Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What is the Archimedean Point in Descartes' Meditations?

My relationship with Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is one of loving frustration.For a cursory report of the history of my interpretation: I have gone from not being able to accept the Cogito, and being offended by the 'assumption' of God, to accepting the Cogito, and being suspicious of a change in method that resulted in a complete breakdown in meditation four.Most recently I have perceived something in the fourth meditation that may allow me to understand a continued continuity after the Cogito, and a chance to continue to meditate along with Descartes.I hope to present some of my recent work with the Meditations to get some feedback and answer questions (hopefully) about this approach.
In the first two meditations Descartes does a terrific job explaining what he is doing in such a way that it follows more like a story than an argument.In the third meditation, there is a change in presentation: what was a story of adventures in skepticism becomes more like a scholastic argument for the existence of god, specifically an ontological proof.The change in presentation left me wondering how to continue meditating along in the same manner as before, since, for example, it is easier to understand what it is like to doubt but much harder to understand what ‘eminence’ is like (this required some digging).Here I allowed myself to simply change my interpretive method to a more argumentative style, and could accept Descartes ontological proof with some reservations.(Descartes does not seem to be doing anything other than saying he is limited and therefore depends on something unlimited, which is acceptable taken formally – some concerns with this are still available to me, but I will spare them.)
The fourth meditation instantly frustrates readers with what appears to be intellectual negligence.Descartes declares God to be good:
“For, in the first place, I discover that it is impossible for him ever to deceive me, for in all fraud and deceit there is a certain imperfection: and although it may seem that the ability to deceive is a mark of subtlety or power, yet the will testifies without doubt of malice and weakness; and such, accordingly, cannot be found in God.”(
Where is the argument for this?Maybe we can attempt to construct something about evil as privation, and then argue that deception is evil, but I think there are some reasons this approach is to be avoided.At this point many readers I know throw up their arms in despair; I was included in this group until recently, when I found a new direction for my interpretation.
As Descartes continues in the fourth meditation he says something very interesting:
“It is the faculty of will only, or freedom of choice, which I experience to be so great that I am unable to conceive the idea of another that shall be more ample and extended; so that it is chiefly my will which leads me to discern that I bear a certain image and similitude of Deity.” (ibid.)
Speaking formally, our will is equal to God’s, though His has much greater extension (speaking materially).I had read this a number of times before – every time I had gone through the Meditations – but the last time I was reading it something clicked.
If we take Descartes to be looking for an Archimedean point on which he can build a trust in the world and proceed with certainty in his inquiries into nature, then it often seems as if the Cogito is this point on which everything turns.Now, while this is true, it often seems that the infallible ground of our knowledge is that we cannot doubt our own existence.However, I suggest considering that the real Archimedean point is found in the fourth meditation - our possession of unlimited will.What is the value of this suggestion?First of all, it leads us back to a new consideration of Descartes radical doubt.
If we can doubt the existence of everything “outside of us”, but cannot doubt ourselves, there is still no reason to act or take any cognition as the basis for action.If we do act, we are assuming a reason on which we have acted and a ground in taking the seeming appearing of the world around us to be legitimate.It seems to me that this assumption Descartes takes to be a good God. Now, before we get suspicious, we do not need to immediately pull in assumptions from Descartes’ (and our) culture when we are discussing God, rather we should consider exactly what Descartes requires from the concept ‘God’ for his argument and only that.First of all, we know we are limited, and depend on something unlimited; second of all, what appears to us is not a lie.I hope to focus on the second of these leaving the concerns about the first behind. The development up to the fourth meditation constitutes an epistemic theodicy.This theodicy seems to be required as an assumption, a priori, for anyone who involves themselves in the world through actions, since the ground of trusting “external” objects is something that assures their suitability to know them, which would need to be a being that can guarantee our continued existence (omnipotence), has a grasp of thing in themselves (omniscient), is required to acknowledge in every case (omnipresent), and would not lie to us (epistemically benevolent, which may be the only benevolence required). As a student of Kant, I immediately see a connection between the primacy of will in Descartes and Kant’s Practical Philosophy, I also see a relation to Kant’s moral proof of God.Now, Descartes does not necessarily see his argument as I do, however, this interpretive hypothesis explains a lot for me and gives me reasons to return to the text to explore the predictions it makes. I hope this hypothesis can help anyone reading this to also see if they can make sense of the continuity of the Meditations.

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