Descartes axiom is cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am; and in one view inaugurated a break in European Philosophy towards modernity by propelling it towards a self-conscious rationalism, to which one culminating point would be Sartres Existentialism as a Humanism.

However, when one translates, cogito as man as a thinking substance - this his essence; and then sum as existence; one then gets the medieval formula of essence implies existence; and thus essence before existence; but in medieval theology it is the nature of Gods essence that his essence is existence (he is therefore the self-subsistent and neccessary ground); this, appears then to imply a connection between man and God.

Does this mean, to some degree, that Descartes Philosophy looks back to Medieval Philosophy? As evidence, Spinoza who was Descartian, in his Ethics grounds his interpretation of neo-platonism philosophy in God as the neccessary substance.


2 Answers 2


I think Descartes' philosophy is still largely linked to the preceding philosophies. This should not surprise us considering his section on objective and subjective being in Meditations and that his education was in scholastic philosophy.

See for instance:

  his physics (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-physics/)
  his ontological argument (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-ontological/)
  his understanding of ideas (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-ideas/) 
  his concept of substance (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/substance/)

If shane were here, he could give a much better answer as a medievalist.

  • Ok, am I then misreading Descarte then as being read today as indexing a turn towards the modern; as say Galileo towards modern physics? Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 12:28
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    I don't think that's a misreading either. Descartes is a bridge to modernity because he ditches much of what he learned (which may have been bad scholasticism) and replaces it with a simplification centered on "clear and distinct" ideas and reason. It just so happens that his idea of ideas and several other features remain medieval in their style and origin, leaving those as later things for others to chip off later into modernity.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 12:45
  • @Mozibur Ullah In the "Copernican revolution in philosophy" that Kant was talking about, Descartes is a much better candidate for Copernicus. He turned the center of philosophy from God and the external world to the thinking subject, but like Copernicus he kept the "epicycles". Kant himself was more like Galileo and Newton, complementing kinematics by new dynamics.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:08
  • @virmaior: sure; still, I think there is something also to be said for Descarte speaking about himself, and for others talking for him - the two are hardly the same. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:17

In general, whether a given thinker is seen as a break or a bridge is largely a matter of perspective. Descartes' philosophy explicitly affirms much of the philosophy that came before, but his approach to that affirmation was radical enough to stimulate a revolution in thought (no Hume without Descartes, no Kant without Hume). In this way Descartes is simultaneously the bridge between medieval and modern philosophy and the break between the two.

(It's often the case that a philosopher's true importance is best gauged by the significance of the reactions against his work.)

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