Régis, Pierre-Sylvain (1632–1707)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA065-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

Régis helped to define and disseminate Cartesianism. He proselytized on its behalf, defended it against its critics and innovators, and wrote the systematic textbook for which Descartes had hoped. Although primarily an expositor of Descartes’ views, he sometimes developed them in creative ways that tended towards empiricism. He seems to have been led in this direction by Robert Desgabets who, while adhering to Descartes’ principles, consciously departed from what Descartes actually said in order to be ‘more Cartesian than Descartes himself’. The same may often be said of Régis.

‘One of the ornaments and pillars of the Cartesian sect’, as Pierre Bayle called him, Régis was born near Agen, France. After his education by the Jesuits at Cahors, he studied theology in Paris, where he became interested in the philosophy of Descartes. A clearly important influence was the weekly lectures given by the leading proponent of Cartesianism, Jacques Rohault. A more important influence came from Robert Desgabets, who may have introduced Régis to Descartes’ philosophy. Desgabets would have provided him with an understanding of those of its principles, particularly the doctrine of created eternal truths, that gave it a quasi-empiricist complexion.

Around 1665, Rohault sent Régis to Toulouse to spread the gospel of Cartesianism. There, at Montpellier (where he met Locke), at Aigues-Mortes and finally back in Paris in 1680 after the death of Rohault, Régis’ lectures enjoyed enormous success. However, given the official opposition to Cartesianism because of the theological controversies it generated, the lectures were suppressed by the Archbishop of Paris, and the publication of Régis’ first, longest and most important work, the Système de philosophie (1690), was delayed for ten years.

Régis was less a creative thinker than an expositor of what he took to be Cartesianism (even if he sometimes developed it in surprising ways), which he defended in a number of polemical works. His Système criticized Malebranche on several topics, on three of which Malebranche and he then exchanged ‘Replies’: the nature of sensual pleasure, the problem of the horizontal versus meridional moon (on which Régis was demonstrably mistaken), and, most importantly, the nature of ideas (see Malebranche, N. §§1, 2).

As had been the case in Malebranche’s much longer debate with Arnauld over the nature of ideas, the central issue was whether the soul’s modifications are essentially representative (as Arnauld and Régis held), or whether ideas different from those modifications are required for knowledge of material things (as Malebranche held). Many of the same arguments from the Arnauld debate reappear – for example, Malebranche’s contention that a modification of the soul, which is a particular, cannot represent a circle in general (see Arnauld, A. §3). But novel points also emerge, one of the most important being Régis’ contention that the exemplary cause of an idea is the thing it represents, which he deduces from the principle that a representation cannot be of nothing. Régis and Malebranche, in fact, share this principle but draw different conclusions from it: Malebranche sees perception mediated by God, while Régis has it directly of objects. Malebranche’s problem is to explain how we know material things; Régis’ problem is to explain how we can fail to do so.

Malebranche’s cause in general was taken up by his disciple Henri Lelevel, who found Régis committed both to Spinozism and to scepticism (see Spinoza, B. de). Régis tried to respond to the charge of Spinozism by condemning in no uncertain terms the view that there is only one substance, which is God, but he seems not to have rejected or modified his earlier view that individual minds are modes of thought, just as individual material things are modes of extension. Thus, while holding with Desgabets that substances are indefectible, the basis for personal immortality seems none the less upset.

In other debates, Régis defended Cartesianism against the sceptical attacks of P.-D. Huet, against the objections of Jean Du Hamel on a range of issues beginning with the theory of ideas, and finally against the misgivings of Leibniz, with whom he also exchanged ‘Replies’ concerning the consequences of Cartesianism for religion and piety. In his last work, L’usage de la raison et de la foi (1704), Régis sought to establish the compatibility of faith and reason, essentially by establishing their independence. He was one of the few Cartesians to subscribe to Descartes’ doctrine of the created eternal truths, which he thought followed from God’s omnipotence (see Descartes, R. §6). He held, moreover, that anything dependent on God’s will can be known only through experience or revelation, and thus the apriorism usually associated with Cartesianism is contrary to the central thrust of Régis’ philosophy. This thrust is clear, too, in his conception of the soul, which thinks through the body.

Régis disavowed the occasionalism that he might have been expected to hold (see Occasionalism). His emphasis on divine omnipotence led him to the principle on which Malebranche had based his occasionalism: ‘there is such a necessary connection between His will and the existence of the thing He wills to produce that it is incomprehensible that God should will a thing to be produced and that it not be’ (1690: 110). But the created things between which this necessary connection fails to occur are none the less real secondary causes, and not just occasional causes of God’s operation. As occasional causes determining God to act, they would violate his immutability. It is open to question, however, whether Régis really understood the doctrine of occasionalism, and whether the occasional causes of Malebranche really differ from Régis’ secondary causes, which he describes as having ‘no proper causality’ and as ‘contributing to the production of things only by serving as instruments by which God modifies His action’ (1690: 125).

In accordance with the arboreal metaphor in the introduction to his Principles, Descartes thought that all philosophy was connected and based on metaphysics. Aside from the earlier sketchy effort of François Bayle, however, Régis’ Système was the first attempt to produce a systematic and comprehensive account of the Cartesian view of things that Descartes had only imperfectly realized. In addition to logic and metaphysics, an extended physics, biology and so on, the Système also offers ethical, political, legal and theological theories. The title of its second edition (1691) seems fully justified: Cours entier de philosophie ou système général selon les principes de Mr. Descartes.

Citing this article:
Lennon, Thomas M.. Régis, Pierre-Sylvain (1632–1707), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA065-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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