Context, History, and Interpretation. The Religious Dimension in Descartes’ Metaphysics

John Cottingham

Philosophizing about the Past

Although Descartes’ place in the canon of great philosophers in the Western tradition has never been in doubt, the last few decades have seen a significant increase in the range and depth of scholarly interest in his thought. The work of Desmond Clarke has contributed significantly to this and, as the editors of this volume published to honour him have noted, that contribution has been particularly concerned with the importance of context—in the first place, the importance of reading Descartes’ best-known works in the wider context of his philosophical and scientific writings as a whole, and, in the second place, the value of studying these writings in the context of their time, paying attention in particular to what the new Cartesian philosophy meant to his contemporaries and immediate successors, and indeed to how the very idea of a distinctive Cartesian philosophy took shape in the early modern period.

There can be no doubt that the closely contextualized and historically immersed approach to the history of philosophy exemplified by the work of Clarke and others pays great dividends. This is not to say that it is the only valid way of studying Descartes’ ideas. A paradigm example of a rather different approach that has nevertheless greatly enriched our thinking about Descartes is that of Bernard Williams, who makes it clear in the preface to his seminal study, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, that his book is ‘intended to be philosophy before it is history’.1 This certainly does not mean that Williams shared the dismissive attitude of some

Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (London, 1978; repr. 2015), xv.

contemporary philosophers towards the history of philosophy; his book includes a great deal of detailed reference to a wide range of Cartesian texts, and to how Descartes shaped his ideas in response to contemporary critics. But Williams believed that in the sort of history of philosophy that was fundamentally worth doing there had to be, as he put it, ‘a cut-off point, where authenticity is replaced as the objective by the aim of articulating philosophical ideas’.[1]

An example of this was Williams’ idea of the ‘absolute conception’ of knowledge, which he attributed to Descartes, namely the goal of reaching a special kind of truth—the truth about how things are independently of our own local ways of conceiving them. The Cartesian project, so understood, is supposed to give us the kind of knowledge that is free from the relativity arising from the preconceptions of the local cultural context in which we operate, and even free from the particular perspective of our human standpoint (for example our human modes of sensory awareness). It is clear that Williams’ interests in this idea are not primarily derived from asking whether it represents a historically faithful interpretation of Descartes, but are driven instead by his own, very twentieth-century philosophical concerns, for example, about whether the modern conception of scientific inquiry presupposes that our theories about the world are constrained by how the world really is ‘anyway’, and hence that over time our various scientific accounts (and perhaps those of any other rational inquirers elsewhere in the universe) will tend to converge, as they approach closer to the truth, ‘guided’, as Williams put it in a later work, ‘by the way things actually are’.[2]

In ‘history of philosophy’ understood in this way, exegesis of the canonical works is, ultimately, in the service of exploring the writer’s own philosophical concerns, albeit focused through the lens of a close reading of a historical text. To put it another way, the historical scholarship, both textual and contextual, is never an end in itself; the point of the exercise is to bring the ideas of a writer such as Descartes into juxtaposition with the tensions and problems of our own contemporary worldview. Hence, for example, Williams’ interest in ‘the absolute conception’, and the notion of convergence, went hand in hand with what is a very nnCartesian distinction between truth in the domain of science and in ethics.[3] In ethical inquiry, unlike scientific inquiry, Williams was very sceptical about the possibility of convergence: he saw no prospect of a ‘convincing theory of knowledge for the convergence of reflective ethical thought on ethical reality in even a distant analogy to the scientific case’.[4] Whatever one makes of the resulting set of questions (and in my view they are rich and fascinating ones), it is clear that they take us quite a distance from the philosophical world of the early modern period, certainly that of Descartes and his followers, for whom the ‘light of reason’ discloses indubitable facts about goodness just as it does in respect of mathematical truth.[5]

If we contrast all this with the approach to history of philosophy found in Des Clarke’s work, it becomes clear, I think, that the latter is more firmly anchored in the philosophical world of the early modern period than is the case with Williams. But these are to some extent matters of degree rather than kind. Certainly, Clarke’s way of doing history of philosophy does not aim to immerse us so entirely in the context of the times that we lose sight of our own present-day philosophical preoccupations. Such an aim would be in any case incoherent, since it is impossible for any thinker to step wholly outside the contemporary cultural and intellectual milieu that necessarily shapes much of his or her thinking. And indeed some of Clarke’s most interesting discussions, for example his account of Descartes’ view of the relation between mental and physical phenomena, cast light on the Cartesian position precisely by bringing it into juxtaposition with the views of modern writers such as Nagel, Davidson, Kripke, and Putnam.[6]

In short, we can agree that worthwhile history of philosophy, of the kind that the best historically oriented work of both Clarke and Williams exemplifies, is sensitive both to nuances of history and context, and to the enduring philosophical significance of the ideas studied. But we may nevertheless think of practitioners of the history of philosophy as falling along a spectrum, with at the one end those for whom (to revert to Williams’ way of putting it) the subject is ‘history before it is philosophy’, while at the other end lie those for whom it is ‘the other way round’. Yet, despite their different priorities, there is one thing on which all those who philosophize about the past would surely agree, namely on rejecting that deracinated conception of philosophical inquiry that appears, dismayingly, to be gaining ground in many parts of the philosophical academy—a conception which entirely ignores the philosophical legacy of the past and is entirely focused on the latest ‘cutting-edge’ theories advanced supposedly out of the blue, or through debate with close contemporaries.[7] Though practised in many ways, and with many different emphases, the history of philosophy serves as a salutary reminder that our philosophical reasoning is never a neutral, ahistorical process, but has been conditioned in countless ways by the long sweep of Western culture which delivered us to where we are today.

  • [1] Williams, Descartes, xvi.
  • [2] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London, 1985), ch. 8, 136.
  • [3] Why this distinction is indeed ‘unCartesian’ will be explained (with suitable qualifications) in the thirdsection.
  • [4] Williams, Ethics and the Limits, 152.
  • [5] ‘Reasons of truth’ and ‘reasons of goodness’ rank pari passu in the Fourth Meditation, AT vii 58. Formore on ethical knowledge in Descartes, see the third section of this chapter.
  • [6] Desmond Clarke, Descartes’s Theory of Mind (Oxford, 2003), ch. 9.
  • [7] See John Cottingham, ‘What Is Humane Philosophy, and Why Is It at Risk?’, in A. O’Hear (ed.),Conceptions of Philosophy (Cambridge, 2009), 1-23.
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