René Descartes dies and goes to Purgatory. Socrates meets him there and interrogates him about his rationalist philosophy. For good measure, Blaise Pascal makes a cameo appearance at the end of the dialogue.
That is the hilarious setup for Peter Kreeft’s excellent introduction to Descartes’ Discourse on Method, which introductory philosophy students and interested laypeople can read for both fun and profit. Kreeft uses a similar setup for his introduction to other philosophers including Plato, Niccolò Machiavelli, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Descartes is the father of modern philosophy, which is characterized by a “subjective turn” from metaphysics to epistemology. He wrote in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War, a conflict that caused many to doubt the peace-making ability of religion and to seek that peace-making ability through rational inquiry divorced from religious authority. For Descartes that rational inquiry involved the application of a rationalistic method to philosophical investigation. The method began by doubting everything until an indubitable foundation of clear and distinct ideas was laid. For Descartes, the first such clear and distinct idea is cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.”
From the indubitability of the knowing subject, Descartes went on to make a rational case for the existence of the mind distinct from the body, the existence of God, and the existence of the material world. Unfortunately, the cogito—at least the implications of the cogito—bequeathed to subsequent philosophy an unsolvable mind-body problem that has convinced many that Descartes’ anthropology is fundamentally wrong. Moreover, far from settling debates, Descartes’ rational method engendered only new debates.
The dialogue Kreeft crafts between Socrates and Descartes fairly lays out Descartes’ the historical context and substance of Descartes’ philosophy, acknowledges what it got right, demonstrates what it got wrong, and leaves open a number of debatable issues for the reader to decide on his or her own. Reading Kreeft on Descartes motivated me to go back and re-read Descartes, whom I first read as an undergraduate philosophy major. For me, an introduction that so motivates its readers has succeeded admirably.
I highly recommend Socrates Meets Descartes.
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