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«The Scepticism of Descartes’s Meditations James Thomas Laval théologique et philosophique, vol. 67, n° 2, 2011, p. 271-279. Pour citer cet ...»

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Article

"The Scepticism of Descartes’s Meditations "

James Thomas

Laval théologique et philosophique, vol. 67, n° 2, 2011, p. 271-279.

Pour citer cet article, utiliser l'information suivante :

URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/1007008ar

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THE SCEPTICISM

OF DESCARTES’S MEDITATIONS

James Thomas Faculty of Philosophy Dominican University College, Ottawa RÉSUMÉ : Je suggère dans cet article que le modèle de la défense par Descartes de la science de la Renaissance pourrait être celui par Thomas d’Aquin de la science « aristotélicienne » du treizième siècle, n’était le fait que c’est la cohérence de la volonté qui prit en charge chez Descartes le rôle de la consistance des concepts comme facteur contrôlant dans les analyses de tous les types de science. En conséquence, la science nouvelle pouvait intégrer la conscience des idées platoniciennes et la divisibilité de l’espace euclidien comme un apport tout aussi valide dans la connaissance dialectique de l’expérience sensorielle. On peut interpréter les premiers arguments invitant à douter de la réalité de l’expérience sensorielle et de la raison comme une façon de scinder l’expérience de la volonté dans l’affirmation et la négation de la nature d’un objet, ce qui sera le sujet d’une enquête ultérieure.

Abstract

: What I’m suggesting is that the model for Descartes’s defence of Renaissance science would be Aquinas’s own defence of thirteenth-century Aristotelian science, except that the coherence of the will took on the role of the consistency of concepts, as the controlling factor in the analyses of all types of science. As a result, the new science would incorporate the awareness of Platonic ideas and the divisibility of Euclidean space as equally valid input into a dialectical knowledge of sensory experience. You can read the early arguments to doubt the reality of sensory experience and reason as a way of dividing out the experience of the will in affirming or denying an object’s nature, as the subject for subsequent inquiry.

______________________

T he objective of the early sceptical inquiry of Descartes’s Meditations would be one of engendering an experience of a “person,” in the sense Aquinas accepted — following Boethius — of an “individual substance of a rational nature” (ST 1.29.1), or in the meditator’s terms, “a thing that thinks” (AT VII 27, CSM II 18).1 The sceptical arguments of the First Meditation had the aim, according to Descartes in the Synopsis, of “freeing us from all our preconceived opinions,” and the “eventual result of this doubt is to make it impossible for us to have any further doubts about what we subsequently discover” (Synopsis, AT VII 12, CSM II 9). The arguments have seemed to many a cauldron of demons concocted to distil from our

1. Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, New York, Benziger, 1948 ; The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 3 vol., trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny (the correspondence), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984 ; see Charles ADAM and Paul TANNERY, ed., Œuvres de Descartes, 12 vol., Paris, Vrin, rev. ed., 1964-1976.

JAMES THOMAS

sensory and linguistic experience an absolutely certain foundation of a new and largely a priori science, and to have the “eventual result” of disqualifying every objective ground for any science. Yet that, I suggest, is to accept the point of view of the meditator and to obscure the role of the image of the meditator as the signifier of the subject for the analysis of knowledge set forth in the Meditations. You can read the early arguments to doubt the reality of sensory experience and reason as a way of dividing out the experience of the will in affirming or denying an object’s nature, as the subject for subsequent inquiry ; and the “eventual result,” the capacity of the coherence of the will to independently establish the ontological foundations of a new science.

What I’m suggesting is that the model for Descartes’s defence of Renaissance science would be Aquinas’s own defence of thirteenth-century Aristotelian science.

Aquinas’s proofs of God’s existence effectively established the necessity of the complete Aristotelian science as the outcome of the dialectical reasoning developed to account for events in our experience (ST 1.2.3 ; see also ST 1.16.1). The completeness of the “cause,” or argument, for these events ensured the “eternity” and “immutability” of the complete Aristotelian science, as the divine science : a complete science would have no potentiality of change, and hence the ultimate consistency and reliability of the science we developed through sensory experience (ST 1.16.7-8). The proof of God’s existence would have the rational legitimacy of a proof of the consistency of a formal logic, except the outcome would be the stability of a complete system of empirical knowledge.





Whereas the consistency of the Aristotelian science depends on the proof of the existence of God, the objectivity would rely on the soul’s immortality. Aquinas argued that the objectivity of a science of sensory experience entailed its enabling of the soul to determine itself by an argument, independently of the objects, and the organs, of sensory and bodily experience (ST 1.75.2). The objectivity of the Cartesian science would likewise rely on the capacity of the science to enable the mind to determine itself by an argument, independently of sensory and bodily experience. While the Cartesian mind is still the “form of the body” (AT III [505], CSMK III 208, to Regius, January 1642), the science would focus on relations of dependence or independence of the “substantial form” as the necessary “attribute” of a substance, as capable of being modified but in some way definitive of it throughout the dialectical knowledge of such a substance, and the accidents, as the “modes” of a substance of that nature. While rejecting the “principles of Aristotle” (AT III 297-298, CSMK III 173, 28 January 1641), the Cartesian science nevertheless accepted the AristotelianThomistic ontology, and the need to independently establish the consistency and the objectivity of the characteristically geometrical perspective of Renaissance science.

What the shift in methodology entails is that the coherence of the will took on the role of the consistency of concepts, as the controlling factor in the analyses of all types of science. Within the Aristotelian-Thomistic perspective, the issue of Renaissance science would be the tendency of its geometric and Platonic analyses to tell us more about the “one who understands” than any objective reality (see ST 1.85.1ad 1, 2). The methodology of the Aristotelian science would, by contrast, be one initially of

THE SCEPTICISM OF DESCARTES’S MEDITATIONS

abstracting an idea of an individual in sensory experience, and then of going back over the concrete reality of experience to divide out from the accidents the essential nature of such objects (ST 1.84.6). The Cartesian science would likewise accept the mind’s sensory and bodily experience as the point of departure and input into a dialectic of knowledge. Yet the shift to the coherence of the will in the role of the controlling factor in the analysis enabled the new science to incorporate the awareness of Platonic ideas and the divisibility of Euclidean space as equally valid input into a dialectic of the mind’s experience.

We would tend to ask about the “public accessibility” of the will to serve as the ground for a science. Jean-François Méthot has suggested that the narrative of the meditator’s quest for certain knowledge ensures the public accessibility of the arguments of the Meditations,2 and I take it then the arguments, themselves, could meaningfully disclose the mind’s nature as the will. To respond to Jean-Luc Marion’s charge of the solipsism of the cogito as the ground for a scientific method, Leslie Armour and Suzie Johnston suggest the will. The issue would respond to the universality of the “will,” in the sense of the capacity of the mind to determine itself by an awareness of “ideas” independently of sensory experience. While divorced from the reality of sensory objects, the mind is nonetheless capable of comprehending the universe outside of itself. They cite a letter to Christina, according to which the “free will makes us in a way equal to God,” hence capable in principle of comprehending the universe in this way (AT V 87, CSM III 326, to Christina, 20 November 1647, see AT 445, CSM I 384, pt 3, § 152).3 The will is elemental to clearly distinct knowledge, yet “free will,” in the sense of the “spontaneity” of such knowledge would be marked by a continuity of affirmation or denial. “[I]n order to be free,” the meditator contends, “there is no need for me to be inclined in both ways ; on the contrary, the more I incline in one direction […] the freer is my choice” (AT VII 57-58, CSM II 40). The coherence of the will in the role of the independent basis of conceptual knowledge should be understood by contrast to the opposing experience of selfconflict. The experience of self-conflict is like one of becoming aware of a counterexample to a thesis one accepts. It should be somewhat like suffering a guilty conscience or encountering the ungrammatical form of a sentence.

While the meditator’s quest for certain knowledge is apt to generate the experience of affirming or denying a concept’s nature, it is of equal importance to see the meditator’s arguments for doubting the reality of the objects of sensory experience and those of self-evident knowledge as a way of dividing out the will to serve as the primary subject for the inquiry. As Descartes replied to the colleagues of Mersenne, regarding a certain geometric style of argument, the methodology of the Meditations would have more of the nature of the exploratory, or “analytic,” mode of geometry — as opposed to “a long series of definitions, postulates, axioms, theorems and problems, so that if anyone denies one of the conclusions it can be shown at once that it is contained in what has gone before” — and he consequently called the Meditations 2. “Embrayages narratifs en philosophie cartésienne,” Dialogue, 49 (2010), p. 550.

3. “Ipséité et générosité selon Descartes,” Laval théologique et philosophique, 53, 3 (1997), p. 702-707.

JAMES THOMAS

“Meditations,” rather than “Disputations” or “Theorems and Problems” (AT VII 156CSM II 110-112, Second Replies). The popular literature of the seventeenth century suggests the Mediations would have responded to a crisis of confidence in reason, but these remarks of Descartes on the analytic method in the Mediations and those setting out the objective of the early arguments for scepticism in the Synopsis and Third Replies to Hobbes suggest the “meditator” of the inquiry acts as a “circle” or a “triangle” drawn in the sand. In the same way as drawings in the sand help us to follow out the analysis of the potentiality of objects defined by space, the meditator is of help to us in following out the analysis of the capacity of the mind to “clearly” or “coherently” distinguish the objects of empirical knowledge (Synopsis, AT VII 12, CSM II 9 ; Third Replies, AT VII 172, CSM II 121). The argument that “from time to time I have found that the senses deceive,” demonstrates the capacity of the “Cartesian mind” to coherently conceive of itself as distinct from the objects of sensory and bodily experience, as the idea of occasionally deceptive sensory and bodily experience — although not independently of the contextual factors needed to account for the illusions of occasionally deceptive experience (AT VII 18, CSM II 12). The meditator suggests the possibility of knowledge of sensory objects on grounds of an understanding of such contextual factors, and therefore constructs the argument from mental illness in an attempt to reject the stronger doctrine of empirical knowledge.



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