The Battle of the Gods and Giants

The Battle of the Gods and Giants: The Legacies of Descartes and Gassendi, 1655-1715

Thomas M. Lennon
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    The Battle of the Gods and Giants
    Book Description:

    By the mid-1600s, the commonsense, manifest picture of the world associated with Aristotle had been undermined by skeptical arguments on the one hand and by the rise of the New Science on the other. What would be the scientific image to succeed the Aristotelian model? Thomas Lennon argues here that the contest between the supporters of Descartes and the supporters of Gassendi to decide this issue was the most important philosophical debate of the latter half of the seventeenth century. Descartes and Gassendi inspired their followers with radically opposed perspectives on space, the objects in it, and how these objects are known. Lennon maintains that differing concepts on these matters implied significant moral and political differences: the Descartes/Gassendi conflict was typical of Plato's perennial battle of the gods (friends of forms) and giants (materialists), and the crux of that enduring philosophical struggle is the exercise of moral and political authority.

    Lennon demonstrates, in addition, that John Locke should be read as having taken up Gassendi's cause against Descartes. In Lennon's reinterpretation of the history of philosophy between the death dates of Gassendi and Malebranche, Locke's acknowledged opposition to Descartes on some issues is applied to the most important questions of Locke exegesis.

    Originally published in 1993.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6339-6
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Note on Documentation
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. CHAPTER I The Philosophical Terrain
    (pp. 3-62)

    The great nineteenth-century historian of Cartesianism, Francisque Bouillier, wrote that “during more than half a century, there did not appear in France a single book of philosophy, there was not a single philosophical discussion which did not have Descartes for its object, which was not for or against his system.”¹ Bouillier was a Cartesian historian in two senses of the expression, both of which contribute to the exaggeration of his statement. Even so, he draws attention to what seems to me beyond dispute: that the philosophy of Descartes (1596–1650) dominates the latter half of the seventeenth century in a...

  6. CHAPTER II The Giants of the Seventeenth Century
    (pp. 63-148)

    Biographical, bibliographical, and analytical data on Descartes are either well-known or readily available. The same is true of Malebranche and even of the minor Cartesians. On the other side, Gassendi’s situation in this regard has improved considerably in recent years,¹ but for his partisans there is nothing even remotely approaching, for example, Bouillier’s work on the Cartesians. It will therefore be apposite, indeed unavoidable, here to discuss in some detail the lives, works, and doctrines of the giants in the latter half of the seventeenth century. What emerges is very much by way of contrast to their divine opponents: As...

  7. CHAPTER III Locke: Gassendist Anti-Cartesian
    (pp. 149-190)

    In a well-known but ill-heeded passage of theNew Essays,Leibniz said of Locke: “This author is pretty much in agreement with M. Gassendi’s system, which is fundamentally that of Democritus: he supports vacuum and atoms, he believes that matter could think, that there are no innate ideas, that our mind is atabula rasa, and that we do not think all the time; and he seems inclined to agree with most of M. Gassendi’s objections against M. Descartes” (p. 70). My thesis in this chapter will be that Leibniz gets the picture of Locke exactly right. In the first...

  8. CHAPTER IV The Gods of the Seventeenth Century
    (pp. 191-239)

    The immediate aim of this section is simple, at least to state.¹ I shall try to show that the most important philosopher of the seventeenth century, if not of the entire period between Plato and the present, shared the views Plato ascribed to the gods and that he promulgated them in ways hardly less compelling than did Plato himself. Thus, Descartes will be placed in the venerated tradition according to which the particular as such is unintelligible, that only the universal is a proper object of knowledge, and that the universal is eternal and immutable. Although Descartes is generally regarded...

  9. CHAPTER V Ideas and Representation
    (pp. 240-273)

    The seventeenth century witnessed the new way of ideas and the way of newideas.That is, both a certain analysis of knowledge and what it was that was thought known were regarded as having first seen the light of day. The new ideas comprised primarily the central theses of the New Science to which nearly everyone—including erstwhile Aristotelians—sought to accede.¹ As an account of how these theses might be known, however, not everyone was on the same new way of ideas, and the divergence of paths on this issue is as philosophically important as any other.


  10. CHAPTER VI The Untouchable and the Uncuttable
    (pp. 274-333)

    Locke’sEssayis a book about knowledge that forswears ontological questions. Yet, to repeat what was said above, it would be surprising if the author of such a text held no ontological views, or if those views did not frequently intrude upon the work in important ways. I believe that roughly speaking Locke’s ontology is an anti-Cartesian one of atoms and the void, designed to avoid what he regards as the pernicious results of the Cartesian version of the New Science.

    Locke’s chapter on the simple modes of space (2.13), for example, is for the greater part devoted to an...

  11. CHAPTER VII Innateness, Abstraction, and Essences
    (pp. 334-366)

    A landmark issue of the seventeenth century, certainly of its latter half, was the nativist-empiricist controversy over what, if anything, might be the mind’s original baggage.¹ This controversy was exceedingly complicated due to the failure, or inability, to get clear on the crucial terms of the debate, especially the notion of experience on which the mind was said to be dependent, or not, for its knowledge. Consonant with the theme sounded from the outset of this work, my thesis is that the historical controversy is best understood as concerned not with the question whether mathematics, for example, can beknown...

  12. CHAPTER VIII Philosophy and the Historiography of Philosophy
    (pp. 367-392)

    A crucial thesis of this work is that Locke needs to be interpreted in light of a certain tradition for which Gassendi was the principal funnel into the seventeenth century. This tradition gives the sense of his empirical-skeptical epistemology and of his nominalist ontology of atoms and the void by emphasizing the centrality of his moral and political views of relativism and toleration. It also systematically places Locke on the opposite side to the Cartesians with respect to virtually every issue of significance in the period. In these terms, Locke engages the Cartesians in Plato’s battle of the gods and...

  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 393-410)
  14. Index
    (pp. 411-420)