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Gassendi as Critic of Descartes

Gassendi as Critic of Descartes  

Antonia Lolordo
The Oxford Handbook of Descartes and Cartesianism
Edited by Steven Nadler, Tad M. Schmaltz, and Delphine Antoine-Mahut

Print Publication Date: Apr 2019

Subject: Philosophy, History of Western Philosophy (Post-Classical)
Online Publication Date: May 2019 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198796909.013.37

Abstract and Keywords

Pierre Gassendi is best known today as a critic of Descartes. This chapter surveys
Gassendi’s Objections to the Meditations, Descartes’s Reply, and Gassendi’s Counter-Ob­
jections in the Disquisitio Metaphysica. The central theme of this debate is methodology.
Gassendi thinks that the methodology of the Meditations is hopeless: nobody can genuine­
ly clear their mind of preconceived opinions, and if they did, they would not have discov­
ered new foundations for the sciences, but instead be trapped in a state of suspended
judgment. Gassendi’s critique is not entirely fair to Descartes, and Descartes’s reply fails
to take seriously the main points of the critique.

Keywords: Pierre Gassendi, clear and distinct perception, essence, methodology, real distinction

(p. 597) 1. The Fifth Objections and its Sequels

PIERRE Gassendi is best known today as a critic of Descartes. He would probably have
been surprised by this: he was not impressed with Descartes’s Meditations, and he had no
reason to suspect that Descartes’s reputation would so far eclipse his own. This Hand­
book concerns Cartesianism and its critics, but Gassendi likely did not expect there to be
any such thing as Cartesianism. He saw himself as discussing a good mathematician’s un­
fortunate decision to try his hand at metaphysics, not the founding text of a system and

Gassendi was 48 when Mersenne asked him to write a set of Objections to be published,
along with Descartes’s Replies, in the first edition of the Meditations. By that time, he
was already fairly well known. He had published an attack on the Scholastics, the Exerci­
tationes paradoxicae adversus Aristoteleos (Exercises against the Aristotelians in the
form of paradoxes), which was widely read and widely admired.1 He had also published
an attack on the chymist Robert Fludd, which Mersenne had asked him to write, and two
works on astronomy.2 And in the few years between the Objections and the much longer
1644 Counter-Objections, Gassendi published several more things: a biography (p. 598) of
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his late patron, the humanist Peiresc; a defense of Galilean relativity, De motu impresso a
motore translato [On the motion impressed by a moved mover]; and another work of as­

Gassendi and Descartes had a fair amount in common. They knew each other, both per­
sonally and philosophically: Gassendi admired Descartes’s Geometry (Gassendi 1658: III.
275b) and Descartes admired Gassendi’s astronomical observations (AT I.113/CSMK 18).
They were both associated with the Mersenne circle, and—like Mersenne himself—they
were both great admirers of Galileo.4 And they were both keen critics of Aristotelianism,
eager to replace it with something else.

Along with these commonalities, there were also a number of significant differences. Al­
though both philosophers agreed that Aristotelianism should be abandoned, they did not
agree about what it should be replaced with. Descartes advocated his own new system,
independent of any ancient model, whereas Gassendi opted for a version of Epicure­
anism. Of course, Gassendi’s version of Epicureanism involved a great deal of revision;
the Epicurean accounts of God, providence, death, and the like were excised and re­
placed by something more acceptable to the Catholic Church. Thus, he was attempting to
do for Epicurus something like what Aquinas did for Aristotle.5

A second, related difference concerns the two philosophers’ general attitude towards the
ancients. Descartes obscures the influence of history on his work; Gassendi celebrates it.
He explains the range of options on offer in the history of philosophy for every issue he
considers—making a point, however, of leaving out all the Aristotelian options. Gassendi’s
main work, the enormous, posthumously published Syntagma Philosophicum, often looks
like a tissue of quotations woven together. Thus Descartes’s erasure of history pains him.
He spends a great deal of time, for example, explaining the importance of the distinction
the ancient skeptics drew between the appearances of things and their innermost nature,
a distinction Descartes ignores in the First Meditation (Gassendi 1658: III.286a).

Finally, there was a significant difference between the philosophers’ social positions.
Throughout his life, Gassendi was dependent upon patronage networks in a way that
Descartes never was. It’s not clear how much this affected the content of their views, but
it certainly affected the way those views were presented and the way the two philoso­
phers interacted with their peers. Gassendi’s work could easily have been seen as theo­
logically suspect, even dangerous. For instance, his commitment to Copernicanism was
obvious, from the 1620s to the end of his life. And although he always insisted that he
submitted (p. 599) to the authority of the Church on this question, he was also extremely
reluctant to accept that the Pope himself had condemned Galileo.6 Despite this, Gassendi
never had any real trouble with the authorities. He made an effort to get along with the
establishment and to be respected and rewarded by it, and he was very successful in this.
This could hardly be further from Descartes.

The rancor of the Fifth Objections and Replies cannot, however, be blamed entirely—or
even mainly—on Descartes. Gassendi’s Objections are unsympathetic, and it is not sur­
prising that they enraged Descartes. Gassendi pokes fun at the meditator’s description of
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himself as “in a strict sense only a thing that thinks” (AT VII.27/CSM II.18) and as a re­
sult, throughout the Objections, he addresses Descartes “O Mind” (AT VII.265/CSM II.
185/Gassendi 1658: III.298a). In turn, Descartes—who thinks that Gassendi’s mind is “so
immersed in the senses that [it shrinks] from all metaphysical thoughts” (AT VII.348/CSM
II.241)—addresses Gassendi “O Flesh” (AT VII.352/CSM II.244). He complains that
Gassendi “seem[s] to misunderstand completely what the use of rational argument
involves” (AT VII.354/CSM II.245) and describes him as “employ[ing] rhetorical tricks
rather than reasoning” (AT VII.350/CSM II.243). Presumably Descartes knew that
Gassendi would be offended: he asked Mersenne to publish the Objections right away, ex­
plaining that they “contain so little good argument that I doubt if he will want to allow
them to be printed, once he has seen my reply” (letter of June 23, 1641: AT III.384/CSMK

Gassendi was offended, and in response to Descartes’s Replies he wrote a lengthy set of
Counter-Objections which were published, along with the original Objections and
Descartes’s Replies, as the Disquisitio Metaphysica. There, in 140 folio pages, Gassendi
explains how Descartes has misunderstood or failed to adequately respond to various
points. Gassendi’s opinion of Descartes had not improved since the original Objections: at
one point, he says that he is disappointed that a skilled mathematician like Descartes “pa­
raded such spurious arguments as demonstrations” (Gassendi 1658: III.275b).

Descartes apparently did not think much of the Disquisitio, and he did not reply directly.
When the first French edition of the Meditations was published in 1647, he asked for
Gassendi’s Objections to be left out. In their place, he asked a group of his friends to sum­
marize the main points of the Disquisitio. Descartes then wrote a brief letter, explaining
that he had “not been able to discover a single objection which those who have some
slight understanding of my Meditations will not, in my view, be able to answer quite easily
without any help from me” (AT IXA.199/CSM II.269). Claude Clerselier, who handled the
publication, did not do quite what Descartes asked: he published Descartes’s letter (now
called the “Letter to Clerselier”) in place of the Fifth Set of Objections and Replies, but
then included them as an appendix anyway. Here the exchange stopped.7

(p. 600) 2. Overview of the Debate

The Fifth Objections opens with misleading modesty. Gassendi tells us that his aim is not
to refute Descartes, but “simply to uncover the reasons that gave rise to [his] doubts”
about Descartes’s arguments, and that his worries “do not concern the actual results …
but merely the method and validity of the proof” (AT VII.257/CSM II.179/Gassendi 1658:
III.273b). This is only partly true. Gassendi agrees with the official conclusions of the
Meditations, that God exists and that the soul is immortal, and to a certain extent he is
playing devil’s advocate rather than presenting his own views. For instance, he proposes
an alternative procedure to discover the essence of the mind—a chemical investigation
(AT VII.276/CSM II.193/Gassendi 1658: III.311a). But this is not the procedure he himself
uses elsewhere, and he is not the sort of materialist this remark might suggest.8 However,

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Gassendi also disagrees with a number of Descartes’s conclusions, for instance those con­
cerning the structure of space, the nature of life, the distinction between intellect and
imagination, the freedom of the will, and more.

The Fifth Objections touch on virtually every point in the Meditations, but here I focus on
what I see as the main line of argument, which begins with a consideration of methodolo­
gy.9 Gassendi describes the Meditations as Descartes’s logic and asserts that the main
principle of Descartes’s logic is what we now call the truth rule, that is, the principle
everything I clearly and distinctly perceive is true (Gassendi 1658: I.65b). He argues that
because of this reliance on clear and distinct perception, Descartes is trapped in “the
prison of [his] intellect”, unable to make contact with “the theater of nature” (Gassendi
1658: III.382a). For, he argues, clear and distinct perception is useless as a criterion of
truth—in part because the First Meditation’s use of skeptical scenarios to help us isolate
our clear and distinct perceptions fails. This, Gassendi argues, leaves us unable to deter­
mine which of our ideas are innate. Hence, we will be unable to identify any true and im­
mutable natures. And as a result, Descartes’s arguments for the existence of God fail, as
does his argument for the real distinction between mind and body.

3. Clear and Distinct Perception

How do I know, in any given case, if I am perceiving things clearly and distinctly? Are
there perceptions that are only apparently clear and distinct? Or is clarity and distinct­
ness its own mark, with the result that I cannot possibly be wrong about whether I am
perceiving something clearly and distinctly?

Gassendi poses these questions as a dilemma for Descartes. Suppose that there is
(p. 601)

a distinction between genuinely clear and distinct perceptions and those that merely ap­
pear clear and distinct. Then the truth rule cannot be useful unless I first have a method
for determining which of my perceptions are really clear and distinct:

What you should be working on is not so much confirming this rule, which makes
it so easy for us to take the false for the true, but instead proposing a method to
guide us and teach us when we are mistaken and when not, in the cases where we
think we clearly and distinctly perceive something. (AT VII.279/CSM II.194–5/
Gassendi 1658: III.315a)

On the other hand, suppose that it’s impossible to be wrong about whether you’re per­
ceiving something clearly and distinctly. Then, Gassendi argues, all clear and distinct per­
ceptions cannot be true, for different people—all of whom are honest, all of whom have
thought about the matter carefully—report that they perceive different, incompatible
things clearly and distinctly (AT VII.277/CSM II.193/Gassendi 1658: III.315a). Gassendi
recognizes that someone might doubt the veracity of such reports, but he thinks such
doubts can be dismissed. If clear and distinct perception cannot be misidentified then the
only way reports of clear and distinct perception can be false is if the reporter is simply
lying, and in some cases we can rule out that possibility: “the fact that men go to meet
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death for the sake of some opinion seems to be a perspicuous argument that they per­
ceive it clearly and distinctly” (Gassendi 1658: III.317a). Moreover, Gassendi reports, he
himself has experienced conflict between clear and distinct perceptions held at different
times. As a child, he clearly and distinctly perceived that if two lines kept approaching
each other, they would eventually meet; later he learned about asymptotes and came to
perceive the opposite; still later, he adopted a form of skepticism about mathematics and
abandoned all such beliefs (AT VII.278/CSM II.194/ Gassendi 1658: III.314b).

Descartes responds with a third option. Clear and distinct perception needs no criterion,
but none of the perceptions Gassendi discusses are genuinely clear and distinct. Gassendi
keeps asking for a method he can use to tell whether he’s really perceiving something
clearly and distinctly, but, Descartes says,

I maintain that I carefully provided such a method in the appropriate place, where
I first eliminated all preconceived opinions and afterwards listed all my principal
ideas, distinguishing those which were clear from those which were obscure or
confused. (AT VII.361–2/CSM II.250)

Only people who have meditated properly are capable of having clear and distinct percep­
tions, and for them, clear and distinct perceptions are unmistakable. Gassendi advances
examples that are not genuinely clear and distinct because he is still mired in the senses:
he has never experienced genuine clarity and distinctness.

In response, Gassendi claims that it is impossible to free yourself from preconceived opin­
ions using the tools Descartes provides, namely the three skeptical hypotheses (p. 602) of
the First Meditation. Thus, the debate shifts from clear and distinct perception to the use
and abuse of skepticism.

Ancient skepticism was important for Gassendi.10 In the Exercitationes, he explained that
the Academics and Pyrrhonians seemed to him to be the most pleasing philosophers
(Gassendi 1658: III.99, no columns), and he used a number of arguments found in Sextus
Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism to challenge Aristotelianism. Many of these are ver­
sions of the Ten Modes, which were strategies designed to show that “the judgments of
different men concerning the things that are perceived by the senses are very
different” (Gassendi 1658: III.197b) and even that one man will make different judgments
at different times and in different circumstances. (This is, of course, the strategy Gassen­
di used in attacking the truth rule). It’s important here that there is actual disagreement.
I am brought to suspend judgment by considering the fact that the honey tastes sweet to
me but bitter to you. This is, as a matter of fact, what tends to happen to human beings
who contemplate the great variety of differing appearances.

The first level of doubt in the First Meditation—the deceiving senses—more or less fits
this pattern. The next two levels, however, do not. I may be unable to rule out the possi­
bility that I am being deceived by an evil demon, but it does not appear to me that I am
being deceived by an evil demon. Because of this, Gassendi thinks, the global skeptical

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hypotheses of the First Meditation produce at best a “merely verbal” doubt (Gassendi
1658: III.280b). They will not bring about universal suspension of judgment.

Gassendi thinks that Descartes has failed to understand how skepticism works. He as­
sumes, because of his own emphasis on the need for ancient models, that Descartes is
trying to do something like what the ancient skeptics did. But he also has theoretical rea­
sons for thinking that the First Meditation must produce universal suspension of judg­
ment in order for Descartes’s method to have a chance. For, he argues, unless we sus­
pend all judgments we cannot be sure that we are free from the pernicious influence of
previously acquired opinions.

In fact, to be sure that we are free from the pernicious influence of previously acquired
opinions, we will need to cast off all previously acquired ideas as well. For in many cases,
judgments automatically fall out of ideas. So long as we retain the ideas of the sun and
light or of two right angles and the intersection of two straight lines, for instance, we will
automatically judge that the sun is light or that the intersection of two straight lines al­
ways forms angles equal to two right angles (Gassendi 1658: III.279b). But we cannot
cast off all previously acquired ideas. For one thing, Gassendi thinks, the possession of
ideas is not under voluntary control (Gassendi 1658: III.279b). For another, this would
render further progress impossible: if, per impossibile, you had cast off all the beliefs and
ideas acquired through the senses, you would have no store of concepts left to work with
and, at best, you could say simply, “I, I, I …” (Gassendi 1658: III.320a).

4. The Eternal Truths and the Immaterial

(p. 603)

Gassendi sees the First Meditation as intended to serve as an argument for the existence
of innate ideas: any ideas that survive universal suspension of judgment are thereby sup­
posed to be innate (Gassendi 1658: III.320a). So, one aspect of Gassendi’s attack on in­
nate ideas is his objection that universal suspension of doubt is impossible. But there are
others. For one, Gassendi thinks innatism leads Descartes to “speciously and
Platonically” (Gassendi 1658: III.378b) posit that there are true and immutable natures
and eternal truths.11 Readers now tend to focus on Descartes’s claim that the eternal
truths are created, but for Gassendi what is most objectionable is that Descartes accepts
the existence of eternal truths in the first place.12 Here’s the worry. Descartes says that
essences and eternal truths “are immutable and eternal, since the will and decree of God
willed and decreed that they should be so” (AT VII.380/CSM II.261), but this is inconsis­
tent. If the eternal truths depend on God, then they cannot be immutable: God could
change them. If they are created by God, then they cannot be eternal: what is created
must be created in time. The only way out is to accept “that there is nothing beyond God
… except that which is created by him, that which exists, that which is
particular” (Gassendi 1658: III.377b).

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The rejection of the eternal truths does a lot of work for Gassendi. Since it deprives in­
nate ideas of any special objects, it serves as another reason to reject innate ideas. It also
counts against the existence of the sort of fully autonomous immaterial intellect
Descartes accepts, since if there are no innate ideas the intellect cannot function without
input from the senses. Gassendi also objects to Descartes’s claims about the immateriali­
ty of the intellect on the grounds that the chiliagon argument—which is intended to estab­
lish a difference in kind between intellect and imagination—succeeds in establishing only
a difference in degree:

It does not follow from this that you have reason to add more than one kind of in­
ternal cognition. It is only accidental and a matter of degree whether you contem­
plate a certain figure distinctly or confusedly, intently or absent-mindedly. And in­
deed, when we attempt to run through the heptagon, octagon, and other figures
(p. 604) all the way up to the chiliagon or miriagon, and always continually attend

to the distinctness or lack of distinctness, we will not be able to say where, or with
what figure, imagination stops and only intellect remains. (AT VII.331/CSM II.229/
Gassendi 1658: III.385b–386a)

However, in later works Gassendi accepts an immaterial intellect, albeit one that operates
only on material received through the senses (Gassendi 1658: II.440a–54b).

5. God
According to Gassendi, all three of the Meditations’ arguments for the existence of God
contain something original. Unfortunately, none of them are any good. It was unwise of
Descartes to have “departed from the open and level royal road that leads to the knowl­
edge of God’s existence”, namely contemplation of the marvel of the universe (Gassendi
1658: III.329b). Two flaws affect all three arguments: they all require us to have an idea
of an absolutely infinite being; and they all involve some sort of circularity.13

Of course, Gassendi does not deny that we have an idea of God. What he denies is that we
have the particular idea of God Descartes requires: a positive idea of an absolutely infi­
nite being. We can think of a perfect or infinite being by gradually augmenting our ideas
of the perfections we have observed in the human beings around us, but such an idea
cannot truly capture infinity and hence it cannot represent God “as he is” (AT VII.287/
CSM II.200/Gassendi 1658: III.323b). Although Gassendi seems to think of this as a com­
monplace theological point, he still develops it at some length in the Disquisitio. It’s one
of the few points Descartes responds to in the Letter to Clerselier.

Descartes insists that you cannot deny having the idea of God he requires if you can make
sense of the phrase “the most perfect thing we can conceive” (AT IXa.209/CSM II.27).
Moreover, he accuses Gassendi of misunderstanding what ideas are by thinking of them
as images in the corporeal imagination (AT IXa.363–4/CSM II.251). The accusation is un­
fair. Gassendi says that he speaks of ideas as images in the same sense in which
Descartes says that ideas are as it were images of things: they are similitudines, repre­
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sentations, of things. More precisely, they are representations of the intrinsic (p. 605)
properties of things. Denying that we have an idea of God is thus compatible with our be­
ing able to think of God in some way:

It is one thing for us to perceive something through a true idea or image, another
for us to perceive it through a necessary consequence of something that was pre­
viously supposed. For in the first case, we conceive that the thing is such, in the
second that it must be some such. And in the first case we understand the thing
distinctly and as it is in itself, but in the latter, we know it only confusedly and by

(Gassendi 1658: III.322b)

We’ll see below that Gassendi makes essentially the same point about our grasp of the
hidden substances underlying the manifest properties of minds and bodies.

The second problem that affects all of Descartes’s arguments for the existence of God is
the familiar problem of the Cartesian Circle: “you are certain that God exists and is not a
deceiver because you have clear and distinct perception of him, and you are certain that
clear and distinct perception is true because you know that there is a God who cannot be
a deceiver” (Gassendi 1658: III.316a). This—as Descartes notes in lieu of an answer (AT
IXa.211/CSM II.274)—is a point made in earlier Objections as well, including those by Ar­

Gassendi, like Arnauld, discusses the Cartesian Circle relatively briefly, without the sort
of fanfare that later readers tend to think it requires. Arnauld may downplay the objec­
tion because he is generally sympathetic to Descartes’s project; perhaps he sees it as a
mere slip and not a fatal flaw. In contrast, Gassendi downplays the problem of the Carte­
sian Circle because he thinks there are so many other, even more serious, problems with
Descartes’s arguments.

6. The Real Distinction

Perhaps the most problematic argument, on Gassendi’s view, is the real distinction argu­
ment. Gassendi has a number of objections to it, the chief of which is the objection that
Descartes has not succeeded in identifying the essences of mind and body.

Gassendi thinks that the cogito and what follows is supposed to establish that the essence
of the mind is thought (Gassendi 1658: III.299b–300a). He argues that the cogito does no
such thing.14 When Descartes tells us that the mind is a thinking thing, he has paraded a
trivial truth as a great philosophical discovery. For he has simply stated a power of the
mind that we all know it has, whereas knowledge of essences requires identifying the un­
derlying, categorical features in virtue of which it has that power.

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Here Gassendi suggests an alternative methodology, “something like a chemical

(p. 606)

investigation” of the mind (AT VII.276–7/CSM II.193/Gassendi 1658: III.311a). We know

that the mind exists because we know that it’s thinking, but “knowledge of the existence
of a thing has no necessary connection with knowledge of its essence” (Gassendi 1658:
III.290a–b). This is a very general problem with Descartes’s method—it makes knowledge
of essences far too easy to acquire:

If this method of philosophizing of yours was appropriate, what … nature … would

then remain hidden? And if anyone took pains to explore or investigate the nature
of the magnet, wouldn’t he be absurd, since he should think himself satisfied with
this little formula of yours, that the whole nature of the magnet consists in the fact
that it attracts iron and points toward the poles? 

(Gassendi 1658: III.306a–b)

Attracting iron and pointing towards the poles is how we identify things as magnets—it’s
something like their Lockean nominal essence. The real essence of the magnet is that in
virtue of which it has such powers, namely its inner corpuscularian structure. Since we
do not know the inner corpuscularian structure of the magnet (or any other body), we do
not know its essence. Gassendi and Descartes thus conceive of the order of knowledge in
opposite directions. For Descartes, knowledge of existence follows knowledge of essence;
for Gassendi, it comes first. When you perceive accidents, you “conceive that there is
something that is the subject of the accidents” (Gassendi 1658: III.290b). Knowledge of
essences, in contrast, “requires a certain complete internal examination”, so “essence
does not become known except by bringing to light every inner depth” (Gassendi 1658:

That the cogito fails to show us the essence of the mind is not, then, an isolated problem.
Gassendi argues that the wax argument—which he understands as the main argument for
the claim that the essence of body is extension—fails for parallel reasons. We know the
accidents of the wax, but have no way of getting from that to knowledge of its inner na­

Besides the color, the shape, the fact that it can melt, etc. we conceive that there
is something that is the subject of the accidents and changes we observe, but what
this subject is, or what its nature is, we do not know. This always eludes us, and it
is only a kind of conjecture that leads us to think that there must be something un­
derneath the accidents. So I am amazed at how you can say that once the forms
have been stripped off like clothes, you perceive more perfectly and evidently
what the wax is. Admittedly, you perceive that the wax or its substance must be
something over and above such forms, but what this something is you do not per­
ceive. (AT VII.272/CSM II.189–90/Gassendi 1658: III.311a)

The problem is general: Descartes has not “tried to make clear the nature of material
things or their powers, properties, and actions through the size, shape, motion, position”,
etc. of the particles from which material things are composed (Gassendi 1658: III.311a).

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This is the most central of Gassendi’s objections to the real distinction argument,
(p. 607)

but it is not the only one worth considering. He questions whether it follows from the fact
that we can conceive of mind and body separately that they are two complete substances;
if it does not, then Descartes has no right to frame the question as whether two complete
substances are separable (Gassendi 1658: III.395).15 He questions whether the real dis­
tinction argument excludes the possibility that the mind is a body distinct from the visible
body—for instance, a very fine, spiritual body intermixed with the coarser matter of the
visible body (AT VII.339/CSM II.235/Gassendi 1658: III.391a), a possibility that cannot be
ruled out on theological grounds because some of the Church Fathers accepted it
(Gassendi 1658: III.392a–b). He argues that Descartes should not even be trying to show
that mind and body are distinct if his goal is to prove that the mind is immortal, since
many people have held that animals have souls distinct from their bodies without infer­
ring that they are immortal (Gassendi 1658: III.392b).16 Finally, he argues that holding
that mind and body are two really distinct substances raises explanatory problems con­
cerning mind–body interaction17 and mental representation18 that Descartes lacks any re­
sources to solve.

Descartes’s response to this last objection in the Letter to Clerselier is brief but striking.
These “questions presuppose amongst other things an explanation of the union between
the soul and the body, which I have not yet dealt with at all” (AT IXa.213/CSM II.275).19

7. Conclusion
I said that Gassendi thinks the wax argument is supposed to establish that the essence of
body is extension. What about the Fifth Meditation argument concerning the essence of
material things? Gassendi seems unimpressed with it, exclaiming, “that all material
things are provided with quantity … shape … motion and rest [etc.] … even barbers and
the dim-sighted know” (Gassendi 1658: III.376b). Does he simply fail to see the role that
Descartes’s claim plays in the project of mathematizing nature? Does he simply fail to see
that Descartes is trying to prove that we should do physics by doing math? It might be
more accurate to say that Gassendi—despite his great admiration for Galileo and (p. 608)
his own excursions into a roughly Galilean science of motion20—finds the claim too im­
plausible to take seriously. He insists that “material things are the subject-matter of ap­
plied, not pure, mathematics” (AT VII.329/CSM II.228/Gassendi 1658: III.385a), because
mathematical points, lines, and surfaces do not exist in reality (Gassendi 1658: III.

Gassendi’s concern about the relationship between mathematical and material objects
plays a surprisingly small role in the Fifth Objections and the Disquisitio, considering the
goals of the Meditations. Nonetheless, Descartes noticed it, and felt compelled to re­
spond. In the Letter to Clerselier, he describes it as the “objection of objections”—namely,
that “mathematical extension … is nothing other than my thought, and hence … cannot
have any subsistence outside my mind, being merely an abstraction which I form from
physical bodies” (AT IXa.212/CSM II.275). He is, or pretends to be, appalled: “it follows

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from this that nothing we can in any way understand, conceive, or imagine should be ac­
cepted as true” and hence that “we must entirely close the door to reason and content
ourselves with being monkeys or parrots rather than men” (AT IXa.212/CSM II.275).
Descartes’s characterization is not entirely accurate. Gassendi is not saying that nothing
we can conceive is true. Rather, he is saying that the mere fact that we conceive some­
thing is no evidence of its truth.

This objection, and Descartes’s response, seems to me to capture the entire debate in a
nutshell. Gassendi thinks that Descartes’s basic methodology is hopeless and that the on­
ly claims he succeeds in establishing are trivial ones. Descartes thinks that Gassendi is so
mired in the senses that he has completely failed to understand the project (this may be
out of malice but is more likely due to sheer stupidity). Gassendi’s reading of Descartes is
sometimes insightful, often inaccurate, and always unsympathetic. The same goes for
Descartes—without, perhaps, the insight.

What moral should we draw from the Fifth Objections and Replies? It tells us that
Descartes had a hard time making meaningful philosophical contact with interlocutors
who did not share his basic theoretical orientation, and that he tended to become bel­
ligerent in such situations. (This can be seen elsewhere, not least the exchange with
Hobbes). It may help put into focus a strand of Platonism in Descartes, and it helps us re­
member that the significance of the Meditations for physics was far from obvious to
Descartes’s contemporaries. Ultimately, however, the exchange is disappointing: neither
philosopher appears at their best.

Bellis, Delphine (2017), “Nos in Diem Vivimus: Gassendi’s Probabilism and Academic Phi­
losophy from Day to Day”, in Sébastien Charles and Plinio Junquiera Smith (eds.), Acade­
mic Scepticism in the Development of Early Modern Philosophy. International Archives
for the History of Ideas. Dordrecht: Springer, 125–52.

Bloch, Olivier (1971), La philosophie de Gassendi: nominalisme, matérialisme et méta­

physique. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Bougerel, Joseph (1737), Vie de Pierre Gassendi. Paris: Imprimerie de J. Vincent.

Fisher, Saul (2014), “Pierre Gassendi”, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclope­
dia of Philosophy. Stanford: Stanford University [online]. Available at: https:// [accessed October 19, 2018].

Forgie, William (2007), “Gassendi and Kant on Existence”, Journal of the History of Phi­
losophy 45 (4): 511–23.

Gassendi, Pierre (1658), Opera Omnia, 6 vols. Lyon: Laurent Anisson and Jean Baptiste

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Gassendi as Critic of Descartes

Joy, Lynn Sumida (1987), Gassendi the Atomist: Advocate of History in an Age of Science.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lennon, Thomas (1993), The Battle of the Gods and the Giants. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.

LoLordo, Antonia (2015), “Copernicus, Epicurus, Galileo, and Gassendi”, Studies in the
History and Philosophy of Science 51: 82–8.

LoLordo, Antonia (2018), “Gassendi on Skepticism”, in Diego Machuca and Baron Reed
(eds.), Skepticism: From Antiquity to the Present. London and New York: Bloomsbury,

Nolan, Lawrence, and Alan Nelson (2006), “Proofs for the Existence of God”, in Stephen
Gaukroger (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Descartes’ Meditations. Oxford: Blackwell, 104–

Osler, Margaret J. (1994), Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cam­
bridge University Press.

Palmerino, Carla Rita (2004), “Gassendi’s Reinterpretation of the Galilean Theory of

Tides”, Perspectives on Science 12 (2): 212–37.

Popkin, Richard H. (2003), The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle. New
York: Oxford University Press.

Shapiro, Lisa, ed. (2007), The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia
and René Descartes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


(1) Both were published in Gassendi’s Opera Omnia. All references to Gassendi’s work are
to the Opera (Gassendi 1658), cited by volume, page, and column. For quotations from the
Fifth Objections I give AT/CSM references as well.

(2) Epistolica exercitatio, in qua principia philosophiae Roberti Flvddi medici reteguntur
[Epistolary exercise in which the principles of philosophy of the doctor Robert Fludd are
exposed], 1630; Parhelia, sive soles quatuor spurii [Parhelia, or, four spurious suns]
(1630); and Mercurius in sole visus … Anno 1631: pro voto … Keppleri [Mercury seen on
the face of the sun … In 1631, as Kepler promised] (1632), a record of the transit of mer­
cury that had been predicted by Kepler.

(3) Viri illvstris Nicolai Clavdii Fabricii de Peiresc, senatoris Aquisextiensis vita [Life of the
illustrious gentleman Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, senator of Aix], 1641, and De ap­
parente magnitudine solis humilis et sublimis … in quibus complura physica opticaque
problemata proponuntur, & explicantur [On the apparent size of the sun on the horizon
and overhead … in which many physical and optical problems are proposed and
explained], 1642. Parhelia, Mercurius in sole visus, and De apparente are all published in
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Gassendi as Critic of Descartes

volume 3 of Gassendi’s Opera Omnia (Philosophica Opuscula) rather than volume 4

(Opera Astronomica), as they have implications for both physics and epistemology. See
Bellis 2017: 137 for the latter.

(4) For Gassendi on Galileo, see Gassendi 1658: VI.4b, VI.53b, and VI.66b.

(5) See Osler 1994 for an influential characterization of Gassendi’s project in these terms.

(6) For Gassendi’s commitment to Copernicanism, see Gassendi 1658: III.102 (no
columns), III.519a, and I.149a. For his reluctance to attribute Galileo’s sentence to the
Pope himself, see III.519b and III.641b, IV.60a–b, and I.149a. See LoLordo 2015 for more
on this, and Joy 1987: 102 for an alternative view.

(7) Bougerel (1737: Book I, no pagination) reports that the two philosophers reconciled in
1647 or 1648, after a dinner party in Paris, but his accuracy is disputed.

(8) Gassendi holds that it is stipulated by the faith that the mind is an incorporeal sub­
stance (Gassendi 1658: II.440a), and attempts to bolster this via arguments that the intel­
lect—the one faculty that distinguishes us from animals—is immaterial (Gassendi 1658: II.

(9) Bloch (1971: 121) concurs that this is the heart of the debate. Fisher (2014: section III,
no pagination) holds the related view that the debate is essentially over epistemology. For
dissenting views, see Osler 1994 and Lennon 1993.

(10) There is some dispute about the relative importance and roles of Pyrrhonian and Aca­
demic skepticism. Popkin (2003: 91–6, 120–7) argues that Gassendi started out as a
Pyrrhonian and that Academic skepticism only became important for him much later (af­
ter the Disquisitio). Bellis (2017) argues that Academic skepticism played a constructive
role all along. See also Fisher 2014: section 3; LoLordo 2018.

(11) On the robust understanding of eternal truths that Gassendi has in mind—one on
which an eternal truth is something more than a conditional like if there are men, there
will be animals—eternal truths go hand in hand with true and immutable natures. If it is
an eternal truth that triangles have three sides, there must be something that makes it
true—the true and immutable nature of a triangle. Conversely, if there are true and im­
mutable natures, there must be eternal truths, because the eternal truth that triangles
have three sides flows from the true and immutable nature of a triangle in the same way
judgments flow from ideas.

(12) He does also object to Descartes’ claim that the eternal truths are divinely created
(Gassendi 1658: III.377a).

(13) A few other objections are worth noting as well. To the Third Meditation version of
the cosmological argument: Descartes is right to suppose that ideas require causes at
least as real as themselves, but wrong to suppose that it’s the objective reality—rather
than just the formal reality—of the idea that needs a cause. To the Fifth Meditation ver­

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Gassendi as Critic of Descartes

sion of the ontological argument: Descartes misunderstands the logic of perfections or

properties. He asks whether something that is deprived of existence could still remain
some sort of thing (Gassendi 1658: III.381a–b). The answer is obviously no, and so
Gassendi concludes that existence is a precondition for having properties or perfections
in the first place. This line of objection is often compared to Kant’s: see, e.g. Fisher 2014:
section III, no pagination; Forgie 2007: 511; Nolan and Nelson 2006: 121.

(14) Perhaps as a result, he thinks the cogito is trivial: “when I got to this passage in
which I hoped to find a truth which had not been heard before now and which was the
source of all truths … I said, good God, is that the new thing which had to be searched for
with so much preparation and effort, that you exist!” (Gassendi 1658: III.289a).

(15) Most of these objections are made by others as well; this is very similar to one of
Arnauld’s objections (AT VII.202/CSM II.142).

(16) This is, as Gassendi notes, an objection given by Arnauld as well (AT VII.204/CSM II.
143–4), although Arnauld seems to think that Descartes’s explanation of the relationship
between immateriality and immortality in the Synopsis is sufficient reply.

(17) For on Descartes’s theory, human bodies, like other extended things, act by contact
alone. This is the same problem Elisabeth articulates at the beginning of her correspon­
dence with Descartes (AT III.661/Shapiro 2007: 62).

(18) The worry is that if human minds are simple and unextended, they cannot represent
composite things like bodies (AT VII.337–8/CSM II.234/Gassendi 1658: III.400b).

(19) Descartes makes the same point in the Elisabeth correspondence (AT III.64/Shapiro
2007: 64–5).

(20) In his 1642 De motu and 1646 De proportione. See Palmerino 2004 for more on this.

(21) Gassendi recognizes that Descartes claims that mathematical points etc. exist as the
boundaries of material things, but on his view this is irrelevant because boundaries them­
selves are mental abstractions.

Antonia Lolordo

University of Virginia

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