The Renaissance and Seventeenth-Century Rationalism

By G. H.R. Parkinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5

Descartes: methodology

Stephen Gaukroger


INTRODUCTION

The seventeenth century is often referred to as the century of the Scientific Revolution, a time of fundamental scientific change in which traditional theories were either replaced by new ones or radically transformed. Descartes made contributions to virtually every scientific area of his day. He was one of the founders of algebra, he discovered fundamental laws in geometrical optics, his natural philosophy was the natural philosophy in the seventeenth century before the appearance of Newton’s Principia (Newton himself was a Cartesian before he developed his own natural philosophy) and his work in biology and physiology resulted, amongst other things, in the discovery of reflex action. 1 Descartes’s earliest interests were scientific, and he seems to have thought his scientific work of greater importance than his metaphysical writings throughout his career. In a conversation with Burman, recorded in 1648, he remarked:

A point to note is that you should not devote so much effort to the Meditations and to metaphysical questions, or give them elaborate treatment in commentaries and the like. Still less should one do what some try to do, and dig more deeply into these questions than the author did: he has dealt with them all quite deeply enough. It is sufficient to have grasped them once in a general way, and then to remember the conclusion. Otherwise they draw the mind too far away from physical and observable things, and make it unfit to study them. Yet it is just these physical studies that it is most desirable for men to pursue, since they would yield abundant benefits for life. 2

Despite this, Descartes has often been considered a metaphysician in natural philosophy, deriving physical truths from metaphysical first

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