My current nightly reading is cycling between Descartes and Foucault: well, at least they were both French. My reasons and reading choices aside, I ‘ve come through the Meditations on First Philosophy wherein we are led through Descartes’ search for the “true Method of arriving at a knowledge of all the things of which my mind was capable. (Meditations, translated by E.S. Haldane & G.R.T. Ross, from The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2012), Modern Library, edited by Monroe Beardsley: p. 15)” Noting that everyone seems to think they have sufficient good sense that most do not desire more of it (ibid, p. 5), Descartes chooses to sort between those reasons manifest as good sense according to method; namely, an adaptation of methodological skepticism which has come to be known as Cartesian doubt.
A full critique of such methods, or more specifically a critique of the reliance on methods to alleviate one doubt by choosing systemically choosing another and the dualism necessary to accept the Cartesian result, is not of interest here. Descartes has been scoffed at enough. What has interested me instead has been how the results of Descartes’ project so diverged from his purposes. An example: Descartes hoped, in the introduction to his Meditations to show how his method frees reason from prejudices. But Descartes was not truly interested in letting go of his central prejudices. The two that remained were his identity as a thinking being and being equally sure that God exists. Instead of liberating philosophy from all prejudices, Descartes hoped instead to free from all prejudices that were of lesser importance.
Of course, the first of these prejudices embodied in Je pense donc je suis or cogito ergo sum fails to answer either what it means to be, who I am, or that of which thinking is truly comprised. It did, however, add questions not asked in isolation (methodological skepticism was not original to Descartes – see Pyrrho of Elis, Sextus Empiricus, and, if you ‘re feeling adventurous, I really recommend al-Ghazali’s al-Munqidh min al-Dalal or Deliverance from Error but his use of it was unique) and the results went well outside the bounds of Descartes’ purpose. Instead of accepting the Cartesian presupposition, the subject ‘I’ became the locus of reason with the illusion that right thinking freed one from prejudice. The prejudice against prejudice must be dealt with another time, but I follow Gadamer enough to distrust such claims. Needless to say (why is this considered an appropriate segue ever?) Descartes sought to answer such questions as I have raised, but the success of his project was ineffective for effecting his purpose while its reliance on the definition of man as rational animal was reinforced by his project.
But the second is equally important to Descartes! Interestingly the idea of the ‘natural light’ rings of al-Ghazali as I read this, but my point holds: existence is not imagined apart from the being above the realm of thought. Here:
“[T]he idea by which I apprehend a supreme God, eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and the creator of all things which are in addition to Himself, has certainly in it more objective reality than those ideas by which finite substances are represented.”
~Meditation III, p. 45
Because Descartes is so assured of God’s existence, and recognizes that such an idea cannot originate from himself, so he holds that not only does something other than himself exist, but that being must be the cause of that idea (ibid, p. 46).
“Consequently, the idea I have of Him is the most completely true, the most completely clear and distinct, of all the ideas that are in me.”
~Meditation III, p. 49
He then goes on to consider, in Meditation IV, truth and falsity which necessarily includes some discussion of error by way of an Augustinian theodicy. In the Supplementary Passages attached, Descartes concludes:
“And though the wisest minds may study the matter as much as they will, I do not believe they will be able to give any sufficient reason for removing this doubt, unless they presuppose the existence of God.”
~Metaphysical Doubt and Certainty from The European Philosophers, p. 82
This should be all that is necessary to demonstrate that Descartes’s purpose in discourse cannot be easily divorced from a belief in God. Taking away this second assumption would remove the meaning in defense of Whom Descartes doubted. In a similar way, no one ever deconstructs purely for deconstruction’s sake, but does so with the hope to be consulted in the rebuilding. Otherwise, one does not write. That ‘s speech-act theory at its core: we speak and write to communicate a purpose. So, to avoid plunging further into terms, I here wish to expound on my own research project – that of mis-understanding as it relates to the thoughts of one or many coming to serve purposes contrary to those for which the author publishes. I ‘m no less haunted. If I stoop but a little to look at the mis-purposed corpses of thought – meditative projects whose methods are made to serve, whose lives must be animated by something other than the purposes which were their origin – that for which they were conceived and sewn together.
Again I put the question to myself, so I shall put it to you as well: what thought is more horrifying for the thinker? Rejection is far better than this mis-projection, this misuse of energies. Put the question to yourself – what is worth being not only misunderstood for, but what is worth putting your energies into and subsequently being completely misunderstood and misdirected?