May 8, 2012

Descartes' Meditations

It is the second class of an introductory philosophy course. The first class where the stage for the semester is set is over. It is now time to dive into the philosophy. The reading for the day: Descartes' First Meditation. The Professor begins: "We ordinarily think there is a world external to us. But is there? What if it is all an illusion? Perhaps we are dreaming? Maybe there is an evil demon deceiving us? If we can't know there is an external world, how we can know anything else? Therefore before we can claim to know anything, we need to address this doubt." A challenge has been laid down. The implication has been made that if the students don't take on the challenge, they are being dogmatic; willing to rest content with their beliefs without really questioning them. The students' response to the challenge varies: some feel the force of the challenge and are excited, some are skeptical, some are bored, some don't understand. Which is the right response to have? Is there a right response to have to the professor's comments? The students look to the professor to see how to respond, and seek to follow the professor's actions. So they nod along. The professor interprets the nodding as affirmation from the students that they see the intrinsic worth of the questions. So the professor continues, confident that the doubt which has been introduced is shared by everyone in the room.

She begins again, "Let us turn to page 2 of The Meditations, and see how Descartes addresses the doubt of whether there is an external world...." Another example of pretend doubt.

No one stops the professor and says, "But, professor, I am already hooked by the doubt. How do we even know that Descartes' book is real? That there is even a book in front of me? That even Descartes was real? Oh my God, are you even real? Are you only a robot without a mind? Maybe you are the creation of the evil demon controlling my mind? Is this really a classroom, or am I dreaming? I don't know what to believe!" Call this taking the doubt personally.

I have been in countless philosophy classrooms where Descartes's text was discussed; as a student, as a teaching assistant and as a professor. Not once did I see any student respond in this way. Not even by the students who are most gripped by Descartes' text. I certainly didn't respond this way as a student. Even more, in those classes it seems altogether natural that no one would respond in this way. It never seems like a relevant possibility. Why?

Because a student who takes the doubt personally dislodges the assumption in the classroom that the professor knows something which the students don't, and that the professor will pass on some of that knowledge in due time. For a professor raising the Cartesian Doubt on the second day of class is part of a well rehearsed narrative, one which is like a play with 25 parts (one part for each day of class in the semester). Preparing for class is part of the professor's job, and the preparation partly consists of fine tuning the narrative so that each class session links naturally together. In part a good profession is one who takes the effort to tell a coherent narrative.

Unconsciously the students know this. The professor knows this more consciously, though she brackets it from the students while rehearsing the Cartesian doubt. Everyone in the room knows that what is being introduced in the second lecture is a set up for the third lecture, and so on; that the materials from these lectures will be on the essays or the exams for the class, and that what is happening in this second class is part of something larger --the class as a whole. And that the class is part of something ever larger--a college education which takes place on campuses.

The class functions because it has an order, and the professor is in charge of maintaining the pace and rhythm of that order. Like a conductor with an orchestra. The trouble with the student who takes the doubt personally is that he disrupts this order. Someone for whom the Cartesian doubt becomes real is like a member of the orchestra who ignores the conductor and insists on playing solo. He becomes a hurricane in the room--an unpredictable force which threatens to take over the content for that class. And the professor will then fall behind a day in the syllabus, and the narrative for the semester will have to be adjusted accordingly.

The planned rhythm of the class is: press the Cartesian doubt for half an hour or one hour; get the students into a state of admitted perplexity; and then introduce Descartes' knowledge of himself as a thinking thing in the Second Meditation as the purported solution. Do that for one class. Then move on to the proof of God's existence in the Third Meditation, cover the normal objections to it, and so on. The student who takes the doubt seriously in the second class comes across as a trouble maker because he is disrupting this flow. If the student persists in affirming the doubt, the only recourse for the professor is to say, "You are asking good questions. Let's talk after class." In this way the professor is forced to admit that she has a narrative planned. This can be embarrassing, since the professor's planned task for that class is to stroke the Cartesian doubt and not to down play it.

If the students are not meant to take the Cartesian doubt seriously, and if the professor doesn't take it seriously herself, what is the point of introducing it in class?

A philosophy professor might say: it is to introduce the students to what Descartes thought. The idea is: "Descartes had some great ideas around 1640. He wrote them down. They were very influential. They are brilliant. The students have to be introduced to this as part of their process of becoming adults in our society.  Descartes' ideas are introduced by mimicking them in the classroom, and thereby giving the students a chance to think it through themselves."

The problem with this idea is that the most exciting part of Descartes' thinking cannot be mimicked in a classroom of eighteen year olds who are in the process of becoming adults.

In the first paragraph of the First Meditation, Descartes says:
"Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently, what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation... But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design."
Basic point: I, Descartes, discovered some years ago that many ideas I had since my youth were wrong, and since these ideas were foundational to many of my beliefs, it is possible that a lot of what I believed was wrong. So I will have to rethink those basic beliefs. But this is such a big task that I want to be fully mature to undertake it. That time is now.

The point put in the context of Descartes life: I, Descartes, was taught in my education to believe in the old Aristotelian science, which is still popular with the Church authorities who have power over what counts as science in society. But if I am going to have true knowledge, I will have to challenge this assumption, and think on my own, independent of what the Church dictates. This takes care and the maturity to know how to not get caught. I can do that now.

In his time Descartes was a hero to the defenders of the new sciences which were developing at that time. They put him on a pedastal, and revered him. This is because Descartes was taking a stand against the Church regarding what a proper scientific understanding of the world looks like. He was a rebel, fighting the system and what he saw as the entrenched dogmatism of his teachers. And he did it without breaking with the Church as a whole.

Seen from this context, the most striking aspect of The Meditations is the contrast between his Introduction and the actual text. In the Introduction he is almost servile as he constantly prostrates himself in front of the authorities. And yet, in the First Meditation, it is as if he is saying: "The Catholic Church? Aristotle's works? The Sorbonne? Do any of these even exist? How do I know?" And then in the Second Meditation comes the slap in the face to the authorities: "I am the foundation of my knowledge, myself as a thinking thing. I decide through my own mind what to believe!"

Did Descartes himself genuinely have the skeptical doubt he introduces in the First Meditation? I believe so. And it was a meaningful doubt because, given the context of Descartes's life and his seeking to articulate a foundation for the new sciences, it was a doubt which was layered with practical importance. Descartes wasn't worried if he was dreaming. But he was worried about how to distinguish true claims of knowledge (which he identified with the new sciences) with false claims to knowledge (which he identified with his teachers' dogmatic affirmation of Aristotelian science). He was using the worry about dreaming and the evil demon to bring out that there is a distinction between true claims of knowledge and false claims of knowledge. And it was important for him to convince himself of this because those in power sought to identify what they said with true claims of knowledge, as if the authorities couldn't even in principle be wrong. The aim of the First Meditation was to argue that there is no in principle infallability of that kind. And the aim of the Second Meditation was to argue that there is only one kind of infallability, and that belongs within each individual: the right of each individual to think for herself.

It is no wonder the Church authorities in 1640 thought that Descartes was mocking them through his text.


Fast forward 370 years to 2010.

The new sciences are firmly established in academia and in the culture in general. They are no longer "new"; they are just science. Some Church authorities still try to control what counts as science (debates regarding creationism, stem-cell research, etc.), but those authorities hardly have the kind of power they did in Descartes' time. The kind of revolution Descartes sought to bring about came about for the most part. Some of the heroes of that revolution are the heroes taught in the philosophy classes: Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Locke, Kant. The ideas of these thinkers are no longer part of the revolution. At least in large parts of society, they are the establishment. With good cause, but the establishment nonetheless.

The excitement of The Meditations is in part the excitement of the call to revolution: Think for yourself! About everything! Question all assumptions! And it was a call to revolution which Descartes was sounding against his own education. He was forty years old, and he was tired of still being pushed around by his Aristotelian professors. He had had enough. He was going to stand up as an adult, and affirm his right to think for himself.

The professor introducing Cartesian doubt in the classroom is trying, at least in part, to pass on the excitement of this revolution to the students. However, there is a catch. How does one pass on the call to revolution even as one is seeking to introduce students to the achievements of the culture? How does one pass on in the classroom Descartes' passion to rebel against even one's own education?

The confusion of introducing the Cartesian doubt in class as if it were a live doubt is not that one can't doubt whether one is dreaming. There are contexts in which one can entertain such a doubt, and it can be powerful (in a Zen koan, when used to stand up against authority as in The Matrix, etc.).

The confusion consists in trying to act as if just in virtue of reading The First Meditation one can engage with the doubts in the way that Descartes engaged with them. Even given the stark difference between the relatively safe context of the classroom in which it is being read and the life and death context in which Descartes wrote it. The greatness of Descartes's text is lost when it is made to seem as if that greatness resides somehow just in the words themselves, in the books which can be bought in the campus bookstore. Or that the way to access that greatness is to pick apart every word and paragraph the way scholars do. As if the greatness of Descartes' doubt can be separated from the use to which Descartes put that doubt. The doubt disconnected from a context in which the doubt has a powerful use -- that is the source of the pretend doubt.

Hence the peculiarity even of the student who takes the doubt seriously in the classroom. What exactly is he getting from Descartes' text such that he is now genuinely worried whether the classroom is real? What is the context of his doubt? The student might think that the doubt is passed on just through the reading of the words. Descartes says, "But how do I know there is not an evil demon deceiving me?" The student reads the words. The thought passes through his mind. He entertains it. Therefore the doubt has now penetrated into his mind! It is now lodged within him! He wonders, "Oh my God, how do I know there is not an evil demon deceiving me?"

The professor is powerless to help such a student. For in virtue of play acting as if in the classroom Descartes' doubt can be reenacted, the professor herself subscribes to the assumption guiding the student: that the doubt can be captured just by the words in the book. The embarrassment such a student poses to the professor is that it can seem as if the student has understood Descartes even better than the professor. For the doubt seems to have passed to a greater degree to the student than to the professor. But for the class to function as a class, this cannot be possible. Order has to restored to show that it is the professor who understands Descartes better. Normally this is done in classes through secondary literature. More words. The kind of words which will help show that it is the professor who understands Descartes better. With the move from Descartes' text to texts like The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, the potential embarrassment that the student who takes the doubt seriously engages with Descartes in a deeper way than even the professor does is side stepped.

The move to the Cambridge Companion brings one closer to understanding the facts of the context in which Descartes entertained the doubts of The Meditations. However, it does nothing to actually put one in a similar context. That can only be achieved by each person deciding to use reading Descartes as inspiration to challenge authority and to put in practice questioning the deepest assumptions of one's society.

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