Descartes and the Possibility of Science (review)

Journal of the History of Philosophy 39 (2):294-295 (2001)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.2 (2001) 294-295 [Access article in PDF] Schouls, Peter A. Descartes and the Possibility of Science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 171. Cloth, $35.00. There are at least three ways to write the history of philosophy. Truly historical historians of philosophy emphasize the context and development of ideas, concentrating on the intellectual, social, and personal factors that affect the way philosophers have thought about their subject. Analytic philosophers take a critical approach, considering the logic and merit of the arguments of philosophers who have lived in the past almost as if they are engaging in contemporary debates. Another group of philosophers use the ideas of historical figures to support their own philosophical agendas. Peter Schouls' new book on Descartes falls into this third category.Schouls' aim is to present Descartes' philosophy as the origin of modernity. What he means is that "Descartes believed that the world and humanity exist in a relationship which makes it possible for humanity to improve its state through manipulating the world. This manipulation is by means of developing and applying science." Schouls interprets Descartes' notion of progress as leading to "increases in freedom from the drudgery of labor, from the suffering of illness, and from the anxiety of interpersonal and international quarrels,"(ix) arguing that mind-body dualism is necessary for humanity to accomplish these lofty goals.Schouls asks what conditions are needed for humans to develop the science that is a necessary condition for the kinds of progress Descartes sought (and Schouls clearly endorses). Human progress depends on the possibility of science. Descartes founded his science on the pure metaphysics developed in The Meditations. These metaphysical foundations provided the framework for his claim that the human mind can acquire certain knowledge of the world. Central to Descartes' method, Schouls argues, is the view that the imagination must be incorporeal. If this view can be justified, it is a significant departure from the views of most seventeenth-century philosophers who thought that the imagination is a corporeal organ that translates and transmits mechanical impulses to the incorporeal soul. Schouls argues that because the subject-matter of science, especially geometry, involves imagining relationships apart from empirical [End Page 294] experience, it is necessary that the imagination must be incorporeal. Consequently, mind-body dualism is a necessary condition for the kind of science and progress that Descartes sought.There are flaws in this book, some having to do with Schouls' argument and some having to do with its lack of historical context. The two problems are inextricably linked. Schouls reads Descartes without due consideration of historical context. The book's bibliography reveals no primary sources other than the writings of Descartes. Descartes did not write in an intellectual vacuum. He worked within a community of philosophers, and that community provided both the background and audience for his own thoughts. Ignoring this seventeenth-century context causes Schouls to misread the significance of some of Descartes' ideas. For example, he writes that Descartes' philosophy was condemned in both Protestant and Catholic venues "in part because of its assertion of the limitlessness of human freedom" (4). In fact, Descartes' philosophy was banned because he attempted to give a mechanical explanation of the Eucharist. On a related point, Schouls' drive to present Descartes as the origin of modernity causes him to sideline important issues such as the role of theology in Descartes' thought.Similarly, the lack of historical context leads to errors of interpretation. As Alan Gabbey and others have recently demonstrated, terms like "mechanics" and "science" meant something different in the seventeenth century from what they mean today. Even the terms a priori and a posteriori had different meanings in early modern thought. Schouls expresses some mystification about Descartes' use of the term "a priori" in the second Meditiation. This mystification would vanish if he had taken into account early modern usage according to which a priori means reasoning from the one, true cause to an effect rather than acquiring knowledge of the world independently of experience.Schouls' argument sometimes loses...

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