chapter  3
41 Pages

How Cartesian Was Descartes?


How Cartesian was Descartes? My question may seem perverse. If ‘Cartesian’ is simply the adjective derived from Descartes’ name, the adjective meaning of or pertaining to Descartes, how could Descartes’ views fail to be Cartesian? Certainly, the word ‘Cartesian’ is frequently used with this meaning, to indicate that the views so labelled are views held by Descartes. But then my question arises: to what extent are the views labelled as Cartesian an accurate reflection of the views actually held by Descartes? A number of views are labelled Cartesian, and different views are labelled Cartesian by different people, so some focus is needed if we are to make progress in answering the question. In general philosophical discussion, ‘Cartesian’ perhaps occurs most frequently in combination with ‘scepticism’, or with ‘dualism’. Seeking a certainty which is proof against any doubt, Descartes begins the Meditations with sceptical arguments designed to show ‘What can be called into doubt’, and goes on to discover ‘The nature of the human mind, and how it is better known than the body’.2 Having called the very existence of the familiar material world into doubt, he finds certainty in his knowledge of the contents of his own mind, and concludes that he as a mind cannot be a part of the material world. A new form of scepticism, scepticism about the external world, and a new conception of mind, the Cartesian mind, emerge from the Cartesian quest for certainty. The Cartesian mind is divided from the material world both epistemologically and metaphysically, and this division creates distinctively Cartesian problems: the epistemological problem of reconnecting the mind to the world – the problem of the external world – and the metaphysical problem of re-connecting the mind to the body – the mindbody problem.