- Roger Ariew and "The First Cartesians"
1. The Methodology of Roger Ariew: The Historian's Search for Roots, as Opposed to the Mythology of Radicality
The book Descartes and the First Cartesians published by Roger Ariew in 2014, like the revised and expanded version of Descartes and the Last Scholastics, published in 2011 under the title Descartes Among the Scholastics, contributes in an exemplary way to eliminating the mythologization of modernity in the history of Cartesianism, and more generally, in the history of early-modern philosophy. From one book to the next, and with the help of numerous articles in the background that develop the same critique of the mythology of the modern philosopher maintained by many commentators, Ariew patiently demonstrates that what one calls "the system of the philosophy of Descartes" constitutes neither the absolute beginning of modern philosophy nor a sealed-off and strictly internally ordered totality. In this reading Ariew opposes Descartes' supposed status as radically distinct from all previous philosophies and wholly immune to historical determinations, an assumption which many interpreters have tried to impose on it. On the contrary, on Ariew's view, Descartes' philosophy should be studied as a dynamic structure shaped by its numerous relations, some involving agreement with doctrines that form the theoretical backdrop of its emergence, but others involving opposition or transformation. The methodological principle of Ariew's work erects barriers to any approach to Descartes one could call insular, approaches which propose to analyze his writings by separating them from their context under the pretext that they are the foundation of a modern philosophy. In opposition to Descartes' fictional or mythical radicality, against the idea that Descartes' thought arose in a virgin land in an intellectually empty landscape, an ambient vacuum—a view to which, in the end, a strictly internalist approach to a philosophy reduces—, Ariew affirms the reality of being rooted [End Page 548] in an historical context: there is no philosophical doctrine so radical that it is completely without roots, as he already emphasized in the preface of his collection, Descartes and His Contemporaries, published in 1995 with Marjorie Grene.
This new book, Descartes and the First Cartesians, that is an evident complement to Descartes Among the Scholastics, uses the same method of analysis Ariew used in his earlier book to expose the historical connections in the so-called "system of the philosophy of Descartes." It confirms in a remarkable way what I understand as the Ariew trademark in Cartesian studies: to grasp the full meaning of the "system of the philosophy of Descartes," we must study how it depends, in its internal economy and in its ability to discover new insights, on the totality of the contemporary doctrines that constitute its sphere of initial formulation and later reception, contemporary doctrines that are in themselves heterogeneous. Evidence for the appropriateness of this approach is found in Descartes himself: in constantly soliciting his contemporaries to examine the philosophical theses he published, Descartes makes explicit how his philosophy is rooted in a context of discussion.
But Ariew's fidelity to the methodological principle that I have just sketched takes a particularly original form in Descartes and the First Cartesians. The repeated application of this method of analyzing the Cartesian "system" in context produces here a result that is entirely unique, since the object Ariew studies here consists in the different procedures or strategies implemented in the second half of the seventeenth century, after Descartes' death, in order to make a full "system of philosophy" out of Descartes' philosophy. With this new book, we are no longer dealing with a direct interaction between the "system of the philosophy of Descartes" and its context, but with the effect this context has on the transformation of the Cartesian philosophy into a "system" understood as a complete course of philosophy, capable of supplanting the teaching of the peripatetic philosophy in the schools. With Descartes and the First Cartesians, one has, in a way, a redoubling of the notion of "system of the philosophy of Descartes" in comparison with Ariew's earlier books, something inseparable from the new extension Ariew makes of his methodological principle for the study of a philosophy...