Foucher, Simon (1644–1696)

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Simon Foucher was one of the foremost critics of Cartesian philosophy. He was born in Dijon, France, where, after taking orders, he was made honorary canon of the Sainte Chapelle. He took a bachelor's degree in theology at the Sorbonne and spent his adult life as a chaplain in Paris, where he died. His first published work is a long didactic poem commemorating the death of Anne of Austria (16011666). In another long poem he defends the compatibility of Greek and Christian moral principles. In Paris he attended the lectures on Cartesian physics given by Jacques Rohault, which inspired him to make original experiments in the science of hygrometry (humidity of the atmosphere) on which he published two pioneering works in 1672 and 1686. He also produced three major dissertations concerning the value of Academic skepticism in the search for truth. He was the first to publish criticisms of both Nicolas Malebranche's occasionalism and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's monadism, and it is for these critiques that he is best known.

Academic Method

Foucher considered himself to be the reviver of Academic philosophy, by which he means Socratic ignorance combined with the reasonable doubt of Philo of Larissa and Antiochus of Ascalon, who say that they know some things and are ignorant of others; he argues that this is the middle way between dogmatism and Pyrrhonism. The primary maxim of his Academic philosophy is to recognize only vérité evident as a rule of truth. The Academic laws are:

(1) To proceed only by demonstrations in philosophy

(2) To avoid unanswerable questions

(3) To admit when one does not know

(4) To distinguish what one knows from what one does not know

(5) Always to seek after knowledge

There are three important axioms:

(1) True knowledge cannot come from sense experience

(2) Opinion is not knowledge

(3)Words must presuppose concepts

Foucher argues that the goal of philosophy is to find a criterion of truth with which to avoid error in judgment. The criterion can be used to obtain knowledge of the essence of things and to put this knowledge into a necessary order. But no criterion of truth can be adequate for attaining the absolute certainty that René Descartes seeks. Truth is basically human and fallible.

Foucher builds no system of his own; his talents are primarily critical. His method is that of the traditional skeptic: he assumes the suppositions of the system under analysis and then reasons by reductio ad absurdum to contradictory conclusions. But unlike the Pyrrhonian skeptics who wish to confute all knowledge claims, Foucher's Academic skepticism is meant to advance probable science and knowledge.

Criticisms of Malebranche and Cartesianism

Foucher claims that Descartes, to his credit, takes his rules of method from the Academics but that it is a major mistake on Descartes's part to assert that clear and distinct ideas can be certain and that they represent things external to one. Foucher follows Aristotle in professing that he cannot understand how one can have knowledge of the external world if no such knowledge comes through the senses. He further insists that both Descartes's claim that the knowledge of the essence of matter is innate and that knowledge of the properties of extension comes only through the reason, and not the senses, are unintelligible. Beyond this, Foucher makes four basic criticisms of Cartesianism.

First, Foucher argues that if mind and matter differ in essence, this allows no possibility of essential likeness between the two substances, which is necessary for causal interaction. Therefore, Cartesian mind and matter cannot interact.

Second, interaction between mind and matter obviously takes place, yet this interaction cannot be accounted for by Cartesian principles. Consequently, the Cartesians cannot know the true essences of mind and matter. The principle that likeness is necessary between cause and effect is self-evident, Foucher says, so mind and matter cannot be essentially different.

The third criticism concerns the ontological similarity between sensations and conceptual ideas, both of which are said by the Cartesians to be modifications of the mind. Both also are caused by the interaction of the mind with material things. However, ideas are said to represent objects external to the mind, whereas sensations do not. Foucher argues that if ideas are mental modifications representative of the material things that cause them, then why cannot sensations, which are also modifications of the mind, represent the material things that cause them? Or conversely, if sensations cannot represent material things, then how can ideas do so? This objection of Foucher's seems to be based on the Cartesian dictum that the cause of an idea must have at least as much formal or eminent reality as the idea has objective reality. Foucher argues that this means that it is necessary for there to be a likeness between the formal or eminent reality of the material thing and the objective reality of its idea. Because of this likeness, the material thing can cause the idea to resemble it and, hence, to represent it. Since sensations are caused by the same objects that cause ideas, why would sensations not also be like their causes, and hence representative of them? In this criticism Foucher basically ignores the Cartesian implication that conceptual ideas represent through description, not through resemblance, as sensations are ordinarily thought to do (although not by Descartes).

Fourth, if mind and matter are substances that differ in essence, then there can be no similarity or resemblance between them or their respective modifications. And, Foucher claims, it is obvious that if there is no resemblance, there can be no representation. Unextended ideas cannot represent extended material things or material modifications because ideas are mental modifications that can in no way resemble material things or material modifications. Hence, Cartesian ontology precludes an intelligible epistemology.

Such Cartesians as Rohault, Pierre-Sylvain Régis, Robert Desgabets, Louis de La Forge (16321666), and Antoine Le Grand (16291699) deny that ontological likeness or resemblance is necessary for an idea to represent its object. Foucher persists in asking for an explication of this nonresembling representation that is as intelligible as the notion that representation depends on resemblance, but he receives little more in reply than that God assures it. Foucher is himself a faithful Christian, but he insists against the Cartesians and Malebranche that declarations of faith in God's power and wisdom cannot be used as principles in philosophy.

Foucher takes Malebranche, as well as Descartes, to be saying that both sensations and ideas are modifications of the soul, which is a substance differing in essence from body. Malebranche denies that his ideas are mental modifications, but holds rather that they are beings in the mind of God. Foucher argues that Malebranchian ideas external to the mind, even if they are in the mind of God, would be as difficult to know as are material objects external to the mind. Despite Malebranche's derision and that Foucher never takes him to be anything but a Cartesian, Foucher's criticisms bear on a vital point in Malebranche's system as well as in the systems of nonoccasionalist Cartesians. The epistemological failure of Cartesianism stems from the inability of Cartesians to give an explication of how ideas represent material things that is compatible with their dualist ontology.

Correspondence with Leibniz

In a correspondence noteworthy for the clearness with which each philosopher states his views, Leibniz agrees with Foucher that Academic principles are useful and that once in a lifetime a philosopher should follow his suppositions to their foundations. But Foucher insists that philosophy is primarily the examination and establishment of first principles, whereas Leibniz contends that very few philosophers are needed for this task; the important work is to follow out consequences in the development of knowledge. Foucher agrees that mathematics and hypothetical systems based on propositions of identity allow the deduction of truths internal to coherent systems, but he is concerned with the correspondence relation of these conceptual systems to the external world. Before a deductive natural philosophy is possible, it must be determined that the physical world is truly represented by one's concepts, axioms, and systems.

Extracts from the correspondence appear in the Journal des Sçavans from 1692 to 1696. In these Leibniz first places his new system before the public and Foucher gives it its first published critique. Foucher sees Leibniz's new system as little more than preestablished Malebranchian occasionalism, and he asks why God should go to such trouble to make it appear that mind and body interact if they really do not. Leibniz objects to occasionalism on the grounds that God should not continually be involved in making adjustments; Foucher argues that preestablished harmony, with all adjustments made at once, is no better. He says that Leibniz, like Malebranche, retains matter that is useless in his system because everyone experiences the interaction between mind and body. The task is to explain how interaction does take place, not merely how it seems to take place and how one can talk as though it does. For this, a monistic ontology in which mind and matter are metaphysically similar is required.

Foucher thus approves of Leibniz's denial of the Cartesian contention that extension is the essence of matter and his development of a monism of monads. The closest Foucher himself comes to outlining a monistic ontology is his suggestion to Leibniz that he should develop his ontology of monads to this end. Leibniz does not do this.

Foucher is not assured that any first principles apply to the world, and he criticizes Leibniz for building a system on uncertain foundations. Foucher reiterates that Descartes's criterion of certainty, clarity, and distinctness is useless and that the infallible mark of truth has not yet been discovered.

Foucher is important in the history of modern philosophy as a skeptic who originated epistemological criticisms that are fatal to the Cartesian way of ideas. Foucher's arguments against the distinction between ideas and sensationsthat both are modifications of mindwere utilized by Pierre Bayle (Dictionnaire historique et critique, 5th ed. 1740, "Pyrrhon," Remark B), George Berkeley (A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge 1710, 815; Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous 1710, I), and David Hume (A Treatise of Human Nature 1739, I, IV, iv) to destroy the distinction between the primary qualities of size, shape, and position that John Locke says actually modify material bodies and the secondary qualities of sensible visual imagery, touch, taste, sound, and smell that Locke says do not modify bodies but are merely caused by them. The argument is that all these qualities are equally sensible.

See also Antiochus of Ascalon; Aristotle; Bayle, Pierre; Berkeley, George; Cartesianism; Descartes, René; Desgabets, Robert; Hume, David; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Malebranche, Nicolas; Philo of Larissa; Pyrrhonian Problematic, The; Régis, Pierre-Sylvain; Rohault, Jacques.


works by foucher

Critique la recherche de la vérité, 1675.

De la sagesse des anciens, 1682.

Dissertation sur la reserche de la vérité, 1687.


Armour, Leslie. "Simon Foucher, Knowledge, and Idealism: Philo of Larissa and the Enigmas of a French 'Skeptic.'" In Cartesian Views: Papers Presented to Richard A. Watson, edited by Thomas M. Lennon, 97115. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

Lennon, Thomas M. "Foucher, Huet, and the Downfall of Cartesianism." In Cartesian Views: Papers Presented to Richard A. Watson, edited by Thomas M. Lennon, pp. 117128. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

Maia Neto, Jose R. "Foucher's Academic Cartesianism." In Cartesian Views: Papers Presented to Richard A. Watson, edited by Thomas M. Lennon, 7195. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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

Watson, Richard A. The Downfall of Cartesianism, 16731712: A Study of Epistemological Issues in Late Seventeenth Century Cartesianism. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1965.

Watson, Richard A. "Foucher's Mistake and Malebranche's Break: Ideas, Intelligible Extension, and the End of Ontology." In Nicolas Malebranche: His Philosophical Critics and Successors, edited by Stuart Brown, 2234. Assen/Maastricht, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1991.

Watson, Richard A. Introduction to Critique de la recherche de la vérité by Simon Foucher. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1969.

Watson, Richard A. "Introduction and Translation of Simon Foucher's Critique [of Nicolas Malebranche's] of the Search for Truth." In Malebranche's First and Last Critics: Simon Foucher and Dortous de Mairan, edited by Richard A. Watson and Marjorie Grene, 157. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

Richard A. Watson (1967, 2005)