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Gary Hatfield DESCARTES'S MEDITATIONS AS COGNITIVE EXERCISES DESCARTES'S Meditations on First Philosophy have the form of meditations . This fact about the literary form of Descartes's chief work of metaphysics has been noted before and is now receiving growing attention .1 Part of this attention derives from a more general interest in the literary forms of philosophical works, an interest that no doubt has been spurred by the efforts of literary theorists.2 My own interest in this aspect of the Meditations has arisen from an attempt to achieve greater philosophical understanding ofthis work. The way in which the work was written has implications for the way in which it must be read: for how we must read it in order to understand (parts of) it at all, and for the activity that must constitute its reading according to Descartes's conception of philosophical knowledge. The idea of deriving philosophical benefit from taking seriously the form in which the Meditations was composed may be illustrated by the light that is shed on Descartes's so-called method ofdoubt. Usually, Descartes's method of doubt is placed in the context of two intellectual currents against which Descartes was reacting: skepticism and scholastic Aristotelianism . The doubt of me First Meditation serves as a way to undermine (Aristotelian) orthodoxy by overturning die apple cart. Further, the wellworn arguments of the skeptics are raised in order to show that they can be refuted (in subsequent Meditations), and to underscore the high degree of certainty ofDescartes's own doctrines, which will be established in the face of stringent skepticism. But these functions of the doubt do not reveal its special use in the Meditations, which derives from the fact that the work was cast in the form of meditations. As Descartes maintained in response to Hobbes's complaint that the First Meditation vends stale goods, an essential function of the doubt is "to accustom the reader's mind to consider 41 42Philosophy and Literature intelligible objects and distinguish them from corporeal things — and to this end such doubts are indispensable" (H&R, II, p. 61).3 The doubt itself does not "accustom" the mind to consider intelligible objects, but it provides a means for suspending judgment about corporeal things and drives one to a last refuge of certainty in the direct apprehension of one's own thought. It serves as a kind of exercise for the mind. It is, I shall argue, indispensable in this regard because it provides the means for freeing one's attention from sensory ideas in order to attend to an independent source of knowledge: the pure deliverances of the intellect. It thus serves a function in Descartes's Meditations similar to that of doubt and other "purgings " of the senses in the tradition of spiritual meditation stemming from St. Augustine. According to the reading I shall offer, Descartes's use of the meditative mode of writing was not a mere rhetorical device to win an audience accustomed to the spiritual retreat. His choice of the literary form of the spiritual exercise was consonant with, if not determined by, his theory of the mind and of the basis of human knowledge. Since Descartes's conception of knowledge implied the priority of the intellect over the senses, and indeed the priority of an intellect operating independently of the senses, and since, in Descartes's view, the untutored individual was likely to be nearly wholly immersed in the senses, a procedure was needed for freeing the intellect from sensory domination so that the truth might be seen. Hence, the cognitive exercises of the Meditations. This reading entails a distinctive attitude toward the role ofargument in the Meditations. Although works of religious meditation may make use of argument, their purpose is not to present a continuous argument that compels by force of logic; they serve as guidebooks to prepare the soul for illumination from above or within. Similarly, Descartes's Meditations are not so much a continuous argument as a set ofinstructions for uncovering the truths that lie immanent in the intellect. Not that there are no arguments in the Meditations; the language of argument is interspersed throughout the work. But some conclusions seem...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 41-58
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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