Sunday, May 25, 2014

Wilson on Descartes's Meditations

Catherine Wilson is an excellent philosopher and scholar of early modern philosophy, but I am somewhat baffled by this argument from a recent review:

An examination of the overall intentions of that text, its peculiar, isolated place in Descartes’s writings, its intended audience, and its anticipated and actual reception would have been a welcome addition. The Meditations assert a strong demand to be read as a self-sufficient and logically compelling chain of reasonings; Descartes explicitly did not want the work to be considered and evaluated as if it merely laid out one particular way of looking at the world. But the commentator can perhaps resist that demand without doing the author an injustice. Descartes’s aim was not really, after all, to prove the immortality of the soul. Rather, the work is a reductio ad absurdum of the proposition that the senses can only solicit us to wickedness and that human beings since the Fall are so cognitively impaired and so wracked by sin that they cannot obtain efficacious and worthwhile knowledge of nature. It was dangerous to assert the contrary in 1640, but the marvellous artifice of the Meditations got the point across to many of Descartes’s contemporaries.

The Meditations don't, as far as I can see, have a "peculiar, isolated place in Descartes's writings"; Descartes, after all, had presaged them in the Discourse on Method (as Descartes himself notes in the Preface), and he solicited objections for the Meditations themselves, even going so far as to publish the Meditations with the objections and replies. This very pairing of the Meditations with the Objections and Replies suggests that the work is not so isolated and self-contained as Wilson is suggesting. I think, in fact, this argument is confusing the idea that Cartesian meditation is self-sufficient and logically compelling, of which there is plenty of evidence within the Meditations, with the idea that the Meditations is self-sufficient and logically compelling, of which I think there is no evidence at all. We see this in the claim that "Descartes explicitly did not want the work to be considered and evaluated as if it merely laid out one particular way of looking at the world", which seems to require that we are talking about Cartesian meditation itself, but is applied to the text of the Meditations.

I'm also a little puzzled at what Wilson has in mind in saying that refutation of the claim that "the senses can only solicit us to wickedness and that human beings since the Fall are so cognitively impaired and so wracked by sin that they cannot obtain efficacious and worthwhile knowledge of nature" was 'dangerous to assert' in 1640. Since Descartes was living in the Netherlands at the time, he would have, despite the relatively robust free speech in the Netherlands at the time, been surrounded by Calvinists of various stripes, so perhaps she's suggesting that the Meditations is at least partly an anti-Calvinist work directed against total depravity? That would certainly be interesting. But I don't know who of Descartes's contemporaries would actually have been in mind. Certainly not the Reformed scholastics who dominated the Dutch universities and who would have been the Calvinists most likely to read him. And I'm not really sure how well it would work as the kind of reductio ad absurdum Wilson is suggesting, although it is certainly true that Descartes is interested, as a major plank of his larger project, in establishing "efficacious and worthwhile knowledge of nature". But I might simply not be understanding her suggestion.

2 comments:

  1. Timotheos3:41 PM

    My guess is that Wilson is making the mistake of too closely associating the Calvinist position on predestination with the Augustine/Thomistic one, so Descartes’ intended audience would be all of the Scholastics of the day and not just the Calvinist ones. Basically I think she is taking the word of many modern Calvinists and Analytic philosophers who like to say that the debate on predestination breaks into two camps, Calvinism and Molinism, and then read those views into everyone, whether or not it makes any sense.

    If this is the case, then it makes sense why she would say that it was “dangerous to assert the contrary in 1640”, because she’s thinking that Descartes was dissenting from the Church’s common teaching, when in fact, this position was what Aquinas and practically the rest of the Scholastics had taught!

    So I’m thinking that this is just another confusion brought onto us by none other than the overly confident followers of John Calvin and/or Plantinga. I can’t tell you how many times they have asserted that I, as a Wesleyan, just must be a Molinist, since, you know, it’s not Calvinism; that means you have to believe in middle knowledge, think that you can choose God’s grace without his grace, that you are secretly a Semipelagian, etc…

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  2. Timotheos4:04 PM

    By "predestination" I meant the T in TULIP; so predestination in general, and not in particular

    ReplyDelete

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