Descartes is everbody’s philosophical whipping boy, which is a sure sign that he should be given a sympathetic reading. When one sees a profusion of mutually incoherent stupidities being credited to an author who manifestly put enormous importance on method and care in thinking and writing, as is the case with Descartes, one’s first suspicion should be that said author has simply not been read as carefully as he wrote. It is the simplest explanation, and as a rule you should never credit any commentary in the secondary literature that is less cogent than the primary source — as is, alas, also typically the case with Descartes.
With a small number of exceptions, referenced at the end of this essay, most of what has been written about the philosophical work of Descartes is entirely off-point and may be profitably ignored. On one reading, Descartes is a pious Catholic; on another, he’s a crypto-atheist. On one reading, he’s a skeptic; on another, a gnostic. On one reading he is a fideist; on another, a rationalist. On one reading his philosophy owes its entire infrastructure to scholasticism and is unthinkable without it; on another, it’s a biting satire of scholasticism meant to discredit it. One could go on: the possibility for mistaken interpretations is endless, and while there are nearly as many misreadings of Descartes as there are readers, there was after all only one Descartes, who wrote with a unique intention, and the task of anyone who wants to understand what he’s saying is to reconstruct from all available evidence what that intention was.
One common fault of all these misreadings is that they start out from a primary concern for what Descartes ‘really is’ that keeps getting in the way of attending to what he actually says; in keeping with the spirit of that mistake, these readings correspondingly revolve around imputing to him some kind of metaphysic, or as we say now, ‘ideology’. For some thinkers you can get away with this strategy, although to what profit is debateable; but there is a class for whom you can’t, and they are all the greatest thinkers, and Descartes is one of them. He shows every sign of being an extremely careful mind at work, and an extremely circumspect one when not among friends; he also shows every sign of being an ambitious person, showy displays of modesty notwithstanding. He is after all one of the makers of the modern world, so let us try to give him an adequate hearing.
To that end, let us pick up the Meditations on First Philosophy and look at it with fresh eyes; it is widely available in cheap paperback translations, it is short enough to be comprehended as a whole and made to stand alone, it is written in a clean and vigorous style, and it provides the best test case because it seems the most rife with paradox. We will at times have reference to other texts, but our interpretation of these will grow outward to them from the primary text itself rather than inward to the Meditations from other texts.
The Genre of the Meditations
In reading the Meditations, as with any document that comes from a different place and time, the first thing one has to ascertain before one can interpret it is the audience to whom it is addressed. If you get the audience wrong, you’ll get the subtext wrong, which means you’ll get the author’s intention wrong, which means you’ll be confused about what it is that he’s saying and what he’s doing by saying it. The Meditations is almost an ideal text in this respect, since it tells you the audience right there on the front page: ‘To the Very Sage and Illustrious Dean and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology of Paris’, which is about as specific as we could hope for.
If nothing else, then, the Meditations is a book meant to be read by theologians. Not just any theologians, but the vanguard of theology in France: where the Sorbonne goes, Paris goes, and where Paris goes, France goes — there was no higher court of intellectual appeal in France at the time. Descartes knew his audience: he’d been educated by Jesuits at La Fleche, and while the Sorbonne theologians were not part of the Society of Jesus and in some respects even a rival institution, they shared a common set of religious commitments, a common intellectual discipline, and common terms of reference. The Summa Theologica is one of the few books that Descartes would publicly admit to owning a copy of, and we can reasonably assume he’d read it front to back; he also admits elsewhere to having consulted Suarez’ Disputationes Metaphysicae in composing his book, to make sure he was using the relevant scholastic terms correctly. The Meditations, unlike Descartes’ scientific work which he deliberately chose to publish in the French vernacular, is written in Latin: that is, it is precisely intended for a specifically learned audience — unlike his physics which he expressly wished to be anyone’s potential property.
Appreciating the particularity of the audience leads one to ask less obvious questions about the chosen literary form, starting with the title: Meditations is a peculiar choice (why not ‘Tract’ or ‘Reflections’ or ‘Discourse’ or ‘Essay’?), and in fact Descartes’ book appears to have been the first book of philosophy to ever use the term to describe itself. Additionally, the literary conceit of six meditations being conducted on six individual days — which is hardly to be taken as a literally accurate account of its composition — seems eccentric, and is also unprecedented in the literature of philosophy.
If we again consider the audience and the educational background Descartes shared with them, we can observe that a part of the Jesuitical education at the time was the Easter Retreats, the content and trajectory of which were given a template in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, which is not a unique book but was taken as the authoritative and arch exemplar of a large and well-defined genre that had previously been given its archetype by Saint Bonaventure. In this genre, a series of solitary exercises are prescribed for the meditator divided into weeks and days; the standard course begins with the via purgativa in which an attitude of penitance for the folly and wickedness of one’s sinful ways is inculcated by a series of imaginative scenarios, then goes on to the via intellectiva in which reflection on the meaning and implications of some article of faith for one’s creed and life are carried out methodically, and then concludes with the via unitiva in which conviction and resolution is generated as one’s will is brought gradually into alignment with the grace of God.
This genre and its conventions would have been intimately familiar to Descartes’ audience, and his evocation of it in his choice of title would have immediately summoned such connotations to mind. The Meditations themselves trace out a similar trajectory, beginning with imaginitive thought experiments designed to inculcate doubt and the desire to repair one’s erroneous ways, moving on to the use of the pure intellect to arrive at indubitable verities and reflection on their further implications for one’s own nature, and finally returning to a state of resolute certainty about the world around one and one’s place in it. In his only explicit statement on his choice of title, in the Replies appended to the book, Descartes himself indicates that by naming it Meditations he wanted to evoke a private spirit of careful attention rather than a public spirit of combative disputation, in the hope that his readers wouldn’t distract themselves from the difficult task of understanding by prematurely dwelling on objections.
It is perhaps also worth knowing that one of the traditional forms of didactic treatise in theology was the hexameron, a commentary on the Biblical creation in six parts — one for each day of creation. It had a long history from the fourth to the sixteenth centuries and formed a cornerstone of Christian literature, but was effectively on its way out by the time Descartes wrote. While the hexameric connotation of dividing the meditations into exactly six parts — as opposed to more usual four ‘weeks’ of Loyola’s Exercises — may or may not have been deliberately chosen, it would have had some obvious resonances given that the meditations are largely concerned with constructing an apodictically certain world-view ex nihilo, reenacting the creation in one’s own finite mind, as it were. The possibility is not outlandish, since we know that Milton quite consciously drew on this tradition in writing Paradise Lost in the same century despite its status as a literary archaism at the time.
This literary background would have formed a part of the common knowledge shared by author and audience, and its deliberate evocation indicates how the work was intended to be read. But we can note that this still allows it to be read in two ways: as pious homage, or as irreverent appropriation. Descartes’ own explicit expressions of piety mitigate against the latter interpretation, while the undeniable divergences from tradition manifest in the content of the work mitigate against the fomer — and in fact, the conjunction of these two facts suggest that a conjunction of the two interpretations is most plausible: the reading which saves all the phenomena is that Descartes intended the book to be read in one way by the credulous, and in another way by the dubious.
Corroboration of this conjectural reading can be found by considering the full title, which anounces a work ‘on first philosophy’, which to his audience meant aristotelian metaphysics. First philosophy in this sense means ‘the study of being as such’, or ‘the study of first causes’; but as we read the book carefully, we’ll find that there is after all not a single metaphysical statement in it, if we mean by metaphysics what the scholastics, Descartes’ audience, understood that term to mean. Doubtless he intended it to be read as such by that audience, which is why he chose the term, and refers to the book as ‘my metaphysics’ in personal correspondences; but given that his stated intention in those same correspondences is to explode aristotelian metaphysics, as well as fact that the book lends itself to an alternative reading which we’ll detail as we go on, gives the lie to the name. The emphasis has to be put on ‘my’ rather than on ‘metaphysics’, and the term taken as ironical.
In this sense, while the Meditations is indeed a work on first philosophy, it is not a work of metaphysics. The significance of this distinction will become clearer as we proceed, but I emphasize it at the outset because failure to appreciate it is the root of nearly all the major misreadings of the work. To begin with, it is crucial to understanding the literary effect of the book that we recognize the perplexity that would have been occasioned in its intended audience by the divergence between putative form and actual contents.
And then of course there is the subtitle: ‘In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated’. The author clearly means to draw attention to these two articles as being of cardinal importance, and will do so again, but as we proceed we’ll find that the twin ‘demonstrations’ of the existence of the deity and the immortality of the soul occupy the queerest positions in the entire course of the Meditations, and occupy a conspicuously small portion of it. They are clearly in some sense pivotal, but the more careful attention one pays to the work as a whole the more one suspects the product does not quite arrive as advertised, and this was noted by several of Descartes’ more astute contemporaries. These two arguments have by far occasioned the greatest vexation among readers of the Meditations right from its first circulation, any full and proper reading of the text should shed light on why they were written in the way that they were.
These two articles of faith are, after all, the motherhood and apple pie of Abrahamic religion: given that there was hardly a shortage of theological proofs of these propositions, and that Descartes was by no means a professional theologian, and furthermore that he explicitly disavows any intent to poach on theological land, it is worth asking why he would bother attempting any such demonstrations at all. In the dedicatory letter, he tersely indicates such a reason: that while these theological proofs are satisfying to the faithful, they cannot convince the doubtful because they beg his very question; therefore, rational proofs from philosophical first principles are desirable in the interest of generating conviction in the doubtful, so that they may become faithful and so subsequent theological proofs may become acceptable to them.
But this statement conflicts with what we already know about the work: if Descartes is interested in converting the unfaithful, why is he preaching in the liturgical tongue to the most adamantly converted of the converted? One possibility is that he’s submitting his argument to a kind of peer review before going public with it, and in a certain sense this is true, but as we’ll see it can’t suffice as as explanation for what Descartes does. To reiterate: he writes expressly to a very powerful theological and pedagogical authority, in terrms and manner calculated to appeal to them, what purports to be a proof of two propositions which to them would have already been as absolutely certain as anything could be. It is a gesture which demands explanation, and when somebody who is not an official authority goes well out of his way to furnish an elaborate defense of orthodoxy in a time when orthodoxy was not hurting for capable and zealous defenders, you can reliably assume he is not doing it as an end in itself, but as a means to something.
Without having gone into any detail about the contents, then, we already know enough to put us on our guard: whatever else this book might be, it is a political act, and must be read as such. What game is this a move in, then? For that, we need to set the stage with a bit of history.
((one more point: if we consult The Search After Truth, what we see is a dialogue between three characters — the man of common sense, the man of scholastic learning, and the man of cartesian science. the pattern of that work is that Epistemon stays off to the side while Eudoxus prods Polyander toward doubting common sense, and this is exactly how we can think of the Meditations as well: the narrator is, by conceit, the man of common sense, the invisible hand guiding his thoughts is the cartesian scientist, and all of it is a play carried out in front of the scholastic philosopher for whose benefit the show is being put on.))
The Setting of the Meditations
One obstacle to understanding many of the best books written prior to the 19th century is that one has to first appreciate the influence of censorship, as well as less official forms of social constraint which often operated on authors. In particular, it would be hard to overstate the significance of such realities for the intellectual life of France in the 17th and 18th centuries. At the time that the Meditations was published, the Parlement of Paris had issued a blanket policy that ‘all persons were forbidden under penalty of death to hold or teach any doctrines against old and approved authors, or engage in any disputations except those in which should be approved by the doctors of the said faculty of theology’ (Thorndike), i.e. the Sorbonne. Suffice it to say that such a prohibition created a distinct problem for a person such as Descartes, whose scientific work runs entirely contrary to Aristotelian physics. His explicit intention, as he says in correspondence with Father Marin Mersenne in the run-up to publication (1640), was to secure the approbation of the Sorbonne, both as a literal institution and a metonymic representative of scholasticism:
‘I may tell you, between ourselves, that these six meditations contain all the foundations of my physics. But please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice that they destroy the principles of Aristotle.’
Of course this prohibition was frequently worked around by various expediencies: publishing outside of France was a popular option, as was publishing anonymously or pseudonymously. Both of these options were open to Descartes, and in fact used by him at different points: the Discourse on Method was originally anonymous, and the later French edition of the Meditations (1649) was printed in the Netherlands. But in his original, Latin edition, our author opts for precisely the opposite approach: he publishes under his own moniker, Renatus Cartesius, and aims his tract expressly at his potential censors, the Sorbonne. The prohibition also provides another reason for the peculiar pseudo-autobiographical character of both the Discourse and the Meditations: in both publications, Descartes carefully avoids any appearance of arguing with anyone and takes great pains to clothe even his most striking propositions in modest attire — he is, he insists, only speaking personally about his own intellectual trajectory, not demanding anyone else assent to anything, and is quite anxious to be corrected should he stray outside the bounds of acceptable doctrine.
These draconian policies were not without cause: one has to remember that the active scientific career of Descartes coincides almost perfectly with the Thirty Years War raging next door in Germany, and that the France he grew up in was Richelieu’s France. Which is to say that, a full century into the Reformation, religious disharmony within Europe was at its apogee and, facilitated by the expansion of the printing business and the fertile atmosphere of doubt and discord, a bloom of what one might call ‘adventitious heresies’ were proliferating everywhere. The Church for its part was doing what it had always done at such times: double down on the strict definition and enforcement of orthodoxy and keep making examples of heretics until the energy of rebellion was exhausted. What the Church was incapable of comprehending was that this time was not like the others: this time it was up against not a rival religious movement, but an irreversible change of mind concerning the very basis of authority and its relationship to conscience (both moral and intellectual), which is, in a sense, prior to religion. The fundamental question posed to the Church by objectors from Luther to Galileo, of the criterion by which to determine what was within the proper sphere of faith and what was not, which is logically prior to any question of what could possibly be obligatory on the faithful, went not so much unanswered as completely unheard. And the result was anarchy.
To simplify grossly, the intellectual climate of Paris was at the time polarized between what you could roughly call a skeptical revolution and a scholastic reaction. These two strands of thought didn’t by any means map cleanly onto Protestant versus Catholic allegiances, and matters of faith and reason were in such a general tumult that you could easily find any combination of the major religious and intellectual factions embodied in one person: there were Protestant neo-Aristotelians and Catholic neo-Pyrrhonians, the boundary between science and magic was poorly defined to put it mildly, and the most heavily weaponised and debased word in the lexicon was ‘atheist’. More to the point, due to the absence of any satisyfing answer to the aforementioned challenge to the very notion of authority, it had become de rigeur not merely to declare one’s opponents wrong and refute their arguments, but to attempt to undercut the foundations of any claim to knowledge they might make, destroying not merely their assertions but their very means of justifying any such assertions. ‘Scorched earth’ was the usual policy in disputation, and the collective result of this was to leave nobody an uncontested position from which to justify anything, which made skeptical withdrawal and dogmatic insistence the two dominant attractors, neither of which are attitudes conducive to science. The intellectual life of 17th century France was a state of more or less total war, and Descartes was to be its Napoleon.
The Occasion for the Meditations
One of the decisive events leading up to the publication of the Meditations, without which it is unintelligible, is the persecution of Galileo for heresy, the history of which has been widely misunderstood.
What set the Inqusition on Galileo was not his physics (which had been well tolerated by the Church for decades), but his adamant insistence on two larger philosophical points which his physics butted up against: 1) That Aristotelian physics could be demonstrated to be either inadequate or false on several important points, and that this deficiency was directly attributable to Aristotelian metaphysical categories which dictated the kinds of physical explanation that could be sought and found, and thus that official endorsement of Aristotle was thus a hindrance to sound physical science and the search for truth. 2) The ‘probabilistic’ or ‘fictionalistic’ stances then officially mandated by the Church for discussing any matters contrary to dogma — that is, to discuss them only as either plausible hypotheses or as counterfactual thought-experiments — were also a kind of straightjacket that no practicing scientist with any integrity could tolerate. Galileo knew of what he spoke, since he had worn that straightjacket for several years, after having received an official warning from Cardinal Bellarmine in 1616 that he was he was to refrain from discussing his findings in anything other than the hypothetical or counterfactual modes wherever they might be contrary to orthodoxy.
That might well have been the end of it, if not for the fact that in 1623 a personal friend of Galileo was elected Pope Urban VIII. Less than a year later, Galileo felt safe enough to publish The Assayer — a summary of his scientific methods and results, and a fairly scathing broadside against the ‘official’ physics. Paperwork in the Vatican archives shows that at this point the Inquisiton attempted to have him placed under its investigation on the basis of his rejection of the aristotelian categories of ‘substantial forms and real accidents’ in the course of expounding his theory of matter, which would contravene the official dogma of transubstantiation as declared in the Council of Trent, which is based on these categories. This particular accusation of heresy would have made Galileo a dead man if it had gotten off the ground, given that the Eucharist was such an intense focus of the Counter-Reformation; one can find no shortage of alchemists being persecuted at the same time for the same reason — not for their alchemical practice, but for their denial of the Aristotelian theory of matter. Fortunately for Galileo and for science, Pope Urban VIII and his subordinates intervened to quash the Inquisition’s request, and the matter rested for several years.
Subsequent shifts in the political landscape resulted in the power of the Pope waning and that of the Jesuits waxing, partly due to the increasing clerical perception of the former as being soft on heresy. In 1633 the Pope, in a misguided attempt to smooth things over, commissioned Galileo to write a treatise explaining and contrasting the Ptolmaic and Copernican theories of the solar system, purely in the hypothetical mode, as a way of displaying his willingness to tow the orthodox line even while pursuing science. Galileo, having lived for nearly a decade in intellectual freedom, would have none of it, and instead took the assignment as an oppportunity to use a new topic to freshly and vigorously restate the basic objections indicated in The Assayer, the result of which was his Discourse Concerning the Two Chief World-Systems. This was too much for both the Jesuits and the Pope, and for his complete unrepentance and cheek Galileo had to be made an example of.
Despite his anger, circumstantial evidence suggests that the Pope exerted what influence he had to shelter Galileo from the fullest possible punishments, barring the putative atomistic heresy from consideration in the official proceedings since it had already been dismissed once before. The result was a sort of negotiated reduced sentence, where instead of burning him at the stake for atomism, the Inquisition put him under house arrest for heliocentrism. The significance of all of this, as an informed observer could not help but infer — an informed observer like Descartes, who had visited in Rome the year the The Assayer was published and kept tabs on the intellectual life of Europe through extensive correspondences — was that anyone pushing the new physics would have to reckon with the Jesuits, and openly contradicting the official scholastic line meant courting the kind of scrutiny that could land one’s feet quite literally in the fire.
This is integral to appreciating Descartes’ greatness: a lesser person would have shrunk from the challenge, but Descartes rose to meet it directly and actively. He declares it, almost casually, in a letter to Huygens, dated 31 July 1640: ‘I think I am going to become engaged in a war with the Jesuits.’
In the sixth part of the Discourse on Method (1637), Descartes states for the record that he had just completed his own Treatise on the World in 1633 when the Galileo affair broke, and prudently withheld publication until he could see how it all played out. What he does not mention is that a substantial section of the unpublished book consists of expounding a corpuscular theory of matter, which is not identical with Galileo’s but alike in being incompatible with Aristotle, as well as a derivation of the heliocentric theory. In the years following the Galileo affair, Descartes opted, as a cautious probe, to rework the parts on geometry and optics and publish those anonymously, since they were independent of both the theory of matter and the theory of the solar system and thus least open to censure. At this point, as Descartes’ letters at the time suggest, he held out hope that by carefully curating his physics and making elaborate displays of piety, he could secure immunity from the Jesuits and perhaps even obtain their endorsement. This preliminary publication seemed at at first not to provoke any harsh response, which Descartes took as license to proceed further.
After this cautious first step came the Meditations, which in context now appears a much bolder one. Before official publication, Descartes had the book privately printed in a small number of copies and sent directly to a handful of Jesuits expected to be most congenial to Descartes’ research, as well as to some third parties such as Arnauld, Gassendi, and Hobbes. Unfortunately, just as he was preparing to circulate the tract more widely, he received an openly hostile critique of his tract on optics from one Father Bourdin, S.J.; as Descartes understood perfectly well, the Society of Jesus was an army — one was not subjected to attacks from a Lieutenant without orders from a Colonel, and so Bourdin could reasonably be presumed to speak for the Jesuits. Disappointed and irritated, Descartes wrote to Mersenne and Huygens about this declaration of war, and his intent to respond to it in kind by making the Jesuits look foolish in public.
He then sent a copy of the Meditations to Bourdin, having a pretty good notion of the kind of response he was going to get, and was not disappointed by getting an extremely long-winded and obtuse critique from the Father, to which he then wrote an equally long and scorching response. Not stopping there, and despite Bourdin’s express desire to keep the matter private, he wrote another letter directly over Bourdin’s head to one Father Dinet, S.J., Bourdin’s superior in the order; the letter is thick with irony, declaring on the surface his confidence that this is all a misunderstanding caused by some rogue priest acting overzealously, and comparing Bourdin to a vericose vein on an otherwise healthy body — all the while, it being understood by all parties that Bourdin’s attack had been fully authorized, and that Descartes had no intentions of backing down. He subsequently published the entire exchange with Bourdin and Dinet as an addendum to the second printing of the Meditations, rubbing their noses in it still further.
Around the same time as the letter to Dinet, Descartes writes to Mersenne that if he can’t bring the Jesuits around he’ll have to try the Sorbonne, who had opposed the creation of a Jesuit school in Paris and were less uniformly militant in their convictions, and perhaps might be more amenable. The chief aim here — and Descartes is fairly candid about this with Huygens and Mersenne — is to secure acceptance of his methods by the religious authorities and thereby cover himself in orthodox armor, so that he can go about his work in peace: if he can provide adequate assurances that God and the soul and the Eucharist can all be had without the physically unworkable Aristotelian doctrine of substantial forms and real accidents, that will, he hopes, be enough. It will prove to be a naive hope, but what is impressive is how far he gets in this audacity.
I belabor this context in order to show that at this point in his intellectual career, Descartes’ principal audience was specially educated Catholic theologians, with whom he was attempting to secure some sort of peace. The book is thus overtly an irenic, and only covertly a polemic — and thus to mistake the overt content for a sincerely offered argument, and then to proceed to criticize its merits as such, is as much a handicap as trying to read the book upside-down. We should fully expect the book to be designed to be seductive to the scholastic target audience, and we should thus also be circumspect about taking those parts that seem most scholastic in their vocabulary at face value.
Neglecting this setting in the exegesis of the book has caused some scholars to miss its point by a wide margin. In an ironic testament to the quality of Descartes’ work, while his literary gambit ultimately did not fool its intended audience, it succeeded three centuries later in fooling the intellectual heirs of that audience: a cadre of neo-Thomist commenters on Descartes in the mid-20th century, exemplified by Etienne Gilson, have all attempted to show Descartes’ lack of originality by pointing out what was most obvious to his contemporaries, i.e. his reliance on scholastic concepts at key parts of the argument of the Meditations. At no point does such commentary take seriously the fact that this is precisely what we should expect based solely on the known intention and audience of the work, nor does it engage with the overall strategy of the argument systematically enough to notice that in each and every case where Descartes employs a bit of scholastic learning, he puts it to decisively nonstandard work.
If we are sufficiently awake to what situation Descartes was responding to, we are in a much better position look past the tactical keywords and see that form of the argument is after all novel, indeed unprecedented; and it is to the contrast between the terms employed and the work they do in the argument that I’ll be drawing attention again and again as we proceed to read the book.
So much for context. Now, the text.
In the Preface, Descartes notes that he’d first offered a brief summary in the Discourse of his findings ‘on the existence of God and the nature of the human soul . . . that I might learn from the judgment of my readers in what way I should afterward handle them’, and that having ‘requested all who might find aught meriting censure in my writings, to do me the favour of pointing it out to me’, he met with only two ‘objections worthy of remark’. These objections concerned precisely the two topics already advertised in the subtitle: 1) the inference from the fact that ‘while the mind reflects on itself, it does not perceive that it is anything other than a thinking thing’ to the conclusion that ‘its nature or essence consists only in being a thing which thinks’, and 2) the inference from the fact of ‘my possessing the idea of a thing more perfect than I am’, to the conclusion ‘that what is represented by the idea really exists’. These are the crucial steps in, respectively, his twin demonstrations of the immateriality of the soul and the existence of God; he is directing the reader to give particular scrutiny to these pivotal points in the monologue, as historically most of his readers have done.
It is not hard to imagine what an orthodox mind would find to object to in these inferences, and Descartes makes a point of them less for their own sake than for their power as a litmus test: the conclusions themselves are designed to be acceptable to orthodoxy, but the arguments are quintessentially departures from orthodox forms of proof. If you can accept these, you’re already a convert to Cartesianism. He insists in several places ((where??)) that these demonstrations are integral to his whole philosophy, and implicitly contain the foundation for his whole physics, but it is important to realize that it is not the conclusions in themselves that are crucial — that the soul is immaterial and God exists — but rather the form of proof. The Meditations is written deliberately to be a transformative work, to win converts by demonstrating the author’s method, and as we’ll see the particular conclusions advertised are in fact a dispensible lure that can be discarded once one is converted to the method.
Descartes then alludes to other heterodox objections he’s received, where ‘my conclusions, much more than my premises, were impugned, and that with arguments borrowed from the common places of the atheists’, and says that he is ‘unwilling here to reply to these strictures from a dread of being, in the first place, obliged to state them’. This is a characteristically coy display of piety, of which one can find many examples in Descartes’ publications: if one reads it strictly to the letter, it suggests that atheists have no problem accepting his premises, and his pious refusal to restate their objections to his conclusions absolves him of the need to confront accusations that in fact his premises are fully compatible with atheism. He deals with this issue only at the most general, and therefore safest, level: that to avoid atheism, all we have to do is ‘keep in remembrance that our minds must be considered finite, while Deity is incomprehensible and infinite’. This distinction is relevant to his proof strategy, as we’ll see, and so by this expedient he pre-empts any accusations in that department. (This is not to say that Descartes is a crypto-atheist: the only justifiable interpretation from the evidence is that he’s a theist just as he says, but we also can’t avoid the conclusion that his method is valid even outside the envelope of theism, and furthermore we’ll see that there is a peculiar sense in which his theism is qualified.)
He next reiterates, if we needed any further reminder, that this book is to be read by a select audience only, and that he doesn’t expect ‘any commendation from the crowd for my endeavors, or a wide circle of readers’. Indeed, he goes on: ‘On the contrary, I would advise none to read this work, unless such as are able and willing to meditate with me in earnest, to detach their minds from commerce with the senses, and likewise to deliver themselves from all prejudice; and individuals of this character are, I well know, remarkably rare.’ He means it: this is a specialized work, and not intended for everyone. Years later, in conversations with Frans Burman and Princess Elizabeth, he downplays the importance of his ‘metaphysical’ work and even recommends not spending more than a few minutes per day thinking about such things — an apparently sincere remark, but hard to square with any portrayal of the Meditations as his definitive masterwork, as opposed to as an occasional piece written for a very specific purpose and audience.
It is worth repeating over again: for Descartes, the essential thing is the method, not the propositions generated thereby. The Meditations is a pedagogical exemplar of the Cartesian way of reasoning, which is a set of inferential best-practices and not a body of dogma; if we read it in the former rather than the latter spirit we can learn incalculably more than if we get bogged down over the conclusions therein expounded, as has been the temptation right from the moment it was published. In this spirit, we’ll read with an emphasis on the form of the demonstration as opposed to the content — which also has the merit of allowing us to avoid the twin temptations of prejudging questions about Descartes’ sincerity and of proving ourselves his superior by imputing unsupportable beliefs to him.
((Meditation Zero: Why would anyone start on this path in the first place? What is the experience that could motivate such reflections? Why adopt the skeptical stance at all?))
((another point here: the arguments against skepticism are in fact stalking horses for arguments against the primacy of revelation over reason, since this is precisely a species of skepticism, so far as skepticism is directed at the possibility of justification by reason alone. it’s absolutely important to understand that most of the skeptics of Descartes’ time were on the side of faith.))
Near to the heart of philosophy is a challenge that dates at least back to Meno’s question to Socrates: ‘And how will you inquire into a thing when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know it is the thing you didn’t know?’ That is, the very act of inquiry seems in some way to presuppose the knowledge to be sought, or at least some criterion for what an acceptable answer to one’s question would look like — in other words, what would constitute evidence one way or another. Even if we can formulate such a criterion, we can simply reiterate the question by asking how we know that criterion of evidence is the proper one, and so on.
This question spawned an entire philosophical lineage whom we now call skeptics, in whose hands it was progressively honed to a fine edge. Their major result was that no matter which path one tried to take out of this question, one was led properly to suspension of judgment:
In the mode deriving from infinite regress, we say that what is brought forward as a source of conviction for the matter proposed itself needs another such source, which itself needs another, and so ad infinitum, so that we have no point from which to begin to establish anything, and suspension of judgment follows. … We have the mode from hypothesis when the dogmatists, being thrown back ad infinitum, begin from something which they do not establish but claim to assume simply and without proof in virtue of a concession. The reciprocal mode occurs when what ought to be confirmatory of the object under investigation needs to be made convincing by the object under investigation; then, being unable to take either in order to establish the other, we suspend judgment about both. (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism)
‘In order to decide the dispute which has arisen about the criterion, we must possess an accepted criterion by which we shall be able to judge the dispute; and in order to possess an accepted criterion, the dispute about the criterion must first be decided. And when the argument thus reduces itself to a form of circular reasoning, the discovery of the criterion becomes impracticable, since we do not allow them to adopt a criterion by assumption, while if they offer to judge the criterion by a criterion, we force them to a regress ad infinitum. ’ (ibid., II, iv)
That is, when confronted with Meno’s question, one concedes either 1) that justification is an infinite task, or 2) that one must arbitrarily postulate some unjustifiable first principle, or else 3) that any justification must ultimately be circular. In any case, one cannot justify asserting anything categorically, since Meno’s question can always be put again to any such assertion. With the rediscovery of classical skepticism in the 16th century, this apparently insoluble ‘criterion problem’ was taken up again by a series of French skeptical writers from Montaigne onward, and used frequently in one form or another as a logical weapon on all sides of the controversy about belief and religious authority that defined the Reformation. The subject had become almost a tiresome one by the time Descartes wrote, and yet it is here that he chose to begin.
Descartes shows every sign of being very familiar with this literature; indeed, the very first line of his Discourse on Method is cribbed almost verbatim and without attribution from Montaigne’s ‘Of Presumption’, either by accident or design. Some of the minor examples he uses, such as men with jaundice allegedly seeing everything as yellow, or a stick in water appearing bent, or the discrepancy between how things look from afar versus up close, are taken directly from previous writers and were indeed immediately recognized by readers such as Thomas Hobbes as old saws.
Again, this is merely part of the background knowledge required to understand the text: neglect of it has led to one of the most common and most misplaced criticisms of Descartes’ subsequent demonstrations, which is the allegation of circularity. Descartes, so the criticism goes, sets out to prove the truth of the principle that ‘whatever we clearly and distinctly perceive is true’, i.e. to establish a criterion for truth. But in doing so, his proof relies entirely on appeal to what it clearly and distinctly perceived, and so is circular. Given that we have plenty of evidence that Descartes was more than adequately aware of the skeptical criticisms of precisely this kind of argument, and that he models his entire First Meditation self-consciously on the skeptical tradition, this criticism should immediately arouse suspicion of resting on a misreading.
What we find in the first Meditation is an application of classic skeptical arguments to ‘the senses’, or more exactly to the criterion that the senses present things to us exactly as they are. He shows by the usual examples that the senses by themselves give conflicting testimony, and that the presumption of their veracity can’t be derived from the senses themselves — it is just a prejudice of long habit that can’t survive careful scrutiny, nor be justified in a way that isn’t question-begging. The entire point of the First Meditation is to set up a precedent for the succeeding ones: firstly, it shows by example what kind of argument is not acceptable, i.e. that we cannot appeal to the evidence of the senses to justify faith in the senses; secondly, it provides a natural motivation for him to go searching in another direction, in the Second Meditation, with its attempt to find a criterion of rational certainty — which he does not get around to formulating fully until the Third Meditation, and does not establish conclusively until the Fourth. The Fifth and Sixth Meditations are then further applications of the validated principle, performed with a particular interest in establishing the validiy of Cartesian science.
However, it is critical to understanding what is going on in each Meditation to avoid reading the later conclusions Descartes reaches backward into the earlier parts of the argument. In the First Meditation he is speaking in the voice of someone just beginning to philosophize, still under the spell of naive prejudice and common sense but using the skeptical method of radical doubt to shake himself free of it. There is as yet no appeal to any criterion of evidence or truth, but only to the homespun recommendation of not accepting anything as true that might be reasonably doubted; no appeal is made to any special metaphysical principles or subtle distinctions — indeed, the First Meditation is deceptive in its simplicity because nothing new at first appears to be here. It is an internal critique of common sense, using only its own resources, to show that it can’t account for itself satisfactorily without question-begging appeals.
Indeed, this is the only consistent strategy available to Descartes at this stage, given his initial commitment to not make use of any claims that he can’t conclusively demonstrate. Before moving on, it is worth getting precise about what this commitment does and does not consist in.
He starts off with the express intent of ridding himself of prejudices, and to that end proposes to hold as dubious anything that is not absolutely certain; as imaginative aids to this end, he adopts a series of thought experiments designed to induce a state of radical doubt, culminating in the famous hypothesis of the malign demon that manipulates him into believing all sorts of things. In this scenario, the only prudent course for a person who wants to avoid error is to suspend assent to any propositon whatsoever that presents itself as a canditate for for affirmation or denial. The term of art for this attitude of cessation of judgment or suspension of assent is epoche — an evocative Greek word literally meaning suspension or cessation, originally an astrological term for when the fixed stars appeared to halt for a time at the zenith of their traversal of the skies, before resuming their course again. The term was adopted, one suspects with deliberate irony, as a metaphor for the skeptical attitude by Sextus Empiricus, who had been a great critic of astrology.
It is important to understand what this type of methodic or epochal doubt does and doesn’t involve: it is a blanket doubt about anything we might be inclined to take as absolute truth, transcendental reality, or objective existence. As Sextus Empiricus was at pains to point out, epoche is a very deliberate dwelling at the level of what he called appearances or phenomena, things as they appear to us — not to invalidate them as illusory but to avoid prejudicial and error-prone interpretations of them, to stick close to the surface and avoid hypostasizing the depths. Sextus was the first to point out that however dubious may be our beliefs about the reality of things as they are in themselves, what we do have indubitable recourse to is the appearances of things to us. Descartes’ use of term ‘thought’ or ‘perception’ covers essentially the same semantic field as Sextus’ use of ‘appearance’ or ‘phenomenon’, i.e. the sensory and the intellectual aspects of apprehension, insofar as these are taken on their own terms and as independent of truth-claims about what is or is not. To put it more simply, what is ruled out in epoche is any categorical statement.
What it expressly does not involve, as Descartes later clarifies in the Principles (I, X) and in his conversations with interlocutors, is the doubt of what he calls ‘common notions’ like ‘whatever thinks, exists’ — which make no claims about what is the case, is real, or exists, but merely express a relationship of conditional implication between the notions of ‘thinking’ and ‘existing’. They are hypothetical, not categorical. This logical point is important, because if you don’t appreciate the distinction you’ll misconstrue the entire argument. These common notions are simply ideas that the meditator finds he has, and thus can’t be arbitrarily thrown away without prejudice, and so as mere ideas they make it into the epoche. It is a common complaint in the secondary literature that the use Descartes makes of ‘common notions’ is a kind of inconsistent and arbitrary reneging on his initial hyperbolic doubt, but if we don’t get confused about what the original ‘doubt’ entails and doesn’t, the argument is consistent from beginning to end. The cardinal rule is that what goes by the board in the epoche is any categorical claim about what is or is not the case, and if the ontic or alethic ‘is’ can be removed from a statement, i.e. if it can be stated merely hypothetically, then it passes through as a mere idea.
Another way to see this is to consider where the opposite approach would lead: if we start by arbitrarily excluding any of the ideas constituting common sense from our reflections, we can only do so arbitrarily since at this point we have no valid criterion by which to do so, and thus could only throw all of them out. But insofar as these common notions make up the connecting links of thought and speech, we’d thus end up unable to think or say anything whatsoever. Whatever the merits of this more extreme form of meditation, it’s not the kind that either Descartes or his interlocutors are interested in, since it precludes any knowledge or truth whatsoever, because knowledge and truth are functions of thought. The function of epochal or methodic doubt in the Meditations is as a precondition to a type of reflection practiced and preached by Descartes, wherein we try to make our ideas as clear and distinct as possible and infer what follows intrinsically from them without precipitancy or prejudice, thereby achieving certainty about these ideas and exact understanding of how they all hang together.
This is characteristic of Cartesian philosophy from beginning to end: questions of truth are suspended, pending the resolution of questions of evidence. The Cartesian method in outline consists of asking what we have conclusive evidence for, showing that it is indeed conclusive, and then asking what else this explication of the evidence gives us further warrant to think or say. It is recursive: at every step, the demonstration of the conclusiveness of evidence for some proposition itself becomes incorporated as evidence for a further proposition, and so on indefinitely. We could say that the genius of Descartes is to simply accept the skeptical position wholeheartedly and use it as welcome leverage: each step of the method suggests new propositions to examine, and the examination of the evidence thereof both yields truth as a by-product and leads on to the next question, in something like a series of concentric circles or nested demonstrations.
((the point is not ‘I know that I think, and that what thinks exists, and therefore I know that I am’ — the point is: any context in which there can arise a question about whether I am, or equivalently about whether I can rationally assent to ‘I am’ (c.f. Tarski), an unconditional warrant for ‘I am’ can immediately be found. the proof is all negative space: he establishes that the doubt itself was motivated by nescience about its own conditions, and once we’ve dispelled this by thinking it all through clearly and distinctly we are absolved of any such doubt once and for all. never once does he even try the direct route of proving ‘I am’, and his whole maneuver is to get people to stop demanding such proof. the argument antedates Wittgenstein by 400 years.))
Near the start of the Second Meditation, Descartes says: ‘Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immoveable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable.’ This should be read ironically, in light of the war being deliberately waged by the author against dogmatics and skeptics alike: he means to move the world to a new way of thinking that allows these to be left behind, and the Second Meditation is where he locates the fulcrum.
Another way of misreading Descartes, which is much more natural than the one that motivates the charge of circularity but which is nontheless a hindrance, and which has unfortunately been a cornerstone of most Descartes exegesis, is epitomized in the classic gloss of ‘I think, therefore I am’. It is almost universally taken that Descartes starts from the fact that he thinks and proceeds from this to deduce that he exists; critics from Huet onward have made sport out of objecting to this procedure, and defenders since Malebranche have attempted to vindicate it. But, as Harry Frankfurt is nearly alone in pointing out, while ‘I think, therefore I am’ is what he says in the Discourse, that order of argument is plainly not how Descartes proceeds in the Meditations: the first foot he puts forward is not cogito, but sum. Here is what he says:
‘Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something. So that it must, in fine, be maintained all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.’
Or, as he later reiterates in the preface to the Principles of Philosophy, ‘that he who strives to doubt of all is unable, nevertheless to doubt that he is while he doubts, and that what reasons thus, in not being able to doubt of itself . . . [is] what we name our mind or thought’. He pontedly does not begin by taking his own thinking as certain and then deducing his existence from that; the operation is precisely the reverse. One could heat a small cabin for an entire winter by burning the stacks of ‘Descartes scholarship’ which becomes irrelevant once one notices this basic fact of the text, and the fact that it has gone largely unnoticed by most readers is a testament to the innattention of their reading.
Having pushed himself to an extreme suspension of judgment by recourse to the hypothesis of a malign demon manipulating his every perception and systematically deluding him, he casts about for even one thing he might be able to safely affirm, and the first thing he hits on is: ‘I am, I exist.’ His immediate certainty of this cuts through all doubt, and he finds himself drawn against his own resolution to assent to that one categorical declarative. Having found this one judgment irresistable, he proceeds to reflect on why he finds it so, and only then notes that its irresistability derives from the doubting itself: for to be decieved is to exist — thus my doubt itself provides, reflexively and immediately, conclusive evidence of my existence, with no deduction involved.
What is key here is that the intuition comes first: one sees clearly and at once not only the truth of the thing, but also that our evidence for it is conclusive, in the sense that it logically excludes any possible grounds for denial. Only by subsequent reflection and analysis does one see distinctly what the evidential basis for one’s clear perception is — in this case, the common notion that whatever thinks exists, together with the act of thinking. But it is not a syllogism: it is, if you like, a kind of backward induction, where by examining what one is irresistably drawn to assent to despite attempts to resist, one learns what one must already have known in order to have doubted at all. This order of presentation is not an accident: it is both an application of what Descartes set out earlier as his method in the Rules, and what he describes elsewhere as the analytic mode of proof, which displays the actual order of discovery, as opposed to the synthetic mode which is syllogistic and runs in the reverse direction from premises to conclusions.
The actual principle that Descartes arrives at here is more specific than ‘I think, therefore I am’: it is that ‘whenever I think that I am, I am’. The point is that the evidence necessary to convince one of the truth of the thought is provided automatically by the thought itself, given the background of ideas or common notions that we thereby discover that we have. What this establishes is that my existence is quite literally indubitable, since in any context in which it can be questioned, the question can be immediately and necessarily answered only in the affirmative. Any attempt to entertain the negation requires a kind of nescience of the evidence which is already available in any context in which the proposition comes up for judgment. ‘I am’ thus becomes the paradigm case for self-evidence, precisely because it does not require deduction from other ideas but rather allows us to clearly see how evidence can force itself on us despite our attempts to avoid prejudging anything.
However, the full maneuver is not yet complete: Descartes goes on to admit that ‘I still do not yet know what I am, who am certain that I am’. But he quickly notes that whatever else he might be uncertain about concerning himself, by the very act of reflecting on the evidence forcing him to assent to ‘sum’, he’s learned something new: that he is a thinking thing, sum res cogitans. He is thus able to render more distinct the idea he has of ‘I’, himself, which has the effect of making more determinate his perception or intuition that he exists. This represents the first full movement in what will be a repeated two-step operation: 1) render a proposition indubitable by showing that conclusive evidence for it can always be found in any context where it comes up for question, and then 2) render it definite by analyzing said evidence for clues as to what the proposition does and does not imply.
By this method, as Descartes finally says near the close of the Second Meditation, he arrives at a clearer and more distinct idea of what he is. The Second Meditation in fact provides the kernel of his entire method for arriving at clear and distinct perceptions, and the fact that so many readers have missed this altogether — as evidenced by the complaint that Descartes doesn’t define what he means by ‘clear and distinct perceptions’ or provide a method of arriving at them — is a confirmation of the suspicion that few of them have read him adequately. He proceeds, as is consonant with his intention, not by syllogistic argument but by intuitive demonstration: he is not playing by scholastic rules, and to demand that he do so is obtuse; the method is provided not by definiton, but by example.
It may, at this stage, be worth providing at least one example of the absurd places one can end up if one starts out down the path of the ‘cogito first’ misreading. A typical instance is Jorge Secada’s Cartesian Metaphysics, whose central thesis is that the Cartesian revolution in metaphysics consits in a change from ‘primacy of existence’ to ‘primacy of essence’ in the order of inquiry: Secada says that in scholastic metaphysics one starts from existential claims and then asks about essence, whereas in cartesian metaphysics one starts from essential claims and then moves on to ask about existence. This misreading supervenes on ‘cogito first’ one, and serves as such an inflated caricature thereof that it allows us to see clearly why that reading can’t be right: it is clearly not how Descartes sees his own method, as evinced by the order in which he carries out his inquiries.
In the order of inquiry followed by Descartes in the Second Meditation, he clearly leads by considering an existential claim and then proceeds to talk about essence not at all, but rather about grounds for assent. Essence comes much later, in the Fifth Meditation, for perfectly good structural reasons that will become clear as the argument unfolds — after, not before, both his own existence and God’s are rendered up as clear and distinct ideas. The shoe doesn’t fit. Moreover, it also doesn’t fit the other foot: Thomas Aquinas, unequivocal on this as on anthing else, holds the primacy of essence over existence — in which he is in good company, since everyone from Plato onward held pretty much the same view. Descartes does inaugurate a fundamentally new approach in philosophy, but the transition is exactly the opposite of what Secada says, and his misreading of Descartes aboloshes this novelty and puts him right back into the main line of philosophy. It is hard to understand how somebody could arrive at such an inverted view of intellectual history unless they had previously been convinced that cogito comes before sum in the order of Cartesian inquiry, and then tried to construct an argument that would show this very traditional form of argument was somehow an innovation.
Which brings us to a broader point, which is that the only thing tempting us to call Descartes a metaphysician at all is this misreading of how he proceeds. The statement itself, ‘I exist’, as well as his analysis of the evidence for it, the further implications of this evidence, and the criterion he thereby formulates for irresistable assent — none of these have more than the faintest aroma of metaphysics in the traditional sense, of ‘being qua being’ or ‘first causes’. Analyisis of the demonstrations he gives clearly show him to be engaged in a different enterprise, and one which is ultimately contrary to the whole spirit of metaphysics because it displaces questions of being and truth onto questions of perception and evidence. This change has consequences for the way philosophy is done after Descartes, but one fails to understand the subsequent history if one doesn’t accurately characterize its point of departure. And yet Leslie Beck’s The Metaphysics of Descartes is regarded as one of the classics of Descartes scholarship, despite his manifest perplexity on precisely how to interpret the pivotal argument of the Second Meditation.
The complaint that by using the ‘common notions’ in his demonstrations Descartes is helping himself to metaphysics, is idle: it is only the everyday metaphysics of speaking and thinking, which as he says is already known ‘in the natural light of reason’. ‘Natural light’ is a Thomistic term that Descartes puts to novel use: in Aquinas it designates what is known without recourse to revelation, but in Descartes it has the further connotation of whatever ideas are native to one before reflecting upon them in the manner of the Meditations. Descartes’ whole project revolves around a controlled affirmation only of what can be apprehended with apodictic certainty (‘clearly and distinctly perceived’), which requires methodically correcting, but not merely doing arbitrary violence to, common sense — either by arbitrarily excluding items from it or by importing any assertion whose certainty is not demonstrable.
In any case, the sum demonstration is less important in itself than in its function of establishing a precedent, a canon for self-evidence, which is then followed in subsequent Meditations. As we’ll see, the demonstration of ‘God exists’ is nearly an exact replication of the procedure followed for sum, with one important difference.
Another Misreading: The Psychological Reading
There is another class of misreadings of the text, also stemming from the ‘cogito first’ misreading and forming a complement to the ‘metaphysical’ readings, that one could call the ‘psychological’ reading. This class of interpretations, exemplified by Bernard Williams’ Descartes: The Project of Pure Inquiry but present in many authors, interprets Descartes as trying to build some sort of an epistemic bridge from subjective datum to objective reality, and if you start from ‘cogito first’ it is also a natural reading. But if the argument proceeds precisely in the reverse direction, this reading is also not to the point and puts Descartes in a wholly artificial position from which it is impossible to expect him to extricate himself, and correspondingly such readings find him irretrevably trapped. (Most, though not all, of the commentaries that make use of the academic catcphrase ‘Cartesian Circle’ are based on this misreading.)
But Descartes never does put himself in this position: his methodic doubt is not a psychological state but the deployment of a normative principle, what he deploying it for is the search for a normative criterion of evidence, and all of his demonstrations pivot on the trans-subjective normative force of what is demonstrated — since if this weren’t the case, the experience of following the demonstrations themselves, nevermind being persuaded by them, would be impossible. He speaks exclusively in the first person, it is true, but this is a requirement of three constraints he’s already accepted: 1) the literary necessity of the genre he has chosen to write in as explained above, 2) the existential necessity of every philosopher to meditate for themselves, and 3) the methodical constraint that he’s not allowed at any stage of the argument to help himself to any assertion which he hasn’t demonstrated as certain, which at this stage still includes the existence of anything other than himself. His ‘solipsism’ at this stage of the argument is an entirely accidental artifact of strategy he is following, and there is no hint of a psychological doctrine of any sort here; any supposed gap between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ is already bridged at a single step when he says ‘I am’, and there is simply no further problem to be overcome in this department. The argument is normative from start to finish, and the bogeyman of psychologism, solipsism, subjectivism, relativism, or whatever you like to call it, is overcome the moment Descartes leaves skepticism behind by uttering sum.
This can be elaborated further in considering the new use Descartes puts to phrase ‘clear and distinct’, which was a commonplace of a rhetorical tradition that Descartes would have been educated into at La Fleche — principally Cicero and Quintillian, who were a core part of the curriculum. Briefly, in this tradition the theory behind that phrase is that the engine generating conviction is the vividness and particularly of images and the rhetorical figures that evoke them, the persuasive function of these being to lure the will into giving assent. Descartes’ twist is to take these out of their psychological and rhetorical context and transpose them to a context of rational inquiry and transcendental evidence: his precise intent in teaching himself and others to think methodically is to liberate us from the vagaries of arbitrary passion by thinking and acting in accordance with normative, trans-subjective principles that are valid for everyone. As we’ll see later, other parts of Ciceronian psychology are appropriated to similar effect again in the Fourth Meditation.
The psychological misreading has of course bred subsequent misreadings that attempt to correct its obvious deficiencies, such as the ‘memory reading’ in which the purpose of the Third Meditation is allegedly to validate memory as reliable, but of course this too is manifest nonsense because memory is manifestly fallible and Descartes wants to rule out anything fallible, and in any case to enter a theological minefield in search of such a petty psychological reward is akin to reaching for a stick of dynamite when one wants to kill a fly — it is not the first impulse of a sane person, let alone a careful one. Descartes does have things to say about psychology, but they are not so much as intimated until the Fourth Meditation. It is simply irrelevant to his purpose here, which is to establish, clarify and defend a criterion of justified assertion or rational judgment.
The objection, of course, could be made that the term ‘idea’ here and in the Second Meditation plays a crucial function, and it is hard to interpret this in anything other than a psychological or subjectivistic sense. This is true, but the function the term plays is precisely the reverse of what is commonly supposed.
Descartes clarifies his use of the term ‘idea’ by saying that ideas are just modes of thought and that the term perforce covers all that we would broadly consider to be ‘mental’ — believing, intending, desiring, perceiving, imagining, remembering, etc. What all of these have in common is that they supervene on thoughts or ideas, which is to say that they’re about something about which we have a more or less clear and distinct idea. (Though Descartes never notes this, it’s implied in his usage that to the extent that action involves thought or intention, even action would qualify as a mode of thinking, though only in this ‘ideal’ aspect, i.e. mere physiological functions like digestion and reflex arcs are out.) This in itself is a very subtle but decisive end-run around the Aristotelian faculty-psychology which was also a subsidiary part of scholasticism: instead of a plurality of faculties or powers, Descartes treats the mind as one thing with diverse modes of action, which is important for later demonstrations.
The next transition happens when Descartes comes to perception:
‘In fine, I am the same being who perceives, that is, who apprehends certain objects as by the organs of sense, since, verily, I see light, hear a noise, and feel heat. But it will be said that these presentations are false, and that I am dreaming. Let it be so. At all events it is certain that I seem to see light, hear a noise, and feel heat; this cannot be false, and this is what in me is properly called perceiving, which is nothing else than thinking. From this I begin to know what I am with somewhat greater clearness and distinctness than heretofore.’
In one sense this is merely a restatement of the position of methodical skepticism: even if the putative objects of perception don’t really exist, or are in reality not at all as they appear, it is still certain that things appear a particular way to me — ‘this cannot be false’, in precisely the same way that ‘I am’ can’t be false whenever I think it. What is new is that Descartes then points out that this must then be all there is to perception: it is a mode of thought, and in no way requires the correspondence of the thought to the thing, since the thought can be certain while the thing is in question. It is worth paying special attention to this, since the subject comes up again in subsequent Meditations.
In a way that seems almost a nonsequitur but isn’t, Descartes then launches into the parable of the wax — about how, after inventorying all the sensory qualities of a piece of hard wax, he then puts it near the fire and all of those qualities change, and yet it is the same piece of wax — from which he concludes that strictly speaking we perceive with the intellect and not the senses, since all the sensual qualities change but the perception is still of the same object. Furthermore, as he points out, perception frequently runs ahead of sensory detail, since one can often recognize a person at a great distance from, for example, the mere outline of his distinctive hat. This is the point of departure between what later come to be known as the ‘empiricist’ and ‘rationalist’ positions, but for the sake of the text what’s important is that Descartes is setting up a later point about reason’s capacity to correct the senses, by weakening our prejudice that everyday perceptual certainties are directly caused by what is seen, heard, touched, etc. — in favor of the idea that in fact the intellect always takes the lead in ordering and interpreting the material given by the senses, and this is the true locus of certainty and uncertainty.
Descartes then proceeds ‘to inquire whether I had a clearer and more perfect perception of the piece of wax when I first saw it, and when I thought I knew it by means of the external sense itself, or, at all events, by the common sense, as it is called, that is, by the imaginative faculty; or whether I rather apprehend it more clearly at present, after having examined with greater care, both what it is, and in what way it can be known.’ That last clause is most important: what Descartes has just done is to pick a particular thing in the field of his perception, and examine ‘in what way it can be known’ — and he finds thereby that he has arrived at a clearer perception of it, purely by reflection. This is another example of his general method: hold the veracity of the perception in abeyance, and interrogate the evidence that defines the perception — thereby rendering the perception more clear and distinct.
He then goes on to point out that, while at this stage he remains uncertain about the existence of things other than himself, what he has managed to demonstrate is that at any rate his own existence is at least as certain as that of anything else, since if he really does perceive anything then it is already certain that he is; furthermore, and what is more significant, any perception that might possibly inform him of something other than himself necessarily does inform him all the more certainly about himself, about his own being as a thinking thing. Even if the reference or extension of the perception is questionable, the sense or the intension of it is not, and by interrogating the latter we can at any rate render the former more precise. This principle will return in the Fifth Meditation.
As Descartes puts it at the end of this Meditation: ‘. . . since it is now manifest to me that bodies themselves are not properly perceived by the senses nor by the faculty of imagination, but by the intellect alone; and since they are perceived not because they are seen or touched, but only because they are understood or rightly comprehended by thought, I readily discover that there is nothing more easily or clearly apprehended than my own mind.’ Note: it is not doubted at any point that bodies are perceived, or more generally that thoughts are about something, in the sense of ‘it appears to be a weasel’ or ‘I think that someone is outside’; it is merely ruled out that they are perceived in accordance with the senses rather than in accordance with the intellect or thought. That is, since regardless of what we might be tempted to impute to the thing (‘body’) we’re perceiving, and whatever uncertainty we might have about it, the certain primacy of the intellect in apprehending that thing means that we at any rate have direct and immediate apprehension of our own mind in the act of perception, independent of the veracity of our perceptions of the thing itself. (This combined with the foregoing notion of the unity of the mind leads to what was later called ‘the unity of apperception’, and it is what makes reflection of the sort Descartes is engaging in possible.)
This move is one of Descartes’ many innovations — it is both a genuinely novel approach to the philosophical injunction to knowledge of both oneself (to know oneself is to critically reflect on one’s ideas of things) and the world (since the idea I have of things constitutes my experience of them). The novelty is that in perceiving things, the knowledge we thereby derive about ourselves is more certain than the knowledge of the thing, and can be used to triangulate upon more certain knowledge of the thing itself. What this novelty contrasts with is the precipitant leap to presumptions about the thing itself — taking the thing for granted, as it were, which by Descartes’ lights is a recipe for error. (This shift toward reflection on the idea of the thing as evidentially prior to judgment about the nature of the thing itself is a direct precursor to Kant’s ‘Copernican revolution’, which consists in positing that what we perceive conforms to our ideas rather than vice versa; Kant is unthinkable without Descartes.)
Descartes concludes the Second Meditation by saying that ‘because it is difficult to rid oneself so promptly of an opinion to which one has been long accustomed, it will be desirable to tarry for some time at this stage’ — that is, the stage at which he dwells on what one can render certain purely by reflection on one’s thoughts, before going on to think more about objects themselves. Correspondingly, the next two Meditations have precisely this introverted character, while the Fifth and Sixth become by degrees more extroverted.
((also worth noting that this is a step in dislodging the doctrine of substantial forms, since the whole point of that doctrine is to get you out of the corner you find yourself in when you start with a hylomorphic theory of ideas abstracted by the intellect from things of sense: one can abstract any number of ways, and in order for there to be a uniquely correct way there has to be a unique substantial form in the thing itself. descartes is replacing this heteronomous criterion of truth with an autonomous one.))
((the divine guarantee is not needed for truths like sum, which are available in perpetuity and on demand, because they are necessary truths. one simplifying way of understanding what’s going on in MIII-IV is that he’s trying to get the theologians to drink the kool-aid on ‘clear and distinct perceptions are true’, because if you grant him this then the entire method follows. he attempts this by stepping into their brains and showing that even on their own terms they have compelling evidence to assent to it, and if he can show that, he wins. the whole thrust of this, as is apparent from the preface to the Principles, is to provide the absolute minimum of metaphysics in order to get on with science and religion; the only interface between them need be the infinitude of God and the immateriality of the soul, and these being negative propositions don’t require a stronger dodmatic commitment: if these suffice to derive all else, we can rest content with that. it wasn’t merely Galileo’s experience, but also Luther’s, that Descartes was responding to.))
((the parallel to the M.II argument is exact: ‘God exists’ is indubitable because ‘God doesn’t exist’ is incredible, i.e. it requires appeal to evidence that one does not and ex hypothesi cannot, have — i.e. the very notion of existence presumes an absolute standpoint of omniscience. then there is the move to what kind of a God he must be: an infinite one, from which it follows that I can’t conceive of him as a deceiver. stay close to the level of what is coherently conceivable and you can find your way around: it is super-Anselmian. the stuff about perfection and causation is syntactic sugar, made to help scholastics swallow the pill.))
Near the opening of the Third Meditation, after recapitulating the certitudes which the Second Meditation has yielded, Descartes says:
‘I am certain that I am a thinking thing; but do I not therefore likewise know what is required to render me certain of a truth? In this first knowledge, doubtless, there is nothing that gives me assurance of its truth except the clear and distinct perception of what I affirm, which would not indeed be sufficient to give me the assurance that what I say is true, if it could ever happen that anything I thus clearly and distinctly perceived should prove false; and accordingly it seems to me that I may now take as a general rule, that all that is very clearly and distinctly apprehended is true.’
He begins by saying that he’s certain of the truth of something, i.e. that he is a thinking thing. But this affirmation itself implies that he already knows what it is to be certain of a truth, and by simple inspection of the evidence grounding his certainty he sees that the clarity and distinctness of the apprehension of the thing is precisely the source of the certainty. The criterion is thus not arbitrarily drawn out of a hat, but emerges organically from the nature of the foregoing demonstrations in the Second Meditation. Immediately upon formulating what he finds to be his implicit criterion for assent, he considers that it would not be sufficient as a criterion if it were possible that what is clearly and distinctly perceived could be false, and accordingly he infers that for this criterion of certainty to itself be certain, it must be that whatever is clearly and distinctly apprehended is true. Quod Erat Demonstradum.
This inference has perplexed readers for centuries, mostly because it moves extremely fast and depends on the reader having carefully followed and fully understood the method of the preceding Meditations: the two long sentences quoted above constitute a highly compact, completely self-contained reflection which is not dependent on the remainder of the Third Meditation. Rather, the reverse: what follows depends on the argument just given, in that the initial terse demonstration serves to contextualize and motivate the subsequent verbose one.
If you haven’t exactly followed and understood the foregoing demonstrations, the two sentences above read like arbitrary assertions, and the natural interpretation is then to assume that the rest of the Third Meditation is there to prove what has just now only been blithely asserted without demonstration. But if you have understood the Second Meditation, the demonstration itself is right there, and the remainder of the Third Meditation itself is unnecessary. And yet the remainder of the Third Meditation is the lengthiest demonstration in the entire work, therefore there must be some reason why Descartes would write it; but that motivation doesn’t arise naturally on the basis of what preceded it, therefore it must be extraneous.
So we arrive at the first genuine interpretive enigma of the entire work, which forms a kind of bifurcation point: on a naive and hasty reading of the first two Meditations, the motive for the Third Meditation is obvious and natural; on a more sophisticated and thorough reading, the motive for the Third Meditation is unclear and extraneous. The great stumbling block to understanding the intention of Descartes at this point is the presupposition that we must choose between these two possibilities. In fact there is another possibility which makes both suppositions correct: the possibility that Descartes wrote the bulk of the Third Meditation precisely for the benefit of those who had not understood the first two.
On this interpretation, the arguments offered in the Third (and Fourth) Meditation would then function as a sort of fail-safe measure: if a reader is so constitutionally incapable of following the new mode of inference that has already been demonstrated in the Second Meditation that the compact inference above is unintelligible and therefore insufficient to them, they will, hopefully, find the following argument much more intelligible and sufficient. This gambit would be carried out on the basis of what Descartes knew about his intended audience; in the event that someone who was not in his intended audience should happen to read the book, but also be insensible to the foregoing demonstrations, the Third Meditation will in that event appear to them a completely insoluble mess. This is in fact the case for the vast majority of Descartes’ modern readers, who neither share the presuppositions of a 17th century theologian nor are in the habit of reading respectfully enough to follow what went before. What they fail to appreciate is that Descartes is simply not speaking to them at all.
Here most of all it is important not to be lulled into complacency by the fact that Descartes speaks in the first person singular. The meditator whose voice carries the text is not to be taken at face value as a sincere representative of Descartes’ true thoughts, and we know this to be true from the obvious fact that the literary conceit of six meditations being carried out on six consecutive days cannot be taken as literally true, save with the most boneheaded credulity. Like the six days of creation to which its format self-consciously alludes, to interpret it literally is to make nonsense of it. If the text is not a literally true account of actual meditations carried out by its author, then it is something else, and that something else is precisely what it looks like given what we know of the circumstances under which it was composed: a tract designed to demonstrate the power of, and to secure the acceptance of, the new Cartesian methods of inference. The vital thing, from this point of view, is that the reader should be drawn irresistably to accept the criterion proposed by Descartes, that what is clearly and distinctly apprehended is true. If acceptance of this criterion is secured, whether by hook or by crook, then all the rest of his method and his science ineluctably follows; if it fails, the Meditations will have been written in vain.
By the manner in which he introduces the argument of the Third Meditation, we can corroborate this reading. After the succinct introduction of the criterion of certainty above, the meditator goes on to observe that he has nevertheless in the past considered many things as certain which he now holds false, the arch exemplar of which being that things are in reality as they appear to the senses. He then contrasts this dubious metaphysical criterion of reality with the indubitable certainty of simple truths of arithmetic and geometry, which latter appear no less certain when clearly and distinctly apprehended even in spite of the doubt cast upon the former. He then infers that in order for such clearly and distinctly apprehended propositions as those of arithmetic and geometry to be cast into doubt, requires an even stronger supposition than the one that was sufficient to dispose of the false criterion. He articulates this stronger supposition as follows:
’Indeed, if I afterward judged that we ought to doubt of these things [viz. the mathematical certainties], it was for no other reason than because it occurred to me that a God might perhaps have given me such a nature as that I should be deceived, even respecting the matters that appeared to me the most evidently true. But as often as this preconceived opinion of the sovereign power of a God presents itself to my mind, I am constrained to admit that it is easy for him, if he wishes it, to cause me to err, even in the matters where I think I possess the highest evidence; and, on the other hand, as often as I direct my attention to things which I think I apprehend with great clarity, I am so persuaded of their truth that I naturally break out into expressions such as these: Deceive me who may, no one will yet bring it about that I am not, so long as I shall be conscious that I am, or at any future time cause it to be true that I have neven been, it being true now that I am, or make two and three more or less than five, in supposing which, and other like absurdities, I discover a manifest contradiction.
‘And, in truth, as I have no ground for believing that Deity is deceitful, and as, indeed, I have not yet even considered the reasons by which the existence of a Deity of any kind is established, the ground of doubt that rests only on this supposition is very slight, and, so to speak, metaphysical. But, that I may be able to wholly remove it, I must inquire whether there is a God, as soon as an opportunity of doing so shall present itself; and if I find that there is a God, I must examine likewise whether he can be a deceiver; for, without the knowledge of these two truths, I do not see that I can ever be certain of anything.’
The transition is clear, and the unique and only use of the word ‘metaphysical’ in the body of the text is the sign that marks it: if what follows is motivated by reasons slight and metaphysical, what preceded it must by implication have been motivated by reasons substantial and unmetaphysical. The natural insinuation is that the mature reader who has understood the previous unmetaphysical demonstrations is not to put much weight on the following ‘metaphysical’ part, and indeed this comports exactly with what Descartes says about these arguments many years later in remarks to Princess Elizabeth and Frans Burman, i.e. that one shouldn’t devote much thought to them.
Even absent this red flag, the logic of the argument itself indicates the transition: whenever ‘this preconceived opinion of the sovereign power of a God’ is granted, one must admit that He could indeed make it so that what I clearly and distinctly apprehend is false, as this is implied in the very idea of His sovereign power. By implication, if this thought simply does not occur to one, no such grounds for doubt arise. There is a bright line: on one side of it, I have had no thought of a sovereign and omnipotent being, and am quite secure in the certainty that what I clearly and distinctly perceive is true; on the other side, the fear of God has gotten into me and I am shaken in this fundamental certainty. For those on the one side, the subsequent argument is otiose; for those on the other, it is necessary. The meditator in whose voice Descartes speaks is clearly on the latter side, but which side is Descartes himself on?
In one sense, the answer to this question doesn’t matter: the argument says what it says, and the intention of the author in writing it is irrelevant. But if we want to understand the author’s intention in writing it, we can’t rest with this; and neither can we do so even if we only want to understand what it says, since the author’s intention is precisely what he means to say, and for a wide class of writings this is not straightforwardly identifiable with literal meaning of the words employed.
Further circumstantial evidence on this point can be found in considering another anomaly of the text at this point: Descartes, as a rule, does not spend much time repeating himself, particularly concerning what he has already demonstrated, and yet in the lead-up to the proof of God’s existence he does exactly this three times.
Even an insensitive reader of the first two Meditations will have understood by this point that Descartes rejects the principle that things really are as they appear to the senses as unacceptable, and yet Descartes feels the need to reiterate it. Citing an example of what he previously held certain but now rejects, he says that ‘there was yet another thing which I affirmed, and which, from having been accustomed to believe it, I thought I celarly perceived, although, in truth, I did not perceive it at all; I mean the existence of objects external to me, from which [my] ideas proceeded, and to which they had a perfect resemblance; and it was here I was mistaken, or if I judged correctly, this assuredly was not to be traced to any knowledge I possessed.’ And he reaffirms on the next page: ‘. . . the chief and most ordinary error that arises in [judgments] consists in judging that the ideas which are in us are like or conformed to the things that are external to us; for assuredly, if we but considered the ideas themselves as certain modes of our thought, without referring them to anything beyond, they would hardly afford any occasion for error.’ And again, two pages later: ‘. . . hitherto it has not been from a certain and deliberate judgment, but only from a sort of blind impulse, that I believed in the existence of certain things different from myself, which, by the organs of sense, or by whatever other means might be, conveyed their ideas or images into my mind and impressed it with their likeness.’ Why this repetition of what should by now be taken as read by even a fairly inattentive reader?
The inattentive reader will of course take these three denials as really being what they seem: Descartes wants there to be no doubt that the hylomorphic theory of ideas that runs from Aristotle to Aquinas cannot possibly be based on compelling evidence, but only on prejudice and habit. Taken on this level, the repetitions are merely to rhetorically emphasize the disavowal of commonsense realism and the correspondence theory of truth that goes with it. To the attentive reader who got this the first time it was said back in the First Meditation and elaborated in the Second, these unprompted denials serve another function: on the off chance that you missed the logical transition or the semantic red flag, they are repetitious hints that what follows is not to be taken at face value, that it is not really as it appears to common sense, and that the author is speaking ad captum vulgi.
He makes the divergence more vivid and definite by the example of two ideas of the sun: the naive one that it’s small and close to earth, and the critical one that it’s enormous and far away — both of these can’t accurately represent the same sun, and the latter holds up to the natural light of reason while the former, which is motivated only by habitual prejudice, doesn’t. It is an exceedingly clever piece of double-talk: on one level he’s reiterating his earlier point about the corrigibility of common sense by reason (or the senses by the intellect), and on the other he’s indicating the manner in which his own remarks are to be correctly interpreted: that where the common sense reading and the rationally corrected reading conflict, the latter is the true one. Both of these readings are true, but one half of the audience will only hear one of them.
A Digression: When is a Circle not a Circle?
At this point, it’s most important to keep our bearings by recalling Descartes’ strategic intentions in writing the Meditations, as outlined above. Right from the very first responses to the book, accusations of circular reasoning have been leveled at Descartes for this argument: to wit, that he appeals to the principle that ‘clear and distinct ideas are true’ in his proof of God, and then appeals to God to vouchsafe the principle. And his response to this accusation was, more or less, to say ‘no, it’s not circular, go back and read it again more carefully’ or else repeat himself. For someone so evangelical in other respects, his reluctance to defend the argument in more elaboration and detail stands out as a bit queer, and for an explanation we have to read between the lines.
First, if we recall the Preface, he specifically notes that the usual circular appeals from the infallibility of scripture to the existence of God and from the existence of God to the infallibility of scripture, while they might satisfy a true believer, will not convince an unbeliever, and uses this to motivate philosophical proofs of God that don’t rely on revelation. Since he is deliberately contrasting his type of proof with this nakedly circular sort, and since we know that he was familiar with the classic skeptical objections to circular validation of criteria, we can rule out the possibility that he was unaware of this hazard when writing, or insensitive to possible sources of circular reasoning. Given this, we have to take seriously his disavowal of the charge of circularity in his own argument and try to see how he could be so adamant on that point while also being so circumspect about going over the finer details of said argument.
In brief, the argument is not a circle but a logical progression from one question to another, and understanding the Second Meditation in the manner indicated above gets us halfway to seeing this: having established the irrisistibility of clear and distinct perception as a provisional criterion of assent, he then proceeds to an argument that God’s existence is irresistable by precisely that criterion. That is, to have a clear and distinct thought that ‘God exists’ is automatically to believe it, because it is to see that our evidence for it precludes any subsequent correction.
The parallel with the Second Meditation is exact: he leads with the intuition of God’s existence, and then proceeds by reflection on the conditions of this proposition’s truth to analyze how he knows it and thereby render it distinct. This then leads him to some further insights about what kind of being God must be, the clarification of which then leads him to find it incredible that God could have created him such that what he is irresistibly drawn to assent to could be false, which then warrants his assent to the proposition that what is clearly and distinctly perceived, because it is irresistible, must be true — since to deny it, he now finds, would contravene his equally irresistable idea of God.
Readers of the Third Meditation will notice that I’ve here abstracted quite a bit of the details, and of course the actual progression of this strand of the argument is notoriously tortured. But that is on purpose: the actual argument given is in bad faith, tortured by design. It is worth pointing out here that just as it would be naive to take literally the literary conceit that these meditations were actually carried out in six consecutive days, it would be equally naive to take literally the literary conceit that the meditator in whose voice Descartes writes faithfully represents the writer’s own thoughts in everything he says. Whilst sincerity must be the default presumption in any act of communication, it is only a default and we are compelled to suspend it upon receipt of evidence to the contrary.
In this particular case there is ample evidence against the presumption of sincerity: the sudden profusion of scholastic terminology midway through the Third Meditation stands in stark contrast to the plain style of the previous two, and in private communications Descartes is full of nothing but contempt for precisely this mode of discourse. In letters he quips quite openly about delaying in the publication of his philosophy because he needed first ‘to teach it to speak Latin’, and of allowing himself free use of the terminology of the schools in the Meditations, i.e. bending their familiar terms to his purposes. Just as in the First Meditation Descartes speaks in the voice of someone philosophically naive entering into philosophy by the door of skepticism, as Descartes perhaps did a long time ago, in the Third Meditation he reveals that person to be someone with a standard scholastic education, as Descartes himself had.
We will return to this vexed subject of Descartes’ sincerity later after we treat the Fifth Meditation, but for now suffice it to say that the two places one should treat with the greatest circumspection are precisely the two he draws attention to in the Preface: the argument from our idea of God to God’s existence, and the argument from our inability to think of ourselves other than as thinking things to our essence being exausted by our being thinking things. To give away the ending somewhat, a major point of this whole exercise is to put your Sorbonne theologian into a bind, by using his own premises to argue to Cartesian conclusions, and then set these arguments up for attack. Descartes is attempting to set up a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ scenario: either the theologian accepts the argument and is thereby drawn over to the Dark Side, or accepts the criticism of the argument (made, as Descartes knew it would be, by the able likes of Gassendi, Arnauld, Mersenne and Hobbes) and thereby cuts his own nose off to spite his face. The gambit is diabolically clever, but was defeated by the simple expedient of declining to engage with the argument at all.
In carrying this maneuver out, he is exploiting a conceptual loophole within the structure of scholastic thought, and it is a kind of intellectual magic trick of the first water, but it’s important to underline the fact that the perversity of it is completely due to an intrinsic defect in the scholastic categories and not of Descartes’ own making.
Remember: he is waging war here, and this is an act of rhetorical sabotage the likes of which are rare in the annals of history. My conjecture, which so far as I know has never been precisely put forward in this form by anybody, is that Descartes setting himself up to be the mouthpiece of orthodoxy so that other people can attack his argument, thereby discrediting that orthodoxy while he himself remains beyond serious reproach, and having the main thrust of his method survive the clash. Whether or not this was the deliberate intention, as I think it was, it was certainly the effect, and it would certainly explain his uncharacteristic obtuseness in replying to this particular objection — replying in greater detail would have meant tipping his hand, and he had no interest in arguing too convincingly.
The spurious accusation of circularity does, however, have a basis in an essential part of the form of the argument, but it’s a deliberate feature and not a defect. Before explaining what that is, let’s examine the mechanics of the argument itself.
((what needs to be strongly emphasized here is that it’s anachronistic to start from a distinction between ‘subjective’ or ‘psychological’ certainty and ‘objective’ or ‘normative’ knowledge and then try to portray Descartes as trying to build a bridge from one to the other; this manifestly does no work in the argument and only renders it obscure and futile. the correct way to start is by noting that the cogito and the god argument are in fact perfectly analogous, and that the former is already ‘normative’ right from the get-go by its appeal to common notions; compulsion to assent doesn’t apply to Descartes only, but to any thinker carrying out the thought process; the issue to be resolved by the god proof is one of retrospective doubt or epistemic regret, i.e. the possibility of being compelled to deny what one was once compelled to assent; in both cases the compulsion is normative, so this is really about safeguarding reflective or dynamic equilibrium, i.e. the coherence of reason as a precondition to its autonomy))
The Transcendental Argument: New Wine In Old Bottles
Though it’s been a commonplace of lazy scholarship to describe Descartes’ argument as a rehash of Anselm’s proof, this is strictly incorrect: Anselm himself was explicit that his proof was only compelling to those who already believed, and was intended for the edification of the faithful (fides quaerens intellectum) rather than as an argument meant to convert the heathen or atheist. Descartes is just as explicit to the contrary: the hypothetical audience for his proof is someone more like Thomas Hobbes, who has (if you’ll pardon the phrase) faith in reason but not in God, to show them that to preserve the former they need to submit to the latter. Later, in the Fifth Meditation, he does offer an Anselmian argument, but only after establishing his own prior and independent argument, to show antecedently that something like his argument must undergird all such proofs.
The first stylistic note to observe here is that in contrast to the plain-spokennes of everything that went before, here we see a sudden erruption of scholastic terms like ‘objective being’, ‘formal reality’ and ‘materially false’, and this is again where knowledge of the audience and their terms of reference becomes crucial to follow the argument. These are not Cartesian notions; they are borrowed from the tradition he’s arguing from within for the purposes of the Meditations, exogenous to the properly Cartesian method but plugged into it like values into an equation.
Briefly, ‘objective’ as contrasted with ‘formal’ is meant to indicate the intentionality or aboutness of an idea, its specific object-orientedness, as contrasted to its mere factuality as an episode or event in the history of somebody’s thought or of the world. ‘Reality’ here is not to be taken as synonymous with ‘existence’, but rather thinghood, whether existent or no — the idea of a unicorn has ‘objectively reality’ in the sense Descartes uses the term, which is the first stumbling block you have to get past in parsing him — one that wouldn’t have existed to his principal audience of people who’d had a scholastic education. The sun itself, by contrast, has only ‘formal reality’ in the sense of being a factual thing, with no ‘aboutness’ to it, i.e. the sun itself does not refer to anything whereas our idea of the sun does, and thus has both formal and objective reality because it is both a factual event and about something else. With me? Good.
The problem that Descartes then sets himself, on the way to the theological proof, is twofold: 1) how to account for the specificity (i.e. the objective reality) of ideas, insofar as they are ideas about this thing rather than that thing (which he now has to do, having dismissed the obvious and wrong hylomorphic answer three times over), and 2) to account for the material falsity of objectively real ideas. That is, he needs both a theory of the genesis of ideas and a theory of error, since the old theory has not held up to methodic scrutiny. Meditation III deals with the first problem, and Meditation IV with the second.
In order to provide the first, he invokes the old tried and true workhorse of ex nihilo nihil fit, ‘nothing comes from nothing’, a principle he can count on none of his interlocutors quibbling with. It is a natural quantitative extension of this notion that whatever degree of reality an effect has, its cause must have at least as much reality. He then articulates this extension of the principle as: the idea can only have as much objective reality as there is formal reality in its cause. If you find your skin crawling a little at the thought of how to quantify ‘degrees of reality’, you are in good company, but it is important to understand that in fact this would have been an extremely uncommon reaction in Descartes’ epoch: it had been an article of metaphysical faith for centuries before he wrote that being and reality admits of continuous degrees of perfection (this being the original meaning of natura non facit saltum), and in fact the entire cosmology of the Middle Ages was based around this notion. In began to crumble during the Reformation, but this process was still only nascent when the Meditations were written and the Sorbonne theologians would have held it de rigeur despite creeping doubts about its adequacy.
So, having committed to some kind of causal theory of ideas, but eliminated the things themselves as the source of the causation, he goes on to ask: could I be the cause of my own ideas? After some searching, he admints that while many of his ideas could originate from the inspection of his own nature, either directly or by some process of analogy, this isn’t true for at least one idea: infinity. If anything, what’s conspicuous in his reflections on his own nature is that he is a manifestly finite being, and one can’t possibly have the idea of finitude without having an idea of infinitude — in other words, there is a dependence of his own idea of himself upon some logically antecedent idea of infinity, which, per what’s already stated above, can’t have come from nothing, can’t have come from himself, and can’t have come by formal causation directly from some other finite being. And yet, there it is, clear in his mind. While other examples could be adduced, this one is sufficient for his purposes — and also necessary, as we’ll see next.
What his idea of infinity attaches itself to, however, is not anything so suspect (at this stage of the argument) as time, space, matter or motion — indeed, as he points out in other writings, trying to attach the idea of infinity to these things results in hopeless antinomies — but rather another idea, that of an absolutely perfect, sovereign being. This is in fact infinity’s unique subject, and in accordance with the reasoning adduced up to this point, in order to account for his own idea of infinity he must irresistably conclude that such a being exists, and that since this is exactly what we mean by ‘God’, God exists. Note that this isn’t hylomorphism smuggled in through the back door: it is hypothetically possible that he might never have had the idea of infinity even if he were created by God (and therefore had no inkling of God’s existence), and any direct physical contact or sensory exposure to God is out of the question, hence so is formal causation. But given his idea of an infinitely perfect being and the common notions already made use of in the proof, commitment to God’s existence follows irresistably.
You’ll notice that in my reconstruction, appeals to ‘existence’ as a necessary property of God do no work in the proof and are only established at the conclusion; although Descartes does invoke the notion that ‘existence is a perfection’ and that ‘existence thus belongs to God’s essence’, as Anselm does, if you pick the argument apart carefully you’ll find that it’s irrelevant to the central chain of reasoning and could have been omitted with a gain in clarity. The idea of infinity is the pivot of the argument, and existence is established a posteriori to explain it after the alternatives have all been ruled out. But even this is tentative and not final: all he has established at this point is the irresistability of belief in God’s existence, and the irresistability of the principle that if you find an idea not derivable from reflection on one’s own essence as a thinking thing, it must have been put there by God. This is important, because many refutations of so-called ‘ontological proofs’ (like Kant’s, which revolves around the principle that ‘existence is not a predicate’) don’t actually end up affecting Descartes argument, which is not so much ‘ontological’ as what you could call ‘transcendental’.
The hard part is over; there’s just one more crucial step in the proof. Having reached this point, Descartes raises one further degree of doubt which he tellingly refers to as ‘very slight, so to say metaphysical’ — possibly the coyest remark in the entire book, because the point he’s about to raise cuts deepest of all. Isn’t it still possible, he speculates, that I could be constituted in such a way that even though I followed the best possible practices of rigorous thinking, and made every attempt to purify my thinking of anything not perceived with total clarity and distinctness, I could still be irresistably led toward beliefs which were false? In other words, could it actually be part of my nature to be radically and irredeemably decieved, irresistably drawn to falsehood?
By a kind of stare decisis, Descartes argues that since it’s also part of our conception of God that he’s omnibenevolent and omnipotent, our demonstrated commitment to his existence further commits us to the the belief that he can’t deceive us, since to deceive necessarily implies either weakness or malice or both. To believe in our own radical and irredeemable deception is thus to contradict ourselves by negating either God’s goodness or power. Therefore, it must be the case that escaping error is always within our human capabilities, using the natural light of reason that God has given us, and our errors are solely due to contingent and redeemable weaknesses of will. Leaving aside for the moment the necessary elaboration of the theory of error that completes this picture, the deed is done: since our errors must always be corrigible, and our guarantee of this is established along with the existence of God, then our belief in God is established as absolutely secure and itself incorrigible, along with every other belief we arrive at by the natural light of pure reason.
((What needs to be emphasized here is that Bernard Williams’ conception of an absolute standpoint is precisely what Descartes disavows from beginning to end, as a source of ‘atheism’, which for him is equivalent to despair of reason: to try to treat the infinite in terms of the finite, i.e. to get outside one’s own subjectivity, which is precisely what cannot be done. The Infinite, the Absolute, Deity, God — these are all ciphers in Descartes for what Kant later calls ‘transcendental realism’ and Williams calls ‘the absolute standpoint’, and they inevitably land us in heteronomic despair of reason because they propose an impossible standard. One modern face of this is ‘historicism’, which is about as opposed to the real practice of history as it is possible to be.))
One More Digression: The Cartesian Slingshot
Like any non-trivial argument, this one has multiple possible points of failure: you could deny that reality admits of degrees, you could deny that effects demand causes at least as real as they are, you could deny any necessary relationship between objective and formal reality, you could deny that we have any clear and distinct conception of infinity, you could deny the logical compatibility of infinitude and benevolence, etc. But that is exactly the point: the refutation of the argument in Meditations would require the refutation of at least one article of common sense as it was taken to be for the sake of that argument, and there would be no way to see this, nevemind carry it out, than by following Descartes’ method — plugging in different common notions than the ones he used. Descartes is able to plead perfect orthodoxy within the context of the argument, even though the larger thrust of the argument — if we look at form rather than content — is that articles of common sense are fallible and open to correction, but only by the systematic deployment of other pieces of common sense.
The proof of God, though it is much more elaborate, follows exactly the same style and standard as the the earlier proof in the Second Meditation of one’s own existence: there he helps himself to common notions like ‘what thinks must exist’, and similarly here he helps himself to others such as ‘if something exists, it can’t have come from nothing’. In order to refute the argument, one must reject one or more of the common notions he invokes to support it: and in fact this turns out to be the deeper significance of the Cartesian method, habitually overlooked by commentators that start with the unpersuasiveness of the argument he uses the method to construct. Of course it’s unpersuasive to you: you’re not the intended audience, your common notions aren’t those being invoked here. For us, to try to be persuaded by Descartes’ argument is like Chesterton’s joke about attempting to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor: the required effort of imagination alone is exhausting.
Of course it is also an important fact about the Meditations that many of Descartes’ contemporaries also found it unpersuasive, though some of the more acute and open-minded critics like Arnauld started to see his deeper point after extended correspondences. It is not an accident that Descartes consistently showed a keen interest in refutations of his arguments, and took the unprecedented step of publishing other people’s objections alongside them. It’s because even if he loses, he wins: in order to refute him decisively, you have to employ his methods and thereby become a convert.
What he is pushing for, always and everywhere in his writings, is the autonomy of reason: the notion that the only way out of error is the methodical application of reason, and that there is no higher court of appeal, whether that be the senses, the passions, custom or revelation — appeal to these being always to some extent dogmatic and disingenuous. In an attempt to drag the Sorbonne theologians halfway to that position, he happily availed himself of their articles of faith; whether or not Descartes ‘really’ believed them himself, well — given what he has to say about morality in Part III of the Discourse, that’s an imponderable. I take the weight of evidence from his letters to suggest that he did believe, but on entirely pragmatic grounds, and would have changed his beliefs on a dime if he’d thought he’d found better ones to further his cause. This would mean it’s still not a bad faith argument — merely more than what it seems on the surface.
In any case, the significance of the transcendental argument — from the idea of God to God’s existence, and then from God’s goodness to the reliability of reason — is that, as Descartes himself says, this type of proof is the only rigorous way out of solipsistic idealism: something like it must apply not only to God, but to any being which transcends one’s own mind. The central appeal of the argument is from an idea of something which is clear and distinct but whose object nonetheless eludes total comprehension, to the existence of that thing, though it may exceed one’s idea: in his reply to Caterus’ First Objections to the Meditations, Descartes uses the metaphor of standing by the ocean — one can’t take it all into one’s field of vision, but nonetheless it is there in your perception, clear as anything.
Indeed, the very proof of the thing’s existence comes precisely from the fact that while the thought of it is irresistably immanent in your mind, the thing itself irreducibly transcends your understanding. Even if this particular argument for God’s existence is found wanting, the type of argument is of much wider philosophical relevance. It is, for example, the same kind of argument by which you can prove the existence of other minds: the idea of otherness is there and attaches itself to people, it can’t have originated in you, you can’t reduce it to anything sensory, and therefore the only explanation is that you got the idea from them, which is how you know they exist.
((The first important thing to note here is that error for Descartes isn’t merely about asserting falsehoods or denying truths, which would make him an externalist of the excessive type concerning error; rather, it is about asserting what one does not have any normative compulsion to assent and denying likewise. This is of a piece with his ‘withdrawal from the senses’ and more generally his abandonment of naive correspondence theories of truth — it is necessary for the autonomy of reason that heteronomous sources of rationality and error be eliminated. It also syncs up with his notion of the material falsity of ideas and the formal falsity of judgments: the judgments are formally false even if materially true if they fail to be done from the natural light of reason. An act can be ‘formally wrong’ if done for the wrong reasons, even if it is ‘materially right’ in the sense that it gets a good result. Stress how close he ends up to Kant: the unconditional value is the good will, the categorical imperative is to resolutely do what reason recommends.))
– It’s not that he’s arguing that I cannot err about what I clearly and distinctly perceive, but rather that I cannot err if I assent only to what I clearly and distinctly perceive. Error for Descartes is inherently bound up with the will, i.e. with assent; you can’t grasp his account of error without reference to this. Even if the thing later turns out to be untrue, you won’t have erred because you made the best use of the evidence you had, given your finite intellect.
((M.II furnishes quid, but esse is a stronger requirement. franfurt’s homily of the shoes: if I know with certainty that my wife paid $27 for something yesterday, and this is all I know about that thing, it does not follow that it is part of the essence of that thing to be bought by my wife for $27. we cross that bridge later, in the 5th meditation, after and only after the CDPT principle is rendered CDP in M.IV.))
‘What is it to us if someone should feign that the very thing of whose truth we are so firmly persuaded appears false in the eyes of God or of the Angels and that hence, speaking absolutely, it is false? Why should we concern ourselves with this absolute falsity, since we by no means believe in it or have the least suspicion of it? For we are supposing a belief or a conviction so strong that nothing can remove it, and this conviction is in every respect the same as perfect certitiude.’ (Rene Descartes, ‘Reply to Objections II’)
‘For my part, I know that my intellect is finite and God’s power is infinite, and so I set no bounds to it; I consider only what I can conceive and what I cannot conceive, and I take great pains that my judgment should accourd with my understanding. And so I boldly assert that God can do everything which I conceive to be possible, but I am not so bold as to deny that He can do whatever conflicts with my understanding — I merely say that it involves a contradiction.’ (Letter to Henry More, 1649)
‘The arguments in respect of which I ask my readers to be attentive and not argumentative are not of a kind which could possibly divert their attention from any other arguments which have even the slightest chance of containing more truth than is to be found in mine. Now my exposition includes the highest level of doubt about everything, and I cannot recommend too strongly that each item should be scrutinized with the utmost care, so that absolutely nothing is accepted unless it has been so clearly and distinctly perceived that we cannot but assent to it. By contrast, the only opinons I want to steer my readers’ minds away from are those which they have never properly examined — opinions which they have acquired not on the basis of any firm reasoning but from the senses alone. So in my view no one who restricts his considerations to my propositions can possibly think he runs a greater risk of error than he would incur by turning his mind away and directing it to other propositions which are in a sense opposed to mine and which reveal only darkness (i.e. the preconceived opinions of the senses).′ (Second Replies)
‘Although I had seen many ancient writings by the Academics and the Skeptics on the subject, and was reluctant to reheat and serve this stale cabbage, I could not avoid devoting one whole Meditation to it.’ (Second Replies)
((is it worth placing this in context of the Reformation? after all, Descartes’s arguments against the authority of the senses run completely parallel to an argument that could be made about the authority of revelation, i.e. that it cannot justify itself and needs to fall back on reason if it wishes to do so. his later forray into arguments for transubstantiation are relevant here: the question lurking in the background is whether the Church can properly command assent to a proposition that reason cannot accept.))
Hiram Caton, ‘The Problem of Descartes’ Sincerity’
Hiram Caton, ‘Descartes’ Anonymous Writings’
Kenneth Dorter, ‘Science and Religion in Descartes’ Meditiations’
Lynne Thorndike, ‘Censorship by the Sorbonne of Science and Superstition in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century’
Harry Frankfurt, ‘Descartes on the Creation of the Eternal Truths’
Richard Kennington, ‘The Finitude of Descartes’ Evil Genius’
Stephen Gaukroger, ‘Descartes’ Early Doctrine of Clear and Distinct Ideas’
John Morris, ‘Cartesian Certainty’
Bradley Rubidge, ‘Descartes’ Meditations and Devotional Meditations’
C.F. Fowler, Descartes on the Human Soul
Pietro Redondi, Galileo: Heretic
Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo
Stephen Menn, Descartes and Augustine
R.H. Popkin, History of Skepticism
C.B. Schimtt, Cicero Scepticus
D.C. Allen, Doubt’s Boundless Sea
T.J. Cronin, Objective Being in Descartes and Suarez
H.G. Frankfurt, Demons, Dreamers and Madmen
Janet Broughton, Descartes’ Method of Doubt
John Carriero, Between Two Worlds