Sunday, August 29, 2010

Demeter, Tamas. Review of Peter Machamer, et al., DESCARTES'S CHANGING MIND. MOR June 1, 2010.

Machamer, Peter, and J. E. McGuire. Descartes's Changing Mind. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009.

Rational reconstructions of a philosopher's thought tend to misrepresent its historical content because their focus falls exclusively on maximizing the strength, coherence and stability of the philosophical position read off from the philosopher's oeuvre. Approaching texts with this attitude has an important role to play for philosophical discourse in which presenting a position in its most defensible form is a virtue and induces further argument. However, it has much less legitimacy in a historical work: the various utterances of philosophers may diverge, as real-life figures sometime change their mind and their position develops -- sometimes even to the point of contradicting to their earlier views. There is thus a tension between the aspirations of philosophical and historical reconstructions which is not always easy to overcome.

Machamer and McGuire are aware of this when they tell their narrative of Descartes's changing mind "organized around the philosophical analysis of the Cartesian corpus" (ix). What they offer is an overarching view of Descartes's natural philosophy, metaphysics and philosophy of mind from the Rules for the Direction of the Mind (1619) to the Principles of Philosophy (1644). The most general lesson one can draw from this book is not that Descartes's position is frequently misrepresented, but that there is no such thing as Descartes's position: his oeuvre is entirely dynamic, his works are rather like milestones in the development of his philosophical thought, summaries of his then actual positions -- but not of ultimate solutions and arguments. This dynamic character implies that Descartes's oeuvre cannot be treated as a coherent exposition of a unified theory, and therefore it is an interpretative error to use earlier texts to elucidate his later position (1). . . .

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