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Philosophy, Scientific Knowledge, and Concept Formation in Geulincx and Descartes

By M.J.H. Aalderink


Descartes does not have an elaborated theory of scientific knowledge. His academic followers, however, needed that to construct a comprehensive philosophy. One of the more interesting Cartesians was Arnout Geulincx (1624-1669). Unlike Descartes, he extensively discusses scientific knowledge. He draws heavily on the Aristotelian tradition, but their views are considerably changed in the process. In this book, it is shown to what extent Geulincx deviates from Descartes and the Aristotelians and that his appropriation of their views leads to a highly innovative and typically modern view of science. Part one is devoted to the theory of error. First the attitudes of Descartes and Geulincx with respect to Aristotelian philosophy are examined. Although Descartes’ rejects Aristotelian physics, his attitude towards Aristotelianism is more mitigated and less comprehensive than that of Geulincx. Then Descartes’ theory of judgement and prejudice are set out. Geulincx adopts both theories and extends their application to ethics. At the same time, it is shown that Geulincx holds completely different theories of action, will, and cognition. Part two is concerned with the theory of scientific knowledge. It is argued that Geulincx takes over the Aristotelian theory of scientific knowledge. Like Aristotle, but unlike Descartes, he sharply separates scientific knowledge from knowledge of the ultimate principles. At the same time, he adopts and elaborates on the typically Cartesian theory of conceptual relations. Scientific knowledge is nothing other than explicating those conceptual relations in proofs. Part three deals with the origin of scientific concepts. It is shown that Geulincx has another theory of ideas than Descartes. For Geulincx, an idea is always an expression of the essence of a thing. But there are also concepts of properties, which follow from that essence. Whereas ideas of the essences of external things are passively perceived (in God), Geulincx argues that the content of our concepts of properties is constructed by the human intellect. This is connected with the view that scientific knowledge does not concern reality as it is in itself, but as it is perceived by us. Scientific knowledge is relative knowledge – we make reality intelligible to us. Part four develops this theme of intelligibility. The human intellect confers intelligibility to external reality by applying concepts like being (ens) and substance to external objects. As a result of the fact that we necessarily attribute those non-representational concepts to external things, knowledge of independent reality is unattainable for us. What we do know, however, is that our knowledge of reality does not completely correspond to it. We are wise – that is, true philosophers – when we do not judge that our (scientific) knowledge corresponds to reality. The conclusion is that although it is clear that Geulincx is decisively influenced by Descartes, there are other strains of thought in his philosophy. This leads to highly innovative and typically modern views. It is argued that these views in part originate in Geulincx’ interpretation of Cartesian philosophy as well as Augustinian Platonism

Topics: Wijsbegeerte
Publisher: Utrecht University
Year: 2010
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