Friday, May 19, 2017

Evening Note for Friday, May 19

Thought for the Evening: Saint Teresa of Avila and Rene Descartes

Christia Mercer has an interesting paper discussing the possibility that St. Teresa of Avila might be an influence on Descartes. (It has been fortuitously making the rounds while I've been reading St. Teresa, due to this article, which overstates things a fair amount. I think I first saw notice of the article here, but the most extensive discussion has been in the comments at the Leiter Report.) She primarily focuses on arguing that Descartes's use of the notion of an evil deceiver is anticipated by St. Teresa, especially in the Interior Castle. In particular, she thinks they share what she calls the deceiver strategy, composed of the following features, slightly paraphrased:

(1) The meditator recognizes that many of her beliefs need to be reevaluated.

(2) The meditator sees the need to set aside her beliefs as a first step in the discovery of fundamental truths.

(3) The only way to do this is to refrain from assenting to beliefs about the external world.

(4) When the meditator commits to this, however, the beliefs return and tempt her.

(5) A deceiving demon confounds the meditator and impedes her progress.

(6) The meditator needs to rethink her way forward by means of self-knowledge.

As I have noted in discussing Hume and Buddhism, there are a number of questions that have to be considered in an argument like this. We have (a) the question of what, exactly, the structural parallel is; (b) the assessment of our causal evidence, particularly with regard to available causal paths; (c) causal inference in order to determine whether the reason for the parallel is influence, convergence, objective coincidence, or an artifact of interpretation; (d) assessment of what, exactly, this illuminates in either.

(a) The six-element structure Mercer identifies is interesting. It is true that both St. Teresa and Descartes are concerned with self-knowledge, and that the question of deception is often a major issue for both. The emphasis on belief is a possible issue, since St. Teresa is actually concerned with the whole of life, and not just belief. But it is true, as Mercer says, that St. Teresa's emphasis on self-knowledge means that her conception of the problems often has clear epistemological elements in it.

The structure is also notably pitched at a very general level. (3) is the one that worries me the most on this; I'm not wholly convinced refraining from assent to belief is a good way to characterize what she is talking about, even despite the epistemological aspect of her discussion. And if you get less general than this, I think the differences between what St. Teresa is doing and what Descartes is doing are rather significant. But it is true that we have certain basic themes, linked together, in some kind of order: the need to overcome oneself, the issue of deceptive power, and the importance of entering into oneself in order to deal with these. This is arguably enough to be going on, although the generality forces one to a certain modesty in one's conclusions.

(b) Mercer does an excellent job of identifying in a very concise way the evidence for available causal pathways -- the Jesuit curriculum in which Descartes was taught had a component concerned with spirituality; St. Teresa had close connections with the Jesuits; the Jesuits had been active in pressing for her beatification, which occurred in 1614 while Descartes was at La Flàche; her writings had a surge of popularity after her canonization in 1622; and people around Descartes were reading her. On its own these things are enough to establish a possible causal pathway; indeed, they would be sufficient to make the pathway probable if the parallel were stronger and more precise than Mercer shows it to be.

(c) I think we can reasonably rule out that the parallel is just an artifact of interpretation -- there is no doubt that St. Teresa and Descartes both put self-knowledge and knowledge of God at the center of their projects, that they both often have explicitly epistemological concerns (Mercer does not go into detail, but anyone who reads St. Teresa knows that she has extensive discussions of how you can know that your experiences of God are genuine), they both consider the question of deception by a greater power, and so forth. We can also rule out mere coincidence, in part because in this context, given this topography of evidence, anything one could propose as an argument for coincidence would be a much stronger argument for convergence based on a common context -- both St. Teresa and Descartes can be considered Augustinian, broadly speaking, and both clearly get much of their conception of self-knowledge from Augustine in one way or another, so the common environment is rather robust here, and the features of the parallel are quite clearly linked to the common environment. Even if Descartes developed his ideas entirely independently of anything in St. Teresa, he is developing common themes in a shared tradition under shared background pressures.

It is with deciding between influence and convergence that we run into the limits of our evidence. All of the themes Mercer notes are in fact Augustinian -- and St. Augustine's parallels with Descartes are far more extensive than St. Teresa's seem to be, as a great deal of the research on parallels between Augustine and Descartes has shown. This is a problem because St. Augustine's influence clearly swamps the field, both contextually (he is far and away the single most important philosophical influence in seventeenth century France) and in terms of Descartes himself. If St. Teresa is an influence, untangling that influence from some other path back to Augustine is not a straightforward task. I think Mercer would have to put the emphasis on the order of the six features. But to some extent the order is a natural growth out of any desire for improvement -- we recognize the need for change, we put aside what is problematic, we discover new difficulties in doing so, we overcome those impediments. The shared distinctives in the case of St. Teresa and Descartes are self-knowledge and the worry about an evil deceiver. That these have similar places in the thematic order is suggestive. But the underlying factors are fairly different: St. Teresa is concerned with evil deceivers because she had difficulty convincing people that she wasn't being deceived by the devil, as she notes in her Life; Descartes is interested in it as a device for pressing skepticism to its farthest possible extent. There is an undoubted similarity; but it is a loose one. Given everything, while the available causal pathways and the loose similarity make it impossible to rule influence out, it seems the evidence currently favors convergence rather than influence.

(d) Which is not a minor thing; one does not have to argue that St. Teresa is a direct influence on Descartes in order to have what one needs in order to argue that a comparison of St. Teresa and Descartes is potentially illuminating. This Mercer leaves for further inquirers, and this, I think, she has shown is a worthwhile project. St. Teresa has prior connections of note with other philosophers -- St. Edith Stein's philosophical work on the self being the most obvious because it is the most explicit case of St. Teresa directly influencing a philosophical discussion -- but another line of possible inquiry is always worthwhile when it is sufficiently established.

Various Links of Interest

* Ed Yong summarizes the recent lines of research suggesting that the human sense of smell is actually quite good.

* Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., The Object of the Moral Act

* King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands has, for the past twenty-one years, been working occasionally as an airline pilot, incognito, as a hobby.

* Maurice Baring, The Ikon, is a short story well worth reading: a freethinker learns the price of mixing deities.

* Tim O'Neill discusses the charges against Giordano Bruno.

Currently Reading

Teresa of Avila, The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle
Satischandra Chatterjee, The Nyaya Theory of Knowledge
Vladimir Soloviev, The Justification of the Good

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