The full title of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP) reads as follows:
THEOLOGICAL-POLITICAL TREATISE: Containing several discussions In which it is shown that the Freedom of Philosophizing not only can be granted without harm to Piety and the Peace of the Republic, but also cannot be abolished unless Piety and the Peace of the Republic are also destroyed.
Freedom of thought is quite central to Spinoza's politics in the TTP. In fact, since thought is outside the ability of the sovereign authorities to control, control is not possible. And where control is not possible, there is no right to control. But Spinoza takes this one step further, and argues that from freedom of thought follows the freedom to express publicly that which is thought. Even so, Spinoza recognizes certain limits on the freedom of expression. Expressing one's thoughts is an act, an act that can have effects in the society as a whole. Criticisms of individuals and institutions, even if well-reasoned and true, can lead to consequences which undermine the stability of the state. Criticizing the divinity of the Bible, or the divine authority of the clergy, or the necessity for performing certain ceremonies or keeping to certain divinely ordained laws can lead to the general decline of religion. And insofar as religion can contribute to the stability of the state by inducing people to behave well toward one another, the complete and unrestrained freedom of expression could well have bad consequences for the stability of the state.
In the last number of years, there has been a remarkable interest in Leibniz's account of the physical world, and, in particular, his account of corporeal substance. Much of the discussion has focused around the question of Leibniz's idealism. In particular, the question has been whether even in the so-called middle period, the 1680s and 1690s, when discussions of corporeal substance seem to be most visible, Leibniz's position included the same kind of idealism with respect to the physical world that occupied him in his later, more obviously monadological, writings, or whether he understood the physical world in a more realistic way. In this essay I suggest that this may not be the right question to be asking about Leibniz's philosophy during this period. I arrive at this reorientation of our thinking about the texts of this period by looking at one text of particular clarity and interest.
The text I intend to examine was written in March of 1690, while Leibniz was in Italy. It seems to be notes connected with a conversation Leibniz had with the Italian philosopher Michelangelo Fardella. Written shortly after the main bulk of his correspondence with Antoine Arnauld and in the same month as his very last letter to Arnauld, the notes state with stark clarity some of the themes that were suggested somewhat more obliquely in those other letters.
Descartes opens Meditation I with his persona, the meditator, reflecting on the project to be undertaken. Descartes writes:
I have observed for some years new how many false things I have admitted as true from my earliest age, and thus how dubious are all of those things that I built on them; and so, I observed that once in life [semel in vita] everything ought to be completely overturned, and ought to be completely rebuilt from the first foundations, if I want to build anything firm and lasting in the sciences.
And with this, the project has begun. Descartes' meditator quickly begins by rejecting the commonsense epistemological principles on which everything he formerly believed rested, and quickly sets about putting the world back together again. Of course, one of the central projects undertaken in this connection must be the replacement of the epistemological principles rejected with new, more trustworthy principles. Just as Descartes' meditator undermined his former beliefs by undermining the epistemology on which they were based, he will rebuild his world by rebuilding its epistemology. New epistemological principles thus seem to be the very “first foundations” on which he will build something “firm and lasting in the sciences.” But an obvious question to raise about this, the opening sentence of the Meditations, and about the project that follows out of it, is why? Why does Descartes believe it necessary even once in life to rebuild all of our beliefs in the way he suggests? Why does Descartes feel called to such an epistemological project?
In his important and influential book, How Experiments End, Peter Galison discusses how it is that scientists decide when a given experiment is finished and when the supposed fact that it purports to establish can be accepted as fact and not a mistaken reading of the apparatus, not a result of a malfunctioning piece of equipment, not a misinterpretation of a given observation, and so on. This epistemological question – the transition between individual observations, individual runs of a complex experiment, and the experimental fact that they are supposed to establish – is a matter of some discussion in the recent literature in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. It is this question that Galison (and others) have called attention to that I would like to explore in this article.
What strikes me as interesting here is that the very question under scrutiny has a history; while, in a sense, the question has been with us as long as people turned to experience to try to figure out how the world is, people were not always interested in or aware of the question, and when they were, the answers that they suggested were not always the ones that we find most comfortable now. That is what will interest me here, the history of the notion of an experimental fact, if you will, or, as Lorraine Daston has dramatically dubbed it, the “prehistory of objectivity.”
Descartes is usually classed among the rationalists, those philosophers who privilege reason over experience. And indeed he belongs there. On the other hand, though, Descartes was also very interested in experiment. The Dioptrique and Météores make a number of references to Descartes' experiments; the Discours discusses the importance of experiments at some length. In the Principia, written starting in early 1641 and published in 1644, Descartes refers to a number of experimental results to support his views, most visibly in the discussion of the magnet. And at the end of that book, he goes so far as to suggest that his vision of the world is ultimately supported by the fact that it is capable of explaining observed phenomena, and nothing more. Where is the real Descartes? Is he mathematician or experimenter? rationalist or empiricist?
This is the larger question that I would like to explore in this essay. But I would like to address it in a rather particular and somewhat special way. Generally, discussions of Descartes' views about knowledge and experience concentrate on texts like the Meditations, and on issues concerned with knowledge of the kinds of grand questions that he takes up there, the knowledge of self, body, the distinction between mind and body, God, and so on. What I want to focus on is something much more mundane. The water we drink every day has a nature, from which follow certain well-known properties; water is wet and liquid at room temperature, solid when very cold, quenches thirst, admits light, but causes certain illusions, like the famous bent-stick illusion. All of this is somehow connected with its structure.
René Descartes (1596–1650) aimed to sweep away the past, and start philosophy anew. Much of what made Descartes important for his contemporaries, and for us as well, concerns the contents of his philosophy. Descartes' philosophy was directed squarely against the Aristotelian philosophy taught in the Schools of his day. For the Aristotelians, all cognition begins in sensation: Everything in the intellect comes first through the senses. Descartes' philosophy, on the other hand, emphasizes the priority of reason over the senses. Furthermore, Descartes substitutes a purely mechanical world of geometric bodies governed by laws of motion for an almost animistic world of Aristotelian substances with innate tendencies to different kinds of behavior. These original doctrines, together with his work in metaphysics, optics, mathematics, the theory of the passions, among other areas, made Descartes a central figure in his age.
But in this essay I would like to concentrate on something different. Descartes opposed himself not only to the content of the philosophy of the Schools, but to their very conception of what knowledge is and how it is to be transmitted. Connected with the new Cartesian philosophy is a genuine philosophy of education, a conception of the aims and goals of education very different from the one that dominated the School where Descartes himself had been educated as a youth. My project in this essay is to tease out some aspects of this philosophy.
Let us begin with one of Descartes' most important texts, the Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences, published in 1637 as the introduction to three scientific texts, the Geometry, the Dioptrics, and the Meteors.
One of the central doctrines of Descartes' metaphysics was his division of the created world into two kinds of stuff: mental substance whose essence is thought and material substance whose essence is extension. And one of the central problems that later philosophers had with Descartes' doctrine was understanding how these two domains, the mental and the material, relate to one another. Descartes' solution was to claim that these two domains can causally interact with one another, that bodily states can cause ideas, and that volitions can cause bodily states. But this claim raises a number of serious questions. The most obvious problem arises from the radical distinction that Descartes draws between the two domains and from our difficulty in conceiving how two sorts of things so different could ever interact with one another. As the Princess Elisabeth complained to Descartes, “it is easier for me to concede matter and extension to the mind than [it is for me to concede] the capacity to move a body and to be affected by it to an immaterial thing.” Though the story is complex, it is generally held that this problem led later in the century to the doctrine of occasionalism, in which the causal link between mind and body was held to be not a real efficient cause but an occasional cause. Thus, it was claimed, it is God who causes ideas in minds on the occasion of appropriate events in the material world and events in the material world on the occasion of an appropriate act of will. The causal link between mind and body remains but is reinterpreted as an occasional causal link, a causal link mediated by God.
A typical textbook account of the philosophy of mind in the seventeenth century goes something like this. Descartes believed in two kinds of stuff, mental stuff and material stuff, substances distinct in nature that go together to constitute a single human being. But Descartes also took it for granted that these two substances were capable of genuine causal interaction, that minds can cause bodily events, and that bodies can cause mental events, i.e., that acts of will can genuinely cause changes in the state of the human body, and that the state of the sensory organs and the brain can cause sensation and imagination in the mind. But, the story goes, Descartes went astray here and vastly underestimated the philosophical problems inherent in his position. Descartes, it is claimed, repressed, or even worse, simply ignored the central question his position raises: How is it even possible that an immaterial substance, like the mind, could conceivably act on an extended substance like the human body? According to the standard account, later philosophers recognized the inherent unintelligibility of Descartes' position and started one of the largest cottage industries in the history of philosophy, the attempt to provide satisfactory solutions to the mind-body problem, intelligible accounts of how mental and physical events are related to one another. Realizing the unintelligibility of the doctrine of causal interactionism, this cottage industry produced such noteworthy products as occasionalism, dual-aspect theory, pre-established harmony, and so on, all in the attempt to fill in the gap in Descartes' dualist program.
This general outline can (and has) been challenged; the actual history of philosophy is much richer than any of its rationalized reconstructions.
In his Traité de l'esprit de l'homme (1664), Louis de La Forge, one of Descartes' early followers, wrote:
I hold that there is no creature, spiritual or corporeal, that can change [the position of a body] or that of any of its parts in the second instant of its creation if the creator does not do it himself, since it is he who had produced this part of matter in place A. For example, not only is it necessary that he continue to produce it if he wants it to continue to exist, but also, since he cannot create it everywhere, nor can he create it outside of every place, he must himself put it in place B, if he wants it there, for if he were to have put it somewhere else, there is no force capable of removing it from there.
De La Forge's argument is an interesting one. He begins with two premises. The first is the doctrine of divine sustenance, that God must sustain the existence of every body, indeed, of every thing, mind or body, at every moment of its existence. Second, de La Forge assumes as a result, it would seem, that God causes motion in the material world by re-creating bodies in different places at different times. From this de La Forge draws the conclusion that only God can move a body. When God sustains bodies, He must sustain them in some place or other; He cannot sustain them everywhere, nowhere, or in any way independently of some place or other.
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