[Descartes]A brief introduction

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Arjen
 
Reply Sat 12 Jul, 2008 05:24 am

Initiator of Modern Thought

Life

Rene Descartes, also known as Renatus Cartesius was born near Tours on 31 march 1596 a son to a noble and moderatley wealthy family. He was educated by Jesuits and showed early signs of attachments to intellectual pursuits; mathematics in particular. He studied at the universities of Franeker and Leiden, and taught a few years at the univerity of Utrecht.

On leaving school Descartes lived a few years in Paris, in a way appropriate to his rank and income. As he becamoe more and more engrossed in his studies he found the social life so distracting that he took a job in the Bavarian army, thus ensuring leisure and quiet for his 'meditations'. This was at the beginning of the thirty year war.

In 1633 Descartes abandoned his plans to publish 'Treatise on the World' due to the condemnation of Galileo by the roman catholic church. In 1643 his work was condemned by the univesity of Utrecht.

Descartes died on 11th of February 1650 in Stockholm, Sweden. He had been invited there to teach the queen Christina of Sweden. Some say that he died due to pneumona because he was fond of working in bed untill noon. The sudden shock of having to get up at 5 a.m. due to Christina's demands may have been too much for him.

In 1663 the Pope placed Descartes' works on the 'Index of Prohibited Books'.

Cartesian Method

When he was 23, Descartes wrote his Discourse on Method, expressing his reflections on 'the foundations of a wonderfull science'. This was not a body of knowledge, but a way of investigating things. The rules of which were:

The first was to accept nothing as true which I did not clearly recognize to be so: that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitation and prjudice in judgements, and to accept in them nothing more than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I could have no occasion to doubt it.
The second was to devide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible.
The third was to carry on my reflections in due order, commencing with objects that were the most simple and easy to understand, in order to rise little by little, or by degrees, to knowledge of the most complex, assuming an order, even if a little fictitious one, among those which do not follow a natural sequence relatively to one another.
The last was in all cases to make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I should be certain of having omitted nothing.

Out of this short fragment from 'Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Searching for Truth in the Sciences'; a treatise on Descartes' way to obtaining 'true' knowledge through meditations (pure thought in Descartes' words) it is easy to come to Descartes' most famous quote:

Cogito, ergo Sum

This means: 'I think, therefore I am'. The reason Descartes concluded that he (at least) thought was because he could doubt everything, even thought, but when doubting he was still thinking. A summary of his philosophy could be 'Dubito, ergo Cogito, ergo Sum': I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.

The problem with Descartes' philosophies so far is that it leads to a certain skepticism concerning everything which can is percieved. For what can be doubted can be disregarded. This skepticism leads to a form of solipsism in the sense that any human cannot be sure about anything except the existence of oneself. All perceptions might be generated by the thoughts of the individual, making it so that it seems likely that only that individual exists in reality.

In Descartes' definitions consciousness (that which cannot be doubted; thought) is that which can be acted upon. That leaves the question what is acting upon it. The answer to that is very simple: God; thus solving the solipsistic problem. However, God being perfect and cause of everything - including one's thoughts - could not be a deceiver (Evil Daemon). Therefore any thoughts correspond to an external reality (or most of them do); thereby also overthrowing skepticism.

Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz are known as the three great (continental) rationalists; traditionally set out against the three great (British) empiricists Locke, Hume and Berkeley.

The Pineal Gland

An important result of Descartes' method is the seperation of thinking and extension, reason and body. This is done by the 'Cartesian Doubt'. The body can be denied, but thought (doubt itself) cannot. Descartes concluded that if the existence of A can be denied, but the existence of B cannot, then A and B are distinct things. Therefore a human must be, as Plato held, really two things: a space-occupying body and a non-spatial soul.

The body is like a 'machine'(1) to him, made up out of bones, nerves, muscles, veines, blood and skin that even if there were no mind in it, it would not cease to move in all the ways that it does at present when it is not moved under the direction of the will, nor consequently with the aid of the mind.

The problem with this phiolosphy is the question how the two seperate things (reason and extension) interact. Descartes' solution to this problem was that the soul pushed against a part of the body, the pineal glad, thus 'controlling' the body. This theory was found to be incompatible with the fundamental physical law of the conservation of momentum.

Denial of interaction

Because of the pineal gland theory being incompatible with the law of conservation of momentum some alternative theories were formulated. These are two of the most interesting (and holding) theories of denial of the mind-body interaction.

Arnold Geulincx (1625-1669) propounded th etheory known as Occasionalism. The theory holds that God has created the workings of the mind and the workings of the body as two seperate 'clocks', strings of cause and effect, being timed so perfectly that any occorance in one of the two occurs simaltaniously with an occurance in the other. No interaction between the two exists in this theory.

Nicholas Malebranche (1638-1715) went even further, in saying that all causality does not exist, except in God. God is the only real cause in the universe, who directly causes every thing and every event, in such a way that it seems to us as if these events produce eachother.

BibliographyNotes
(1) During the renaissance and the enlightenment the opinion that animals (and sometimes man) were mere machines; soulless, was held. The soul was what seperated man from animal, or individual from his fellow man. I a way these opinions are still held in medical science. The body can be 'repaired' as any machine.

Sources
A New History of Philosophy: From Descartes to Rawls - Wallace I matson
Meditationes
Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking Truth
Wikipedia


Written By
Arjen
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Sat 12 Jul, 2008 09:42 pm
@Arjen,
Arjen wrote:

Initiator of Modern Thought


Out of this short fragment from 'Meditationes'; a treatise on Descartes' way to obtaining 'true' knowledge through meditations (pure thought in Descartes' words) it is easy to come to Descartes' most famous quote:

Dubito, ergo Cogito, ergo Sum

This means: 'I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am'.



Actually, this quote never appears in the Meditations, or any place else in Descartes I know of. But, Cogito ergo Sum does appear in the Discourse on Method. It means, I think, therefore I am. Descartes's argument is, of course, that he could not think (nor do anything else, for that matter) unless he existed. When he was asked by the philosopher, Pierre Gassendi, why thinking was so important, for after all, "I walk therefore I am" was also a valid argument, Descartes replied that was true, but that he could be absolutely certain that he thought, but since walking was a bodily event, and he had already argued that he could doubt he had a body, it was not certain that he could walk. He pointed out that he could be certain he thought because doubting was a form of thinking, so that if he tried to doubt that he thought he would not succeed, since doubting was a form of thinking, and if he doubted he thought he would still be thinking.
 
Arjen
 
Reply Sun 13 Jul, 2008 03:14 am
@kennethamy,
Thank you Kennethamy, I messed up on that one. In my own defense I would like to say it was the last part I 'wrote' one day before going to work and I was planning to check 'details' later. I guess I just continued from there. Usually I am more precise and I will try to be in the future.

I am hoping you can show me a source which shows the link to Gassendi by the way. I did not know of the link and I am most interested.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Sun 13 Jul, 2008 07:03 am
@Arjen,
Arjen wrote:


I am hoping you can show me a source which shows the link to Gassendi by the way. I did not know of the link and I am most interested.


No problem. Look into "Objections and Replies". I forget which number Gassendi's is. (After the Meditations were written, Descartes sent the mss. around to a number of philosophers and theologians. They wrote their criticisms and objections, and then, Descartes wrote replies to them.They are very good, and important for understanding Descartes. They are in print)
 
Arjen
 
Reply Sun 13 Jul, 2008 07:22 am
@kennethamy,
Do you know the feeling of wanting to check all sorts of information, but never coming around to everything? I am having that feeling now. I will try to get hold of a copy nonetheless though. Smile

Might I say that I very greatfull for this information. I think I am going to enjoy those objects very much, let alone the replies.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Sun 13 Jul, 2008 10:12 pm
@Arjen,
Arjen wrote:
Do you know the feeling of wanting to check all sorts of information, but never coming around to everything? I am having that feeling now. I will try to get hold of a copy nonetheless though. Smile

Might I say that I very greatfull for this information. I think I am going to enjoy those objects very much, let alone the replies.


I am sure you will. If you are really interested in Descartes, the "Objections and Replies" is indispensable. Those by Gassendi, Arnauld, and Hobbes, are the best, but they are all worth-reading.
 
Arjen
 
Reply Mon 14 Jul, 2008 01:03 am
@kennethamy,
I am thinking of a form of scholasticism and perhaps our forum activities are that as well. Smile
 
dominant monad
 
Reply Tue 22 Jul, 2008 11:54 am
@Arjen,
Really good work Arjen, a nice introduction.. the first time i read it i got the wrong impression that Descartes was a skeptic, maybe just in the way you worded "the problem with Descartes philosophies so far is that it leads to skepticism...", when that was just his method, not his conclusion. (I realise you explained his way out briefly in the next paragraph, but i must admit i missed it the first time)..

Descartes wasn't a skeptic at all of course, his aim was to prove the truth of things and legitimise natural history by anchoring it into an a priori truth that couldn't be doubted. This foundation was the Cogito and it was his method of achieving this aim, not the conclusion. I know you mentioned this briefly, but i can see how someone could misread it. If there's one major point of Descartes that i take away, it's how he believes that 'clear and distinct perceptions' give access to truths about the world, which is the foundation of rationalism. If rationalists believe that reason and logic can discover truth, then they need a keystone truth that is above an empirical observation, and the Cogito is that one fundamental truth.
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Tue 22 Jul, 2008 12:43 pm
@dominant monad,
dominant_monad wrote:
Really good work Arjen, a nice introduction.. the first time i read it i got the wrong impression that Descartes was a skeptic, maybe just in the way you worded "the problem with Descartes philosophies so far is that it leads to skepticism...", when that was just his method, not his conclusion. (I realise you explained his way out briefly in the next paragraph, but i must admit i missed it the first time)..

Descartes wasn't a skeptic at all of course, his aim was to prove the truth of things and legitimise natural history by anchoring it into an a priori truth that couldn't be doubted. This foundation was the Cogito and it was his method of achieving this aim, not the conclusion. I know you mentioned this briefly, but i can see how someone could misread it. If there's one major point of Descartes that i take away, it's how he believes that 'clear and distinct perceptions' give access to truths about the world, which is the foundation of rationalism. If rationalists believe that reason and logic can discover truth, then they need a keystone truth that is above an empirical observation, and the Cogito is that one fundamental truth.


But how do you tell whether your perception is clear and distinct?
 
Arjen
 
Reply Tue 22 Jul, 2008 01:05 pm
@dominant monad,
dominant_monad wrote:
Really good work Arjen, a nice introduction.. the first time i read it i got the wrong impression that Descartes was a skeptic, maybe just in the way you worded "the problem with Descartes philosophies so far is that it leads to skepticism...", when that was just his method, not his conclusion. (I realise you explained his way out briefly in the next paragraph, but i must admit i missed it the first time)..

I was afraid of that happening. I had hoped people would ask or re-read (as you have done). It seemed more important at the time to at least write the introduction and mention most important facts than it being totally clear. I think some philosophies need more then a short introduction to become clear (as well as noticed fully). I am planning on writing a more detailed piece on Descartes' method as a part of a wider study I am doing at this point in my life. The crownpiece will be an article on the combining and progressing of method examined through several philosophers from ancient Greece to modernday philosophy.

Quote:

Descartes wasn't a skeptic at all of course, his aim was to prove the truth of things and legitimise natural history by anchoring it into an a priori truth that couldn't be doubted. This foundation was the Cogito and it was his method of achieving this aim, not the conclusion. I know you mentioned this briefly, but i can see how someone could misread it. If there's one major point of Descartes that i take away, it's how he believes that 'clear and distinct perceptions' give access to truths about the world, which is the foundation of rationalism. If rationalists believe that reason and logic can discover truth, then they need a keystone truth that is above an empirical observation, and the Cogito is that one fundamental truth.

Note that this a priori truth consists of God, and God only. To say anything less would mean the pyre of the inquisition.

I follow you in the sense that rationalists think that thought comes before observations, but not in the sense that this is apriori according to Descartes. That was Kant, who based himself on Descartes greatly, as well as Spinoza by the way.

Indeed the cornerstone of Descartes' method and thereby the cornerstone of his philsophies. As said I am planning to elaborate in a second article.

Smile
 
GoshisDead
 
Reply Tue 22 Jul, 2008 06:05 pm
@Arjen,
Nice Introduction, Although I still can't get into Descartes
 
dominant monad
 
Reply Wed 23 Jul, 2008 04:54 am
@Arjen,
in that case i can't wait on the second article, I like Descartes, if mainly for his method. I like the idea of locking yourself away and just thinking yourself to the truth of the world. It's a pity that the philosophers and scientists of his time felt they had to include God into their arguments in order to avoid being burnt at the stake. One thing i like about Descartes' Meditations is how he lands on the Cogito as being true before the idea that God must also be true. Kind of turns the established order on its head.

kennethamy: In the simplest answer, Descartes believed that 'clear and distinct' perceptions were of the kind as the Cogito. The Cogito struck him so forcefully that he thought it must be true. He could find no other way to disprove that he was a thinking thing, and therefore this was his first example of a clear and distinct perception. And just as Descartes was able to conceive of the truth of the cogito in a clear and distinct way, so we should be able to discover other truths that appear to us with equal clarity.

To go into it a bit further, these are not sensory perceptions, since he had already proved that these were fallible. To give an example of a clear and distinct perception, he gives the example of the piece of wax. He first describes a piece of wax as hard, soft, cold, white, square, etc. etc. Upon melting the wax, its features change, it turns into liquid, it darkens in colour, is becomes warm, it forms a pool, in fact there is very little in it to liken it to the 'wax' that you start with. But it is still a piece of wax. The -internal- logic required to maintain that this thing is still a piece of wax, despite all of its features changing, is an example of the type of perception that is clear and distinct. It is not sensory perception (which in this case would trick us into naming the wax as something else, since it's sight has changed), but rational thought that discovers the truth of the wax.

The point there is twofold: One, sensory perceptions let us down, and two, there is something about our minds that allows us to know truth even when it is at odds with our senses. He is referring in essence to both deductive reasoning, the inference from something that follows necessarily from some other proposition which is known with certainty, and to intuition, a conception which is so easy and distinct that there can be no room for doubt about what we are understanding. Both of these faculties are disinctly mind-like properties that enable us to understand the truthfulness of things.

Of course in order for these clear and distinct perceptions to be themselves true, they must stem from the Cogito. Descartes does this (not very well):

1. I exist as a thinking thing (The Cogito).
2. I have not always existed, therefore something must have been my creator.
3. There is a creator.
4. This creator must have created everything else, therefore must be omnipotent.
5. This creator had created my thought of the Cogito, which is true, therefore the creator must also be truthful; must be omnibonevolent
6. This creator must have always existed, and must still exist, must be omniscient.
7. Therefore the creator is tri-omni, is God.
8. God exists, and is truthful, and would not trick me into having clear and distinct perceptions that are not true.
9. Therefore clear and distinct perceptions are true.

The poor way he makes his proof should not detract from the overall idea, which inspired the foundation of contintental rationalism.

Examples of clear and distinct perceptions that we would talk about today as true would be the laws of nature, or the laws of mathematics. They could be summarised as being a priori assumptions, they are not based on infallible experience, but are self-evident.
 
 

 
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