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Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes’s Meditations (review)
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Reviewed by
John Carriero. Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes’s Meditations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. xv + 519. Paper, $26.95.

In his Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes’s Meditations, John Carriero presents a sustained and sensitive interpretation of this seminal work of modern philosophy. The two worlds of the title are the worlds of Scholastic philosophy on the one side, and of the mechanical philosophy on the other, and it is Carriero’s argument that the Meditations are most helpfully understood against the background of Thomistic Scholasticism. In particular, Carriero shows that there is a deep difference between St. Thomas and Descartes, first, concerning philosophical theology and the nature and possibility of our cognition of the divine essence, and second, concerning the nature of human cognition. What Carriero is ultimately trying to argue against is a picture of Descartes according to which he is fundamentally engaged in an anti-skeptical project and at the same time responsible for a crass and superficial form of dualism.

While the book is organized simply, with one chapter devoted to each of the Descartes’s six Meditations, it is philosophically very rich and will reward careful study. Indeed, it is rare for a book to be devoted to such a close reading of a single text at this high level. Certainly, there are many “Introductions” for undergraduates, but few works written for advanced graduate students and professional philosophers cover a text so closely and so subtly. Carriero’s book demonstrates the virtues of this kind of text-immanent approach. It is clearly in the tradition of Martial Guéroult, whose two-volume Descartes selon l’ordre des raisons represents the pinnacle of twentieth-century French Cartesian studies; and it is much more historically sensitive than Margaret Wilson’s Descartes, which directed a generation of budding Descartes scholars in the English-speaking world. Carriero wants his reader to see an argumentative continuity within the Meditations, as well as a developed philosophical [End Page 104] view. And while he occasionally refers to Descartes’s comments in his correspondence, the Objections and Replies, and other works, Carriero largely confines his discussion to Descartes’s short masterpiece.

In the limited space I have here, I shall simply indicate several of Carriero’s more interesting and important points. First, Carriero argues that, for Descartes, the essential activity of the mind is judging—that is, coming to create a special kind of relation between the mind and the world. The related point is that consciousness per se should not be seen as occupying the central position in Descartes’s philosophy of mind. In fact, as Carriero points out, Descartes uses the Latin ‘conscius’ only once in the entire Meditations. And while much of our cognitive vocabulary implies consciousness, Descartes is not intent upon emphasizing this at all. So, as Carriero puts it, the crucial feature of the Cartesian mind is its “ability to see that something is so, to make judgments and (at times) to know the truth, to penetrate beneath the surface of things to the underlying structure” (24). Second, by focusing on the mind’s power of judgment rather than on consciousness, Carriero shows that the mind-world relation in Cartesian philosophy differs from that which we see in the “standard view” of Descartes. It is here that Descartes’s picture of the nature of truth actually approaches that of Thomas Aquinas, for Descartes thinks of “truth as fundamentally a property of a judgment that brings about a relation of ‘adequation’ between the mind and reality, and not as fundamentally a property of thoughts, perceptions, or propositions” (229). However, given Descartes’s rejection of the Aristotelian and Thomistic view that nihil est in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu, he arrives at his important form of rationalism. Third, while many are accustomed to thinking of medieval philosophy as being deeply connected to theological concerns and modern philosophy as moving towards the serious pursuit of epistemology, Carriero shows how simplistic this picture is. He reminds us that a great deal of metaphysical and epistemological work has to be done by Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae before we can begin...