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The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy

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The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy offers a uniquely comprehensive and authoritative overview of early-modern philosophy written by an international team of specialists. As with previous Cambridge Histories of Philosophy the subject is treated by topic and theme, and since history does not come packaged in neat bundles, the subject is also treated with great temporal flexibility, incorporating frequent reference to medieval and Renaissance ideas. The basic structure of the volumes corresponds to the way an educated seventeenth-century European might have organised the domain of philosophy. Thus, the history of science, religious doctrine, and politics feature very prominently.


‘The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy is an outstanding collection that will be a standard reference work for some time to come and which will be an important point of call for anyone wanting to chart their way through the philosophy of one of the most exciting and significant centuries of all.’

Source: Metascience

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Page 1 of 2

  • 1 - The institutional setting
    pp 7-32
  • View abstract
    Seventeenth-century philosophers were required to prolong an irresponsible or child-like existence, and not settle down in the powerful and ancient institutions within which most adults lived, both at home and at work. Regarding the study of philosophy was concerned, the institutional form into which was put a new, younger study of the advanced works of Aristotle varied from country to country and university to university, as did the success which the new arts courses enjoyed. By the seventeenth century, all the professors of philosophy and the humanities in Paris were in colleges teaching Latin and Greek grammar and literature, and philosophy, and the old faculty structure existed merely to give the degree of MA to applicants from the colleges. Most of the institutions in the seventeenth century taught the works of Aristotle; Aristotle was studied in a humanist guise.
  • 2 - The intellectual setting
    pp 33-86
  • View abstract
    This chapter indicates the broad range of intellectual traditions in terms of which the various seventeenth-century figures defined their attempts to establish a new philosophy. It suggests a partial explanation for the actual successes of the science which emerged, by indicating the conditions which led to an explosion of many new varieties of philosophy, any of which might have brought the promised wisdom. By the late fourteenth century, many regarded the whole structure of the church, the teaching orders included, as radically corrupt. Aristotelian philosophy was not responsible for these corruptions; but it had done little to stop them, and it was largely by-passed by the reforming movement. The chapter indicates the forms which anti-Aristotelianism took in the Renaissance, in so far as they helped to shape the expectation of a new philosophy. Three main regions may be distinguished on the intellectual map of Renaissance philosophy: scholasticism; philosophies emerging from humanism; and revival of dogmatic Platonism.
  • 3 - European philosophical responses to non-European culture: China
    pp 87-100
  • View abstract
    Most seventeenth-century European thinkers who showed a strong interest in non-European philosophy believed in the universal basis of knowledge. No nation challenged the Jesuits as much as China. No philosophy dominated the Chinese imperial court and the scholar-officials more than Confucianism. Europeans of the seventeenth century tended to associate Chinese philosophy with Confucianism. The first important work to introduce Confucianism to Europeans, De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, appeared in 1615. In the seventeenth-century biblical view of human history, all mankind, except for Noah's descendants, had been destroyed at the time of the Flood. No endeavour more fully reflects the philosophical outlook of seventeenth-century Europe than its search for a universal language. Many Europeans believed that God had given Adam a pure, exact, and utterly simple language which was called the lingua Adamica, lingua humana, or the Primitive Language; and that originally all humans spoke this Primitive Language.
  • 4 - Logic in the seventeenth century preliminary remarks and the constituents of the proposition
    pp 101-117
  • View abstract
    There is a marked discontinuity between the principal features of the varieties of logic that were predominant in roughly the first half of the century and the way of viewing logic that came to the fore in the second half. The first half of the seventeenth century may be characterised by a general tendency to continue teaching logic in one of the versions that had been handed down from the remote or near past. As a rule, seventeenth-century textbooks of logic have three main parts: one dealing with concepts or terms as elements of propositions; another discussing various types of mental, spoken, and written declarative sentences or propositions; and a third part in which reasonings as peculiar combinations of propositions were treated. The first part of a textbook of logic was commonly devoted to the smallest relevant units that constitute a proposition. A categorical proposition contains a subject-term and a predicate-term.
  • 5 - Proposition and judgement
    pp 118-131
  • View abstract
    Seventeenth-century logicians commonly adhered to the usual distinction between two operations of the mind: on the one hand, simple conceptions, through which things are apprehended that, as categorematic terms, are capable of becoming the subject and the predicate of a categorical proposition; on the other, acts of predication, by which the contents of simple apprehensions are combined into a prepositional complex that is a suitable potential object of assent or dissent. The diverse kinds of both categorical and compound proposition may either be merely entertained, in the sense of being present to the mind without any commitment to their truth or falsity, or become the object of an act or attitude of assent or dissent. An author who was most keenly aware of the need to uphold this distinction was John of St. Thomas, who maintained that there are two forms of truth and falsity, one of the judgeable content as such, and another of the actually judged proposition.
  • 6 - Deductive reasoning
    pp 132-146
  • View abstract
    Most seventeenth-century textbooks of logic follow the usual pattern according to which a discussion of the constituents of propositions and of propositions themselves leads up to a part dealing with those combinations of propositions which exhibit a valid form of deductive argument. This chapter first builds up arguments against and in favour of syllogism. In spite of the manifold attempts to discredit the syllogism, several seventeenth-century writers succeeded in presenting the Aristotelian and scholastic treatment of that form of reasoning in more or less original guises. Of the many patterns of reasoning that are not syllogisms in a strict sense, such immediate inferences as the laws of the so-called square of opposition and the laws of conversion were usually assumed in the process of proving the validity of syllogisms. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was exceptional in reversing that order by using syllogisms in his derivation of the laws of subalternation and conversion. The chapter also discusses Leibniz's conception of abstract calculus.
  • 7 - Method and the study of nature
    pp 147-177
  • View abstract
    Historical discussion of method in the seventeenth century has long focused on the supposed development of modern scientific method, attempting thereby to explain the Scientific Revolution. This chapter, however, concerns method as a logical and philosophical category; it does not purport to examine or reconstruct the procedures used by philosophers in producing new knowledge, except to the extent that these involved explicit appeal to method. Seventeenth-century philosophers inherited two more or less distinct conceptions of method, one of which had been elaborated by humanist pedagogues intent on providing guidelines to students for the proper presentation of entire disciplines. Jacopo Zabarella referred to the two principal stages as the resolutive and compositive methods, following terminology derived from a commentary tradition drawing on Galen's use of those terms. Francis Bacon associated the word methodus with the pedagogical method, and made use of the handy Ciceronian translation of its Greek prototype: via et ratio.
  • 8 - Universals, essences, and abstract entities
    pp 178-211
  • View abstract
    Theories of universals and essences were strongly affected by the seventeenth-century mechanist movement, in large part because it replaced the scholastic-Aristotelian analysis of substance with the view that matter (and perhaps immaterial mind) is substance in its own right. By mid-century, the mediaeval problem of universals, concerned with the metaphysical composition of individual substances, disappeared from philosophical discourse. For Francis Suárez, an abstracted form remains particular. To have a general concept, intellect must compare a number of particular concepts and abstract from singulars. The movement away from Aristotelian science replaced various species of material things as paradigmatic subjects of necessary truths; mathematics and, perhaps, the laws of physics became the prime examples. To ground necessary truths, one could no longer appeal to essences that exist as ingredients in actual things. Many philosophers took the view that essences (qua archetypes) are eternal and directly dependent on some aspect or other of God.
  • 9 - Individuation
    pp 212-262
  • View abstract
    Seventeenth-century philosophers discussed several related questions under the heading individuation, although they did not always distinguish clearly between them. This chapter examines four of these questions. The main scholastic theories concerning individuation were drawn together and discussed in detail towards the end of the sixteenth century in the fifth of Francisco Suárez's fifty-four Disputationes metaphysicae. Descartes assumes that there is a plurality of individual human souls. Each individual human self, he states, has an immediate awareness of its own thinking and thus its own existence. Locke argued on the basis of his atomism that the complex of accidents relevant to individuation would have to be reduced to those of spatio-temporal location. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's philosophy as a whole is often characterised as individualism. The individual substance, or monad, as he called it in his later writings, was certainly a main focus of his philosophical thinking.
  • 10 - The idea of God
    pp 263-304
  • View abstract
    The seventeenth century marks a significant moment in thought concerning the definition of God. Seventeenth-century debates over the idea of God were played out within the space of certain questions which are, strictly speaking, theological. In the Disputationes metaphysicae, Francis Suárez filled the analogical gap between the finite and the infinite by a univocal concept of being (conceptus univocus entis), sufficient to represent to the human mind any being whatsoever in a confused and indeterminate way. Seventeenth-century scientists persistently privileged one argument: humans can interpret the physical world in mathematical language because God first conceived the world that was to be created in accordance with mathematical rationality. However, not all seventeenth-century thinkers shared this tendency towards univocity with respect to the question of God. Counterbalancing the trend towards univocity is an exactly contrary orientation, strange but powerful, the insistence upon the radically unknowable transcendence of the divine essence.
  • 11 - Proofs of the existence of God
    pp 305-330
  • View abstract
    The question of the existence of God is central for the seventeenth century at a time when atheism is no longer just an individual standpoint but a philosophical school and a genuine system of thought. Standing behind the new atheism of the seventeenth century was a new approach to the question of the nature of God. Scholastic thought about the existence of God was shaped in large part by Francis Suarez. Suarez begins by asking whether the existence of God falls within the domain of demonstrations in physics (the a posteriori ways of the scholastic tradition), or whether it is primarily a metaphysical question. Rene Descartes's search for an appropriate proof of God's existence goes back at least to 1630, as per a letter written by him to Mersenne. Spinoza's arguments for the existence of God are written in a Cartesian vocabulary, but they are in constant debate with Descartes's thought.
  • 12 - The Cartesian dialectic of creation
    pp 331-362
  • View abstract
    This chapter focuses on the status of eternal truths in the seventeenth-century history of Cartesianism. The chapter begins with Rene Descartes's views on divine causation, which adumbrated the later clash between divine wisdom and omnipotence. An important text with respect to the competing tendencies of wisdom and omnipotence is Descartes's first attempt, in Meditatio III, to prove the existence of God. This is followed by a discussion of his doctrine of the creation of the eternal truths, a systematic focus of that clash. Next, emphasis will be placed on divine wisdom that results in Spinoza's necessitarianism and apparent denial of creation, as well as notable attempts by Leibniz and Malebranche to avoid Spinoza's excesses while continuing to emphasise God's wisdom. Then the issue of the creation of the eternal truths is taken up, and with it the emphasis on divine omnipotence as found in some later figures.
  • 13 - The relation between theology and philosophy
    pp 363-392
  • View abstract
    The theological controversies of the age created new problems which called for philosophical solutions. It is easy to suppose that almost all that is vital in seventeenth-century philosophy can be attributed to the scientific revolution, but several of the most interesting developments can be traced to the demands of theology. There had been more than one conception of the relationship between philosophy and theology within the Christian tradition. There is a powerful tendency among some seventeenth-century philosophers to make a sharp distinction between philosophy and theology. However, Nicolas Malebranche and others were very far from seeking to sever the connexions between philosophy and theology. They sought to revive the legacy of Augustine, and to that extent they were engaged in resurrecting Platonism in a Christian form. The history of theological conflicts in the seventeenth century is marked by both continuity and innovation. The classic issues of the Reformation continued to be at the centre of theological controversy.
  • 14 - The religious background of seventeenth-century philosophy
    pp 393-422
  • View abstract
    The philosophy of the seventeenth century has often been seen as connected with a gradual march from religious orthodoxy and oppression towards pre-Enlightenment deism, agnosticism, atheism, and toleration. This chapter begins by looking at some aspects of the religious background that appear to parallel or support similar developments in the philosophy of the period. These include certain sceptical and probabilistic strains in seventeenth-century religious thought, the millenarian movement, and some strains of mystical thought. The interpretation of prophecy was most important in seventeenth-century interpretations of what was going on in the natural and human world. Then, the chapter deals with some very different features of seventeenth-century religious thought, features that led more and more to the rejection of orthodoxy. These include the increasing interest in Judaism and in other non-Christian religions, as well as direct challenges to the authority of the Bible, developments that made possible the growth of the secular philosophy of the Enlightenment.
  • 15 - The scholastic background
    pp 423-453
  • View abstract
    The disciplinary demarcations of the early modern period were such that investigations and speculations on body and the physical world were legitimate concerns not just of those one would now describe as scientists, but of most of the philosophical community. The Peripatetic tradition was the intellectual framework within which most seventeenth-century philosophers were educated and within which many of them pursued their philosophical careers. The doctrine of hylemorphism (hyle, matter, morphe, form or shape) was central to Peripatetic philosophy. In Physica I, Aristotle taught that there are three principles of natural things: prime matter, form, and privation. Natural body is the concern of natural philosophy. Peripatetic writers like Abra de Raconis and Johannes Magirus considered the object of physics to be natural/mobile body. All proponents of the mechanical philosophy shared the Peripatetics' view that physical body requires impenetrability as the necessary concomitant of its mere extendedness in three dimensions.
  • 16 - The occultist tradition and its critics
    pp 454-512
  • View abstract
    Practical interest in astrology, alchemy, and other departments of the occultist tradition ran strong throughout the early modern period among serious thinkers in many disciplines. Franco Burgersdijck, Tommaso Campanella, and Robert Fludd showed their century three ways to befriend occultism. Like Burgersdijck and other school philosophers, one could propagate the traditional Aristotelianism that sustained belief in magic. One could replace the Peripatetic basis of magic with a new system intended to be intelligible as philosophy, which was Campanella's aim. Like Fludd, one could detach occultism both from philosophy's Aristotelian past and from its Cartesian future. Marin Mersenne launched his crusade against occultism sometime before 1620, when he began to assemble his huge Genesis commentary of 1623. Mersenne aimed his book at atheists and deists, and among the subverters of religion he counted Fludd and many others who argued for magic.
  • 17 - Doctrines of explanation in late scholasticism and in the mechanical philosophy
    pp 513-552
  • View abstract
    The notion that explanation provides knowledge of the cause of a phenomenon is a common feature of Aristotelian systems and the mechanical philosophies of the seventeenth century. For Aristotle, Saint Thomas, later scholastics, and the proponents of the new science, the relationship between explanans and explanandum, whatever else it may be must above all be causal. Before turning to the doctrine of explanation operative among seventeenth-century scholastics, this chapter examines the more orthodox Aristotelian account from which it derives. The discussion is more a generalised and highly distilled synopsis. Some elements in it are explicitly found in Aristotle; others come directly from Saint Thomas; still other features are more common within the Peripatetic tradition, both before and after Thomas. Although several distinct mediaeval philosophical traditions were influential in the revival of scholasticism in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the overwhelming tendency was towards Aristotelianism,.
  • 18 - New doctrines of body and its powers, place, and space
    pp 553-623
  • View abstract
    In the late years of the sixteenth century and the first years of the seventeenth there was a new interest in atomism and mechanist views of the world. These years witnessed new natural philosophies, new conceptions of body and the contents of the physical world. The new philosophers disagreed what the physical world was to contain, what the nature of body was, whether bodies were active or passive, the nature of the place or space in which they are found. This chapter first examines the views of the new philosophers by first viewing the physical world in the early part of the century. Next, it looks at the physical world held by three of the important mechanist system-builders in mid-century, Pierre Gassendi, Rene Descartes, and Thomas Hobbes. Finally, the chapter discusses the views on body and the physical world, including reactions to earlier mechanist conceptions of body, and attempts to escape the bounds of the new mechanist orthodoxy.
  • 19 - Knowledge of the existence of body
    pp 624-648
  • View abstract
    Rene Descartes set out what he took to be a proof that bodies exist, and proposed to adopt the sceptic's own method: to doubt everything, unless something was found that could not be doubted. One of the first attempts to refute Descartes's proof of a material world was made by Henricus Regius, who rejected some of the metaphysical theses that Descartes believed were the indispensable foundation of his physics. Heterodox Cartesians retreated from Descartes's confidence that the existence of a material world can be proven with certainty. Attacks on Cartesianism poured from the pens of sceptical writers like Simon Foucher, Pierre-Daniel Huet, and Jean Du Hamel. Among other things, they attacked Descartes's purported proof of a material world. Spinoza's reason for asserting the necessary existence of extension is that God necessarily exists and extension is necessarily an attribute of God.
  • 20 - New doctrines of motion
    pp 649-679
  • View abstract
    An enhanced status of motion within new conceptual frameworks had far-reaching effects in early modern natural philosophy. Since local motion was the only category of motion that had genuine explanatory work to do in the new scheme of things, its treatment differed in notable respects from what had been typical of the Peripatetic tradition. Opposition between realist and nominalist doctrines of motion is reflected in the innovative analyses of motion of the seventeenth century. Not only did Aristotle nominate local motion as the primary motion, he nominated circular or rotational motion as the primary kind of local motion. This discrimination between circular and rectilinear motion became a standard element in Peripatetic teaching and was a staple item in the scholastic physics manuals. A relativity principle is often attributed to Descartes. Such an attribution is misleading, if it implies a principle that mirrored the Galilean or inspired the Huygenian relativity principle.
  • 21 - Laws of nature
    pp 680-701
  • View abstract
    By the beginning of the seventeenth century the idea of a moral law of nature already had a long and complex history. Its ultimate origins go back to the Greek Stoics, for whom the good life was one lived in accordance with nature. In Francis Bacon's writings several conceptions of the law or laws of nature may be distinguished. In some places he referred to one single summary or positive law of nature, whereas in others he referred to 'laws' in the plural. It was in the Principia Philosophiae that Rene Descartes first made public the physical theory of Le Monde, in which he mentioned the three laws of nature. One of the first Descartes's critics was Christiaan Huygens, who in 1652, had come to the conclusion that most of Descartes's collision rules were false. Issac Newton paid relatively little attention to the theory of collisions because he was preoccupied with bodies moving with continuously changing velocities along curvilinear paths.
  • 22 - The mathematical realm of nature
    pp 702-756
  • View abstract
    Isaac Newton insist repeatedly that the first two books of the work treated motion in purely mathematical terms, without physical, metaphysical, or ontological commitment. Only in the third book did he expressly draw the links between the mathematical and physical realms. Nature was mathematised in the seventeenth century by means of its extensive mechanisation, which by the end of the century extended, at least programmatically, to the living world of plants and animals. The mathematical models were abstract machines, which in turn were models of the physical world and its components. Examples of mechanical thinking in seventeenth-century mathematics can be found in balances, levers, centres of gravity, velocities, moments, and forces. Francois Viete sought to capture the heuristic power of analysis in a general form common to arithmetic, geometry, and the other branches of mathematics. The practical art of algebra, applied traditionally to numbers, provided the basis.
  • 23 - Soul and mind: life and thought in the seventeenth century
    pp 757-795
  • View abstract
    This chapter emphasises the seventeenth-century contribution about the problems of mind and soul, in particular, the way in which the new mechanical philosophy suggested both new problems and new solutions to old problems connected with life and thought. It discusses various views concerning the soul and the existence, and nature of the incorporeal substance that most seventeenth-century thinkers posited. The chapter provides a brief discussion of some of the reactions to the mainstream accounts of mind and soul. Rene Descartes's conception of the soul was a significant departure from the Aristotelian tradition in which he was educated. Descartes's soul has no connexion whatsoever with the vital functions that are so central to the Aristotelian conception of the soul. In order to bring out the distinctive features of the Cartesian position, the chapter examines the views of two of Descartes's contemporaries who also argued for the existence of an incorporeal human soul: Kenelm Digby and Pierre Gassendi.

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