new (and superior) mechanistic footing. The Aristotelian worldview was overthrown, according to Patrick, by a variety of "notable new phenomena recently discovered," including, for instance, "the ansulae [Latin: little handles] of Saturn and four Moons about Jupiter [which] were never heard of till Galileo's Nuncius Sidereus [Starry Messenge (1610)] brought the news" (p. 20). Galileo is the chief hero of Patrick's story, but he gives honorable mention to Descartes, Scheiner, Tycho, Gilbert, and Boyle. According to Patrick, these philosophers rejected the authority of Aristotle and instead pursued empirical research and developed a mechanical picture of nature. (Seriously, this little pamphlet is awesome. If you have EEBO access, go read it.)
  • W. Simpson, Philosophical Dialogues Concerning the Principles of NATURAL BODIES: WHEREIN The Principles of the Old and New Philosophy are stated, and the New demonstrated, more agreeable to Reason, from Mechanical Experiments and its usefulness to the benefit of mankind (1677). (How's that for a subtitle?!) Simpson also takes (anti-Aristotelian) mechanism as the central principle of the new philosophy, and treats Bacon and Boyle as its key exponents. (Descartes is not mentioned.)
  • Anne Conway, The Principles of the most Ancient and Modern Philosophy: CONCERNING God, Christ, and Creatures, viz. of Spirit and Matter in general whereby may be resolved all those Problems and Difficulties, which neither the Schools nor Common Modern Philosophy, nor by Cartesian, Hobbesian, or Spinosian could be discussed (1690). Conway never defines 'modern' philosophy, and she's not very explicit about exactly what its common features are, but note that there are three categories here of philosophy current in her own time: Scholastic philosophy (still an active enterprise!), 'Common Modern Philosophy', and the particular systems of great modern philosophers. The great modern philosophers are Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza.
  • William Wotton, Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1697). This one doesn't actually use 'philosophy' or 'science' in the title, but I included it anyway, and it turned out to provide the most detailed account of modern philosophy of the sources I consulted. Note that Wotton does use the word 'modern' rather than 'new'. His account is worth quoting at length:
    As for Modern Methods of Philosophizing, when compared with the Ancient, I shall only observe these following Particulars. (1.) No Arguments are received as cogent, no Principles are allowed as current, amongst the celebrated Philosophers of the present Age, but what are in themselves intelligible; that so a Man may frame an Idea of them, of one sort or other. Matter and Motion, with their several Qualities, are only considered in Modern Solutions of Physical Problems. Substantial Forms, Occult Qualities, (x) [I don't know what the x is for! -KP], Intentional Species, Idiosyncrasies, Sympathies and Antipathies of Things, are exploded; not because they are Terms used by Ancient Philosophers, but because they are empty Sounds, Words whereof no Man can form a certain and determinate Idea. (2.) Forming of Sects and Parties in Philosophy, that shall take their Denominations from, and think themselves obliged to stand by the Opinions of any particular Philosophers, is, in a manner, wholly laid aside. Des Cartes is not more believed upon his own Word, than Aristotle: Matter of Fact is the only thing appealed to ... (3.) Mathematics are joined along with Physiology, not only as Helps to Men's Understandings, and Quickeners of their Parts, but as absolutely necessary to the comprehending of the Oeconomy of Nature, in all her Works. (4.) The New Philosophers [NB: 'new philosophers' are those who follow 'modern methods of philosophizing'. -KP], as they are commonly called, avoid making general Conclusions, till they have collected a great Number of Experiments, or Observations upon the Thing in hand ... So that Inferences that are now a-days made from any Enquiries into Natural Things, though perhaps they be set down in general Terms, yet are (as it were by Consent) received with this tacit Reserve, As far as the experiments or Observations already made, will warrant (pp. 364-365).
    Yes, the enumeration is original. (Wotton could have been an analytic philosopher!) Note also that, curiously enough, Descartes is here the poster-child for 'modern' system-builders, yet the method of modern philosophy is Baconian empiricism! In any event, Descartes is treated as a figure of crucial importance in the development of new methods of philosophizing that have overturned the old Aristotelian system in favor of a mechanistic world picture.

What can we conclude from this? Early 17th century philosophers, such as Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and Gassendi, self-consciously portrayed themselves as overthrowing old Aristotelian systems by the rejection of ancient authorities in favor of new philosophical methods. Because this relies on a rejection of authority it is to a large extent individualistic. (It makes sense, in fact, that Descartes, in trying to push this individualistic approach to epistemology as against reliance on authority, would find a series of solitary meditations, patterned on Teresa's, an appropriate mode of presentation.) Of course, in doing this these philosophers were influenced by their predecessors just as everyone is. But their opposition to reliance on authority led them to minimize this influence. By the end of the century, a significant number of thinkers (at least in England) had bought this story hook, line, and sinker. They believed that this group of mechanistic anti-authoritarian thinkers had produced an intellectual (scientific, philosophical) revolution by demolishing Medieval ways of thinking. Note also that 'modern' thinkers from this period typically treat 'the Schools' or 'the School-men' not just derisively but also monolithically. That is, we're already developing the notion that there was such a thing as the Medieval way of thinking.

Now, as I said, I'm not sure I'm really disagreeing with Mercer here. In fact, the story I've just told could be read as a prequel to her story of the development of the standard narrative. This is because the narrative that exists in my late 17th century sources is missing some crucial elements of the standard narrative that develops in the 19th century. Here are some key differences:

  1. In the late 17th century, Descartes is one of the founders of the 'new philosophy'; in the standard narrative he is the (one and only) founder. By the early 20th century, Galileo, Bacon, and Boyle belong to the history of science which is separate from the history of philosophy. Hobbes, Gassendi, and friends drop out of the picture entirely. (The extent to which Hobbes and Gassendi vanish can be recognized by the frequency with which Locke is treated as the founder of the modern empiricists.)
  2. In the late 17th century, the early 17th century debate is portrayed as the moderns vs. the School-men or the adherents of the ancients. As mentioned, Wotton even associates Descartes with Baconian methodology. In the standard narrative, however, the rationalist/empiricist dispute is the main event and anyone who put Descartes and Bacon on the same side would be regarded as incompetent.
  3. In the late 17th century, mechanism and epistemological individualism are the key principles of 'new' or 'modern' philosophy. Theories of ideas are made necessary because mechanism undermines Scholastic/Aristotelian theories of perception; rationalist and empiricist theories in epistemology (insofar as there are such things) are seen as answers to the question: "if we shouldn't just rely on the authority of the ancients (or the Church) then how should we form beliefs?" These issues are, in other words, derivative of more fundamental issues.

So what happens in the historiography of modern philosophy between where my story leaves off around 1700 and where Mercer's story picks up around 1820? And how is the history being portrayed by non-English-speaking philosophers and historians in this period? I'm afraid those are questions that will have to be left for another day, and perhaps another scholar.

(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad.) Posted by Kenny at September 25, 2017 11:17 PM

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I just found this quote today: "Des Cartes is the father of the new philosophy" (Reid, Inquiry, ed. Brooks, p. 205).

So we have Descartes as the one and only father of modern philosophy at least by 1764.

Posted by: Kenny at September 29, 2017 2:32 AM

Hello Kenny,

I did not know where else to directly ask you, therefore I decided Id just pose my question on the newest content of your blog :)

I just recently read your series on "The puzzle of existence" on prosblogion, and now I wanted to ask: How do you defend the PSR? How do you answer the modal collapse of the argument from contingency (given you even wish to defend these)?

I dont quite see how one can reasonably deny the PSR, or use the PSR in some cases and in others not with a good justification.
But as you mentioned in your comment on Shieva Kleinschmidts paper, the opponent might say that the modal collapse is enough reason to reject the existence of a necessary being on the grounds of inacceptability.

What would your reaction be?

All the best,


Posted by: Jonas at October 6, 2017 4:06 PM

Hi Jonas,

I don't exactly defend the PSR, if by defending it you mean putting forward arguments in its favor. My version of the argument from contingency does not require it. Nevertheless, I think it would be nice if the PSR were true, as it would create a neat and tidy intellectual system. (That's in my cosmological argument paper too.)

As far as the collapse worry, the key premise in those collapse arguments is that in all explanations the explanans must necessitate the explanandum, but this premise is highly dubious. See Pruss on this.

I hope that helps!


Posted by: Kenny Pearce at October 7, 2017 12:57 AM

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