The European Enlightenment: Glossary

Cartesianism


The European Enlightenment
René Descartes

General Glossary
Epistemology
   René Descartes is perhaps the single most important thinker of the European Enlightenment. He literally, at an age most people first graduate from college nowadays, quietly and methodically went about tearing down all previous forms of knowledge and certainty and replaced them with a single, echoing truth: Cogito, ergo sum , "I think, therefore I am." From that point onwards in European culture, subjective truth would hold a higher and more important epistemological place than objective truth, skepticism would be built into every inquiry, method would hold a higher place than practice, and the mind would be separated from the body. These concepts, taken together, constitute what we call Cartesianism, named after Descartes.


   The central idea of Cartesianism is that the mind is separate from the body and that the mind can be better and more fully understood than the body. One's essential identity is one's mind and the interior processes of the mind have more reality than the physical processes of the body. It follows from this that what you think (subjectivity) is more important than anything outside you in the physical world (objectivity); from this would be developed the Enlightenment concept of the subject.


General Glossary
Empiricism
   In addition to this, Descartes fundamental method was to "doubt everything." This radical skepticism would eventually form the backbone of empirical science which is built on systematic doubt. The fundamental process of empirical and experimental science is to doubt explanations and results of previous experiments: when a result is announced or a theory propounded, experiments are run to either reproduce those results or prove by experience that the theory is valid. This attitude of doubting everything is built into the very system of science itself: the purpose of experiments is to allow for these experiments to be repeated in case the results are wrong.

Richard Hooker



World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-8-97