Phil 683: Studies in Continental Rationalism                                                             Professor Cover
Fall 1996                                                                                                                          Office: LAEB 7142
W 2:30-5:20, Seminar Room                                                                                         Office Phone: 4-4288

Last Spring I had offered to handle our seminar in one of two ways--either as (i) a course on central themes in the philosophical writings of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, or as (ii) a course on the doctrine of substance in Leibniz. The few responses I got weighed rather more heavily in favor of (i), but not so overwhelmingly as to make the decision an obvious one. So Iíve decided on something of a compromise: weíll attend to all three philosophers, but skew our attention in the direction of substance as a central theme in all three, and give Descartes and Leibniz the bulk of our time. The topic of substance, broadly construed as I shall view it, is a central theme in all of our figures--perhaps the central theme--and serves crucially in understanding the deepest intellectual connections between them. Moreover views about substance broadly conceived encompass or intersect quite a large number of topics along the way: God, mind, matter, causality, and modality all make their appearance in getting clear on what our three figures understand about what there is most fundamentally and the nature of what there is. So you mustnít get discouraged straight off at the narrowness of our concern this semester: it isnít so narrow as you might imagine. I will say straight away that weíll be thinking very little about about matters epistemological. Thatís a distraction only in the case of Descartes, whose epistemological concerns are familiar and relatively well-rehearsed over the years; Spinoza had little to offer on the subject (what there is comes primarily from outside the Ethics, in the early Treatise on the Emmendation of the Intellect), and Leibnizís attention to epistemology is minimal compared to the energies he expended on issues metaphysical. In all, then, I think our focus serves well in developing a historical picture of the early moderns on the continent, and it serves just as well as a source of philosophical reflection in its own right, which at the end of the day is what philosophers seek most to do. More about that last point in a moment.

I would describe the course as being of medium difficulty: it will require lots of hard thinking, a middling-amount of reading, and little writing (by my lights) overall. Much of the thinking we'll do together in class, and in my office as you drop by to chat--which I invite and very much encourage. The reading you'll do mostly on your own, though we will get the material out on the table to look at in class sessions too; the writing of course I'll leave up to you, but you will get plenty of feedback from me on what you write. As for speaking: I tend to run seminars more in the British style than you may be accustomed to, so I'll be talking more than you. But you're cordially invited to do as much talking as you like. If you do too much talking, which I suspect is unlikely, I'll figure out how to slow you down (by postponing your question/comment until later in the session or the semester, or by asking you to make it the subject of an office chat). And if many of you speak too little, you mustn't be surprised if I ask questions of the class as a whole, or even of individuals. As of now, there are only two sorts of occasion I can foresee when I might direct questions to an individual member of the class. One of them is when I'm unclear about something they've said or written. The other will be mentioned shortly.


My objectives in this course are methodological, historical and philosophical. The methodology will emerge along the way, as a sort of style of mine, but I predict there will be occasions when I pause to talk about it. As for the history and philosophy: it is my view that history of philosophy is mostly philosophy. The idea is not to get all caught up in intellectual biography, but rather to get clear on historical answers to philosophical problems. Once we're past the first session or so, my hope is that the primary texts can live and breathe on their own. I don't like dusty and hallowed halls of tradition for their own sake, and neither did the philosophers of the 17th century we aim to study. We do them greatest credit when treating them as much as possible like philosophical colleagues, sitting across the seminar table from us. And here's how we treat colleagues: having gotten as clear as a philosopher (not a historian) reasonably might about the context in which some utterance is offered, we interpret it with charity, and on that interpretation of what the utterance expressed, ask questions like "Is that true? What reasons might be offered, by its proponent or by me, in its favor? What criticisms might be offered against it?" In a letter of 1637, Descartes wrote to Father Mersenne that he appreciated Mersenne's objections, adding, "Make them as unfavorable to me as you can; that will be the greatest pleasure you can give me" (K 30). You'll find Leibniz saying the same, giving and receiving criticism with the view that both are symptoms of respect and of praise. To the Cartesian deVolder--one of his toughest critics, next to Huygens perhaps in sheer intelligence and cleverness--Leibniz wrote: "Do not apologize for your dissent.... The pursuit of truth, care in investigation, and candor combined with moderation in speech--these should be enough for us, nor can they be anything but useful and pleasing to men of good will" (G,II,194: L 523).

Here are a few more passages, of a similar flavor, reflecting how some historical figures thought about the relation of history to philosophy:

What is more revolting...when someone is dealing with demonstrable conclusions, than to hear him interrupted by a text...thrown into his teeth by an opponent? If, indeed, you wish to continue in this method of studying, then put aside the name of philosophers and call yourselves historians, or memory experts; for it is not proper that those who never philosophize should usurp the honorable title of philosopher.
-- Galileo Galilei
Dialogues Concerning the Two chief World Systems

Conversing with those of past centuries is much the same as travelling. It is good to know something of the customs of various peoples, so that we may judge our own more soundly and not think that everything contrary to our own ways is rediculous and irrational, as those who have seen nothing of the world ordinarily do. But one who spends too much time travelling eventually becomes a stranger in his own country; and one who is too curious about the practices of past ages usually remains quite ignorant about those of the present.

-- René Descartes
Discourse on Method
There are scholarly men to whom the history of philosophy (both ancient and modern) is philosophy itself; for these the present Prolegomena are not written. They must wait till those who endeavor to draw from the fountain of reason itself have completed their work; it will then be the turn of these scholars to inform the world of what has been done.
-- Immanuel Kant
Prolegomena to Any Future Metpahysics


Back to philosophy, now, and something I'm keen on saying straight away. Hardly any considered philosophical claim is "stupid." There probably are a few claims deserving that judgment, though I shan't venture here to say what I think they typically look like. Some sentences offered by philosophers are, I think, relatively unyielding to interpretation, attention to which repays little--for example a sentence to the effect that the activity appropriate to Das Nichts is noth-ing or nihilating. But most of the propositions offered by working philosophers don't wear their value on their sleeves. By "value" I partly mean, of course, their truth value, but I also mean something like their "purchasing power" in the context of a philosophical theory about how the world is. All propositions entail others: if P entails, but is not entailed by, other propositions that in your most sober philosophical moments you cannot find yourself readily denying, then P may be very much worth preserving. I say "may" be worth preserving because almost certainly it'll come at a cost: if P is worth its salt, it likely entails the denial of other propositions you have found to be at least plausible on independent grounds, which other philosophers will have arguments. Somehow, that's just how philosophy goes. And so we think hard, and consider our options to measure the costs. That is what philosophical arguments and theories force us to do.

Here are some sentence types, tokens of which express propositions that by my lights repay close attention (you may or may not know what propositions I intend them to express):

a. There is exactly one thing.                      b. There are infinitely many things.
c. There are no things.                                 d. There are no physical objects.
e. There are only physical objects.            f. Mind can't interact with body.
g. Things happen.                                        h. Time and space don't exist.
i. Everything exists.                                     j. Nothing exists.
k. God exists.                                                l. Things must be as they are.
m. There is one thing, and space is full.    n. There is no space, and there are spatial vacua.

Each one of these is such that many good philosophers have denied it. And also many others who have accepted it. Some of (a) - (n) have been called "stupid," but none have been called that by any thinking philosopher. I hope that by the end of the semester, many of the propositions expressed by (a) - (n) will have been made to look, by one or another of our three figures, worth the close attention they gave it.

Above all, I guess my overarching objective in the course is to work together at grappling with some interesting and difficult philosophical issues alongside some important 17th century historical figures; I want us to do our best at learning philosophy from people who've gone before us. If some overarching historical picture of intellectual territory in the 17th century emerges from our efforts, that'd be great.

Required Texts:

There are three (3) required texts, available at Vons Books.

DSW            Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings (Cambridge, 1988), translated and edited by John Cottingham et. al. This is a shortened version of their larger, three-volume project The Philosophical Writings of Descartes which solidly replaces the old Haldane and Ross edition and which is now the standard English collection. Anyone with much interest in Descartes should eventually own those three volumes (available, happily, in paperback).

SR              A Spinoza Reader: The ETHICS and Other Works (Princeton, 1994), translated and edited by Edwin Curley. This too is a selection from Curley's beautiful first volume of The Collected Works of Spinoza (Princeton, 1985), which will have a second volume before long. Like the Descartes collection, the Curley volume(s) should be owned by anyone with a special interest in Spinoza; alas, I think it's only available in hardback.

AG            G. W. Leibniz: Philosophical Essays (Hackett, 1989), translated and edited by R. Ariew and D. Garber. This is a fine volume that partly overlaps and supplements the other standard English edition--L. Loemker's G. W. Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters (2nd. ed. Reidel, 1969). Loemker is a very large volume, I believe still available in paper, and should be owned by anyone with an interest in Leibniz.

Aside on Citation and Abbreviations

While I'm at it, let me note the received modes of abbreviation in citations of primary sources, so that when these arise you won't be altogether in the dark if and when you go to the literature, and so that you can get into the habit of such a practice yourself. The main idea is to get your reader to be able to track down the relevant passage herself; the secondary idea is to give only some general idea of provenance without giving details, when the details don't matter. In the latter case, one can simply cite by a full or abbreviated title, with or without reference to book/chapter/section or the like. Thus, one might simply refer to Descartes Principles, or to Principles II.16; to Spinoza's Ethics, or to Ethics II; to Leibniz's Discourse on Metaphysics, or to Discourse §8. But we do this sparingly, and never when actually presenting a passage in quotation (of whatever length). Normally, it's best to give full details, and this can be done in various ways, depending upon what sort of context we're in and what editions we're using--"original" or in translation, say. The absolute best way to cite a passage is to give reference both to the translation you're using, and to that passage's location in an edition in the original language. But there are exceptions to this, especially in Spinoza scholarship. For our purposes, it will be enough to cite the details from translations we're using. Of these, only the Leibniz collection by Ariew and Garber has come to have its own standard abbreviation, 'AG' followed by page. The Descartes and Spinoza collections we're using, since they are not standard editions of collected works (but rather selections from these of the more important works), haven't emerged with their own abbreviations in the scholarly literature. So let's invent two abbreviations for our purposes: 'DSW' for Descartes's Selected Writings, and 'SR' for Spinoza's Spinoza Reader. These abbreviations would be followed by page number(s).

Often, it's a nice idea to go ahead and give the Title and relevant part/book/chapter/section from which the quoted passage was taken, along with the page reference to translated edition. Thus, one might offer:

(Meditation III; DSW 87)

or (Discourse §8; AG 41).

I noted earlier that often in Spinoza scholarship, once it is made clear early on what translation is being used, writers often just cite the Ethics or the Tractatus or the like along with divisions internal to those works. Thus:

(EIIp12) or (EII,p12)

would refer to Ethics, Part II, Proposition 12. I suggest something like

(EIIp12; SR 123).

Spinoza scholarship has developed additional abbreviations for divisions internal to the Ethics.

ëIIp7sí refers to Ethics, Part II, Proposition 7, Scholium; ëIVd7í names Part IV, definition 2, and so on. A = axiom; a 'D' or d' unadorned refers to a demonstration.

If you have questions about citations, please ask me. It's a small matter, really, but it's a good idea to get into the hang of being able to track them down, and to use them. So, for future reference and use, over on the next page is a list of some standard abbreviations you may encounter (with a bit of overlap, from above).

Some (Fairly) Standard Abbreviations of (Fairly) Standard Texts:
AG        G. W. Leibniz: Philosophical Essays, translated and edited by R. Ariew and D. Garber. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989. Cited by page.

AT        Oeuvres de Descartes, edited by C. Adam and P. Tannery. Paris, 1897-1913. Reprint: Paris, J. Vrin, 1967-75. Cited by volume and page. AT is the standard original-language collected edition for Descartes; you'll find references to its pages in our DSW, in the margin.

CS        The Collected Works of Spinoza, edited and translated by Edwin Curley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. Cited by page, so far, since there's only one volume to date.

CSM   The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and (for vol. III), Anthony Kenny. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Three volumes, the third being a collection of Descartesí letters. Cited by volume and page. The AT citations also appear in the margins of this collection.

E         Ethica. Baruch Spinoza. Roman numerals refer to parts; A = axiom; P or p = propostion; D (following a roman numeral) = definition; D or d (following P + an arabic numeral) = demonstration; C. S, L are corollary, scholium, and lemma; Post, Exp, Pref, and App are postulate, explanation, preface, and appendix. Somtimes cited with volume, page, and line numbers (eg; II/195 or III/12/17-18) of the Gebhardt Opera edition. (The Gebhardt edition is the standard original-language edition for Spinoza, like AT is for Descartes and G [= Gerhardt] is for Leibniz [below]. Curley has included these volume and page citations in the margins of our SSR.)

G        Die philosophischen Schriften von G. W. Leibniz. Edited by C. J. Gerhardt. 7 volumes. Berlin, 185-90. Reprint: Hildesheim: Olms, 1965. Cited by volume and page. AG notes the location in G with a footnote beginning each selection (or rather, notes its location in G if itís in G: sometimes, it isnít.)

K        Descartes: Philosophical Letters, edited and translated by Anthony Kenny. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970. Cited by page. Used less and less, since the appearance of volume III of CSM.

L       G. W. Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters, edited and translated by Leroy E. Loemker. 2nd ed., Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1969. Cited by page.

NE      The New Essays On Human Understanding. G. W. Leibniz. Translation by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Cited by page, which corresponds to the Academy pagination. (NE isn't in G.)

  Well, that's enough of all that! You don't need to remember all these: just try to cite pages from our DSW, SSR, and AG when you write, along with perhaps titles (like "Meditation III" or "Monadology §5" or the like), and consult the stuff above when encountering something you want to track down. Don't fret over any of this.

OK; back to stuff about the course itself, for a bit.

Reading Assignments

It'd be nice to have a full-fledged schedule of topics and readings, outlining exactly what we'll do each week. I gesture in the direction of one at the end of this syllabus, but itís tough to do satisfactorily when weíre working through primarily textual material (less through secondary articles), where topics themselves donít always come nicely sliced up, and where relevant discussion of topics as we recognize them will be spread out among various texts. Hereís what Iíll do. For each figure, thereís a batch of required minimal reading, listed at the head of each segment of the course during which that figure is under discussion, together with some recommended readings. The total length of the readings isnít at all burdensome, for a graduate seminar, and many of them will be already familiar to you. Please do the Descartes reading straight away, even if (as is likely) youíve read it before, and get going on the Spinoza soon thereafter, within the next three weeks.

After each session, before we disband, I'll do my best to get you clear about what's coming up the next week--about what the nature of the reading and writing assignment is, say. So even if we're very thirsty or very busy or very tired (or all of those) by sessionís end, please delay long enough for me to get you started on the right track for the next session.

I shall on occasion ask you to read an article from the secondary literature, copies of which Iíll supply for you. Weíll ease into this business of looking at articles, getting us first in the hang of looking at the texts themselves and trying to understand them, and then later, along the way, getting into the hang of seeing what others say about our material.

Writing Assignments:

Here is how I've run my seminars in times past, and I guess we'll continue the practice. Before each new week (save the first) I will assign one or perhaps two topics or questions as a "weekly" writing assignment. (I call them "weeklies" by habit, from my graduate school days, when all graduate seminars had a writing assignment due each week.) You must complete six (6) of these by Thanksgiving Break. They need be no longer than two (2) double-spaced typewritten pages each, and mustn't be longer than four (4). These must be in my mailbox (not under my door: this has met with disaster in the past) by/before 11:00 AM on Tuesdays.

In weeklies, I do want you to pay close attention to the relevant texts, and in them you may need to say something non-philosophical about the nature of the text as you understand it, but I don't want purely historical or textual survey and exegesis from you. The particular assignments should make clearer what I want in some particular weekly, but typically I'll want you to do the reading, get as clear as a philosopher (not a historian) reasonably might about the context in which some relevant thesis is offered, interpret it with charity, and on that interpretation of the thesis ask questions like "Is that true? What reasons have been offered, or might be offered, in its favor? What criticisms might be given against it?" No fluff in these weeklies, please: get down to business, and give me the goods.

There's this, too, which isn't writing to be graded by me, but it is required of you and Iíll keep track of it. On any week for which you have not written a weekly, formulate a question you have about the reading/topic for that session, and bring _____ copies of it to class with you. Weíll try to devote a bit of time in each class session to addressing these questions of ours.

And then I shall, in addition, be expecting a final paper from you at the end of term. The earlier you find something that interests you to write on, the better. You're invited to consult with me during the course of the semester, about this; but I shall, in due course, be asking you to come ëround to float a possible topic by me, as semester's end nears. I should think that a 15-20 page paper would be appropriate. Something shorter will need permission from me.

Tentative Schedule

Weíll start off slowly, by which I mean weíll begin with material thatís more familiar to everyone; that will give you a few weeks to get the hang of how I want us to be approaching the texts and thinking about them.


WEEK          DATE           TOPIC                                                                                   MOST RELEVANT TEXTS

1             A 21        Substance: Historical Background

Meditations (DSW 73-122)
Objections and Replies relevant to Meditations 3, 5 and 6 (DSW 131-33; 135-50)
Principles of Philosophy I and (a portion of) II (DSW 160-99)
Rules for the Direction of our Native Intelligence (DSW 1-19)
Discourse on the Method (DSW 20-56)

2           A 28        God I: The Causal Argument                         Meditation3; Principles I.17-18
                             (causation)                                                    Discourse4 (AT 33-6: DSW 36-8)

3           S 4           God II: The Ontological Argument               Meditation5; Principles I.14-15
                             (innate ideas; existence)                                Discourse4 (AT 36: DSW 38)

4           S 11         Substance Dualism: Mind and Body             Meditation6; Principles I.8;51-3;60
                             (parts; modality)                                           Discourse4 (AT 32-3: DSW 36)

5           S 18         Extended Substance I: Matter as Extension   Meditation 2
                             (vacuums)                                                    Principles II.3-12;16-19

6           S 25         Extended Substance II: Bodies and Motion  Principles II.21-3;64
                             (qualitative variety)                                      On Nature Itself §13 (AG 163-65)

Ethics I (SR 85-115)
An Early Attempt at Geometrizing Philosophy (SR 66-71)
Ethics II, through p13 (SR 115-28)
Ethics II, to the end (SR 128-52)
From a Non-Geometric Draft (SR 55-66)
7         O 2            Intro to Spinoza; One-Substance Doctrine    Ethics I, esp. Ip5,11,14

8         O 9            One Substance Doctrine, contíd.                  Ethics I, esp. Ip12,13,15

9         O 16          Mind and Body (if thereís time)                  Ethics I, esp. IIp3,6,7

Primary Truths (AG 30-34)
Discourse on Metaphysics (AG 35-68)
Letters to Arnauld (selections) (AG 69-90)
A Specimen of Dynamics (a bit from Part I; AG 118-26)
A New System of Nature (AG 136-45)
Conversation of Philarète and Ariste (AG 257-68)
On Nature Itself (AG 155-67)
From the Letters to de Volder (AG 171-86)
Monadology (AG 213-225)
On the Ultimate Origination of Things (AG 149-55)
Principles of Nature and Grace (AG 207-143)
Letters to Clarke (AG 320-46)
10      O 23           Rejection of Cartesian Extension                  to de Volder (esp. AG 171-72;179)
                            (motion, parts)                                              to Arnauld (esp. AG 79;85ff)
                                                                                                Conversation (esp. AG 258;260-62)
                                                                                                Discourse §21
                                                                                                A Specimen... (esp. AG 123-24)
                                                                                               On Nature Itself, §§11,13

11      O 30           Substance: Monadic--and Corporeal?         Discourse §§10-12
                            (substantial form, force)                              A Specimen... (esp. AG 118-20)
                                                                                               A New System of Nature
                                                                                               On Nature Itself §§6-10

12      N 6            Complete Concept, Predicate-in-Subject      Primary Truths (esp. AG 32-3)
                            (determinism, relations, essentialism)          Discourse §§ 8-9; 13-15
                                                                                               to Arnauld (esp. 69-77)

13      N 13          Speculative Stuff: Individuation I               from all over the place

14      N 20          Speculative Stuff: Individuation II             from all over the place

15      N 27          Thanksgiving break

16      D 4            Speculative Stuff: Individuation III            from all over the place
                           (diachronic identity, indiscernibles)