The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy

By Bernard Williams; Myles Burnyeat | Go to book overview

SIXTEEN
Introductory Essay on Descartes' Meditations

'I would not urge anyone to read this book except those who are able and willing to meditate seriously with me', Descartes says to his readers in the Preface, and he makes it clear that he means the Meditations not to be a treatise, a mere exposition of philosophical reasons and conclusions, but rather an exercise in thinking, presented as an encouragement and a guide to readers who will think philosophically themselves. Its thoughts, correspondingly, are presented as they might be conducted by its author— or rather, as though they were being conducted at the very moment at which you read them. Indeed, the 'I' who is having these thoughts may be yourself. Although we are conscious, in reading the Meditations, that they were written by a particular person, René Descartes, and at a particular time, about 1640, the 'I' that appears throughout them from the first sentence on does not specifically represent that person: it represents anyone who will step into the position it marks, the position of the thinker who is prepared to reconsider and recast his or her beliefs, as Descartes supposed we might, from the ground up.

This 'I' is different, then, from the 'I' that occurs in the Replies to the Objections. In the Replies, Descartes speaks straightforwardly for himself, and the 'I' represents the author of the Meditations. The 'I' in the Meditations themselves represents their narrator or protagonist, whom we may call 'the thinker'. Of course the author has to take responsibility for the thinker's reflections. He takes responsibility both for the conduct of them and for their outcome, where that includes the beliefs to which we shall have been led if we are persuaded by the arguments, and also the improved states of mind that the author expects us to reach by following his work. But the author is not answerable for every notion entertained by the thinker and for every turn that the reflection takes on the way. The series of thoughts has an upshot or culmination, reached in the Sixth Meditation, and some of the thinker's earlier thoughts have been overcome and left behind in the process of reaching that final point.

Some of those who submitted the Objections found it hard to follow the working out of this idea, and to see how far the thinker had got at various points in the process of reflection. It is still hard today, and commentators' discussions of the Meditations often take the form of asking how much at a given stage Descartes takes himself to have established.

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