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Descartes I

The Meditations

With Descartes we have a philosopher whose views are in striking contrast to Montaigne. Descartes believes that certain knowledge is possible. He has methods both for making new discoveries and for determining what can be known for certain. In the Meditations, the work we are reading, he applies these methods to minds, bodies and God -- the three great categories of Christian metaphysics -- as well as to such related matters as the truths of mathematics.

Though he was not of the nobility, like Montaigne, Descartes was an upper class Frenchman. After attending the Jesuit college at La Fleche, Descartes became a serious investigator of problems in mathematics and physics. Later, after developing a complete physical system whose laws of motion explained the evolution of the world from chaos to its present order, Descartes took up the philosophical problems of justifying our knowledge of God, our minds and the physical world.

Descartes was much concerned with methods for discovering new truths and avoiding error. His first works, the Rules and the Discourse on Method, explain Descartes methods and present some of the results which he achieved with them. Among these results are a work in which he presents analytic geometry -- an algebraic treatment of geometry which led to the development of the calculus by Newton and Leibniz. The World, which Descartes suppressed after Galileo was condemned by the Church for holding Copernican views, was the book in which Descartes presented his theory of physics. In the Meditations, Descartes turns to issues about knowledge, and shows how knowledge of ourselves, God and the material world rest on secure foundations of clear and distinct ideas grasped by reason. The Principles of Philosophy synthesize the concerns about knowledge with Descartes physics and is the most extended, mature development of Descartes philosophy. The Passions of the Soul, which was inspired by his correspondence with Princess Elisabeth, was published just before he left for Sweden where he was to die. The Passions deals with issues relating to the connection between mind and body.

Descartes came on the scene when crucial advances in mathematics and physics were taking Europeans beyond the point reached by ancient mathematicians such as Euclid and Archimedes, or the ancient astronomical and physical systems of Aristotle and Ptolemy. By the end of the sixteenth century the problems which the ancient mathematicians had left unsolved had either been solved or shown to be insoluble. In physics too it was a revolutionary moment. For Copernicus had proposed that the earth moved around the sun. A new mechanistic physics was developing to replace the Aristotelian/scholastic account of matter. Descartes made outstanding contributions in mathematics and physics, developing analytic geometry and a system of physics which rivaled that of Newton.

The Catholic Church was committed to the Ptolemaic view of the place of the earth in the universe. The earth was in the center and all else revolved about it. The moon, the planets and the stars were carried round the earth in crystalline spheres. The new Copernican view said that the Earth moved around the sun, as did the other planets. This moved the earth out of its place of symbolic importance -- the center. Galileo was a convinced Copernican and he was condemned in 1630 for claiming the Copernican hypothesis true. This had a profound effect on Descartes. For Descartes was about to publish The World which had in it his theory of physics which was Copernican at its heart. Descartes suppressed the book.

We encountered and explored the Renaissance skeptical crisis in the last unit. Descartes may have believed that the skeptical view which holds that we can have no knowledge so the only recourse is faith is a disastrously weak justification for religious and scientific knowledge. For it only tells you that you should adopt some faith, but not which one. It does nothing at all to justify scientific knowledge. Descartes, in dramatic contrast to the skeptics, seeks to put knowledge of certain truths of religion on a sure foundation. These truths include that God exists, is omnipotent, completely benevolent and thus not a deceiver. He also claims that God

sustains the universe from moment to moment and he claims that God could, if he wished, create anything which anyone can distinctly conceive. Similarly, Descartes may have wanted to show that certain scientific knowledge was based on solid foundations. In this case, those solid foundations were to be religious. Thus, in Descartes we can an alliance of science and religion against skepticism.

One of the delights of 17th and 18th century philosophy is that we are dealing with complete philosophical systems. Many people find the big pictures which philosophers give of the way in which the parts of the universe interrelate fascinating. In coming to understand such a system, it is important to distinguish the parts, and to see how they connect together. The more detailed an understanding one can acquire the better. These units should help you make a detailed analysis of at least some of the major parts of Descartes' philosophical system.

Descartes' project is to examine his system of beliefs which he is convinced contain falsehoods taken for truth. He compares his system of beliefs to a house. He will demolish his old house of knowledge and rebuild it on secure foundations, so that he can distinguish truth from falsehood. In order to do this Descartes divides all the things he claims to know into three groups, those which he has learned from the senses, those which he has learned from the imagination, and those which he has learned from the understanding or reason. In his original house of knowledge, the senses are the foundation, then comes truths of the imagination, and finally truths of reason. The new house will invert this order.

One can think of the structure of the Meditations as being a three stage process. The first is tearing down the old house of knowledge, the second creating the foundation and then the third and final stage as building the new house.

The first stage is tearing down the old house. You need to understand what the old house looks like, and the steps Descartes takes to tear it down.

Descartes says that he is going to call all of his previous beliefs into question. To every individual belief into question would be a tedious and probably endless process. Rather than do this, Descartes divides his beliefs into three classes, based on the faculties from which they are derived. There are beliefs which come from the senses. Other beliefs which come from the imagination, and still others which come from the understanding. He uses more and more powerful skeptical hypotheses to call more and more of these beliefs into question. What cannot be doubted on one hypothesis is subjected to a still more powerful skeptical hypothesis until Descartes concludes either that all his beliefs are doubtful, or determines that some beliefs cannot be doubted even on the most powerful skeptical hypothesis.

At the same time that Descartes is using the method of doubt, he is using a companion method of analysis. This is a method for discovering truths which Descartes claimed to employ in his scientific work. It is similar to a method which Galileo used. The idea is to start with some complex thing which one wishes to understand, break the thing into its constituent parts, see how the simple elements relate to one another, and then see how they can be put together to yield a clear understanding of the original complex.

Your job in this unit is to understand the first stage of Descartes journey in the Meditations in as much detail as possible. To do this you will need to have a clear grasp of the methods of doubt and analysis, and a detailed understanding of the steps Descartes takes in demolishing his old house of knowledge.