Descartes’ Insulting Language in the Preface to the Meditations on First Philosophy

“The Meditations will inevitably be read by weak minds who will believe and be consoled by the promise of immortality, but it is addressed to les plus forts esprits (4th Replies, to Arnauld).”

–Richard Kennington, The “Teaching of Nature” in Descartes’ Soul Doctrine

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One criticism of Leo Strauss is that he pays far too much attention to trivial details. For example, Socrates swearing by the gods. Why do the times Socrates says “By Zeus!” warrant further consideration? In my own studies, he curses when especially frustrated with an interlocutor. This can mean a lot of things. Maybe the interlocutor cannot understand the proper explanation of a concept like “justice” or “rule,” and so Socrates must give a useful but incomplete teaching. Moreover, the scene in question could also have specifically comic purpose; Socrates featured prominently in one particular comedy. Or, in the case of Xenophon, Socrates’ frustration at a nameless young man elected commander recalls two other times he was frustrated with Xenophon himself. The text, in that last case, demonstrates a peculiarly literary quality. It goes beyond the validity of an argument or the specific drama of a scene. Rather, certain details suggest a certain route, allowing for speculation. And it looks like the author built this into the text so readers could be invited to see more.

One might argue that this sort of thing has no scholarly consequence. But I’ve found it to be important. Not so much for debates of the form “this thinker really means X, everyone else argues Y, they’re all wrong,” but for seeing how one theme implies a host of other themes which we have not even considered. In the above example, if there’s a hidden autobiography of Xenophon, then the question of growth is outstanding.

I am not an expert on Descartes. I have some thoughts on how to read him, but in the end I defer to everyone else who has covered this ground far better than I ever will. Nonetheless, I found it interesting that he spends time in his Preface to the Meditations calling others “feebler” minds. Or dismissing other arguments as merely “atheistic.” Or pronouncing his independence from the “vulgar.” A “Preface to the Reader” resides in the 1911 Haldane edition and I thought it was worth listing when in those seven paragraphs he does not strike an entirely positive note. In what follows, I hold he indirectly reveals some specific ideas about what constitutes a philosophic mind. He’s not merely shaping his audience for the rest of the work, but outlining intellectual commitments they must make.

God, the Soul, and “Feebler Minds”

Descartes begins his Preface by saying that in the Discourse on Method, he “slightly touched” on “these two questions of God and the human soul,” namely whether God exists or the soul is immortal (1-3). He says he did not want to treat them “thoroughly” at the time, that he wanted to hear the “judgment of the readers” for how he should proceed. So far, Descrates strikes a slightly defensive tone, but nothing sounds terribly out of the ordinary. Then, he launches into this:

“For these questions [God and the soul] have always appeared to me to be of such importance that I judged it suitable to speak of them more than once; and the road which I follow in the explanation of them is so little trodden, and so far removed from the ordinary path, that I did not judge it to be expedient to set it forth at length in French and in a Discourse which might be read by everyone, in case the feebler minds should believe that it was permitted to them to attempt to follow the same path.” (1-3)

Descartes says talking about God and the soul was so important, and his explanation so extraordinary, that he could not merely write it in French. What if “the feebler minds… believe… it was permitted to them to attempt to follow the same path?”

This probably strikes a 21st century reader as haughty in the extreme. I am inclined to agree with scholars who hold there is a strategy of esotericism at play here. Consider the implications beyond the Discourse. The Latin version of the Meditations, as it will be read by clergy, more than likely has to avoid phrases or ideas which might turn them against him. It is likely the French version of the Meditations has more openness about the scope of Descartes’ project.

What is the project? Following Kennington: roughly, the replacement of Aristotlean notions of physics with those far more mathematical and mechanical. Again, I’m not an expert here. I’m sure some of you reading this have your hands on a manuscript from 1270 or something where someone creates a perfectly mathematical and Aristotlean physics which anticipates Newtonian forces and lends itself to teleological considerations. I’m just wondering about “feebler minds” myself. I’d like to know how to better insult people as I write and have them keep reading.

What is Descartes’ strategy in asserting that he could not write for fear of “feebler minds?” He draws attention to his being on the cusp of saying something controversial, while presenting himself as a genius who ought to be read and discussed. I believe two things can be asserted at this point. First, he wants to give his defenders his own words to work with. E.g. “See, he’s concerned with not leading people astray. He did not write on theological matters in the vernacular.” Second, he dares his readers to imagine what he might mean. “Feebler minds” is a taunt. He wants readers to imagine where his considerations about God and the soul might go if treated at length.

Beyond the “the ordinary atheistic sources”

Perhaps Descartes wants philosophic minds to be daring. “So what?” you might ask. “Shouldn’t a philosopher be daring no matter what?” It can be replied that a philosopher should be contemplative. Thoughtful, able to elaborate how and why for various objects. Pondering, quietly finding new relations and questions. Not desiring to overthrow an established order or challenge what is obviously false, but rather calm, devoted to their inner life, respectful of tradition and maybe even pious.

In the fifth paragraph, Descartes gives a hint as to what might constitute a daring mind. He confesses that he has been attacked “by arguments drawn from the ordinary atheistic sources” (1-4). He declares that he will not even state those arguments, because they may influence those who make “feeble and irrational” judgments (as opposed to those “who really understand… [his] reasonings”). Again, Descartes indulges insults, but it is clear he has a distinct notion of how his audience should think. Consider:

“I shall only say in general that all that is said by the atheist against the existence of God, always depends either on the fact that we ascribe to God affections which are human, or that we attribute so much strength and wisdom to our minds that we even have the presumption to desire to determine and understand that which God can and ought to do. In this way all that they allege will cause us no difficulty, provided only we remember that we must consider our minds as things which are finite and limited, and God as a Being who is incomprehensible and infinite.” (1-4)

The atheist, according to Descartes, always makes an argument that personifies God, making Him more human than divine. Or they assume our minds are strong enough that we can “determine and understand that which God can and ought to do.” The first of these accusations against atheists has philosophic value. People do ask questions about God’s justice or mercy or supposed interventions in human affairs by conceiving God as a human being. And atheists often respond to them not by discussing what a divine nature could be, but by challenging the specific concept of justice or mercy involved, or the wisdom of an intervention. Descartes implies that a strong mind, a daring mind, would not try to reason about what God is by thinking about what humans ought to be. God is not analogous to man, strictly speaking. Rather, one has to know one’s own mental limits. How does one, with a “finite and limited” mind, speak the “incomprehensible and infinite?”

One can say that Descartes veers into mystical rhetoric, and that is true. But the mystical rhetoric has another side. We do learn to speak of larger issues slowly, bit by bit. Issues with near infinite significance which can be explored for centuries, such as how galaxies form. I imagine he could therefore be speaking of how scientific progress is made. Sometimes we have to make assumptions—we have to trust the fundamentals we are taught, or trust another’s theory—to practically test an idea of our own and not be paralyzed with our lack of complete knowledge. Our finite minds have to be aware of what is not known in order to find something that can be known.

A daring mind has a discipline. It does not personify everything. It tries to understand the limits it has with regard to a field of inquiry.

The Discipline of Building

I am tempted to accuse myself of reading too much into any of one of Descartes’ sentences. What I am doing is looking to see if there’s a logic, a hidden story, to where he chooses to cast aspersions. It feels like overreading because it implicitly asks if Descartes did design the Meditations with an incredible level of care. I cannot answer that question, but I do suspect the following. Great authors write so that their ideas connect in various ways, ways which sometimes suggest unusual avenues into a text. My overreading is not fruitless, and it might even be backed by Descartes himself. Please note the sixth paragraph of the Preface, where Descartes bemoans that he expects no “praise from the vulgar” but does want 

“those [to read him] who desire to meditate seriously with me, and who can detach their minds from affairs of sense, and deliver themselves entirely from every sort of prejudice. I know too well that such men exist in a very small number. But for those who, without caring to comprehend the order and connections of my reasonings, form their criticisms on detached portions arbitrarily selected, as is the custom with many, these, I say, will not obtain much profit from reading this Treatise. And although they perhaps in several parts find occasion of cavilling, they can for all their pains make no objection which is urgent or deserving of reply.” (1-4)

Descartes desires his readers to “detach their minds from affairs of sense,” to cancel their prejudice. The Meditations depicts his effort to doubt the external world and his own body. But one should consider that reading a text closely and trying to articulate how it works can be entirely an exercise in logos and form. One brings a certain set of assumptions to close reading, but a working assumption is far from prejudice. If Descartes said that the incomprehensible nature of God resulted in the study of Creation being fruitless, I would have to revise how I approach his words.

As it stands, a disciplined mind with a specific daring has to not only know its own limits, but be willing to build. Descartes outlines how that building should be effected. One must not make “criticisms on detached portions arbitrarily selected,” but rather care to “comprehend the order and connections of my reasonings.” It is the order and connections one can establish, the ones you can demonstrate to yourself, that make the mind Descartes wants.

Conclusion

One can object that by picking the passages where Descartes lobs insults, I have advanced an argument via “detached portions arbitrarily selected.” I’ll live with that criticism. Of more interest to me is how “the order and connections of…[his] reasonings” are understood. I do not believe this is entirely a matter of textual fidelity. Rather, it seems to be a matter of mimicking his mind as he puts it on display through his Meditations. That imitation can lend itself to absorbing an entire scientific system, one such as what Descartes published in The World. But it can also speak to individual possibilities, for example, the existential and self-creative possibilities of the cogito. I cannot say for sure this is what Descartes intended. A reader provoked, however, determines to find their voice no matter what.

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