Sunday, December 07, 2008

Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes

This short work was educational, but only from a meta-analytic/historical point of view. It showcases how someone very smart (Rene) who has a good question (what do I know for certain) and a good approach (open everything to doubt, start with the very basics and try to work his way up), could still manage to come to very weak conclusions (mainly though poor reasoning). Descartes main error is separating the mind from the body and he continually underestimates the power and influence of the senses (although I did appreciate that at the very end he does (partly) acknowledge the fallibility of being human). Further, even giving him some of his flawed premises, he is only intermittently consistent and often ends up somewhat assuming conclusions and then justifying premises.

A paraphrased example: As God is understood to be infinite and supremely powerful, and the more one thinks about it, these traits could not have arisen from within yourself, so they must be outside of yourself, and then you must conclude God necessarily exists.

That is one among many of arguments where I was left thinking, “How did he keep getting it so wrong?” Such are the powerful influences of culture and cognitive biases.

Finally, to think it was written about 370 years ago and that his work has impacted numerous people and belief systems through time is kind of mind-blowing; that some still use similar bad arguments like his is mind-saddening.


Blogger Dallas said...

Shall I comment? These seems to me to be one of those times when there is no easy separation between form and content, or between thought and action, and when the structure of the discourse is a powerful force in shaping the possible responses. I cannot, in this case, simply disagree, refute the charges, or argue for Descartes’ views, especially given the necessarily brief and nascent nature of this comment. However, Darren’s criticisms notwithstanding, it seems to me that, regardless of the value of the Meditations, the question of the value of the Meditations, or the question of its influence, is a question that would merit a thorough and careful reading, the type of reading, in other words, for which I do not presently have sufficient time.

The sort of reading I have in mind would not, of course, be limited to the Meditations themselves, but would need to consider what the Meditation have provided for, both as a foundation, and as a source of doubts. This sort of response, by contrast, is hasty, at best. Such, however, seems to be the nature of this form of interaction – responses cannot wait forever, the original post will eventually be archived, and my comment will soon be buried under additional layers of thoughts. Indeed, I am without the hope that my comment will have many readers. Though it will have been published, it will, perhaps, remain unseen. Furthermore, given that Descartes himself was so keen on soliciting and publishing feedback and criticisms of his ideas, it does seem appropriate to at least make an attempt at a response. So, in honour of both Descartes, and other writing that he has inspired, I’ll briefly raise four questions, restricting myself, as much as possible, to the first few pages of the text. Personally, I find these questions useful in thinking about almost a wide variety of writing, not the least of which is the Meditations.

1. First, an interesting opening question is why was Descartes writing? Presumably he wished to be read, to make his ideas known. Yet as the introduction to my edition (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, 1997; translated, by Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross; edited and with an introduction by Enrique Chavez-Arvizo) helpfully points out, Descartes, at one point in his life, resolved to follow the motto “to live well you must live unseen” (p. xi). I further learn from the editor that Descartes was planning to publish a work of physics (Le Monde) in 1633, the year after Copernicus published his Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the Universe, but chose to withdraw it from publication when he learned of the latter’s condemnation by the Inquisition.

Descartes gives multiple explanations of his reasons. On the one hand, in an earlier work, the Discourse on Method, Descartes indicated that “My design has never extended beyond trying to reform my own opinion and to build on a foundation which is entirely my own” (p. 80). Descartes nevertheless chose to publish this work, and to share both his ideas and his method with others. The Meditations on First Philosophy, by comparison, presents a much more specific and generous purpose. It is worth quoting at length first page of the Dedicatory Letter to the Sorbonne, which opens the Meditations:

“Although it is quite enough for us faithful ones to accept by means of faith the fact that the human soul does not perish with the body, and that God exists, it certainly does not seem possible ever to persuade infidels of any religion, indeed, we may almost say, of any moral virtue, unless, to begin with, we prove these two facts by means of the natural reason. And inasmuch as often in this life greater rewards are offered for vice than for virtue, few people would prefer the right to the useful, were they restrained neither by the fear of God nor the expectation of another life; and although it is absolutely true that we must believe that there is a God, because we are taught so in the Holy Scriptures, and, on the other hand, that we must believe the Holy Scriptures because they come from God (the reason of this is, that, faith being a gift of God, He who gives the grace to cause us to believe other things can likewise give it to cause us to believe that He exists), we nevertheless could not place this argument before infidels, who might accuse us of reasoning in a circle.” (p. 123)

There is an enormous amount of substance to be analyzed in this passage, but for now let us note that, if we take Descartes seriously, his intention is to present an argument that will convince infidels – non-believers who lack faith, religion, virtue, morality, but not reason – that they should believe in, and fear, an infinite and generous God to whom they owe both their reason and the immortality of their souls. Though I have little doubt that a more careful and knowledgeable reader of Descartes could easily refute all the points I raise, it still seems to me that there is an abundance of reasons to question whether there might not be something deceptive in the passage quoted above.

2. A second, perhaps more urgent, question is why would one read Descartes? Some, perhaps, have something specific to be gained from reading the Meditations - in order to pass an exam, for example. For others, it may simply be a matter of curiosity. As Darren mentioned, there is certainly the possibility of learning something about the history of thought, and reading what has been written so as to better see for oneself why this book is so widely read. Indeed, one might, for example, be seeking some sort of foundation of knowledge, and reading farther and farther back in time in hopes of finding the origin of a particular type or line of thinking.

The first sentence of the editor’s introduction in my edition provides a powerful and unambiguous rationale for reading the Meditations: “Rene Descartes is unarguably one of the greatest philosophers in the history of Western thought” (p. vii). Unarguably? What would make something unarguable? Surely not its truth or falsity? Perhaps something that is professed by a great authority, or universally acknowledged? But isn’t the first teaching of Descartes that we must be willing to put everything into doubt, even those things which seem, at first glance, irrefutable? To further complicate things, is it in fact certain that Descartes is a philosopher? We know that he was given a religious education, the value of which he soon came to doubt. It is further known that he wrote and published treatises on a wide range of subjects, from politics to physics to fencing, though many of them have been lost, remaining unseen by contemporary audiences.

Descartes himself tells us, on the first page of his Meditations, immediately preceding the long passage quoted above, “I have always considered that the two questions respecting God and the soul were the chief of those that ought to be demonstrated by philosophical rather than theological argument.” (p. 123) But what does Descartes mean by philosophical and theological? How can the two be so easily separated, especially in the time in which Descartes was writing? Moreover, if questions relating to God and the soul are not the domain of theology, what can that discipline claim as its own? If it is only with Descartes that we reach the point of philosophical foundations – a meditation on first philosophy – in what sense did philosophy exist before Descartes? For that matter, why are the Meditations being published as a Wordsworth Classic of World Literature? These types of doubts could quite easily be extended to the rest of the terms in the editor’s introductory sentence, hopefully at least raising an eyebrow about the clarity of our endeavour.

3. The third question, which in some ways must come first, is how are we to read Descartes? I have little doubt that work text is one of the most-read texts in undergraduate philosophy courses, and it is clearly, therefore, something that philosophy professors assume can be read, and should be read, especially by novice philosophers. It seems to me, however, that there are innumerable obstacles to understanding in this case. Neglecting (for the moment) that most people (myself included) will be reading this work in translation, there is an extensive vocabulary which Descartes makes use of, presumably taken from the academic environment of his time, which seems to me to be little short of impenetrable. Indeed, large sections of his argument seem to depend explicitly on certain ideas being “self-evident”, such as “substance”, “perfection”, “thinking”, and “soul”. Descartes seems to imply that these terms were self-evident to him, and perhaps they were to others at his point in the history of Western thought, but how are we, Descartes’ modern readers, to reach the clear and distinct understanding that Descartes seems to have possessed?

Once again, Descartes does give some helpful advice to the reader about how one should proceed. In his Preface to the Reader, which follows the Dedicatory Letter, he explains, “I should never advise anyone to read it [the First Philosophy] excepting those who desire to meditate seriously with me, and who can detach their minds from affairs of sense, and deliver themselves entirely from every sort of prejudice” (p. 129; italics added). Furthermore, he adds, “I beg those who read these Meditations to form no judgement upon them unless they have given themselves the trouble to read all the objections as well as the replies which I have made to them” (p. 130), a selection of which are included in the Haldane/Ross/Chavez-Arvizo volume.

But if one must take this supplementary material into consideration, how far does the responsibility of the reader extend? Can the meditations be considered complete if one has in one’s possession the six meditations and the full correspondence (along with the preface, etc.)? Or does one need to consider others who have reflected on the Meditations? As the editor of my edition points out, Descartes is known as “ ‘the father of modern philosophy’ “. Must one, therefore, take into consideration the objections to Descartes written by later thinkers, along with the responses which have been written in his name? Descartes seems to have believed, if we take him at his word, that he had achieved a kind of perfection in his thinking, but is this assertion of perfection enough to place the certitude of his claims beyond doubt? Is his own possession of “clear and distinct ideas” enough to provide a foundation for the history of Western philosophy?

4. The final, and in many ways, primary question, is should we take Descartes seriously? The initial impression is certainly that this is a serious work of philosophy, committed to a serious purpose. But hopefully by now one has the sense that things may not be so simple as they seem. Unfortunately, here we truly enter into the quagmire of modern thought and cannot easily continue this line of thinking. If one wished to be thorough, one would have to reflect on the manifold variations which have followed from Descartes’ initial insight. Indeed, Descartes himself, from the very beginning, complicates things infinitely by pointing out the impossibility of distinguishing between dreams and reality, and by the delusions of “certain persons, devoid of sense, whose cerebella are so troubled and clouded by the violent vapours of black bile, that they constantly assure us that they think they are kings when they are really quite poor, or that they are clothed in purpose when they are really without covering, or who imagine that they have an earthenware head or are nothing but pumpkins or are made of glass” (p. 135). Though Descartes himself does not, perhaps, take seriously enough the prospect of his own madness, nor question rigorously enough his own clear and distinct understanding of dreams, how seriously must we believe in our own reality in turning to another who questions his own? “But they are mad”, Descartes assures us, “and I should not be any the less insane were I to follow examples so extravagant.” (p. 135)

If I follow him, Descartes is not just recounting his own processes of thought, but is suggesting that if we are also determined to get to the bottom of things, we must follow his example, and conduct our own meditation into our own foundation of knowledge. The general motion of this process of thought is nicely summarized in the first sentence of the first meditation, which follows the Letter, the Preface, and a Synopsis of the six parts: “It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis; and from that time I was convinced that I must once and for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation, if I wanted to establish any firm and permanent structure in the sciences” (p. 134).

Sadly, the very strength of Descartes’ method seems to be his own undoing. As he points out less than a page later, “for that end it will not be requisite that I should examine each in particular, which would be an endless undertaking; for owing to the fact that the destruction of the foundations of necessity brings with it the downfall of the rest of the edifice, I shall only in the first place attack those principles upon which all my former opinions rested” (p. 135).

We have learned much from Descartes, and indeed, we have take ownership of his meditations in our own attempts to unsettle his philosophical children by unseating the father. But we should be wary, I think, of being overconfident about our own certainty of having solid ground from which to avoid feeling the earthquake of this deconstruction.

I will end with one last thought from the Discourse on Method, a healthy balance, perhaps, to the above comments: “To converse with those of other centuries is almost the same thing as to travel. It is good to know something of the customs of different peoples in order to judge more sanely of our own, and not to think that everything of a fashion not ours is absurd and contrary to reason, as do those who have seen nothing. But when one employs too much time in travelling, one becomes a stranger in one’s own country, and when one is too curious about things which were practiced in past centuries, one is usually very ignorant about those which are practiced in one’s own time.” (p. 74)

12:47 AM  

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