Descartes without the boring parts

John J. Emerson offers a “A Naïve Reading of Descartes’ Discourse on Method”. The gist of the reading is that Descartes’ metaphysics and his professions of faith are not seriously meant. Their purpose is to keep the enforcers of orthodoxy at bay so that he can get on with his scientific work. Descartes, thus read, becomes “almost completely different” from “the Descartes we read about in history of philosophy, but it’s all there in the text”.
Naïve it may be, but Emerson’s reading is not unusual, not even among academic historians of philosophy (↓1). It is true that an older history, whose origins can be found in the late eighteenth century, casts Descartes as the founder and exemplar of “rationalism” (↓2). In the mythology of philosophy, rationalism and empiricism are structural opposites, ideological distinctions posing as historical categories. The Rationalists construct the world from their armchairs. The Empiricists, a more adventurous bunch, rest all their assertions on experience. Oddly enough, all the empiricists are British and all the rationalists are not.
If—antecedently to any study of the past—you think that theories of knowledge are (like sex organs in natural history, according to Linnæus) the most basic character by which to classify philosophies; if you think also that theories of knowledge fall neatly into those that hold that the originals of all our ideas come from the senses, and those that don’t, then (by a fortunate coincidence) you can combine the history of modern philosophy up to Kant quite neatly with a systematic exposition of the two chief theories of knowledge. Not only that, but by way of the First Meditation you can set it all up with the Problem of Knowledge, which is (so I hear) to “answer the skeptic”.
Not surprisingly, the Descartes of mythology is an incomplete Descartes, a Descartes from whose portrait just those features are missing that the Naïve Reading highlights. Descartes the Arch-Rationalist is a metaphysician through and through. His natural philosophy we can neglect. His inept vortices and illusory animal spirits can easily be detached from the cogito, the proofs of the existence of God, the theory of ideas and the rest of what is living in his philosophy. Descartes the Arch-Rationalist is the reverse of Descartes Naïvely Read. The roots of the tree of knowledge for the one are for the other mere excrescences; the project of pure inquiry for the one is for the other only squid-ink and delusion; the first two parts of the Discourse, almost irrelevant for the one, are for the other the heart of it (here I think Emerson has a point).
The pragmatic, canny working scientist of the Naïve Reading is indeed “all there in the text” (↓3). But not all the texts are taken account of in that Reading (as Emerson himself notes: he has “deliberately left a lot out”). I’ve said before that I have no grief against drawing on old texts for inspiration (see “Your Own Private Plato”). I think Bloom was right in his insistence on misreading, though as a misreader of Bloom I feel free to ignore all that stuff about ephebes and clinamen (↓4). Thinkers use other thinkers; creation begins with appropriation. Descartes, in his dressing-down of Beeckman, says that if you have truly learnt something, then it no longer matters from whom you first heard of it. It is “entirely yours” (↓5). It was self-serving for Descartes to offer this bit of wisdom to his erstwhile collaborator. But wisdom it remains: the pragmatico-atheist does nothing wrong in extracting an agreeable sentence here & there from old texts, so long as she makes it hers.
Nothing, that is, until the pragmatico-atheist makes what on the face of it are factual statements about what Descartes said and intended. Then the Historian cocks an ear and frowns. The Naïve Reader writes:
Knowing that Descartes, as he clearly stated, was always looking over his shoulder at the Inquisition, it makes sense to think that these sloppy passages are not his serious work, but just patchworks intended to keep their author out of trouble. Descartes’ metaphysical system thus should be thought of as his less important work, compared to his scientific and mathematical efforts—and perhaps even a relapse or infection of scholasticism.
I’m not quite sure what force to assign to “it makes sense that” or to “should”. Should because closer to the truth? Because it fits better certain preconceptions according to which science is worthwhile and important, metaphysics useless and uncertain, Scholasticism a disease? (When you see disease metaphors in a discussion of ideas, you can be pretty sure that real thinking has ebbed.) I sometimes think that adherents of such views cannot bring themselves to believe that a smart guy like Descartes could really have believed all that hogwash about God and soul; ergo, his professions of faith must be mere evasion or “infection”.
There’s no doubt that Descartes could and did tailor his message to his audiences. The Discourse and the Essais were a “sample of my method”—so Descartes wrote to Mersenne. They were written in the vernacular so that even women could understand them (↓6). Descartes took some pains to discover the exact terms of the condemnation of Galileo, presumably in order to know what not to put forward publicly. He refused to publish, despite the entreaties of Huygens and others, his unequivocally Copernican work of the early 1630s. No trace of Copernicanism is to be found in the publications of 1637 (↓7). He sends copies of the Discourse to some of his teachers and modestly thanks those who respond, even while making fun of some of his Aristotelian critics in letters to Mersenne.
In the early 1640s he advised Regius against arguing publicly for the thesis that “man is a being per accidens”, knowing that the per se unity of human being had been made a “teaching to be held by faith”. In the Principles of 1644, a work he at first hoped would replace the Aristotelian cursus in university teaching, his treatment of the motion of the Earth is an exercise in casuistry: with respect to its own ciel, the Earth is at rest, but that ciel is itself in motion around the Sun. At the end of the Principles, he submits all his opinions “to the judgment of the most wise and the authority of the Church” (↓8). The reader-between-the-lines will take that to be mere window-dressing. Descartes would say that, to keep the Inquisitor’s cold hand off his neck—wouldn’t he?
Descartes was serious. The texts offer no evidence that Descartes was a secret libertin, that he ever doubted the existence of God or the immortality of the soul, or that he entertained thoughts of denying the authority of the Church. Neither the works left in manuscript, nor the private notes of his early days, nor the relatively unbuttoned correspondence with Constantijn Huygens, exhibits more than general impatience with theological minutiæ and the wish to be left alone to do his work. Descartes was familiar with Father Gibieuf’s De libertate Dei (1630), he knew Augustine well; one of the few books he admitted owning was Thomas’s Summa (↓9).
Chronology alone tells against the claim that the metaphysics of Discourse 4 was a “patchwork” intended to keep its author “out of trouble” (↓10). Descartes dates the reflections recorded in Discourse 4 to the time of his move to the Netherlands—four years before the condemnation of Galileo. The date is consistent with mentions in letters to Mersenne of a now lost “petit traité de métaphysique” written in 1629 (see To Mersenne 25 Nov 1630), and with the discussion between Descartes and Mersenne of the creation of the eternal truths in 1630.
The writing of the Meditations two years after the publication of the Discourse and more significantly Descartes’ defense of his arguments in the Replies to the Objections present a further problem. It would be one thing for Descartes to have offered, as cover, specious arguments on behalf of claims he didn’t believe; quite another for him to solicit objections to those arguments and then to defend them vigorously. What would the point of that be? In any case none of the objectors—not the theologian Caterus, nor Mersenne (who twenty years before had campaigned against the “impiety of the Deists” with which Paris was then infested), nor the dismissive Hobbes—hints that the arguments are other than seriously intended (↓11). Flawed, yes; but dissimulating, no.
As is usually the case with founders, Descartes was much more diverse and also more practical than his followers portrayed him to be. He developed a unique mix of extreme prudence and extreme boldness. His method really involved rejecting most of the cultural and intellectual world of his day, but he always piously affirmed a contentless orthodoxy.
I agree with Emerson that “Descartes was much more diverse and also more practical than his followers portrayed him to be”. The received view of a generation ago, which I described earlier, omits not only most of his natural philosophy but also gives short shrift to the Passions of the soul. But I don’t agree that “he always piously affirmed a contentless orthodoxy”. This on two counts: first, that in comparison to the devotional literature of his time, Descartes’ writings hardly count as pious. He said of himself that he had the religion of his wet-nurse, which I take to mean that his faith, though firm, required no elaboration.
His theology, on the other hand, is not “contentless”, if by that is meant a pure form of words, a mere gesture. There is indeed almost nothing in it concerning Christ, or salvation, or sin—for Descartes these were matters known by faith through revelation. But the idea of God as the perfect being is, for Descartes as for most theists of the period, rich in consequences. Not the least of those is our dependence on the goodness of God for our knowledge of the “simplest things”—the truths of arithmetic, the existence of bodies. To which may be added God’s other perfections, each of which has a counterpart in us, on the basis of which (by way of générosité) we may rightly attach worth to the self and its powers. God the perfect being is an object of contemplation rather than of worship, of imitation rather than prayer. Worship and prayer lie outside the purview of philosophy. In natural philosophy we can know nothing of God’s purposes; in metaphysics, we can grasp something of the divine “institutions” by which mind and body act on one another to the end of preserving the union; but beyond that God’s purposes can be known to us only through revelation. Descartes left that to the theologians. He would not make Galileo’s mistake of asserting the pre-eminence of philosophy in their domain.
Emerson concludes:
To my mind, Descartes’ idealism, universal skepticism, and trust in clear and distinct inborn ideas lead to a delusional metaphysic, but as the grounds for operating principles for scientific research, they offer an escape both from Church doctrine and from the kind of inconclusive humanistic mumbling around in erudite complexities characteristic of Robert Burton or (less so) Montaigne. It allowed him, on the one hand, to detach himself from the welter of immediate impressions (“the senses”) and on the other to zero in on simple (“clear and distinct”) mathematical controlling factors not immediately evident to observers of seemingly-complex phenomena.
Neither Church doctrine nor the humanism of Burton and Montaigne compete with Descartes’ philosophy in supplying method & principles to science. The method was intended to promote a geometric and mechanistic physics at the expense of the forms and qualities of Aristotelianism—a physics whose principles Descartes thought were more harmonious with Church doctrine than those of its rival. His method was no more intended to be an “escape from Church doctrine” than Aristotelian method was intended to confine anyone within it. It would not have helped him, had he publicly espoused Copernicanism, to affirm that his opinion rested on clear and distinct ideas. Nor did he expect, by appealing to those ideas, to contradict the Church.
We turn to old texts for theses to defend or refute, for information, inspiration, wisdom, consolation. Often they were intended to be used in just those ways. There is no error in doing so. You take what you need and you leave the rest. Error begins with the further step of supposing that since what you leave is for you mere sophistry and illusion, it should be consigned to the flames, the madhouse, or the infirmary. Error is compounded when beyond that you suppose that the authors themselves must secretly have agreed with you.
Emerson doesn’t go quite that far. Mostly he picks and chooses, and consigns. Has he “found ‘the real Descartes’ […]?” His answer is that he hasn’t. I haven’t either. Whole lives are beyond my power to grasp. I prefer acts. The writing of the Discourse, or better yet its writing and publication, was a complex act; I regard my task as one of discerning what Michael Baxandall calls the “pattern of intentions” that made it possible. That pattern consists of relations: between what Descartes wanted to say and the vocabularies he had available to him for saying it; between Descartes and his audiences—his teachers, his fellow natural philosophers, the men (and women) of good sense referred to at the outset of the Discourse; between the new natural philosophy and the Church; and so on, almost ad infinitum. I don’t come to this task without preconceptions; my hope is to be lucid enough to catch and compensate for some of my limitations—in contradistinction to those who think we can do no better than to re-create the past in our image, for our present.
(↑1) For example, Hiram Caton (for whom the Meditations too is a smokescreen) and Louis Loeb. Desmond Clarke has long maintained that Descartes’ metaphysics is subordinate to his natural philosophy. See Descartes’ philosophy of science (Penn State, 1982 · 0271003251) and Descartes’s theory of mind (Cambridge, 2003 · 0199261237). The latest on dissimulation will presumably be found in the proceedings of a conference on the topic at UCLA last February.
(↑2) See Bruce Kuklick, “Seven thinkers and how they grew: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz; Locke, Berkeley, Hume; Kant”, in R. Rorty, J. Schneewind, and Q. Skinner, eds. Philosophy in history (Cambridge, 1984 · 0521273307) 125–139. More generally, see Lucien Braun, Histoire de l’histoire de la philosophie (Presses Univ. de Strasbourg, 1974 · 2868200486). There is also a newer work which I haven’t yet seen, Théorie de l’histoire de philosophie (Cahiers du séminaire de philosophie 3, 1985 · 2868204201), and a two-volume set, Iconographie et philosophie (Cahiers 12 & 13, 1994, 1996 · 2868204422, 2868204449). The two volumes together contain almost 800 illustrations.
(↑3) Watson’s biography is very good in putting Descartes in his social context. See Richard A. Watson, Cogito, ergo sum (David Godine, 2002); Geneviève Rodis-Lewis offers an even-handed, sympathetic treatment of Descartes the person and Descartes the philosopher (Descartes, Calmann-Lévy, 1995 · 2702124577; Eng. trans. by Jane Marie Todd, Cornell, 1998 · 080143372X).
(↑4) Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of influence: a theory of poetry (orig. publ. 1973; 2nd ed., Oxford, 1997 · 0195112210), and A Map of misreading, 2nd ed. (orig. publ. 1975; Oxford, 2003 · 0195162218). A level-headed assessment is given by M. H. Abrams in his Doing things with texts (W. W. Norton, 1989 · 0393307476) 287–293. Though I was much taken with Bloom when I first read him thirty years ago, I now think that like Freud he is mistaken in thinking that the “family romance”—or rather the interesting ones—must follow a single pattern. Bloom can’t do much with French poetry, which he therefore denigrates, or with women poets (Emily Dickinson excepted). In philosophy, the “anxiety of influence” fits best the dynamic of “overcoming” that took hold in German philosophy after Kant. Descartes in relation to the Schools exhibits some of the characters of anxiety and belatedness; but the template cannot easily be fitted to Gassendi or Spinoza.
(↑5) “Si quis verò nulliusIf someone believes something, having been led to it neither by anyone’s authority nor by any reason, he cannot, even if he has heard it from various people, be said to have learnt it from them. But it may happen that he knows it because he has been led to it by true reasons, while others, although they were of the same sentiment, did not know it, because they had deduced it from false principles. auctoritate nec rationibus adductus aliquid credit, quamvis hoc ipsum à plerique audiveit, non tamen ab illis didicisse putandus est. Imo potest fieri ut sciat, quia propter veras rationes ad credendum adducitur; alii autem, quamvis prius idem senserint, non tamen sciverint, quoniam ex falsis principiis deduxerunt” (to Beeckman 17 Oct 1630; AT 1:158). “Si quid scisIf you know something, it is entirely yours, even if you learned it from someone else., omnino tuum est, quantumvis ab altero didiceris” (ib. 159).
In Coleridge’s notebooks the process is unmistakable: what begins as excerpt is absorbed and combined with other scraps & converted into Coleridgisms. When he admits on the one hand a general debt to the Germans and on the other pleads in his own defense (sometimes accurately) that the ideas he found in them he had come upon for himself years before, I feel a pang for the plight of an author who discovers that he has been plagiarized in advance; I also feel a bit guilty about my own unacknowledged debts—unacknowledged, sometimes, because incorporated long since into my “general knowledge”, that store of opinions and facts we build up through decades, through untold thousands of pages read and hours of lectures heard. (On plagiat par anticipation, see Marielle Macé, s.v. at Fabula and the references given there. See also the anecdotes on plagiarism at the beginning and end of André Compagnon’s La seconde main, ou le travail de la citation (Seuil, 1979).
(↑6) To Vatier, 22 Feb 1638, AT 1:560. The point is not that women are less capable than men but that women in Descartes’ time, if literate, read French, and only rarely Latin. In the same letter Descartes admits that even though the Discourse is the most important of the four pieces, it is the "least worked-out", because he did not decide to put it in till the end, and the publisher was pressuring him. Even so, I don’t think that the metaphysics of the Discourse was hastily thought; hastily written, yes, but the fruit of some years’ germination.
(↑7) Gaukroger says that at least one of Descartes’ correspondents did detect Descartes’ leanings (Descartes 323 and 458n; Ciermans to Descartes, Mar 1638, AT 2:59). I’m not sure. Ciermans writes that the rotating corpuscles of light which, according to Descartes’ explanation of color, must come from the red star in Orion all the way to the Earth “along so great an interval (notably in Copernicus’ opinion, and—as I believe—in yours) of ether” that their rotation must be very “tenacious”, and should therefore affect the surfaces of reflecting bodies like glass and water. The point of resemblance between Descartes and Copernicus is that both of them think that the stars are very far away. Heliocentrism, or the movement of the earth, doesn’t seem to be at issue.
(↑8) “At nihilominus, memor meæ tenuitatis, nihil affirmo: sed hæc omniaBut all these things I submit to the authority of the Catholic Church and to the judgment of those more prudent; I would have no one believe anything, except he be persuaded by evident and invincible reason., tum Ecclesiæ Catholicæ auctoritati, tum prudentiorum judiciis [Fr.: le jugment des plus sages] submitto; nihilque ab ullo credi velim, nisi quod ipsi evidens & invicta ratio persuadebit” (4§207, AT 8.1:329, cf. 9.2:325).
(↑9) Impatience with minutiæ: one indication of this is the brevity with which Descartes handles the old problem of reconciling divine foreknowledge with human freedom. Augustine: see Stephen Menn, Augustine and Descartes (Cambridge, 1998); Zbigniew Jankowski, Cartesian Theodicy: Descartes’ Quest for Certitude (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000) and Augustinian-Cartesian Index (St. Augustine’s Press, 2004; orig. publ. in French as Index augustino-cartésien, Vrin, 2000).
(↑10) There were, of course, earlier examples of condemnation, notably the cases of Bruno, Vanini, and Campanella, and of Étienne de Claves, who with some companions posted anti-Aristotelian theses in Paris in the early 1620s, offering to debate anyone who cared to defend the Philosopher; de Claves was exiled. But there were also the examples of Mersenne and Gassendi, who, though they criticized Aristotle, had no difficulties with the authorities. A cautious author could, moreover, publish clandestinely, as did La Mothe Le Vayer when in 1630 he published his Cincq Dialogues under the pseudonym of Orasius Tubero, with a false date and place of publication. (Descartes’ Discourse was published without its author’s name, but Descartes was careful to get a privilège (license to print) for the work and to make sure his authorship was known to everyone who mattered.) On this point I agree with Emerson that no deep exegetical labors are needed to figure out what authors in that period really meant, but only our usual means of recognizing sarcasm, irony, and so on.
(↑11) A generation later, Leibniz, looking for ammunition against the Cartesians of his day, does express doubts of that sort, but on no more evidence than a dim view of Descartes’ character and the now-familiar line that some of the arguments are too bad to have been put forward sincerely. (He is also dismayed by Descartes’ rejection of teleology in natural philosophy and by a passage in the Principles whose consequence would have been to destroy Providence.) Others even said outright that Descartes was an atheist. But this is in a time when rational theology itself could be regarded with suspicion on the grounds that to attempt to prove the existence of God implies doubt, hence insufficient faith.

LinkApril 17, 2005 in History of Philosophy · Religion