Descartes Reinvented

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Thomas Sorell seeks to rehabilitate views that are highly unpopular in analytic philosophy and often instantly dismissed. His book serves as an interpretation, if not outright revision, of unreconstructed Cartesianism and responds directly to the critique of contemporary philosophy. To identify what is defensible in Cartesianism, Sorell starts with a picture of unreconstructed Cartesianism which is characterized as realistic. Bridging the gap between history of philosophy and analytic philosophy, Sorell also demonstrates how some contemporary analytic philosophy is deeply Cartesian.

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"Sorrell's interpretations are careful and, by and large, sound, given the intention with which they are offered. Were one of my historicophobic colleagues to ask why Descartes...should be worth studying, I would, without misgivings, direct him to Descarte Reinvented." - Dennis Des Chene, Washington University in Saint Louis
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521851145
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 7/31/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 204
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Sorell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Essex. He is the author of six books, including Descartes (1987), Scientism (1991), and Moral Theory and Anomaly (2000).

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Cambridge University Press
0521851149 - Descartes Reinvented - by Tom Sorell


Radical Doubt, the Rational Self, and Inner Space

The sweeping doubt of Descartes's First Meditation has unassuming beginnings. First comes the claim that conscious experience includes dreaming and waking experience. Next there is the observation that dreaming and waking experience can sometimes be hard to tell apart. Then dream experience is said to be bad evidence for judgements of what one's current environment is like and for what one is actually doing. From these readily granted points Descartes arrives at the disturbing conclusion that waking experience is, for all we know, no better evidence than dream experience for what one's current environment is like: It is no better because, for all we know, it is dream experience.

This doubt is far-reaching, but it is not total. The Dream is supposed to show that what seems to be waking observation is not necessarily caused by the things apparently seen, heard, or felt. I can seem to see a fire and yet be dreaming, with no fire there; I can seem to be falling to my death from an airplane and in fact be safe in bed. Still, it is one thing to mistake a dream airplane or a dream fire for the real thing; it is another for there to be no such things as fires or airplanes - or bodies in general. A second hypothesis is supposed to call the existence even of those things into question. The Demon hypothesis - according to which all my "thoughts" might be induced in me by a powerful figure bent on deceiving me - not only tells against the reality of fires and airplanes, but the reality of any ingredient of any material thing whatever: number, shape, position, and three-dimensionality. The existence of particular bodies is put in doubt, and also the very idea of a body. The Demon is also supposed to make the existence of other minds uncertain. It undermines beliefs about the past, and it confines self-knowledge to the consciousness of the states of a disembodied ego from moment to moment.


The enduring question raised by Meditation One is whether doubt overreaches itself when it goes this far. Does it call into question things that we can't doubt? Does it call into question the conditions under which we can mean things or have thoughts with any content? If so, then the doubt may call into question conditions for having doubts with a content, doubts about something. Doubt so sweeping would be self-defeating. My own view is that the doubt associated with the Dream and Demon hypotheses is not self-defeating. The hypotheses show that the causes of our beliefs do not generally guarantee their truth and that they sometimes produce falsehood, as when the cause of a belief is deception. The hypotheses do not show that our beliefs definitely are false, or that they probably are. Nevertheless, they may make us wonder whether we ought to believe the things that in a certain sense it comes naturally to us to believe. Once we have begun to wonder, we may begin to think that we have no good reason to retain many beliefs we actually hold. This starts us on the path to general uncertainty.

Descartes thinks that when general uncertainty is induced and prolonged methodically, it runs up against the indubitable in the form of metaphysical first principles, and that it is possible to get from there to a comprehensive science. I shall not be concerned in this chapter with the success or failure of Descartes's progress from near total doubt to the development of physics, mechanics, medicine, and morals. Instead, I shall pursue the question of whether Descartes can coherently get the progress to start from the doubt. In arguing that he can, I am going to try to separate out two conceptions of the self and the circumstances of the doubt that Descartes might be thought to rely on. One conception is that of a solipsistic subject and solipsistic conditions for doubt. Many think that Cartesian doubt overreaches itself because it lands the doubter in solipsism, and solipsism takes away the conditions under which doubts or any other thoughts can have content. But another interpretation is possible: instead of engaging a radically isolated self, the doubt can be understood to engage a self latent in human beings that is of a kind latent in other intelligent beings. The doubt engages a species-less limited intelligence and will, something that is only incidentally realised as a human being, and whose nature can be placed on the same scale, though at a very low point on the same scale, as a being with an unlimited intelligence and will. Although neither of these conceptions belongs to an innocent Cartesianism, the second enforces a kind of cognitive humility that an innocent Cartesianism can take over. It implies that human beings have to work at being fit for science, and that this involves activating faculties that are not part of their biological endowment. I begin with this second conception.


Biology - species membership - interferes with systematic knowledge of causes in nature: this is a large part of Descartes's message in the First and Second Meditations. According to this piece of unreconstructed Cartesianism, it is natural for human beings to rely overly on sensory information in forming conceptions of the natures of material things, as well as conceptions of everything else. Forming conceptions with the aid of the senses, Descartes claims, interferes with the discovery of general physical truths. It also interferes with the acquisition and development of mathematical thought, and with self-knowledge and the recognition of the properties of God. Descartes produces this criticism of our biological nature - in his terms, our embodiment - more than once, though sometimes indirectly. He frequently says that the ideas produced by the senses do not necessarily, and frequently do not at all, resemble the things that cause them (cf. e.g. AT Ⅶ A 5-6; CSM Ⅰ 193-4; AT Ⅺ, 3-6; CSM Ⅰ, 81-2; AT Ⅵ, 32; CSM Ⅰ 127).1 The senses are the main representatives in his theory of knowledge of human biology. All of the sensory reactions human beings have are the result of the operations of the internal parts of the body when stimulated at the sensory surfaces. In this latter respect we do not differ, except in respect of differences between the organs, from other animals (cf. AT Ⅵ 55f; CSM Ⅰ 139ff). Nor do living animal bodies, our own included, differ from machines with the machine counterparts of human organs ( Treatise on Man passim). In all animals, sensory reactions are purely mechanical: purely the effects of movements of the internal parts. Biological differences within the animal kingdom are solely a matter of differences between the bodies, their internal parts, and their movements. What sets human beings apart from and above other animals is not something biological or even natural - our walking erect, say, or our having a big brain - but something immaterial and metaphysical: the rational soul. Although this operates via the human brain in a living human being, it could exist without it. And in a certain sense it exists to counterbalance the purely mechanical imprints of the sensory system. For it is the rational soul that enables us to reflect on and consider the resemblance between sensory material and its causes, as well as the consequences of purely impulsive behaviour.

This rational soul is what, according to unreconstructed Cartesianism, enables human beings to rise above confused sensory ideas of particular bodies, conceive the nature of matter, and speculatively reconstruct its differentiation into the elements, as well as their lawlike combination into the systems of the planets, Earth, and terrestrial bodies. Or, in other words, the rational soul is the seat of scientific capacity in us. But the rational soul is not the same as the human being. The human being, as Descartes conceives it, is the union of the rational soul with the human animal. Far from being the seat of scientific capacity, the human being or embodied rational soul is the seat of prejudice, undigested sensory information, curiosity, and rash inference. The beginning of science is consciousness of the false beliefs cultivated over a lifetime of embodiment. Consciousness of false beliefs is consciousness on the part of a rational soul, but a rational soul that is mostly dormant in a standard human lifetime. Metaphysical exercises - exercises in sweeping methodical doubt - awaken the capacities and concepts in the rational soul that can correct for error, prejudice, rash inference, and the blind enquiry that curiosity prompts. These capacities and concepts are innate in the rational soul and ineradicable, but they can be overridden or hidden by the operation of the senses, which, according to Descartes, are designed not for discovering the natures of things but for pursuing and avoiding what will benefit or harm the individual living body. Sensible qualities are guides to whether the things that produce them are good or bad for us, but not to why they are harmful or beneficial, or to their effects on other inanimate things. Grasping the natures of things means uncovering what patterns of extension and motion they conform to, and these cannot be read off their colours, smells, felt textures, or temperatures. These patterns are accessible only to reason. But unleashing the reason in one can mean suppressing the sensory, in a way deserting one's humanity and animality.

The point of unreconstructed Cartesianism about reason, and of doubt as a means of activating reason, becomes clear by identifying the philosophical position Descartes is up against. When he says that sensory ideas do not resemble what they are ideas of; when he says that as human beings we are not naturally equipped for science but need a method of science and a capacity for doing science that is usually only dormant in us, his claims are diametrically opposed to Aristotle's. For Aristotle the human senses bring us into contact with the natures of things: The forms that indicated the essences of natural kinds are actually part of what the human senses take in, and for someone to have a sensory experience of an F is for the sensory experience to have F in it, which the human mind subsequently abstracts. On this theory the resemblance between a human sensory idea and what it is an idea of is a condition of sense-perception itself. The mind does not transform or correct sensory content. Instead, it allows properties common to observed things to register in the mind as a by-product of repeated presentation to the senses. The idea of systematic sense-based error in human beings is foreign to Aristotelian epistemology, and the explanatory forms cited by Aristotelian demonstrations of observed effects are always properties of things open to unaided human observation. There is no equation in the Aristotelian philosophy of science of the explanatory with the microstructural or with what things are made of. On the contrary, explanatory principles are always close to the observational surface. In a sense the natures of things and human observation are made for each other.

The recognised 'sciences' at the time Descartes was writing were Aristotelian. The philosophy of science that prevailed was also Aristotelian. According to the Aristotelian philosophy of science, an explanation is a syllogism in which an observed fact of the form S is P is shown to be necessary by premisses of the form S is M and M is P, where M is a 'middle term' showing a connection between S and P, and the premisses of the syllogism are more evident than the conclusion. Aristotelian explanations conforming to this pattern strike the modern ear as uninformative and false, or else uninformative and truistic. Why do apples fall from the boughs of trees? Because apples are terrestrial things and terrestrial things tend to move toward the centre of the Earth. Why do the stars in the sky form the patterns we identify as constellations night after night? Because stars are celestial bodies and the heavens are unchanging. In Cartesian physics 'celestial' and 'terrestrial' are not explanatory categories, and the falsehood that the heavens are unchanging, far from being an explanandum in physics, is one of the prejudices Descartes thinks his mind was cluttered with by Aristotelian teachings.

Aristotelian physics, especially celestial physics or astronomy, was in a sort of crisis in the early seventeenth century. Galileo and Kepler identified big anomalies and provided alternative explanations. Two of the three essays in Descartes's Discourse and Essays were an attempt to provide un-Aristotelian explanations of selected optical and meterological phenomena, and the Discourse presented a veiled anti-Aristotelian philosophy of science. Its ultimate explanatory concepts were extension, motion, shape, and position, rather than, as in Aristotle, the qualities of heat and cold, wet and dry. Reason rather than sense is the main cognitive capacity underlying science. Metaphysical doubt, rather than sense, elicits the use of reason and the discovery first of the principal metaphysical truths and then the general truths of physics, biology, and psychology. The Meditations is a sort of sequel to and enlargement on the Discourse, especially its Part Ⅳ. What the Discourse merely sketches - the method of doubt and its use to discover first the cogito and then the proof of a nondeceiving God - the Meditations unfolds in detail, and in such a way as to allow the reader to enter. But the broad purposes of the Essays are still in force in Meditation One. Descartes hopes to undo the influence of Aristotle, only by exposing all sense-based science as doubtful, rather than by presenting his own un-Aristotelian solutions to selected problems of physics.

In the Discourse and Essays Descartes conducts his anti-Aristotelian campaign by reviewing the scientific subjects he was taught by his Aristotelian schoolmasters. In the Meditations the upshot of doubt for scientific subjects is not so close to the surface. But it is not entirely suppressed. When Descartes wonders what general conclusion is to be drawn from the hypothesis that all conscious experience might be a dream, he first infers that not all dream content is necessarily unreal, that some content - simple and universal content - has got to be real for dreams to be about anything. This simple and universal content includes number, shape, place, time, and so on. All the dream threatens, Descartes says, is the reality of content compounded in the wrong way out of these simples. And this includes the content of some of the (Aristotelian) sciences:

...physics, astronomy, medicine, and all other disciplines which depend on the study of composite things, are doubtful, while arithmetic, geometry, and other subjects of this kind, which deal only with the simplest and most general things, regardless of whether they exist in nature or not, contain something certain or indubitable. (AT Ⅶ 20; CSM Ⅱ 14)

So the Dream counts against most of the traditional sciences. And even arithmetic and geometry cannot retain their certainty when considered together with facts about the creation and manipulability of the human mind. The simples that apparently have to exist might not have existed, if God had decided not to create them. And he might have decided not to create them while deciding to make it seem to us as if they had to. Or, if God wouldn't have arranged things this way, perhaps a sufficiently powerful demon could have. Descartes does not dwell on the dubitability of the simples, or the sciences of the simple. And belief in their existence is only very briefly suspended. But by the end of the First Meditation all of the sciences are discredited, and of these the most doubtful are the Aristotelian ones.

In Meditation Two Descartes goes on to attack the Aristotelian philosophy of science. He imagines himself devoid of a body and senses and yet still in existence. That is, he imagines himself in existence and yet not a man or human being. (This is to imagine the impossible according to Aristotle, for each of us is, according to Aristotle, essentially human.) In this sense-less and species-less state, in the absence of an external world, he finds in himself the ingredients of metaphysics and physics. He finds in himself the idea of himself, the general idea of a thinking thing or res cogitans, the idea of God, the idea of extension, the idea of motion and so on - the very ideas that he thinks suffice for the speculative reconstruction of the operations of the planetary system, the existence of the Earth, and the variety and operations of bodies on Earth. In short, he sketches a physics that is wholly un-Aristotelian and a philosophy of science that in its fundamentals - in its conception of matter and laws of motion - is wholly rationalist, and therefore wholly un-Aristotelian as well.2

The idea that a rational, species-less self is the residue of the doubt is less familiar in twentieth-century criticism of Descartes than the idea that a sort of solipsistic self results from the reflection of Meditation One, and I return to this latter idea in the section after next. But the idea of a species-less self is also considered suspect in current philosophy, especially when the species-less self is supposed to belong to a class of thinking things that also contains God. The more human beings free their thought from the influences of the senses, the more human thought is supposed by Descartes to approximate to divine thought. But the comparison with God invites many kinds of philosophical illusion, according to some philosophers, and is probably no more innocent an element of Cartesianism than solipsism is.


In Descartes, as in traditional theology, God is supposed to have not only a nonsensory knowledge of reality but an ideal knowledge of reality. Ideal knowledge means, among other things, comprehensive knowledge. God is omniscient. All truths, or perhaps only all general truths, are known to God. Omniscience is tied to God's role as the creator of reality; his knowledge is foreknowledge. There is no question of his finding out how things are, as human beings have to. He determines how they are. This determination is strict. There are no slips between cup and lip; for God to decide that things will be thus and so is logically sufficient for their being thus and so. This determination of reality by God's will extends to mathematical reality, according to Descartes. He distinctively maintains that God's concurrence is required even to make 2 and 2 add up to 4. Human beings are in an entirely different case. Very little of what is real or true is brought about or made by human beings, and there can be thoughts in human minds that are false, and ideas with no resemblance to an external world. Even where things they intend are within their power, things can go wrong for human beings, because, unlike God, they are in control of only some of the conditions of the outcomes they intend. In short, impotence and fallibility are facts of human life that keep human beings very far from the ideal.

God is also a spiritual being. He is not embodied, and he has no sense-organs. Because he also has a comprehensive knowledge of reality, reality is not made to be known by sense-organs, still less human sense-organs. Perhaps knowledge by means of the sense-organs is possible, but there can be no knowledge that is irreducibly sensory; otherwise God would lack it. Instead, whatever there is sensory knowledge of must be knowable by God's knowing faculty. This knowing faculty is pure intellect. Human beings cannot possibly have the same intellect as God has, according to unreconstructed Cartesianism, for God's is infinite and ours is discoverably limited. Still, we can enjoy nonsensory knowledge of some things - for example, the axioms and theorems of geometry, some truths of arithmetic, and some of the metaphysical truths. Our nonsensory knowledge of these things may be hard-won and incomplete and have many other shortcomings, therefore making it quite different from God's, but it is arguably knowledge we have no thanks to the human senses. It is arguably knowledge we could have in common with other creatures with different sensory capacities. Although it is probably a poor kind of nonsensory knowledge by comparison with God's, it is of a kind the ideal of which is marked by God's nonsensory knowledge. In a sense, God and human beings can enjoy the same type of knowledge. In a more robust sense, according to Descartes, they can also enjoy the same type of will. For although God's will rules throughout reality, each human will is supposed to be able to rule all powerfully within each self (Med. Ⅳ, AT Ⅶ 57-8; CSM Ⅰ 40). It is against this background that Descartes says that God and the human intellect-and-will both belong to the same kind: the kind res cogitans.

The correct understanding of what human beings and God have in common is supposed to be possible once the mind has discerned a self that survives the destruction in the imagination of the body and senses - that is, a self that survives the conditions of the Demon hypothesis. This is a self understood quite abstractly as a subject of thought, or a subject of capacities of judgement and will, and not as someone located in a particular room in France with certain memories, current sensations and experiences, inclinations or plans. Is the self understood in that way understood too abstractly? And when God, understood in Descartes's way, sets the pattern for what subjects of thought are like, is there any room left for recognisably human subjects of thought?

To take the second question first, much depends on what it means to say that God 'sets the pattern' for subjects of thought. If it is a requirement for being a subject of thought that the subject be God-like in the sense of having very considerable cognitive capacities, then Descartes's approach seems unattractive. But, as already indicated, this is not the way in which God sets the pattern for counting as res cogitans. '[I]f I examine the faculties of memory and imagination, or any others,' Descartes says, 'I discover that in my case each of these faculties is weak and limited, while in the case of God it is immeasurable' (AT Ⅶ 57; CSM Ⅱ 40). My faculties are of the same kind as God's even if they are unspeakably weak and limited in comparison with his. In other words, I can be very unGod-like as res cogitans - at least when it comes to cognitive capacities - and still have capacities in common with God that make us belong to the same kind. It is true that when it comes to the will, I am supposed to be more God-like. But this is because of a deflationary conception of what the will is for. 'It is both extremely ample and also perfect of its kind' (AT Ⅶ 58; CSM 40). It is extremely ample when its whole job is to affirm or deny or pursue or avoid without the feeling of external compulsion (AT Ⅶ 57-8). So long as it does not make judgements as a matter of reflex or make itself a vehicle for inclinations, the will does all it should. The exercise of the divine will, on the other hand, is on nothing less than a cosmic scale: It cements together what are otherwise independent individual moments of each thing's existence (cf AT Ⅶ 49; CSM Ⅱ 33).

Does the comparison with God exaggerate the human capacity for nonsensory thought? Does it exaggerate our capacity for nonsensory thoughts of external things and ourselves? Bernard Williams has found in Descartes a commitment to the intelligibility of what he calls 'an absolute conception' and a commitment to the accessibility of this conception through 'pure enquiry'.3 The absolute conception is the one we might use to identify, in particular, experiences or thoughts of an independent reality, those aspects that were contributed by their being our experiences or thoughts. The absolute conception would thus enable us to identify what was contributed to our representations by living at a certain time and place, by belonging to a community with a certain tradition, by having a certain individual physical makeup, by having a human constitution. Whatever was left over, when these elements were set aside, would be the contribution of that independent reality itself - varieties of extension and motion and a few immaterial entities in Descartes's version of the absolute conception. The absolute conception is problematic, however, because if it can be ours, it, too, must have some parochial elements. On the one hand, its pretensions to absoluteness are compromised by its being someone's or some species' conception; on the other hand, absoluteness is what science or systematic knowledge seems to aim at.4

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1. Radical doubt and inner space; 2. Knowledge, the self and internalism; 3. The belief in foundations; 4. Conscious experience and the mind; 5. Reason, emotion and action; 6. Anthropology, misogyny, and anthropocentrism; Conclusion.

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