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Early Modern Rationalism

Lecturer: Jon Roffe

Originally Taught: Summer School 2019

This course will present a topical survey of the tradition of early modern rationalism, and discuss the work of the three greatest exponents of this moment in the history of philosophy: René Descartes, Benedict de Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The approach we will adopt is a topical one. At the general level, the course will discuss the clash between, and potential for compatibility for, two ideas about causality, both drawn from Aristotle: that of efficient cause (‘billiard ball’ causality) and that of final cause (the goal or purpose of a thing). It would not be false to claim that the play between these two categories – and their correlates – is the one of the two or three main dynamics in this period of philosophy. At the level of each thinker, we will set aside (for lack of time) a detailed examination of arguments and instead aim to get clear on the main claims that orient their work.

Course Schedule

Lecture 1. The first class will be given over to an historical framing of early modern rationalism. We will focus in particular on three topics: Aristotelian metaphysics, the scholastic theology that arose in its wake, and then the rise of mechanistic science after Copernicus. We will turn, finally, to discuss some shared commitments that bring together Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, despite their disagreements.

Readings: 1) Stuart Brown, ‘The seventeenth-century intellectual background’ from The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz; 2) Descartes, ‘Letter of Dedication to the Sorbonne’ (at the opening of the Meditations)

Lecture 2. We will take René Descartes’ famous Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) as emblematic of his work as a whole. The discussion will focus on his goals as a philosopher; the nature of his account of thought; his proofs for God’s existence and God’s nature on his view; and the way in which he attempts to explain at once the unity and the distinction between minds and bodies.

Readings: Descartes, Meditations 1 and 2

Lecture 3. The next class will turn to the ‘savage anomaly’ of seventeenth century philosophy, Benedict de Spinoza, and his magisterial Ethics (1677) Here, our goal will be to understand Spinoza’s novel ontology, involving the three categories of substance, attribute and mode; his subsequent rejection of Descartes’ metaphysics; his account of affects; and his definition of ethics, or what constitutes the life of the free.

Readings: 1) Spinoza, Ethics, Appendix to Book 1; 2) Gilles Deleuze, ‘Life of Spinoza’, and ‘Bibliography’

Lecture 4. The final great rationalist, whose work crosses over into the eighteenth century, is that of Leibniz. We will take the late summary essay ‘Monadology, or Principles of First Philosophy’ (1714), which presents in baroque fashion his mature metaphysical position, as our touchstone here. We will work to understand: his peculiar-seeming view that the universe is composed of simple, spiritual substances (the monads) that do not interact with each other; his theory of perception; his phenomenalist account of bodies; and his view that this is the best of all possible worlds, created by God, and that it is governed by a pre-established harmony. Time permitting, we will finish by considering the principle of sufficient reason, not just as it appears in Leibniz, but also with an eye to the form it adopts in Descartes and Spinoza.

Reading: Leibniz, ‘The Principles of Philosophy, or the Monadology’

Lecture 5. In the final class we will return to a somewhat more general historical perspective to answer the question: what became of the project of early modern rationalism? We will consider two critical alternatives in developing an answer: David Hume, whose empiricism undermines the methodological grounds of rationalism, and Immanuel Kant, who transforms both Humean empiricism and early modern rationalism in the development of his own transcendental idealism. Our final question will be: what would a contemporary rationalist philosophy look like?

Readings: 1) extract from the ‘Introduction’ to Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, 2) extract from the ‘Preface’ to Kant’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics

Level: Introductory. No knowledge of the history of philosophy or of rationalism will be presupposed.