Intros to European Philosophy: Descartes

In graduate school I quickly grew frustrated how limited my courses were in scope.  It seemed everything was an introduction, and often a disappointing one at that.  But this is also much of my experience of the quest for further wisdom.  Even my readings seem to halt at the introductory.  I find this anti-climax often in reading as in study.  In short, there’s rarely a sure foothold to be marked from such things.  The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002) is no exception. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not truly disappointed.  I’m only disappointed that I haven’t progressed further by means of these readings.  But enough of that, I’ll speak of what may yet be helpful and my impressions.  After that, I leave to you to decide whether any meaningful insight has been gained (or could be gained by another better equipped).

RENE DESCARTES (1596-1650)

Previously read: only excerpts from his Meditations on First Philosophy and wrote some short essay about methodological doubt in college.  This paper was a case study for me on how his method could be misappropriated to serve thought-systems alien to Descartes’ purposes. 

Key texts: Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy

Overall impression: It’s nice to be able to locate these thinkers in relation to one another, at least when I can remember key terms.  For instance, Descartes’ confidence in something that is true whether dreaming or awake (2+3=5) is located for Kant in the analytic (and the arithmetical or geometrical examples are completed by intuition guided by linguistic definitions). 

The idea that I am a thinking thing isn’t nearly as helpful as Descartes asserts, but he spoke in a different discourse than I do. 

Surprises: Ego sum, ego existo (I am, I exist) is to be found, not the famous cogito ergo sum (p. 34).  I had heard that Je pense donc je suis was to be found, but it was not in the offered excerpts.  The idea can also be found in some measure in Augustine, if you’re interested.  It just isn’t made to be the ground of epistemological knowledge as it is in Descartes.

  • He doesn’t really doubt the senses when it comes right down to it.  Doubt is a path to speak of being guided by the ‘natural light’. 
  • He speaks of being a unitary whole, but still uses the language of being a sailor in a ship when speaking of his relation to sensations.

Useful: In ‘Infinity and the Idea of God’ [B] (trans. Haldane and Ross), Descartes averred that we ought to name things ‘indefinite’ instead of ‘infinite’ (p. 85).  This better contextualizes certain mathematical problems: ‘how long is half of an infinite line’ no longer poses the same issues for us.


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