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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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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...

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