History of Philosophy

The history of philosophy is the study of philosophers and movements of the past.  Want to discuss Aristotle?  Spinoza?  Du Bois?  De Beauvoir?  This may be the place to do it.

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An Answer to the Molyneux Problem?

posted Apr 12, 2011, 6:19 AM by Andrew Roche   [ updated Apr 12, 2011, 6:22 AM ]

Maybe!  There is this from nature.com.  (I got this link from Landon Schurtz.)

Descartes and the Idea of God

posted Feb 14, 2011, 12:08 PM by Andrew Roche

In PHI 220 today, we considered Descartes' ontological argument for God's existence.  One objection to that argument, which we see in Caterus's remarks, is that by Descartes' argument, one could prove that anything exists.  For instance, we could prove a priori--not through empirical research--that lions exist just by stipulating that we are to consider the idea existing lion.  By the same token, I could prove that mermaids exist by asking you to consider the idea of an existing mermaid.  It's part of the idea of an existing mermaid that such a thing exist.  Therefore, mermaids exist.

Note something about this argument:  the idea, existing lion, is one that Caterus made up.  The idea, existing mermaid, is one that I made up.  And as I noted at the end of class today, Descartes seems concerned to convince us that we did not make up the idea of God:

Clearly the idea of God, that is, the idea of a supremely perfect being, is one I discover to be no less within me than the idea of any figure or number.  And that it belongs to God's nature that he always exists is something I understand no less clearly and distinctly than is the case when I demonstrate in regard to some figure or number that something also belongs to the nature of that figure or number (59).

Is this the beginning of a response to Caterus's objection?  Does it matter that our idea of God is not one that we invented (assuming, in fact, that we did not invent it)?

History of Philosophy Podcast ...

posted Oct 17, 2010, 9:23 AM by Andrew Roche   [ updated Oct 17, 2010, 10:38 AM ]

"... without any gaps."  That's the advertisement for a podcast series by Peter Adamson, the details of which are here.  I wanted to begin listening to it before writing this post, but I realized that if I didn't note it now, I'd probably forget about it.

If anyone listens to the podcasts and has some opinions about it, please add a comment!  Might be fun to discuss.  If I am reading things aright, he currently has two podcasts up about the pre-Socratics.

UPDATE (10/17/10):  This link is probably more direct.

Leibniz and Freedom

posted Mar 12, 2010, 2:54 PM by Andrew Roche

In PHI 220 today, we began talking about Leibniz's doctrine of pre-established harmony.  A number of people thought that if all substances are determined (pre-established) to do what they do, then this was a major problem for human freedom.  Perhaps some of you would enjoy knowing that Kant famously said of Leibniz's compatibilism that it permitted "nothing better than the freedom of a turnspit" (Critique of Practical Reason, 5:97).

Is this right?  If so, what does that show?  Does it show that Leibniz's theory of pre-established harmony is wrong?  Or does that show that we just aren't free?

Spinoza: Pantheist or Atheist?

posted Mar 1, 2010, 2:04 PM by Andrew Roche

We've just gone through Spinoza's argument that "[w]hatever is, is in God" (Ethics, IP15)* in PHI 220, and we've begun to talk a little more about Spinoza's conception of God.  There are at least a couple ways, however, to understand what is going on here.

We might accept the letter of Spinoza's argument:  that he is indeed a pantheist of a special stripe, a theist who identifies God with nature itself.

But there is another popular school of thought which says that Spinoza's position is atheistic.  What Spinoza calls "God" is too divorced from the Judeo-Christian conception to be construed as God.  So, too:  we can call my office door a "poodle."  But that doesn't make it a poodle.  Everything that Spinoza says about "God" is Spinoza talking about nature and not God.


* Modern Philosophy:  An Anthology of Primary Resources.  Ed. Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins.  Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2009:  149.

Recently Uncovered Descartes Letter

posted Feb 26, 2010, 4:55 AM by Andrew Roche

It appears that an important long-lost letter from Descartes to Marin Mersenne has just been uncovered.  For more information, visit these sites:




I learned of these sites through Brian Leiter's blog and through an distribution list e-mail message from Daniel Garber and Roger Ariew.

Descartes' Piece of Wax

posted Feb 11, 2010, 5:26 AM by Andrew Roche

I thought that I would try to kick things off on this site with a question that I recently raised in PHI 220 and about which I remain unsure:  what exactly is Descartes doing with his piece of wax example in Meditation II?

[References below are to Modern Philosophy:  An Anthology of Primary Sources, 2nd ed., edited by Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins; I'm also including the page number references to the Adam/Tannery volumes.]

Here are some things that do not seem that contentious.  Descartes is trying to convince us that such features as particular smells and particular shapes are inessential to the piece of wax (45-6; AT 7:30-1).  Instead, essential to the wax is that it is "something extended, flexible, and mutable" (46; AT 7:31).  And this knowledge is won only through the work of the "mind" (intellect), not [just?] the senses or the imagination.

If we attend to what precedes this discussion, we can also see what leads Descartes to start it:  he thinks that the mind is better known than the body (43; AT 7:23), whereas there is a lingering worry "that corporeal things--whose images are formed by thought, and which the senses themselves examine--are much more distinctly known than this mysterious 'I' which does not fall within the imagination" (45; AT 7:29).  The piece of wax discussion seems intended to address this worry.

But how does the discussion of the piece of wax address this worry?  And is Descartes really making the seemingly very strong claim that "I perceive [the wax] through the mind alone" (46, AT 7:31), as though I could come to know the nature of the wax without the assistance of the senses?  As some of my students noted in class, that seems to suggest that our idea of wax is innate

I think I may now have a slightly better sense of what is going on after having discussed this with my students and after having done a little further thinking on the topic.  All the same, my biggest source of uncertainty remains Descartes' antagonist:  what exactly is the position that Descartes means to take on here?

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