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Descartes and the Last Scholastics (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 38, Number 2, April 2000
pp. 275-277 | 10.1353/hph.2005.0071

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.2 (2000) 275-277

Roger Ariew. Descartes and the Last Scholastics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pp. xi + 230. Cloth, $42.50.

The attempt to understand Descartes vis-à-vis the scholastic tradition dates back to the studies of Etienne Gilson early in this century. Though Descartes saw himself as a revolutionary who would overthrow the Aristotelianism entrenched in the universities, Gilson was able to demonstrate his reliance upon a variety of scholastic sources for important terminology, distinctions, and arguments which permeate his writings. Unfortunately, this line of investigation was largely ignored among Anglo-American scholars who were generally hostile to Scholasticism and uninterested in contextualizing Descartes's thought. However, since the mid-eighties there has been a distinct shift in attitude as scholars have increasingly turned their attention to the place of Scholasticism within Descartes's intellectual environment. Among these, Roger Ariew has to be counted as one of the most sophisticated, and his new book, Descartes and the Late Scholastics, marks an important contribution to the growing literature on the topic.

Ariew's book is actually a collection of essays published over the last decade, including two which he co-authored with Marjorie Grene. Many of these have been substantially expanded to include fresh material and reworked so as to give the whole a greater sense of continuity. After a marvelous opening chapter in which he lays out his overall account of Descartes's attitude towards Scholasticism, Ariew presents the remaining essays in two large groups: those dealing with the immediate context of Descartes's thought and those dealing with its reception through the early part of the eighteenth century.

Among the more interesting results of the first group of studies is Ariew's claim that the scholastic climate in and around Paris during Descartes's lifetime was predominately Scotistic rather than Thomistic. He shows this by looking at positions taken by a number of Parisian schoolmen on important issues which typically divided Scotists and Thomists. Ariew goes on to argue that not only was the Parisian environment Scotistic, but that Descartes aligned himself with the Scotists on many key issues in both physics (e.g., that time is independent of motion) and metaphysics (e.g., that the principle of individuation is a form). This is certainly an intriguing claim since most studies of this type have viewed Descartes in relation to Aquinas and those Jesuit thinkers who were broadly Thomistic in outlook. In bringing to light this Scotistic background, Ariew has opened up an important new line of inquiry.

Other topics included in this first section are the literary and philosophical background to the "new way of ideas" of which Descartes is a founder, the place of Descartes's doctrine of matter and form in seventeenth century debates over hylomorphism, and the reaction of Scholastics to the observational results of the new astronomy. What emerges in these essays is not only a highly nuanced view of Descartes's relation to Scholasticism, but an important corrective to still prevalent views of the Scholastics as reactionary and blindly opposed to developments within the new science. This last point is made with particular force in the fifth essay entitled "Scholastics and the New Astronomy." There Ariew argues that the astronomical observations of Galileo et alia were not in themselves decisive for overthrowing the Aristotelian cosmology as it had been articulated in the seventeenth century. This is because scholastic astronomers were generally accepting of such findings (e.g., sunspots) and were able to accommodate them within their own systems by making relatively minor adjustments. Although these systems ultimately proved themselves inadequate, Ariew makes a strong case that the Aristotelianism of the seventeenth century was sufficiently fluid to accommodate most of what the astronomers offered up. Thus the necessity for a radical overhaul of basic philosophical and scientific assumptions was by no means as evident as standard histories of this period would have us believe.

The second section of the book is dedicated to debates over Cartesianism and its fate in the generations immediately following Descartes's death. Here Ariew provides a wealth of detail about various condemnations of Cartesianism, a comparative study of the...



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