Descartes vs. the Scholastics: Lessons from Contemporary Philosophy and Cognitive Neuroscience

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The demise of the scholastic worldview and the rise of the mechanistic one may give the impression of a parallel demise of the scholastic explanatory framework. In this paper, I argue that this impression is wrong. To this end, I first outline Descartes’ representative and particularly sharp mechanistic criticism of the scholastic notion of explanation. Deploying conceptual machinery from contemporary philosophy of science, I then suggest a reconstruction of the scholastic notion that is immune to Descartes’ criticism. Based on this reconstruction, I reinterpret the dispute between Descartes and the scholastics as one that concerns the extent of two legitimate conceptions of explanation. Finally, I outline a contemporary dispute within cognitive neuroscience that reflects the Cartesian-scholastic one as thus reinterpreted, thereby showing that aspects of the world may well require a scholastic-like approach for their explanation. The aim of this paper, then, is to shed light on a most important philosophical-cum-scientific historical controversy from a modern perspective, but also to highlight the deep historical roots of a related contemporary dispute. Based on this, the paper also seeks to draw a substantial philosophical conclusion concerning the issue under dispute in both controversies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)393-415
Number of pages23
JournalActa Analytica
Issue number3
StatePublished - 21 Oct 2022


  • Cognitive neuroscience
  • Deductive-nomological model of explanation
  • Descartes
  • Dynamical systems
  • Mechanical explanations
  • Non-mechanical explanations
  • Scholasticism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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