Gueroult on Descartes

Having been greatly impressed by Martial Gueroult’s two extant volumes on Spinoza’s Ethics, I wanted to challenge myself to get some sense of the detail of his magisterial Descartes selon l’order des raisons (1968). Sometimes called a “structuralist” in the history of philosophy, Gueroult systematically developed the fine grain of argument in Spinoza’s demonstrations, and here he does the same for Descartes’ Meditations.

Beginning with a distinction between understanding and explanation, Gueroult announces his intention to subordinate the former to the latter (p. 9). Here “understanding” is a sort of intuitive or imaginative grasp of the whole, whereas “explanation” develops the details in their interrelation. I am reminded of Paul Ricoeur’s great theme of the value of the “long detour”.

Gueroult says Descartes viewed “isolated thoughts” with a sort of horror. This is already interesting. I have long puzzled over Brandom’s treatment of Descartes as a proto-inferentialist, when Descartes has seemed to me on the contrary like an arch-representationalist who plucked “truths” out of thin air. Both Gueroult and Brandom take Descartes’ “method” very seriously. Brandom’s work previously set me on a path that led me to radically change my views of Kant and Hegel. Perhaps I’ll have to revise or modulate some of my judgments of Descartes as well.

For Gueroult, it is objective structures of argument that distinguish philosophy from poetry, spiritual or mystical elevation, general scientific theory, or mere metaphysical opinions. He says that even while “excommunicating” the history of philosophy, Descartes nonetheless formulated a good principle of reading, rejecting eclectic tendencies to pull out this or that idea from a great author, in favor of a systematic approach. Descartes is quoted saying the “precious fruit” must come from “the entire body of the work” (p. 11). This is an important complement to his one-sided insistence elsewhere on beginning with what is simple. However, Descartes is also quoted insisting that all conflicts of interpretation are due to shallow eclecticism and deficiency of method, and that wherever there is such a conflict, one side must certainly be wrong (pp. 13-14).

This insistence on univocal interpretation is one of my big issues with Descartes. It works well for things like geometry, but much less well for sorting out arguments about power or potentiality, for instance. Pushing univocal interpretation as far as it can go can be a very valuable exercise, but as soon as we leave pure mathematics, it also shows its limits. I think that while mathematical necessity can be understood as something we “ought” to recognize for a multitude of reasons, sound ethical judgment must in principle reach beyond what can be expressed with certainty by formal equations. Much as I admire a good mathematical development, I therefore think ethics is more fundamental for us humans than mathematics, and philosophy is more ethical than mathematical.

According to Gueroult, the seminal idea guiding all of Descartes’ work is that human knowledge has unavoidable limits due to the limits of thought, but within those limits it is capable of perfect certainty (p. 15). For Descartes, we do not know thought by things, but we know things by thought. As a matter of principle, we should doubt everything that does not come from the certainty of thought. We are thus offered a stark division between that which is supposed to be certain beyond question, and that which is vain and useless. I think this results both in a treatment of too many things as certain, and in a premature dismissal of aspects of human reality that are uncertain, but nonetheless have real value.

I agree that mathematical reasoning is capable of (hypothetical) certainty, but I contend that we humans live mainly on middle ground that is neither certainty nor mere vanity.