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  • Insight and Inference: Descartes's Founding Principle and Modern Philosophy
  • Tom Sorell
Murray Miles . Insight and Inference: Descartes's Founding Principle and Modern Philosophy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pp. xviii + 564. Cloth, $120.00.

This book reopens the question of the correct interpretation of 'cogito, ergo sum,' and considers the significance of Descartes's first principle for Western philosophy up to and including the twentieth century. The gist of Miles's interpretation is captured in the first three words of his title. The cogito is both insight and inference. How is it an inference, exactly? In the course of a process of selective attention to elements of thought, the cogito brings each person to the explicit knowledge of the fact of his or her existence (49). We have an implicit grasp of what the cogito makes explicit; and the passage from implicit to explicit knowledge amounts to a kind of inference. It is like an Aristotelian induction (cf. chapter 20).

Inference is the topic of Part Three. Part Two concerns certainty. The cogito is certain in Meditation Two not in the light of the thought that God is veracious, but in the light solely of reflection on one's actually occurring thoughts (47). As for what Cartesian thoughts are, Miles seems to suggest that they are rather like what Husserl gets out of his phenomenological reduction: "intentionally-structured or object-directed acts of thinking" that are the sole immediate objects of consciousness (45). Miles rejects, correctly I think, the attribution to Descartes of any of the usual forms of representationalism.

The diagnosis in Part Two of the certainty of the cogito seemed to me to be plausible on its face. It is in line with, although much more elaborate than, some reasonably familiar "psychologistic" interpretations clearing Descartes of the charge of circularity in the reasoning from clarity and distinctness to God's existence and nature and back again. (See A. Kenny, Descartes: A Study of his Philosophy [New York: Random House, 1968], chapter 8, and J. Tlumak, "Certainty and Cartesian Method" in M. Hooker, ed., Descartes: Critical and Interpretive Essays [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978], 40-73. See also L. Loeb's article on the Cartesian Circle in J. Cottingham, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Descartes [New York, Cambridge University Press, 1992], 200-235.) To the extent that Miles departs from these interpretations, it seems to be by trying to base the authority of the cogito on the immutability of God (215-18). But this move seems ill-advised. Not only does it land Descartes in difficulties over the interpretation of pieces of scripture in which God changes his mind; it may also be in tension with the idea of omnipotence. On the whole, however, there is much in Part Two to admireófrom the interpretation of the simple natures (chapter 10), to the differences between scientia, persuasio, and notitia (chapter 11).

Part One is less satisfactory, because Miles seems intent on reading Descartes through Husserl. Although he does not evade the objection that this approach is anachronistic (91-93), Miles does reinforce the impression, already created in the 55-page introduction, that he is unsure which interpretive perspective to use to control the book. Is he writing primarily as a twentieth century reader attracted to phenomenology, or is he someone who is keen to penetrate the seventeenth century and earlier and let the meanings of the early modern period infuse the text? Miles leaves the reader uncertain. In Part One we have a Husserlian Descartes. In the Introduction, the sixteenth and seventeenth century perspectives supply the preferred interpretation of [End Page 122] Descartes's metaphysics as something more or less traditional—concerned with the most certain, most universal, and the highest kind of being, the kind of being studied by theology.

It is hard not to be put off by Miles's very swift dismissals of mainstream Anglo-American interpretations of Descartes's metaphysics as having some special connection with his physics (27ff). Can this line of interpretation really be refuted by quoting passages in which Descartes says that metaphysics is more basic and more certain than physics? Surely not. In choosing the formulation...


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