Saturday, 29 May 2010

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is often described as the founder of modern philosophy. Born at the French town of La Haye, between Tours and Poitiers, his father was one of the local landed gentry. The boy was sent to boarding school, meaning the Jesuit college of La Fleche, where he stayed for eight years. The Jesuit curriculum encompassed the classical humanities and the prevalent Aristotelian Scholasticism. Following the wishes of his father, in 1616 Descartes took a degree in law at the University of Poitiers, but did not pursue the paternal profession. Instead he reacted to academic studies, rejecting much of what he had been taught.

In 1618 Descartes opted for military enlistment, like many others of his social class at this time of religious wars. Moving to the Netherlands, he became a soldier or engineer in the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau. While stationed at Breda that year, he formed a friendship with the Dutch mathematician Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637). Some extant letters of Descartes reveal that this scientist “roused me from my state of indolence and reawakened the learning which by then had almost disappeared from my memory.” Quotation from J. Cottingham, “Descartes” (93-134) in R. Monk and F. Raphael, eds., The Great Philosophers (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2000), p. 100. Descartes also referred in those epistles to his project of a new science providing “a general solution of all possible equations involving any sort of quantity” (ibid., p. 99).

Moving to Germany for further military service, in 1619 he gained three vivid dreams that were reported by his seventeenth century biographer Adrien Baillet. One passage reads: “Beginning to interpret the dream while still asleep, he considered that the encyclopaedia signified all the sciences collected together, and that the anthology of poetry indicated philosophy and wisdom combined” (ibid., pp. 101-2). The famous “method of doubt” evidently originated in his belief, rooted in a rather non-logical dream experience, that “he was destined to complete the unfinished ‘encyclopaedia’ of the sciences” (ibid., p. 102).

The dreams inspired him to seek a new method of science and philosophy. Afterwards moving to Paris, and making other journeys, Descartes devoted himself to the private study of various sciences, and commenced to write an unfinished treatise on method (Rules for the Direction of the Mind). He sold his ancestral property to secure (via bonds) a workable income for many years after. In 1629 he moved back to the Netherlands, a country then associated with freedom of expression. He resided there for twenty years, though retaining a habit of being frequently on the move, living in Amsterdam. Leiden, and other places.


Descartes remained a Roman Catholic, though of an avant-garde type. He wanted to show that the “new physics” could explain the world without relying upon the terminology of Scholastic Aristotelianism, a problem which indeed "was so entrenched in the intellectual institutions of Descartes' time that commentators argued that evidence for its truth could be found in the Bible." Quotation from J. Skirry, "Rene Descartes: Overview" (2008), Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

He composed a treatise on cosmology and mechanistic physics entitled Le Monde (The World), which was ready to go to press in 1633. A problem was encountered. Descartes had utilised Copernican heliocentric theory in his treatise, and he now discovered how Galileo had been condemned that year in Rome for contesting the conventional belief that the earth was the centre of motion. In a mood of caution, Descartes decided not to publish Le Monde. “Indeed, he first decided never to publish anything at all; but the despair did not last” (D. Garber, “Rene Descartes: Life,” Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

A few years later, he published in French three scientific essays, the Meteorology, Optics, and Geometry (1637). These accompanied his anonymous Discourse on Method, which was intended as an introduction. The collection became well known. The later Latin work Principia Philosophiae (1644) describes metaphysics, an extending physics, and other sciences. This significant work proved influential amongst scientists (including Isaac Newton), though the physics transpired to be limited in application. Descartes viewed metaphysics as the root of his holistic endeavour to combine philosophy and the sciences.

His two most famous works are Discourse on Method (1637) and the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). These reveal Descartes as a rationalist who strongly believed in the existence of God, but who at the same time innovated concepts foreign to most theologians.

Descartes is most well known for his theories about the distinction between mind and matter. The most common description of this complexity is "Cartesian dualism." The accompanying "method of doubt" signifies the non-acceptance of anything that can be logically doubted, and for the purpose of finding certainty.

The Cartesian axiom cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) was confirming a factor beyond doubt, and serving to elevate the importance of mind and self-consciousness. The argument of Descartes was pitched against the emerging scepticism associated with Michel de Montaigne. Yet like Francis Bacon (entry no. 20), Descartes was also in strong opposition to the official Aristotelian philosophy of the academics, though having a different angle to that of the British empiricist. Nevertheless, Descartes possessed a strong empirical streak. See further my
Rene Descartes, Philosopher and Scientist (2010).

“Descartes claimed that he had taken the doubts of the sceptics further than the sceptics had taken them, and had been able to come out the other side” (B. Williams, introductory essay to J. Cottingham, ed., Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. xv).

Descartes was basically remote from the academic milieu, preferring a quiet life away from both career status and social distraction. His citizen status tends to be emphasised by the situation in which he addressed a letter to academics of the Sorbonne, a letter appended to the Meditations. His motive appears to have been that of gaining textbook status in the university.

One commentary says: "The awkwardness of Descartes's seeking the acceptance and use of his Meditations by teachers is amplified by the fact that he was not a teacher himself. Consequently, his seeking 'textbook' status would have very likely been viewed by those Learned Men as being a bit pretentious. He was, it could be said, a freelancer with no academic or political ties to the university.... Although the Meditations seems to have been endorsed by the Sorbonne, it was never adopted as a text for the university." Quotation from K. Smith, "Descartes' Life and Works" (2007), Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

The same book subsequently became more famous and more cited than the majority of texts known to the Sorbonne. The freelance citizen philosopher became one of the most influential thinkers in the modern era.

The Dutch Calvinist theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1588-1676) became a major problem during the 1640s, inspiring another academic to publish a lengthy personal attack upon Descartes, who was dogmatically viewed as a route to atheism. Voetius was a professor and became the rector of Utrecht University. Descartes composed the retaliatory Open Letter to Voetius (1643). Voetius subsequently suffered a setback when his accomplice disowned the attack, admitting that Voetius was the cause of the hostility. A later episode involved theological opponents at Leiden University. See further Problems with Calvinist Theologians (2010).

After some hesitation, in 1649 Descartes accepted the invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden to attend her court in Stockholm. She requested him to teach her philosophy, a role entailing an inconvenient hour at five in the morning. For some reason or other, Descartes tragically died. Some accounts state the cause as pneumonia, though poisoning by a hostile Catholic priest has also been suggested. In a letter dated January 1950, Descartes commented: "I desire only peace and quiet, which are benefits that the most powerful monarchs on earth cannot give" (Cottingham, art. cit., p. 105).

See further J. Cottingham et al, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (3 vols, Cambridge, 1984-91); J. Cottingham, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Descartes (Cambridge, 1992); S. Gaukroger, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford, 1995); R. Ariew, Descartes and the Last Scholastics (Ithaca, N.Y., 1999); D. Garber, Descartes Embodied (Cambridge, 2001); J. Broughton, Descartes's Method of Doubt (Princeton, N.J., 2002); S. Gaukroger, Descartes' System of Natural Philosophy (Cambridge, 2002); D. M. Clarke, Descartes: A Biography (Cambridge, 2006); J. Cottingham, Cartesian Reflections (Oxford, 2008).

Kevin R.D. Shepherd
May 29th 2010

ENTRY no. 21

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) became celebrated as the founder of modern induction, as the early champion of empiricist methodology. Educated at Cambridge University, he took up a career in law, and entered the House of Commons at an early age. He gained a role at the court of Elizabeth I, though he was far more successful under James I, being knighted in 1603 and eventually entering the House of Lords in 1617, and acquiring the position of Lord Chancellor in 1618.

Bacon early reacted to the Scholastic curriculum at Trinity College, where he developed a strong aversion to the Aristotelianism of his day. He dismissed syllogistic reasoning, and much preferred the atomist theory of Democritus. “Although he did not deny that the course of nature exemplifies a divine purpose, he objected to any admixture of teleological explanation in the actual investigation of phenomena” (Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, London: Routledge edn, 2000, p. 528). Aristotle, like Plato, incorporated a version of transcendent purpose in the universe, though Bacon opted for the empiricist approach to natural philosophy.

The major criticism aimed at his career relates to the year 1621, when he became Viscount of St. Albans. Soon after, his enemies in Parliament charged him with accepting bribes in his office as a judge. He admitted to the offence, and was fined and sentenced to prison in the Tower of London. Yet he spent only a few days in the Tower, and the fine was waived. Although he gained a royal pardon, he was banished from court. He lost his political offices but retained his titles and personal property. He retired to his home in Hertfordshire and devoted himself to writing, an activity formerly confined to his spare time.


Defenders of Bacon emphasise that the acceptance of bribes in a lawsuit was common practice in his era. They also stress that he admitted to his laxity; he stated that he had given a verdict against some persons who had paid him.

His most popular work was the Essayes (1597), though philosophers have dwelt far more on The Advancement of Learning (1605), which reflects his struggle with the academic tradition and humanism. Bacon here opposed the curriculum he had known at Cambridge University, advocating an extensive reform by the use of an empiricist model.

Subsequently, he composed unpublished tracts which furthered the same theme. Favouring the natural philosophy of Democritus, he opposed the scholastic version of Aristotle as relayed by the Christian Schoolmen, though he admired the radicalism of Friar Roger Bacon. Belief in authorities was considered an obstacle to Baconian induction. Sir Francis also opposed Renaissance occultism, associated with Paracelsus and others who had assimilated magic, astrology, and alchemy.

The Novum Organum (1620) was intended as a sequel to Aristotle’s version of logic. The Baconian method was here presented in aphoristic format, intended to avoid dogmatism and to reveal the correct demonstration of natural philosophy. This work was declared as part of the ambitious project he called Instauratio Magna (Great Instauration), which he was not able to complete.

“Bacon came to the fundamental insight that facts cannot be collected from nature, but must be constituted by methodical procedures, which have to be put into practice by scientists in order to ascertain the empirical basis for inductive generalisations.” Quotation from J. Klein, “Francis Bacon” (2003), Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

The utopian Nova Atlantis was composed in 1623. This distinctive novel conveyed the vision of a necessary transformation of society. Bacon here depicted the New Atlantis in terms of the inhabitants of Bensalem, an imaginary island in the Pacific. Such ideals are represented as the abolition of slavery, freedom of religious expression, and improved rights for women. His ideal of an educational college has been viewed as the harbinger of subsequent university models and scientific curricula.

Bacon attempted to persuade James 1 to establish a royal institution for the advancement of science. He was unsuccessful, but when Charles II “founded the Royal Society in 1662 its members were largely Baconian in their scientific approach, and regarded Francis Bacon as the intellectual godfather of the society” (B. Magee, The Story of Philosophy, London: Dorling Kindersley, 1998, p. 74). The well known influence of this organisation, based at Gresham College in London, was pivotal in scientific developments.

There have, nevertheless, been strong criticisms lodged against the Baconian advancement of science. These range from complex academic discussions of inductive methodology to relatively popular protests at the problems created by technology. The utopia did not arrive. Spinoza was an early critic of Bacon, not being a total believer in induction. Whereas Leibniz credited that Bacon was superior to Descartes. British scientists like Isaac Newton praised Bacon and considered him an important forerunner, and so too did the French encyclopaedists of the eighteenth century.

Bacon emphasised observation and experiment in the discovery of causal connections; there was also a recognition that science additionally requires deduction to move from generalisation to particular instances. However, “the part played by deduction in science is greater than Bacon supposed” (B. Russell, Hist. of Western Philos., p. 529).


A recent commentator has reflected: “For one thing, it is not clear that the Baconian procedure, taken by itself, leads conclusively to any general propositions, much less to scientific principles or theoretical statements that we can accept as universally true.... it can be said that Bacon underestimated the role of imagination and hypothesis (and overestimated the value of minute observation and bee-like data collection) in the production of new scientific knowledge. And in this respect it is true that he wrote of science like a Lord Chancellor, regally proclaiming the benefits of his own new and supposedly foolproof technique instead of recognising and adapting procedures that had already been tested and approved.” The quotation here is from D. Simpson, “Francis Bacon” (2005), at the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

See further P. Rossi, Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science (London, 1968); N, Mathews, Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination (New Haven, 1996); P. Zagorin, Francis Bacon (Princeton, N.J., 1999); L. Jardine and M. Silverthorne, eds., Francis Bacon: The New Organon (Cambridge, 2000); S. Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy (Cambridge, 2001); B. Vickers, ed., Francis Bacon: The Major Works (Oxford, 2008); G. Rees et al, eds., The Oxford Francis Bacon (15 volume project, 1996 -----).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
May 15th 2010


ENTRY no. 20

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Ibn Rushd (Averroes)

The setting for Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) was Islamic Spain, where he was born in Cordova. In this city of Andalusia, his grandfather had been a prominent judge (qadi). Ibn Rushd was trained as a Maliki jurist, and in that capacity (like his father also), he gained a distinguished career as a qadi of Cordova. He was skilled in medicine and became physician to the Almohad Sultan of Morocco. He became famous to the Christian world as an Aristotelian philosopher, in which field he achieved an unusual degree of conceptual purism. The “Eurocentric” interpretation has viewed him merely as a bridge between the Greeks and the moderns, though an alternative angle has been urged.

Ibn Rushd devoted much of his time to learning and composition. His talents in medicine are attested by his Kulliyyat fi al-Tibb (General Points on Medicine), an influential encyclopaedia which included some original observations and gained a well known Latin translation (Colliget). This early book related to his concern with philosophy as the medium for a digest of scientific data.

The output of Ibn Rushd encompassed many subjects. His Bidayat is a legal treatise representing the Maliki law school. He compiled the medical works of Galen, and also wrote on physics and astronomy (a subject in which he conducted observations at Marrakesh). Ibn Rushd's Mukhtasar al-Majisti is a summary of Ptolemy’s Almagest. Ibn Rushd here “challenged Ptolemy’s astronomical system on philosophical grounds and made interesting theoretical contributions to the Andalusian criticisms of the Greek astronomer” (M. Forcada, Ibn Rushd al-Hafid).

For many years, Ibn Rushd was composing diligent commentaries on nearly all the works of Aristotle. He produced short, medium, and long commentaries on the same text, apparently for the purpose of encouraging different audiences. The Politics of Aristotle was not available to him, and so he employed Plato’s Republic as a substitute. He notably attempted to retrieve the original arguments of Aristotle, resisting the accretions of Neoplatonism which had infiltrated the Arabic tradition. His short paraphrase commentaries have been considered “a very loose summary of the originals,” and he did add his own interpretations, though “the long commentaries are very impressive analyses of the text, especially given the nature of the translations with which Ibn Rushd was working” (O. Leaman, Ibn Rushd Abu’l Walid Muhammad).

Ibn Rushd is strongly associated with the Almohad dynasty, whose patronage he gained via periods of residence in Marrakesh. However, some conservative tendencies in the political climate led to the official rejection of his writings at the end of his life. The presiding Almohad Sultan was Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (rgd 1184-1199). This ruler defeated a Christian army at Alarcos in 1195, and returning to Seville, he appeased doctrinaire jurists who had accused Ibn Rushd of heresy, the issue here being the latter’s reconciliation of Greek philosophy with Islam. The militant spirit of the time also aggravated about other heretics. “Ibn Rushd was thus the victim of a political gesture, and was sacrificed by the Sultan in order to win over the masses” ( D. Urvoy, Ibn Rushd, London: Routledge, 1991, p. 35).

Some of his books are reported to have been burned, and he was exiled from Cordova to Lucena, a small Spanish town largely inhabited by Jews. The Almohad regime now imposed forced conversion to Islam in that town, and the inhabitants wrongly associated Ibn Rushd with the aggression. When eminent men in Seville learned what had happened, they petitioned in his favour. The banishment was revoked two or three years later, when the Sultan summoned Ibn Rushd to the court at Marrakesh, where both of them died shortly after.

“The Almohad regime was based on a combination of a royal household, a hierarchical religious organisation, a tribal military elite with Berber and Arab tribal allies, and a Spanish-type administration” (I. M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 375).

In his notable Fasl al-Maqal (Decisive Treatise), Ibn Rushd “contended that the claim of many Muslim theologians that philosophers were outside the fold of Islam had no base in scripture,” and he “strived to demonstrate that without engaging religion critically and philosophically, deeper meanings of the tradition can be lost, ultimately leading to deviant and incorrect understandings of the divine” (H. Chad Hillier, Ibn Rushd, Internet Enyclopaedia of Philosophy).

Ibn Rushd was here arguing for the obligatory status of studying philosophy, amongst those who had the capacity for scientific reasoning (qiyas burhani). His opponents were evidently “the conservative Malikite lawyers and their popular supporters, and the rising class of Asharite theologians” (G. F. Hourani, Averroes: On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, London: Luzac, 1961, pp. 1, 16).

The major controversy related to the Asharite exponent Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), an Iranian theologian who gained repute as a Sufi, and who had repudiated the relevance of philosophy in his treatise Tahafut al-Falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers). In response to Ghazzali, Ibn Rushd composed the Tahafut al-Tahafut (Incoherence of the Incoherence), which is a systematic refutation. Ghazzali argued that philosophers became infidels (kafirs) on issues such as their support for the Aristotelian doctrine of eternity of the world and their denial of bodily resurrection. The major target for Ghazzali was Ibn Sina (entry no. 18), with whom Ibn Rushd also disagreed, though from a rather different angle as an Aristotelian purist. The full details of these disputes cannot be treated in the scope of a blog.

As events transpired, Ghazzali was the victor in the Islamic world, though the eclipsed Ibn Rushd gained a significant new incarnation in the Christian and Jewish spheres of commentary.

“It was only in the thirteenth/nineteenth century that the Arabs became interested again in Ibn Rushd, and in a polemical climate which for a long time distorted the meaning of this rediscovery. His fortune is only due to his reception outside the Muslim world, notably among Jewish writers, who contributed to transmitting him to the Latin West, which eventually was to betray him.” Quotation from D. Urvoy, “Ibn Rushd” (330-45) in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman, eds., History of Islamic philosophy Pt 1 (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 343.

See further S. Van Den Bergh, trans., Averroes’ Tahafut al-Tahafut (London, 1954); O. Leaman, Averroes and his Philosophy (Oxford, 1988); D. Urvoy, Averroes: Les ambitions d’un intellectual musulman (Paris, 1998); M. Fakhry, Averroes: His Life, Works and Influence (Oxford, 2001); C. E. Butterworth, trans., Decisive Treatise and Epistle Dedicatory (Provo, 2002); C. Baffioni, ed., Averroes and the Aristotelian Heritage (Naples, 2004).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
May 1st 2010

ENTRY no. 19

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.