Cautious Cartesian: Thomas Gowan

Descartes and Ars Sciendi (edit of  public domain image, Wikimedia)
Descartes and Ars Sciendi
(edit of public domain image, Wikimedia)

While there were few Cartesians in England, there is evidence for Descartes’ philosophy having an important influence in 17th century England (Lamprecht). There is little similar evidence in 17th century Ireland before William Molyneux’s early (possibly the first) translation of Descartes’ Mediations into English in 1680. Even on the continent where the “new philosophy” was freely circulated it seems Irish adopters of Cartesianism were few.

From 1660-90 Descartes was analysed by orthodox Parisian scholastics so he could be refuted. Despite the battle of the Aristotelian scholastics, such as Dubliner Michael Moore, against the encroaching of mechanist philosophy into the University of Paris, by the early eighteenth century the battle to keep out the new philosophy was lost (Brockliss; Chambers 2002, 2004).

The slow assimilation of Cartesian ideas into scholastic philosophy in Paris was paralleled in microcosm in Ulster. The earliest use of Cartesian ideas in the Irish educational context we know of was by Thomas Gowan (Chambers, 2004). A presbyterian minister born in Caldermuir Scotland, he studied in Edinburgh, mostly likely receiving a traditional scholastic education. He settled in Monaghan in 1658 as minister, but was deposed for non-conformity in 1661. He remained ministering in the area until his secondment to Conor, Co Antrim to form an academy which existed from 1661 to 1671. In 1671/2 the academy was transferred to Antrim. Throughout he continued to preach, also becoming chaplain to Sir John Skeffington of Antrim Castle in 1676.

By 1675 Gowan had a official monopoly in teaching philosophy in Ulster. In that year the Tyrone meeting sought the establishment of a divinity school under Gowan. It is no evidence as to whether this was ever implemented: a divinity school was eventually established by William Leggat at Dromore, co. Down. Thomas Gowan died in Antrim on 15 September 1683.

Gowan published a number of works in the 1680s. These works show that he had studied the continental debate over Cartesianism and had read both the scholastic Cartesian Johann Clauberg’s Logica vertus et nova (1654) and the Port-Royal Logic (1668). These authors sought to harmonise traditional logic with Descartes’ metaphysics, epistemology and psychology.

Gowan’s Ars Sciendi (1681) contained a traditional logic on the model of the Reformed scholastics Keckermann and Burgersdijk and analyses of logical and metaphysical topics. Gowan’s psychology is Cartesian, and outlined using the language of ideas. He also shows an openness to Cartesian thought on a number of other topics, such as whether a theory of categories can be built on Descartes’ substance/mode distinction. However Gowan argued against Cartesianism that the senses were the basis for knowledge and that universal ideas were obtained from particulars.

He also disapproved of the method of doubt, considering that doubt is only appropriate where there is “reason” to doubt. His Logica elenctica (1683), a manual for disputation in the scholastic mode, excludes any specimen theses on the existence of God, since to argue on the topic would require forming a thesis “contrary to religion”.

Gowan was greatly interested in Descartes natural philosophy: a book he left unfinished on that topic when he died is now lost.

In 1695 representatives of the Scottish universities judged Gowan ‘prolix in his Didacticks and obscure in his Elenticks bringing in many heterogeneous things’ (ODNB). Nonetheless, his texts were studied in English academies such as Rathmell and Bethnal Green, and his Ars sciendi made it to Harvard, being the most up-to-date philosophy text there in 1723.


Sterling P. Lamprecht (1935) “The Role of Descartes in Seventeenth Century England.” in Studies in the History of Ideas, pp. 181-240. (

L.W.B. Brockliss (1981) Aristotle, Descartes and the New Science: Natural philosophy at the University of Paris, 1600–1740, Annals of Science, 38:1, pp. 33-69.

Liam Chambers (2002)‘“Knowledge and Piety”: Michael Moore’s Career at the University of Paris and Collège de France, 1701-20.’ In Eighteenth-Century Ireland, Vol. 17, pp 9-25. (Mary Immaculate College Institutional Repository and Digital Archive)

Liam Chambers (2004) ‘Irish Catholics, French Cartesians: Irish Reactions to Cartesianism in France, 1671-1726’, in France-Ireland: Anatomy of a Relationship, Maher, M. and Neville, G., (eds)., pp. 133-145. (Mary Immaculate College Institutional Repository and Digital Archive)

M. A. Stewart (2004a) ‘Gowan, Thomas (1631–1683)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [, accessed 31 March 2015]

M. A. Stewart (2004b) ‘Gowan, Thomas’ in Dictionary of Irish Philosophers.

M. A. Stewart (1992) “Abating Bigotry and Hot Zeal” in Fortnight, No. 308, Supplement: Francis Hutcheson (Jul. – Aug.), pp. 4-6

William Leechman (1755) “Preface” to System of Moral Philosophy, Francis Hutcheson. (google books)

Dissenting Academies Online (Dr. Williams at QMUL)

Scroll to Top