Research Programs: Fellowships for College Teachers and Independent Scholars

Period of Performance

9/1/2004 - 5/31/2005

Funding Totals

$40,000.00 (approved)
$40,000.00 (awarded)

The Metaphysician's Dilemma: Descartes on Navigating the Commitments of the Confused

FAIN: FB-50174-04

David R. Cunning
Northern Illinois University (DeKalb, IL 60115-2828)

This is a book project--I aim to shed new light on Descartes' Meditations by interpreting it from a perspective that takes seriously that Descartes is a teacher. Descartes holds that our everyday ways of thinking are extremely confused and that they incline us to reject his more abstract metaphysics. He has views about what reality is like, but he also has views on what our minds are like at the start of philosophical inquiry. As a teacher, Descartes is sensitive to our initial epistemic position. Many of the claims that he makes in the Meditations are keyed to the confused ways of thinking of his student; Descartes does not endorse these claims but puts them forward only provisionally. He allows us to affirm them for the time being even though later on we will recognize them as inaccurate; he does this because at the beginning of inquiry we are not responsive to (what he takes to be) truth, but to confusion. There is much in the Meditations that we do not see if we miss that Descartes is often just guiding us from where we are to where (he thinks) we need to be. In addition, interpretive problems arise when we try to reconcile Descartes' claims in the Meditations with the remainder of his philosophical system. I isolate the claims that Descartes is making only provisionally, and many of these interpretive problems dissolve. Finally, Descartes is tackling a dilemma faced by all metaphysicians and more generally by anyone interested in cognition and communication: that of how learning and cognition are always in terms of what we already believe.

Associated Products

Argument and Persuasion in Descartes' Meditations (Book)
Title: Argument and Persuasion in Descartes' Meditations
Author: David Cunning
Abstract: From beginning to end the reasoning of the Meditations is the first-person reasoning of a thinker who starts from a confused non-Cartesian paradigm and moves slowly and awkwardly toward a grasp of just a few of the central theses of Descartes' system. The meditator of the Meditations is not a full-blown Cartesian at the start or middle or even the end of inquiry, and accordingly the Meditations is riddled with confusions throughout. Descartes is trying to capture the kind of reasoning that a non-Cartesian would have to engage in to make the relevant epistemic progress, and the Meditations rhetorically models that reasoning. Descartes is reflecting on what happens in philosophical inquiry: we are unclear about something, we roam about using our existing concepts and intuitions, we abandon or revise some of these, and then eventually we come to see a result as clear that we did not see as clear before. Descartes is a teacher, and the reader a student. A significant number of the interpretive problems that arise in the Descartes literature dissolve when we make a distinction between the Cartesian and non-Cartesian elements of the Meditations, and a better understanding of surrounding texts is achieved as well.
Year: 2010
Primary URL:
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 0195399609