Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes's Meditations

Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes's Meditations

by John Carriero
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Princeton University Press


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Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes's Meditations

Between Two Worlds is an authoritative commentary on—and powerful reinterpretation of—the founding work of modern philosophy, Descartes's Meditations. Philosophers have tended to read Descartes's seminal work in an occasional way, examining its treatment of individual topics while ignoring other parts of the text. In contrast, John Carriero provides a sustained, systematic reading of the whole text, giving a detailed account of the positions against which Descartes was reacting, and revealing anew the unity, meaning, and originality of the Meditations.

Carriero finds in the Meditations a nearly continuous argument against Thomistic Aristotelian ways of thinking about cognition, and shows more clearly than ever before how Descartes bridged the old world of scholasticism and the new one of mechanistic naturalism. Rather than casting Descartes's project primarily in terms of skepticism, knowledge, and certainty, Carriero focuses on fundamental disagreements between Descartes and the scholastics over the nature of understanding, the relation between the senses and the intellect, the nature of the human being, and how and to what extent God is cognized by human beings. Against this background, Carriero shows, Descartes developed his own conceptions of mind, body, and the relation between them, creating a coherent, philosophically rich project in the Meditations and setting the agenda for a century of rationalist metaphysics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691135618
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 12/29/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 544
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

John Carriero is professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, and coeditor of A Companion to Descartes.

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A Reading of Descartes's Meditations
By John Carriero


Copyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13560-1

Chapter One

The First Meditation

THE FIRST MEDITATION consists of twelve paragraphs. In 1-2, Descartes introduces the metaphor that knowledge has "foundations." In the first sentence of 3, he presents a putative candidate for the foundations of knowledge, and immediately proceeds to criticize it; that criticism culminates in the dreaming doubt (5). At this juncture the discussion seems to take a detour, and Descartes presents an extended comparison between thought and painting (6-8). That discussion (somehow) brings the meditator to a second doubt (9-10), the evil-genius doubt or, as I will sometimes call it, the imperfect-nature doubt. In the concluding paragraphs of the meditation (11-12), Descartes describes how the meditator should conduct herself epistemically over the immediate course of the subsequent meditations.

In what follows, I will try to explain how what seem to me to be the central moments of the First Meditation-(1) the targeting of the foundations, (2) the dreaming doubt, (3) the extended comparison between thought and painting, and, finally, (4) the evil-genius doubt-hang together to form a continuous discussion. In my view, many accounts of the First Meditation fail to do justice to this continuity, often breaking down around (3), the comparison between thought and painting, just where, it seems to me, the discussion is gathering steam. When I say break down, I do not mean that commentators are unable to offer readings of this obscure discussion that are consistent with their overall take on what is happening in the First Meditation. Rather, their readings do not explain how this moment in the discussion advances an overall argument. That is, they lose hold of the continuous thread of argument running from the foundations and the dreaming doubt through these three paragraphs (6-8) and ultimately to the evil-genius doubt.

1-3. Foundations of Knowledge

The first sentence of the Meditations reads, "Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them" (7:17; 2:12). Although the Meditations is written in the first person, it is often convenient to distinguish two points of view, or two personae, a narrator or person guiding the meditation and a reader or person following the guide's directions. It is convenient to refer to the narrator as Descartes (even though this can be misleading because the Meditations is not a work of autobiography) and to refer to the reader as the meditator. I usually use the feminine pronoun to refer to the meditator, because this provides an easy means of distinguishing between the point of view of the person undergoing the meditation and that of the person leading the meditation.

In the first paragraph, Descartes attempts to provide a motivation for the project that he is about to ask the meditator to undertake. I do not believe he expects this motivation to be fully available to the meditator. It seems unlikely that he expects most of his readers to recognize themselves in the description given in the first sentence; that is, it seems unlikely that he expects most of them to have been struck by the large number of falsehoods that they have accepted since childhood or by the doubtful nature of the edifice that they subsequently based on those falsehoods. Indeed, he does not give any examples of these falsehoods, leaving that instead to the meditator's imagination.

It is not obvious that this presents a problem for Descartes's way of proceeding, because it is not obvious that the motivation for undertaking the Meditations needs to be fully available to the meditator, especially at the beginning. Perhaps it is enough that her curiosity is piqued. What is clear, I think, is that in any case the project of the Meditations presupposes a good deal of cooperation on the part of the meditator. Externally, this comes out in Descartes's indications in his other writings that he does not think he can make progress with a certain sort of stubborn reader (see 7:159). Internally, it comes out in some of the language he uses surrounding skeptical doubt, in particular in his frequent use of first-person resolutions to quasi-imperative effect, as in these examples from the last three paragraphs of the First Meditation:

So in the future I must withhold my assent from these former beliefs just as carefully as I would from obvious false things, if I want to discover any certainty. (10; 7:21-22; 2:15) But it is not enough merely to have noticed this; I must make an effort to remember it.... In view of this, I think it will be a good plan to turn my will in completely the opposite direction and deceive myself, by pretending that these former opinions are utterly false and imaginary. (11; 7:22; 2:15) I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood, or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things. I shall stubbornly and firmly persist in this meditation. (12; 7:22-23; 2:15)

Quasi-imperative resolutions of this sort also appear at the beginning of the Second Meditation (II.3) and the Third Meditation (III.1). (Apparently Descartes thinks that the meditator has made sufficient progress by the Fourth Meditation that it is no longer necessary to issue such instructions [see IV.1].)

The skeptical considerations that Descartes is about to present not only embody arguments that need to be addressed, then, but also provide the basis for instructions to be followed. I believe this speaks to the meditator's motivation in taking them up. She is, I think, to a certain extent, especially at the beginning, simply trusting the narrator (that is, the agent issuing the quasi-imperatives or making the resolutions-whom I'm referring to as Descartes), following his instructions, and supposing that if she complies with them she too will find that she has accepted a number of falsehoods since childhood and built a doubtful edifice on the basis of them.

In order for the exercise to work, however, the meditator must at least find the skeptical instructions intelligible, and here, it seems to me, there is a prima facie difficulty, having to do not with the inducement of coming to discover that one has been in some fundamental way in error, but rather with the suggestion that one's beliefs have a "foundation." It is important that the meditator already be able to recognize herself in that description, because shortly she will be asked to cast all of her beliefs into doubt by overturning this foundation. If she does not know what to make of the suggestion that her beliefs have a foundation, it will be difficult for her to follow Descartes's instructions. Let me elaborate.

The foundational imagery is pronounced in the first two paragraphs:

Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of what I had subsequently erected [superextruxi] upon them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to overthrow [evertenda] everything completely and start again right from the foundations [fundamentis].... I am here quite alone, and at least I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the overthrow [eversione] of all my opinions. (1; 7:17; 2:12) Once the foundations [fundamentis] of a building are undermined [suffosis], anything built on [superaedificatum] them collapses of its own accord; so I will go straight for the basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested. (2; 7:18; 2:12)

Now, what is the meditator to make of this foundational metaphor? It is not obvious-is it?-that it is part of a naive, ordinary conception of our cognition that our beliefs or opinions have foundations. Nor is it clear, for that matter, what a more sophisticated Aristotelian scholastic would make of this suggestion. Yet, as I have just said, it is important for the meditator, already in her current position, to be able to see her beliefs as having a foundation, because if what Descartes is asking her to do is to work, she must think that there are basic principles such that if they were "undermined," everything would fall with them. To make matters worse, Descartes suggests that all of her beliefs rest on only one foundational principle. In the next paragraph, he provides the following as the apparently sole principle:

Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through senses. (3; 7:18; 2:12)

So the meditator has to be able somehow to see all of her beliefs as resting on this principle. But how?

We might start by considering what, in Descartes's view, the foundations of knowledge (correctly understood) look like. According to Descartes, the foundations are what we might call the metaphysical underpinnings of cognition; they provide an account of my place as a cognizer within the universe that I cognize. These foundations include the fact that insofar as I am a cognitive being, I have been created by God in such a way that everything that I clearly perceive is true. They also include the fact that my primary cognitive relation to truth or reality runs directly from my intellect to the world (circumventing the senses): Two of the ideas that afford me clear and distinct perception, my ideas of the self and God, are purely intellectual and innate (i.e., not acquired from the senses); and my most distinct cognition of any particular body contains a purely intellectual factor-the idea of extension-that is prior to and independent of the sensory elements found in my cognition of that body (II.11-12). So my primary cognitive relation to reality has been brought about by God, the author of my nature, who has made me so that ideas that belong to my mind innately make available to me truth and reality (or, in the terminology of the Fifth Meditation, true and immutable natures) for my consideration and judgment.

Now, it may sound odd to describe this constellation of commitments as a "foundation of knowledge." But notice that getting these commitments right has in Descartes's view far-reaching consequences that are closely entwined with the central goals of the Meditations. To anticipate: A correct account of these matters enables me to recognize, contrary to what I might naively have thought, that the existence and nature of the mind is better known than that of any body (Second Meditation). It helps me realize that my cognition that two plus three sum to five is on a different footing from my cognition that body exists, because whereas as I can simply see that the former is true (it is revealed to me by the natural light), the latter is based on a powerful instinct given to me by God (it is a teaching of nature) (Third and Sixth Meditations). It enables me to recognize that my cognition of God is not constructed out of sensory materials but reaches God's essence, and is such that it could have come only from God himself (Third Meditation). A correct understanding of the metaphysical underpinnings of cognition is necessary in order for me to achieve scientia and thereby to be freed from the episodic, transient nature of clear perception (Fifth Meditation). Finally, it paves the way for Descartes's argument from distinct cognition of something to the nature of what is cognized (in his handling of the essence of material things, Fifth Meditation, 1-4) and, again, in Descartes's movement from distinct perception to claims about what is open to the essence of mind and the essence of body (Sixth Meditation, 9).

Of course, none of this is available to the meditator back here in the First Meditation, but it does tell us something about how Descartes is thinking of a foundation of knowledge. For example (as would be widely agreed), it is unlikely that we are supposed to be thinking in terms of some set of basic axioms from which all beliefs can be derived. But also (as perhaps would be more controversial), the suggestion that Descartes is exploring some set of "evidential policies" through appeal to which our beliefs are justified does not jibe well with the foundations that he eventually provides. Viewing Descartes's foundations in this way has sometimes led interpreters to read him as implicitly defining knowledge through specially articulated standards for reasonable doubt, so that knowledge turns out to be what cannot be reasonably doubted. I think this way of reading the Meditations underestimates the differences in the way epistemology was done in his time and our own (in large part as a result of the Meditations). For instance, the juridical terminology that seems to have originated with Kant and is still prevalent in much current epistemology-evidence, warrant, justification, and so forth-hardly appears in the Meditations. (Descartes does write of making things evident to ourselves and the evidence of his arguments, but he rarely (if at all) writes of something's being evidence for something.) Again, the so-called truth rule, "Everything I clearly and distinctly perceive is true," has a methodological dimension, but even so it does not function as a rule of evidence: in general, when trying to understand, I should be focused on what Descartes terms in III.4 "the things themselves [ipsas res]" (as opposed to the quality of my perception of them). The primary "evidential" use of the rule seems to be retrospective: I can use it, as Descartes explains, to be sure that if I previously perceived something clearly, I got it right.

Neither of the two foundations that Descartes discusses-the initial Aristotelian, sensory one, which he wishes to discard, and the one having to do with the origin of the human mind in a supremely perfect being, which he wishes to defend-is easily thought of as the articulation of a set of principles telling us when a given belief is sufficiently grounded by the evidence (or sufficiently impervious to skeptical challenge) to count as knowledge or be worthy of rational credence. Descartes's foundations are epistemological in a different way. He is working with the idea that one can begin philosophy with a general survey of the mind and its resources for knowing, assess one's prospects for knowledge, and at the same time reach substantive metaphysical conclusions about the way the world is. (This broad idea, it seems to me, is taken up and worked out in extremely different ways by Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant.) Descartes's own account of what the mind is and its origin in God has a definite normative dimension, explaining, for example, why when we assent to what we clearly perceive, we get to the truth (and why we should not assent to what we do not clearly see). It also plays an important role in his account of scientia, the highest form of cognition available to us. According to Descartes, in order to have scientia, I must first recognize that I have been created by a nondeceiving, supremely perfect being, who has made me in such a way that everything I perceive clearly is true. Descartes's way of looking at epistemology understands it to be more closely allied with philosophy of mind and general metaphysics than perhaps some philosophers would find natural. But it is a way of thinking about epistemology that dominated seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy.

But what then? Are we to suppose that the meditator enters the Meditations with a metaphysical/epistemological theory of cognition? I think the answer to this question is both no and yes, depending on whether we think of the meditator as a naïf or as a more sophisticated Aristotelian scholastic. If we think of the meditator as a naïf, then it is not reasonable to suppose that she has a theory of cognition. But it is reasonable to suppose that she believes something along the following lines. Her ability to know anything about the world-to know truth or reality-runs essentially through her senses. She might put this thought to herself in this way: "If I had no senses, or if my senses did not (at least roughly) do what I think they do, then I would have no access to truth or reality; indeed, in such a situation, as far as I could tell, there might be no such thing as truth or reality." Thus, in the passage cited above from 12, the meditator, upon deciding to take the physical reality apparently presented to her through her senses to be merely the "delusions of dreams," is led to think that perhaps it might not be "in my power to know any truth [siquidem non in potestate mea sit aliquid veri cognoscere]." A similar line of thought recurs in the Second Meditation, where the meditator reflects:

I will suppose then, that everything I see is false [falsa]. I will believe that my memory tells me lies, and that none of the things it reports ever happened. I have no senses. Body, shape, extension, movement and place are chimeras. So what remains true [verum]? Perhaps just this one thing [unum], that nothing is certain. (II.2; 7:24; 2:16)


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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Note on Translations xv

Introduction 1

Chapter 1: The First Meditation 27

Chapter 2: The Second Meditation 65

Chapter 3: (I) The Third Meditation: The Truth Rule and the "Chief and Most Common Mistake" 128

Chapter 3: (II) The Third Meditation: Two Demonstrations of God's Existence 168

Chapter 4: The Fourth Meditation 223

Chapter 5: The Fifth Meditation 280

Chapter 6: The Sixth Meditation 359

Notes 427

Bibliography 489

Index Locorum 495

Subject Index 505

What People are Saying About This

Lilli Alanen

John Carriero offers the most detailed and probing comparison of Descartes's arguments with those of his most famous and influential scholastic predecessor, Thomas Aquinas. The great advantage of this strategy is that it gives a clear and unified picture of how Descartes positions himself between scholastic Aristotelianism and the new mechanistic naturalism. This is an original and powerful reading of the Meditations and a worthy successor to Margaret Wilson's classic Descartes.
Lilli Alanen, author of "Descartes's Concept of Mind"

Dennis Des Chene

Between Two Worlds makes a significant contribution to the literature on Descartes's Meditations. It is likely to become a standard reference for Anglophone philosophers, and it is certain to be widely read and discussed.
Dennis Des Chene, Washington University in St. Louis

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