Cartesianism School

The work and writings of three eminent thinkers, Rene Descartes, Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke initiated the Intellectual Revolution in Europe. The achievements in philosophy àn science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, together with the new attitudes resulting therefrom, constitute what is commonly known as the Intellectual Revolution. Cartesianism, anti-Cartesianism and Enlightenment formed the different facets of this revolution. The impact of the Intellectual Revolution upon historical writings was of great magnitude.

The principles formulated by the renowned French thinker, Rene Descartes formed the basis of Cartesianism, the dominant philosophic trend of the seventeenth century. Descartes introduced the conception of a mechanistic universe. The French philosopher had contempt for history, yet his admirers applied his principles to history. He believed that the natural world was mechanically constituted and that general laws could be applied to nature. It followed therefore that man, being a product of nature, was also ruled by natural laws. All values were quantitative by nature-they were of fixed estimation and of invariable operation under exactly determined laws. Further, Descartes placed no faith on the reliability of books and placed his faith only on reason. Cartesian historiography subjected history to systematic scepticism. Historians applied Cartesian principles to historical writing; the first amongst them was Pierre Bayle of France. An incarnation of scepticism, nothing appeared to him as sacred.

Montesquieu (1689-1755)

Among the scholars who applied Cartesian principles to the history, the most distinguished was Montesquieu. Like Voltaire, he came under the influence of Locke and turned an ardent admirer of British institutions. His famous works were the Persian Letters, the Considerations and the Spirit of Laws. They were based upon his patient study of the political systems of the civilized as well as the barbarian world of the East as well as the West. In his Persian Letters, he narrates the story of the journey of an Oriental to Europe.

He uses this opportunity to indulge in satiric criticism of the monarchy, government, church and other decadent institutions of his country and to establísh that liberty and virtue are inseparable. In 1748, he published his celebrated work Spirit of Laws. Based on a patient investigation and marked by sound scholarship, this learned work represents a scientific treatment of the social and political phenomena.

After the detailed study of political systems of the past, he concluded that there was no perfect form of government suitable for all peoples under all conditions. Thus, he tells that despotism is best suited for countries with vast area, limited monarchy for nations with no vast area and republican government for states with small area.

The theory of separation of powers and of checks and balances, as enunciated by him, is considered indispensable for safeguarding fundamental rights of the citizens. It was incorporated in the constitutions of France and the United States. Apart from formulating his political theories, Montesquieu deals with several matters of common interest. He sees human life as a reflection of geographical condition and not guided by reason.

Also, he believed that the nature of institutions was shaped by the physical environment. He indicated that the modern government may incur expenses on socio-economic measures, but experience makes it clear that it resorts to heavy taxation for the operation of the engine of oppression, created for keeping the people enslaved. Another observation he has made is that for monarchy the principles of virtue are patriotism, while that for despotism it is fear Montesquieu with other historians of the Enlightenment discarded the theological interpretation of history and laid the foundation of a scientific history of human culture. Yet, in certain respects he was different in his contributions from his contemporary constitutional aspects of history and became the father of constitutions.

Voltaire gave importance to the ritualistic aspects and contributed to a critical study of history Rousseau, on the other hand, gave importance to freedom and became the father of revolutions. In spite of the significance of the contributions of Montesquieu, it cannot be denied that he wrote mainly for the benefit of intellectual elite. Also, it cannot be ignoreu that he interpreted many of the facts so as to suit the reality of facts. History concenveu by him was a kind of natural history of man.

This led him to attribute the difference between nations and cultures to climate and geography. Though there is an intimate connection between nature and culture, what determines its character is human reason.


The Cartesian philosophers approached the study of history from the quantitative Viewpoint. The anti-Cartesian school takes the opposite view. Vico belongs to the anti-Cartesian school which believes that man is a subjective force, not self-propelled but driven by a stimulus that he derived from the universe.
i) To the anti-Cartesians, man is at least partly a master of the situation.

(ii) History is not the story of only quantitative values but it is that of the
development of societies and their institutions, to which man contributed.

iii) He listed the prejudices against which those historians were to be on the
guard. There are five sources of error. Firstly, it is a magnificent opinion about antiquity.

(iv) Secondly, there is the concept of nations or the practice of dealing with the
past of nation’s history in terms of glory.

v) Thirdly, there is the concept of learned-the tendency on the part of the historians to consider the people whom they deal with as equally learned as they are.

vi) Fourthly, there is fallacy of the sources the tendency to believe that when two nations have similar ideas or institutions, one would have learned from the other.

(viil) Fifthly, there is the prejudice of considering the ancients as better informed than us about the times that lay nearer to them.

(vii) Vico adopted the Egyptian conception of the three ages of the world: the age of the Gods, the age of the heroes and the age of menof the gods, the age of heroes and the age of mens.

(ix) He also did not consider the cyclical movement as a mere rotation through analysis and evolved the concept of cycles. He applied the principles of psychology to historical.

What he did for history has entitled him to be considered as one of the founders of the science of history.

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