Sunday, May 18, 2014

Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

Descartes; image from Wikimedia.

The work of René Descartes was unlike its contemporary counterparts in combining ancient Christian meditative practices with more modern academic philosophy. This has a number peculiar consequences, such as his insistence on monkish seclusion in combination with his preference for the newly emerged geometric conception of natural philosophy. The Meditations shows both of these underlying philosophies at work.

The Smell of Money

One funny aspect of both the Meditations and the Discourse on Method is how explicitly he ties the practice of philosophy to the practical reality of being of the moneyed classes:
To-day, then since very opportunely for the plan I have in view I have delivered my mind from every case and since I have procured for myself an assured leisure in a peacable retirement, I shall at last seriously and freely address myself to the general upheaval of all my former opinions. (I, pp. 45–46)
It comes up as well as a backdrop for other passages, as when he discusses the possibility that his senses might deceive him about seemingly obvious facts:
For example, there is the fact that I am here, seated by the fire, attired in a dressing gown, having this paper in my hands and other similar matters. And how could I deny that these hands and this body are mine, were it not perhaps that I compare myself to certain persons, devoid of sense, whose cerebrella 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 purple 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. But they are mad, and I should not be any less insane were I to follow examples so extravagant. (I, p. 46)
The very first kinds of madness he alludes to are thus economic megalomania. By contrast, our hero is seated comfortably at the fire in the center of the bourgeois universe, enjoying his dignified leisure.

Spiritual Exercise

The purposes of these meditations is to retract or "withhold assent" about uncertain things, as he declared in the first meditation (p. 46). This involves a quite radically world-renouncing and quite literally meditative move:
I shall now close my eyes, I shall stop my ears, I shall call away my senses, I shall efface even from my thoughts all the images of corporeal things, or at least (for that is hardly possible) I shall esteem them as vain and false; and thus holding converse only with myself and considering my own nature, I shall try little by little to reach a better knowledge of myself. (III, p. 58)
In the "Preface to the Reader," he makes it clear that he expects us, his future readers, to use the book as a guide on a similar spiritual journey:
… I should never advise anyone to read it [= this book] 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. (Preface, p. 40)
As a corollary, we get of course a highly mentalistic concept of human beings and of the soul:
But what then am I? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels. (II, p. 54)
Gone is thus the "talking animal," not to mention the walking one.

Title page; also from Wikimedia.


Another aspect of the meditative practice is that it literally is intended to change his attitudes by means of repeated appreciation of certain facts:
… although I notice a certain weakness in my nature in that I cannot continually concentrate my mind on one single thought, I can yet, by attentive and frequently repeated meditation meditation, impress it so forcibly on my memory that I shall never fail to recollect it whenever I have need of it, and thus acquire a habit of never going astray. (IV, p. 79)
This notion of meditation as a kind of doxastic therapy has also come up previously, when he discusses the idea that his mind is known more immediate than the wax in his hand:
But because it is difficult to rid oneself so promptly of an opinion which one was accustomed to for so long, it will be well that I should halt a little at this point, so that by the length of my meditation I may more deeply imprint on my memory this new knowledge. (II, p.58)
Again, this should remind us of earlier textbooks in logic recommending frequent memory training and the like as a means for improving the soul.

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