The contagion of Rationalism: new under the sun, circa 1650

19 May
René Descartes

René Descartes

Luc Ferry, philosopher of the University of Paris, summarizes Descartes’s importance:

[Descartes] offers three new ideas, which make their appearance for the first time in the history of thought. These three ideas were destined for a remarkable posterity and they are of fundamental importance to modern philosophy.

First: each time Descartes stages a new drama of doubt, it is not merely an intellectual game; it aims to arrive at a new definition of truth… Thus a state of subjective consciousness – certainty – becomes nothing less than the new criterion of truth…

Second: even more decisively, in political and historical terms, was the idea of the tabular rasa – the absolute rejection of all preconceptions and all inherited beliefs deriving from tradition…

…[Descartes] declared that all past beliefs, all ideas inherited from family or state, or indoctrinated from infancy onwards by ‘authorities’ (masters, priests) must be cast into doubt, and examined in complete freedom by the individual subject. He alone is capable of deciding between true and false…

Third, an idea whose unprecedented revolutionary power in the age of Descartes is hard for us now to imagine: whereby we must reject all ‘arguments from authority.’ The expression ‘arguments from authority’ means all beliefs with a claim to absolute truth imposed externally by institutions endowed with powers that we have no right to dispute: family, schoolmasters, priest and so on…

The idea that one must accept an opinion because it is maintained by external authority, of whatever kind, became so repugnant to the Modern Spirit as to define Modernity

(end quote ; italics from Martin Noland)


Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: a Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011), 129-32 ; quoted in Noland, Martin, “Why am I a Lutheran?”, in Propter Christum: Christ at the Center, pp. 240-241.


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Posted by on May 19, 2014 in Uncategorized


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