Home Forums Newcastle Reading Group April 7th 2020- Descartes’ First Meditation

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  • #901
    Editor
    Keymaster

    Descartes’ First Meditation – “What can be called into doubt”

    #912
    Editor
    Keymaster

    “Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design. On this account, I have delayed so long that I should henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to consume in deliberation any of the time that now remains for action. To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.”

    #913
    Michael Bavidge
    Participant

    Cartesian Thoughts
    Michael Bavidge

    From Philosophy in Borders
    Descartes realises that secure knowledge cannot rely on the resources of a solitary individual. The Doubting Self can be turned into the Knowing Self only through the protection of God. Only an infinitely good Other provides an argument to refute scepticism. But if we can manage without an argument, and yet retain the idea that only a personal intervention will do, then perhaps a halfway good person will be enough, an ordinary person, someone like you or me.
    p. 49
    Saying that we are each of us is ‘essentially, and finally alone’ is equivalent to saying you are you; and I am me. This may be an insight into something, but not into essential solitariness. There is a tragedy about being the last of the Mohicans but not about being the only Me. The grammatical discomfort is illuminating: it seems better to say that ‘I am Me’ than ‘I am I’ – using the accusative of exclamation ‘O me miserum!’ But the accusative case signals that in trying to capture the unique nature of first person experience in terms of solitariness, I am treating myself as an object. As if I was saying: ‘I am one of the …’; and then going on to complain that ‘I am the only one of the …’ We are used to the idea that there is something wrong with treating other people as objects. But there is also a problem about treating oneself as an object. As Wittgenstein says, the I that wrote the book The World as I found it ‘could not be mentioned in the book’.
    These thoughts emerge from a long tradition of thought about self-knowledge. Descartes argued that we ourselves are the thing we know best and first. The Cogito is self-knowledge in which the absolutely rational knower comes face to face with itself, the purely intelligible object. We remove all content and context from our experience, we make a void and call it ‘Self’, as David Hume pointed out. The Self, the Ego of the Cartesian tradition, can only be conceived as a transcendental object or not as an object at all.
    p. 104

    #916
    John G
    Participant

    REPLY TO EDITOR
    Decartres seeks a foundation for certain knowledge, and later arrives at “cogito ergo sum. We now think he fails to deduce “I” (See Mike and Hume).Also fails to deduce God to make the world physical. (again see Mike).
    After Decarteres philosophers seeking certainty and consistency moved to idealism. Nowadays they become physicalists.

    COMMENTS REMINDED BY MIKE’S POSTS.
    I like Raymond Tallis’s description of as “conscious embodied subjects”. How we are this is a mystery, not a problem. It remains a mystery because we are subjects. Problems are about objects.

    There is no meaning in a universe without subjects.

    #919
    Editor
    Keymaster

    This post isn’t about the 1st Meditation, but just taking the liberty to say what I generally think of Descartes and The Meditations.
    I feel very sympathetic with his philosophy and, although I can see that his thought lead to the ‘ghost in the machine’ and even just mechanism, I think that criticism of those ideas is unfairly levelled at Descartes himself and that his influence is often based on misunderstandings of his philosophy.
    I think my sympathy lies partly with his aims and partly with the form of his philosophy, at least in The Meditations.
    The principle value of The Meditations for Descartes is clearly, as the title states, the ‘demonstration of the existence of God and the real distinction of soul and body’, but that hasn’t been his legacy. And what Descartes means by the ‘I’, or mind, is far from a ghost – it is our doubts, affirmations, loves, hates, feelings, our imaginations, perception, will etc. It is our essence and soul. To dismiss what we most deeply are as a daydream or mistake of thought might only be an expression of (to paraphrase Descartes) the ‘difficulty we have of lifting our eyes above tangible things’ – ‘above ideas received from the senses’ – which neither the soul nor God are.
    What I love about the form of The Meditations is the way it takes place on successive days, and its immediacy and the directness with which Descartes speaks to us. There is a brilliant simplicity to the way he settles down to truly think through these things in his dressing-gown by the oven. The form isn’t a device, and it is more than a thought-experiment; he really seems to be going through the experience of doubting everything and being all at sea the first day, then, on the second, thrilled at the discovery of a certainty to overcome scepticism. The next day, affirming the existence of God and pausing, with “the greatest happiness available to us in this life”, to contemplate the ‘diving Majesty’, and so on.
    Alan

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    #923
    John Farrington
    Participant

    Some observations on the 1st Meditation. First to say is that the total Meditations is an anti-sceptic work, whereas the 1st Meditation is overwhelmingly sceptical as a first stage process by Descartes to ‘clear the decks’ in preparation for his attempt to re-establish a true foundation for human understanding. Being an anti-sceptic in his time was against the general philosophical and social trend. Scepticism was well established, starting from the reintroduction into Europe of Pyrronist scepticism ‘ all our beliefs are subject to doubt’. Then Erasmus’s ‘In Praise of Folly,’ Montaigne’s Essays, the 17C Scientific Revolution all continue the trend of Scepticism. So a reading of the 1st Meditation by itself would appear to be a strong endorsement for scepticism. But for Descartes, this was a first step – a ‘doubting process’ as a methodology for eliminating existing ideas and opinions – ie to ‘clear the mind’ in preparation for establishing what he calls ‘certain truths’ – a firm foundation for human knowledge. So he rejects the Senses as the first place where knowledge originates (and so rejects Aristotle and empiricism) – because our senses can deceive us, just a dreams can (ie what is real v. what is dreaming).He develops this idea further in relation to God and the ‘deceiving theory’.
    Descartes is asking us to suspend our normal everyday judgements on what we take as true and real in the world around us in order to get to a clean slate from which to rebuild a true foundation for knowledge. Essentially Descartes seems to be setting up what today would be called a Thought Experiment.
    But his rebuilding project raises many problems. Firstly, why does he include Mathematics in the list of things to be eliminated in this sceptical exercise, given that Mathematics is clearly a priori knowledge, which is precisely the direction in which he is taking us – ie it forms an important part of his ‘innate ideas’ concept as the true foundation of knowledge. Interestingly, although the expression ‘a priori’ had yet to be invented, the concept was well known, dating back to Euclid’s Elements, Plato’s Theory of Recollection (some knowledge is inherent in the human mind), and others too. So the concept of innate ideas/a priori knowledge is far from original in Descartes, just as the ‘Cogito’ in Meditation 2 is far from an original concept. St Augustine in the 4C used almost precisely the same words as Descartes does in the 2nd Meditation. It seems to me that these similarities with much earlier philosophers are not to be taken as mere points of minor interest, but are critically important earlier statements long before Descartes.

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