Descartes’ Meditations: Seeking Purity of Mind

I have been teaching Descartes’ Meditations in my Intro class.  It is the first time in many years that I have worked past the Second Meditation with any care.

Among the many things that strike me–and I am of course not claiming original insight here–is the way in which Descartes’ epistemological struggle runs parallel to spiritual struggle.  Like the acknowledged sinner, Descartes repents, and, in repenting, seeks for a true change of mind.  To do this he must, again like the sinner, conduct an agonizing examination of conscience, testing himself at every turn.  He makes but fitful progress:  lessons learnt are soon forgotten; old habits die very hard.  But he keeps at it, keeps salting his beliefs with the fire of doubt, and eventually he purifies himself.  He stands naked, vunerable–apparently alone.  The purifications of doubt, have, however, done their work–blessed are the pure in heart, in mind, for they shall see God.  And Descartes does.  He finds that he is not alone:  God is with him.  And, it turns out, God has been with him all along:  though Descartes has been wandering through a valley dark, no evil demon need he fear.  God’s shepherd’s crook comforts him.  And, so, in the end, much like Job, Descartes gets back what he had before (at least, what he really had).  God prepares a table for Descartes before the face of the evil demon, and Descartes’ epistemological cup runs over.

5 responses

  1. Very good, Kelly. Perhaps we have reached a post-Enlightenment moment in the dialectical process of our intello-religious history in which we are ready to appreciate the similarities between theological and secular philosophical writing, or even realize that they are quite the same. (And that much of philosophy is involved in the making of or defining of God or gods.) This touches, inter alia, on the matter of original sin. Best, Wm.

  2. from a project rusting on my hard drive:

    some references for ‘meditation in descartes’ meditations’ / ‘spiritual exercises in descartes’ meditations’, especially as far as locating descartes in specific traditions goes:

    Foucault 1972
    [Rorty 1983]
    [Hatfield 1985?]
    Rorty 1986
    Kosman 1986
    Hatfield 1986
    Rubidge 1990
    Dear 1995
    [Sepper 1996]
    Sepper 2000
    [Jones 2001]
    Cunning 2010

    those from ’86 are in the amelie rorty collection. her own essay might be most congenial to you. rubidge is skeptical for historical reasons of claims (he surveys many of those listed) to tie descartes to any specific meditational tradition. sepper (in the gaukroger-edited ‘descartes’ natural philosophy) volume) claims the meditations are meditational, but i don’t recall why at the moment. the jones is on descartes’ geometry as a specific spiritual exercise; he has a 2006 book in the same vein for other early modern philosopher/scientists. cunning claims that a lot of the troubles of the meditations are pedagogical/rhetorical artifacts owing to the position of descartes’ reader (ignorant of the true principles of his system), so i suppose perhaps he would take a firm line against any spiritual-struggleizing, even though his attention to the way the meditations are written puts him in similar territory.

  3. Interesting, I have been drawing similar parallels and forcing others inside and out of your class. One thing that did catch my mind was how in the Old Testament, “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” (Exodus 3:14). I found it somewhat coincidental that one of the pillars that Descartes’ God argument stands on is the famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” How interesting it is that Descartes’ journey towards proving the existence of God starts out with the name God uses when revealing himself to Moses.

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