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Cartesian epistemology

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According to Hervé Barreau, modern epistemology derives from Kant’s criticism in the eighteenth century and from the positivism of Comte in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But it also draws on older traditions, including ancient and Cartesian traditions. It was at the beginning of the 20th century that epistemology became an autonomous disciplinary field.

Great epistemological models

The history of science and philosophy has produced many theories as to the nature and scope of the scientific phenomenon. There is thus a set of great epistemological models that claim to explain the specificity of science. The twentieth century marked a radical turning point. Very schematically, to the first purely philosophical and often normative reflections were added more sociological and psychological reflections, then sociological and anthropological approaches in the 1980s, then finally fundamentally heterogeneous approaches from the 1990s with Science studies. The speech will also be questioned by psychology with the current of constructivism. Finally, epistemology is interested in “science in action” (expression of Bruno Latour), that is to say in its daily implementation and not only in the nature of the theoretical questions it produces.


According to Hervé Barreau, “the substitution of epistemology for the classical theory of knowledge […] has had at least the merit of clearly demonstrating the difference between common knowledge and scientific knowledge”. According to Maurice Sachot, Parmenides is the founder of epistemology, by exposing in the first part of the Poem the epistemic rules to which all knowledge of the real must submit to pretend to some truth. And by presenting in the second part his own conception of the world (his doxa), proposing a theoretical model of interpretation, which he calls diakosmos, “transmonde”, and whose key metaphor is sexual reproduction, he can also be considered as the father of science in the modern sense of the word.

Cartesian epistemology

In the Discourse on Method, Descartes:

  • opens the first part on the useful expectations “to properly lead one’s reason and seek the truth in the sciences”,
  • poses four rules that he must apply in order to lead his reflection:


  • Principle >>> Explicit rules
  • Evidence >>> Do not receive anything for true until your mind has clearly and distinctly assimilated it beforehand.
  • Reductionism >>> Divide each of the difficulties to better examine and solve them.
  • Causalism >>> Establish an order of thoughts, starting with the simplest objects to the most complex and diverse, and thus keep them all in order.
  • Completeness >>> Review all things so you do not miss anything.

The third of these rules states that simplicity has an epistemological value:

“To drive my thoughts by order, starting with the simplest objects and the easiest to know to go up little by little, as by degrees, until the knowledge of the most compound”.

Cartesianism and rationalism

René Descartes(René Descartes.)

Rationalism is an epistemological current, born in the seventeenth century, and for which “all valid knowledge comes either exclusively or essentially from the use of reason”. Authors such as René Descartes (then Cartesianism) or Leibniz found the conceptual bases of this movement, which emphasizes reasoning in general, and more particularly deductive reasoning, also called analytic. It is therefore a theory of knowledge that postulates the primacy of the intellect. Experimentation has a special status: it serves only to validate or refute hypotheses. In other words, reason alone suffices to separate the true from the false in rationalistic reasoning. The rationalists thus take as an example the famous passage of Plato’s dialogue in the Menon, where Socrates proves that a young illiterate slave, step by step and without his help, can redo and re-demonstrate the Pythagorean theorem.

Rationalism, especially modern, advocates the primacy of mathematics over other sciences. Mathematics is, in fact, the intellectual medium that demonstrates that intellect and reason can do without observation and experience. Already Galileo explained in his work The Tester – which is also a demonstration of logic – in 1623, that

“The big book of the Universe is written in the language of mathematics. This book can only be understood if one first learns the language and the alphabet in which it is written. The characters are triangles and circles, as well as other geometrical figures without which it is humanly impossible to decipher any word.”

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