This course will introduce students to the literary remains of Descartes (1596–1650), including the Discourse on Method and the Meditations on First Philosophy.
Like Galileo, his contemporary, Descartes was one of the principal actors in what has since been called the Scientific Revolution. Descartes, who did work in mathematics, optics, and human physiology, was convinced that the new natural philosophy would flourish only if it sprang from certain metaphysical principles, as the trunk and branches of a tree spring from its roots. It was necessary to determine what these principles were, to secure them against criticism, and to exhibit their compatibility with important articles of Christian faith.
Such was the need as Descartes perceived it. The literary performance he rendered in answer to it – above all in the Discourse and the Meditations – is singular in the history of literature.
To get at the defining features of the Cartesian performance we will want to give attention to its two main targets. The first is a central practice of Descartes’ academic contemporaries, the verbal disputation. Formalized disputes had been a feature of the European university since its beginnings and shape the literary productions of authors from Aquinas to Suárez. But in taking aim at the disputatio, Descartes also intended to do away with a content that it carried: an Aristotelian philosophy of nature.
Monday. Introduction. The intelligibility of change: Aristotle contra Parmenides.
Tuesday. The science of nature: Aristotelian explanation. Christianity and the cosmos.
Wednesday. The science of nature: Cartesian explanation.
Thursday. Philosophy and literary form: the Meditations.
Friday. God, souls, and bodies.
Students wishing to prepare for the course should read the Discourse on Method and perhaps the Meditations on First Philosophy. The Discourse can be read as an introduction to the Meditations. The lecturer will also make reference during the course to Descartes’ Rules for the Direction of the Mind, to the Principles of Philosophy, and to the Objections and Replies originally published as an appendix to the Meditations. A voluminous literature has been produced in the course of dissecting the Cartesian corpus; The Blackwell Companion to Descartes edited by Broughton and Carriero has bibliographies on several topics.
The wise Scholasticus is said to have resolved to learn to swim before going in the water. Whatever success he may have had, the same method won’t work with philosophy. You have to take courage and plunge in; often you can’t touch the bottom. All the same, Descartes himself tries to write for readers who’ve not been ‘schooled’ in philosophy, and in the lectures I will assume no previous study of Descartes, Aristotle or the scholastics. In that sense the course can be called introductory.