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Descartes' Konzeption des Systems der Philosophie (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 39, Number 3, July 2001
pp. 440-442 | 10.1353/hph.2003.0125

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.3 (2001) 440-442

Reinhard Lauth. Descartes ' Konzeption des Systems der Philosophie. Stuttgart (Bad Cannstatt): Frommann-Holzboog, 1998. Pp. x + 227 pp. Cloth, DM 64.00.

Reinhard Lauth's Descartes ' Konzeption des Systems der Philosophie is an interesting addition to the literature on Descartes. Written by a renowned scholar of German Idealism, it does not represent an attempt to respond to scholars of Descartes, to take part in the debate regarding aspects of Descartes's philosophy, nor to explain the role of Descartes's thought in the tumultuous seventeenth century, but rather to explain to scholars of German Idealism why Descartes should be considered the first and one of the greatest transcendental philosophers. It is no accident that in the index we find close to 50 references each to Kant and Fichte, while Descartes's important "rationalist" comrades, Spinoza and Leibniz, receive half as much attention; nor is it an accident that the first and last philosopher mentioned in the book is Fichte.

Lauth's book is in the tradition of Gueroult's monumental Descartes selon l ' ordre des raisons (Paris, 1968, 2nd edition) and, as the title indicates, the subject of the book is Descartes's philosophy as a system, not as a collection of independent theses about various philosophical problems. However, unlike Gueroult, who concentrated on an analysis of the Meditations, Lauth draws extensively on the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Discourse on Method, Meditations, and Descartes's correspondence. That Descartes viewed philosophy as ideally constituting a system of human knowledge should not come as news to anyone who recalls Descartes's claim in the Preface to the Principles of Philosophy that all of philosophy is like a tree whose roots are metaphysics, trunk physics, and branches medicine, mechanics, and morals, or his claim in the Preface to the Meditations that there is a clear order of argumentation or reasons and that his goal is to lay bare the foundations of philosophy. How exactly Descartes's philosophy is to constitute a system is the trickier question that is Lauth's concern.

According to Lauth, the order of reasons that one finds expressed in Descartes's first philosophy is not simply a series of biographical events, filling a psychological need in Descartes (cf. Alquié, La Découverte métaphysique de l ' homme chez Descartes [Paris, 1966]), but rather the "systematic path of the cogito itself" (X). And Lauth attempts to show that there is something inexorable in the way that conclusions about the world from the point of view of the thinking subject are made and follow from one another. This takes him along the well-known path of the Meditations: from the existence of the self, to the nature of the self, to the existence and nature of God, to the external world, and finally to the relation of mind and body. And here two interesting observations on Lauth's part should be singled out. First, Lauth does an admirable job in intimating the tension regarding the places of the thinking subject and God as the supreme principles in Descartes's system. On the one hand, it would seem that the thinking subject should be the highest principle in Descartes's philosophy insofar as its existence is the first thing known; but, according to Lauth, it cannot be the highest principle because it does not contain the principle of its own existence (76). On the other hand, if we claim that God is the highest principle then we must recognize that a system following from this principle must fail insofar as genuine knowledge of God surpasses the bounds of our finite, human knowledge (99-100). Second, in claiming that Descartes was a "transcendental philosopher," Lauth reminds us of the extent to which Descartes is concerned with the bounds of human knowledge as determinable from the thinking subject itself.

While this work contains many useful insights—especially for those scholars of German Idealism who are looking for new ways of reflecting on their subject—it has one noticeable weakness with respect to Cartesian philosophy. By largely ignoring Descartes's Principles of Philosophy and Passions of the Soul and drawing instead...

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