The Dawes Hicks Symposium for 2004, hosted by the British Academy, is on central themes in the thought of the three major ‘rationalists’, Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, relating them to the wider philosophical and theological tradition.
Professor John Cottingham, Reading University: Plato’s sun and Descartes’ stove: contemplation and control in Cartesian philosophy
This paper examines three principal areas in Descartes’ philosophy — cosmology, metaphysics and morals — with a view to exploring a recurring tension between the Platonic strands in his thinking and what may be called ‘modernizing’ impulses. In Descartes’ cosmology, the Platonic echoes seem at first to be strong, but crucial structural features of his philosophy of science drive Descartes increasingly towards a value-free conception of the universe that in many respects prefigures the standard modern scientific worldview. In Cartesian metaphysics, by contrast, the Platonic elements are much more central and pervasive, manifesting themselves most notably in the development of a contemplative conception of knowledge and the search for truth, in contrast to the ideas of intervention and control which motivate much of Descartes’ scientific programme. Finally, in the moral theory developed in his later writings, we see Descartes wrestling with the same thematic tensions; here the official Cartesian programme for realising the good life via scientific control of our psychophysiology finally yields to the influence of an older ethical tradition of self-control achieved through contemplation of the good.
Discussant: Dr Douglas Hedley, Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge
Professor Michael Ayers, FBA, Wadham College, Oxford: Spinoza and Platonism
Professor Ayers considers Spinoza's relation to Platonism. He focuses in particular on Spinoza's monism and on his radical solutions to such issues as the relations between universals (eternal truths) and particular things, and between the divine mind and human minds.
Discussant: Dr Sarah Hutton, School of Humanities and Cultural Studies, Middlesex University
Professor Robert M. Adams, Yale University: The Priority of the Perfect in Continental Philosophical Theology from Descartes to Kant
‘[T]here is more reality in infinite than in finite substance, and ... hence the perception of the infinite is in some way prior in me to that of the finite.’ This premise of Descartes's first theistic argument in his third Meditation astonishes readers today. Following a brief examination of the forms in which the thesis of the natural and conceptual priority of the perfect occurs in the philosophical theologies of Descartes and Spinoza, this lecture will focus on the form in which Leibniz, and after him, Wolff, Baumgarten, and Kant, embrace it. For them, as for much of medieval theology, and with obvious Platonic inspiration, the properties of the finite and imperfect are conceptually as well as causally derived from the properties of the perfect and divine. How could that be? Leibniz's explanation will be critically examined, and it will be argued that a satisfying account of the conceptual dependence of the properties of finite things on those of God requires a different conceptual framework from his.
Discussant: Dr Maria Rosa Antognazza, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College, London
Papers from this symposium were published in 2007 in Rationalism, Platonism and God, edited by Michael Ayers (Proceedings of the British Academy, 149).