Visual By Shivani Krishnakumar
Descartes’ philosophical thought holds an immanent likeness to the geometric proofs that begin
with self-evident axioms and deduce logical conclusions therefrom. He devises a new method,
or realizes the need for one, from the perceived failures of scholastic philosophy, tacitly
discarding the theory of substantial forms in favour of his mechanistic physics. The two grand
motives at work in his philosophical treatises are– religious and scientific. The religious motive is
to establish the existence of God on logical grounds, in lieu of theological, for convincing the
irreligious of moral life and secondly, to develop a system of unified sciences with metaphysical
roots having strong epistemological foundations, thus, giving way to the pursuit of certain
knowledge against the backdrop of growing incertitude for gospel truths coinciding with rising
skepticism and the scientific revolution.
Cartesian Method and Certain Knowledge
Lest his method of doubt lapse into skepticism, Descartes in Discourse on Method lays out four
principles for arriving at certain knowledge. He proceeds methodically, analysing each problem
and ordering his thought from the smaller to more complex ones, rejecting in the process every
belief which his reason could not assent to be self-evident. Premised on two essential beliefs,
that our senses can deceive and never trust those who have even deceived us once, and that
good sense or reason can guide us to separate truth from falsehood, Descartes reaches the
cogito and the famous ‘cogito ergo sum.' The veridical guarantee of his conclusion derives from the twin concept of clear and distinct perception. Therefore, as a general rule Descartes adopts, nothing not clearly or distinctly perceived can be true.
Substance, Mind-Body Dualism
During his meditations, Descartes realises that he could not doubt his existence despite having
any certainty of the external world, including his own body. He then concludes that both, the
body and the mind, are substances capable of existing independently of each other and the
other created things. But the mind can be better known than the body, given that it has
discovered more modes of perception than the latter; perceiving continuity in the form of height,
width, and depth. Descartes’ metaphysical position that mind and body can, by their virtue of
being substances, exist independently is monumental in reviving hopes for the soul surviving
death or an afterlife. But whether they indeed exist separately is less probed in his treatises.
God, Free Will and Determinism
The causal argument for proving God's existence, yet again proceeds from self-evident axiom, that is, the idea of a "supremely perfect being". He proves that this idea is an effect that reveals a formal reality of similar nature. God’s existence, can be understood, like geometrical theorems, devoid of impure sensations and imagination. If God is proven to be a perfect substance, the intent of deceiving would only detract from his perfection. This renders authority to all "reasonable" (clear and distinct) beliefs given that God cannot deceive us into believing false things.
Brian Collins argues that the cartesian theory of substance is applied non-univocally and
unequivocally to both God and humans and is conducive to a compatibilist interpretation of free
will and the Divine determination. Briefly, though individuals have the freedom to choose, it is
conditional; realised under specific conditions like the presence of mind (or reason), intellect,
will, and the corresponding volitions to affirm or deny something. Unlike God's, our wills cannot be indifferent. We are wired, or determined by grace, to pursue goodness or truth. Therefore, Descartes maintains that we do possess free wills but only so far we are the direct cause of our volition. However, the more one acknowledges the existence of God, the more they find themselves to be free.
Synoptic interpretations of the philosophical canon, as put forward by some feminist
philosophers, reveal undercurrents of cultural forces that shaped modern philosophical thought.
Biased towards the scientific method, trying to transcend their culture to situate philosophy
within a neutral framework, privileging objectivity and reason, has created a system of gendered
concepts. Susan Bordo in ‘Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture’ argues
that the mechanistic re-visioning of nature, as opposed to the medieval century's organic
“mother nature”, masculinised much of modern thought. The longstanding association of reason
with the male and sentiment with the female gets emboldened by the mind-body dualism of
Descartes philosophy, attributing concepts of “purity” to reason and the “impure” to the body or
material things, best illustrated by the systematic censorship governing female bodies today
within mainstream media. It wards off the mind from “sympathizing” with nature and prescribes a course of cold analysis for understanding external things. Descartes’ philosophical project
succumbs to a similar bias that is vivid in his attempt at starting afresh and anew, thereby
purging the mind of all the sensuality and animality that the body acquires since birth. Bordo
breaks down the quest for certainty, foundational knowledge, and self-evident truths as a coping
mechanism to highly anxiety-inducing situations. The urge to create a strict binary, wherein one
paradigm masters the other, reflects the “cartesian anxiety,” mirroring modernity’s funerary
mood; the death of living and organic nature, a reaction to epistemological insecurity.
Desacrtes, R.(2006). Discourse on Method (I.Maclean, Trans.).New York, Oxford
Descartes R., Cottingham J., Williams B., 1996, Descartes: Meditations on First
Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies, Cambridge University
Bordo, Susan R., 1987. The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture,
Albany: State University of New York Press.
Kenny, Anthony, 2006, Volume three, A New History of Western Philosophy The Rise of
Modern Philosophy, Oxford University Press