L’impact des idées de Descartes sur la philosophie des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles est si omniprésent et riche que de nombreuses études lui ont été consacrées, et de nombreuses autres études continueront sans doute à explorer ces thèmes à l’avenir

Descartes in the classroom: teaching Cartesian philosophy in the early modern age. Davide Cellamare & Mattia Mantovani (eds.) Boston: Brill (2023)

Quatrième de couverture

The volume offers the first large-scale study of the teaching of Descartes’s philosophy in the early modern age. Its twenty chapters explore the clash between Descartes’s “new” philosophy and the established pedagogical practices and institutional concerns, as well as the various strategies employed by Descartes’s supporters in order to communicate his ideas to their students. The volume considers a vast array of topics, sources, and institutions, across the borders of countries and confessions, both within and without the university setting (public conferences, private tutorials, distance learning by letter) and enables us thereby to reconsider from a fresh perspective the history of early modern philosophy and education.


Davide Cellamare and Mattia Mantovani

For over a century, Descartes’s philosophy dominated the European landscape. Several of his works introduced momentous changes in the way in which learned persons conceived of the physical world and human nature.

This volume studies the ways in which the philosophy of René Descartes (1596–1650) was diffused through teaching in the early modern age and, more specifically, between the 1640s, when Descartes’s ideas started gaining ground, and the last decades of the eighteenth century, when the influence of Cartesianism was on the wane.

For over a century, Descartes’s philosophy dominated the European landscape. Several of his works—most notably, the Discourse on Method (1637), the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), the Principles of Philosophy (1644), and the Passions of the Soul (1649)—introduced momentous changes in the way in which learned persons conceived of the physical world and human nature.

A large body of scholarship is devoted to the complex historical trajectories along which Descartes’s ideas rapidly spread, first in the United Provinces—where Descartes spent the greatest portion of his adult life—and then all over Europe. For instance, the diffusion of various forms of Cartesian philosophy has been recently analysed, in its “Dutch and French constructions,” by Tad Schmaltz. Even more recently, the reception of Descartes’s philosophy among its partisans and its critics has been one of the key themes of the nine-hundred-page Oxford Handbook of Descartes and Cartesianism.

In explaining the rapid, international diffusion of Descartes’s philosophy, the existing scholarship has oftentimes remarked that Descartes’s ideas made their inroads in the European philosophical scene first and foremost through colleges and universities. Despite these important indications, no systematic study is available concerning the history of early modern Cartesianism from the perspective of the classroom and the ways in which Descartes’s philosophy was taught and made its way through to early modern university curricula.

In this study, we do precisely this, and for a number of important reasons. Descartes’s own attitude towards the teaching of his philosophy and its inclusion, later, within early modern teaching institutions, all of this seems to be pervaded by methodological, content-related, and institutional tensions. But what better way to explain these tensions than by looking at the actual way in which Cartesian philosophy was taught?

Consider, for instance, Descartes’s changing opinions about the traditional teaching that he received at his alma mater, the Jesuit college of La Flèche, as well as about the inclusion of his philosophy into university teaching.

In his Discourse on Method, Descartes recalled his feelings of relief on the day upon which he had reached “the age that permitted him to escape the command of his preceptors,” and their uncertain sciences.2 Yet, when asked by a correspondent where to enrol his son, Descartes recommended his old college, commenting that “there is no place in the world where philosophy is better taught.” Yet, before long, Descartes grew to utterly despise the teaching programmes that had been put in place, and to harbour the ambition of having his philosophy taught at the universities. Serious as this ambition was, it did not follow a linear trajectory.

Descartes was no academic philosopher. He never had to teach, and he expressly refused to do so when, in 1633, he declined the invitation to take the chair in theoretical medicine at the University of Bologna.4 Moreover, in presenting his philosophy as a fresh start, Descartes notably criticized commentaries and academic disputations as sterile philosophical methods. His well-known plan to break away from traditional philosophy concerned not just the contents but also the method of philosophizing itself.

But despite his dismissive attitude towards scholastic philosophy, and the fact that he was never directly involved in teaching, Descartes invested a great deal of effort in having his ideas taught by others. It was also for this purpose that in 1644, Descartes reworked his metaphysics and physics into a textbook-like synthesis: the Principles of Philosophy. Moreover, Descartes famously associated with Dutch academics, notably his friend Henricus Reneri (1593–1639), and his one-time ally and later critic, the Utrecht professor Henricus Regius (1598–1679), through whom he sought to introduce his philosophy into the Dutch curricula.

Descartes’s attempts to meddle with Regius’s teaching have been well documented within the existing scholarship. Yet, Descartes’s fluctuating attitude towards academic teaching—well beyond Utrecht—has not yet been given a full account. Importantly, Descartes’s somewhat uneasy relationship with academic teaching makes one wonder about the policy of his followers working in academia. Did Cartesian teachers try to accommodate the content of Descartes’s philosophy to the existing pedagogical practices, such as university disputations? Or, did the teaching of Descartes’s philosophy rather prompt—maybe even require—the emergence of new teaching methods?

In responding to these questions, this volume shows that the early diffusion of Descartes’s philosophy had a specifically pedagogical dimension, which crossed paths with other ongoing attempts at curricular reform—notably, through Ramist education, for example. One should carefully consider the fact that professors both of a Cartesian persuasion and their anti-Cartesian colleagues primarily worked as teachers, and had therefore specific concerns and obligations, quite different from those of non-academic contemporaries like Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), John Locke (1632–1704) or like Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715). But were these pedagogical concerns reflected in changes within early modern curricula? This question too calls for an in-depth investigation.

There are two further aspects that make the teaching of Descartes’s philosophy a particularly interesting topic. In many ways, Descartes’ ideas represented a very attractive and viable alternative to the Aristotelian system; one may think of the mechanist explanation of the natural world, for example. However, his philosophy had two important limits. First, in terms of the subjects it covered, the ‘new’ philosophy was not as complete as the ‘old’ one, which included an orderly system of knowledge and well-established pedagogical procedures with which to teach it. Secondly, Descartes’s philosophy fitted uneasily with the overall goals of philosophical education in the university, which was often propaedeutic to the study of law, medicine, and theology.

One will remember that Descartes aspired to an all-encompassing system of philosophy, which in the 1647 French edition of the Principles of Philosophy he famously described as “a tree whose roots are metaphysics, whose trunk is physics, and whose branches, which issue from this trunk, are all the other sciences,” which “reduce themselves to three principal ones: medicine, mechanics, and morals.” Nevertheless, as Roger Ariew has explained in detail, Descartes’s philosophy covered only a small part of his philosophical tree; his overall contribution, at best, can be described as a general metaphysics and an incomplete physics. Let us not forget that the Principles of Philosophy were themselves the scaled-down version of what Descartes had originally envisaged as a complete Summa philosophiae in six books. Descartes scaled back his initial ambitions, in recognition of the fact that his own accounts of plants, animals, and (specifically) human animals were unsatisfactory.

While Descartes could allow himself to produce an abridged version of his initial summa, the pared-back nature of his project vexed many of his followers, especially those who were expected to teach the entire philosophical curriculum, including those disciplines that Descartes had not systematically treated, such as logic and ethics.

Studying the teaching of Descartes’s philosophy is particularly interesting in this respect, as it enables us to watch how Descartes’s supporters endeavoured to accomplish those things that he himself had failed to achieve. We have devoted particular attention to the investigation of whether early modern Cartesian teachers worked out systems of logic and ethics along Cartesian lines, or instead embraced a more eclectic stance, for example by juxtaposing existing views with Descartes’s philosophy or by integrating different traditions into a synthesis. Several chapters of this volume attempt to do this by looking backward into the early modern classrooms and observing students taking notes or copying diagrams from Descartes’s works. Other chapters consider the production of Cartesian textbooks about logic and ethics, and reveal exactly how Descartes’s acolytes took over where their ‘master’ had left off.

Descartes’s philosophy, incomplete as it was in comparison to the one then taught at early modern universities, faced also another challenge. As is well known, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century students of philosophy were enrolled in arts programmes, which were conceived as preparatory for the study of the so-called ‘higher disciplines’: law, medicine, and theology. Education in scholastic philosophy, which Cartesians set out to replace, was geared towards, and well-tested for, this purpose; Descartes’s system was not, as contemporary critics often remarked. For example, the Utrecht professor in theology Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676)—one of Descartes’s first opponents—lamented the fact that the students trained in Descartes’s philosophy made fools of themselves when reading the higher disciplines, as they had omitted to learn even the most basic technical jargon. The question, therefore, naturally arises as to whether and how Cartesian teachers managed to maintain the link between philosophy and the higher disciplines, after having rejected everything Aristotelian. The seriousness of this problem seems all the more acute when one considers the fact that Descartes’s sole contribution to medicine was in the physiology that he sketched in the Treatise on Man (published only posthumously in 1662); this means that he left no pathology and no therapeutics. Descartes’s claims in theological matters were few and far between; those that he did make, moreover, proved problematic to most of his contemporaries.

Given the paucity of Descartes’s original contributions in these disciplines, the challenge for his academic followers was to fill in the gaps. How, for example, could they develop a new medical system based on Cartesian physiology? And how did they manage to successfully introduce their novel ideas about metaphysics and physics in a way that was in harmony with the purposes of teaching Christian theology? In this volume, we have taken particular care to address the hitherto less frequently studied teachings of medicine on the part of Cartesian philosophers. Moreover, by looking at the teaching documents, we disclose new perspectives on the well-known institutional tensions that characterized the early diffusion of Descartes’s philosophy.

The great institutional resistance with which Descartes’s philosophy was met from the very beginning is well documented—suffice it here to mention the seminal studies by George Monchamp, Caroline Louise Thijssen-Schoute, and Theo Verbeek.7 The earliest official condemnation of Descartes’s philosophy (Utrecht, 1642) was pronounced even before the Principles of Philosophy was published. Other Dutch universities, such as Leiden and Harderwijk, were soon to follow Utrecht’s lead by issuing their own condemnations. In 1656, the States of Holland and West-Friesland proclaimed a decree which forbade the diffusion of Descartes’s philosophy. This prohibition issued from the fact that the Cartesian influence was considered responsible for what was—from a Reformed point of view—an undesirable crossing of boundaries between philosophy and the reading of Scripture. But the struggles that Descartes’s philosophy endured were not limited to the Reformed context of the United Provinces.

All of Descartes’s works were placed on the ‘Index of Forbidden Books,’ by the Roman Congregation of the Index.

In the Southern Low Countries, the Catholic University of Louvain equally prohibited Cartesian doctrines in 1662. One year later, all of Descartes’s works were placed on the ‘Index of Forbidden Books,’ by the Roman Congregation of the Index. Even twenty years after his death, Louis XIV banned the public teaching of Descartes’s philosophy in 1671, explicitly on account of religious concerns. In sum, Descartes’s philosophy was condemned in both the country of his birth and in his adopted home country, and the prohibitions on the teachings of his philosophy in both places persisted long after his death.

In spite of all the official resistance it encountered, Descartes’s philosophy quickly attracted a substantial and enthusiastic following. How are we to explain this craze, that Dennis Des Chene dubbed Cartesiomania? In this volume, we show that this question may best be answered when one observes the institutional frictions surrounding the teaching of Descartes from the perspective of the classroom.

Besides showing the intriguing tensions (methodological, content-related, and institutional) that characterized the early diffusion of Descartes’s philosophy and its internal evolution, this volume also intends to contribute to a more general knowledge of the history of early modern teaching and universities. Several chapters focus on specific European universities and academic institutions, from the better-known (e.g., Cambridge, Leiden, Louvain) to those less well known, but no less relevant to the reception of Descartes’s ideas (e.g., Breda, Frankfurt an der Oder, Nijmegen, and Uppsala). Furthermore, this volume furnishes several examples of what it meant to teach philosophy—and, in particular, a not-yet-established philosophy—in early modern European universities. In doing so, Descartes in the Classroom has a contribution to make to the reappraisal of the role of the university in the scientific revolution, for which John Gascoigne was already pleading in 1990. The present study is therefore offered also to readers whose primary interest does not lie in Descartes’s philosophy as such. In effect, the teaching of Descartes’s philosophy is best studied as an affair that pertains to teaching theory and practice, without thereby forgetting its philosophical import and ambitions.

In compiling this volume, we have sought to find a balance between these different concerns—the same delicate exercise those university professors with a leaning towards Cartesianism had to practise in their classrooms. At the same time, the scope of our volume is not limited to university education, but, as we are about to explain, it takes into consideration a diverse range of teaching venues and practices.

Descartes in the Classroom is the strongly modified result of a three-day conference at Radboud University, Nijmegen in 2020. This conference was organized in the context of a research project that primarily studies the teaching of Cartesianism as it emerges from student notebooks produced in the Northern and the Southern Low Countries, between 1650 and 1750.

During the conference and in preparing this volume, the following things became clear to us: first, the ‘classroom’ that one must consider in order to understand the teaching of Cartesian philosophy is much bigger than the confines of the university classroom; secondly, the documents that need to be studied by a history of the teaching of Cartesianism cannot be limited to student notebooks. By necessity, therefore, we have enlarged our scope so as to include the widest possible array of teaching venues and practices, and an equally diverse range of methods and documents. The ‘classroom’ in which Descartes’s philosophy was taught is more than just a classroom; the sites for the diffusion of his philosophy included ‘home’ and ‘distance learning’ ante litteram, weekly conferences, learned discussions, and a much larger audience than the academic audience alone. Cartesians themselves consciously pursued this strategy, and they took pride in having their lectures attended by “people of all stations and conditions: prelates, abbots, courtiers, doctors, physicians, philosophers, surveyors, regents, schoolboys, provincials, foreigners, artisans—in a word, people of every age, sex and profession.” The Cartesian classrooms became much wider than the Schoolmen’s.

1 Methods and Documents


2 Themes and Subjects of This Volume

Little by little, the Cartesiomania of supporters and detractors alike contributed to turning Descartes into the leader of the novatores and the ‘father of modern philosophy.’

The impact of Descartes’s ideas on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy is so pervasive and rich that many studies have been devoted to it, and many more studies will no doubt continue to explore these themes in the future. It is impossible to encapsulate in one book a definitive account of the teaching of Cartesian philosophy, given the scale and complexity of the international network of actors and institutions involved. We can make no claim to have exhausted such a multifaceted and large-scale historical phenomenon, and we look forward to future studies, amongst which will be some—we hope—that have derived some inspiration from this present volume. This being said, we think that the present volume presents a rich and diverse picture of the teaching of Descartes’s philosophy in the early modern age.

We have sought, especially, to cover as much as possible the whole teaching curriculum (including topics that are often overlooked): from logic to ethics, from physics and the study of the soul to metaphysics.

Given that the teaching of natural philosophy in the early modern age and the eventual replacement of Descartes’s physics by Newtonian physics have been the object of several (also recent) studies, we have tried to enrich our history with topics that have hitherto not received the attention they deserve: for example, medicine, magnetism, and experimental hydraulics, as well as the debates concerning the origin of life.15 We have, moreover, documented the introduction of a new discipline in seventeenth-century university teaching, namely the history of philosophy. Sometimes done with the purpose of presenting Descartes’s philosophy in a negative light (by comparison with the other available philosophical schools), the history of philosophy ended up increasing the fame of Cartesian philosophy.

Little by little, the Cartesiomania of supporters and detractors alike contributed to turning Descartes into the leader of the novatores and the ‘father of modern philosophy.’

While we can hardly do justice, in these few pages, to the many topics treated in this book, we trust that, taken together, these twenty chapters bring to you a good sense of what it meant to study the ‘new philosophy’ in the early modern age, and how entire generations of students first encountered Descartes’s ideas. […]

Biographie des auteurs
Davide Cellamare, Ph.D. (2015), Radboud University Nijmegen, is FWO Senior-Postdoc at KU Leuven. He has published numerous articles on late medieval and early modern psychology (with a special focus on the institutional and confessional contexts), as well as on Cartesianism.
Mattia Mantovani, Ph.D. (2018), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, is FWO Junior-Postdoc at KU Leuven. He has published numerous articles on medieval and early modern epistemology and perception theory – with a special focus on Descartes – and on the role of diagrams in science.

List of Figures and Tables

Davide Cellamare and Mattia Mantovani

1 Descartes and the Classroom
Theo Verbeek

2 The Philosophical Fulcrum of Seventeenth-Century Leiden: Pedagogical Innovation and Philosophical Novelty in Adriaan Heereboord
Howard Hotson

3 Teaching Cartesian Philosophy in Leiden: Adriaan Heereboord (1613–1661) and Johannes De Raey (1622–1702)
Antonella Del Prete

4 Reassessing Johannes De Raey’s Aristotelian-Cartesian Synthesis: The Copenhagen Manuscript Annotata in Principia philosophica (1658)
Domenico Collacciani

5 “Let Descartes Speak Dutch”: Spinoza’s Circle Teaching Cartesianism
Henri Krop

6 Patronage as a Means to End a University Controversy: The Conclusion of Two Cartesian Disputes at Frankfurt an der Oder (1656 and 1660)
Pietro Daniel Omodeo

7 Cartesian and Anti-Cartesian Disputations and Corollaries at Utrecht University, 1650–1670
Erik-Jan Bos

8 Between Descartes and Boyle: Burchard de Volder’s Experimental Lectures at Leiden, 1676–1678
Andrea Strazzoni

9 Medicine and the Mind in the Teaching of Theodoor Craanen (1633–1688)
Davide Cellamare

10 Cartesius Triumphatus: Gerard de Vries and Opposing Descartes at the University of Utrecht
Daniel Garber

11 Debating Cartesian Philosophy on Both Sides of the Channel: Johannes Schuler’s (1619–1674) Plea for libertas philosophandi
Igor Agostini

12 Descartes by Letter—Teaching Cartesianism in Mid-Seventeenth-Century Cambridge: Henry More, Thomas Clarke and Anne Conway
Sarah Hutton

13 Teaching Descartes’s Ethics in London and Cambridge
Roger Ariew

14 Teaching Magnetism in a Cartesian World, 1650–1700
Christoph Sander

15 The Anatomy of a Condemnation: Descartes’s Theory of Perception and the Louvain Affair, 1637–1671
Mattia Mantovani

16 Descartes’s Theory of Tides in the Louvain Classroom, 1670–1760
Carla Rita Palmerino

17 Traces of the Port-Royal Logic in the Louvain Logic Curricula
Steven Coesemans

18 Cartesianism and the Education of Women
Marie-Frédérique Pellegrin

19 Rohault’s Private Lessons on Cosmology
Mihnea Dobre

20 French Cartesianisms in the 1690s: The Textbooks of Regis and Pourchot
Tad M. Schmaltz


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