Skip to main content



When René Descartes died in 1650, his work had already attracted both critics and followers. In 1632 Cartesian philosophy was being taught in the Netherlands by his disciple Henri Reneri (15931639), and by the mid-1630s the far more independently minded Henri Regius (15981679) was setting out his own version of Cartesianism in a less guarded and more polemical way than had Descartes himself. Indeed it was Regius who attracted the first condemnation of Cartesianism, from the Dutch theologian Gisbert Voetius (15891676), in 1641, and in 1642 Voetius turned on Descartes himself, drawing him into a very public controversy. Cartesianism first flourished as a movement in the Netherlands, being established as early as the 1650s at Leiden and Utrechtwhere there was a Cartesian club, the College der Savantenas well as at other Dutch universities. It was through a member of one of these Dutch groups, Johannes Clauberg (16221665), that Cartesianism came to be established in Germany: he took up the chair of theology and philosophy at the University of Duisberg in 1651, a new university set up by the cousin of Princess Elizabeth, Descartes's correspondent and staunch defender.

Responses to Descartes

In England there was less enthusiasm. In 1644 Kenelm Digby (16031665) set out his own eclectic version of Descartes's philosophy (and invited Descartes to come and live in England), and later in the decade Henry More (16141687), the Cambridge Platonist, explored various features of Cartesianism in his correspondence with Descartes. But Cartesianism soon developed a reputation for heterodoxy in England, above all because of his rejection of any aims or ends acting in nature, and his writings were widely attacked in the second half of the seventeenth century. In France, Louis XIV banned the teaching of Cartesian philosophy, and Cartesians were excluded from the Académie des Sciences. While these attacks were directed at the perceived radical nature of Cartesianism, others such as Daniel Huet (16301721), a patron of the Jesuits, were charging him with plagiarism: Huet claimed he took his epistemology from the Greek skeptics, the cogito from Augustine, and the ontological argument from Anselm.

However, Descartes had disciples in France, including Claude Clerselier (16141684), who oversaw the publication of his letters and other hitherto unpublished works (a laborious undertaking, which included retrieving the trunk containing them from the sea and drying them out), establishing a vital resource for scholars all over Europe and in the New World. Moreover, there was a strong French Cartesian movement in natural philosophy, centered on Jacques Rohault (16201672) and Pierre-Sylvain Régis (16321707), in the second half of the century, and by the 1670s there was a movement applying the Cartesian principle of "clear and distinct ideas" to social and political questions, with radical consequences: François Poulain de la Barre (16471723) was defending the equality of the sexes on this basis, and Descartes's niece, Catherine, was proposing Cartesianism as an alternative (with women particularly in mind) to the philosophy of the universities. The peculiar political circumstances in FranceLouis in effect brought a delayed Counter-Reformation to Franceresulted in a radicalization of Cartesianism in the late seventeenth century. By the early decades of the eighteenth century, there were Cartesians in painting (Charles Le Brun), architecture (the Perrault brothers), and music (Jean-Philippe Rameau), and Descartes had become almost an establishment figure in France, as the famous attack on him by Voltaire indicates, where he was castigated for being out of date in comparison with developments in English philosophy. Yet by the 1770s he was radicalized again, as the Enlightenment philosophes claimed him as a corevolutionary.

Descartes had a deep concern for orthodoxyeven his advocacy of mechanism, in the form of the doctrine of the inertness of nature, can be seen as a response to the heterodox naturalism of the Renaissance, where the powers attributed to nature leave little room for a divine roleand had written his Principles of Philosophy with a view to having it adopted as a textbook in Jesuit colleges. Nevertheless, much of his work was bitterly condemned by the Catholic Church after his death. His writings were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1663, primarily it would seem because of his heterodox account of transubstantiation, but his view that ours is not the only solar system also elicited explicit condemnations from religious authorities throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century.

Aspects of Cartesianism

In some areas, Descartes's work was accepted as pathbreaking: above all his geometrical optics and his algebra (Isaac Newton learned his advanced mathematics in the first instance from Descartes's Geometry ). But other areas attracted a more partisan response. We can distinguish three different kinds of concern in the Cartesian corpus in this respect: epistemology and metaphysics, cosmology, and physiology.

Although the Meditations is for modern readers the canonical text by Descartes, this focus is really a nineteenth-century development, and the most widely read and discussed of his works in the eighteenth century were the Discourse on Method, Principles of Philosophy, and the posthumously published Treatise on Man. Moreover, Descartes himself had played down the epistemological and metaphysical concerns that characterize the Meditations. Two themes dominate the Meditations a skeptically driven epistemology and the mind/body problemand the fortunes of these differ radically among later philosophers. Neither Baruch Spinoza (16321677) nor Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (16461716) could see any value or legitimacy in beginning epistemology by answering radical skeptical problems (and Blaise Pascal [16231662] referred to Descartes's philosophy as "useless and uncertain"), and they abandoned the idea of a skeptically driven epistemology. Nicolas Malebranche (16381715) was a little closer to Descartes, although still at variance with him on key doctrines, and he was not so dismissive of skeptical beginnings for epistemology, but they work in a rather different way in his philosophy than they do in Descartes. Malebranche's philosophy vied with that of John Locke (16321794) at the end of the seventeenth century, and his influence on George Berkeley (16851753) and David Hume (17111776) was at least as great as that of Locke, putting skeptical issues to the fore. On the mind/body question, no one was satisfied with Cartesian dualism. Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz each saw the question as being the key to success, and each offered their own distinctive solution to the question: neutral monism, occasionalism, and preestablished harmony, respectively. By the eighteenth century, epistemologically oriented issues of mind had receded from the philosophical arena to some extent, and Cartesianism was less associated with dualism.

Two natural-philosophical topics on which Descartes's views had caused immense controversy were his account of the solar system in book 3 of the Principles of Philosophy and his account of the formation of the earth in book 4. Descartes's response to the Copernicanism problem was not to make the sun the center of the cosmos, as Copernicus had done, but to make the sun one of an indefinite (perhaps infinite) number of solar systems, each containing planets like ours that may harbor beings with souls. The idea that our sun was simply one star among many and could not be held to be the center of the cosmos gained credence in the course of the later seventeenth century (for those who held that the universe was infinite there was no issue, of course, since something infinite cannot have a center since every point is equidistant from an infinitely remote boundary). Even more radical was his view of the formation of the earth. The Bible had presented a creation story in which the fabric of the earth, plants, and animals, had a function in a unique, highly designed system. Descartes, by contrast, has a general theory of planet formation: planets derive from stars that have formed a coating of hard matter around their periphery and are squeezed out by surrounding solar systems, in effect becoming massive pieces of refuse that find a home in other solar systems in orbits that depend on their size and speed. No exception is made for the Earth in Descartes's account, which completely robs the formation of earth of any teleology. The account was the first nonmythological treatment of the formation of the earth and was of great influence in the eighteenth century, not least in Georges-Louis Buffon's (17071778) account.

More generally, Descartes's cosmologyin which planets were carried around their suns by means of the vortical motion of a swiftly circulating medium in which they were immersedwas taken very seriously, and was the dominant cosmological system before Newton's Principia. Indeed, in continental Europe, it was not abandoned in favor of Newtonianism for some time, primarily because it did not involve any appeal to action at a distance, which was universally perceived to be the most problematic general feature of Newton's system. Moreover, Descartes's system was far more comprehensive than Newton's, tying his vortex theory of planetary motion in with phenomena such as magnetism and static electricity.

Descartes's rejection of teleology was also manifest in his account of embryology, set out in the Treatise on Man and in more detail in The Description of the Human Body. There he insists on a radically mechanistic approach, denying that the fetus strives to realize an end or goal in the development process. The inert and initially undifferentiated matter making up the horse fetus, for example, develops into a horse not because it somehow contains "horseness" or because it is able to shape itself into a horse but because the distinctive mechanical and physio-chemical processes in the womb of a horse cause the matter to develop in a certain way. In this way, Descartes opened up the question of the physiology of fetal development. Embryology is in fact just one topic in Descartes's comprehensive attempt to mechanize physiology, and in the Treatise on Man a variety of physiological processes are construed in such a way that we need only postulate inert matter being acted upon by mechanical forces. From this derives his infamous doctrine of bêtes machines (animal machines), whereby the behavior of animals, who lack minds (in the sense of awareness of their "cognitive" states) in Descartes's account, can be accounted for fully in terms of the mechanically describable interaction between their constituent parts. In 1747 Julien Offray de La Mettrie (17091751) published his Man Machine, in which he purported to apply the Cartesian theory of animal machines to human beings (actually his materialism was different from Cartesian mechanism), claiming that this could be done successfully, so that it was unnecessary to postulate a human soul to account for human thoughts and behavior. This solidified the image of Descartes as a dangerous materialist, and it was only in the nineteenth century that the idea of Descartes as a dualist was generally revived.

By the twentieth century, interest in Descartes in Anglo-phone philosophy was largely confined to his skeptically driven epistemology and his dualist account of mind. The revival of interest in empiricist epistemology, helped by the rise of positivism, resulted in skepticism being taken much more seriously as a philosophical problem (for example, in A. J. Ayer). In the philosophy of mind, various alternatives to dualismsuch as epiphenomenalism, behaviorism, and materialismwere devised, with the effect that Cartesian dualism was often set up as a straw man by which to contrast one's own theory (as in Gilbert Ryle's defense of behaviorism). By contrast, in French and German philosophy, interest centered rather on Descartes's idea of a self as independent of the world in which it finds itself, as a locus of subjectivity that is given prior to any interactions that it has with other subjects. The ethical and political aspects of this understanding have been explored either in their own right (by Jean-Paul Sartre, for example) or in combination with a Kantian account of ethical autonomy (such as by Jürgen Habermas).

See also Dualism ; Epistemology ; Materialism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought ; Newtonianism ; Philosophy, History of ; Skepticism .


Balz, Albert G. A. Cartesian Studies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.

Clarke, Desmond M. Occult Powers and Hypotheses: Cartesian Natural Philosophy under Louis XIV. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Gaukroger, Stephen, John Schuster, and John Sutton, eds. Descartes' Natural Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2000.

Harth, Erica. Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Mouy, Paul. Le développment de la physique cartésienne, 16461712. Paris: Vrin, 1934. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1981.

Tournadre, Géraud. L'orientation de la science cartésienne. Paris: Vrin, 1982.

Verbeek, Theo. Descartes and the Dutch: Early Reactions to Cartesian Philosophy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Stephen Gaukroger

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cartesianism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 29 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Cartesianism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (April 29, 2017).

"Cartesianism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved April 29, 2017 from



CARTESIANISM. Cartesianism was a set of philosophical theses, a scientific program, and a broad intellectual movement that dominated the European scene in the seventeenth century. The foremost philosophical paradigm of the period, it was the subject of passionate debate and strong opposition both within the universities and in society at large.

The philosophical theses of Cartesianism have their origins in the thought of René Descartes (15961650), who first sought in a systematic manner to replace the dominant Aristotelian philosophy of the Schools with a new philosophy, one wedded not to conformity with some ancient or medieval thinkers or a particular religious tradition but to a rationally justified confidence in our own natural cognitive faculties. The new philosophy would liberate society from unreflective obedience to authority, prejudice, and philosophical (and maybe even theological) dogma and contribute to scientific and social progressnot to mention material well-beingby advancing our understanding of nature and the universe

The most prominent and perhaps defining thesis of the Cartesian philosophy is what has come to be called "mind-body dualism." Descartes insisted on the real distinction between mind and matter. Mind (or soul) and matter (or body) are, according to Descartes, two essentially and radically different kinds of substance. Mind is unextended, indivisible, simple thinking. Its modes or properties are particular ideas or thoughts including beliefs, volitions, sensations, and emotions. Matter, on the other hand, is nothing but extension or dimensional space and is therefore divisible, its modes being shape, size, and mobility. There is nothing materialistic about the mind and nothing mental or spiritual about the body.

This doctrine is of great importance not only for understanding the nature of the human being, who is a compositeor, to use Descartes's phrase, a "substantial union"of these two substances, but also for science. According to Descartes, the physical world is nothing but passive matter or extension, divisible ad infinitum into parts. This was, he believed, a great advance over the Aristotelian world picture. The spiritlike forms and qualities that were used by the Scholastics to explain the behaviors of physical bodies have been banished from nature. All natural phenomena, no matter how complex and regardless of whether they are terrestrial or celestial, are henceforth to be explained solely in terms of matter and the motion, rest, and impact of its parts. Descartes's separation of mind and matter was a crucial step in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and laid the metaphysical foundations for the mechanical philosophy that dominated the period until Newton. (Descartes also believed, at least as a matter of public record, that dualism offered the strongest possible foundation for the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, since the mind as a simple, thinking substance was not subject to the process of decay and destruction that brought about the demise of complex and divisible bodies.)

Descartes's philosophy bequeathed to his many devoted followers a host of difficult philosophical (and theological) problems. If mind and body are so radically different in nature, how do they causally engage one another and interact in the way they seem to do in a human being? If matter is nothing but inert, passive extension, what explains the motion, interaction, and dynamic behavior of bodies? Moreover, Descartes believed that, since matter is pure extension, body is not distinct from space, and a truly empty space (or vacuum) is therefore impossible in nature; the universe is a material plenum. How, then, does there arise a multiplicity of individual bodies, and how is their motion possible? Most distressing to religious authoritiesand one of the issues that led to Descartes's works being placed by the Catholic Church on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1663were the apparent consequences of Descartes's metaphysics for the Catholic dogma of the Eucharist. If any particular body (such as a piece of bread) is just a specific parcel of extension and there are no "real qualities" that are distinct and separable from an underlying substance, how can the Cartesian philosophy account for the miracle of transubstantiation? According to the traditional Aristotelian account adopted by the Church, at the moment of consecration the sensible qualities of the bread remain while its substance is replaced by the substance of Christ's body. Descartes has done away with such qualities, and a body is now just its extension; if the substance of Christ's body takes on the extended dimensions of bread, then, according to Descartes's metaphysics of body, it is just bread.

The first generation of Cartesians included men like Henricus Regius (15981679), Johannes de Raey (16721702), and Adriaan Heereboord (16141661). These Dutch academics' introduction of Cartesian principles into their university courses in medicine, physics, and even theology incited a bitter backlash from the authorities. The new philosophy was perceived as a threat to the established (Aristotelian) order. The Reformed theologian and rector of the University of Utrecht, Gibertus Voetius (15891676), was only the most outspoken and determined of Descartes's numerous foes, and his institution was the first among many to issue condemnations of Cartesian philosophy and to prohibit its teaching. The controversy over Cartesianism in the Netherlands raged not only in the academy, but in the broader intellectual culture as well. It spilled over into the social and political realm and became enmeshed in the battles that deeply divided factions of the Reformed Church and opposing political camps of the Republic.

In France, the Saumur physician Louis de la Forge (16321666), one of Descartes's early and most faithful followers, produced an illustrated and annotated edition of Descartes's Treatise on Man, a work on the physiology of the human body, and supplemented it with his own Treatise on Man's Soul (1666), in which he explains, on strict Cartesian principles, the workings of the human mind and its relationship to the body. La Forge recognized some of the metaphysical problems inherent in Cartesian dualism and the physics of extended bodies and was among the first to defend a limited version of the doctrine called "occasionalism." According to La Forge, the motion of extended bodies, which are intrinsically passive, is explained by the causal activity of God. The moving force of a body in motion is nothing but the divine will, which moves the body by recreating it in a different relative place from one moment to the next. Another occasionalist Cartesian, somewhat less orthodox in his fealty to Descartes than La Forge, was the Parisian lawyer Géraud de Cordemoy (16261684), who insistedcontrary to Descartes, for whom any parcel of extension, no matter how small, was in principle divisiblethat there were atoms, or ultimately indivisible parts, in nature. The Dominican friar Robert Desgabets (16101678) pursued his own Cartesian program in the realm of theology and offered suggestions as to how to reconcile Descartes's metaphysics with the Eucharistic doctrine of "real presence." The physicists Jacques Rohault (16201672) and Pierre-Sylvain Régis (16321707) sought the mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena, experimentally verified, in an attempt to complete those particular and more detailed aspects of physics that Descartes left open.

While united by their adherence to a broad philosophical program, these Cartesians did not constitute an organized group but worked independently to further what they saw as the right and progressive philosophy. By far the most important Cartesian of the seventeenth century, however, was a French Oratorian named Nicolas Malebranche (16381715). A bolder and more systematic thinker than the others, Malebranche was not afraid to modify and even depart from Descartes's ideas in highly unorthodox ways. His occasionalism was thoroughgoing: God is the only real causal agent in the universe. All finite things are created and sustained in being by God, and all events, whether mental or physical, are brought about by the divine will. Creatures and their states are only secondary causes, or "occasions," for God to exercise genuine power. Malebranche also argued that the clear and distinct ideas that serve as the objects of human intellectual understanding are not modes or properties of the human mind but rather ideal archetypes in the divine understanding. With his theory of the Vision in God Malebranche sought to make human beings as dependent upon God for their knowledge as all creatures are dependent upon God for their being and activity. His doctrines were attacked by other Cartesians, most notably the Jansenist fire-brand Antoine Arnauld (16121694), who thought Malebranche's ideas represented not only an unacceptable departure from the true principles of Descartes's philosophy, but also a serious threat to Christian faith.

By the third quarter of the century, Cartesianism, while vigorously condemned by leading religious and political authorities (in 1667 the French court prohibited a public funeral oration from being delivered at the ceremony for the reburial of his remains in Paris), enjoyed immense success. Nonetheless, it suffered from serious internal weaknesses and obvious explanatory failures. The advent of Newtonianism at the end of the century, with its alternative conception of scientific understanding, powerful mathematical presentation, and explicit critique of Cartesianism, brought about the final downfall of this formidable scientific paradigm.

See also Aristotelianism ; Descartes, René ; Scholasticism .


Des Chene, Dennis. Physiologia: Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996.

Garber, Daniel. Descartes's Metaphysical Physics. Chicago, 1992.

Nadler, Steven M., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Malebranche. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

Schmaltz, Tad M. Radical Cartesianism: The French Reception of Descartes. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2002.

Watson, Richard A. The Breakdown of Cartesian Metaphysics. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1987.

Steven Nadler

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cartesianism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 29 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Cartesianism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (April 29, 2017).

"Cartesianism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved April 29, 2017 from



Cartesianism is the name given to the philosophical movement initiated by French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (15961650) on the basis of two key innovations. The first is Descartes's claim that material events, including most biological phenomena, can and must be explained without appeal to teleological principles or occult qualities, through laws of motion acting mechanically on microcorpuscular bodies having no properties beyond spatial extension and shape. Descartes's second claim, his dualism, is that the distinctive human properties of selective intentionality and free volition, dramatically manifest in the creative freedom of language, mark human beings off from other animals as innately possessed of an immaterial soul or mind that is ontologically independent of matter, characterized by infinite moral freedom, susceptible of a distinct happiness, and capable of continued existence after the body's demise.

In Descartes's day, the first claim was by far the most controversial: how can living, breathing beings, plants and bees and horses, emerge from purely mechanical laws acting invariably on inert matter? As a program for physics, Descartes's elegant reductionism was fatally undermined when Isaac Newton in 1687 successfully accounted for universal gravitation by adding without metaphysical justification the notion of force. However, Cartesian mechanistic parameters continued fruitfully to guide biology and experimental physiology, shaping the speculative outlook of such diverse scientists as Julien de la Mettrie (17091751) and Claude Bernard (18131878). Today, Cartesianism survives in the methodological premise, also adopted by Newtonians, that a large part of sensible phenomena derives from causes acting invariably, without intention or free volition.

See also Descartes, RenÉ; Dualism; Materialism; Naturalism; Physicalism, Reductive and Nonreductive; Reductionism


gerber, daniel. descartes' metaphysical physics. chicago: university of chicago press, 1992.

marion, jean-luc. on descartes' metaphysical prism: the constitution and the limits of onto-theo-logy in cartesian thought, trans. jeffrey l. kosky. chicago: university of chicago press, 1999.

nadler, stephen. causation in early modern philosophy: cartesianism, occasionalism, and preestablished harmony. university park: pennsylvania state university press, 1993.

anne a. davenport

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cartesianism." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . 29 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Cartesianism." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . (April 29, 2017).

"Cartesianism." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Retrieved April 29, 2017 from