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Grant number like: FB-50174-04

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

Fellowships for College Teachers and Independent Scholars
Research Programs

[Grant products]

$40,000 (approved)
$40,000 (awarded)

Grant period:
9/1/2004 – 5/31/2005

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

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.