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Descartes and Method: A Search for a Method in Meditations (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 38, Number 3, July 2000
pp. 436-437 | 10.1353/hph.2005.0053

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.3 (2000) 436-437

Daniel E. Flage and Clarence A. Bonnen. Descartes and Method: A Search for a Method in Meditations. New York: Routledge, 1999. Pp. 332. Cloth, $90.00.

The book has two parts. The first (Chapters 1-3 and an appendix) outlines Descartes's method of analysis, a method for discovering laws and clarifying ideas. The second (Chapters 4-10) offers a running commentary of the Meditations that can be read on its own and is valuable not only for specialists as a challenging comprehensive account but also for anyone looking for a concise and coherent secondary source.

The method is taken from the Discourse and illustrated using the Optics. According to the authors, analysis in the search for laws "is a type of argument to the best explanation" (23) that involves "two different issues, discovery and confirmation" (21). In discovery, one isolates a phenomenon and posits one or more explanations (or causes) for it. In confirmation, one tests this explanation for "material truth" (whether it is recognized as true by the natural light). Then one shows how the phenomenon is "caused" by the explanation, and that it is the best explanation, and that it can be included in a systematic science.

The discussion of analysis in the clarification of ideas argues against " 'the epistemic thesis,' that is, the thesis that all innate ideas are (materially) true and known to be true as soon as they are considered"(45). Most of the arguments here address the claim that innate ideas are known to betrue. These arguments are followed by an account of how analysis clarifies ideas through successive refinement, and an illustration of this method from Descartes's clarification of the idea of light in the Optics. The final chapter of the section on method defends the claim that Descartes uses "cause" to refer to formal rather than efficient causation.

The authors then turn to the Meditations, offering a virtually line by line treatment of major themes, with attention to showing how the method outlined in part one structures the arguments of the Meditations. Meditations 1-3 "ascend" through discovery and preliminary confirmation, ending with a perfect, non-deceiving God as the best explanation of our idea of God. The final meditations "descend" from that best explanation to its implications. This descent confirms the explanation by showing its place in a system.

The second part of the book also includes explanations of the part that conceptual clarifications play in the Meditations. Flage and Bonnen discuss the cogito argument, the account of the wax, the arguments for the existence of God, and the distinction of mind and body, all as examples of conceptual clarification through the method of analysis. In the case of God, for instance, Descartes begins with Hobbes's crude conception of God and clarifies it into the simple, clear, and distinct notion of a "most perfect being."

The last chapter addresses the circle ascribed to Descartes by Arnauld: that the argument for the existence of God depends on the truth of clear and distinct ideas, which is only established on the basis of the existence of God. The authors argue that this is not a true circle, since Descartes assumes the material truth of clear and distinct ideas (which is indubitable) in his early argument and draws on their formal truth (in the mind of God) only after he proves the existence of God. They suggest their own circle, however: in his response to other concerns of Arnauld, Descartes suggests that God stops a causal regress and thus commits himself to the formal truth of the idea of God, which he cannot independently justify.

As one would expect in a book that offers a concise and unified interpretation of the Meditations, readers will find unnecessary asides and wish for attention to issues that are passed over. Moreover, though the authors support some views with extensive quotations, they leave others without textual support. The most unfortunate example is the identification of formal truth with actuality. The authors have several accounts of the distinction between formal and material truth and end their book with the assertion that "the distinction between...



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