An odd set of circumstances had me doing some work in an area wherein I usually don't research or publish, namely, the history of biblical scholarship.
One of several surprises I came across in the process of researching for a little essay, was the significance of my ancestral homeland, the Netherlands, to the development of modern thought, and particularly modern biblical scholarship.
During the wars of religion that characterized the post-Reformation period and dominated the seventeenth century (1600's), the Netherlands established their independence from Spain and reached the brief zenith of their economic and military power on the global stage. The relative political tolerance in the Netherlands in this time period, particularly in and around the capital Amsterdam, attracted all manner of radical intellectuals whose writings anticipated and provoked the "Enlightenment," which did not "arrive" in most of the rest of Europe until the eighteenth century (1700's).
Like many other humanities majors, I studied René Descartes at the beginning of my survey course in the history of modern philosophy as an undergraduate, without being aware of the fact that the majority of his career was spent in Holland, that the first and most volatile reaction to his thought was among the Dutch, and that the implications of his thought for biblical interpretation were among the main concerns of his contemporaries.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was born and educated in France but spent the most important years of his career (1629-49) in Holland, in and around Amsterdam, which he found to be a tolerant haven for his provocative philosophizing.[i] Baptized a Roman Catholic within a week of his birth and educated by Jesuits in Anjou and Poitiers, Descartes maintained public loyalty to the Catholic Church throughout his life, although the sincerity of religious commitments as well as the compatibility of his thought with Catholic doctrine are matters of debate.[ii]
In 1637 Descartes published his famous Discourse on Method in Leiden, followed in 1641 with his Meditations on First Philosophy. His works were disseminated quickly and widely among Dutch intellectuals, and within a few years were causing a storm of controversy within university faculties across the Low Countries.[iii] Descartes’ philosophy became a source of contention between what might be described as the non-scholastic wing of the Reformed Church, whose figurehead was the federalist theologian Johannes Cocceius of Leiden (1603-69)[iv]—an important figure in the history of biblical theology in his own right—and the defenders of Reformed scholasticism led by Gijsbertus Voetius of Utrecht (1589-1676), with the non-scholastics affording Descartes guarded and partial approbation, and the scholastics complete condemnation.[v]
Descartes was twenty-one when the Thirty Years War began, and the cultural chaos wrought by this conflict pitting Christian against Christian, each making rival and mutually exclusive truth claims, had an important shaping influence on his thought. In fact, his intellectual project may be seen as attempt to seek a source of epistemological certainty apart from faith, for with the collapse of Christian unity in Europe, faith no longer provided certainty.
As is well known, Descartes proposed that the proper method for philosophizing was to doubt any proposition which could not be demonstrated with absolute certainty, until one’s knowledge base was reduced at last to a bare minimum of indubitable truths, from which one could rebuild a fuller epistemology through pure reason.[vi] So, he begins by doubting all his knowledge until he is reduced to one certain fact: I think, therefore I am, i.e. because I am thinking I must exist. From this one indubitable fact he attempts to work back out to the existence of God and the reality of other objects outside himself.[vii]
In fact, Descartes methodology of doubt is in large part a ruse used to destroy alternative accounts of reality (e.g. those of Aristotle and other figures of the Western philosophical tradition) in order to clear the field for the construction of his own project. For example, there is much to be doubted about the veracity of Descartes positive contributions: his version of the ontological argument for God’s existence, his mathematically reductionistic view of nature, his contempt of the epistemological role of sense perception. But Descartes does not apply his skepticism to his own philosophical edifice; instead he wields it like a weapon against his predecessors’ views.[viii]
[To be continued]
[i] For more on the biography of Descartes, see Genevieve Rodis-Lewis, Descartes: His Life and Thought (trans. J. M. Todd; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995). On Descartes satisfaction with the tolerant Dutch culture, see his Discourse on Method III.31. Our translation is René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (trans. Donald A. Cress; Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980).
[ii] For example, the Senate of the University of Groningen, writing to Count Louis Henry of Nassau in 1651, could say of Descartes that he was, “as we have been informed, fairly free from Catholic superstitions even in the hour of his death” (quoted in Theo Verbeek, Descartes and the Dutch: Early Reactions to Cartesian Philosophy 1637-1650 [Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), 83; see also 80). It is also well known that he fought as a mercenary for the Protestant nobleman Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange.
[iii] See Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 24-25.
[iv] Verbeek, Descartes, 87; Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 25.
[v] On Voetius see esp. Verbeek, Descartes, 4-12; Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 24.
[vi] Discourse on Method, IV.31-32.
[vii] Discourse on Method, IV.32.
[viii] On the vulnerability of much of Descartes’ edifice to doubt, see Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 158-73. Significantly, Spinoza followed Descartes in the selective application of skepticism. See Popkin, History of Scepticism, 239-40.