Descartes, René (1596–1650)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA026-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

13. The Cartesian heritage

It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Descartes. In philosophy, the Cogito Argument signalled the centrality of the self and the rejection of authority from without, the authority of both texts and teacher. For physics, Descartes represented the rejection of the scholastic physics of matter and form, and its replacement by a mechanistic physics of matter and motion. So in biology, he stood for mechanism and the rejection of Aristotelian vitalism.

Descartes had many followers who took his ideas (as they understood them) as dogma, and developed them as they thought he would have wanted them to do. The most important centres of Cartesian thought were France, where he was remembered as a countryman, despite his long absence, and the Netherlands, where he had lived. In France, his thought was carried on by a circle around Claude Clerselier, who gathered and published his letters as well as other works. Louis de La Forge commented on Descartes’ physiology, and wrote a Cartesian treatise on the mind, extending Descartes’ ideas. Gerauld de Cordemoy, tried to blend Cartesian philosophy with atomism, to the puzzlement of most of his contemporaries. Jacques Rohault was influential in Cartesian physics well after Newton had published the work that would eventually eclipse such theories. Other followers, mainly in the Low Countries, include Henricus Regius, considered Cartesian by many despite Descartes’ public rejection; Adriaan Heereboord, one of Descartes’ partisans in Leiden; Johannes de Raey, one of those who attempted to reconcile Descartes with the true philosophy of Aristotle; and Johannes Clauberg, who recast Cartesianism into more scholastic garb. There were many more minor Cartesians of various nationalities. Late seventeenth-century Europe was flooded with paraphrases of and commentaries on Descartes’ writings.

Other more independent thinkers were strongly influenced by Descartes without explicitly being followers. The best-known such figure is probably Nicolas Malebranche. While his thought owes much to other influences, particularly to seventeenth-century Augustinianism, in his Recherche de la vérité (Search after Truth) (1674–5) he follows Descartes in offering a critique of the senses, rejecting the authority of tradition, and appealing to clear and distinct perceptions. Descartes was also an important influence on the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, who regarded Descartes’ philosophy, in particular his distinction between mind and body, as support for his own attacks on materialism (see Cambridge Platonism). Spinoza, too, was influenced by Descartes. His first published book was a commentary on Descartes’ Principles, and although he later moved well outside the Cartesian camp, Descartes’ doctrines helped to structure his mature thought. Spinoza’s metaphysical vocabulary (substance, attribute and mode) is borrowed from Descartes, as is the centrality of the attributes of thought and extension in his metaphysics.

While many of Descartes’ partisans tried to remain orthodox, there is at least one doctrine characteristic of later Cartesianism that Descartes himself probably did not hold, namely, occasionalism (see Occasionalism). Malebranche and the Flemish Cartesian Arnold Geulincx are most often associated with the doctrine, but it appears in Cartesian writings long before theirs. According to occasionalism, God is the only active causal agent in the world; finite minds and bodies are not real causes, but only occasions for God to exercise his causal efficacy. Motivated by the picture of divine sustenance from moment to moment that underlies Descartes’ derivation of the laws of motion, together, perhaps, with general worries about the efficacy of finite causes and specific worries about mind – body interaction, occasionalism became a standard doctrine. Though often also attributed to Descartes himself, the grounds for doing so are rather slim.

Descartes’ mark can also be seen among his opponents. He was clearly a target of Hobbes’ materialism and sensationalism in, for example, Part I of Leviathan (1651). His epistemology and treatment of God were explicitly targeted by Pascal in the Pensées (1658–62, published 1670). Leibniz, too, attacked his physics, his rejection of formal logic, his conception of body and his conception of the mind, among many other things. The inadequacy of the Cartesian philosophy is a constant subtext to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), particularly in his discussion of our knowledge of mind and his rejection of the dogmatic claim to know the essences of substances. In natural philosophy, Newton’s early writings show a careful study of Descartes’ writings, particularly those on motion, and book II of his Principia was devoted to a refutation of the vortex theory of planetary motion. Between around 1650 and the eclipse of Cartesian philosophy some time in the early eighteenth century, it was simply impossible to write philosophy without reacting in some way to Descartes.

Citing this article:
Garber, Daniel. The Cartesian heritage. Descartes, René (1596–1650), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA026-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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