Descartes versus Aristotle — Battle Royale!

February 23, 2009 at 9:00 pm (Critical Writing, Philosophy, Prose)

I feel much less secure in this argument, and would like to note this is just an initial draft of these ideas. This write-up will undoubtedly undergo (hopefully I will be able to find time for) some fairly substantial revisions.

What is radical about Descartes’ method of doubt? How does it challenge the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis? Is his method successful in this regard? Why or why not?

     Descartes’ method of doubt can be considered so radical because it challenges the foundations of what we consider knowledge, and by doing so, it challenges everything that we think that we know. The method itself is fairly simple: if you have a reason to doubt something, then it should be treated as if it were proven false. Interestingly enough, Aristotle also emphasized the need for necessity in logical reasoning and scientific inquiry, where his demonstrations of knowledge required their premises to be necessary and the conclusions to be necessary results from the premises. Similarly, Descartes, by posing the method of doubt, is setting forth the same requirements, where all knowledge must be shown to be absolutely necessary. That is to say that all foundations of argumentation and the resulting conclusions should be shown to be undoubtedly the way things really are. Of course, Descartes’ method of doubt has some rather high standards to live up to, especially when we start to consider what we know, realize that what we know has all been experienced through the senses, and that our senses have provided us with false information before; then we are given reason to doubt everything, and initially it seems as though we must treat everything as if it were false. Descartes eventually makes his way through these troubling waves of despair in his meditations, but the challenge he presents is not to be underestimated.
     Descartes’ method of doubt also comes as a sort of challenge to the existing method of learning in Catholic schools. Descartes wants his new model of learning and science to become the foundation for learning in the schools, so he is seeking to replace the old model. The old model is a fusion of Aristotelian science and the work of Thomas Aquinas that sought to reconcile Aristotle’s methods to work in accordance with faith. Aquinas achieved his reconciliation by stating that faith and reason were one truth, and that faith can be achieved via revelation. Aquinas also adopted a theory of concurrentism, where both God and created things are among the causes of any non-initial change; he backed this theory with what he called the dignity of causing, which is the idea that God respects created things, and because of this this respect he allows created things to cause things. When Aquinas’ view is pushed it seems to either become deism or occasionalism, each of which has its own problems. There is a very strong hint towards Descartes’ distaste for these ideas, as he often refers to what he was led to mistakenly believe in childhood. He begins his first mediation with “some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them” (17). He goes on to say that he “realized that it was necessary … to demolish everything … and start again right from the foundations” (17). He is clearly referencing his childhood learning and the learning of all his readers, who he invites to meditate with him. Presumably, the majority of readers would have had the Catholic schools as their foundation of learning, so Descartes begins by immediately calling the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis into question.
     Still, the biggest way in which Descartes’ method challenges the Aristotelian conception of things is through its denial of substantial forms. Substantial forms are at the heart of causal explanations in Aristotelian science. A substance is anything with essential qualities, and a substantial form is as the name suggests a form that inheres in a substance, or to give a more useful definition, a substantial form is what organizes matter, which Aristotle sees as a single primal substance, into something recognizable and intelligible in the universe. Descartes’ model, on the other hand, views the physical world as pure extension, which is infinitely divisible; so, something like atoms would be incoherent. In this model, different portions of matter move along at various speeds from one another, which is what differentiates things in the universe. Descartes’ descriptions of causal structures only involve matter and motion. This mechanistic picture of the world clearly removes the Aristotelian causal structure of substantial forms, and replaces it with Descartes’ view of everything as a mode of extension. The effect of this is that Aristotle’s four causes are reduced down to just one resembling the efficient cause. The causal chain of things is a result of collision according to Descartes, rather than some underlying purpose or form inhering in matter. This seems consciously anti-Aristotelian. The view expressed by Descartes does not even try and somehow modify Aristotle’s ideas in order to keep them in the system—it seeks simply to replace them entirely with another model.
     If this were not enough, Descartes even poses his argument in the form of ontological minimalism, which seems a very direct way to compare his own model to an Aristotelian one. Where Aristotle has many forms and substances and therefore levels of ontology, Descartes admits strictly only one substance that is God with the possible inclusion of one other substance that would be mind. Descartes borrows some of Aristotle’s language in order to illustrate directly how his own model is different and presumably better.
     Descartes manages this maneuver successfully for a number of reasons. First of all, Descartes bases his theory in extension, which makes it a perfect fit for mathematic explanation via geometry. This allows us to use something that has the clarity and distinction of mathematics in order to talk about the way the world is. If the way we talk about the world can be done through something like a mathematical proof, we can presumably discern things about the world with absolute certainty. This is something that seemed more doubtful within Aristotle’s model. Of course, Descartes points out the doubt inherent in Aristotle’s model by looking at Aristotle’s final causes, and saying that it is presumptuous of us to assume to know God’s plan and know accurately anything like a final cause.
     I think evidence of Descartes’ success can be seen simply in how many other philosophers adopt a mechanistic view as opposed to an Aristotelian view in the future. Descartes’ very scientific and mathematical model also provides a stronger basis for judgment that calls into doubt arguments that seemed very certain under an Aristotelian view. Descartes poses a counter model to Aristotle that seems much more reliable at its foundations because of Descartes method of doubt and careful examination of the root of reasoning. This makes his model seem more plausible and certain in the conclusions that it draws. The simplicity with which Descartes approaches ontology seems to coincide better with what we can comfortably assert that we know; whereas Aristotle’s many forms seem, as Descartes also put it, occult and incapable of truly describing things in an understandable way. “Glass breaks because it has the form of brittle” does not establish any kind of greater understanding for me, while the mechanistic theory of motion and collision seems to offer a more effective doorway to knowledge and explaining the world. What Aristotle undoubtedly saw as multi-splendored seems more multi-splintered, while Descartes provides a more concise account.
     In short, I believe Descartes effectively challenge the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis, even if he never truly succeeded in usurping it as the foundation of learning in Catholic schools. His methods and science still is in use in many ways today, and many of the concerns that he directly asserted and inadvertently caused (types of free will, problem of mind and body, et cetera) are still argued in philosophy today. I think his level of lasting impact and the level at which his theories continue to be argued attests to a highly effective model that in many ways did manage to depose Aristotle.



  1. Proud Mary Entertainment said,

    New here. Thanks

    Mary Aloe
    Proud Mary Entertainment

  2. Tina said,

    Thanks this totally helped for my paper :D

  3. Milo said,

    Descartes’ method of doubt has been considered so radical chiefly because it has never been fully examined. Certainly, Descartes never bothers to consider it at any length to justify it. The first point is that, to doubt, one must have some knowledge ~ or ar least, must claim to know. For example, to deny the senses, Descartes must suppose in some way that nature is never contradictory or self-contradictory ~ that, for example, the stick that seems bent in water to the eye, but straight to the touching hand, can’t possibly be both bent & straight at the same time. Why not? Can a thing be in two different places at the same time? This too would seem to be contradictory. Rosalind Heywood reports the experience of being in two different places at the same time, what is called bi-location, & a few others have reported the same experience. On the face of it, the experience involves a contradiction, & if one wishes to deny this experience, then one has to give an account of it that avoids the bi-location while preserving the experience otherwise. But it would seem that the assumption that nature is never self-contradictory is simply that ~ an assumption. This leads to the second point: the assumptions upon which the doubt is based have to be taken as knowledge, & this knowledge is both part of the method of doubt, yet is itself never doubted. Thus, when Descartes talks about madmen, he never doubts that he himself is perfectly sane, though I for one, have always regarded his project in the Meditations as being a species of madness. But how would Descartes begin to establish his sanity well enough to justify his method of doubt? Again, much later in the work, he assumes the validity of substance, accident, & modification of substance. These concepts, & the doctrines with which they’re associated, are the products of some rather sophisticated philosophical analysis. Descartes, rather than providing an alternative analysis of things much more in keeping with the basic principle of his project, simply takes over that analysis. These are assumptions of his doubting, & as such, part of the knowledge upon which his doubting is based. That they appear much later, after the work of doubting seems to have been completed, is irrelevant: they are never questioned. He knows that perception or imagination are simply modifications of thought; this is a point that never needs to be doubted, & as such, is fundamental knowledge. The method of doubt, once clearly examined, shows itself to be incapable of ever starting, still less of producing any acceptable results, because something must always be left unchallenged by doubt. Descartes’ entire project never gets started; that it accomplishes anything at all is simply an illusion. The cogito doesn’t need the process of doubt to be asserted; & everything that supposedly follows upon the cogito depends on the illicit reasoning of his method of doubt to land him in the solipsism that was his aim from the start to reach.

    “Glass breaks because it has the form of brittle”: actually, that’s not what a hylomorphic view would be. But the aristotelian-thomistic analysis is functioning at a level different from the analysis of an empiriometric science. The aim of the latter is to explain particular matters in the physical world. The former is attempting to give an account of the physical world viewed as a whole ~ apart from particular phenomena. Neither procedure does or can function at the level of the other. The empiriometrical sciences, when they don’t import philosophical doctrines surreptitiously into their theorizing, lack methods to deal with the whole of nature, & with the whole even of given phenomena. When one does import such philosophical doctrines, one ends up with the thinking of Descartes, or with doctrines of a comparable nature ~ empiriometrical explanations illicitly & unjustifiably extended to areas of reality that they can’t enter ~ philosophy passing as empiriometrical science. Purpose, for example. Just because empiriometrical sciences lack the means to deal with purpose in nature, doesn’t mean that purpose doesn’t exist in nature. For them to follow Descartes in denying teleology is unwarranted, because the question of teleology can’t be handled in the empiriometrical sciences & amounts to a dogmatic philosophical denial. The entire question of teleology falls outside the empiriometrical sciences, which must be silent about the matter in any summation of their findings. The silence neither is nor can be construed as a denial; it is rather ignorance of the issue, because empiriometrical methods aren’t suited to dealing with it.

  4. tcaddick said,

    ‘a substantial form is what organizes matter, which Aristotle sees as a single primal substance’

    ‘By “matter” I mean that which in itself is not called a substance’ – Aristotle

    Matter without form in aristotelian metaphysics, so-called ‘prime matter’, is not an actual substance which is rearranged by form as some kind of fundamental unit – it can only be said to exist in potency.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: