Descartes and the phenomenological tradition

The spectre of Descartes figured as a perpetual presence in much of twentieth century philosophy, but nearly always as an emblem for positions to be avoided. Cartesian foundationalism in epistemology, the ontological dualism of mind and body, the associated conception of the mind as a substance, and as a “thing that thinks” – all these have figured in recent philosophy as positions to be refuted or simply renounced, the absurda in one or another reductio argument. But for one prominent twentieth century tradition the story is much more nuanced and complex. Twentieth century phenomenology, which began to stir as a well-defined movement in the last decade of the nineteenth century and has persisted in one form or another into the twenty-first, found in Descartes much more a causa belli than the usual bête noire. As a first approximation we can say that allegiance to Cartesianism divided the phenomenological tradition. Edmund Husserl, who along with Franz Brentano is usually acknowledged as the founder of the phenomenological movement, described Descartes as “the genuine patriarch of phenomenology”; he dubbed his own transcendental phenomenology as “a new, twentieth century Cartesianism”, and insisted that “the only fruitful renaissance is the one which reawakens [Descartes’] Meditations” (Husserl 1929/1964, 3, 5). But Husserl’s most important assistant, Martin Heidegger, rebelled against the Cartesian legacy in modern philosophy, which he saw as the central wrong-turn in modern thought, and as the chief obstacle to a faithful phenomenology and phenomenologically informed ontology. The cogito sum, Heidegger insisted, must be “phenomenologically destroyed” (Heidegger 1927/1962, 123). In Descartes himself Heidegger found “an extreme..
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