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Cartesian Rationalism

Understanding Descartes

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Zbigniew Drozdowicz

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.
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III. Cartesian episteme and epistemology

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The notions of episteme and epistemology are always intertwined with the question of understanding and human cognition. However, they have been defined in markedly different ways within the various philosophical approaches across different historical periods. In the context of ancient philosophy, the Greek philosophers would use the category of episteme (employed interchangeably with the notion of gnosis – understanding) in order to name the different forms of cognition; while the notion of epistemology was reserved for such modes of cognition which are binding for all those pursuing true knowledge. In the later periods the term episteme would be used to refer to the partial problems stated and possibly solved within the domain of epistemology, or to such modes of pursuing true knowledge that (for various reasons) nevertheless do not reach the desired aim. An example of such a differentiation of meaning features in the distinction that Marek Siemek introduced for the sake of analysing the transcendental ideas of Kant and his German followers, while marking the historical boundary between the pre- and post-Kantian reflexion on human acts of cognition. His proposal concerning the understanding of these terms remains nevertheless also useful with respect to the analysis of the Cartesian doctrine. It might also be productive for this analysis to refer to his idea of the “simple episteme” – referring to the “direct knowledge of the object, conscious ‘seeing’ of some ontological form of Being”48. What remains closely intertwined with this stipulation is the notion of the “epistemic field or...

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