SP23 PHIL413/513

Continental Rationalism (PHIL413/513)
Lawrence Nolan

Tuesdays & Thursdays  ·  3:30pm–4:45pm  ·  LA5–149

Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza, and Leibniz were among the most systematic philosophers who ever lived. They thought on a grand scale, and tried to develop philosophical systems that would provide solutions to every conceivable philosophical problem. They are known to us today primarily for their epistemologies, especially for their shared view that reason is the primary source of knowledge and that senses are deceptive and unreliable. For this, they are known as ‘rationalists’. But equally important for understanding their work, and the relation between them, are their respective metaphysics. This course will examine both aspects of their work.

We shall begin by examining Descartes’ famous attempt to attain ‘perfect knowledge’, to defeat skepticism, and to ground the new mechanistic science. We will then turn to some fundamental issues in his ontology, including his account of the nature of God, human and divine freedom, and the status of universals.

Although his work is less well known than the other two, Malebranche is an important transitional figure. On one hand, he accepted many of the basic Cartesian doctrines—most notably that a human being is a union of two radically distinct substances (mind, body). On the other hand, he anticipated many of the doctrines that Leibniz later developed with greater precision and sophistication, e.g., the view that this is only one of an infinite number of possible worlds that God could have created. Malebranche and Leibniz were also very concerned with theodicy, i.e., with the effort to reconcile the presence of evil in the world with the existence of a supremely perfect creator.

Malebranche and Leibniz both offered fascinating critiques of Descartes’ philosophy on different fronts, and this will be among the emphases in this course. As a Cartesian himself, Malebranche offered the most interesting and important ‘insider’ criticisms of Descartes’ theory of the mind and self-knowledge, the method of doubt, the theory of innate ideas, and human and divine freedom. Leibniz developed some of Malebranche’s criticisms and then offered one of the most original critiques of the Cartesian theory of individuation, showing that Descartes could not account for the identity and individuality of substances. As we shall see, many of Malebranche and Leibniz’s criticisms rest on very different conceptions of the nature of God and of creation from that of Descartes.