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Rene Descartes

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RenÐ"© Descartes and his Cartesian system influenced philosophers and scientists of his time, but his work was opposed by Pierre Gassendi and his Epicurean system. Descartes is considered to be the most important philosopher of the seventeenth century because of his ideas and discoveries. He refused to accept Aristotelian and Scholastic traditions and attempted to change the direction of philosophy, making him a revolutionary figure. However, not all his contemporaries accepted his ideas and objections were raised by Hobbes, Arnauld, Gassendi, and others. Gassendi’s Epicurean system was a major rival to Descartes’ Cartesian system, but in the end the Cartesian system was the most influential. The ideas put forth by Descartes helped provide the foundation for the way science is done today and many of his philosophies had a profound and lasting effect on the world. Gassendi had an equally viable alternative to Cartesianism, and had support in England, and yet his ideas have mainly been forgotten. By examining the conflict between Gassendi and Descartes and their ideas, it is possible to see why Descartes’ Cartesian system was the most influential and longest lasting version of mechanical philosophy.

Even though Gassendi and Descartes were both anti-Aristotelian, interested in natural philosophy, and worked on a new mechanistic philosophy, they opposed each other on almost every idea. When Descartes published his work Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641, he sent it to his friend, Father Mersenne, and to other scholars for there responses. All of the responses and вЂ?objections’ were published in later editions of the Meditations, along with Descartes’ responses. However, the longest and most critical objection came from Gassendi. Descartes even asked that Gassendi’s objections be left out of the French translation because they were “extremely long” and because “a single objection which those who have slight understanding of my Meditations will not, in my view, be able to answer quite easily without any help from me.” This response exemplifies Descartes’ feelings towards Gassendi and how Descartes views Gassendi’s objections. Gassendi eventually published his objections as Disquisitio Metaphysica adversus Cartesium, which objects to every point Descartes made in the Meditations. However, all of Gassendi’s objections were able to be adequately answered (to the public, not necessarily to Gassendi) by Descartes.

Gassendi had so many objections to Descartes’ work that it would be impossible to go into them all here, but perhaps the best example of Gassendi’s objections and why Descartes system had more influence can be seen in their debate on Descartes’ Second Meditation. One can oversimplify the Second Mediation into the search for identity, and it is also where the term Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) comes from. Descartes is saying that he is aware of his own existence because he is aware that he thinks. Gassendi had many problems with this idea and the way that Descartes presented it. Gassendi said that Descartes strayed from his original intention to show that the nature of the mind is better known than the nature of the body. According to Gassendi, all Descartes did was complicate the well know idea that the human mind exists. Gassendi also criticized Descartes for saying what he is not rather than what he believes himself to be. He even goes so far as to pick apart Descartes’ syntax, stating that Descartes’ reference to himself as a thing is imprecise and vague. Gassendi does concede that Descartes did preface the word �thing’ with �thinking’ so as to differentiate between humans and other objects. However, this concession does not diminish his criticism of the idea and brings him back to his point that Descartes was just confusing a concept that everyone knew and accepted. Gassendi goes on to challenge Descartes inability to describe the inner substance that causes thought.

The whole of Gassendi’s objection can be summed up into saying that Descartes did not prove anything beyond what did not need proving and that Descartes was eluding to deeper issues that were beyond his understanding. He felt that there should have been more substance to Descartes’ argument than just saying that because he is aware that he thinks that he exists. Descartes response to this is basically a “tell me something I don’t know” argument, saying that there really is not much more to know. Much of Descartes’ Meditations is more of metaphysical than physical. Gassendi was looking for more of a physical explanation than a spiritual one, and Descartes felt that he was asking for too much. “[I don’t see] what more you expect here, unless it is to be told what colour or smell or taste the human mind has, or the proportions of salt, sulphur and mercury from which it is compounded.” Descartes is implying that the only study of the human mind can be done with the mind, and not in a laboratory.

One can assume that even with Descartes reply, Gassendi was still reluctant to accept Descartes’ arguments. He did not write any more objections though, and most third-party observers believed that Descartes’ reply sufficiently addressed Gassendi’s concerns. Descartes’ defense of the Meditations and his success at responding to Gassendi’s objections helped increase the acceptance and influence of the Cartesian method. The failure of Gassendi to disprove Descartes’ theories and ideas is a reflection on his own ideas for if he cannot disprove the ideas of someone else in the same field and of the same train of thought, it is hard for people to accept his own theories. Gassendi is remembered more for his debate with Descartes than he is known for his won theories and mechanical philosophy.

The whole debate on the Second Mediation is founded on the concept of mind over matter; that the mind is better able to explain things than observations of matter. Descartes concluded that for every aspect of the physical world, there is a metaphysical set of attributes in the mind. That in order for there to be any sort of physical understanding, there needs to be a pre-existing metaphysical understanding. This is basically the foundation for the whole Cartesian system and why Gassendi had problems with it. Gassendi looked at the world in a sensory orientated way, concentrating on the human senses to understand what was happening in nature rather than using the mind. Descartes proposed a theory of nature that



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