Modern Philosophy

Essay Questions on the Metaphysics of Continental Rationalism

Under Parts I - IV, respond to A or B. Write in your own words (with few direct quotes and little paraphrasing) and aim for accuracy, relevancy, clarity, and incisiveness. Exams are due on the third class following the distribution of the questions. Grades on late exams will be lowered one letter grade for each class day that they are late. Exams are to be printed on white paper with a staple or paper clip in the upper left corner and are not to be placed in folders.

Each of your four responses is to be between 350 and 400 words. (At the end of each response, please provide a word count.) In your double-spaced, typed exam of approximately 1500 words, you are to draw on the primary sources discussed in class and on notes from lectures on these sources. If you wish, you may also use secondary sources. However, full citation of secondary sources is required and may be listed in notes at the end of the exam. (Notes are not to be included in the word count.)

I. Descartes's Meditations

A. Using methodological skepticism to reach the indubitibility of the cogito, Descartes understands himself as a doubting, thinking substance. Upon reflection, he is also aware that he has an idea of a more perfect being than he, namely, God. How does Descartes try to prove God's existence by reflection on the origin and essence of the idea of God, and what are the limits to what each of these proofs is able to establish?

B. After examination of the idea of God, Descartes considers whether some other ideas correspond to material things. He bases his consideration on the distinction between imagination and conception. How does this analysis lead to an affirmation that some ideas can be correlated with material things, and how does it relate to the epistemological distinction between a priori knowledge as certain and a posteriori knowledge as probable?

II. Spinoza's Ethics

A. Spinoza argues that substance is infinite and that God or Nature is the one substance. As a monist, Spinoza rejects ontological dualism. From this perspective, how does Spinoza understand thought and extension monistically, and what characteristics follow for produced things from their being finite modifications of attributes of substance?

B. Spinoza sought to deduce synthetic propositions that were based upon fundamental self-evident truths. In so doing, his system claims logical necessity for its propositions. Moreover, Spinoza felt such necessity to be ontological as well. To what extent is Spinoza's philosophy deterministic, and how does he account for belief in freedom?

III. Leibniz's Monadology

A. Leibniz distinguishes necessary truths of reasoning and contingent truths of fact. He also attributes choice and goodness to God. As a consequence, the universe created by God is the most perfect. How does Leibniz manage to avoid the charge of determinism when, in principle, everything can be deduced a priori, and what role do God and human beings play in this explanation?

B. Leibniz presents monads as simple substances. Monads are infinite in number, unextended, and windowless, and each mirrors the universe. As a consequence, Leibniz contends that the universe manifests both order and perfection. Why does Leibniz give monads these characteristics, and how do monads relate to the order and perfection of the universe?

IV. Comparison of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza

A. The Continental Rationalists not only articulated elaborate views on substance but also utilized substance as the foundation of their metaphysics. Nevertheless, their views on substance, though similar in some respects, differ in important ways. How do their views on substance diverge, particularly in relation to number and attribute, and what is the significance of these differences for characterizing reality?

B. The Continental Rationalists, distrusting sense-perception as a reliable basis for certain knowledge, developed their epistemology by focusing on reason in separation from the senses. In so doing, they attempted to provide a system of knowledge based on a priori deductions from self-evident truths. What are the differences in the range or method whereby they contend reason can attain truth, and what are major problems that their theories have to meet?