chapter  7
13 Pages

Descartes’ Reputation

ByJOHN COTTINGHAM

There is a curious paradox about Descartes’ current reputation: while in the lay world it generally remains high, in the academic philosophical world it could hardly have sunk lower. The general educated reader’s view of Descartes is that he is one of the maybe half dozen greatest philosophers of all time; everyone has heard of cogito ergo sum, and anyone having even a cursory acquaintance with Descartes through any typical encyclopedia entry knows that he is the ‘father of modern philosophy’. Yet within the academic community, even though Descartes’ offi cial place in the canon of great world philosophers remains secure, almost no one has anything positive to say about his philosophical doctrines. Indeed, the label ‘Cartesian’ has become virtually a term of abuse, signalling all manner of philosophical confusions and errors: an obscurantist immaterialism in the philosophy of mind; a suspect foundationalism in epistemology; an incoherent subjectivism in the theory of meaning; a blinkered apriorism in the philosophy of science. The fertile and nuanced thought manifested in Descartes’ actual texts is seldom allowed to disturb this ritual denunciation of his errors. Modern analytic philosophers tend not to bother themselves with close scrutiny of past thinkers; however, they need their myths. They need a story of a Fall, from which their own salvifi c efforts have redeemed us, and Descartes, father of the subject, is invariably cast in the role of Adam, original source of all our woe.