Desgabets, Robert (1610–1678)

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Robert Desgabets was a French Benedictine who offered a form of Cartesianism that departs from René Des-cartes's own account of the nature of substance and of one's knowledge of the self and of the external world. These departures are indicated in the two book-length texts from Desgabets published during his lifetime, but they are explicated most fully in manuscripts published only during the mid-1980s, in a definitive edition of his philosophical writings sponsored by Studia Cartesiana.

Desgabets was born in Ancemont in Verdun, a region annexed by France in 1552, to Jean des Gabets and Barbe Richard. He entered the Benedictine order in 1636 and taught philosophy and theology for over a decade at Saint-Evre in Toul. In 1648 he was named the Benedictine procurer general in Paris, and the following year he took up the position of professor of philosophy at Saint-Arnold in Metz. From 1653 to 1657 he served in administrative posts in various Lorraine abbeys. It was during this time that Claude Clerselier attempted to draw him into a defense of Descartes by sending him copies of Descartes's discussion in unpublished correspondence of the Catholic doctrine that the Eucharist involves the "transubstantiation" of bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. Desgabets endorsed Descartes's proposal that such transubstantiation occurs by means of the union of Christ's soul with the matter of the Eucharistic elements. What he added to this proposal was an argument against the possibility of the annihilation of this matter that appeals to the result in his 1654 manuscript "Traité de l'indéfectibilité des creatures," that material substance has an existence that is "indefectible," that is, indestructible and immutable.

In 1658 Desgabets spent a brief time in Paris on official business, and while there he participated in public discussions of Cartesian natural philosophy. He also offered for consideration a brief Discours on the transfusion of blood, which the French physician Jean-Baptiste Denis included in his 1668 Lettre à Sorbière in part to draw the attention of the English Royal Society to French research in this area.

Following his return to the Lorraine provinces in 1659, Desgabets worked to spread the teaching of Cartesianism in local Benedictine abbeys. In the mid-1660s he also became involved in the controversies in France over Jansenist theology associated most prominently with the convent of Port-Royal. Desgabets took the risky step of siding with the Jansenists and Port-Royal against the religious and political establishment.

Even so, Desgabets later split with the Port-Royalists on the issue of the Eucharist. One occasion for the rupture was the publication in 1671 of his Considérations sur l'état présent de la controverse. Jean Ferrier, the royal confessor, promptly condemned the work to Louis XIV as heretical, and Louis ordered François de Harlay de Champvallon, the archbishop of Paris, to censure it. When Harlay questioned the Port-Royalist solitaires Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole about this text, they denounced it in no uncertain terms. In an audience with Clerselier Harlay also insinuated that Desgabets's tract was responsible for a 1671 decree from Louis to the University of Paris that marked the start of the official campaign against the teaching of Cartesianism in France. Pressure from above led Desgabets's Benedictine superiors to interrogate him the following year and to prohibit him from speaking on the issue of the Eucharist. The effects of the censure were felt even into the mid-eighteenth century, when the Benedictine authorities refused the request of some admirers of Desgabets to publish an edition of his writings.

Despite the 1672 censure, Desgabets subsequently became underprior and then prior of the provincial abbey of Breuil. Moreover, the censure did not bring about the end of his philosophical activity. In 1674 he engaged in correspondence with Nicolas Malebranche after the latter sent him a copy of the first volume of his Recherche de la verité. When Simon Foucher wrote Critique de la recherche de la verité that cast doubt on claims in Malebranche's text that mind and body are distinct substances and that ideas represent external objects, Desgabets composed a Cartesian refutation of Foucher's skeptical position. Desgabets's Critique de la critique de la recherche de la verité appeared in 1675, and like his 1671 Considérations, it was published anonymously. Desgabets further defended the fundamental tenets of his Critique in a manuscript commentary on the Meditations, the 1675 "Supplément à la philosophie de Monsieur Descartes."

In 1677 there was a series of conferences concerning Desgabets's distinctive version of Cartesianism that took place at the chateau of the Cardinal de Retz (Jean-François-Paul de Gondi) in Commercy. Around this same time Retz's secretary, Jean Corbinelli, led a discussion of the results of the conferences at a special meeting of Cartesians in Paris that included Malebranche. Shortly after these discussions, in March 1678, Desgabets died at his home abbey of Breuil, near Commercy.

Matter, Substance, and the Cogito

In commentary published with his 1840 edition of the Commercy conferences, Victor Cousin noted that "if dom Robert, in metaphysics, is a disciple of Descartes revolting against all the principles of his master, he is not so in physics. There he is a faithful Cartesian" (cited in Retz 1887, p. 345). The fidelity to Descartes in physics is indicated in a 1666 letter to Clerselier, in which Desgabets criticized as schismatic the attempt of the French Cartesian Géraud de Cordemoy to introduce a version of Cartesian physics that posits indivisible atoms and the void. Desgabets also argued against the atomist admission of vacua by appealing to Descartes's claim in the Principles that matter by its nature occupies all imaginable space.

However, Desgabets went further than Descartes in connecting the claim that matter fills all space to the conclusion that this matter is "indefectible" since not even God can annihilate any part of it. There may seem to be a similarity here to Descartes's view in the Synopsis to the Meditations that "body taken in general" is incorruptible since it cannot be destroyed by natural means. Still, Descartes argued in the Meditations that since creatures have a duration divisible into distinct parts, God can reduce them to nothing at any moment by refraining from conserving them. Desgabets explicitly rejected this line of argument when he charged Descartes with confusing the modes of a substance with the substance itself. In the case of the material world Desgabets allowed that particular bodies can and do go out of existence. However, he claimed that these bodies are merely modes of extended substance that exist only "secundum quid" as particular temporal determinations of that substance. Desgabets insisted that substance itself exists "simpliciter" in a manner that is wholly indivisible, and so not subject to temporal change (1675, p. 77f).

Desgabets's opposition to Descartes's view that substance has a divisible temporal duration is a clear case of his revolt "against the principles of the master." Another such case is provided by his charge that it is a "principal fault" in Descartes that he took the certainty of the cogito argument to show that the existence of the self is better known than and independent of the existence of body. In Descartes this conclusion is supported by the possibility of a hyperbolic doubt of the existence of the material world. In the "Supplément," however, Desgabets objected to the possibility of such doubt. In the first part of this text he urged that the cogito itself undermines this sort of doubt since it reveals that one's thoughts bear an essential connection to bodily motion (19831985, p. 5:183f). His argument stresses that reflection on the cogito occurs in a continuous time that is not intrinsic to thought as such but derives from the union of one's thought with motion. Desgabets relied explicitly here on the traditional Aristotelian definition of time as "the measure of motion." He also held, with other Cartesians, that the only motion is local motion, and further claimed, in orthodox Cartesian fashion, that local motion itself presupposes the existence of the particular bodies that are in motion.

These various premises help to explain his conclusion that the temporality revealed by reflection on the cogito could not exist if there were no bodies external to mind. This argument is somewhat reminiscent of the later appeal in Immanuel Kant to the temporality of consciousness in his "refutation" of a "problematic idealism" in Descartes that takes consciousness to reveal with certainty only the existence of the self. Whereas Kant emphasized that the existence of "outer things" is required for the determination of the temporal succession of inner experience, Desgabets held that the existence of bodies in motion is required for the presence of the temporal duration of one's thoughts.

Desgabets's "Cartesian refutation of idealism," as one might call it, is connected to his endorsement in his Critique of Foucher's rejection of Malebranche's orthodox Cartesian claim that one has a "pure intellect" that operates independently of the body. For Desgabets, that all one's thoughts are temporal reveals that they all involve a union with motion. Since he adopted the traditional view that the soul is united to the body through the senses, he accepted the scholastic maxim Nihil est in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu (Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses). Pierre Gassendi also had appealed to this maxim in response to Descartes's claim that one has a pure intellect, and this resemblance has led some commentators to label Desgabets as a Gassendist. Unlike Gassendi, however, Desgabets was firmly committed to a Cartesian dualism that distinguishes mind as thinking substance from body as extended substance.

Ideas, External Objects, and Eternal Truths

In the second part of the "Supplément" Desgabets argued that skepticism concerning the existence of extended substance is overturned by "the most simple, the best known, and the most evident of all principles," namely, that all simple ideas or conceptions correspond to real objects (19831985, p. 6:223). Desgabets took this principle to be linked to the claim that to perceive nothing is not to perceive. He admitted that one can make false judgments about what one perceives. Indeed, he pointed to the scholastic claim that sensible qualities exist in bodies as a paradigmatic example of such a judgment, one that is to be corrected by "the great discovery of M. Descartes" that these qualities exist only in us (19831985, p. 5:164f). However, Desgabets's "intentionality principle," as commentators have called it, requires that ideas that succeed in representing extramental objects, such as the idea of body, presuppose that their objects actually exist in some sense. The qualification is required by Desgabets's distinction, which informs his discussion of the indefectibility of matter, between modes and the substances they modify. Desgabets allowed that one can conceive of modes that do not actually exist insofar as one can conceive of them as only possibly modifying an existing substance. In this way the nonexistent modes have a "true possibility" conferred on them by substance. Since substance cannot be conceived through any other feature of created reality, however, the possibility of its existence also cannot be conceived through anything else. Desgabets concluded that one cannot even conceive of a substance that is "purely possible" and does not actually exist. For him, then, the mere fact that one has an idea of extended substance, and so can conceive of it, suffices to show that this substance exists external to mind.

Desgabets admitted "an extreme difference between the thoughts of M. Descartes and mine" concerning the issue of the existence of the external material world, since Descartes allowed for the possibility that extended substance exist not in extramental reality but only "objectively" in one's mind (19831985, 6:223). However, one reason for Desgabets's extreme opposition derives from his development of Descartes's doctrine of the creation of the eternal truths. Descartes had introduced this doctrine in 1630 in correspondence with Marin Mersenne, in which he insisted that God's free and indifferent will is the efficient cause of the eternal truths. Desgabets took this position to indicate that there are no preexisting truths concerning creatures that constrain divine creation. But he also insisted that if eternal truths concerning bodies were grounded in a mental objective reality, then those truths would seem to be as contingent and mutable as one's mind. In Desgabets's version of the Cartesian doctrine the truths are grounded rather in an extended substance with an atemporal existence that is completely indefectible. Thus, the necessity and immutability of the relevant truths are assured, even given that God has freely created the indefectible substance that provides the foundation for these truths.

The juxtaposition in Desgabets of a strong voluntarism and a firm commitment to substantial indefectibility is found also in the work of the French Cartesian Pierre-Sylvain Regis, who called Desgabets "one of the greatest metaphysicians of our age." Regis endorsed Desgabets's arguments both for the claim that one's idea of extended substance reveals immediately the extramental existence of that substance and for the conclusion that temporal human thought requires a union with and thus presupposes the existence of bodily motion. In both Desgabets and Regis, then, radical doctrines concerning the indefectibility of substance, the intentionality of ideas, and the union of all human thought with motion constitute an unusual but philosophically sophisticated version of Cartesianism.

See also Cartesianism.


works by desgabets

Considérations sur l'état présent de la controverse touchant le Très Saint-Sacrement de l'autel, où il est traité en peu mots de l'opinion qui enseigne que la matière du pain est changé en celle du corps de Jésus-Christ par son union substantielle à son âme et à sa personne divine. Hollande: Sphère, 1671.

Critique de la critique de la recherche de la verité, ou l'on découvre le chemin qui conduit aux connoissances solides. Pour servir de reponse à la lettre d'un academicien. Paris: du Puis, 1675.

Dom Robert Desgabets: Oeuvres philosophiques inédites. 7 vols, edited by Joseph Beaude. Amsterdam: Quadratures, 19831985.

works about desgabets

Armogathe, Jean-Robert. Theologia cartesiana: l'explication physique de l'Eucharistie chez Descartes et dom Desgabets. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1977.

Beaude, Joseph. "Cartésianisme et anticartésianisme de Desgabets." Studia cartesiana 1 (1979): 124.

Cook, Monte. "Desgabets's Representation Principle." Journal of the History of Philosophy 40 (2) (2002): 189200.

Denis, Jean-Baptiste. Lettre escrite à M. Sobière, with an "Extrait d'une lettre de Dom Robert des Gabets et Discours de la communication ou transfusion du sang pronouncé à Paris chez Montmor en juillet 1658." Paris: Cusson, 1668.

Easton, Patricia. "Desgabets, dom Robert." In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University, 1995. (

"Journée D. Robert Desgabets du CNRS." Revue de synthèse 74 (1974).

Retz, Jean-François-Paul de Gondi, cardinal de. "Dissertations sur le cartésianisme, par le cardinal de Retz et le bénédictin dom Robert Des Gabets." In Oeuvres de cardinal de Retz, vol. 9. Edited by R. de Chantelauze. Paris: Hachette, 1887.

Rodis-Lewis, Geneviève. L'anthropologie cartésienne. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1990.

Rodis-Lewis, Geneviève. "Robert Desgabets." In Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, begründet von Friedrich Ueberweg, völlig neubearbeitete Ausgabe. Die Philosophie des 17. Jahrhunderts. Vol. 2, Frankreich, und Niederlande, vol. 1, edited by Jean-Pierre Schobinger. Basil: Schwabe, 1993.

Schmaltz, Tad M. Radical Cartesianism: The French Reception of Descartes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Tad M. Schmaltz (2005)

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Desgabets, Robert (1610–1678)

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