How To Teach Descartes’ Meditations: ‘Every Virtue and But One Small Defect’ edition, Part I – Wax and World

by John Holbo on January 13, 2010

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.)



Aaron Swartz 01.13.10 at 10:31 am

For the record: I thought it was superb and can’t wait for another.


Jim Livesey 01.13.10 at 10:57 am

I risk starting a philosophers vs intellectual historians food fight but I get stuck right at the point that we are supposed to teach Descartes as part of a set of objects called “modern philosophy” when we know he wasn’t in that set and we know that the set itself was created somewhere around 1800 so he couldn’t have been. Isn’t the problem the set? So to stay intellectually honest don’t you just have to take option 1 and teach Russell? There is an option 3: try to find the truth for which that text is being responsible (Cavell) which is likely to be radically historical (in a strong sense). I don’t think that position reduces to a land grab by folk in history and literature departments.


Jason Clay 01.13.10 at 11:25 am

Another possibility is to put him in an even larger context of Eastern philosophy. Instead of just seeing him as the father of modern philosophy understand how he diverged from Eastern philosophy:


Chris Bertram 01.13.10 at 11:41 am

_we know that the set itself was created somewhere around 1800 so he couldn’t have been._

Why does that follow?


Chris Bertram 01.13.10 at 11:42 am

Or rather, he could _be_ a member of the set, even it he predated its creation.


Jim Livesey 01.13.10 at 11:58 am

Wouldn’t there be something really odd about the ontology of sets of things made by humans before the humans get around to making them? I could imagine organising a set of texts that make up modern philosophy in 1800 and including the Meditations, no problem there, but asserting that the Meditations had been part of the set before I created it seems to me to raise all sorts of insoluble problems. So teaching a course on modern philosophy and arguing that we now find it useful to use the Meditations to illustrate a feature of what we now find important is unproblematic, but using that criterion as an historical hermeneutic would be unwise.


Hidari 01.13.10 at 12:25 pm

I understand what’s being said here (well some of it….my eyes sort of glazed over when reading about some of the more recondite aspects of Descartes’ physics) but surely this whole post is about a non-problem?

The key issue here, is that ‘we’ teach Descartes as a Modern, but, of course, he wasn’t really modern (at least, not in the sense that ‘we’ are modern, apparently). But so what? Why is this a problem?

The key issue here, surely is that our whole concept of modernity was thought up in the 17th (and much more so) 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. And what was the key aspect of these centuries (at least in Europe)? Constant, radical, revolutionary, quantitative change. Wars, revolutions, the overthrow of the Ancient Regimes. The English Civil War, the Fronde, the 30 years war, and then, slightly later, 1783, 1789, 1848, 1917, 1945, 1989…..radical fundamental changes in the socio-political make up of large geographical areas (countries, sometimes whole continents).

And this predisposed us to seeing History in a certain way. Where, ‘we’ ask, are the breaks, the ruptures, the revolutions? What was the decade or year or day when the world changed? When was the old cast aside? When was the new born?

But since 1989, in the so-called Anglosphere at least (Europe, the North American landmass, Australasia), it is becoming increasingly clear that seismic political events like 1917 and 1945 and 1989 are becoming increasingly implausible. Indeed, in the US and Australia and Western Europe they are now more or less unthinkable.

And surely this should lead us to look at History in a different way, to look at what Braudel called the Longue Durée, at qualitative changes that occur over years or decades or centuries or millenia. To look at continuities rather than ruptures, and the extent to which it is always, at least to a certain extent ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ in any given ‘revolutionary’ situation.

This has the great advantage of undercutting various dichotomies, and showing some research questions to be meaningless. Bruno Latour has brought a lot of criticism down on himself for his ‘sociology of science’. But in questioning the idea of a radical fundamental break between ‘premodernity’ and ‘modernity’ (in ‘We Have Never Been Modern’) he is surely correct. No such break exists, either in philosophy or in science.

So: to repeat, what is the problem here? Why not begin by pointing out that philosophy has never been modern and never could be (well unless you want to go back to the pre-Socratics) because philosophers always draw on their immediate intellectual ancestors and invariably take over certain assumptions that ‘we’ find weird but which were simply taken for granted at the time? Surely what we see when we look at Descartes is that there is slow qualitative change in the kind of philosophy that gets done, but no radical break or rupture? Also: that ‘starting points’ (unless, as I say, unless you really want to be hardcore about it and go back to Thales) are invariably arbitrary and culturally specific (i.e. specific to our culture).

So surely the solution to your problem is, as ever, historicism and contextualism? To explain what Descartes thought he was doing, and why he thought it was important, and why he was (of course) a man of his time, who shared cultural assumptions with other men of his time that only ‘we’ think look weird (although of course ‘we’ have cultural assumptions that will strike 25th century philosophers as being equally weird).


Hidari 01.13.10 at 12:35 pm

And before anyone asks, I would absolutely attempt to historicize and contextualize other so-called ruptures and revolutions, like, for example, the so-called Scientific Revolution (especially given what we now know about, e.g. Newton). Indeed this post makes the point for me. Descartes was one of the key thinkers of this so-called Revolution, and yet, as John points out, Descartes was not Modern in the sense that, apparently, ‘we’ are Modern*. So…where’s the Revolution?

*Although, of course, in the 25th century, when people look back, what will strike them of course is all the apparently (to their eyes) pre-modern assumptions thatwe are making right now, because people in the 25th century will consider themselves to be modern, and us to be ‘pre-modern’ or maybe quasimodern or half modern or……and then of course to people in the 30th century looking back at the people in the 25th century…..and so it goes on.


Praisegod Barebones 01.13.10 at 12:40 pm

a) I give up: where does the bread go? Don’t keep me in suspense, I need to start on Locke in 2 weeks time.

b) I reckon it makes more sense to talk about ‘Modern philosophy’ as a narrative than as a set. I think it makes sense to say that it’s a narrative that only got explicitly articulated in 1800, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t in some sense there before it got articulated.

(why say ‘a narrative which got articulated in 1800′? well, I guess to make the point that there was probably a certain amount of contingency in that particular narrative getting articulated now, and to raise the possibility that 1) its not the only narrative that could have been articulated and 2) its not *necessarily* the best narrative to articulate now without havıng to say: ‘Descartes wasn’t a modern philosopher’)


John Holbo 01.13.10 at 12:41 pm

“The key issue here, is that ‘we’ teach Descartes as a Modern, but, of course, he wasn’t really modern (at least, not in the sense that ‘we’ are modern, apparently). But so what? Why is this a problem?”

Well, it’s not a total non-problem. It’s – I hope the post makes this clear – sort of a pedagogical thing to think about, in a certain sort of intro philosophy course. We are teaching philosophers as doing a certain sort of thing when they didn’t see themselves as doing that thing. I agree with you, Hidari, that it doesn’t follow that we are wrong to impose this framework. I disagree with Jim Livesey about that. But it does make these texts more challenging in ways that philosophy teachers themselves don’t always see as clearly as they might.

“So surely the solution to your problem is, as ever, historicism and contextualism?”

Yes, but, then again, no. It is on the assumption that really all that matters is getting the history right (as opposed to, say, salvaging live philosophical issues/ideas/arguments). Which is a possible assumption, but not one I, personally, would be willing to make in this case.

The Latour point? I dunno whether I agree. I mean I agree with the obvious point that there is no sharp divide. But I don’t agree with the controversial point that the divide cannot be marked at all, even in a rough way. (Does Latour really deny this?)

In general, responding both to Hidari and Livesey: I don’t have a problem with your proposal for ‘more historicism’ but I wonder whether it is really sufficient.


john c. halasz 01.13.10 at 1:13 pm


There may in fact be no starting-point for the modern and thus in a sense “modern” doesn’t exist. But the assumption of a (new) starting-point is what characterizes the “modern”, so that the modern must be mistaken about its own existence. Which is why (ergo) it exists.


Michel Ney 01.13.10 at 1:17 pm

Excellent post. I’ve been reading CT for around 3 years and never commented before. I haven’t studied much Descartes since my undergraduate years but this made a lot of sense to me.


Robert 01.13.10 at 1:22 pm

Excellent post. Makes me think that philosophers should really leave the ‘history’ part of the history of philosophy to historians. And if history is all there is to the history of philosophy, then send it all to historians. It”s too hard just to do philosophy all by itself.


Hidari 01.13.10 at 1:25 pm

‘The Latour point? I dunno whether I agree. I mean I agree with the obvious point that there is no sharp divide. But I don’t agree with the controversial point that the divide cannot be marked at all, even in a rough way. (Does Latour really deny this?)’

Well for me the problem with posing even a rough divide is that the question is invariably framed: ‘we’ are modern and ‘they’ are not. But you then have to ask: well, who are ‘we’? Clearly by ‘we’ ‘we’ do not mean ‘every human being on the Planet Earth in the year 2010′. Huge swathes of Mankind still live in a world of witchcraft, animism, polytheism, magic, astrology and so on, although, of course these beliefs themselves have a history (there is no such thing as a ‘stone age tribe’): they are 21st century versions of these beliefs, not in any sense ‘living fossils’ of what people used to believe in 5000BC.

So then you have to make highly questionable divisions: ‘well, obviously, the Dogon, and the Afar and some native American tribes….well they’re not modern, but ‘we’ are’. Apart from the fact that ethnocentrism and racism now rears its ugly head, we are still left with the problem of ‘who are “we”‘? Americans? Is the United States now the paradigm of Modernity? But the USA is one of the most religious countries on earth. Moreover, Americans, more than most, have a propensity towards bizarre belief systems (although to repeat these beliefs are not atavistic per se, but instead depend on 21st century technologies and science e.g. the internet).

The problem is that the idea of some fundamental difference between pre and post modernity is an intuition that seems extremely appealing but is very hard to give some kind of logical form to. Clearly the world is very different now to the way it was in the 15th century, but then again, it was very different in the 15th century to the way it was in the 10th, as well. We have more technology than people in the 15th century, but how do we know that process will continue indefinitely? (Perhaps Global Warming will put an end to technological progress, and the world in the year 2200 will be far ‘less’ technologically developed than ‘our own’). So where is the arrow of progress then? Moreover, populations tend to grow and become more ‘advanced’ over time (ecological factors permitting) so…again, so what? Perhaps ‘our’ civilisation, rather than having made some kind of breakthrough into ‘Modernity’ is just like the Easter Island culture or whatever: a culture that made some advances before destroying its own ecology and then collapsing.

Finally: I have no problems with ‘mining’ Descartes for what seems in his work to still be ‘live’ as long as one goes on to accept that what seems still relevant to contemporary philosophy itself has a socio-cultural background: a context. It’s not enough to historicise Descartes: we have to historicise ourselves.


Tim Wilkinson 01.13.10 at 1:52 pm

a healthy anti-historicist impulse kicks in

Huzzah! Being less careful than Jim Livesy @2, I’d say, not-that-glibly: in the philosophy department, teach philosophy. More stylised: Great minds, ab homine, stuff just feeds into a disciple mindset and gets you people who argue by insistently shouting ‘Quine!’ (or whatever – no particular problem with Quine*).

So on the problem of the membership conditions (essence) of the (ontically if not epistemically timeless, kinda-pace-ChrisB) set: Modern philosophy = post-scholastic phil. Descartes may still be pretty scholastic-y, but also definitely post. You (by which I mean ‘I’, of course) might even say ‘rationalist’ = ‘still containing quite a dose of scholasticism’.

*Except that his sorites move seems to have created a situation in which no-one is allowed to say ‘by definition’ ever again, no matter how clearly appropriate it may be to do so – but that’s not his fault I don’t think. Probably better than insisting everything is a matter of definition which would be just as viable an interpretation on the face of it.


engels 01.13.10 at 2:00 pm

Jim, correct me if I’m wrong but you appear to be arguing that there can’t have been any dinosaurs in the Jurassic period because the word ‘dinosaur’ wasn’t even used until the nineteenth century…


engels 01.13.10 at 2:18 pm

Sorry, I was excessively glib and missed your follow up reference to ‘objects made by humans’. Still, absent further explanation the insoluble problems with calling Descartes a modern philosopher even though he didn’t see himself as one aren’t obvious to me.


Jim Livesey 01.13.10 at 2:26 pm

Well had humans made dinosaurs possibly, but unless genetic modification has got further than I thought it had (not to mention time travel) I’m pretty sure that I’m not saying that.
By the way I should have said earlier that once I got over my categorical problem about “modern philosophy” I thought the actual pedagogy was great. I can see how the rabbit out of the hat (or rather the toast out of the toaster) would wake up that clever but slightly dozy student in the back row but one.


Tim Wilkinson 01.13.10 at 2:29 pm

engels @16 – no, you were about right – the objects are meant to be the sets. I suppose the thing is whether being a Modern Philosopher entails conceiving oneself to be one, in the appropriate sense. I don’t see why it should. (Ancient Greek philosophers? That though is a bit glib.)


Tim Wilkinson 01.13.10 at 2:32 pm

oh – comment cross-over. Jim @18 – my second sentence above would be the one then (though it did read as though you meant the sets were the human-ceated objects, to me anyway).


Jim Livesey 01.13.10 at 2:35 pm

And now I’m typing too slowly and missing parts of the conversation. To Tim though. For the purposes of getting on and doing philosophy I’m sure that is fine, but the danger is of missing what is philosophically interesting in the work we recognise as being written in the register of philosophy between Descartes and Kant by allowing Kant’s interpretation to determine the meaning of all texts in the intervening (aka modern rationalist/sceptical philosophy). The joy of teaching Descartes via natural philosophy is that allows the work to escape a narrow historicism.


Z 01.13.10 at 2:37 pm

“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.”

To quote an admirable rhetorician: “Yes, but then again, no.” I’ve always felt that a good way to make philosophical problems interesting is to challenge the author but also have him challenge you back. What is there beyond the four principles of the Discours de la méthode (I believe there is something non-trivial, but specifying it is a non-trivial philosophical exercise)? Sure, Descartes had a faulty cosmology, but was that because he was too cartesian, or not enough (one could argue with insight that his fault was to assume that the cosmological world had to abide to euclidean geometry)? Same for the mind/body problem. How can we explain the apparent infinite degree of freedom we have in our intellectual endeavours with the necessary finite means of a material body (I won’t quote any scholarly work on this question lest the thread explodes, but you get the picture)?

As for the historical context, I have but one quote to offer.

“One last warning about this exposition. There are two different modes of reading old texts: one, to understand the time and ethnos they were written in; another-to shed some light on the values and prejudices of our time.” (Y. Manin)

Anyway, keep the posts coming.


Adam Roberts 01.13.10 at 2:44 pm

I thought this was really excellent, especially the Vampire Weeekend stuff. My only niggle is on Descartes and vacuum. That Descartes has objections to the principle of ‘vacuum’ doesn’t strike me as so wrongheaded (or so incompatible with modern physics) as you say. It depends upon what we take him as meaning by ‘vacuum’, doesn’t it? — his thoughts on this weren’t the result of experiments with an air-pump or anything like that, after all. So, to continue the nicely judged pedagogic tone, we might say: here’s a ball of wax, on the table. Take it away, and what’s left? (what takes the ball’s place on the table?) Air, obviously. So what happens if we take away the air, and prevent more air from coming in? Vacuum, we say. Aha (Descartes, might say) but what happens if we take the vacuum away? We might say that the fact that we’re using ‘vacuum’ as a shorthand for ‘nothing solid, liquid or gaseous’ doesn’t mean there’s nothing there … there is ‘something’ there, something elastic called (let’s say) ‘spacetime’, the ‘thing’ that means that the vacuum separating the moon and the earth doesn’t mean that the moon and the earth are actually banging into one another all the time. So Descartes’ question would actually be: ‘what happens if you take space and time away?’ And his answer — nothing, it can’t be done — isn’t that far away from what contemporary science says (that black-box answer, ‘a singularity’).


engels 01.13.10 at 2:44 pm

It seems to me there are two types of predicates that apply to people. One where in order for the predicate to apply, the subject has to be consciously aware of it. Perhaps it’s not possible for someone to be playing chess unless he knows that that is what he is doing (even if he wouldn’t necessarily call it ‘chess’). But equally there seem to be other predicates where this isn’t true, eg. having a manic episode. Is being ‘modern’ or a ‘modern philosopher’ like the first kind rather than the second? I don’t see why it must be but I’m open to persuasion.


Tim Wilkinson 01.13.10 at 2:51 pm

Jim @20 fair ’nuff – but that’s why (given there is a course to be taught called Modern), I’d just start with saying Modern means post-scholastic (in a fairly ordinary sense of ‘post’ – historically connected but not part of, and later than) and then read the stuff, using, I suppose, state of the art interpretative methods. Any trends, commonalities of purpose etc can be noted as much as seems worth doing.


Adam 01.13.10 at 6:52 pm

Did you know about this reggae Radiohead thing Radiodread? It’s much, much more interesting than I thought it would be. Here’s “Paranoid Android”.


David 01.13.10 at 7:20 pm

Well, everyone should read The Sotweed Factor .


y81 01.13.10 at 10:07 pm

That’s very clever, a post about HYLOmorphism in a blog called Crooked TIMBER.


Geoffrey 01.13.10 at 10:44 pm

I hate coming in late on a conversation . . .

As a graduate student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America a decade and a half ago, I took a seminar on Newton’s Principia, and was astounded when one of the students, who certainly knew his Aristotle by heart, took issue with a brief discussion Newton offers of infinitesimals. While that particular point isn’t fleshed out fully in the text in question, it is a necessary part of modern mathematics. The point the seminar student seemed to have an issue with was that since Aristotle “proved” that an infinite regress, indeed any real infinite set, is impossible, that invalidates Newton’s entire point, and the work in general.

I raised the not-unimportant point (at least to me) that Aristotle was wrong. The other student acted as if I had pissed on a crucifix while praying to Satan. His seminar paper was entitled “To Infinity And Beyond” (Toy Story was released earlier that year), in which he set out to prove that Newton was just wrong wrong wrong because Aristotle said something different.

It was at that point that I realized I may have made a bad choice of graduate schools.


engels 01.13.10 at 10:45 pm

Vampire Weekend suck btw.


Tom Smith 01.13.10 at 11:56 pm

“I feel that this post is rather disorderly”

yes – but – this is Exactly the Sort Of Thing that I read CT for: abundant ideas in small mouthfuls. Really, as AS said, superb.


Greg 01.13.10 at 11:59 pm

Vaguely germane — if I may cut myself with this club– vaguely germane to the post, and to comments 6 et al, is Thomas Kuhn’s comment on Copernicus. Paraphrased from memory (I have a sprained foot, and am too pain-averse to go and hunt out the book*), it runs ‘to ask whether Copernicus was the first modern astronomer or the last of the old tradition makes as much sense as to ask whether a bend in the road belongs to the section behind it, or the section before it.’

* No, not TSoSR. His better book, The Copernican Revolution. Almost “paradigm”-free.


john c. halasz 01.14.10 at 1:37 am

Leaving aside the issue that any periodization involves a performative/retrospective stance, isn’t the dichotomy medieval/modern here, er, overly broad? Wouldn’t Renaissance/early Baroque be a tighter fit?

A take on Descartes. The Renaissance amounted to an enormous dislocation/disintegration of traditional medieval hierarchies, (as rationalized/represented quasi-officially in Scholasticism, with the nominalist challenge being aligned politically with the rising absolutist monarchies), resulting in a vast proliferation of discourses, whether “rational” or not, Protestant and other heresies, unmoored medieval allegorizations, revived classical humanism, Neo-Platonic mysticism, humanist Aristotelianism, odd hybrid heresies like Bruno, alchemy, hermetic magic, etc. The appeal to the certainty of the cogito amounted to a strategy of establishing an island of security and stability against the hyper-ambiguity threatening any idea of “the truth”. Even the reductive account of the physical world, as the flip side of formalist intellectualism, amounts to a minimalist appeal to at least something being “certain”, (though the Jesuit Descartes was keen to make sure it would be acceptable to the RC Church, if the Gallican branch). In other words, one shouldn’t underestimate the underlying angst being repressed by Cartesian “certainty”, whether that angst is distinctly “unmodern” or not. (Analogously, Toulmin claims that Descartes nowhere mentions the upheavals of the Thirty Years War, even though he was a direct military participant in it.)


El Cid 01.14.10 at 2:41 am

It’s neat that you use terminology about the x that started the y, because in a different usage, didn’t Descartes launch the use of x-y coordinates leading to all those branches of mathematics depending on x-y (etc) mapping?


John Holbo 01.14.10 at 3:36 am

john halasz, this makes sense in the abstract as a hypothesis about why Cartesian Certainty was so attractive. But I don’t think it survives contact with the relevant primary texts. (Your reading make post Thirty Years War culture vaguely analogous to post W.W. I culture, and you are hypothesizing the roots of Modern Philosophy as analogous to the crisis of Modernism – fraught terms, yes of course. This is plausible in the abstract, but I just don’t think it turns out to be the case.)

Descartes just doesn’t seem to be concerned about riding herd on any vast proliferation of discourses. He betrays no sense of a hyper-ambiguous threat to ‘the Truth’, such as you sketch, although he is annoyed by those he regards as intellectual charlatans. But he doesn’t interpret them as symptoms of cultural crisis, in the sense you suggest. At most they are symptoms of ossified orthodoxy. I guess you can interpret his total failure to exhibit any interest in these sorts of issues – e.g. no talk about the Thirty Years War – as a symptom of deep repression. But it seems to me more reasonable to interpret it as a sign that he doesn’t see things the way you think he might.

To put it another way: I think you are sketching a Descartes who would be, in many ways, more interesting than the one we’ve actually got. Philosophers like to read Descartes as a kind of intellectual weather-vane of the modern (which may or may not be a good idea, I admit). It might be nice if he could be read as a weather-vane of all the social-cultural crisis factors you mention – which are, to be sure, very real. I just don’t think it actually works out, reading him that way.


Salient 01.14.10 at 4:17 am

Adam, I’ll see your Radiodread and raise you the most appropriately inappropriate cover of No Surprises you will ever bear witness to. (That’s a little cryptic, but saying any more would ruin the surprise…)


Roger Mexico 01.14.10 at 4:46 am

Great post, John. A thought, though. I wonder if our modern, didactic Descartes — the Descartes of skepticism-turned-certainty — is really so different from the Descartes of vortices and questionable physics. Certainly, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Descartes’ contemporaries were as fascinated by the skepticism-dogma two-step as we moderns. If I’m remembering right, Father Bourdin’s objections to the Meditations are all about Descartes’ corrosive doubt, and Gassendi and Mersenne were similarly interested in just how far Descartes’ seeming Pyrrhonism extended.

So: there were people out there who were happy to divorce the “modern” skepticism from the wacky 17C physics, despite Descartes’ intentions. Now, I understand that what you’re trying to do here is draw attention to the fact that Descartes’ intentions were important, that you really need to think about those vortices if you want your ball of wax. But then again sometimes intentions are one thing, and history is something else.


john c. halasz 01.14.10 at 7:53 am


Ya, it’s been admittedly a billion years since I directly read any Descartes, but…

It might be legitimate to read such texts, not just in isolation and in terms of divined intentions, but, as well as, in context and against an historical background, “symptomatically”, even if that’s not to your taste, (and such an approach wouldn’t be for “newbies”). It’s not just what a text asserts, but also what those assertions are implicitly reacting against and possibly repressing that gives it specific sense. If one considers Montaigne as an immediate antecedent, then clearly his tolerant “Pyrrhonian” skepticism was a response to both the “novelties” and the turmoil of the times (the French Civil War), though Descartes is a different, colder species of fish, much more placid and stolid. What’s at issue is not so much “certainty”, but the arrival at it through the reduction of a “radical” hyperbolic doubt. What exactly is the appeal, “currency”, of that? (And if it is not pro forma, but an actual experience, then such doubt is an existential state, akin to anxiety). That is what Vico was to respond to, as rendering impossible practical reason and the sensus communis, and Hume too in leaving his study in a panic, (though he, too, then performed a Cajun two-step). What does such doubt have to do with “physics”, as if that were the only issue? And then again there is its counterpart in the ontological proof through the idea of infinity,- (which notion all the Baroque Enlightenment philosophers were obsessed with handling, in a distinctly unmodern way, though perhaps it was only with Kant that the polarity was reversed into an obsession with finitude),- with its odd order of “proof” from the indubitable/embattled cogito to the divine guarantee of innate and “clear and distinct” ideas to, only then, a guarantee of veridical knowledge of the external world, though that is perhaps a matter for Part 2. Is that “physics”?

It’s worth remembering that “Epicurianism”, i.e. atomism, was regarded as heretical, virtually atheism,- (much as “Spinozism” was later to be deployed),- so Descartes had to have been clearly aware of negotiating some dangers, even as he adapted Loyola to quite different aims. The retrospective modern illusion is to regard Descartes’ writings as some sort of homogenous completely accomplished program, when really it was much more incipient, sketchy, and meager in its “results” than that. But Descartes was clearly involved in attempting to lay claim to a new (mode of) authority, even as he attempted to assimilate it to,- (disguise it as?),- the old prevailing authority. And though, yes, “physics” as natural philosophy was one of his pre-occupying concerns, it’s neither a self-evident matter, (as to why such an approach to the “book of nature”, so “full” of signs and correspondences, should recommend itself), nor is it clearly separable from the rest. The notion of distinctly marked domains, with their separate concerns, is in fact a modern, specifically post-Kantian, conception. So the issue is less the appeal or “force” of certainty than the appeal to the “force” of doubt, as a trump card, and why such a strategy might have sought to be convincing.


john c. halasz 01.14.10 at 7:54 am

Er, @35.


Hidari 01.14.10 at 10:58 am

‘The Renaissance amounted to an enormous dislocation/disintegration of traditional medieval hierarchies….’

I think it’s worth pointing out, yet again (I’m hardly the first one to point this out) that the Renaissance did not really happen, at least in the sense ‘we’ like to think it happened. To begin with (and this is not a trivial point) the word Renaissance was never used by the ‘original’ thinkers writers and painters of this period. It was first used by Vasari, but did not come into popular usage until the 19th century: a very strange time lapse if, as we are told, it represented a self-conscious ‘break’ with the so-called ‘middle ages’. *

It’s true that some parts of Europe had a bad 13th and 14th centuries (the Black Death, ecological problems, the various peasant revolts etc.) but all that this might mean is that the ‘renaissance’ of the 12th and 13th centuries (assuming one believes in that) had a hiccup which, possibly, then continued after this interregnum. Likewise other stuff happened (the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire…the so-called ‘Byzantium’: which led to many neo-Platonic texts being introduced to ‘Western’ Europe for the first time) but….stuff like that was happening all the time. What impact the reintroduction of neo-Platonism into intellectual circles had on the lives of ordinary people is anyone’s guess but I would imagine ‘not much’ would be a reasonable guess.

Yet again, we are playing the game of imagining there was some period that was ‘ancient’, ‘pre-modern’ the ‘past’, and that we are now ‘over’ or ‘after’ a period of rupture and into something else: ‘modernity’ or whatever. Many historians dispute this and for good reasons.

*The fantastically patronising phrase ‘middle ages’, implying that the sole purpose of 5 centuries was to get us from the even more patronisingly named ‘dark ages’** to the ‘renaissance’, has been ditched by most modern historians, and, yet again, for good reasons. The medaeval period, as it should be better known as, was not ‘static’. Nor was it ‘pre-scientific’ (whatever that means). Of course, only in Europe was it in any way a ‘backwards’ time. Africa, South America, China and the Muslim world had their Golden Ages of scientific and philosophical achievement in the years 500AD to 1500 AD.

**Another phrase that is rarely used nowadays by serious historians.


Hidari 01.14.10 at 11:48 am

Note: the first footnote (asterisk) in the main text, marked ‘so-called middle ages’, begins ‘The fantastically patronising phrase ‘middle ages…’ which is now in bold for some reason. I forgot to asterisk it.


Tim Wilkinson 01.14.10 at 12:25 pm

Humdrum but possibly helpful: sandwiching a section of text between asterisks is interpreted by the server as an instruction to make the text bold (unless the section starts or ends with whitespace). Likewise “_” means italics, “-” strikethrough, and I think “^” raised text (that’s the case if ^this is raised^).


Tim Wilkinson 01.14.10 at 12:28 pm

Well “^” evidently is raised text: it’s probably clear enough what happened there. OK, back to the broad sweep of history


kid bitzer 01.14.10 at 2:42 pm

“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”

you have in mind what evidence for this? which scholastics, which texts?

i mean–wouldn’t a standard scholastic analysis say that ‘bread’ is a substance-term, ‘toasted’ is an accident term, and ‘toast’ is merely a verbal variant for ‘toasted bread’? (i mean, this is no more tricky than “musician” = “musical man”, which is aristotle’s favorite example of substance + accident).

so we have an enduring subject, sc. the bread, which gains an accident, sc. having been toasted (perhaps itself a portmanteau for accretions of color, changes of taste, degree of coction, more accidents).

what is here that raises any problems for substantial forms? and why do you think that “modifying the underlying microstructural material properties of the bread” is an answer unavailable to scholastics?

i just don’t see why this would pose your average pre-cartesian graduate of la fleche or port royal any problems whatsoever.

fun lecture, by the way. you’ll have to report back on how the students received it.


John Holbo 01.14.10 at 3:38 pm

“you have in mind what evidence for this? which scholastics, which texts?”

None. Not exactly. This is the stupid version of Aristotle which no Aristotelian actually holds. As I say in the post, Descartes is a bit careless about this, slopping over distinctions along the ‘vulgar-Scholastic’ range. (An insult already to any scholar, obviously.) He doesn’t sharply distinguish between the way the man on the street thinks and the way Aristotelian philosophers think. He doesn’t even really distinguish between the way children think and the way Aristotelian philosophers think. The latter is just a fancified but fundamentally unimproved version of the former. (Insulting, but that’s Descartes.)

As to toasted bread, of course the Aristotelian would have a story to tell, but Descartes would say: look, it’s not plausible that bread is really a fundamental substance term. And then we are down to some x for our substance. And then how the substantial forms get ‘in’ and ‘out’ really ought to be mysterious, even if the scholars try to make it out as making total sense. Also, yes obvious Aristotelians will be aware that things have substructures and that this explains what they do. But (so the argument goes) this awareness just doesn’t sit comfortably with their own philosophy. So it really ought to be a source of nothing but vague bad intellectual conscience about the inadequacy of ‘substantial forms’ as explanations.

What I want to say is that the Cartesian critique is fundamentally unjust in certain ways, but it IS fair to say that it’s ultimately rather mysterious what a ‘substantial form’ is supposed to be. So there is a (limited) fairness to portraying them as inordinately silly things, thereby provoking the Aristotelian to present something less silly that will fit the bill. What I am more concerned to do on behalf of the Aristotelian is emphasize that the idea of different sorts of cause – different sorts of explanation, not all reducible to the sorts of explanation/cause Descartes wants – is fundamentally sound.

To put it another way, there’s sort of an asymmetry between Descartes’ physics and Aristotelian metaphysics, for pedagogic purposes, explaining the Meditations. The somewhat arcane details of the physics matters, not because it is better than Aristotelian metaphysics, but because Descartes pretty clearly has certain details in mind. By contrast, you just don’t need to bring in the scholastic Aristotelian details in – a relatively broad sweep will do. Descartes just doesn’t think he needs to care about the details, so bringing them in will make things extra confusing, without helping you get Descartes. You don’t even need to be fair. It’s clearer to be unfair – Descartes is – then tell the students that you are traducing Aristotle for educational, Cartesian purposes.

But it IS important – this can get tricky – to make clear why D. thinks this basically weird, arcane Aristotelian metaphysics is also a perfectly ordinary, intuitive man-on-the-street picture, just fancified up. I’ll try to write that follow-up tomorrow, if I can.


kid bitzer 01.14.10 at 4:42 pm

i have no general objection to unfairness or cheap shots against figure a when teaching figure d–all’s fair in love and pedagogy is my motto, and the only question is whether it works in the classroom.

that said, your response on the bread example is, “sure, this objection to the aristotelians falls on its face, but doubtless it could be replaced by some other objection, employing some other substance, that *would* make descartes’ point for him.”

okay, so find it. i’m not denying it’s out there. i just don’t see why it would not be better teaching on all fronts to use an example that really pins the aristotelians’ ears to the wall rather than one that doesn’t even come close to touching them.

why not? because it doesn’t have a ready-made cartoon attached to it? so re-draw the cartoon–you’re an artist.

furthermore, are you sure that your objection to aristotelian forms getting in and out is the same as descartes’? notice that your objection has nothing to do with their being *substantial* forms–if you find it mysterious how it gets to be bread, you should find it equally mysterious how it gets to be brown. (“the brownness isn’t slathered on, nor the whiteness hoovered out, etc.”) this is a general objection to aristotelian forms of all sorts, substantial and accidental.

but for some reason, descartes thinks that the real problem lies in *substantial* forms–that’s what he keeps banging away at. and that suggests to me that his real objection is not the one that you are making. (i don’t know what his real objection is, exactly. but he was himself a sufficiently paid-up aristotelian that he would not say “substantial” if he just meant “forms in general”. and contemporary reconstructions of d’s thinking here never seem to respect that distinction.)


Henry (not the famous one) 01.14.10 at 6:29 pm

Descartes supposedly said:

On ne saurait rien imaginer de si étrange et de si peu croyable, qu’il n’ait été dit par quelqu’un des philosophes. [One cannot conceive of anything so strange and so implausible that it has not already been said by one philosopher or another.]

But if he did, he stole that from Marcus Terentius Varro, who wrote:

Postremo nemo aegrotus quidquam somniat tam infandum, quod non aliquis dicat philosophus. [In short, no sick man has ever dreamed of anything so absurd that one or another philosopher has not said it.]


JoB 01.14.10 at 7:07 pm

Both were wrong.


bianca steele 01.14.10 at 7:43 pm

I’ll be the first to admit I’m looking at this from the wrong, non philosophy department perspective, and I’ll be interested to see what you have to say in your next post.

But when I think about what you wrote, I think I see two (2) things that make me doubtful about it:

1) Descartes simply got the scholastics entirely wrong. Is this plausible, when he learned from the best of them at first hand?

2) Descartes doesn’t distinguish between what preceding philosophers, the man on the street, and children believe. Those people, however, don’t believe in substantial forms. First of all, I doubt they believe in eternal, unchanging forms in the first place. But they certainly don’t believe in the existence of things they can’t see, are different from what they do see, underlying what is real to them. And they probably don’t believe they ought to compare their ideas about things to the truth embodied in the forms either.

The point of thinking philosophically appears to be to enlighten someone who has never thought of these things before–the way Socrates enlightens his interlocutors. Descartes is certainly not addressing people who have never thought of these things before, rather people who have gone to a lot of trouble to learn a theory similar to his already.

So, what this adds up to, it seems, is Historicize!


bianca steele 01.14.10 at 8:46 pm

Also, though this is probably obvious, (3) What Descartes did is so different from what Kant and his contemporaries did that you can’t even give them the same name–as if Descartes had been so wrongheaded that the 18th c moderns had to come along and turn everything back into philosophy–Descartes providing the errors they had to correct rather than the first steps in their own work. I’m unsuccessfully trying to think of anyone I studied in history of philosophy who could conceivably have thought this. This seems to detach Kant from the history of philosophy entirely.


John Holbo 01.15.10 at 12:17 am

kid bitzer, I think you are right that Descartes’ objection is to substantial and accidental forms equally, so really – even being as sloppy as I am – I shouldn’t limit myself to ‘substantial forms’. I’ll try to make the follow-up clear on all this.

bianca, I’m really not sure why you think what Kant and his contemporaries did that you can’t even give them the same name. Please explain. Maybe part of it is that I’m saying Descartes was a bit surprisingly narrow in his focus on founding mathematical physics. But there still is stuff about other stuff in the Meditations. Skepticism. Mind and body. Reason and knowledge. It seems a bit of a stretch to say there is no way to connect all that to Kant, so what are you thinking?


bianca steele 01.15.10 at 1:27 am

John Holbo @ 51
Saying Descartes and Kant shouldn’t be given the same name (that’s what I meant, not Kant and his own contemporaries) was more in response to the other commenters, probably, than anything you said. But I suppose it is possible to see a line from Descartes and Bacon to, say, Hume–working out what you can learn about epistemology without making assumptions and especially without relying on Plato and Aristotle’s Theory of Forms–and then to see a fairly radical break between Hume and Kant (radical to the point of discrediting Hume and the whole line, perhaps even inaugurating something entirely new that evades all the criticism that might be directed at them from a scholastic direction, and replaces both). As opposed to seeing Kant largely doing more of the same kind of thing as them, working out how to do epistemology and explore traditional philosophical problems without doing metaphysics in the Platonic/Aristotelian way.


bianca steele 01.15.10 at 1:29 am

Or as opposed to something like Bacon:Hume::Descartes:Kant.


John Holbo 01.15.10 at 1:51 am

bianca, I think the standard (potted) line is that Kant really is doing something quite new. That is, he draws a curtain on the whole Descartes to Hume line. He’s new in the way Descartes is new. Which is to say, when you examine him he’s not so new after all. Kant still thinks like the thinkers he’s trying fundamentally to go beyond. He doesn’t just cut loose from all that. So that’s how the module (traditionally) ends.

That is, it’s traditional to teach Kant, at the end of the module, in the way I’m saying Descartes really ought to be taught at the beginning of it: as new, but as confusingly and confusedly entangled with what came before. I actually don’t have any major problems with this way Kant is traditionally taught, as a final book-end to this particular shelf of books.


Brandon Watson 01.15.10 at 1:52 am

@Henry(not the famous one):

Yes, the allusion was almost certainly Descartes’s point, and what makes it almost certainly the point is that it’s in the Discourse on Method. In Part One of the Discourse he discusses his education. The saying is found in Part Two of the Discourse in a sentence in which he refers briefly back to what he learned in his college days. The Discourse is remarkable for the extraordinary skill with which Descartes simultaneously works to rub his readers’ faces in how educated he is (sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtly) and to argue that the education of the day is of extremely limited value without the method. This is one more way in which Descartes shows his well-educated cleverness while simultaneously insisting that it does no good if people don’t listen to him.

On Descartes and substantial forms:

It seems to be a matter of some dispute whether Descartes intends to reject substantial forms outright or merely to eliminate them from physics as useless; in other words, whether his argument is ultimately that there are no substantial forms (argued by, say, Rozemond), or that the only substantial form we can know about is the mind (argued by, say, Skirry). There are reasons for thinking the former; but there are places where Descartes sometimes seems committed to the latter (and he explicitly says it in, for instance, the open letter to Voetius). Of course, Descartes has a habit of using scholastic terms but adjusting them here and there to suit himself, so that might be the problem.

In any case, Descartes’s attack on substantial forms seems primarily to be related to his attempt to remove final causes from physics (cf. the Sixth Replies, in which he associates rejection of substantial forms for bodies with precisely the claim that they require treating bodies as if they had minds capable of knowing ends). His argument against accidental forms is equally that they are otiose: the only reason for positing them is to explain sensation, but we can explain sensation without them. And actually I suspect that the toast confusion is best seen as relevant to the Cartesian rejection of accidental forms: it’s the accidental forms of the bread, not the substantial form, that are ‘hoovered out’ on the (Cartesian view of the) Aristotelian view, when they can instead be explained by microphysical properties.


John Holbo 01.15.10 at 2:00 am

On the other hand, one tradition is not to teach Kant at all at the end of this run, on the grounds that he’s doing something different. I don’t really agree with that, intellectually, and I think it deprives the course of it’s exciting punchline. Kant is too interesting not to end with Kant, even if you think he’s doing something totally new in response to all this.


bianca steele 01.15.10 at 2:20 am

Kant at the end of something and not at the beginning? Yes, that’s the the history of philosophy I have is organized, but I’m thinking, I think, of Scott Pippin’s Modernism as a Philosophical Problem, which seemed to set Kant at the beginning, and of an idea I think I remember seeing somewhere (sorry) that Kant is now the one you have to read, rather than Plato, as once had been the case. I suppose it depends on your point of view, . . . and maybe by “end” you mean something like “culmination.” This needs more thought, but it’s too late for me tonight.


kid bitzer 01.15.10 at 2:23 am

you’re thinking of chicago’s other big-league pippin, i think. the one who did not play for the bulls.


john c. halasz 01.15.10 at 3:23 am

Hidari @40:

Well, by “Renaissance” I actually meant the European 16th century. But the Reformation, the wars of religion, the discovery of America and sea routes to Asia, the rise and consolidation of absolutist monarchical states, etc. all “didn’t happen”? Look, I already said that any categories of periodization are performative/retrospective, and I’ll add vague, with indeterminate spacio-temporal boundaries and much “internal” diversity, stratification and conflict. But if the extreme nominalist critique of such periodization categories is extended to the limit, then one ends up with nothing but “stuff happens”: i.e. no idea or ideas of history and the transformations of social and cultural patterns and structures that form the focal interest of the very notion of “history”. And that amounts to a self-stultifying denialism, in which nothing of interest can be said, or, perhaps, more and more can be said endlessly, but basically amounting to nothing more than ever more elaborate ways of re-inventing the wheel.

Though I’m unequivocally in the historicizing camp here, it might be worth reviewing why Descartes gets pegged in legend as the “founding father” of Modern Philosophy, (though he perhaps should more properly be pair with his mirror opposite Bacon, with their complementary faults of formalist deductivism and ad hoc empiricism). And that has to do with the declaration of an entirely new beginning in philosophy, in which “reason” is to be assigned the ambitious task of a secular mastery of the world. And that new beginning involved the elevation of an autonomously self-grounding “reason”, which was to take the form of a “presuppositionless science”, (which gesture/criterion/end was to be repeated later in different configurations by, e.g. Hegel and Husserl). That’s why I would emphasize the inaugurating move of an hyperbolic doubt, whose excessiveness contrasts with the rather odd and meager “physics”, (and which excessiveness any number of successors would attempt to damp down). It amounts to a nihilating, erasing gesture toward the philosophical past: ah, the metaphysics of presence! But what’s more, it installs the epistemological notion of the “subject”, though IIRC Descartes never used that word, at the basis of philosophical inquiry and investigation of consciousness and its ways of knowing, (as opposed to, say, the embeddedness of knowledge in worldly structures), were to pre-occupy the main lines of philosophical investigation in the modern era, until the linguistic turn of the mid-20th century. And needless to say, the concomitant mechanical movement in 17th century natural philosophy was to eventuate in the successful synthesis and establishment of the complex and apparatus of empirical-analytic nomological natural science and its progressive extention, upon which much modern pridefulness hangs, though one should be wary of any excessively teleological view of that eventuality.

Now, it’s not as if this legend of modern philosophy is exactly and simply true or false, no more than modern philosophy itself is. And there’s no need to postulate some overaching unity and teleology to the matter, Hegel-style, rather than noting the successive consequentiality of different emerging configurations and their transformations. But it’s worth wondering, (because that’s basically just what philosophy does), at where this rather odd move of hyperbolic doubt, seemingly so fraught with consequences, came from and just what it was reacting to.


John Holbo 01.15.10 at 4:07 am

“Scott Pippin’s Modernism as a Philosophical Problem”

That’s an awesome thought, but the kid beat me to the proper response. As to ends and beginnings, why can’t Kant be both?


bianca steele 01.15.10 at 2:28 pm

This morning I did briefly convince myself, “No, they’re both named Scott Pippin.” I guess not.


kid bitzer 01.15.10 at 3:22 pm

that’s okay. i always get foucault confused with michael jordan, on account a their both being named “michael”.


bianca steele 01.15.10 at 6:25 pm

Anyway, I think Adam Roberts nailed it, in my opinion. Science was blocked because of the need to use scholastic (Aristotelian) terms, which led to hairsplitting discussions about things like whether the fluidity of water was essence or accident, and where the eau de vie came from when you distilled the pear.

(I think it’s possible to say Descartes was working on a problem that doesn’t look like a problem now without being condescending, just like if he had got hold of a bad text of Plato, and what I was interested in was valid interpretations of Plato, I would just say that, there is no reason for me to waste my time being overly charitable when he really just did do badly the thing I am looking to him for. I have a slightly bigger problem with Russell, actually. “The table is not brown”? Because it’s really variegated black, tan, and brown? Because atoms have no color? Because color is only in the human mind? Because photons and light waves have no color? Because, here, is the problem: photons and light waves are in fact distinguishable in a way that maps pretty directly to color. So what is the point? I end up with two points: Physics shows that things aren’t what they seem; and quantification permits us to distinguish qualities that we’d thought of as subjective in a truly scientific way. And given Russell’s interest in mathematizing everything, I might guess this is really the point, but then you would seem to have run together Cartesian rationalism with Baconian empiricism, and this seems to be a problem, if only because one now confronts the fact that modern philosophy is disdainful of empiricism in general and especially of measurement in particular.

Even with the additional point that you have to do the scientific explorations and then figure out how everything works in the mind before you can say you know, one is stuck here.)


engels 01.19.10 at 2:17 pm

‘one now confronts the fact that modern philosophy is disdainful of empiricism and especially of measurement in particular’

Really? Why do you think so?


bianca steele 01.19.10 at 6:02 pm

Why do you think otherwise?


engels 01.19.10 at 6:52 pm

I didn’t say that I do think otherwise. Just asking if you could support the assertion you made. If you can’t, that’s fine.


engels 01.19.10 at 7:03 pm

(To be honest it just sounded like an odd thing to say, with regard to contemporary Anglophone philosophy, assuming that’s what you meant, so I wondered why you said it. But naturally you don’t have to explain if you don’t want to.)

Comments on this entry are closed.