Descartes, René

Descartes, René
   French philosopher Rene´ Descartes challenged scepticism and scholastism while creating a body of work sufficient to earn him the title 'Father of Modern Philosophy'. This title refers to his emphasis upon individual reason and certainty, as developed particularly in Discourse on Method (1637) and Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). Living in a time of political and social turmoil and growing scepticism, Descartes became increasingly preoccupied with the certainty of mathematics as a model for knowledge. To meet scepticism on its own terms he accepted for the sake of the argument the most extreme scepticism, facilitated by his hypothesised 'evil demon', who could lead us to think incorrectly even about the most elementary mathematical truths. In the midst of a sea of doubt, Descartes then establishes an 'Archimedean point' of certainty in his argument: 'I think. Therefore, I exist' (Cogito, ergo sum). Having established this certain belief, Descartes then finds an idea in his mind, that of a most perfect being, which, owing to its perfection, must exist in reality. Descartes reasons from this ontological argument that a perfect God would not deceive us, and so we can trust our senses. As Arnauld pointed out, however, if an evil demon can deceive one to hold erroneous beliefs about basic mathematics and logic, surely it could deceive Descartes at every step of this argument, a dilemma that leads to the infamous Cartesian circle. Descartes's influence is also found in his forceful rejection of the scholastic world of substantial forms and final causes in favour of a mechanistic universe, a move that paved the way for modern science. Finally, Descartes's dualistic contrast between world (extended substance) and mind (thinking substance) has been enormously influential, while in recent decades it has joined his foundationalist epistemology (that is, his view that every item of our knowledge is either deservedly foundational or solidly built on foundations) as a target of sustained criticism. Of particular interest to Christian philosophers, apart from his ontological argument for God's existence, is Descartes's understanding of God's power as unlimited even by the laws of logic.
   Further reading: Cottingham 1992; Descartes 1969- 75, 1979 and 1984-91; Gaukroger 1995; Wilson 1982

Christian Philosophy . . 2015.

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