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The Rationalists: Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz

ISBN: 978-0-7456-2743-4
248 pages
September 2006, Polity
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Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz stand out among their seventeenth-century contemporaries as the great rationalist philosophers. Each sought to construct a philosophical system in which theological and philosophical foundations serve to explain the physical, mental and moral universe. Through a careful analysis of their work, Pauline Phemister explores the rationalists seminal contribution to the development of modern philosophy.

Broad terminological agreement and a shared appreciation of the role of reason in ethics do not mask the very significant disagreements that led to three distinctive philosophical systems: Cartesian dualism, Spinozan monism and Leibnizian pluralism. The book explores the nature of, and offers reasons for, these differences. Phemister contends that Spinoza and Leibniz developed their systems in part through engagements with and amendment of Cartesian philosophy, and critically analyses the arguments and contributions of all three philosophers. The clarity of the authors discussion of their key ideas including their views on knowledge, universal languages, the nature of substance and substances, bodies, the relation of mind and body, freedom, and the role of distinct perception and reason in morals will make this book the ideal introduction to rationalist philosophy.

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Table of Contents




Chapter One – System Builders.

Chapter Two – Knowledge and Ideas.

Chapter Three – Substance.

Chapter Four – Spinoza’s God.

Chapter Five – One and Many.

Chapter Six – Body: Descartes and Spinoza.

Chapter Seven – Body: Leibniz.

Chapter Eight – Mind and Body: Descartes.

Chapter Nine – Mind and Body: Spinoza and Leibniz.

Chapter Ten – Problems of Freedom.

Chapter Eleven – Freedom, Activity and Self-determination.




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Author Information

Pauline Phemister, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Edinburgh
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The Wiley Advantage

  • Clear introduction to the work of Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza
  • Explains the similarities of each philosopher's stance within the rationalist system, and analyses their differences
  • Concise account of the epistemology, metaphysics and ethics of the rationalists
  • Shows how Spinoza and Leibniz responded to and developed Cartesian philosophy
  • An ideal introductory text for philosophy courses
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"Pauline Phemister’s The Rationalists is a well-regulated account of three great seventeenth-century “system builders”, replete with illuminating contrasts and comparisons."

Roger Woolhouse, University of York

"Pauline Phemister’s comparative study of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz is an important contribution to the historiography of philosophy as well as a delight to read. The central issues of seventeenth-century metaphysics, including the nature of substance, ideas, God, mind and body, causality and freedom, are treated in depth and with exemplary lucidity. This is simply the best and most comprehensive survey of rationalism available."

Catherine Wilson, City University of New York

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