Descartes and Ingenium

14 March 2016 - 15 March 2016

Sidgwick Hall, Newnham College


A two-day conference which explored the significance of the notion of ‘ingenium’ for Descartes and his circle, and placed it in the context of contemporary pedagogy, erudition, philosophy, mathematics, and music. This event waspart of the research project, Genius Before Romanticism: Ingenuity in Early Modern Art and Science, a five-year ERC funded project based at CRASSH. The programme booklet is available here.


Richard Serjeantson and Raphaële Garrod with Alexander Marr, Jose Ramon Marcaida, and Richard Oosterhoff


Igor Agostini (FrU Salento), Roger Ariew (EU S Florida), Michael Edwards (Cambridge), Dan Garber (Princeton), Raphaële Garrod (Cambridge), Emma Gilby (Cambridge), Denis Kambouchner (Sorbonne Paris 1), Richard Oosterhoff (Cambridge), Martine Pécharman (CNRS, Paris), Lucian Petrescu (Université libre de Bruxelles), David Rabouin (Diderot Paris 7 CNRS), Dennis Sepper (EU Dallas), Richard Serjeantson (Cambridge), Justin Smith (Diderot Paris 7), Theo Verbeek (Utrecht).

For further information please contact the Genius Research Project Administrator .



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge. Funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ ERC grant agreement no 617391 and Trinity College Cambridge


DAY 1 Monday 14 March

09.00 - 09.15

Registration and coffee

09.15 - 09.30

Welcome (Richard Serjeantson and Raphaële Garrod)

09.30 - 11.00

From Ingenium to Mind?

  1. Richard Serjeantson (University of Cambridge): Ingenium and the evolution of the Regulae 
  2. Theo Verbeek (Utrecht University): Enumeratio in the Works of Descartes: from ingenium to intellectus

​Chair: John Marenbon (University of Cambridge)

11.00 - 11.30

Coffee break

11.30 - 13.00

The Logic of Invention

  1. Roger Ariew (University of South Florida): Descartes and Logic: Perfecting the Ingenium
  2. Denis Kambouchner (Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne): Methodical Invention: Cartesian ingenium at work

Chair: Richard Oosterhoff (University of Cambridge)

13.00 - 14.00


14.00 - 15.30

Humanist Precursors: Mathematics and Method

  1. David Rabouin (Université Paris Diderot): Ingenium, phantasia and mathematics in Descartes’s Regulae ad directionem ingenii
  2. Richard Oosterhoff (University of Cambridge): Ingenious Tools: Ruling Wits in Descartes’ Renaissance

Chair: Scott Mandelbrote (University of Cambridge)

15.30 - 16.00

Coffee break

16.00 - 17.30

Scholastic Precursors: Ingenium and Intuitus

  1. Igor Agostini (University of Salento): Ingenium between Descartes and the Scholastics
  2. Lucian Petrescu (Université libre de Bruxelles): Intuitus in Descartes and the Schools

Chair: Raphaële Garrod (University of Cambridge)

DAY 2 Tuesday 15 March

09.30 - 11.00

From ingenium to genius?

  1. Daniel Garber (Princeton University): 'La Chose du monde la mieux partagée': Descartes and Ingenium
  2. Martine Pécharman (CNRS, Paris): What place does ingenium occupy in Hobbes’s (non-Cartesian) anthropology?

​​Chair: José Ramón Marcaida (University of Cambridge)

11.00 - 11.30

Coffee break

11.30 - 13.00


  1. Dennis Sepper (University of Dallas): The post-Regulae direction of ingenium in Descartes
  2. Raphaële Garrod (University of Cambridge): Prudential Thinking and Ingenium in the Regulae ad directionem ingenii

Chair: Michael Moriarty (University of Cambridge)

13.00 - 14.00


14.00 - 15.00

Ingenium, Wit, Genius

  1. Emma Gilby (University of Cambridge):  Ingenium and Critical Discrimination: Descartes's Apology for Balzac in Context
  2. Justin Smith (Diderot Paris 7): Ingenium between Scientific Discovery and Artistic Creation

Chair: Alexander Marr (University of Cambridge)

15.00 - 15.30

Coffee break and close of conference

Ingenium between Descartes and the Scholastics - Igor Agostini (University of Salento)

In this paper, I will examine some of the most significant occurrences of the term “ingenium” in the corpus of the Scholastic authors whom Descartes declares he has read: Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Suárez, the Conimbricenses, Francisco Toledo, Antonio Rubio, andd Abra de Raconis. The research I am proposing here is a part of my project of an updating of Etienne Gilson’s Index scolastico-cartésien. The subject of the ingenium is here of particular importance: in fact, in Gilson’s Index, whose entries are is in French, the term Ingenium is not only missing, but has just few and often negligible occurrences.
Descartes and Logic: Perfecting the Ingenium - Roger Ariew (University of South Florida)

I discuss Descartes’ use of ingenium and what replaces it in his French-language works. The well-known first three paragraphs of Discours de la méthode together with their Latin translation in Specimina Philosophiae reveal an important difference between mens (bona mens, bon sens) and ingenium (esprit), the former being ‘the power of judging well and of distinguishing the true from the false’ which is ‘naturally equal in all people’, and the latter being a quality of mind that admits of degrees: ‘having a quicker wit, a keener imagination, or a more responsive memory’. Descartes recommends his method (as opposed to logic or mathematics) as a means of perfecting the ingenium. However, in his later works he refers to his method as his logic and recommends exercises in logic and mathematics as a means for sharpening one’s mental powers. This is how the Cartesians understood Descartes; it enabled them to rehabilitate logic and mathematics as preliminary to the true philosophy and to legitimate their construction of Cartesian logic as a part of the complete corpus of Cartesian philosophy.

Ingenium and esprit after Descartes - Michael Edwards (University of Cambridge)

For many early-modern French speakers, Descartes included, esprit was often a serviceable synonym for the latin ingenium. Yet the two terms were not interchangeable. This paper will examine some figurations of the concept of esprit in post-Cartesian French philosophy, focusing in particular on the Traité de l’esprit de l’homme et ses functions (1649) of the medic and philosopher Pierre Chanet’s and the critique Chanet’s psychology and philosophy received at the hands of the Cartesian medic Louis La Forge. It will discuss both the ways in which La Forge read Chanet’s notion of esprit as a notion with Cartesian debts, and the ways in which the development of philosophical languages intersected with the broader intellectual projects of both authors.

‘La chose du monde la mieux partagée’  Descartes and Ingenium - Daniel Garber (Princeton University)

In the Discours de la méthode and related texts, Descartes firmly rejected the cult of special genius. Not that he did not think that his discoveries in the sciences were not worthy of admiration. But, he claims, he is not to be praised for his superior intellect. Rather, he is thankful that in his youth he came upon a method that enabled him, and anyone else, to make the same discoveries that he was able to make. In this essay I would like to explore this theme of intellectual modesty in Descartes’ writings. But, at the same time, I would also like to explore the impression that Descartes left on at least some of his contemporaries that he was arrogant and claimed to be in a position to dictate to others what they should believe. A key text here is Martin Schook’s Admiranda methodus, an important document from the Utrecht Affair. Schook’s criticism here echoes a typical criticism made against novatores of the period, those who rejected Aristotelian philosophy in favour of something new. The novatores were often characterized as shameless seekers after personal glory, less interested in the truth than in personal aggrandizement.

Prudential Thinking and Ingenium in the Regulae ad directionem ingenii - Raphaële Garrod (University of Cambridge)

The specific definition of the ingenium in the Regulae ad directionem animi states that the vis cognoscens is most properly called ingenium when it applies itself to the images contained in the phantasia. In this paper, I will excavate the scholastic precedents to this definition in the textbooks to which Descartes was exposed at La Flèche. I will pay a specific attention to the notion of vis cognoscens as 'particular reason', that is, the cognitive manipulation of images resulting in a form of knowledge of particulars shared by higher order animals and human beings alike. Such vis cognoscens is usually defined in relation to the phantasia in textbook commentaries on the De anima and in relation to prudential thinking in textbook commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics. Both backgrounds suggest interpretations of the Regulae as guidelines towards cognitive exercises which are not altogether devoid of an ethical dimension -- in other words, a Cartesian reappropriation of the cognitive moves associated with prudence by the early moderns.

‘Ingenium’ and Critical Discrimination: Descartes's Apology for Balzac in Context - Emma Gilby (University of Cambridge)

Descartes writes his Censura quarundam Epistolarum Domini Balzacii in 1628 following the publication of Jean Goulu’s vitriolic Lettres de Phyllarque à Ariste in October 1627. Goulu is in turn responding to François Ogier’s Apologie pour Monsieur de Balzac, published earlier in 1627 with a reprint of Frère André de Saint-Denis’s 1625 pamphlet Conformité de l’éloquence de Monsieur de Balzac avec celle des plus grands personnages du temps passé et du présent. From the moment of their appearance in 1624, Guez de Balzac’s first Lettres had provoked massive public interest and opprobrium. In this presentation, I shall be paying more attention to Descartes’s apology for Balzac than it has hitherto received, situating it within the network of these other, interrelated responses to Balzac’s work. I look at the thrust of the criticism directed at Balzac, with a focus for the purposes of this conference on the term ingenium and its cognates in the ‘querelle des lettres’ in the years leading up to 1628. We also note that the Censura, by virtue of a contrast between pre-sophistic rhetoricians or ‘persons of greater ingenium’ on the one hand and the political discourses of Greek and Roman tribunals on the other, considers the false colours that give rhetoric a bad name. There is a form of relativism here that may be understood as a response to normative statements by Goulu and others about the absolute qualities of good writing. I argue that we can only understand Descartes’s letter if we set it in the context of debates about the process of arriving at a critical judgement about an author. These debates are inseparable from contemporary poetics and the language of vraisemblance, openness and belief. They are about about how to praise and blame; about how to demonstrate marks of distinction; about hyperbole in relation to verisimilitude. What does it mean to be distinct or distinctive? How do writers have a distinctive effect upon us? Looking beyond a current tendency in the critical literature to bring Balzac and Descartes together in terms of a common concern with ‘ego’, I consider Descartes’s intervention in local debates about modes of attentiveness, and about the way that words are transformed as they are subjected to the stress of different readers.

Methodical Invention : Cartesian ingenium at work - Denis Kambouchner (Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

Whatever doubt may be retained about the true nature and consistency of Descartes’s method, a major mistake would be to bring down Cartesian methodical proceedings to mere implementation of some determinate rules. All the rules proposed by Descartes are very general ones: their application is therefore always inventive. Especially in the Regulae ad directionem ingenii, this power of inventive application is called ingenium, and the virtue the mind demonstrates in this application, industria (humana industria). After having listed the characteristic forms of this industria, I will examine the sort of culture the ingenium may be subject to, and then go back to the question : could ever Cartesian method find its theoretical completion?

Ingenious Tools: Ruling Wits in Descartes’ Renaissance - Richard Oosterhoff (University of Cambridge)

In the letters extant in Beeckman’s journal, the young Descartes gingerly asked whether the Lullian art was an ‘ingenious’ tool for discovery. Lull’s art, relayed by Agrippa of Nettesheim, promised to provide certain solutions to any problem; like the method Descartes promised in Rule IV of the Regulae, it was the art of arts. Historians have often noted how Descartes used extra-mental tools—instruments, devices, and other ingenia—even as he viewed them suspiciously, as tricks. He was not alone in attempting to rule one’s mental inclinations with rules, which promised certainty even as they threatened to make thought mindless. In fact, Descartes' Regulae promised to supply a need that was widely felt in the Renaissance: certain, rule-based methods to master all knowledge. This paper sets Descartes’ Regulae in the context of earlier plans to guide and constrain one’s wit.

What place does ingenium occupy in Hobbes’s (non-Cartesian) anthropology? - Martine Pécharman (CNRS)

Hobbes’s contrast between methodus and ingenium in his project of demonstrating the true political science (De cive 16472, Preface to the Reader) suggests that, for him, we should reject as false the belief that naturale ingenium has immediate accesss to the knowledge of political matters – as an ‘epistemological obstacle,’ so to speak, to the discovery of the true principles of political science. However, few readers of the De cive regarded the book as granting political theory the certainty of deductive method Hobbes intended. For early critics of Hobbes, the ‘horrible’ principle of the natural war of every man against every man was deeply symptomatic of the author’s wicked ingenium. The tone was set for Hobbes’s reception. That which later critics such as Seth Ward (In Thomae Hobbii philosophiam Exercitatio epistolica, 1656) would call the ingenium Hobbianum was doomed to represent an extreme zeal for paradoxical novelties in all parts of philosophy: logic, metaphysics, physics, ethics, as well as politics. Yet, interestingly, Hobbes was eager in his philosophy to allow the redefinition of ingenium a crucial role. With regard to his political project, the aim was to scrutinize the relationship between mind and morals. To this end, a reassessment of the mental status of ingenium was fundamental. Though his contemporary readers received Hobbes’s assertion that the mind is nothing more than motion that occurs in some particular parts of an organic body (Objectiones tertiae, 1641, Obj. 4) as particularly outrageous, no attention was paid to Hobbes’s doctrine of ingenium. This doctrine, though, was both a necessary component in Hobbes’s analysis of mind and yet deviated from a strictly mechanistic explication of mind. Both The Elements of Law (1640), Leviathan (1651/1668), and De homine (1658), make it obvious that there must be some further power of the human mind that goes beyond its conceptions and its passions. Differences of ingenia (in English: wits) among different people, understood as differences of mental abilities and propensities, must be considered in the analysis of mind. These differences, however, prove to be irreducible to a physiological diversity in bodily make-up. My aim in this essay is, firstly to compare Hobbes’s successive versions of his doctrine of ingenium as a disposition to morality, and secondly to highlight important differences between Descartes’s anthropology and Hobbes’s key theses in his dispositional analysis of the human mind with respect to ingenium.

Intuitus in Descartes and the School - Lucian Petrescu (Université libre de Bruxelles)

Descarte’s emphasis on intuition as a prime source of truth for the ingenium is well known. He claimed in Rule III that his ‘new’  and probably surprising use of the term intuitus refers only to its Latin meaning, and not to the use that the Schools make of it. My investigation confirms his claim. I present the transformation that the notion of intuition is subjected to when passing from the vocabulary of medieval nominalism to that of Descartes in the Regulae. I look primarily at the understanding of intuition in Jesuit authors indebted to the nominalist tradition: Hurtado de Mendoza, Francisco de Orviedo and Roderigo de Arriaga. The main difference between Descartes’s use and that of his nominalist counterparts is taken to lie in the object of the act of intuition: for the nominalists, the term refers to an intellectual act that applies to sensible singular objects, while for Descartes it would apply primarily to a perception of intellectual objects: either common notions or direct links between them. However, Descartes also uses intuition to account for the grasp of sensible objects existing here and now. My thesis is that Descartes’s use of the term is not opposed to the nominalist understanding of intuition, but it enlarges it. It does so in two (separate) ways: by reducing the sensible object of intuition to an intellectual object (a grasp of the “material essence” in scholastic terms) and by retaining the application of the intuitive act to the existence of sensible objects. I thus show, firstly, that Descartes extends the notion of intuitus to cover both the essence and the existence of sensible objects, something that the School considered to pertain to two distinct intellectual acts, and secondly, that Descartes treats intellectual objects in the same way that the School treated sensible objects: as present to the mind. 

Ingenium, phantasia and mathematics in Descartes’s Regulae ad directionem in genii - David Rabouin (Université Paris Diderot)

In the most developed versions of the Regulae ad directionem ingenii, Descartes presents us with two different senses of ingenium. It first occurs as a generic term for the vis cognoscens, which has to be guided and improved, so as to develop its capacity to discover new truths, its sagacitas and its perspicuitas. But it is also more properly used to designate one particular cognitive function: the capacity of forming new figures in the phantasia or dealing with already fabricated ones (proprie autem ingenium appellatur, cum modo ideas in phantasia novas [imagines] format, modo jam factis incumbit [AT X, 416]). In this sense, ingenium is more closely related to the faculty of imagining (since the vis cognoscens, “when applying itself to the imagination in order to form new figures, [it] is said to imagine or conceive” [AT X, 416]). As is clear from the preceding description, imagination operates here under two forms: on the one hand, as a faculty (facultas or functio) of the mind, and on the other hand as a proxy upon which the mind forms news images. In this second sense, imagination is a subjectum on which one can exhibit in full clarity mathematical relations and hence schematize in a distinct manner any other relation (‘imagination itself, together with the ideas it contains, is nothing else than a real extended and figurated body. Which is obvious in itself, since in no other subject is it possible to show with more distinction the differences between all the proportions’ [AT X, 441]). In this paper, I would like to explore this original connection between ingenium, phantasia and mathematics, placing particular emphasis on its proximity with Proclus’ conception of mathematical imagination.

The post-Regulae direction of ingenium in Descartes - Dennis Sepper, (University of Dallas)

Discussion of Descartes’s Regulae ad directionem ingenii usually issues in questions about whether and how it anticipates later developments in his mathematics and method or, to a lesser extent, the influence of Renaissance humanism on his early works. If, however, the Regulae is read as a kind of pragmatic anthropology and psychology (avant la lettre of Kant), then the aims of Descartes’s philosophical career take on a deeper unity from start to finish. In particular, the Passions de l’âme can be read as a modernized appropriation of humanism that fulfills the promise of the Regulae by offering a more ample and scientifically mature theory of ingenium. Rather than an aberration, the axis from the Regulae to the Passions indicates the direction in which Descartes was moving all along.

Ingenium and the evolution of the Regulae - Richard Serjeantson (University of Cambridge)

This paper addresses the place of ingenium in Descartes's early philosophical writing, above all the treatise, originally untitled, that is generally known the Regulae ad directionem ingenii. On the basis of new evidence it explores the question of how Descartes used the concept of ingenium (or sometimes ingenia) as one of the leading ideas in the treatise as he first conceived it, and how that concept relates to his broader account of the faculties involved in human cognition. It then goes on to raise the question of whether Descartes was beginning to abandon this vision of ingenium by the time he also abandoned the Regulae – and if so, why.

Ingenium between Scientific Discovery and Artistic Creation - Justin Smith (Université Paris Diderot - Paris VI

On Dennis Sepper's compelling reading of Rule 12, of the Regulae, Descartes's understanding of ingenium is of nothing other than "the cognitive power's act of occupying itself with images" (Sepper, Descartes Imagination: Proportion, Images, and the Activity of Thinking, 98). In this respect, Sepper observes, "it could be said to resemble what we call the free play of the imgination." It is not entirely free however, as it "always retains a cognitive purpose." Thus this freedom of play "is the power of variation for the sake of finding something interestingly the same or different, that is, for the sake of discovery." This is indeed a rather circumscribed role, compared to the eventual development, some centuries later, of the free play of the imagination in Friedrich Schiller's conception of the Spieltrieb. Here, it has not principally a cognitive role, but rather a creative one, and it is not discovery, but innovation, that is the most basic and important role of the ingenium. For Schiller, the mark of the genius --conceived now sooner as an exceptional person than as a faculty, more or less developed, within each person-- is the production of great art. What can we learn, now, about Descartes's conception of scientific discovery by following the path of ingenium's migration back from its role in German Romantic aesthetics? In order for this migration to have been possible, we must, first of all, consider the historical fluidity of the boundary between discovery and invention, and we must, second of all, seek to understand the importance of the inventive or creative dimensions of Descartes's own conception of scientific discovery. Finally, it will be worthwhile to seek to understand how, between Descartes and Schiller, the understanding of the uses of the faculty of imagination, while still rooted in genius, seems at first glance to have shifted between two such radically different domains of human activity: science and art. I will argue that an important intermediate figure in this history is G. W. Leibniz, who in his natural philosophy of the 1690s helps to remove the imagination from the study of nature in the course of his argument against the theory of the lusus naturae, arguing forcefully that, in his words, 'nature does not play'. By this same removal, imagination is now ontologically inadequate in the study of nature, and will soon enough find its refuge in art. 

Enumeratio in the Works of Descartes: from ingenium to intellectus - Theo Verbeek (Utrecht University)

There is quite some textual evidence for the claim that the Regulae were not composed at one particular moment; that Descartes worked on it for quite some time; that the text as we know it was rewritten over and over; and that there were significant changes with respect to at least some concepts, notions and procedures. The question is when, how and why: when did Descartes start and abandon this project; what changes did the text undergo and why; what prevented Descartes from completing the text? These are difficult questions of a philological, historical and conceptual nature, which presumably will never be answered with certainty. In my paper I concentrate on a few puzzling pages in the definitive text of the Regulae (basically Rules VII–XI), more particularly on the notion of ‘enumeration’ (enumeratio). Although enumeration plays a prominent role in the first half of the Regulae to the point of being proclaimed the most important part of the method at all, it makes a last appearance as a methodological concept in the Fourth Rule of the Discours de la méthode (1637), before being applied, in a somewhat different form, in the Meditationes (1641), the Principia (1644) and, less explicitly, the Passions. I believe a study of enumeratio and the different contexts in which it is presented and applied, may serve to illustrate the theme of this colloquium, namely, the transition from a methodology centred on ingenium (whatever that may be) to one centred on intellectus (whatever that may be). I deal first with the Regulae, then with the way enumeration is applied, especially in the Meditations, before drawing a few tentative conclusions as to the hidden subject of this meeting, namely, the approximate date of Descartes’ ultimate and unsuccessful attempt to complete the Regulae.