Descartes’ Meditations is one of the more frequently assigned primary texts from the whole history of philosophy. And yet it’s a screwy old thing: supposed to inaugurate Modern Philosophy (a.k.a. European philosophy from the 17th to 19th Century, givertake). But tangled up with medieval philosophy notions and heavily dusted with contents of the dustbin of history of science (no matter how hard you try to keep it clean). So how to teach it?
This is probably typical of texts that have ‘the x that started all the y’ status. (The first Romantics are the last people you would ask what ‘Romanticism’ means.) If Descartes is the Father of Modern Philosophy, for that very reason he is probably the last modern philosopher you should quiz about what ‘Modern Philosophy’ is – the kids weren’t even born yet. But seeing that this is natural, in such a case, doesn’t make it comfortable. Thinking about how far you have to cast the historical net, a healthy anti-historicist impulse kicks in. We have a course to teach. If you can’t bounce off into the moderns without getting bogged down in the medievals … Also, the history of science is interesting, but the history of modern philosophy is supposed to be a basic, core offering in the philosophy department. If the course shapes up like a land war in Asia, false 17th Century physics-wise …
Maybe we should stop thinking Descartes’s Meditations is a good text to start the kiddies on?
We press on, in historicist fashion, because we have an exit strategy. (Trust us. We’re professional philosophers.) I’m going to assume you already sort of know your Descartes. I’m sketching effective, vivid ways to conjure up the background fairly briefly, while keeping up the teaching pace.
But that’s boring (you object)! Quite likely. What do you think of the new Vampire Weekend album, Contra? After a couple listens, I’m liking it less well than this Pitchfork reviewer. “Vampire Weekend’s second album starts with “Horchata”, ostensibly a punching bag for people who didn’t like their first one.” I loved the first album, and I cringed at “Horchata”, which seems like thin retread. But things pick up and up. I love the last track, “I Think Ur a Contra”, which has a surprisingly satisfactory Radiohead-y-ness. Not that sounding like Radiohead is automatically a good thing! It’s not a terribly original thing to do at this point. But, listening to that last track, I think an album of Radiohead/Vampire Weekend mash-ups would be tons of fun. The bands are so stylistically different, and the mood is poles apart, yet both vocalists work the high thin, sliding around thing.
Right, back to Descartes. I like to start my students out with a funny passage from the John Barth novel, The Sot-Weed Factor:
“Tell me, Eben: how is’t, d’you think, that the planets are moved in their courses?”
“Why, said Ebenezer, “’tis that the cosmos is filled with little particles moving in vortices, each of which centers on a star; and ‘tis the subtle push and pull of these particles in our solar vortex that slides the planets along their orbs – is’t not?”
“So saith Descartes,” Burlingame smiled. “And d’you haply recall what is the nature of light?”
“If I have’t right,” replied Ebenezer, “’tis an aspect of the vortices – of the press of inward and outward forces in ‘em. The celestial fire is sent through space from the vortices by this pressure, which imparts a transitional motion to little light globules – ”
“Which Renatus kindly hatched for that occasion,” Burlingame interrupted. “And what’s more he allows his globules both a rectilinear and a rotatary motion. If only the first occurs when the globules smite our retinae, we see white light; if both, we see color. And if this were not magical enough – mirabile dictu! – when the rotatory motion surpasseth the rectilinear, we see blue; when the reverse, we see red; and when the twain are equal, we see yellow. What fantastical drivel!”
“You mean ‘tis not the truth? I must say, Henry, it sounds reasonable to me. In sooth, there is a seed of poetry in it; it hath an elegance.”
“Aye, it hath every virtue and but one small defect, which is, that the universe doth not operate in that wise. Marry, ‘tis no crime, methinks, to teach the man’s skeptical philosophy or his analytical geometry—both have much of merit in ‘em. But his cosmology is purely fanciful, his optics right bizarre; and the first man to prove it is Isaac Newton.”
It’s funny because it’s true! and it gets at a standard way of viewing and teaching Descartes. Namely, the skeptical philosophy is the thing. And yet, rather famously, Descartes pooh-poohed his own philosophy’s skeptical start-point as ‘warmed over cabbage’ – nothing new, not all that interesting in itself, only good for what can be made by means of it. Which gets us to: the whole thing was a plot to get all that right bizarre optics and cosmology into the science curriculum, by displacing a lot of other right bizarre stuff.
From an oft-quoted letter to Mersenne:
I may tell you, between ourselves, that these six Meditations contain the entire foundations for my physics. But it is not necessary to say so, if you please, since that might make it harder for those who favor Aristotle to approve them. I hope that those who read them will gradually accustom themselves to my principles and recognize the truth of them before they notice that they destroy those of Aristotle. (AT III 297-298)
So tell your students this: the reason every philosophy student should read Descartes’ Meditations is that it is an attempt to trick you out of believing things that in fact would probably never occur to you (more on hylomorphism presently), by way of tricking you into believing things that, in fact, you should on no account believe. Because the universe doth not operate in that wise.
No, seriously. In fact, I think it makes a lot of sense to teach the skeptical philosophy as the core of Descartes’ philosophy – the stance from which Modern Philosophy flows, even. That’s not a completely wrong picture. When Descartes said skepticism was just old cabbage, he meant the purely negative and rather unsystematic stuff. His attempts to turn skepticism to systematic positive ends – his signature use-its-own-strength-against-it anti-skeptical judo Rationalism – are proper subjects of philosophical study. But: the Meditations are still rhetorically and structurally and argumentatively seriously off-kilter, because of that thing I just said: the point is to wean people off substantial forms, so they can start believing in vortices. It can be puzzling to the Youth of Today.
Option 1: get a copy of Russell’s Problems of Philosophy. Cross out the author’s name and title. Write Descartes’ Meditations instead. Teach. To a first approximation, give or take a few proofs of God, Russell gives you stock versions of the sorts of arguments often read into Descartes’ Meditations. (No one really liked those proofs of God anyway.)
Option 2: eliminate the worst of the incidental confusion in a few steps. The “First Meditation” is basically ok. (We’ll come back to it.) It’s in the “Second” that the trouble starts.
The Wax and the World
Let’s start with the physics we are secretly aiming to establish here. First, the SEP has a good article on the subject of Cartesian Physics. A bit more than the average undergraduate needs, however. Let’s just say:
Descartes thinks the universe is an infinitely extended, semi-fluid geometrical solid. It is infinitely divisible, there is no vacuum. The only forces at work (or play) are pushes (none of that spooky action-at-a-distance gravitational pulling.) Why infinitely divisible? Because any stopping point would be arbitrary. (Principle of sufficient reason at work here. No sufficient reason to stop at any point, ergo no stopping.) Why just pushes? Because anything else would be too weird. It is, allegedly, self-evident how it is the nature of extended stuff to exclude other stuff, and that’s what pushing is. (There are problems with this, but you get the idea. We are supposed to be able to understand, intellectually, why matter is capable of pushing. Any other sort of action would be mysterious.) Why no vacuum? Because space itself is the geometrical solid. On this view it isn’t as though the universe is a big coffee cup into which all this fluid has been poured. (Introduce relative vs. absolute theories of space. File away for future reference.) It is the essence of matter to be extended, according to Descartes. It follows that there cannot be an extended, non-material thing. But a true vacuum would contain no matter. Ergo, a true vacuum cannot have any extent. Ergo, there can be no vacuum. (Possibly a good point at which to make a few points about styles of philosophical argument with reference to David Lewis’ classic paper, “Holes”. But your tastes may vary.)
Speaking of coffee cups. Suppose you have a cup of black coffee, and you pour in a bit of cream. Don’t stir. Looking at it, the white stuff still has some cohesion and general togetherness. Call this blop of cream in your coffee ‘Fred’. Fred is, in a sense, a distinct entity in there – the still-white stuff. But, in another sense, the difference between Fred and the coffee is … well, fluid. There is really only One thing here: the liquid in my cup. Point being: Descartes thinks that really there is only One physical substance, the physical universe itself. We are all – our bodies – just so many Freds. Momentary cohesions in the semi-liquid overall flow. But not really distinct substances (to use a carefully loaded word.) File this thought away for later discussion when we get to Spinoza. Descartes talks about mind and body as though these categories are analogous. Minds and bodies. The mind-body problem. But really it ought to be the minds-body problem, strictly. Because Descartes believes in many minds but actually only one body. It really isn’t conceivable for more than one material substance to exist.
Now stir that coffee! (Bye, Fred) See: vortices! But that’s cheating. I’m moving my spoon in a circular way in a circular cup. Fair enough. But think about the fact (excuse me: seed of poetry) that there is no vacuum. A pushes B. B has to go somewhere. So it pushes C. Eventually what goes around comes around. Z slots in to that spot that A vacated. (After all, it’s not as though a vacuum can live there.) Let’s just ignore the logical possibility that in an infinite space things wouldn’t have to come around again, hmmm yes? This is actually a nice one to pose for the students. Suppose there is no vacuum. Why vortices? See if they think of the solution.
Interesting, in a screwy sort of false physics way. What does it have to do with the “Second Meditation” and beyond? The most direct connection comes with Descartes’ choice of the wax, as a paradigm physical object, at the end of that meditation. This is the case that is really supposed to clinch the whole ‘mind is better known than the body’ deal. The wax has a certain shape, scent, degree of solidity, so forth. It registers on all five senses, potentially, and is readily observable under highly optimal conditions. Paradigm, then, of a thing known by the senses. But now it is held to the fire, all its properties change. (Scent evaporates, now it is clear, liquid instead of solid.) All that remains, through the change, is just the abstract general consideration that here is an extended thing that can undergo these changes. We know it – the wax itself – endures through all these superficial changes. (If we only knew the wax through the senses, we would, presumably, think it was ceasing to exist and being replaced by something else as these changes occur.) Now: I’m not going to go through the details of this argument in any greater depth. It’s problematic. Every smart student objects as follows: it’s stupid to try to prove that ‘the mind is better known than the body’ let alone that ‘the wax is known by the mind alone’ in this way because, concerning any given lump of wax in the vicinity, I wouldn’t detect it to even try to understand it if I didn’t have sense organs. So surely Descartes shouldn’t make it sound as though pure reason is sufficient (even if he is even half-right that certain abstract powers of reason are necessary, to register identity through change.) And isn’t it sort of arbitrary and conceptually conventional what we regard as ‘the same’ wax, through time?
Like I said: lot of problems here. But here’s the thing: it makes more sense what Descartes is getting at if you cut through it like so: Descartes thinks the universe is just one big ball of wax – that is, a semi-fluid mass. The wax, in the “Second Meditation” is a stand-in for the world as Cartesian physics thinks it to be. I’m not going to say this fixes the argument, because we obviously shouldn’t accept Cartesian physics as true, let alone obvious (among other things.) But it does help concerning the obvious problem about how you actually need to detect the piece of wax in some sensory fashion (if if not in any one sensory fashion in particular). That doesn’t apply in quite the same way if it’s just a matter of knowing that there is a physical world at all. And you needn’t bother objecting that the essential identities of individual material bits, pieces of wax, are rather arbitrarily bounded things. Perhaps there’s a culture in which melting wax is said to cease to exist and be replaced by a different thing entirely. In this culture there is one word for the solid stuff and another for the melty stuff. Fine, quite possible. Yes. Ultimately, that’s Descartes’ own point (think about the status of Fred again).
Descartes could be a lot clearer about this. (If the point is to trick us into buying his physics, he might consider making arguments that don’t seem bizarre to anyone who doesn’t already believe in his physics.) Anyway, I recommend teaching the 2nd Med by teaching five minutes of ‘the world basically is a ball of wax, according to Descartes’ physics’.
One more thing, before we turn to the hylomorphic competition: why would you think the world is basically a big piece of (infinitely divisible) wax? There may be some just plain bad reasons, but, skipping any such, there is, we might say, the Winston Churchill argument: “be an optimist. There’s not much point being anything else.” Scientifically speaking, Descartes probably sort of felt it was geometry or nothing, reason-wise. Either it is possible to provide a rational account of the nature of physical world or not. If not, we’re screwed (scientifically speaking). If so, it will have to be basically consistent with the rationality of geometry. (It’s not as though we could have two separate rationalities, one that just works on paper, the other that works in the world.) And anything consistent with geometry will have to be, at bottom, geometry. So: the world is a geometrical solid differing from the paper geometry only in that it ‘exists’ (as Descartes puts it). All this is pretty bad and heading in the wrong direction, most certainly, but it’s at least interesting to think what’s going wrong. Why? For the one reason that Descartes himself gives in his discussion of why you should study history: namely, to broaden your horizons to include different ways of thinking than your own. (Boring truism about history, yes, but it’s the stock reason we really do want, in the present case.) What is this thing called ‘science’? It’s supposed to be better than (up from) myth and common sense and all that. But it’s also interesting to focus on how science turned out to be a lot less rational that thinkers like Descartes assumed it would have to, if it were to turn out to be science at all. Actual existing science is a serious step down from Descartes’ scientific dreams. It’s interesting that the best sort of reason is not the most Rational reason. Well, I’m not going to say any more than that in this post, because I’m concerned now with historical background.
Moving along, the wax-world point should be set beside a cartoon sketch of the hylomorphic alternative. Aristotelian views about substance and form and cause and all that. Descartes tends to be pretty approximate in his targeting of what he calls, dismissively, the vulgar-Scholastic philosophy. The Scholastic philosophy is just so many pretentious ramifications of the sort of unreflective confusion the man in the street suffers from.
I do not think that the diversity of the opinions of the Scholastics makes their philosophy difficult to refute. It is easy to overturn the foundations on which they all agree, and once that has been done all their disagreements over detail will seem foolish. (AT III 231-232).
I like to present the vulgar-Scholastic competition as a stupid-smart philosophy. First, present Aristotelianism as peculiarly stupid. (That is, why did Descartes think this was stupid.)
The Scholastic followers of Aristotle spent waaaay too much time wondering where the bread went, or at least failing to admit that their philosophy committed them to total mystification on this point (Descartes would say.) No, seriously. Please note how close the analogy is between Descartes’ Wax Argument and Calvin’s toast confusion. Namely, we don’t wonder where the bread went, even though its sensory properties have changes. Which just goes to show that we appreciate that what must be going on is that the toaster is somehow modifying the underlying microstructural material properties of the bread to make it into toast. It isn’t as though the toastiness is something slathered onto some x from outside, or the breadiness something hoovered out of the x and then, in some cunning manner, disposed of.
And the name for that thing that we are in fact to smart to believe in – the slathered-on/hoovered-out quality – is: substantial form, a.k.a. hylomorph, a.k.a. that thing the wisest Aristotelian heads are so sure explains stuff.
Were the Scholastics this dumb? Not hardly. We’ll get to that in part II. (More Than Meets The Eyes! Robots In Disguise!)
(I feel that this post is rather disorderly, and yet I wanted it to be fairly orderly. Besides Vampire Weekend. I’m sorry about that. I hope to do better with part II. But we’ll see whether people like this one, for starters.)