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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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V. Cartesian physics, physiology and psychology

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In the 17th century, out of all the disciplines enumerated in the title of this chapter, it was only physics that had an established reputation as a science. This was largely due to the influence of Aristotle and his Physics – a book that had been read, commented upon and interpreted anew by many generations of philosophers, theologians and natural scientists. In the medieval era, its main and most influential commentators included: Avicenna and Averroes (among the non-Christian philosophers) and Thomas Aquinas and Robert Grosseteste (among the Christian philosophers). Due to the influence of both Christian and non-Christian philosophers, physics enjoyed great esteem at the universities at the time; and someone without an understanding of its basic tenets (or in disagreement with them) could not count on the recognition or even tolerance on the part of the authority figures. This was made readily apparent to Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, whose dramatic struggles against the defenders of Aristotle and his philosophy constituted, on the one hand, a clear demonstration of intellectual and institutional force on the part of the Aristotelians, and, on the other hand, a proof of the essential powerlessness of those who would point to the weak aspects of the Aristotelian doctrine. As it was put by A.C. Crombie: “Of even greater importance for the whole of natural science were the discussions of induction made by two Franciscan friars of Oxford living at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries. With...

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