Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

25

THE COLLAPSE OF
CARTESIANISM

i. Empiricism

A discerning observer of the world of learning, contemplating Europe's war of philosophies in 1700, might well have concluded that Cartesianism and its offshoot, Malebranchisme, were most strongly placed to win and, sponsored by governments and Churches, to construct a new general hegemony of ideas in Europe's culture. If scholastic Aristotelianism still officially presided in the colleges of France, Italy, Flanders, Austria, Spain, and Portugal, scholasticism was everywhere in retreat, and patently incapable of fending off Descartes and Malebranche among the intellectual and scientific élite. Meanwhile, in many Protestant lands, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Brandenburg-Prussia, the Palatinate, Switzerland, and Scotland, Cartesianism of various hues enjoyed a broad intellectual ascendancy.1 If Leibniz presided at Hanover, and most German universities and courts offered an incoherent, fragmented picture, Cartesianism in Germany and throughout central Europe was at any rate as strong as, or stronger than, any other philosophical contender.

Yet of the three rival versions of moderate, mainstream, Early Enlightenment— Neo-Cartesianism, Newtonianism (reinforced with Locke), and Leibnizian– Wolffianism, that which in 1700 appeared most formidable, and enjoyed the widest support amongst Europe's ruling élites, Cartesianism, rapidly proved the most precarious intellectually and was the first to collapse under the strain of escalating philosophical and scientific strife. Many of Europe's acutest minds discarded Cartesianism during the opening years of the new century. Vico came out publicly against Cartesianism, disparaging Descartes' use of the cogito, in a public oration before the viceroy of Naples in 1708,2 and later expanded his critique in a published version, granting Cartesian philosophy had dramatically changed our picture of the world but stressing even more the dangers of teaching men to think in exclusively mechanistic terms, disregarding the whole edifice of received thought and

1 Watson, Breakdown, 21; Brockliss, 'Curricula', 585–6; Wood. 'Scientific Revolution in Scotland', 266–9;
Stewart, 'Scottish Enlightenment', 275; Israel, Dutch Republic, 889–909; Lindroth, Svensk lärdomshistoria, ii,
464–5, 577–80.

2 Vico, Autobiography, 146; Croce, Filosofia, 11–16; Verene, 'Introduction', 24–5.

-477-

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