Descartes’ Meditations: From Radical Doubt to Absolute Certainty

Instructor: Matt Moss
Singularity & Co
18 Bridge St
Brooklyn, NY 11201

“To demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations…to devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions.” This is the project that René Descartes sets forth in the first of his Meditations on First Philosophy: to dismantle all acquired belief, then start science over from scratch. In this course, we will explore and evaluate this project of demolition and of reconstruction. The Meditations, first published in Latin in 1641, represent to us from a first-person standpoint the progress of a thinker from radical doubt to absolute certainty. The figure of the Meditator allows Descartes to present a series of challenging philosophical questions in an arrestingly direct way. Is any belief I have impossible to doubt? What kind of a thing is my mind? What kind of a thing is my body? Do I conceive of minds and bodies as fundamentally different kinds of things? If so, does this demonstrate that they are? How do I know which of my mind’s perceptions are due to my mind itself, and which are due to the things it perceives? In pursuing answers to these questions, the Meditator’s investigation expands to a cosmological scale, comprising the laws of physics and God’s creation and conservation of the world.

In addition to the Meditations, we will consider a number of closely related texts by Descartes and others, including selections from the Objections to the Meditations (solicited by Descartes himself), and his Discourse on Method. We will also discuss the famous exchange with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, in which she poses one of the most serious objections to Descartes’ metaphysics: if the mind is a non-physical thing, how does it have effects on physical things, and vice versa? We will also consider Descartes’ ambiguous legacy. His work reframed how we think about the natural sciences, philosophy, and theology so thoroughly that controversy over it has continued without interruption from his own lifetime to the present day. To many philosophers and historians, “Cartesian” is a dirty word, connoting dangerously false conceptions of the mind, its relationship to its own thoughts and sensations, its place in the physical world, and how and why it has knowledge of anything at all. Reading the Meditations, we will consider these responses to “Cartesianism” in light of Descartes’ own words, ideas, and arguments.

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm
November 23 — December 14, 2015
4 weeks

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