The Rationalists

The Rationalists

The Rationalists

The Rationalists

Synopsis

The seventeenth century saw a major revolution in our ways of thinking about such issues as the method appropriate to philosophy and science, the relation between mind and body, the nature of substance, and the place of humanity in nature. While not neglecting the lesser but still influential figures, such as Arnauld and Malebranche, John Cottingham focuses primarily on the three great "rationalists": Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. He examines how they approached central problems of philosophy, and shows how closely their ideas are related, despite the radically different philosophical systems they produced. He not only places the major thinkers in their historical and philosophical contexts, but engages their ideas in a vigorously critical way, revealing their capacity to throw light on major philosophical topics that are still very much alive today.

Excerpt

The philosophers who are the principal subjects of this book are beyond question three of the world's greatest thinkers, and to give a fully comprehensive account of their work is surely beyond the scope of a single volume--certainly one of this size. Even to claim to have outlined the most important topics would be rash, since we are dealing with writers whose ideas are extremely wide- ranging and opinions legitimately differ as to what is philosophically important. This book will have achieved its limited goal if at least some of the vital connecting links between the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz have been uncovered. But despite adopting a deliberately selective strategy, I have tried not to narrow the focus excessively; thus the reader will find that from time to time reference is made to less widely studied figures of the period, such as Malebranche and Arnauld, particularly where their ideas help to put the theories of the three great rationalists into perspective.

The very title which the editors of the Opus series have chosen for this volume may cause some hackles to rise, for the standard labels 'rationalist' and 'empiricist' have come in for a good deal of critical scrutiny in recent years. Much of this criticism seems to me well-taken, and some of the distortions which the traditional labels can encourage are touched on in Chapter 1. When the distortions have been removed, however, the term 'rationalist', if used with sufficient care, can still be of service. Moreover, irrespective of what classifications we use, there is still fascination and philosophical profit to be had in exploring the many common themes in the writings of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. If nothing else, such an exercise ought to serve as an antidote to the still frequent practice of analysing philosophers in isolation as if their ideas sprang into existence ready made, independently of the intellectual climate of their times. Yet for all that, the history of philosophy should never become a purely historical affair; part of the appeal of the great seventeenth-century rationalists is that by . . .

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