- Early Modern Cartesianisms: Dutch and French Constructions by Tad M. Schmaltz
It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Descartes on his contemporaries and following generations. While still alive he had followers and detractors, and after his death, numerous books and pamphlets, with his name prominently featured in their titles, adopted and developed his ideas, twisted them to fit into a wide variety of intellectual agendas, or argued passionately against them. While he may not deserve the title of father of modern philosophy, in many circles he was considered the iconic modern philosopher from the 1640s on.
The subject of Tad Schmaltz's book is Cartesianism(s), philosophy and science as done by Descartes and his followers. But from the beginning, Schmaltz appreciates the difficulty [End Page 732] of defining his subject. The plural is significant here: there is not one single Cartesianism, but multiple strands, emphasizing different parts of the Cartesian project, metaphysical, theological, scientific, medical, offering different interpretations, extending it in different ways. The thinkers Schmaltz counts among the Cartesians range from figures who advocated views that derive directly from Descartes (as they understood him) to thinkers inspired by Descartes who took his thought places that he himself would not have. Cartesianism, Schmaltz suggests, is more like a species than a group of thinkers who share an essence (5–11). In addition to the Cartesians themselves, Schmaltz also discusses many figures who helped define the movement through their opposition.
While it might seem natural to proceed by treating successively the main figures among the Cartesians, as, for example, Francisque Bouillier did in his classic nineteenth-century treatment, Histoire de la philosophie cartésienne (3rd edition, 1868), Schmaltz instead organizes the book around a series of selected themes in Cartesian thought, focusing on the Dutch and French contexts. Chapter 1 deals with two central theological issues as treated by Descartes and his followers, as well as his opponents: the Eucharist and the free will. Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the relation between Cartesianism and other older philosophies, in chapter 2 with attempts to blend Cartesianism and Aristotle, and in chapter 3 Cartesianism and Augustinianism. Chapter 4, "Cartesian Occasionalism," turns to conceptions of causality in Descartes and the Cartesians, and the different varieties of occasionalism found there. Chapter 5 deals with Descartes's influence on Dutch medicine, and chapter 6 with later developments in physics among Descartes's French followers. Schmaltz ends with an afterword that takes the story of Cartesianism into the eighteenth century.
Schmaltz's account is detailed and very impressively documented. It is populated by a wide cast of characters, some familiar, but many obscure. Schmaltz is concerned with the central philosophical, scientific and theological debates within Cartesianism and among Cartesians and their opponents, but he also includes discussions of the larger historical narrative needed to understand the history of Cartesian thought. Schmaltz's account is particularly strong on controversies in the universities, and on the religious and theological background to the debates, both within Cartesianism and with respect to its opponents. As with any book of this sort, there are a number of controversial points on which scholars may disagree. There are two areas that I find somewhat problematic.
Chapter 2, "Ancient and Modern Descartes(es)," is ostensibly about the reconciliation of Cartesianism with "the ancients." But the story is more complicated. For most of the chapter, Schmaltz is concerned not with the ancients in general, but specifically with reconciling Descartes's philosophy with Aristotle and the scholastic curriculum. This is in part an attempt at institutionalizing Descartes's philosophy, as Schmaltz understands. But also at issue are contemporaneous views that, because of the historical interconnection between Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology, rejecting Aristotle is dangerous and leads to heresy. Making Descartes consistent with Aristotelianism was a way of addressing that worry. This strategy is quite distinct from that of other contemporaries who were involved in reviving and advocating for other ancients, such as Justus Lipsius for the stoics or Pierre Gassendi for Epicurus.
Chapter 5 deals with Cartesian...