Manual A History of Philosophy, Vol. 4: Modern Philosophy From Descartes to Leibniz

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These are the created substances. Created substances come in two kinds—extended substances and minds, and there is a plurality of both. One central question that naturally arises is why Descartes thinks that extension and thought are the most general properties of substances.

This article will briefly consider the role of embodied human beings in Descartes metaphysics, what Descartes means in calling substances independent, and a related controversy concerning the number of material substances to which Descartes is entitled.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

As embodied, humans are composite beings; an embodied human being consists of a mental substance our mind and a physical one our body , for Descartes. Descartes thinks that this composite being is, however, something over and above a mere aggregation. One of the more prominent disputes has been between those scholars who read Descartes as holding that embodied human beings are a distinct kind of created substance, and those scholars who do not.

The former see Descartes as a substance trialist , whereas the latter read him along traditional lines as a substance dualist. For trialist readings see Hoffman and Skirry Chapter 4.

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For recent defenses of substance dualism against trialist interpretations see Kaufman and Zaldivar As we have seen, Descartes defines substance in terms of independence. This, however, is only a very general claim. Accordingly, let us say that substances are subject-independent. On the other hand, in his account of substance Descartes is also working with a causal sense of independence. See, for example, Markie 69; Rodriguez-Pereyra That created substances are causally independent of everything but God suggests a startling conclusion—that despite what Descartes seems to say, bodies are not material substances, since they are not sufficiently independent.

Bodies are causally dependent on other bodies in a host of different ways. Again, following tradition we can call this view the Monist Interpretation , and the opposing view that there are many material substances, the Pluralist Interpretation for a distinct view see Woolhouse Proponents of this interpretation claim that there is textual evidence as well, pointing to a passage in the Synopsis to the Meditations. There Descartes writes:.

But the human body, in so far as it differs from other bodies, is simply made up of a certain configuration of limbs and other accidents of this sort; whereas the human mind is not made up of any accidents in this way, but is a pure substance. Consequently, they see this passage as claiming that the material universe is a substance, but that the human body is not—since it is made up on a configuration of limbs and accidents.

Assuming the monists are right, two questions immediately arise. First, if bodies are not substances, then what are they? Monists typically claim that bodies are modes. Second, if Descartes does not think that bodies are substances, why does he so often talk as if they are? Pluralists have objected on a number of grounds. Third, pluralists note that although Descartes writes of bodies as substances on numerous occasions, he never clearly refers to them as modes.

Last, pluralists have denied that Descartes could have held that bodies are modes noting that for Descartes i parts of things are not modes of them and ii bodies are parts of the material universe. Hoffman briefly raises each of these objections. For more lengthy discussions see Skirry Chapter 3 and Slowik Spinoza worked on the text throughout the s and 70s. Spinoza offers a definition of substance on the very first page of the Ethics.

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Spinoza also follows Descartes in thinking that i attributes are the principle properties of substance, ii among those attributes are thought and extension, iii all other properties of a substance are referred through, or are ways of being, that attribute, and iv God exists and is a substance. Here the agreement ends. The first obvious divergence from Descartes is found at E1P5. For Descartes there are many extended substances at least on the pluralist interpretation and many minds.

Spinoza, however, thinks this is dead wrong. At E1P5 Spinoza argues that substance is unique in its kind—there can be only one substance per attribute.


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This fact about substance in combination with a number of other metaphysical theses has far-reaching consequences for his account of substance. It follows, Spinoza argues at E1P6, that to be a substance is to be causally isolated, on the grounds that i there is only one substance per kind or attribute and ii causal relations can obtain only between things of the same kind. Causal isolation does not, however, entail causal impotence.

An existing substance must have a cause in some sense, but as causally isolated its cause cannot lie in anything outside itself.

Rene Descartes, Early Modernity, and the Wars of Religion - Philosophers in the Midst of History

Not only is a substance the cause of itself, but Spinoza later tells us that it is the immanent cause of everything that is in it E1P Last, Spinoza makes the case that substances are indivisible. He argues in E1P that if substance were divisible, it would be divisible either into parts of the same nature or parts of a different nature. If the former, then there would be more than one substance of the same nature which is ruled out by E1P5. If the latter, then the substance could cease to exist which is ruled out by E1P7; consequently substance cannot be divided.

From what has been said so far in the Ethics it would be reasonable to suppose that, for Spinoza, reality consists of the following substances: God, one extended substance, one thinking substance, and one substance for every further attribute, should there be any. As it turns out, however, this is only partially right.

It is true that Spinoza ultimately holds that God exists, that there is one extended substance, and one thinking substance. However, Spinoza denies that these are different substances. The one thinking substance is numerically identical to the one extended substance which is numerically identical to God. Put otherwise, there is only one substance, God, and that substance is both extended and thinking. He argues as follows: God exists which was proven at E1P Given that God is defined as a being that possesses all the attributes E1d6 and that there is only one substance per attribute E1P5 , it follows that God is the only substance.

So too, minds which Descartes had thought of as thinking substances are, according to Spinoza, modes of the attribute of thought. Like Descartes, Spinoza holds that the most real thing is God on which all other things depend. However, there are no created substances. God as the one substance has all the attributes, and consequently is both an extended substance and a thinking one. What Descartes had taken for created substances are actually modes of God. Nevertheless, Spinoza agrees with Descartes that the contents of reality come in two kinds—modes of extension and modes of thought, and there is a plurality of both.

This account of the nature of substance yields a very different picture of the metaphysical structure of the world from Descartes and from common sense. First, created substances are the causal products of God. However, substances are causally isolated, and so even if there were multiple substances, one could not be the causal product of the other. Spinoza agrees that being an ultimate subject is an essential part of being a substance; the problem is that finite bodies and minds are not ultimate subjects.

17th Century Theories of Substance | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In general, Spinoza claims that what is distinctive of substances as ultimate subjects is that they can be individuated by attribute alone. According to Spinoza there are only two kinds of mark by which entities might be individuated—by attribute and by mode. Substances as ultimate subjects cannot be individuated by mode, since subjects are metaphysically prior to modes.

Two finite bodies, for example, are not individuated by attribute since they are both extended and so cannot be substances. Spinoza justifies this move defensively; at E1P10s Spinoza claims that nothing we know about the attributes entails that they must belong to different substances, and consequently there is nothing illegitimate about claiming that a substance may have more than one attribute.


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Specifically, they claim he has a positive case that, in fact, a substance possessing anything less than all the attributes and hence, just one is impossible. In brief Lin asks us to suppose that Spinoza is wrong, and that it is possible for there to be a substance that has fewer than all of the attributes but at least one. Spinoza is a strong proponent of the Principle of Sufficient Reason see, for example, E1P8s2 according to which there is an explanation for every fact.

Given the PSR it follows that there is an explanation of why the substance in question fails to have all the attributes. Attributes are conceptually independent however, and consequently one cannot appeal to an existing attribute to explain the absence of another.

For a different but closely related version of this argument see Della Rocca Here the focus is on ii. Spinoza was well aware of this argument and his official rejoinder is found in E1P15s. For example, there is the part of extension which constitutes an individual human body, a part which constitutes the Atlantic Ocean, a part that constitutes Earth, etc. Despite his wording, Spinoza is not denying that extended substance has parts in every sense of the term.

Rather, Spinoza is especially concerned to counter the idea that his extended substance is a composite substance, built out of parts which are themselves substances, and into which it might be divided or resolved. Spinoza makes his case in two ways in E1P15s. First, Spinoza points us back to the arguments at E1P12 and 13 for the indivisibility of substance. Second Spinoza offers a new argument that focuses specifically on extended substance, one that, interestingly, does not presuppose the prior apparatus of the Ethics.

In general, he argues as follows.