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Cartesianism is the philosophical and scientific system of René Descartes and its subsequent development by other seventeenth century thinkers, most notably Nicolas Malebranche and Baruch Spinoza. [1] Descartes is often regarded as the first thinker to emphasize the use of reason to develop the natural sciences. [2] [ citation needed ] For him, the philosophy was a thinking system that embodied all knowledge, and expressed it in this way: [3]

Science systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge

Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

René Descartes 17th-century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist

René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–49) of his life in the Dutch Republic after serving for a while in the Dutch States Army of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. He is generally considered one of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age.

Nicolas Malebranche philosopher

Nicolas Malebranche, Oratory of Jesus, was a French Oratorian priest and rationalist philosopher. In his works, he sought to synthesize the thought of St. Augustine and Descartes, in order to demonstrate the active role of God in every aspect of the world. Malebranche is best known for his doctrines of vision in God, occasionalism and ontologism.


Cartesians view the mind as being wholly separate from the corporeal body. Sensation and the perception of reality are thought to be the source of untruth and illusions, with the only reliable truths to be had in the existence of a metaphysical mind. Such a mind can perhaps interact with a physical body, but it does not exist in the body, nor even in the same physical plane as the body. The question of how mind and body interact would be a persistent difficulty for Descartes and his followers, with different Cartesians providing different answers. [4]


Descartes held that all existence consists in three distinct substances, each with its own essence: [4]


Descartes brought the question of how reliable knowledge may be obtained (epistemology) to the fore of philosophical enquiry. Many consider this to be Descartes' most lasting influence on the history of philosophy. [5]

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Cartesianism is a form of rationalism because it holds that scientific knowledge can be derived a priori from 'innate ideas' through deductive reasoning. Thus Cartesianism is opposed to both Aristotelianism and empiricism, with their emphasis on sensory experience as the source of all knowledge of the world. [4]

In philosophy, rationalism is the epistemological view that "regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge" or "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification". More formally, rationalism is defined as a methodology or a theory "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive".


Innatism is a philosophical and epistemological doctrine that holds that the mind is born with ideas/knowledge, and that therefore the mind is not a "blank slate" at birth, as early empiricists such as John Locke claimed. It asserts that not all knowledge is gained from experience and the senses. Plato and Descartes are prominent philosophers in the development of innatism and the notion that the mind is already born with ideas, knowledge and beliefs. Both philosophers emphasize that experiences are the key to unlocking this knowledge but not the source of the knowledge itself. Essentially, no knowledge is derived exclusively from one's experiences as empiricists like John Locke suggested.

Deductive reasoning, also deductive logic, logical deduction is the process of reasoning from one or more statements (premises) to reach a logically certain conclusion.

For Descartes, the faculty of deductive reason is supplied by God and may therefore be trusted because God would not deceive us. [4] [6] [7]

Geographical dispersal

In the Netherlands, where Descartes had lived for a long time, Cartesianism was a doctrine popular mainly among university professors and lecturers. In Germany the influence of this doctrine was not relevant and followers of Cartesianism in the German-speaking border regions between these countries (e.g., the iatromathematician Yvo Gaukes from East Frisia) frequently chose to publish their works in the Netherlands. In France, it was very popular, and gained influence also among Jansenists such as Antoine Arnauld, though there also, as in Italy, it became opposed by the Church. In Italy, the doctrine failed to make inroads, probably since Descartes' works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1663. [8]

In England, because of religious and other reasons, Cartesianism was not widely accepted. [8] Though Henry More was initially attracted to the doctrine, his own changing attitudes toward Descartes mirrored those of the country: "quick acceptance, serious examination with accumulating ambivalence, final rejection." [9]

Notable Cartesians

Principia philosophiae, 1685 Principia philosophiae.tif
Principia philosophiae, 1685

See also

Related Research Articles

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  1. Wikisource-logo.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Cartesianism"  . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  2. Grosholz, Emily (1991). Cartesian method and the problem of reduction. Oxford University Press. ISBN   0-19-824250-6. But contemporary debate has tended to...understand [Cartesian method] merely as the 'method of doubt'...I want to define Descartes's method in broader trace its impact on the domains of mathematics and physics as well as metaphysics.
  3. Descartes, René; Translator John Veitch. "Letter of the Author to the French Translator of the Principles of Philosophy serving for a preface" . Retrieved August 2013.Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  4. 1 2 3 4 "Cartesianism | philosophy". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2016-01-27.
  5. Ree, Jonathan (1991). The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers. London: Routledge. p. 78. ISBN   0415078830.
  6. Ree, Jonathan (1991). The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers. London: Routledge. p. 75. ISBN   0415078830.
  7. Kelly, Anthony (2006). The Rise of Modern Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 123. ISBN   9780198752769.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Copleston, Frederick Charles (2003). A History of Philosophy, Volume 4. Continuum International. p. 174. ISBN   978-0-8264-6898-7.
  9. Lennon, Thomas M.; John M. Nicholas; John Whitney Davis (1982). Problems of Cartesianism. McGill-Queen's Press. p. 4. ISBN   978-0-7735-1000-5.
  10. Cristofolini, Paul; "Campailla, Thomas" in Biographical Dictionary of Italians - Volume 17 (1974), Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana. Retrieved 30 September 2015