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Descartes is generally credited as the "father of modern philosophy." This honorific is perhaps due just as much to the originality of his philosophical ideas as it is to the radical nature of his approach to philosophy. A slow but increasing tension was growing between the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church and the development of both the scientific method and the discoveries that challenged that orthodoxy.
Descartes's approach to philosophy differed in almost every aspect from the traditional Scholastic approach. The "philosophy of the schools" and their "schoolmen," as Descartes called them, continued a philosophical tradition established in the European universities of the mid-13th century. In Descartes's day, Aristotelian philosophy still held sway. Descartes thought, however, that the Scholastic tradition following the Aristotelian worldview had it wrong. Whereas, for example, Greek philosopher Aristotle held a teleological view of the universe (describing things in terms of their purpose or goal), Descartes held a mechanistic one (physical phenomena were described by the motion of a body's parts by applying the geometric method to physics).
His method of conducting philosophical investigations was equally at odds with the Scholastic approach of setting out a proposition or "question," presenting arguments for each side, answering objections to each argument, and then advancing one's own view. Descartes's approach, as experienced in the Meditations, is both more intimate and personal. The reader takes on the role of investigator, a first-person participant in the arguments presented.
The Roman Catholic Church had dominated Europe for centuries, having become embedded in the very fabric of life—including politics. This generated enormous material wealth and power for the Church but led to many corrupt practices. The sale of indulgences (atoning for one's sins through monetary contributions to the Church) is one example of the spiritual bankruptcy that undermined the Church's authority. The Reformation was a response to this condition. Led by Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–64), the religious revolution of the 16th century became the basis for the break from the Catholic Church that led to the founding of Protestantism.
Descartes was born in the aftermath of this initial fracture. Descartes's home country, France, remained Catholic, and the Church retained intellectual and institutional power. Nevertheless, the Reformation had destabilized the Church, and its response was to go on the defensive. No intellectual was safe. Hence when Descartes learned that the Church condemned Galileo for advancing the thesis that Earth moves around the sun, he withdrew his work, The World, from publication. In it he endorsed the same hypothesis. Descartes also circulated his Meditations to several theologians in order to elicit objections to include in the publication—his ultimate aim being to secure the approval of the Church.
The Scientific Revolution is a modern name given to a period (1543–1600) during which interest in the natural world coincided with nautical exploration, technological advancements, and the rediscovery of ancient writings that inspired intellectual innovation. While the Scientific Revolution was a slow-moving process, it was a revolution nonetheless, for it radically altered the way people conceived of the universe—and Descartes was an integral part of the intellectual advancements that contributed to it. Among other notable intellectuals living and working from the 15th through the early 18th centuries were Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton.
The most significant intellectual shift occurred when thinkers abandoned a teleological or purposeful view of the universe in favor of a mechanistic or mathematical one. So rather than looking at nature as being purposeful or goal oriented, as Aristotle did, these thinkers looked for mathematical—mechanistic—accounts. Innovations in scientific instrumentation facilitated thus shift. More precise instruments meant more exacting calculations. Galileo's inquiries were not limited to what could be gleaned from empirical observation. They were also interested in technologies that supported such investigations. In addition they often shared information with artisans working on crafting tools, which precipitated new thinking about instruments used for scientific investigations. Navigational devices had already been improving in the decades before scientific breakthroughs began. After all, exploration was in full swing, which made such improvements imperative for successful journeys. Beginning in the early and mid-16th century, thinkers created or innovated the odometer, microscope, telescope, barometer, air pump, and thermometer.
While Descartes was careful not to alienate the Church, he endorsed the Copernican and Galilean position that Earth moves. He retained a place for religion, however, when he distinguished mind and body as distinct substances. Scientific investigations would yield many truths about the material world, while the mind, or soul, would be the domain of the Church. Of course, centuries later technology is encroaching on this domain with remarkable results. Neuroscientists are learning increasingly more about consciousness (Descartes's mind or soul). The sorts of answers provided to questions about the mind—one of the most enduring mysteries, yet also the most intimately familiar—reveal the long-standing dissonance between science and faith.
It is worth noting that the term science was not in use during the Scientific Revolution. Astronomers, physicists, biologists, and the like all studied "natural philosophy." The discipline known as philosophy—which arguably began when Thales of Miletus, a 6th-century BCE Greek philosopher, first proposed water as the ultimate substance and origin of all things—was not sharply distinguished from other intellectual endeavors. It was not unusual for someone like Descartes to pursue interests in optics, mathematics, astronomy, and ethics. Moreover, in the medieval and early modern periods science was, both institutionally and conceptually, a theological concern. With the Church as its patron, it is not surprising that teleological physics held sway.