Last Franciscan

Hypothesis: The Descartes of the Meditations is the last great Franciscan scholastic.

The Theory that it is a work in that tradition: 

1.) For years we’ve known about the Augustinian roots of Descartes, but recent scholarship shows that “Augustinian” seems to really mean “Augustine as filtered through a tradition starting with Alexander of Hales, interpreting Aristotle through Avicenna, and writing a manual that teaches Bonaventure, Scotus, Petrus Olivi, Ockham, etc.” Here I would lean heavily on Lydia Schumacher’s Divine Illumination. 

2.) The Meditations reads like a spiritual work of the sort that characterizes the Franciscan tradition. There are no prayers in it, which counts as a significant difference, but it is clearly the journey of a mind in search of God through an inward turn understood in a distinctively Franciscan way.

3.) “Ockham’s Razor” has been difficult to find because it isn’t there in the way it is usually understood. Who would ever make it an axiom not to include superfluous elements in an explanation? As Boehner argues, the real Ockham’s razor is Ockham’s consistent effort to reject whatever he is not forced to believe, that is, if you can doubt it, you ought to doubt it. This just is the Methodological Doubt of the First Meditation, even if MD is a particularly strong reading of the principle. So taken, Descartes is founding a whole philosophy on Ockham’s razor.

4.) The certitude of intuitions is a central question for Ockham, and it’s unclear that he ever resolves it. Descartes clearly is responding to this voluntarist tradition in Meditation 1 by simply refusing to take direct intuition as causative of knowledge.

That this is the last work in that tradition. 

5.) After Descartes, one is no longer arguing with scholastic problems but with problems in Descartes.

6.) In Descartes philosophy gains a new independence from theology. There is a clear rejection of or addition to the idea that philosophy is an ancilla theologiae, and a sense that it must now provide a foundation for a new sort of inquiry into nature. The Meditations does not open up to the world of revealed theology, or even to a religious world of prayer. The God of the Meditations is neither the Thou of the Intinerarium nor the first stage in a picture of revelation, as it is in the Medieval Summas.



  1. March 17, 2015 at 8:54 am

    If we take the Meditations to be a work in a broadly Franciscan tradition, then I think one can argue that Malebranche’s final edition of the Search after Truth is actually the last work in that tradition — although possibly one could hold that Malebranche is a transitional figure.

    • March 17, 2015 at 9:07 am

      Good point. I might be too eager to roll Malebranche into the post-Cartesian camp, of those no longer responding to Ockham, Suarez, etc. but more to Descartes.

      • March 17, 2015 at 10:25 am

        One thing about Malebranche is that he literally does respond to Suarez — he’s obviously not impressed by him, but he goes through Suarez’s anti-occasionalist arguments. But the transitional aspect is clear here, as well — he’s obviously not responding to them because he thinks them worth responding to, but because he thinks that he needs to get them out of the way (Descartes can be impatient with them, but he clearly does think that it’s important to respond to scholastic arguments in their own rights). He seems more securely in the broadly Franciscan camp if one focuses on his Augustinianism, though, since he is more Augustinian than Descartes.

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