I’ve recently been re-reading Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy” (again). I keep coming back to the book I think mainly because it’s easy to read. It’s short, it’s fairly to-the-point. Compared to something like Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”, it’s positively finger-food.
And it occurred to me that one of the reasons might be this: that the book is structured as a mythic hero narrative.
Disclaimer: this post will make most sense to those who are familiar with the work of René Descartes, famous 17th century French philosopher. Others are however welcome to read it anyway.
So why do I say that the Meditations is a hero narrative? Well, the overall structure is that it sets up (in the 1st Meditation of the 6) a problem (doubt) that threatens the everyday world (what we think we know), and to confront which the hero (Descartes) must descend into the ‘world of adventure’ (putting aside everything previously believed), where he struggles for his ultimate prize (a resolution of his doubts) for the central portion of the book (especially in Meditations 3 and 4) before emerging back into the everyday world and using the prize (philosophical insights) to resolve the initial problem (in Meditations 5 and 6).
Let’s go through that in a little more detail. The ‘dragon’ of the story is doubt, which is developed and explained at three levels in the 1st Meditation. It is, to begin with, the doubt that he mentions in the first line – the realisation that much of what he has been taught and believed all his life is mere prejudice. The second level of doubt is provided by perceptual illusions, dreams, insanity, and the various ways in which the senses can deceive us. And finally, the third level of doubt is provided by the figure of the ‘malevolent demon’, the possibility that the whole universe is set up deceitfully. These progress from the very concrete to the very abstract, together forming a powerful threat to the ‘village’ of everyday beliefs.
Meditation 1 also describes the only weapon that the hero takes with him as he begins his quest to confront the dragon: the method of doubt, provisionally rejecting everything that isn’t entirely certain. At the close of the 1st Meditation, things look at their darkest, for it seems as though everything can be doubted.
In Meditation 2, the hero uses this initial weapon to win his first prize – the primacy of the mental. This is expressed in his famous phrase “I think, therefore I am”, although in fact it goes well beyond this – what he now finds to be beyond doubt is also the contents of his own thoughts, as well as the fact that he has them. Yet even this is not enough, for if the world was ruled by a malevolent power, even his own most convincing reasonings might be flawed.
In Meditations 3 and 4 he undertakes the crucial battle: in Meditation 3, using his newly-won tool (trust in his own thoughts) he deduces the existence of God (by a conspicuously bad argument that I won’t go into), and from the existence of God, and his innate knowledge of God (he speaks of God as having left a ‘workman’s mark’ on his mind by which to be recognised) he finally defeats the possibility of systematic deception – in Meditation 4, by explaining how it is that even in the world of a perfect and benevolent God, we can still be very often mistaken (his answer is that God gave us a limited understanding, but an unlimited free will, so that our will can extend further than our understanding, and make us form opinions about things that we don’t understand – it is crucial for him that the source of error is this mismatch, and our own misuse of our faculties, not any inherent defect).
The main prize that emerges out of this is a ‘re-forged’ version of the method of doubt – the method of ‘clear and distinct perceptions’, i.e. to only accept what can be clearly perceived to accord with logic, and reject whatever is unclear and confused. The statement of this method ‘frames’ Meditations 3 and 4 – it is first suggested at the beginning of Meditation 3, and is then re-asserted, and validated, at the end of Meditation 4.
Finally, emerging shaken from the battle with the dragon, Descartes’ hero returns with this prize to the everyday world, using it to progressively validate various of our pre-existing beliefs, explain the sources of error, and lay out what must be done to avoid that error, in Meditations 5 and 6. It is here that Descartes’ most distinctive actual positions are defended – especially his dualism of mind and body (defended explicitly by reference to the clear-and-distinct method, and to God’s benevolence) and his privileging of mathematics as the most valid way to understand nature.
The original doubt is dispelled, the dragon is dead, the village is safe. And Descartes lives happily ever after.