Rene Descartes – Principles of Philosophy

30 October, 2017 - MA Coursework

Rene Descartes, A Discourse on Method, Meditations on the First Philosophy, Principles of Philosophy, trans. John Veitch (New York: Dutton, 1975).


In 1938, before the philosophy of science had disabused itself of its presentist progress narrative, Gaston Bachelard condemned Descartes’ vortical plenist universe as the “metaphysics of the sponge” and “pre-scientific,” what John Schuster paraphrases as “the sub-scientific progeny of cancerous metaphor and baroque ego projection.” While that may be an entertaining critique of Descartes’ cosmology, it is not a very productive one. If we resist the convenience of anachronistically viewing past events as either steps toward ignorance or enlightenment, and instead as a complex interplay of ideas and actions whose “correctness” by present standards is irrelevant to their contemporaneous significance, then Descartes vortical fluid cosmology can be seen not as a deviation, but a contribution, to scientific thought.

Descartes may have, in the course of his Principles of Philosophy, provided us with a contemporaneously context-appropriate rubric for evaluating his cosmological contributions. Principles contains not just natural-philosophical conclusions, but also a framework for natural philosophizing in general. In its preface, Descartes describes the four possible origins of the “degrees of wisdom at which we have arrived”: self-evident notions, or those which do not require cogitation; sensorial experience; notions acquired in conversation with others; and, as an extension of the third means, the reading of texts written by capable persons, as a kind of conversation. Descartes acknowledges a fifth path, “incomparably more sure and elevated than the other four,” to search for first causes and true principles to deduce everything else, but that no one has yet succeeded in this endeavor. For Descartes, it is on followers of this fifth path that the title of true philosopher has historically been bestowed. Indeed, this understanding of philosophy was the paradigmatic conception of truth since the time of the ancients. Descartes aim, and the purpose of the Principles, is to show that deductions from first principles are only valid if the principles are valid, and that previous attempts at this “fifth way” relied on false premises. Descartes produces two first principles of his own. Descartes first first principle might be called “ontology by thought” — that a thinker, no matter how plagued by uncertainty and doubt, cannot doubt he or she is thinking while doubting — this is his first principle as regards metaphysical concerns. For “physical or corporeal things,” Descartes takes as his principles that “there are bodies extended in length, breadth, and depth, which are of diverse figures and are moved in a variety of ways.” Even though Descartes, by design, has his physical principles as derivative from his metaphysical principles, the fact that he compartmentalizes them to their appropriate purposes makes possible a revolutionary materialist approach to natural philosophizing. Descartes’ “metaphysics of the sponge” fluid cosmology is significant of this natural-philosophical development. Further, Descartes contributes to the philosophy of science by eroding the absolutism of truth and encouraging the reevaluation of evidence when he says, “while we only possess the knowledge which is acquired in the first four grades of wisdom, we ought not to doubt of the things that appear to be true in what regards the conduct of life, nor esteem them as so certain that we cannot change our opinions regarding them, even though constrained by the evidence of reason.” Moreover, Descartes legitimates the necessity of the role of experimental practice. For Descartes, the “greater number” of truths deducible from the first principles he sets down “depend on certain particular experiments that never occur by chance.” While Descartes may have believed in the realism of his cosmology, he nevertheless designed it inside a philosophical framework which made possible and even encouraged its constant reexamination. In this sense, Cartesian cosmology was put forth, perhaps as the first, as a hypothesis and not a fact.

Descartes’ “sub-scientific progeny of cancerous metaphor and baroque ego projection” rendered moot the conflict over the purported motion of the earth. For Descartes, motion is the translation of an object relative to the stuff in contact with it, and not relative to some absolute point of reference. Since in the Cartesian cosmology, the heaven is composed of a mobile fluid in which the solid bodies are embedded, the earth can be said to move around the sun motionlessly, being carried in its orbit by its fluid medium, without altering its position relative to the enveloping fluid. The planets (and earth is just a planet like the others to Descartes), thus achieve mobility without motility. This fluid cosmology defuses the Tychonic/Copernican conflict. For Descartes the sun is much larger than the earth, the moon is much smaller, the sun is much farther, the sun is just another fixed star, the remainder of the fixed stars are inconceivably distant from the earth, and likewise distant from each other. With these few assertions, Descartes instantiated the solar-systemic model and laid the groundwork for the idea of gravitational neighborhoods. He broke the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic spheres and disassociated the fixed stars from our sun and planets, demythologizing the relationship between all components in the firmament and creating an astronomic typology in which the sun is an instance of the “star” type and the earth is an instance of the “planet” type, eliminating our symbolic specialness from the cosmological order. This was made possible by Descartes’ refutation of a centuries old scholastic-Christian philosophical first principle: that the universe was created by God for us, “supposing that he did it all for our benefit” would be “the height of presumption” . . . quite a lot of work for a cancerous metaphor driven by baroque ego-projection.









Rene Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988),





















John A. Schuster, “‘Waterworld’: Descartes’ Vortical Celestial Mechanics,” in The Science of Nature in the Seventeenth Century: Patterns of Change in Early Modern Natural Philosophy, eds. Peter R. Anstey & John A. Schuster (Dordrecht: Springer, 2005), 35-80.




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