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Cartesian empiricisms

Mihnea Dobre from the universities of Bucharest and Nijmegen writes…

As readers of this blog know, the classic division between continental Rationalists and British Empiricists fails to provide an accurate picture of the early modern period. The Otago team has already offered extensive evidence of the complexity of seventeenth-century natural philosophy. Replacing the traditional-historiographical distinction between Rationalism and Empiricism (RED) with actor-category division of experimental versus speculative philosophy (ESD) is one step ahead in getting a more meaningful image of the philosophical debates that marked the formation of modern philosophy and science.

However, in this post, I would like to focus on a different aspect, which seems to escape the ESD distinction and further complicates our image of the late-seventeenth century. At the same time, I take this opportunity to announce a forthcoming volume, Cartesian Empiricisms, which Tammy Nyden and I are co-editing in the Springer series on the Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

While this juxtaposition between “Cartesianism” (which for a long time has been associated with rationalism, armchair philosophizing, speculative thinking, or a purely theoretically driven philosophical approach) and “Empiricism” (which besides its traditional opposition to “Rationalism” is still preferred by many to describe an approach based on experiment and experimentation) might look odd at first, it sheds, in fact, a completely new light upon the development of natural philosophy in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Descartes’s philosophy has been discussed, interpreted and revaluated constantly in our histories of both philosophy and science. Yet, a more in-depth study of what happens after Descartes’s death is missing. We hope Cartesian Empiricisms will fill this gap, contributing to the exploration of some now-forgotten philosophical figures, which were not only prime representatives of the philosophical debates of their time but were opening the possibility of a more experimentally oriented natural philosophy.

After Descartes’s death in 1650, his philosophy was challenged in various ways and one of the most common forms of attack was to disprove it with empirical evidence.  Take, for example, this curious case from the Philosophical Transactions, one of the first scientific journals. On June 3, 1667, an observational report described the puzzling case of a turtle that was still able to move even with her head missing:

there came a Letter from Florence, Written by M. Steno, which has also somewhat perplext the followers of Des Cartes. A Tortoise had its head cut off, and yet was found to move its foot three days after. Here was no Communication with the Conarium [i.e. the pineal gland]. As this seems to have given a sore blow to the Cartesian Doctrine, so the Disciples thereof are here endeavouring to heal the Wound (p. 480).

Such instances that do not cohere with Descartes’s natural philosophy can be found in various places in the new scientific journals, as well as in public debates and philosophical treatises. A well-known case is that of the collision rules that went through a number of critical evaluations during the 1660s. Physics, anatomy, and psychology are among the most heated areas of contestation for Descartes’s natural philosophy. Cartesians reacted to the new challenges by both trying to complement or correct Descartes’s philosophical corpus with needed additions, but also by incorporating into their practices new methods. Cartesian Empiricisms will highlight such attempts:


Ch. 1. Introduction

Section I: Cartesian Philosophy: Receptions and Context

Ch. 2. “Censorship, Condemnations, and the Spread of Cartesianism” by Roger Ariew

Ch. 3. “Was there a Cartesian Experimentalism in the 1660’s France?” by Sophie Roux

Ch. 4. “Dutch Cartesian Empiricism and the Advent of Newtonianism” by Wiep van Bunge

Ch. 5. “Heat, Action, Perception: Models of Living Beings in German Medical Cartesianism” by Justin Smith


Section II: Cartesian Disciplines

Ch. 6. “The Cartesian Psychology of Antoine Le Grand” by Gary Hatfield

Ch. 7. “Experimental Cartesianism and the Occult (1675-1720)” by Koen Vermeir

Ch. 8. “Rohault’s Cartesian Physics” by Mihnea Dobre

Ch. 9. “De Volder’s Cartesian Physics and Experimental Pedagogy” by Tammy Nyden

Ch. 10. “Empiricism without Metaphysics: Regius’ Cartesian Natural Philosophy” by Delphine Bellis

Ch. 11. “Robert Desgabets on the Physics and Metaphysics of Blood Transfusion” by Patricia Easton

Ch. 12. “Rohault, Regis and Cartesian Medicine” by Dennis Des Chene

Ch. 13. “Could a Practicing Chemical Philosopher be a Cartesian?” by Bernard Joly


It is particularly interesting how many of the individual Cartesians discussed in this volume blend theoretical and experimental elements. Experience and experimentation become – for some of them – constitutive parts of their Cartesian natural philosophies, thus making it harder to classify them with our current historiographical categories. We hope that our volume will open new discussions about such categories and will encourage the exploration of other branches of Cartesian philosophy.

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