A prefatory suggestion: If you haven’t done so, it might be worth taking a few minutes to read Descartes’ Meditations I-III. But not essential.
When we reached the end of Descartes’ first Meditation last time, his quest for a “basic principle” or foundation which is “certain and unshakeable” was still underway. All the candidates he entertained in Med. I failed the RFD (“reason for doubt”) test. “So what remains true?,” Descartes asks, worriedly. “Perhaps just the one fact that nothing is certain.”
However, in this state where he might be deceived about everything, where he’s contemplating the possibility that nothing is certain, he nonetheless hits upon a realization: Am I not thinking about all this?, he asks. Even if I have “convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies…if I have convinced myself of something then I certainly exist.” Even if I am constantly deceived, I must exist in order to be deceived. Thus the proposition “I am, I exist” is “necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”
(Unlike the Discourse on Method where you get the famous phrase, cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” here in the Meditations the inference is even more wild: I am deceived, therefore I am. This is the “item of knowledge” (not yet a basic principle) that is “most certain and evident of all.”
Now, a hasty, second-hand reading of Descartes takes this point as settled. Indeed, some locate the very origins of modern subjectivism right here in the third paragraph of Med. II. You’ll find Intro to Philosophy textbooks that end their Descartes selection here in Meditation II. See, they hastily conclude, Descartes’ makes everything hinge on the cogito. “I am” is the measure of all things, a kind of philosophical narcissism.
Not so fast.
Excursus: At this juncture in Med. II, Descartes pivots to a related question: Just what is this “I” that exists?
Given assumptions adopted in Med. I, I can no longer assume myself as body, Descartes reasons. Thought alone is inseparable from “me,” for my existence is certain as long as I am thinking/conscious. Hence Descartes concludes: the “I” whose existence is certain is a “thinking thing” (res cogitans). While I do think this is a fateful conclusion for the rest of modernity (as I’ve articulated in Desiring the Kingdom), that is a separate issue from the point we’re tracking in Descartes’ project here, namely, how do we know, and can we know with certainty.
Descartes has now come up with–it would seem–a short list of things that cannot be doubted: “I am a thing that thinks: that is, a thing that doubts, affirms, denies, understands a few things, is ignorant of many things, is willing, unwilling, and also which imagines and has sensory perceptions.” This is a list of things he “truly knows,” things that seem to escape the RFDs of Med. I.
So what is the basic principle that underwrites the certainty of Even if I am deceived, I exist? “What is required for my being certain?, ” Descartes asks. The basic principle behind this, he says, is (famously) “clear and distinct perception” (CDP), by which he seems to mean a kind of perception whose force is involuntary: I can’t help but perceive the inference In order to be deceived, I must exist as true. I perceive it with such clarity and distinction, such force, that its truth is undeniable. The cogito, then, would be an example of such clear and distinct perception.
However, if Descartes is going to be true to his method, he needs to run his RFD test. Is there any reason for doubting this principle? With regards to the cogito (“this first item of knowledge”) Descartes is careful to assent that clear and distinction perception “would not be enough to make me certain of the truth of the matter if it could ever turn out that something which I perceived with such clarity and distinctness was false.” And isn’t this the case?, he goes on to observe. Did not things which appeared to be clear and distinct, like 2+3=5, collapse in the foregoing Meditations?
Here’s where God shows up again: Things so clearly evident are still open to doubt if God is a deceiver. In other words, there is still a “live” RFD for what seems like the obvious truth of the inference, Even if I am deceived, I have to exist in order to be deceived. What appeared certain is once again haunted by doubt.
This is the turn in Descartes’ project that you won’t pick up from the caricatured, “anthologized” version: the certainty of the cogito depends on two theological claims: (1) that God exists and (2) that God is not a deceiver (i.e., that God is good). Therefore, Descartes must establish the existence of a good God. “For if I do not know this, it seems that I can never be quite certain about anything else.” The cogito is displaced by God in this project; the alleged subjectivism of Descartes turns out to be a theocentrism; “I” am dependent on an Other.
So this endeavor–proving the existence of a good God–is the burden of Meditations III (proofs for God’s existence) and IV (demonstrating God’s goodness–a kind of epistemological theodicy).
I won’t test your patience by laying out all these arguments here. (And I don’t want this newsletter to start to feel like a Descartes fanboy club by taking yet a third week on the Meditations. Let me know if you’d like me to return to these arguments in detail in later newsletters.) At this point, as a matter of informed intellectual history, we need only appreciate the scaffolding or skeleton of Descartes’ argument to see that the charge of some kind of secularist subjectivism doesn’t stick. The Meditations are an exercise in metaphyics and epistemology that turn out to be a kind of philosophical spiritual exercise. Which is why Meditation III ends with a hymn of praise:
But before examining this point more carefully and investigating other truths which may be derived from it, I should like to pause here and spend some time in the contemplation of God; to reflect on his attributes, and to gaze with wonder and adoration on the beauty of this immense light, so far as the eye of my darkened intellect can bear it. For just as we believe through faith that the supreme happiness of the next life consists solely in the contemplation of divine majesty, so experience tells us that this same contemplation, albeit much less perfect, enables us to know the greatest joy of which we are capable in this life.
I mentioned some of Jean-Luc Marion’s work on Descartes last time. Almost everything Marion writes on Descartes is scintillating and provocative (and, admittedly, difficult!).
If you’re intrigued by Descartes, let me suggest two other out-of-the-way sources that deserve more attention:
Stephen Menn’s book, Descartes and Augustine is a masterful study that deconstructs the common notion that Descartes represents a radical rupture with the medieval philosophical tradition; instead, Menn shows how much Descartes was influenced by, and in conversation with, Augustine and the Christian philosophical tradition.
O.K. Bouwsma is one of my favorite philosophers and his relative obscurity is lamentable (I hope to someday correct this with a book project). So I’ll take any chance to introduce people to his uncanny takes on the history of philosophy. His essay, “Descartes’ Evil Genius” is a marvelous example.