Descartes

Friday, July 29, 2005 -- 5:00 PM
John Perry

Tuesday we discuss René Descartes, who lived from 1596 until 1650 ---- not very long, by my standards. Descartes was a French philosopher, scientist and mathematician who is the father of analytic geometry in mathematics and modern rationalism in philosophy. Pretty good for someone who died at 54....

For almost forty years I have taught Descartes' Meditations in my Introduction to Philosophy Class.  The skeptical problem which he poses bring up a host of interesting problems which occupy us for the rest of the course: the external world, the self, God, and the relation between mind and body.  For about half of that time I have been using Ron Rubin's translation of the Meditations, which is by far the best translation for those who wish to use Descartes' work to introduce students to philosophy.  It's not a translation designed for scholarly purposes; Rubin rather tries to find the English sentences that Descartes might have used had he written the book in 20th century English.  The introduction provides a good explanation of some of the weirder terms and ideas that occur in the Meditations, especially in the argument for the existence of God.

It's become fashionable to dump on Descartes.  Recently there have been books with titles like Descartes' Error and Goodbye, Descartes.  Still, there seems to me to be a number of things in Descartes' philosophy that were essentially right.  He thought the mind interacted causally with the body, and our knowledge of the external world was due the information carried by states of mind about their external causes.  That seems right to me; all I would change is to say that the minds interacts causally with the rest of the body.  Descartes thought that without the backing of some large metaphysical picture, we couldn't be sure that the states of our minds really contained information about their causes, rather than mis-information.  That seems right to me.  Descartes thought the big metaphysical picture was a dualistic world created and sustained by a perfect God, and he thought he could prove it a priori.  My big metaphysical picture is a physical world where the way things happen is constrained by laws --- whatever exactly they are --- so that effects, including our brain states, carry information about their causes.  The argument for this is not deductive, like Descartes', but "transcendental,"; if the world isn't like that, we're screwed, knowledge-wise.

Descartes' works lead to lively discussions in the classroom about all sorts of interesting issues, from the issue of how I know, if I do , that I am not dreaming, or am not simply a brain in a vat in the basement of Jordan Hall (Stanford's Psychology Department's headquarters, where I like to locate the fictional events of the macabre thought-experiments that are part of doing philosophy), to the existence of God, to the relation between mind and body.  We are lucky to have Ron Rubin to help us in this conversation.

Comments (7)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, July 29, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

If it's become fashionable to dump on Descartes

If it's become fashionable to dump on Descartes it is with good reason. Descartes' philosophy is more to blame than almost anything else on the reductionist tendencies of the post-Enlightenment western mind and our false equation of such tendencies with science. If a more holistic approach had prevailed in western philosophy, then science would have evolved along very different lines and many of our current struggles - such as environmental destruction (Descartes famously said that animals do not truly experience anything) - could have been avoided.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, July 30, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

"My big metaphysical picture is a physical world w

"My big metaphysical picture is a physical world where the way things happen is constrained by laws --- whatever exactly they are --- so that effects, including our brain states, carry information about their causes."
Can you be more explicit about the nature of these "constraints"? Do you think the constraints of the physical world on our minds exclude the possibility of free, theoratically unpredictable thinking?
I don't want to drag the disscussion into a murky free will debate but your "metaphysical" picture begs the question.
Thanks...

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, August 27, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Must confess I am nmot a Descarte scholar, so I su

Must confess I am nmot a Descarte scholar, so I suppose this comment is directed to the commentator, but all Descartes fans and non-fans are encouraged to respond.
When Descartes made his now famous quote-"I think, therefore I am" was he in fact referring to existence, or was he discussing the fact that as we think so we are.
i.e - If I think I am happy I am. If I think I am not happy I am not. If I think I am ok I am. If I think I am not ok I am not.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, August 27, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Descarte was referring to existence. The idea tha

Descarte was referring to existence. The idea that a person thinking presupposes it's existence.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, May 31, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

in order to think must we have languge, to reason

in order to think must we have languge,
to reason must we have command of others use of languge,
these are out comes from the manipulation of some sort of process, which defines our exsistance in a world of like minds, nothing more nothing less.

Michael's picture

Michael

Saturday, December 27, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

"thought the big metaphysical picture was a dualis

"thought the big metaphysical picture was a dualistic world created and sustained by a perfect God"
I got that from Descartes as well, however I'd just like to comment on God and religious God, in a modern day common sense view. Descartes, it seemed to me, when he was walking his way through his meditations trying to prove all that could not be known for certain into the perception that he narrowed it down to being only his own existence that he could be sure of while connecting that existence to the outside world is what I supposed to be the god that he described. The connection itself, the link between "I", himself, and those things that he percieved in the outside world.
In your professional opinion would you agree with the interpretation?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, October 27, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

No. You are not. He is dead. Pretty much. Hmmmmph.

No. You are not. He is dead. Pretty much. Hmmmmph.

 

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