The Ethics of Geometry: Genealogy of Modernity

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He perceives his body through the use of the senses; however, these have previously been unreliable. So Descartes determines that the only indubitable knowledge is that he is a thinking thing. Thinking is what he does, and his power must come from his essence. Descartes defines "thought" cogitatio as "what happens in me such that I am immediately conscious of it, insofar as I am conscious of it". Thinking is thus every activity of a person of which the person is immediately conscious. And so something that I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind.

In this manner, Descartes proceeds to construct a system of knowledge, discarding perception as unreliable and, instead, admitting only deduction as a method.


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Descartes, influenced by the automatons on display throughout the city of Paris, began to investigate the connection between the mind and body, and how the two interact. Known as Cartesian dualism or Mind-Body Dualism , his theory on the separation between the mind and the body went on to influence subsequent Western philosophies. Humans are a union of mind and body; [77] thus Descartes' dualism embraced the idea that mind and body are distinct but closely joined. While many contemporary readers of Descartes found the distinction between mind and body difficult to grasp, he thought it was entirely straightforward.

Descartes employed the concept of modes , which are the ways in which substances exist. In Principles of Philosophy , Descartes explained, "we can clearly perceive a substance apart from the mode which we say differs from it, whereas we cannot, conversely, understand the mode apart from the substance". To perceive a mode apart from its substance requires an intellectual abstraction, [78] which Descartes explained as follows:.

The intellectual abstraction consists in my turning my thought away from one part of the contents of this richer idea the better to apply it to the other part with greater attention. Thus, when I consider a shape without thinking of the substance or the extension whose shape it is, I make a mental abstraction. According to Descartes two substances are really distinct when each of them can exist apart from the other. Thus Descartes reasoned that God is distinct from humans, and the body and mind of a human are also distinct from one another.

But that the mind was utterly indivisible: because "when I consider the mind, or myself in so far as I am merely a thinking thing, I am unable to distinguish any part within myself; I understand myself to be something quite single and complete. In Meditations Descartes invokes his causal adequacy principle [81] to support his trademark argument for the existence of God, quoting Lucretius in defence: "Ex nihilo nihil fit", meaning " Nothing comes from nothing " Lucretius.

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Moreover, in Meditations Descartes discusses a piece of wax and exposes the single most characteristic doctrine of Cartesian dualism: that the universe contained two radically different kinds of substances—the mind or soul defined as thinking , and the body defined as matter and unthinking. Everything that happened, be it the motion of the stars or the growth of a tree , was supposedly explainable by a certain purpose, goal or end that worked its way out within nature.

Aristotle called this the "final cause," and these final causes were indispensable for explaining the ways nature operated. Descartes' theory of dualism supports the distinction between traditional Aristotelian science and the new science of Kepler and Galileo , which denied the role of a divine power and "final causes" in its attempts to explain nature. Descartes' dualism provided the philosophical rationale for the latter by expelling the final cause from the physical universe or res extensa in favor of the mind or res cogitans.

Therefore, while Cartesian dualism paved the way for modern physics , it also held the door open for religious beliefs about the immortality of the soul. Descartes' dualism of mind and matter implied a concept of human beings. A human was according to Descartes a composite entity of mind and body. Descartes gave priority to the mind and argued that the mind could exist without the body, but the body could not exist without the mind. In Meditations Descartes even argues that while the mind is a substance, the body is composed only of "accidents".

Nature also teaches me, by the sensations of pain, hunger, thirst and so on, that I am not merely present in my body as a pilot in his ship, but that I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit. If this were not so, I, who am nothing but a thinking thing, would not feel pain when the body was hurt, but would perceive the damage purely by the intellect, just as a sailor perceives by sight if anything in his ship is broken.

Descartes' discussion on embodiment raised one of the most perplexing problems of his dualism philosophy: What exactly is the relationship of union between the mind and the body of a person? It was this theory of innate knowledge that later led philosopher John Locke — to combat the theory of empiricism , which held that all knowledge is acquired through experience.

In The Passions of the Soul , written between and , Descartes discussed the common contemporary belief that the human body contained animal spirits. These animal spirits were believed to be light and roaming fluids circulating rapidly around the nervous system between the brain and the muscles, and served as a metaphor for feelings, like being in high or bad spirit.

These animal spirits were believed to affect the human soul, or passions of the soul. Descartes distinguished six basic passions: wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy and sadness. All of these passions, he argued, represented different combinations of the original spirit, and influenced the soul to will or want certain actions. He argued, for example, that fear is a passion that moves the soul to generate a response in the body.

In line with his dualist teachings on the separation between the soul and the body, he hypothesized that some part of the brain served as a connector between the soul and the body and singled out the pineal gland as connector. Thus different motions in the gland cause various animal spirits. He argued that these motions in the pineal gland are based on God's will and that humans are supposed to want and like things that are useful to them. But he also argued that the animal spirits that moved around the body could distort the commands from the pineal gland, thus humans had to learn how to control their passions.

Descartes advanced a theory on automatic bodily reactions to external events which influenced 19th-century reflex theory. He argued that external motions such as touch and sound reach the endings of the nerves and affect the animal spirits. Heat from fire affects a spot on the skin and sets in motion a chain of reactions, with the animal spirits reaching the brain through the central nervous system, and in turn animal spirits are sent back to the muscles to move the hand away from the fire. Above all he was among the first scientists who believed that the soul should be subject to scientific investigation.

He challenged the views of his contemporaries that the soul was divine , thus religious authorities regarded his books as dangerous. Descartes' writings went on to form the basis for theories on emotions and how cognitive evaluations were translated into affective processes. Descartes believed that the brain resembled a working machine and unlike many of his contemporaries believed that mathematics and mechanics could explain the most complicated processes of the mind.

In the 20th century Alan Turing advanced computer science based on mathematical biology as inspired by Descartes. His theories on reflexes also served as the foundation for advanced physiological theories more than years after his death. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov was a great admirer of Descartes. For Descartes, ethics was a science, the highest and most perfect of them. Like the rest of the sciences, ethics had its roots in metaphysics. However, as he was a convinced rationalist, Descartes clearly states that reason is sufficient in the search for the goods that we should seek, and virtue consists in the correct reasoning that should guide our actions.

Nevertheless, the quality of this reasoning depends on knowledge, because a well-informed mind will be more capable of making good choices , and it also depends on mental condition.

The Ethics Of Geometry Genealogy Of Modernity

For this reason, he said that a complete moral philosophy should include the study of the body. He discussed this subject in the correspondence with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia , and as a result wrote his work The Passions of the Soul , that contains a study of the psychosomatic processes and reactions in man, with an emphasis on emotions or passions.

Humans should seek the sovereign good that Descartes, following Zeno , identifies with virtue, as this produces a solid blessedness or pleasure. For Epicurus the sovereign good was pleasure, and Descartes says that, in fact, this is not in contradiction with Zeno's teaching, because virtue produces a spiritual pleasure, that is better than bodily pleasure.

Regarding Aristotle 's opinion that happiness depends on the goods of fortune, Descartes does not deny that this good contributes to happiness but remarks that they are in great proportion outside one's own control, whereas one's mind is under one's complete control. This is known as his "Provisional Morals". In the third and fifth Meditation , he offers an ontological proof of a benevolent God through both the ontological argument and trademark argument. Because God is benevolent, he can have some faith in the account of reality his senses provide him, for God has provided him with a working mind and sensory system and does not desire to deceive him.

From this supposition, however, he finally establishes the possibility of acquiring knowledge about the world based on deduction and perception. Regarding epistemology , therefore, he can be said to have contributed such ideas as a rigorous conception of foundationalism and the possibility that reason is the only reliable method of attaining knowledge. He, nevertheless, was very much aware that experimentation was necessary to verify and validate theories. One of these is founded upon the possibility of thinking the "idea of a being that is supremely perfect and infinite," and suggests that "of all the ideas that are in me, the idea that I have of God is the most true, the most clear and distinct.


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His attempt to ground theological beliefs on reason encountered intense opposition in his time. Pascal regarded Descartes' views as a rationalist and mechanist, and accused him of deism : "I cannot forgive Descartes; in all his philosophy, Descartes did his best to dispense with God. But Descartes could not avoid prodding God to set the world in motion with a snap of his lordly fingers; after that, he had no more use for God," while a powerful contemporary, Martin Schoock , accused him of atheist beliefs, though Descartes had provided an explicit critique of atheism in his Meditations.

The Catholic Church prohibited his books in Through this method of scepticism, he does not doubt for the sake of doubting but to achieve concrete and reliable information. In other words, certainty. He argues that sensory perceptions come to him involuntarily, and are not willed by him. They are external to his senses, and according to Descartes, this is evidence of the existence of something outside of his mind, and thus, an external world. Descartes goes on to show that the things in the external world are material by arguing that God would not deceive him as to the ideas that are being transmitted, and that God has given him the "propensity" to believe that such ideas are caused by material things.

Descartes also believes a substance is something that does not need any assistance to function or exist. But minds are substances, meaning they need only God for it to function.

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The mind is a thinking substance. The means for a thinking substance stem from ideas. Descartes steered clear of theological questions, restricting his attention to showing that there is no incompatibility between his metaphysics and theological orthodoxy. He avoided trying to demonstrate theological dogmas metaphysically. When challenged that he had not established the immortality of the soul merely in showing that the soul and the body are distinct substances, for example , he replied that he 'does not take it upon myself to use the power of human reason to settle any of those matters which depend on the free will of God'.

Descartes is often regarded as the first thinker to emphasize the use of reason to develop the natural sciences. Thus, all Philosophy is like a tree, of which Metaphysics is the root, Physics the trunk, and all the other sciences the branches that grow out of this trunk, which are reduced to three principals, namely, Medicine, Mechanics, and Ethics.

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