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Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

29 September, 2015 - 10:31

The Meditations are among the most frequently misread works of the modern period. Descartes is often seen as primarily concernedwith epistemology and in particular the problem of skepticism. But remember that the title of the work is Meditations on

First Philosophy, and ‘first philosophy’ always refers to metaphysics, not epistemology. And Descartes himself refers to the workin correspondence as his ‘metaphysics’. Skepticism is merely a tool Descartes exploits; it is not an independently important or interestingsubject.

Failure to see this stems from the failure to see the work’s polemical purpose. Descartes’s target audience here is the scholastics;while Descartes and his adversaries agree on some key doctrines—that God exists, for example, and that the soul is immortal—theydisagree on nearly everything else. Rather than arguing against their views directly, Descartes chooses a literary form that allowshim to subvert their views—particularly empiricism, existentialism, and their belief in a multitude of natural kinds.

The meditator is not Descartes himself, but instead a literary character. (For confirmation of this, see the last paragraph of his Synopsis of the Six Following Meditations below.) As you read the first two meditations, keep this in mind. Look for clues to the meditator’s true identity: what kindsof views does she hold, as she begins her reflections?

The synopsis that follows is helpful, but you might want to read it after having read the work as a whole.