PHL 323
Descartes to Kant

Galileo's Telescope, 1609
Instructor: Dr. Bob Zunjic

Office Hours: Fr, 9:00-10:00am and
by Appointment (Chafee, Room 185)

Phone: 874-5499

Course Description:

In this course we shall focus on two paramount and seemingly disparate characteristics of modern philosophy: its relentless search for solid Foundations and its resolute turn toward Subjectivity. While the Renaissance, the Reformation, the discovery of the New World, the rise of Science and Capitalism, represent the external (socio-historical) determinants of Modernity, its major internal driving forces have been undoubtedly the unleashed human Subjectivity (freedom, creativity, innovation, autonomy, self-reflection) and the new spirit of Foundationalism (laying down firm and stable grounds of all human knowledge and practical endeavor).

Both of these trends coalesce in the pivotal point of the knowing and acting subject. The "I" (the Ego), the most compressed formula for human Subjectivity in general, becomes both the center and an all pervasive philosophical theme of modern thought. It integrates as different contents as the ancient concept of soul, the medieval spirit, the Cartesian consciousness or the mind and the "transcendental apperception" of Kant. Descartes grasps the principle of subjectivity as an abstract thinking thing, while Kant conceives it as a self-relating subject that attains absolute self-consciousness. For both, the contents of our mind are the products of an active subjectivity which is the fountain of all knowledge. By examining its operations and achievements they respond to the skepticism of their predecessors (Descartes to Montaigne's, Kant to Hume's).

The modern quest for the new reliable foundations manifests itself in the form of an old ontological striving - to find the first and universal principles that ground and define everything else in the totality of the world. However, instead of searching for the first principles of being(s), modern philosophers are looking for the first principles of human knowledge.
This epistemological turn away from the ancient realist ontology of nature was performed in a ground breaking manner by Rene Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). A more decisive and elaborate transformation of ancient Metaphysics (i.e., First Philosophy) into a science of a priori principles of human knowledge was subsequently carried out by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

The Kantian emphasis on the necessity of new foundations was largely determined by the Cartesian project and needs to be placed into the same overall context of modern thinking. While Descartes introspectively reconstructs the contents of his consciousness Kant transcendentally reconstructs the a priori workings of the cognizing subject. Despite all the differences in their respective positions, subjectivity in Kant's philosophy remains the main source of self-reflection and of a priori legislation. Kant replaces the Cartesian quest for absolute certainty with a concern for the a priori forms of intuition and understanding, but subjectivity is no less their origin for him than it was the source of certainty for Descartes. Both Descartes and Kant view mathematics as the model of knowledge. Accordingly, Descartes conceives mathesis universalis as the unified science of the entire world, whereas Kant takes the supposed synthetic a priori judgments of mathematics as the pattern for the reformed (scientific) metaphysics.

A transformation of the old ontological paradigm into a new Subject-centered (though not necessarily subjectivist) perspective lies at the core both of the Cartesian Epistemological and the Kantian Transcendental Turn. The evolution from the former toward the latter has been appropriately described as the development from the Classical Age of Reason toward the reflective albeit deeply scientific Age of Enlightenment (Foucault). This characterization is not misguided provided one does not lose out of sight the common denominator in the whole process, which is the idea of Subjectivity as the foundation of all spheres of human pursuit. The Subject supplies not only the original point of departure and the only directly accessible subject-matter of the mind, but it ultimately secures the objectivity of possible objects as well. Although subjective by their origin, the a priori principles of knowledge acquire objective validity by becoming the conditions of possibility for any objectivity. Thus the true source of every objective foundation eventually turns out to be the subjectivity of the Subject itself.

In spanning the extent of Modern Philosophy along the lines drawn by these two major philosophical projects we do not want to overlook significant differences and changes that separate them. While Descartes describes the contents of our consciousness in terms of mental events and entities, Kant is very anxious to avoid any substantification of our Subjectivity. He clearly prefers to speak about judgments, propositions and human representations rather than about "thinking things" or mental events occurring in our mind. With Kant, theory of knowledge definitely ceases to search for the most certain representations and turns its attention instead toward the rules which a priori determine how we acquire any possible experience. This means that Kant does not any longer conceive knowledge upon the old model of reliable perceptions although he still remains caught in the language of accurate representations. Nonetheless, instead of dealing with "objects in themselves” - which by definition have to stay beyond our reach - he sets forth to examine the conditions of their possibility as they are given in our experience.

We shall try to explicate this systemic circle of Modern Philosophy by traversing the historical path which connects Cartesian approach with the position of Criticism. In view of this continuity we shall discuss the development of the modern foundational idea and its subject-oriented thrust by tracing the historical threads leading from the Meditations (1641) of Descartes to the Prolegomena (1783) of Kant. Our focus on these two texts is not meant as a value judgment of other works by the two giants of Modern thought - it is simply based on the fact that they represent relatively comprehensive and certainly more readable expositions of Descartes' and Kant's critical philosophy respectively than any other books they have penned.

Course Objectives:

The principal objective in this course is to become acquainted with the development of modern Philosophy from Descartes to Kant. In pursuing that goal the participants should develop necessary skills for a valid interpretation of relevant texts as well as become able to evaluate main arguments supporting modern Subjectivism in its both main versions.
The second goal is to help students understand the rationale and the motivation of the Cartesian and the Transcendental positions respectively. If we do not take into account the intellectual reasons for certain solutions we cannot possibly recognize the relevance of the underlying problems. Along with this goal the participants are expected to acquire a better appreciation for the contribution that modern Philosophy has provided both in creating and understanding our current world.

Course Texts:

Rene Descartes, Meditations I-VI
Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics

Both readings are to be found in:
F. E. Baird, W. Kaufmann, eds.
, Modern Philosophy, Prentice Hall (4th edition or later).

We shall read together almost all critical passages from the two works in class, but only as a continuation and further development of your individual reading, not as its repetition or its substitute! Therefore, prepare for classes and always bring your book! Students are also expected to visit regularly the supporting interactive WEB page for concomitant assignments and questions. One can find this site at
A student friendly version of our readings, compiled by Jonathan Bennett, could be found at

Course Format:

The course will be conducted through a combination of regular lectures and seminar meetings. No matter what the form of a particular class may be, we shall be doing basically one and the same thing: close reading of the texts and careful analysis of the problems formulated therein. By discussing these problems in class we shall get the opportunity to work together, to challenge our own understanding of pertinent places and to take advantage of our collaborative intellectual efforts.

Course Requirements:

Reading: Students are expected to do all assigned readings not only on time but as thorough as possible. At least a preliminary familiarity with the texts is a precondition. This means that participants need to come to class having already completed the reading assignment. Our work in class will concentrate on the interpretation of difficult and ambiguous passages as well as on the reconstruction of complex arguments. Remember: these are some of the most complex philosophical texts that require a sustained effort to master both the concepts and the ideas expounded in the readings.

Writing: Students are expected to write two papers simultaneously with doing their readings. These papers have to be based strictly on the course material. The first paper should discuss one problem or argument from the Meditations of Descartes. The second paper should analyze one of the sections in Kant's Prolegomena. The suggested scope is from 2 to 5 pages. The papers are due for Midterm and Final exam respectively. I strongly encourage participants of this class to contact me to get clarification about written assignments as well as feedback on the submitted papers.

Students are also encouraged to visit URI's Writing Center - located on the 4th floor of Roosevelt Hall - at anytime during semester. The Center serves both students who are seeking academic support and those with more advanced academic ability who are interested in assisting others. For more information go the URI Writing Center's website at

Attendance and Exams: Regular attendance and doing reading on time are indispensable for being successful in this course (they will be reflected in the participation grade accordingly). What counts most, however, is not the mere physical presence, but active participation in answering questions, in doing presentations and taking part in class discussions. In addition to class discussions, students can test their ideas and viewpoints by joining the URI Philosophy Department E-group ( Philosophical issues related to Modern Philosophy always take a very prominent place there.

There will be two exams including one final. They will have the form of both short answer quizzes and multiple choice questions.


First Exam: 25%
Second Exam: 25%
Papers: 20%
Class Participation: 30%

Students with Disabilities: Any student with a documented disability is welcome to contact me early in the semester so that we may work out reasonable accommodations to support your success in this course. One should also contact Disability Services for Students, Office of Student Life, 330 Memorial Union, 874-2098.

Course Schedule:

Week I: Introduction to the Class: What is Modernity
Week II: Meditations (Dedicatory Letter, Preface and Synopsis)
Week III: Meditation I
Week IV: Meditation II
Week V: Meditation III and IV
Week VI: Meditation V and VI

  Mid Term Exam

Week VII: Introduction and the Preamble on Knowledge
Week VIII: How are Mathematics and Science Possible?
Week IX: How is Metaphysics in General Possible?
Week X: The Dialectic of Pure Reason
Week XI: Conclusion (The Bounds of Pure Reason)
Week XII: Appendix

  Final Exam



   Period      Relation        Norm   Paradigm Position

The Renaissance





The Classical Age





The Enlightenment





         Illustration for the Essay Dioptrique
by Rene Descartes, Amsterdam, 1644
Kant mixing mustard,
Drawing by Friedrich Hagemann, 1801
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