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  • The A Priori Thought of Descartes: Cognition, Method and Science by Jan Palkoska
  • Delphine Antoine-Mahut
Jan Palkoska. The A Priori Thought of Descartes: Cognition, Method and Science. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017. Pp. 408. Cloth, £57.99.

Resituating Descartes in any historical framework allows one to show how a radical philosophy was built against, but also along with, current and past doctrines. Taking seriously this intellectual struggle is worthwhile. But genetic analysis of the Cartesian corpus presents a real challenge. One pragmatic way of doing it is to begin with lexical clarification as proposed by Palkoska. His aim is to understand Descartes's conception of scientia (that is to say: demonstrating, reasoning, proving, explicating, deducing, or investigating), and to explain how cognition produces certain and evident true judgments. The main contribution of the book is to carefully point out all the "inconsistencies" and even "conflicting ways" (29) of Descartes's conception of evident cognition, in particular with regard to the relations it has to empirical cognition. Palkoska offers a view of Descartes's text that he regards as eliminating such ambiguities—at least for the careful reader.

This approach governs all five chapters. Chapter one discusses Descartes's general conception of cognition. It explains the sense in which scientia counts as a privileged kind of cognition, and secures the possibility of scientia in view of Descartes's other commitments. Chapter 2 analyzes the human cognitive faculties that Descartes takes to be capable of, and responsible for, scientiae, and considers how these faculties operate to bring it about. [End Page 731] Chapter 3 studies how Descartes develops a method derived from his reinterpretation of analysis as a heuristic tool in mathematics, and its extension to other domains. Chapter 4 provides a general account of how the method of analysis based on the algebraic paradigm supposedly works in Descartes. Finally, chapter 5 aims at showing how the meaning of the distinction between a priori and a posteriori, as developed in the previous chapters, can be assimilated to the causal strata at work in the Aristotelian conception of the a priori/a posteriori distinction.

Let us consider a typical section for discussion: "The Modes of Understanding and Innate Ideas" (29–49). Palkoska begins by pointing to the conflicting ways in which Descartes deals with innate ideas in his various texts, highlighting two points in particular: (1) the extension of innateness to pertain to all our ideas (including the adventiciae and facticiae) in the Notae in programma; and (2) the conflict, internal to the conception of 'innate,' between a receptive and an active meaning. In a discussion of Desmond Clarke—who, in his Descartes' Philosophy of Science (Penn State University Press, 1983), stresses how Descartes gradually came to focus on the immaterial status of all ideas in relation to his dualism—Palkoska argues that the kind of potentiality involved in Descartes's conception of innateness eventually shows that the input from the senses is responsible for the mind's failure to bring innate ideas to explicit, reflexive awareness in the first place. The embodied nature of the mind is a hindrance to our attentive apprehension of innate ideas.

So far, so good. The analysis, however, fails to take into account the genetic aspects of the texts and positions in question. Hence, there is a significant difference between, on the one hand, presenting Descartes's final conception of innateness in the Notae as the true one, and, on the other hand, showing why he evolved in that direction, taking charge of his own reception in the process. Descartes's own last word on the correct interpretation of his earlier texts is taken by Palkoska as being the only possible one. As for the earlier texts themselves, they are taken to have simply suggested interpretations on which the last ones, under the pressure of polemics, attempted to close the door.

Another, complementary, approach—taking into account Desmond Clarkes's Descartes's Theory of Mind (Oxford University Press, 2003)—would consist in investigating the way in which Descartes's position developed in dialogue with Henricus Regius, studying not only the result or final position that their opposition regarding the nature of innate ideas gave...


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