Notes on Descartes

 Posted by on 9 October 2002 at 11:26 pm  Uncategorized
Oct 092002

I’m pretty pleased with how my paper on Cartesian substance dualism paper turned out. But don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself. (I’ve also posted my paper on Aristotle’s view on substance in the Categories.)

In retrospect, I’m actually quite glad that my professor refused my proposed paper topic. I enjoyed delving deep into Descartes’ reasoning in the Meditations, particularly since I’ve never looked in detail at his arguments in that work before. Also, it proved to be a valuable lesson in bad philosophical method — despite Descartes’ great attempts to be careful and rigorous.

In the paper, I decided not to discuss Descartes’ errors in adopting a “diaphanous model of the mind” because in reading David Kelley’s comments on Descartes in Evidence of the Senses, I realized that a more fundamental and interesting point could be made. Kelley points out that Descartes’ Evil Demon Hypothesis in the First Meditation requires the mind to be something capable of existence independent of any physical world or external reality. As a result, Descartes has committed himself to substance dualism long before he officially broaches the subject in the Sixth Meditation. Interestingly enough, in my research on the Meditations I found no other commentator on Descartes who noted this presumption hidden in the Evil Demon Hypothesis; Descartes’ skeptical worries in the First Meditation were seen as unproblematic. That David Kelley guy is one smart cookie!

I’m not entirely sure, but Bob Campbell seems to have made similar point about Descartes’ presumptions in the comments:

Descartes not only believes that mind is diaphanous and identity-less, he also assumes that it is able to know about itself without knowing anything about the external world. Isn’t this “prior certainty of consciousness” assumption anti-biological per se?

If I understand what Bob means, yes. Descartes can’t possibly have a view of the mind as dependent upon the physical, biological organism if the mind must be capable of existence independent of the physical world. Thus, as I note in the paper, it makes sense that Descartes never considers the option that the mind might be an action or attribute of the brain or organism as a whole. Such an option would have been incompatible with his capacity to doubt body but not mind.

In writing this paper and listening to Binswanger’s tapes The Metaphysics of Consciousness, I feel like I’m finally starting to get a handle on what a philosophy of mind ought to look like. It’s about time!

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