§--'s Reviews > Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy

Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes
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May 21, 11

bookshelves: philosophy
Read from May 10 to 21, 2011, read count: 1

Discourse on Method is sort of boring. Meditations on First Philosophy is more interesting yet more fallacious (those two qualities go together more often than they don't).

DISCOURSE ON METHOD:

There's too much to say about Descartes for a GR review. I'll just say that (1) Descartes caused me a great deal of anxiety and skepticism as a teenager; (2) I don't completely agree or disagree with him on the soul; (3) he gets the straw man treatment from every pop sci writer and I find that infuriating; (4) I am just as uneasy about the ontological argument as I am about dualism; and (5) the same pop sci people think that Descartes' views are those of Christianity, but Descartes was put on the Index, and perhaps with good reason.

The stereotype about Descartes being some naive dualist is erroneous--it is not wholly dualist to place the soul in the pituitary gland (which is material).

About this text: way too much info about the circulatory system; and an obvious intellectual humility which I admire.

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MEDITATIONS:

Descartes is, like so many of the most "important" of thinkers, both more right than he is given credit for and more wrong than he is assumed to be for his importance. While his example was very inspiring to me as a Freshman kid taking his first philosophy course, parts of this are so wrong as to embarrass me for Descartes centuries later.

Encountering Descartes for the first time was exciting--I went through the whole process he did, from total naive realism to total skepticism to total solipsism back to cautious, not-naive realism. Exciting as it was, it's quite the emotional rollercoaster to wonder what your "I" is when you're a teenager who has taken a few weeks of a single philosophy class.

Since those anxious days I have mainly heard Descartes' name come up as a caricature in popular science. The straw man is that Descartes thought of man as a "ghost in a machine." Here is what Descartes actually says:

"Nature likewise teaches me by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, etc., that I am not only lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel, but that I am besides so intimately conjoined, and as it were intermixed with it, that my mind and body compose a certain unity. For if this were not the case, I should not feel pain when my body is hurt, seeing I am merely a thinking thing, but should perceive the wound by the understanding alone, just as a pilot perceives by sight when any part of his vessel is damaged; and when my body has need of food or drink, I should have a clear knowledge of this, and not be made aware of it by the confused sensations of hunger and thirst: for, in truth, all these sensations of hunger, thirst, pain, etc., are nothing more than certain confused modes of thinking, arising from the union and apparent fusion of mind and body...the mind does not immediately receive the impression from all the parts of the body, but only from the brain, or perhaps even from one small part of it, viz., that in which the common sense (senses communis) is said to be, which as often as it is affected in the same way gives rise to the same perception in the mind, although meanwhile the other parts of the body may be diversely disposed, as is proved by innumerable experiments, which it is unnecessary here to enumerate"

Read Meditation VI. He talks about nerves, too. Descartes believed in neurology. He thought that the soul could be physically located in the pituitary gland, I believe. HE WAS NOT A NAIVE DUALIST. Dualists are never as naive as they are said to be, and the biggest reason I have to doubt monism is the dishonesty with which its apologists present the alternatives.

These pop sci lies poisoned my mind (which may or may not be located in my pituitary gland) with the assumption that everyone had been a naive dualist until poor Phineas Gage shocked the world. Upon actually reading books, I discovered that this was not the case; and that Aquinas, for example, talked quite a bit about the brain.

Perhaps I'm angrier at my own stupidity than at the dishonest treatment of Descartes by both the naive who haven't read him and comment on his "importance" and the naive who haven't read him and turn him into a straw man.

There is a lot to say about the actual text here. Very briefly, I'll just say what has been said since Hume--that the clear and distinct principle is hardly clear or distinct; that the ontological argument (as it is here constructed) is unsound; that the trademark argument (as it is here constructed) is unsound; but that Descartes' religious thirst for truth on the one hand and his complete filial trust in God on the other inspires me to imitate him.


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