Argument and Persuasion in Descartes' Meditations

Argument and Persuasion in Descartes' Meditations

Argument and Persuasion in Descartes' Meditations

Argument and Persuasion in Descartes' Meditations

Synopsis

Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy has proven to be not only one of the canonical texts of Western philosophy, but also the site of a great deal of interpretive activity in scholarship on the history of early modern philosophy over the last two decades. David Cunning's monograph proposes a new interpretation, which is that from beginning to end the reasoning of the Meditations is the first-person reasoning of a thinker who starts from a confused non-Cartesian paradigm and moves slowly and awkwardly toward a grasp of just a few of the central theses of Descartes' system. The meditator of the Meditations is not a full-blown Cartesian at the start or middle or even the end of inquiry, and accordingly the Meditations is riddled with confusions throughout. Cunning argues that Descartes is trying to capture the kind of reasoning that a non-Cartesian would have to engage in to make the relevant epistemic progress, and that the Meditations rhetorically models that reasoning. He proposes that Descartes is reflecting on what happens in philosophical inquiry: we are unclear about something, we roam about using our existing concepts and intuitions, we abandon or revise some of these, and then eventually we come to see a result as clear that we did not see as clear before. Thus Cunning's fundamental insight is that Descartes is a teacher, and the reader a student. With that reading in mind, a significant number of the interpretive problems that arise in the Descartes literature dissolve when we make a distinction between the Cartesian and non-Cartesian elements of the Meditations, and a better understanding of surrounding texts is achieved as well. This important volume will be of great interest to scholars of early modern philosophy.

Excerpt

In the chapters that follow I defend a number of theses, but there are a few that do important work in generating most of the others and that are worth highlighting up front. One is that Descartes has well-developed views on the state and dispositions of the unemended philosophical mind and that every single claim of the Meditations is made from the first-person point of view of a thinker who is deeply confused at the start of inquiry and who progresses gradually and only partially from confusion to Cartesianism. Another is that Descartes is aware that not all unemended minds are the same. As he himself will say, the Meditations is written for a variety of minds. Different readers begin the process of inquiry with different confusions, and some are able to follow arguments that others are not. All will encounter cognitive dissonance, but in different ways and at different times and places, as a function of differences in antecedent commitments. the Meditations is written to catch as many readers as possible. a third thesis is that Descartes is an intuitionist in the sense that he holds that finite minds have a faculty for recognizing judgments to be true. We might be empiricists who recognize as true the claim that all knowledge is through the senses; or we might be skeptics who recognize as true the hypothesis that we cannot know anything, and also the premises and rules of inference that generate that hypothesis; or we might be among those who are in possession of no rigorous philosophical demonstration of the existence of a wholly benevolent creator and who recognize as true that it is possible that our minds have not been created in such a way as to be trustworthy. As an intuitionist, the question for Descartes is whether it is the empiricist or the skeptic or the theist or the atheist or the Cartesian rationalist who has chosen the clearest and most obvious claims on which to base the process of philosophical inquiry.

In this brief introduction I want to provide a sketch of the interpretation that I will be developing and defending in the following ten chapters. I will offer hardly any textual or philosophical evidence here in the introduction, but instead I want to provide a sense of my strategy and orientation. the defense will come later.

Imagine if Spinoza had embarked upon the project of writing a Meditations on First Philosophy. He would take the perspective of a person who has yet to subject . . .

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