In this classic work, best-selling author Harry Frankfurt provides a compelling analysis of the question that not only lies at the heart of Descartes's Meditations, but also constitutes the central preoccupation of modern philosophy: on what basis can reason claim to provide any justification for the truth of our beliefs? Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen provides an ingenious account of Descartes's defense of reason against his own famously skeptical doubts that he might be a madman, dreaming, or, worse yet, deceived by an evil demon into believing falsely.Frankfurt's masterful and imaginative reading of Descartes's seminal work not only stands the test of time; one imagines Descartes himself nodding in agreement.
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Princeton University Press
October 28, 2007
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Excerpt from Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen by Harry G. Frankfurt
In the Theaetetus, Plato describes thinking as a conversation conducted by the soul with itself.1 This has sometimes been taken as a reason for admiring his use of the dialogue form. Koyr? goes so far, in fact, as to maintain that "the dialogue is the form parexcellencefor philosophic investigation, because thought itself, at least for Plato, is a 'dialogue the soul holds with itself.'"2 But a dialogue is not a conversation with oneself. It is a conversation with other people. If thinking is indeed internal discourse, then dialogue can hardly be the ideally appropriate literary form in which to convey it. A much more appropriate vehicle is the meditation, in which an author represents the autonomous give and take of his own systematic reflections.
Moral and religious meditations were published before the seventeenth century, but Descartes was the first to use the form in an exclusively metaphysical work.3 During his lifetime he published three major philosophical books. One of these, PrinciplesofPhilosophy, was meant as a text for use in the schools, and its form was dictated by this intention. But in the DiscourseonMethodand in the Meditations, Descartes was free to write philosophy as he liked. Both books are autobiographical. Like Plato's dialogues, they do not emasculate the philosophical enterprise by severing its connection with the lives of men. Descartes differs from Plato, however, in the way he solves one of the touchiest problems of philosophical writing--to protect the vital individuality of philosophical inquiry without betraying the anonymity of reason.
Plato never enters the dramatic scenes he creates. He may intend to signify by this self-effacement his refusal to use the stage of inquiry for personal display.4 There is a certain tension, however, between his conception of inquiry and the literary genre he chose. Plato insists that philosophy and rhetoric are antithetical, but his dialogues would have been lifeless if he had rigorously excluded rhetoric from them. If the characters in a dialogue are to appear as persons, and not merely as devices for punctuating the text, rhetorical elements must naturally intrude into their discourse just as they do into the conversations of real people.
Descartes avoids this difficulty by declining to place his inquiry within a social context. He does his thinking in private, and no one appears in his Meditationsbut himself. To be sure, his style is personal and sometimes even intimate. But while he writes autobiography, the story he tells is of his efforts to escape the limits of the merely personal and to find his generic identity as a rational creature. Whatever actually may have been his motives in publishing the Discourseanonymously, philosophically it was appropriate for him to do so. His attitude toward philosophy is nicely implicit in the paradox of an anonymous autobiography, which serves to reveal a man but which treats the man's identity as irrelevant.
Religious meditations are characteristically accounts of a person seeking salvation, who begins in the darkness of sin and who is led through a conversion to spiritual illumination. While the purpose of such writing is to instruct and initiate others, the method is not essentially didactic. The author strives to teach more by example than by precept. In a broad way the Meditationsis a work of this sort: Des-cartes's aim is to guide the reader to intellectual salvation by recounting his own discovery of reason and his escape thereby from the benighted reliance on his senses, which had formerly entrapped him in uncertainty and error.
In reading the First Meditation it is essential to understand that while Descartes speaks in the first person, the identity he adopts as he addresses the reader is not quite his own. Students of Descartes often fail to take into account the somewhat fictitious point of view from which he approaches his subject, and this frequently leads to serious misunderstanding. As he begins the Meditations, Des-cartes's stance is not that of an accomplished scholar who has already developed the subtle and profound philosophical position set forth in that work. Instead, he affects a point of view he has long since outgrown--that of someone who is philosophically unsophisticated and who has always been guided more or less unreflectively in his opinions by common sense.
This is not very surprising, of course, in view of the autobiographical nature of his book. Descartes's meditations occurred years before he wrote the Meditations, and the First Meditation represents an early stage of his own philosophical thinking. He makes this quite explicit in the ConversationwithBurman, where he explains that in the First Meditation he is attempting to represent "a man who is first beginning to philosophize," and where he discusses some of the limitations by which the perspective and understanding of such a person are bound.5 The lack of sophistication that Descartes affects consists essentially in a failure to appreciate the radical distinction between the senses and reason. Thus it concerns doctrine, not talent, and it is by no means inconsistent with the resourcefulness and ingenuity that Descartes displays in the First Meditation. The talent available to him as he starts his inquiry is his own. It is only the assumptions that govern his initial steps that are na?ve and philosophically crude.
This point is also implicit in the method Descartes employs to present his ideas in the Meditations. He describes this method in a well-known passage near the end of his Reply to the Second Objections. There he distinguishes between what he calls the "analytic" and the "synthetic" methods of proof, and he observes that "in my MeditationsI have followed analysis alone, which is the true and best way of teaching."6 When the synthetic method is used, a system of thought is formally arranged in deductive order: definitions, axioms, and postulates are neatly laid out, as in a geometry textbook, and each theorem is exhibited as conclusively demonstrable from these materials. But there is no inkling of how the materials were arrived at or of how the various theorems were found to be derivable from them. The work of discovery and creation is ignored, taken entirely for granted, and attention is directed exclusively to the certification of its results.
Descartes acknowledges the suitability of this method for the exposition of a subject like geometry, where the primary notions involved in the proofs "are readily granted by all."7 He regards it as quite unsuitable in a work devoted to metaphysics, however, even though he is convinced that the primary notions of metaphysical discourse are ultimately more intelligible than those of geometry. For while the concepts he finds basic in metaphysics are inherently very clear, they are discordant with the preconceptions "to which we have since our earliest years been accustomed."8 If they are advanced abruptly, therefore, they are quite likely to be rejected as inappropriate or implausible. It is accordingly most desirable to present them in such a way that the reader can appreciate their significance and recognize their priority.
This happens when the exposition is according to the analytic method, which "shows the true way by which a thing was methodically discovered."9 Analytic accounts are designed not merely to evoke agreement but to facilitate insight; the author invites his readers to reproduce the fruitful processes of his own mind. He guides them to construct or to discover for themselves the concepts and conclusions which, by the synthetic method, would be handed to them ready-made. For this reason an appropriate use of the analytic method requires a relatively unsophisticated starting point. The reader cannot be supposed to possess already the fundamental concepts of the subject at issue, or to be from the start in a position to grasp the truths that the inquiry is supposed to attain.
Descartes's method of exposition in the Meditationsobliges him to show scrupulous respect for the philosophical na?vete of his intended reader. As he develops his argument he must not require either the use or the understanding of materials that the text has not already provided and that could be acquired legitimately only through philosophical investigations the reader cannot be assumed to have completed. He must take no step for which he has failed to make suitable preparation; at no stage of the work may he presume any greater philosophical progress than he himself has led his reader to achieve.
Descartes was of course fully aware of this. He insists that he "certainly tried to follow that order most strictly" in the Meditations; he "put forward first [those things] that must be known without any help from the things that follow, and all the rest are then arranged in such a way that they are demonstrated solely on the basis of things preceding them."10 Now this provides a valuable principle for use in interpreting the Meditations. For it justifies presuming that there is an error in any interpretation according to which Descartes is required to rely at a given point upon philosophical material not already developed at some earlier stage in his presentation.
Now one of Descartes's most provocative doctrines does not appear in the Meditationsat all. In a number of his letters he maintains that what God can do is not limited by the laws of logic, and that these laws are, in fact, subject to the divine will. "The thruths of mathematics," he writes to Mersenne,
were established by God and entirely depend on Him, as much as do all other creatures. To say that these truths are independent of Him is, in effect, to speak of God as a Jupiter or Saturn and to subject Him to the Styx and to the Fates. . . . You will be told that if God established these truths He would be able to change them, as a king does his laws; to which it is necessary to reply that this is correct. . . ."11
In another letter, to Mesland, Descartes says: "the power of God can have no limits. . . . God cannot have been determined to make it true that contradictions cannot be together, and consequently He could have done the contrary."12 There can be little doubt that Descartes actually held this remarkable doctrine. But he never sets it forth in the Meditations, perhaps because he feared it would disturb the theologians whose support or toleration he was anxious to enjoy. It would therefore be quite improper to interpret the philosophical position he develops in the Meditationsin such a way that his views concerning the dependence of the "eternal verities" on the will of God play an essential role in it.
In view of Descartes's emphasis on the importance of order in the Meditations, no advice could be worse than that given by Prichard. After observing that Descartes's book is "extraordinarily unequal" and that "some parts . . . deal with what is important and very much to the point" while others are "very artificial and unconvincing," Prichard suggests that
the proper attitude for the reader and the commentator is to concentrate attention on what seem the important parts and to bother very little about the rest. For that reason I shall in fact consider closely certain portions which seem to me central and almost ignore the rest, and I would suggest that you should do the same in reading him.13
Descartes would not have been surprised by this attitude; in the Preface to the Meditations, in fact, he anticipates being read more or less as Prichard suggests. But he warns there that "those who do not care to comprehend the order and connections of my reasonings and who are out only to prattle about isolated passages, as many are accustomed to do, will not receive much profit from reading this essay."14 If his account of his thought is viewed as forming a mere collection of philosophical atoms--a compendium into which one may plausibly dip at any point--the result will often be a failure to grasp what he wishes to convey.
In the First Meditation Descartes defines the philosophical enterprise he proposes to undertake; he also sketches and illustrates the procedure by which he intends to carry it out. Without a thorough comprehension of what goes on in this Meditation, it is not possible to understand his conception of the tasks of metaphysics or to evaluate intelligently his solutions to the problems he considers in his book. This comprehension may seem easy to come by.
After all, the First Meditation has a reputation for lucidity and its arguments are very familiar. In fact, however, the Meditation is far from fully accessible to a casual reading and important aspects of it are very often misunderstood.