Cartesian Metaphysics

For Descartes, according to Gueroult, “metaphysics” is the universal science or the system of science, and also a kind of introduction to more concrete studies. Here we are far from Aristotle and much closer, I think, to Duns Scotus. Without knowledge of God and oneself, Descartes says, it would never be possible to discover the principles of physics. Gueroult says that Descartes insists on an “incomprehensibility” of God that is neither unknowability nor irrationality but the “formal reason of the infinite” (Descartes selon l’order des raisons, p. 17). This again has a somewhat Scotist sound to my ear.

The infinitude of God puts God absolutely first, as the first truth that founds all others. Gueroult quotes Descartes saying, “It is a ‘blasphemy’ to say that the truth of something precedes God’s knowledge of it…, because the existence of God is the first and the most eternal of all the truths that can be, and the truth from which all the others proceed” (ibid; my translation).

Descartes says that God “freely creates” eternal truths. I have no idea what creation of eternal truths could even possibly mean, though such a notion seems to be at least implicit in the teaching of Duns Scotus. To be eternal is to have no before and after. Therefore, it seems to me, all eternal things must be co-eternal. This point of view accommodates part of Descartes’ thesis, insofar as if all eternal things are co-eternal, then an eternal truth would not “precede” God’s knowledge of it. In broadly neoplatonic terms, eternal truths could plausibly be regarded as aspects of the “nature” of God. I can also grasp the idea of truths following logically from the “nature” of God, but I suspect Descartes would either follow Scotus in arguing that God’s infinite power is not a “nature”, or follow Aquinas in arguing that God is pure existence and has no other “nature”. I don’t see how anything more specific can directly follow from either infinite power or pure existence.

For Descartes, though, God’s omnipotence “excludes the possibility of error” and “alone founds the objective validity of my intellectual faculty” (ibid). Descartes aims at “a total system of certain knowledge, at the same time metaphysical and scientific, … entirely immanent to mathematical certitude enveloped in the clear and distinct intellect, … in its requirement of absolute rigor. This totality of the system is in no way that of an encyclopedia of material knowledge effectively acquired, but the fundamental unity of the first principles from which follow all possible certain knowledge” (p. 18). Descartes’ doctrine is for him “a single block of certainty” (p. 19) that would be falsified by adding or removing any detail. All this seems way too strong to me.

Gueroult points out that Descartes wants to contrast an “order of reasons” with an “order of material”, as being more principled. However, unlike geometry, the total system of metaphysical reasoning for Descartes has “psychological” as well as logical requirements. Gueroult says it is for this reason that the Meditations best represent Descartes’ paradigm of rigorous analytic demonstration.

Granted that there is a clear “psychological” aspect to the Meditations, at this point I’m unsure what it means to relate that to the claimed rigor of the system. Moreover, adding a “psychological” dimension to what was said before about mathematical reasoning affects the very meaning of the claim of rigor. I think I understand what mathematical rigor is. I do not understand what “psychological” rigor would be in this context, but I suspect it may be wrapped up with what I would call extraordinary presumptions of absolute self-transparency and immediate reflexivity.

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.