Following the two prefaces, the Meditations opens with the formulation of Descartes’ famous ‘Doubt’, which word is of such central importance to him that he even sees fit to capitalizes it. Descartes’ doubt has been taken by almost all of his readers as being proposed in full sincerity as a new philosophical method. Hordes of second-rate thinkers have delighted in pointing out the shortcomings in it and the errors Descartes makes in his presentation of his logic,1 scores more in suggesting that he did not take his method far enough, and helpfully showing the way toward yet further devastations. In this way, a seductive invitation to a most insidious doubt, through Descartes, has made its indelible mark on Modernity, even while his method has been almost universally considered either unsatisfactory or unconsummated. Descartes thus finds himself in the curious position of having built a large portion of the modern tower on the back of two narrow little books which everyone seems to believe inadequate for the foundation of such a grand edifice.
To us, this is nothing more than proof of Descartes’ extraordinary and serpentine effectiveness. He is the first cunning modern. We claim (which is nothing new) that the famous Cartesian doubt, as well as its ostensible resolution in the ‘proofs’ of self, of God, of the soul, is beset from the first with intractable problems; we claim furthermore that Descartes himself was distinctly aware of these problems. Many have believed that the existence of so many and such incisive difficulties must attest to Descartes’ incompetence as a thinker; we would happily submit to this opinion, were it not for the fact that there are clear indications in the Meditations itself that Descartes was well aware of the difficulties plaguing his proposed ideas, but chose not to explicate them. It is worth listing some of these difficulties, along with Descartes’ indications of the same.
Descartes appears to incite his readers to a novel, radical and global form of doubt, the doubt of everything that can be doubted. Yet Descartes both narrates his own development of this doubt and encourages his readers to follow it through the medium of language, explaining step by step the process of his thought. But a total and radical doubt of human custom must before anything else call into question language itself; a man who truly went about abolishing all human opinions would be forced to start with the words upon which those opinions are so universally founded. Language grounds both Cartesian doubt and the Cartesian escape from doubt; yet language itself is never called into question by Cartesian doubt.
Now, it is not only clear that language can be called into question, but that it must be called into question by any serious philosophy. It is our modern pretence that this fundamental point was first acknowledged by the linguistic philosophers, and therefore rather late in the ‘evolution’ of philosophy. But not even to go so far as reminding our short-memoried modernity that this problem was clearly known at least as far back as Plato,2 we restrict ourselves to noting that Descartes himself knew of the problem of language: ‘words often impede me and I am almost deceived by the terms of ordinary language’.3 He makes this noteworthy confession about the comparatively clear word wax; if the word ‘wax’ is open to doubt, how is the word ‘doubt’ itself at all in any way clearer, not to speak of the other concepts Descartes so freely bandies about, like ‘perfection’ and ‘thought’? Moreover, he likens knowing an ancient language to travelling, because it permits one to know foreign customs;4 language is wrapped up in the merely customary and cannot be easily abstracted from it. It may be indeed that language and custom are indissolubly integrated. But the customary is quite different than the truth.
It therefore seems that any attempt at radical doubt must first of all do away with the very lexicon by which one might articulate such doubt; radical doubt would in the first place eliminate one’s possibility to express one’s method, thus leading to a state of total intellectual paralysis, from which nothing whatsoever, and certainly not ‘certainty’ of any kind, could ever emerge.
It would appear that Descartes resolves this problem with another of his infamous philosophical innovations: rather than relying on language, he appears to make recourse to ‘ideas’, and most especially what he terms ‘clear and distinct ideas’, a phrase which he repeats with great insistency throughout his work. This notion of ‘clear and distinct’ is notoriously unclear and indistinct, and has occasioned no end of critique and attempts to comprehend what Descartes might be on about. We need go no further than Descartes himself, however, to bring some of these problems to light.
In the first place, ‘clear and distinct ideas’ are always ‘clear and distinct’ to a specific thinker; they are, to use an equally vague modern term, ‘subjective’. Different thinkers may possess ‘subjective certainty’ regarding contradictory ideas; Descartes, who was well aware of the chaos and confusion reigning in philosophy, recognizes this fact.5 Moreover, as Descartes himself notes, a man might be mad; he emphatically admits this possibility at once, as quickly dismissing it by baldly stating that such men as ‘imagine they have an earthenware head or are nothing but pumpkins or are made of glass’ ‘are mad, and I would not be any less insane were I to follow examples so extravagant.’6 Yet this obviously does not prove that Descartes is not insane, or that his own ideas are truly less extravagant than those of the pumpkin man with an earthenware head. Descartes is engaging here in a bit of evidently faulty, almost circular reasoning: if he believed mad things, he should be simply mad, and should in that case believe mad things sane; but he believes sane things, so he is not mad.
Furthermore, Descartes premises his doubt on the proposition that he might be dreaming; his experience, that is to say, might be an illusory or deceptive experience, produced by who knows what causes and revealing in themselves nothing true or solid. All men have had the experience of seeing things ‘clearly and distinctly’ in dreams which proved themselves absurd upon waking; what if the same thing holds for our thought here and now? Descartes never disproves this possibility; he off-handedly dismisses it at the end of his Meditations as though it were patently false, on grounds which are evidently dubious and which fly in the face of all the careful scepticism of his previous presentation.
Practically everything that Descartes argues hinges on the power of his impression that his ideas are ‘clear and distinct’; but, as he acknowledges, ‘the act of thought by which we believe a thing is different from that by which we know that we believe it’ and ‘the one often exists without the other’;7 as is but a basic principle of philosophy, it is entirely possible to believe a thing, even vehemently, without knowing why one believes it, which appears to be precisely the gaping hole covered up by the notion of ‘clear and distinct ideas’. Was Descartes really oblivious to this fact? Yet Descartes knows that the senses can deceive, and that men can be wrong even ‘the simplest matters of geometry’, which geometrical matters Descartes also holds to be the, or among the, clearest and most distinct of all ideas;8 how then can a man ever trust his mere impression of ‘clear and distinct ideas’ more generally?
The basic, unstated logic here is as follows: what is clear and distinct to me is therefore clear and distinct in and of itself, and it is clear and distinct in and of itself because it is clear and distinct to me. This is the second instance of blatantly circular reasoning we have encountered issuing from Descartes’ proposed ‘method’; it will certainly not be the last. More, it flies in the face of an evident aspect of the human condition, which is so fundamental to it that it almost forms the ‘methodological’ basis of philosophy itself: namely, that a man reasoning alone may not only be mistaken, but may even thoroughly persuade himself that he has attained the truth. Solitary philosophy always begs the question of whether the philosopher is not a madman; the philosopher, that man who stands higher above human beings than any other kind of human being, more than any other kind of man requires friends in order to philosophize.9 Descartes knows this; he notes the inadequacy of solitary human thought and the frailty of human reasoning so frequently that no one can say he was ignorant of the problem. He even seems to call upon the Doctors of Sorbonne and upon his very readers to confirm or disprove his ideas – the same ideas he has repeatedly claimed are ‘clear and distinct’ to a degree equivalent to or exceeding geometrical proofs. One might aver that these passages were the product of a false humility, mere rhetorical flourishes. But in this case, one must provide some explanation for how Descartes himself believed he had reconciled the problem of friendship with the problem of personal belief. And this cannot come through ‘clear and distinct ideas’.
The problems for ‘clear and distinct ideas’ do not end here. Descartes, in order to cement his radical doubt, proposes the hypothesis of an evil genius who is dead-set on deceiving us. What would stop such an evil genius from implanting in our souls a false sense of certainty with respect to anything he chooses? Recall that in one of the two ‘defences of God’ that Descartes gives in his introductory letter to the Sorbonne, Descartes suggests that the faith by which we believe in God is valid because it is implanted in us by God; this is strictly parallel to the possibility that an evil genius has implanted false beliefs into us which convince us of false things. It is only far into his reasonings that Descartes will ‘disprove’ this possibility through the ‘proof’ of a benevolent God; but as we shall see, this is in fact the most egregious and evident of manifestly circular arguments which Descartes proposes over the course of his presentation of his ‘method’.
Finally, Cartesian radical doubt purports to call into question all things; Descartes presents himself as having been chock full of questionable notions, and so proposes a kind of suspension of belief, a ‘knowing nothing’ almost even in the Socratic sense, as an attempt to rectify this absolute state of uncertainty, by calling everything into question. One can be forgiven for assuming that this state of deep aporia persisted in his soul until he came upon the epiphany of his cogito ergo sum. And yet, from the very first, Descartes makes it clear that he excludes mathematics, ‘Geometry’, from this doubt; he explicitly differentiates between geometry and philosophy, and assigns his method to the latter, not the former.10 That geometry contains certainty is never doubted; it does not fall within the ‘sphere of the things which may be doubted’, to use the words from the subtitle of his First Meditation.11 Cartesian doubt is not universal and radical; his doubt falls on everything which is doubtable, and from the first that excludes the geometrical. While he is clear on this score, he does not dwell on it, and even hastens past it with such speed that most commentators have totally overlooked it. We suggest this was intentional: rhetorically, his work strongly suggests that the first certainty he allows is that of his own existence, for he means to reground philosophy on mathematics, but to do so in a way that is not evident to any of his readers save the most careful.
The geometrical model is indicated once more at the beginning of the Second Meditation with reference to the ‘fixed point’ of Archimedes; Descartes is seeking a geometrical fixed point upon which to centralize philosophy, he is reducing philosophy to geometry. This is made clear yet again in his example of the wax, in which he finally eliminates the problems introduced by a shaft-shifting wax by reducing it to a question of extension. All of this flies in the face of his evident doubt regarding bodily things – the things of ‘extension’ par excellence; in point of fact, Descartes supposes bodily things as the most evident things, the least dubious things, and regrounds everything – including the ‘soul’ – on this basis. Descartes’ supposedly ‘radical doubt’ is in fact nothing but a rhetorical preparation for a mathematical understanding of the world; Descartes, even while posturing shamelessly as a defensor dei, is in truth and in his hidden intention a advocatus diaboli and defensor scientiae modernae. For, as Descartes understands with a clarity which our latter-day Modernity seems no longer to comprehend, the two positions are mutually exclusive: either modern science or God.
Modern science has historically been challenged on two fronts: first by mores, and second by religion, both of which it thoroughly contemns in our own day, and is permitted to contemn thanks to the work that was done by men like Descartes. Descartes’ doubt utterly abolishes custom and mores (here, his method really can be regarded as proposing a thorough and radical doubt), and prepares the second for a refoundation on sham certainty containing hidden principles which are conducive to scientific research and corrosive to faith, piety and religion. All of this is effected through the presupposed idea of ‘clear and distinct ideas’, which, as we have seen, is itself a rhetorical, not a methodological device in Descartes’ presentation.
The New Foundation
Descartes insists throughout his works on the metaphor of building; he is tearing down the old house of the old philosophers, built on ‘mud and sand’, and putting in its place a new building founded on something solider – upon a new foundation which he himself, via his method, will provide.
We have seen how the ‘total doubt’ of Descartes is really not so total at all, but is aimed rather at those portions of philosophy which Descartes (and not only Descartes) found to be uncertain or unsettled in his time. His intention was to geometricize these and to render them certain; he is the first mathematical thinker in the modern mould. In a carefully delimited portion of human thought, he claims to destroy everything unstable, to see if anything can resist his onslaught. From the first he admits that there may not remain anything certain after everything has been razed; he is presenting his method as experimental in the best modern scientific sense.
All of this indicates a certain prioritizing of what might be regarded as the modern scientific approach over the older pre-modern philosophical approach. We will have more to say on this as we proceed, but it is important to bear it in mind, for Descartes’ project – nay, the entirety of Modernity itself – cannot be understood without reference to it.
The first and easily most famous of the ‘certainties’ which Descartes ‘discovers’ through the use of his ‘method’ is his cogito ergo sum, phrased in the Meditations as ‘I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it’.12 This proposed reduction of the human being to a thinking essence has echoed throughout the chambers of all of Modernity, and it is no wonder; it is a marvellous sleight of hand, by which a dozen doubtful propositions are ingeniously merged in three persuasive little words. Many of Descartes’ readers even today but swallow this proposition as if it really were precisely what Descartes seems to claim: the first and most fundamental ‘clear and distinct idea’ which we moderns stumble across through the rubble we have made of the ages.
Yet there have not been wanting devastating critiques of this facile little proposition.13 What is common to at least most of these critiques is that they take for granted two propositions:
- Descartes was unaware of the problems with his cogito ergo sum;
- The disproof of this cogito ergo sum therefore proves that Descartes simply did not go far enough: it incites us to a still more radical and more penetrating doubt – which is to say, we must somehow attempt to finish Descartes’ unfinished project.
If the first of these propositions is in error, so would seem to be the second; for in that case it becomes apparent that Descartes’ project is not at all what he claims it is, and that his true project really is somehow culminated precisely in his cogito ergo sum, of whose weaknesses he was well aware.
Let us ask three elementary questions which follow from the proposition ‘I think, therefore I am.’ First: what am ‘I’? Descartes’ response: a thinking being. Second: what is a ‘thinking being’? Descartes’ response: a being which produces thought. Third: what is ‘thought’? Descartes’ response: that which is produced by a thinking being, that which I produce. I, a thinking being, exist because I produces thought; thought exists because it is produced by me, an existent being, a thinking being. The logic here is once again evidently and patently circular.
More, it presupposes that ‘thought’ itself is somehow a ‘clear and distinct idea’. Consider what was said above regarding language; Descartes knew that the little word ‘thought’ was itself far from being clear and distinct, as is immediately revealed by his careful analysis of this word.14 Descartes was also far from unaware of the most fundamental difficulty with his cogito ergo sum: namely, that ‘I’, when ‘I’ am understood as merely the sum of my conscious experience in this moment, do not think at all. To use Descartes’ own words: thought ‘is placed in me’; thoughts ‘come to me’; ‘thoughts … of themselves spring up in my mind’; ‘external objects … imprint’ on the brain ‘various ideas by the intervention of the senses’; ‘these ideas presented themselves to me without my consent being requisite’, and ‘the mind … [receives] impressions … only from the brain’.15
These are far from isolated passages; both books we are considering are full to the brim with them. The questions of the being and origin of thought, which are deliberately obscured by the cogito ergo sum, are, far from being a matter about which Descartes gave too little meditation, in a way the very central aim of his entire project: the culmination of that project comes in the latter part of the Sixth Meditation, when Descartes once more calls the senses into review and rehabilitates them from his ‘doubt’, grounding them thoroughly on mathematics alone. None of this depends logically on the cogito ergo sum, which in point of fact is, in the absence of any number of supporting and prior presuppositions, utterly meaningless, as Descartes well knew. By concealing rather than revealing the complexity of the process of thinking, this tiny Trojan horse permits Descartes to sneak into his discourse the presuppositions requisite to producing a scientific grounding for philosophy.
So much for cogito ergo sum: this is what passes for a ‘clear and distinct’ idea on the pen of this great modern rhetor and sneak-thief. The second ‘clear and distinct’ idea which proceeds from his ‘method’ is the existence of God, and once more, one finds in Descartes’ readers and critics the same complacency and ingenuity which marks their consideration of his cogito ergo sum. Indeed, the craftiness of the second idea is all the greater; it is at once armour, camouflage, temptation and acid. The religious, though they might perceive its flaws, will in the main hardly be keen to expose these, since they find in them a kind of unexpected advocatus dei in the person of the ‘father of modern philosophy’, and are quite willing to let pious dogs lie. For the secular, and especially for atheists, there is something so outrageously false in these proofs of God that they are enticed to immediately deconstruct them and show the dozen points at which they are threadbare and inadequate – thus handily finishing the job which Descartes began. In this way, the faithful are persuaded to leave Descartes untouched and even to defend him, while the faithless are incited by his calls to rationality to follow his indications and to abolish the proofs of God altogether. Descartes thus indicates the downward path without treading it, and implants into all future philosophy a movement toward godlessness. Let us see how he accomplishes so much with so little.
There are in point of fact two distinct proofs of God contained within the Meditations. These same proofs are repeated in his Principles of Philosophy, but there are most significantly inverted. We cannot dwell on the reasons for this, which have to do with the nature and intentions of these works. For now, we restrict ourselves to the Meditations.
The first proof of God, which we might call the proof from perfection, is new to Descartes, though it follows the pattern established by St. Anselm’s ontological proof; the second proof of God is almost wholly a restatement of Anselm’s. Yet Descartes, as we have noted above, refers to the second proof as ‘new’, while he gives no such epithet to the first. This is mysterious; we must give an account for it.
The proof from perfection could be reduced to the following: we contain within ourselves an idea of perfection which could not have come from us as imperfect beings; it must then have come from a perfect being, which we shall call God. God implanted the idea of perfection in us; that is the proof that he exists. Let us recall that in the introductory letter to this work, Descartes indicates the ‘reasoning in a Circle’ of the pious. We have shown that this reasoning in point of fact includes two different, and presumably inadequate, supports for God: the first, that God places faith in man, by which faith man believes in God; the second, that one must believe in God because Scripture enjoins us to such belief, and that one must believe in Scripture because God has produced it. The first of these arguments is strictly parallel to Descartes’ first ‘proof’ of God: namely, that God places a certain idea in us which leads us to believe in him. This entitles us to look with some suspicion upon the proof, which is nothing but a complex restatement of an argument Descartes has already dismissed. Descartes himself furnishes us the means of deconstructing this proof: it may be that God, rather than being an omnipotent and beneficent being, is in fact an ‘evil genius’ devoted to deceiving us. How can we be certain, then, that the subjective ‘idea’ of perfection which we find in our minds has any relevance at all to reality? How be sure it is not merely a great snare and lie which has been placed in us toward the fulfilment of the purposes of some deceitful devil? Put in the terms native to Cartesian doubt: what is there at all ‘clear and distinct’ in the idea of perfection, particularly as conceived of by a being which cannot comprehend it, an imperfect being?
In truth, Descartes does not even claim to resolve this until the second proof of God, the ontological proof. The argument for that proof is as follows: it is impossible to imagine a perfect God lacking in existence, which is itself a ‘perfection’; therefore, God must exist. Descartes, who had been trained in the Schools, would have been of course entirely aware that this is nothing but a restatement of Anselm’s proof, and he would also have been aware of the disproofs which were made of Anselm’s logic by the schoolmen themselves, culminating in that of no lesser a figure than St. Thomas Aquinas. His ‘new proof’ of God is in fact a thoroughly old proof of God, and one that had quite run the gauntlet by the time Descartes arrived on the scene. Whatever one might think of the Anselmic proof, it is patently ridiculous of Descartes to present that same proof in different words and to claim that he has thereby given ‘veritable demonstration’ in a manner that will ‘be evident to everyone’, as he puts it in his introductory letter.
This alone entitles us to dismiss Descartes’ proof – but not his curious insistence on it. Given that Descartes was aware of all of this, as we do not hesitate to claim he must have been, what is his true purpose here?
The two proofs of God are divided by a full Fourth Meditation and a number of reflections in the Fifth Meditation. The Fourth Meditation – ‘Of the True and the False’ – comes into play interestingly late in the game; for a full three Meditations before it, Descartes had merely presupposed both the meaning of truth and falsity, as well as his ability to perceive these matters ‘clearly and distinctly’, and went so far as to use these presuppositions to prove God Himself; the proof of God relies on the epistemological and intellectual status of ‘clear and distinct’ ideas, which Descartes does not prove until halfway through his Meditations. And indeed, in the Fourth Meditation, Descartes affirms that the ‘clear and distinct’, if it is to be reliable, must have God as its basis:
[E]very clear and distinct conception is without doubt something, and hence cannot derive its origin from what is nought, but must of necessity have God as its author – God, I say, who being supremely perfect, cannot be the cause of any error; and consequently we must conclude that such a conception [or such a judgement] is true.16
We know that God exists through clear and distinct ideas; we know that we can rely on clear and distinct ideas because God produces them. Where have we seen this logic before? But it is formally identical the same as the ‘reasoning in a Circle’ that Descartes mentions and dismisses in the introductory letter. He has produced nothing new; he has merely sophistically rephrased a short and admittedly inadequate argument into a very long and seemingly sophisticated one, masking its evident circularity and decking it out in new and tempting array.
Both of the inadequate proofs of God from the introductory letter are restated in the body of the text as if they were indisputable demonstrations; why would Descartes do such a thing? Having seen how the inadequate proofs and Descartes’ own proofs are similar, we must understand now how they differ.
The proofs of God that have come down to us from Christendom all had as their singular aim the demonstration of that portion of God’s Being which could be demonstrated. The Christian apologists who proposed them were in no way deceived as to the necessary limitations of their proofs: they believed they could show the existence of God through reason, and in some cases even certain of His properties, but not His the commandments or revelations or mysteries. The former pertained to the legitimate field of philosophy; the latter, to the sphere of faith or religion alone. The latter sphere encompassed the former, determining both its limitations and its right transcendental ends; philosophy was the handmaiden to theology. The aim of these apologists was not to supplant theology through rigorous logical demonstrations, but to bolster theology by defanging a pre-Christian reason which seemed to tend naturally toward disbelief and skepsis. All that they did was done ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
Apart from his implicitly dismissive mention in the introductory letter, Descartes nowhere mentions Holy Scripture in the Meditations. The word ‘revelation’ never passes his pen; the Gospels are not once cited, the Holy Bible never so much as referenced, the name Jesus not so much as alluded to. This is not an accidental feature of his work. The god that he purports to have proved is a god of special character; it is a god whose entire purpose is to undergird the idea of a ‘thinking being’, the human being as a rational essence. Descartes does not prove, and does not want to prove, the Christian God; he wants to supplant that God with a deist deity which has been totally shorn of his moral, social, legislative and revelatory dimension, and which has been reduced to a mere cosmic scaffolding for ‘Geometry’. Note once more how the former dimension has been subjected without reclamation to the ravages of Descartes’ doubt, while the latter has been totally exempted from the same. The only moral dimension of the Cartesian god is his honesty; he cannot lie, cannot deceive, because this would contradict his ‘perfection’. That Descartes does not regard this as serving as a model for the comportment of man is, I think, adequately demonstrated by what we have shown regarding Descartes’ true Method.
The final ‘demonstation’ which Descartes claims to submit in his Meditations is the ‘real and true division between soul and body’. We will not dedicate the same time to analyzing this final proof as we have the other ‘demonstrations’, but it suffices to note that if one were to replace the word ‘mind’ with the word ‘brain’ in the entirety of the Sixth Meditation, philosophically nothing would be lost; Descartes altogether reduces the mind to the brain. In the French edition, the word ‘soul’ (l’âme)in the Sixth and final Meditation – which is to say, in the Meditation dedicated to speaking of the soul – is used only three times; the first time, in an almost parenthetical remark following the particle ‘inasmuch as’ (en tant que), which obviously makes no commitment regarding the existence or nonexistence of the soul; in the other two instances, in the formulation ‘mind or soul’, which suggests that the two are indistinguishable or that Descartes has not yet settled on which of them to prefer.17 His subsequent and total silence on the soul quite clearly shows us the nature of his preference. The question then is what the division is between mind and body. The only division that Descartes allows is that the rational faculty permits us to analyze the input of the senses and to distinguish between truth and falsehood, which in turn is reduced entirely to the question of physical dimension, extension, and body – which is to say, to geometry.18 And even here, the mind is but the product of the input of the (bodily) senses on the brain. In the wake of Descartes’ destructive course, there is no human soul left standing – and certainly not in any sense that at a Christian would recognize.
We are in now a position to better understand Descartes’ project. The Meditations are structured as follows:
- Meditation 1: Introduction of radical doubt;
- Meditation 2: Proof of the self;
- Meditation 3: First proof of god;
- Meditation 4: Discussion of error and falsity;
- Meditation 5: Reduction of matter to geometry, second proof of god;
- Meditation 6: Discussion of senses and their relation to corporeal objects and the body.
Leaving aside the First Meditation, we find a kind of thrice-layered sphere, or better say two concentric circles about a point. The first and out circle, which includes the Second and Sixth Meditation, relates to self or mind; the middle circle, which includes the Third and the second half of the Fifth, to god; the centre or core, which includes the Fourth Meditation, to the question of error and falsity and corporeal objects. The middle layer is imbued with a principle of self-destruction and self-disintegration; it is meant to be annihilated, leaving only the outer circle most suggestively encompassing the center.
Descartes’ Meditations and Discourses are both divided into six parts. Descartes suggests that the six Meditations were written over the course of six days. I would propose that Descartes did this in deliberate reminiscence of the account of Genesis: God created the world in six days, Descartes means in some sense to recreate it in the same period of time. In the account of Genesis, God’s eternal existence necessarily precedes that of the creature man; in Descartes’ Meditations, the existence of man, of the thinking being, precedes the ‘creation’, and even the second ‘creation’ or ‘recreation’, of god: Descartes has eliminated human contingency. In the Cartesian Genesis, the world and the existence of man have no need of a deity; god is first marginalized, and then in principle abolished altogether as being superfluous to the explanation of that world and that man. The Cartesian world is a world governed wholly by geometry, a world which can be rationalized, mathematized, and comprehended through science alone. Man, a geometrical being produced by a geometrical world, can understand both the world and himself through the use of science. He cannot do so, however, if he is obstructed in this task by the existence of meddlesome moralities and, most importantly, by the existence of a conventional religion which takes it as an article of faith that man and the world are fundamentally more than mere geometry, are imbued with a moralistico-spiritual principle that directs man toward a transcendent sphere which is not contained by or determined by mere geometry – a dimension of essentially greater dignity than mathematics, a mansion far wider than science could possibly contain. All of this, and the Church above all, has to be abolished – that is the true and concealed purpose of Descartes’ effectively devastating doubt.
But these things could not be abolished explicitly, outright and in open warfare, nor could even be challenged in those terms, for the simple reason that to even attempt as much would, in Descartes’ time especially, have led to persecutions by both the civil and religious authorities. Descartes was keenly aware of this; several years before the publication of the Meditations, he had decided not to publish his The World (or Treatise on the Light), which is surely his magnum opus,19 because in the same period Galileo made, and failed, his famous confrontation with the Church authorities. It would wait almost half a century to see the light of publication, and this long after Descartes had passed on. The scientific view of the world, of which Descartes was one of the principal fathers, could not emerge in the world save as the way was first prepared for it. Descartes recognized this with greater clarity than any modern scientist before him and perhaps any scientist since: both mores and religion had to be reformed in a manner conducive to the emergence and practise of science before science itself could properly exist.
Three questions remain to be answered in the final part of this essay, to wit: Why did the early scientists believe that traditional science, which is to say philosophy, had failed? What is the necessary and stringent connection between their scientific view of the world with modern philosophy – or, put otherwise, in what way are science and Enlightenment integrally related? And finally with what did Descartes hope to replace the scientifically adverse mores and religion of his time?
The answer to these questions will grant us a more penetrating view of all the fundamental features of the Enlightenment, the foundational epoch of the Modern Era.
1And not only second-rate thinkers; cf. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §.
2See Plato, Seventh Letter, 342e–343a and 344c.
3P. 77. On page 99, he indicates that one and the same word can be given multiple different meanings; how then to resolve, through ‘clear and distinct ideas’ alone, which of these is correct? Cf. also 17, on the discrepancy between speaking and acting.
4P. 6. Note that this knowledge of languages and its ability to connect us to past customs is not merely on account of the fact that it permits us to read old books: in the passage in question, Descartes emphatically distinguishes between knowing a language on the one hand, and reading its books on the other, going so far as to suggest that the former is more important than the latter; ‘I had already given sufficient time to the study of languages and likewise even to the reading of the literature of the ancients’, emphasis mine. Original French: et même aussi à la lecture des livres anciens.
8P. 23 and 7.
9Recall that Socrates was always in the marketplace. It is worth mentioning here that Heraclitus, the most solitary of perhaps any philosopher to date, ended his life in what was to all appearances total insanity, feeding on grass like a ruminant until he perished of this diet.
11For his exclusion of geometry from doubt, see 69.
12P. 72. The much more famous cogito ergo sum is the formulation of the Latin text of the Discourses.
13Rather than attempt a critique of a phrase which it has been the sport of every generation since Descartes to attempt to break into pieces, I will simply furnish at once the best and briefest of these critiques of which I am aware: Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Book I, §16.
14See e.g. pp. 73, 79 and esp. 81–82.
15Pp. 24, 23, 72, 37, 110, 118.
16P. 100; the bracketed phrase ‘or such a judgement’ is from the French version.
17Further evidence for this reduction is supplied once more by Descartes’ idiosyncratic and meaningful use of capital letters. In the French edition, l’Ame, the soul, is capitalized on two occasions only; once, in his pious introductory letter, and then again in the Second Meditation (p. 73) in which he seeks to comprehend what ‘attributes of the soul’ really are in him. He mentions the following possible attributes: 1.) nutrition, 2.) walking (i.e. mobility), 3.) sensation, 4.) thinking. He dismisses all of these but thinking, thus pointing once more to his identification of the soul with the mind. He neglects to mention emotion, passion, desire or imagination; the former three are tacitly altogether disregarded from his work; the latter is immediately employed in the continuation of the same Meditation, thus suggesting that imagination is a mere function of thinking. This forms the very foundation of modern rationalism itself.
18As the classic instance of this which Descartes himself mentions: a stick emerging from the water appears bent. That it is not in fact bent can only be ascertained by subjecting it to measurement, to geometry. Cf. Heraclitus, Fragment 3.
19The only other work which competes for this title is his 1644 Principles of Philosophy, which itself was a reworking of carefully selected material from The World.