Philosophic Classics: From Plato to Derrida
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Philosophic Classics: From Plato to Derrida

Forrest Baird

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eBook - ePub

Philosophic Classics: From Plato to Derrida

Forrest Baird

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First published in 1961, Forrest E. Baird's revision of Philosophic Classics continues the tradition of providing generations of students with high quality course material. Using the complete works, or where appropriate, complete sections of works, this anthology allows philosophers to speak directly to students. Esteemed for providing the best available translations, Philosophic Classics: From Plato to Derrida, features complete works or complete sections of the most important works by the major thinkers, as well as shorter samples from transitional thinkers.

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Modern Philosophy

To a large extent, modern philosophy begins with a rejection of tradition. Whereas medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas had taken great pains to incorporate and reconcile ancient writings, early modern philosophers such as René Descartes encouraged their readers to make a clean sweep of the past. Previous thinkers had been deluded by errors in thinking or had relied too heavily on authority. In the modern age, the wisdom of the past was to be discarded as error-prone. As Descartes observed in his Meditations,
Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last.
This quest to establish a stable intellectual foundation on which to build something “likely to last” characterized seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European philosophy. “British Empiricists,” such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and David Hume found such a foundation in sensory experience and developed their thought on that basis. On the other hand, the “Continent Rationalists,” philosophers such as Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz, thought the senses inadequate for such a task. They considered reason superior to experience and sought to establish their philosophies on the basis of more certain principles. The greatest of the modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant, sought to combine these two approaches and in so doing developed a uniquely influential system of philosophy.
Contemporary thinkers in the West are still trying to come to grips with these modern philosophers. For better or for worse, their ideas have influenced virtually all areas of Euro-American civilization. The subtlety and clarity with which these thinkers wrote continues to demand careful study even in this “postmodern” age.
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There are a number of fine introductions to modern philosophy. Among the classics in this area are Étienne Gilson, Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Kant (New York: Random House, 1963); the appropriate works from Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume IV: Descartes to Leibniz; Volume V: Hobbes to Hume; and Volume VI: Wolff to Kant (1950; reprinted New York: Image Doubleday, 1959–1960); and W.T. Jones’ books, Hobbes to Hume, 2nd edition and Kant and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd edition, revised (both New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969 and 1975). More recent general surveys include Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Wittgenstein (London: Routledge, 1984), Wallace I. Matson, A New History of Philosophy, Volume II: Modern (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987); Jeffrey Tlumak, Classical Modern Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2006); and Anthony Kenny, The Rise of Modern Philosophy: A New History of Western Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). The following volumes from the Routledge History of Philosophy series include essays on this period: G.H.R. Parkinson, ed., Volume 4: The Renaissance and Seventeenth Century Rationalism; Stuart Brown, ed., Volume 5: British Empiricism and the Enlightenment; and Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins, eds., Volume 6: The Age of German Idealism (all London: Routledge, 1993), as does Steven Nadler, ed., A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2002). A sampling of the many specialized books on specific topics from this era includes Louis E. Loeb, From Descartes to Hume: Continental Metaphysics and the Development of Modern Philosophy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981); Robert C. Solomon, Continental Philosophy Since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); and Iain Hampshire-Monk, A History of Modern Political Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).

RenĂ© Descartes 1596–1650

DOI: 10.4324/9781315510170-15
RenĂ© Descartes was born into the family of a minor noble in the town of La Haye in Touraine, France. At age 10, RenĂ© began a nine-year course of studies at the Royal Jesuit College of La FlĂšche. There he studied the humanities, theology, and philosophy (which included morals, logic, mathematics, metaphysics, and science). Though he did well in school, he was disillusioned by the uncertainty of his studies and their contradictory conclusions. Like many modern students, he felt overwhelmed by the multitude of opinions he encountered. He later wrote in his Discourse on Method that upon completing his course of study, “I found myself embarrassed with so many doubts and errors that it seemed to me that the effort to instruct myself had no effect other than the increasing discovery of my own ignorance.”
However, there was one discipline in which he found the certainty he was seeking: mathematics. The truths of mathematics were assured regardless of one’s metaphysical or epistemological assumptions: 2 + 2 = 4 whether one is a Platonist or an Aristotelian; 3 × 3 = 9 whether one is a Roman Catholic or a Protestant. Given mathematical certainty, Descartes found it odd that on such a firm basis “no loftier edifice had been reared.”
Left a modest inheritance by his father, Descartes spent the rest of his life seeking the certainty not found in college. After receiving a law degree at Poitiers in 1616, he served as a gentleman volunteer in the army of Maurice of Nassau. While soldiering, he began to develop the idea of connecting mathematical certainty with philosophy. In 1619, he had a series of dreams convincing him that the “spirit of truth” was leading him and that he had divine approval for his studies. For the next ten years, while traveling and serving in the army, he developed his ideas. In 1628, he had a debate with Chandoux, a scientist who claimed that science could be founded only on probability. Descartes argued eloquently that knowledge must be based on certainty and that he had a system that provided that basis. Encouraged by others to develop his system, he retired to Holland, where he found a greater degree of intellectual freedom and spent the next twenty years writing and publishing his ideas. His major philosophical works include Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written 1628, but not published until 1701), Discourse on Method (published in 1637 as a preface to the essays Geometry, Dioptric, and Meteors), and Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). Descartes also published seven sets of Objections to the Meditations of thinkers such as Hobbes, Arnauld, and Gassendi, accompanied by his Reply to Objections. In addition to his work in philosophy, Descartes made major contributions to the fields of optics, anatomy, physiology, and mathematics (especially analytic geometry in which “Cartesian coordinates” are still used).
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Descartes chose to write his works in French as well as Latin in order to reach beyond the academics to a wider audience. His writings did, indeed, reach learned people throughout Europe and that fact, unfortunately, led indirectly to his death. In 1649, Queen Christina of Sweden invited Descartes to join a circle of leading thinkers to instruct her in philosophy. Although he initially resisted the invitation, he finally felt compelled to accept. Upon arriving in Sweden, Descartes discovered that Queen Christina had time to see him only at five each morning. Descartes had been used to lying in bed until late in the morning, reflecting and philosophizing. Within a year, the rigorous new schedule, together with Sweden’s harsh weather, led to his death.
Descartes began his philosophy by sweeping away all the “errors of the past.” Whereas Bacon turned to empirical observation to escape the “tyranny” of the past, Descartes turned to mathematics, specifically geometry. He began by establishing twenty-one Rules for the Direction of the Mind. He would begin by finding knowledge that he could “clearly and evidently intuit, or deduce with certainty.” Then he would build from this knowledge deductively, one step at a time. This procedure would parallel the geometrical method of moving with deductive certainty from postulates to axioms. His Meditations on First Philosophy, reprinted here (complete) in the outstanding John Cottingham translation, chronicles this process.
The key was to find the knowledge that he could “clearly and evidently intuit” that could serve as his starting point. Although uncertainty and doubt were the enemies, Descartes hit upon the idea of using doubt as a tool or a weapon. Instead of fighting doubt, he would use it to find certainty. He would use doubt as an acid to pour over every “truth” to see if there was anything that would not be dissolved, any “truth” that could not be doubted. Some of his doubts may seem extreme (such as that the earth may not exist or that I may be dreaming all this), but in order to find 100-percent certainty he had to find a starting point with zero-percent doubt.
After subjecting all his knowledge to the acid of doubt, he concluded that there was one thing he could not doubt: that he was doubting. The one fact the acid of doubt could not dissolve was doubt itself. This meant there had to be an “I” who was doing the doubting. Even if he were deceived about everything else, he had to exist in order to be deceived. This led Descartes to his famous statement, Cogito ergo sum, meaning “I think, therefore I am” (although these exact words do not appear in the Meditations). Here was the “clearly and evidently intuited” knowledge, the starting point, that Descartes had been seeking.
Having established that there is an “I,” a self, a starting point, Descartes began to explore the nature of this “I”:
But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.
Among the ideas of this “thinking thing” called the “I” is the idea of a perfect God. Descartes went on to argue that nothing less than God could have caused the idea of God. He therefore concluded with a second certainty: that God exists.
From here Descartes moved to his third certainty: We have a strong tendency to believe in the existence of a reality beyond our consciousness. If there is no such external world, then we are terribly deceived. But a perfect God would not allow us to be unavoidably deceived, since deceit implies imperfection. Accordingly, we can conclude that we are not misled about those natural beliefs, such as the existence of an external world, so long as they can withstand the scrutiny of reason and are not willfully disregarded.
The Anatomy Lesson, 1632, by Rembrandt (1606–1669). Members of the Surgeons and Physicians Guild personify the Age of Observation with their intense scientific inquiry into human anatomy. Descartes was also interested in anatomy, making such important discoveries as that muscles work in opposition to each other. (©Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock)
Descartes had now established a basis for accepting the “obvious” truths he had thrown out earlier by his method of doubt. He had at the same time identified the criterion needed to distinguish the foundational truths upon which his knowledge rested, namely, the criterion that a truth must be “clearly and distinctly perceived.” An example of his rationalistic dependence upon such intuitions is his claim that the essential nature of a material object can only be known intuitively, not through sense perceptions.
One final point needs to be noted. The “I” that Descartes found at the end of his methodological doubting was “entirely distinct from the body.” This “I” was an immaterial mind, a “spiritual” thing. The body is an “extended, non-thinking thing.” As such, it is part of the material world, subject to the same laws of motion as a billiard ball. The “I,” or the mind, on the other hand, is not bound by physical laws. This Cartesian distinction leads to a problem about the relationship between body and mind. One of the first to raise the issue was Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia (1618–1680). Her correspondence with Descartes, given here in the Anscombe and Geach translation, addresses questions with which we still struggle today.
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For a concise treatment of Descartes’ thought in its historical context, see Alexandre KoyrĂ©, “Introduction,” in E. Anscombe and P.T. Geach, eds., RenĂ© Descartes’ Philosophical Writings (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1954). Among the best of several excellent general studies of Descartes are Anthony Kenny, Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1968); Margaret Dauler Wilson, Descartes (Oxford: Routledge, 1983); John Cottingham, Descartes (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986); Stephen Gauktoger, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Genevieve Rodis-Lewis, Descartes: His Life and Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999); and Desmond Clark, Descartes: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). For the fascinating story of what happened to Descartes’ body after his death, see Russell Shorto, Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason (New York: Doubleday, 2008). For discussions of Descartes’ Meditations, see L.J. Beck, The Metaphysics of Descartes: A Study of the Meditations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965); Stanley Tweyman, ed., Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy in Focus (Oxford: Routledge, 1993); Gary Hatfield, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Descartes’ Meditations (London: Routledge, 2002); Catherine Wilson, Descartes’ Meditations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Janet Broughton, Descartes’s Method of Doubt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Richard Francks, Descartes’ Meditations: A Reader’s Guide (London: Continuum, 2008); and John Carriero, Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes’s Meditations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). S. Woolhouse, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz: The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth-Century Metaphysics (London: Routledge, 1993) provides a comparative study, whereas John Cottingham, A Descartes Dictionary (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993) provides a helpful reference work. For collections of essays on Descartes, see Willis Doney, ed., Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays(Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967); Amelie O. Rorty, ed., Essays on Descartes’ Meditations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Georges J.D. Moyal, ed., RenĂ© Descartes: Critical Assessments (London: Routledge, 1991); Vere Chappell, ed., Essays on Early Modern Philosophers: RenĂ© Descartes (Hamden, CT: Garland, 1992); John Cottingham, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Descartes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); the multivolume George J.D. Moyal, ed., RenĂ© Descartes: Critical Assessments (Oxford: Routledge, 1992); Stephen Voss, ed., Essays on the Philosophy and Science of RenĂ© Descartes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); John Cottingham, ed., Descartes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Tom Sorell, ed., Descartes (New York: Ashgate, 1999); and Paul Hoffman, ed., Essays on Descartes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1949) is the classic critique of Descartes’ views on body and mind, while Marleen Rozemond, Descartes’ Dualism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Lilli Alanen, Descartes’s Concept of Mind (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); and Desmond Clarke, Descarte’s Theory of Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) are more recent studies.

Meditations on the First Philosophy

[Dedicatory letter to the Sorbonne]
To those most learned and distinguished men, the Dean and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology at Paris, from René Descartes.
I have a very good reason for offering this book to you, and I am confident that you will have an equally good reason for giving it your protection once you understand the principle behind my undertaking; so much so, that my best way of commending it to you will be to tell you briefly of the goal which I shall be aiming at in the book.
I have always thought that two topics—namely God and the soul—are prime examples of subjects where demonstrative proofs ought to be given with the aid of philosophy rather than theology. For us who are believers, it is enough to accept on faith that the human soul does not die with the body, and that God exists; but in the case of unbelievers, it seems that there is no religion, and practically no moral virtue, that they can be persuaded to adopt until these two truths are proved to them by natural reason. And since in this life the rewards offered to vice are often greater than the rewards of virtue, few people would prefer what is right to what is expedient if they did not fear God or have the expectation of an after-life. It is of course quite true that we must believe in the existence of God because it is a doctrine of Holy Scripture, and conversely, that we must believe Holy Scripture because it comes from God; for since faith is the gift of God, he who gives us grace to believe other things can also give us grace to believe that he exists. But this argument cannot be put to unbelievers because they would judge it to ...