Descartes’ most important influence

The 17th century thinker René Descartes is seen as the father of modern philosophy: A man who was entirely original, whose work marked a clear divide from earlier thinkers, and who laid the foundation for modern thought with his focus on self-knowledge of the individual mind.

But that narrative is “unquestionably false,” says Christia Mercer, a philosophy professor at Columbia University. Indeed, “people in his period did not think Descartes was the father of anything,” she adds. Though the philosopher was renowned in his day for his work on physics and natural philosophy, it wasn’t until the 19th century that historians portrayed Descartes as a major break with the past. This idea has endured in part because, while historians searched for the great male thinkers who might have influenced Descartes’ ideas, they missed the female philosopher who came before him: Teresa of Ávila.

Read on.

3 thoughts on “Descartes’ most important influence

  1. Jenny, out of curiosity, have you read Teresa of Avila at all? And, if so, did you find her work to be Philosophy in a way you’d recognize? I ask, because I have read her most famous work (I think), _The Interior Castle_, and it really has much more in common, it seems to me, with others who are not readily cast as philosophers today, even though they are men – people like her contemporary, St. John of the Cross and the like. The idea that she’s called a “mystic” because she’s a woman, as suggested in the piece, seems pretty far-fetched. I’m certainly willing to believe that she had an influence on Descartes. (Whether it’s the “most important” influence is obviously more debatable, and clearly not supported by the text linked to as such) But, the straining to put women like Teresa in the “philosopher” box, when others – including many men – to whom Teresea is much more similar to, are not so classified, seems like special pleading to me. I don’t see why it’s necessary or helpful.

  2. Obviously I’m not trying to speak for Jenny, but it I can venture a response to you, Matt, I think the issue is in the valorisation of philosophy vs other kinds of thought. We hear all the time on this blog about how frequently and how problematically philosophers claim that various excellences are unique to their discipline (rigour, questioningness, concern with the highest things etc etc) and saying ‘we should think of St Teresa as a philosopher’ is a quick-sharp way of claiming for her that valorisation, hence justifying the claim that we ought to look at her seriously when we try to understand the right context of Descartes: it’s a riposte to someone who would call her a ‘mystic’ in order to dismiss her from serious consideration. It might be more accurate to argue that Christian mysticism, as its own thing and on its own term, can be as rigourous, radical, valuable etc. as philosophy, but this claim is much more liable to cause people to take you less seriously and/or start arguing with you (I speak from experience), even if it amounts to basically the same thing. So though I’m with you in preferring that we should call St Teresa a mystic and just accept that mysticism can be quite good thinking and can profitably influence philosophy, I think the article-writer and the philosopher in the article are trying to cram her into the philosopher box with some fair reasons; and my guess is that they would probably do the same thing to/for St John of the Cross if he came up.

    As for being shunted into the mystics category because she was a woman, my impression is that the philosophers who were confused about Descartes’ antecendents were very often similarly ignorant/dismissive of writers like John of the Cross – but in the world of 1800s academic philosophy I bet being a woman didn’t help.


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