Cartesian Rationalism

Understanding Descartes

by Zbigniew Drozdowicz (Author)
©2015 Monographs 152 Pages


Descartes gave the human intellect the central role in rationalism, his system therefore is a variant of intellectual rationalism. Other forms of rationalism had emerged in scholastic philosophy and the ancient philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. While Descartes had reservations with respect to all of them, he still adopted some of their elements: not even such a self-directed and critical philosopher as Descartes could have proceeded on the difficult journey towards truth without any baggage of tradition whatsoever. Those who treated this baggage as a useless burden and have attempted to pursue truth without carrying it, have only discovered things which had long been known.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • From the Author
  • I. Cartesian life-rationality
  • II. Cartesian method and methodology
  • III. Cartesian episteme and epistemology
  • IV. Cartesian ontic, ontology and metaphysics
  • V. Cartesian physics, physiology and psychology
  • Annex: Cartesian Meditations one more time
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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From the Author

Descartes belongs to those philosophers whose comprehension has always posed a challenge; not only for those who deal with philosophy occasionally, but also for the professionals. This stems not only from the fact that he composed his works in Latin and made frequent use of scholastic terms – the key obstacle seems to be that his philosophy constitutes a multifaceted system. Omitting one of its constitutive elements, or taking it out of context, would often lead – even in his own lifetime – to convictions being ascribed to Descartes that he had in fact openly disavowed. His opposition would rarely be treated seriously enough so as to put a corrective on the accepted understanding of his philosophy. On the other hand, he would often be accused of attempting to hide his actual convictions, if they happened not to match the accepted wisdom of the scientific, philosophical and theological authorities of his day, i.e., such ideas whose dissemination might spell trouble for him. At a later stage, his philosophy would be inspected for signs of such assumptions and solutions which he might not have been aware of, or perhaps of which he had been too loosely aware, so that their clear articulation would elude him.

It seems an occurrence common enough that the so-called “silent” assumptions find ways into our reasoning. This is also true of such philosophers as Descartes, who chose to become aware of anything they can and should become aware of as the main goal of their life, so as to be sure of having obtained authentic knowledge. His formula: cogito ergo sum might seem to constitute the article of faith adhered to by all the proponents of the most broad, deep and thorough probing of consciousness. This formula – just as any general formula – does nevertheless open a space for various interpretations, conclusions and evaluations. Still, when it comes to the Cartesian philosophy, the available place for manoeuvre is in fact so vast as to allow for positioning it on some occasions as an example of refined intellectualism, while at other times taking it to represent a case of an essentially simple mechanistic naturalism. Even if the latter variety could indeed be found in his physics and physiology, one should accept that in his system neither physics nor physiology constitute autonomous sciences, which could be of enough importance to determine the general character of his philosophy. This is at least how I understand his philosophy, while of course I do assume my understanding not to be the only possible or acceptable one.

My treatment of his philosophy within this book takes it to be a specific instance of rationalism. Descartes gave the human intellect the central role in this ← 7 | 8 → system; thus, I consider it a variant of an intellectual rationalism. Other forms of such rationalism had emerged in the ancient philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, as well as later on in the scholastic philosophy. Descartes had some reservations with respect to all of them, while taking over some of their elements at the same time. It could not have been otherwise – not even such a self-directed and critical philosopher as Descartes is capable to proceed on the great and difficult journey towards the truth without any baggage of tradition whatsoever. Those who would treat this baggage as useless burden and have attempted to pursue the truth without carrying it, have also merely been capable of discovering things which had long been known.

The key challenge is not to discard the baggage of tradition altogether, not even in making sure that carrying it becomes least burdensome, but rather to re-pack it in such a way that only those things are left in it which might prove useful in the quest for the truth – or at least on the first stages of that quest. This was something Descartes was not merely aware of – he also put a substantial effort into making a rational selection of the items in his intellectual backpack (e.g., during his education in the Jesuit College La Flèche), so as to only retain what seemed truly indispensable for the realisation of his life plans. This constitutes but one aspect of his rationality, which he advised all the seekers of truth to assume. When it comes to my own attempt at understanding Descartes, I classify this aspect as a part of his life rationality. This kind of rationality is an important one, but still just one among many constituent parts of his rationalism. Following Descartes’ position expressed in the Discourse on Method, I treat it as a preparatory step providing foundations for actions to be planned and conducted later on.

Those further steps are hierarchically ordered, and this ordering has a firm justification in his philosophy. It first tackles the questions of method and methodology, secondly moving towards the questions of episteme and epistemology, thirdly focusing on ontics, ontology and metaphysics, while lastly covering the issues of physics, physiology and psychology. In the Cartesian system, one could also distinguish further parts dealing with mathematics (including algebra and geometry), as well as ethics (including the ethics of philosophers and academics, the ethics of rulers, etc.). In any case, the writings of Descartes do provide foundations for making such distinctions, and allow for considering his search for rationality in these domains of human thought, action and cooperation. Although I do not cover them within the present publication, this is not because I think they are insignificant, but rather due to the fact that I do find them less significant than those which I made the subject of my analyses.

My inquiries are based on all that can be found in the works of Descartes. The problem is, however, that those works contain many different elements and ← 8 | 9 → exhibit differing preferences when it comes to the choice of problems, which has major consequences in a system such as the one created by Descartes. These differences are usually already spelled out in the titles of the works; yet, they have to be considered in the context of the intellectual milieu of Cartesian thought. This milieu comprises the philosophy and theology of his day, against which he would often argue, while at the same time appropriating at least some of their concepts and assumptions, together with the natural sciences (such as physics and physiology) as well as those religious convictions that he would distance himself from. By referring to the intellectual milieu, it would be possible to point out what constituted the innovative elements of his philosophy – as its essentially innovative nature has not only been endorsed by its followers, but also by many of its opponents.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
Ontology Epistemology Methodology Rene Descartes
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 152 pp.

Biographical notes

Zbigniew Drozdowicz (Author)

Zbigniew Drozdowicz is Professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and Head of the Chair of Religious and Comparative Studies.


Title: Cartesian Rationalism
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154 pages