Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Della Rocca, Michael. Review of John Carriero's BETWEEN TWO WORLDS. NDPR (July 2009).

Carriero, John. Between Two Worlds: a Reading of Descartes's Meditations. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. Let me then begin this review by offering instead a sketch of what Carriero's book is not, of the kinds of interpretations of Descartes that Carriero seeks to get us to reject. I will speak here of the usual view of Descartes, but I don't mean to imply that any one person holds this view in its entirety. Rather, I simply mean to articulate a collection of theses that are often attributed to Descartes and that Carriero seeks to undermine. The usual view is that in the Meditations Descartes is obsessed with skeptical arguments of increasingly radical scope, arguments that aim to overturn the foundations of our beliefs and to show that they are all unjustified. In the second Meditation, Descartes begins to emerge from this skeptical abyss with the help of his famous cogito argument, which proves that he exists and also, with the help of the further claim that the mind is transparent to itself, that judgments about the contents of one's mind are self-justifying whereas claims about existence beyond the mind are not. Thus, on the usual view, Descartes needs to work his way up from foundational beliefs concerning his own mind in order to achieve justified beliefs about the extra-mental world. In other words, on the usual view, Descartes focuses on what Carriero calls the "epistemological surfaces" of things and needs to build a bridge from these surfaces in order to gain access to the epistemically more problematic things themselves (p. 20). On the usual view, then, one purpose of the skeptical doubts is to reveal the epistemically privileged character of the mind itself and its contents, which are available to the mind in consciousness in a way that things outside the mind are not. Unfortunately, so the usual view develops, Descartes's radical doubt is so radical that he may not be able legitimately -- i.e. with the justification his beliefs require -- to build the bridge beyond the epistemological surfaces of things. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- his treatment of the mind as an epistemic refuge, Descartes is unable to acquire the kind of justification required to build this bridge without illicitly assuming that he has already built this bridge. This is, of course, the traditional problem of the Cartesian Circle that threatens Descartes's entire epistemological and metaphysical enterprise in the Meditations. Bracketing this intractable problem -- as we must if we want to make progress on other areas of Descartes's thought -- the usual approach is to note that Descartes does offer some arguments for the existence of God in a perhaps futile attempt to show that the veracity of God can underwrite our knowledge of the world. The connections among these arguments for God's existence (one or perhaps two in the Third Meditation, the ontological argument in the Fifth) are not clear, nor is it, on the usual view, clear why the arguments appear in the order that they do. After some fascinating and wildly implausible claims in the Fourth Meditation to the effect that belief is a matter of will and in the Fifth Meditation about the nature of body as merely extended, Descartes moves -- on the usual view -- to an argument for dualism in the Sixth Meditation. Here he attempts to demonstrate that the mind is distinct from the body, though the two somehow interact. This powerful argument proceeds by showing that the mind can exist without the body, and to show this Descartes invokes his earlier skeptical arguments, which in part turned on the possibility that his mind could exist with all its sensations even if his body does not exist and even if no bodies exist at all. So ends the usual view. The first thing to note -- and the first thing Carriero notes -- about this sketch is how un-unified it is. The various parts of the Meditations on the usual view do not hang together well . . . Read the rest here: See also the review on Metapsychology Online Reviews by Michael Pereira here:

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