Topics and Scope For Our Class

Rene Descartes' work, the Meditations On First Philosophy is a centrally important and influential work in Western Philosophy. In it, Descartes raises and (at least to his own satisfaction) resolves a number of key problems and issues. These range over a number of fields in philosophy, including Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Religion, and Ethics.

The text itself is organized as precisely what its title suggests, a set of progressive, guided, reflective "meditations", that is, lines of thinking that are narrated by Descartes. Each of them is focused on a few main topics and problems. Each of the six are relatively short, but they are also dense and deep, and the reasoning involved in each of them can prove tricky and complicated. You will find as you reread them - and particularly after we discuss them in our class sessions - that you glimpse and grasp more of the perspective Descartes articulates.

By the time that Descartes published his Meditations on First Philosophy, he was considered an important and promising philosopher, and he was well-connected with many other thinkers in Western Europe through the Parisian Marin Mersenne. This ensured significant critical reception of and conversation about his work, and that took the form of seven sets of Objections to the Meditations, including among their authors Thomas Hobbes, Antoine Arnauld, and Pierre Gassendi. To each of those sets of objections, Descartes wrote a set of Replies, which provide not only defenses of his philosophical perspective and arguments, but also important clarifications and explanations.

Descartes' intention with the Meditations (as well as several of his other works) was to effect a new beginning-point for Philosophy, one that would develop from a foundation of secure starting-points through clear and methodical argumentation, ultimately providing us with reliable ways of gaining genuine knowledge and conducting our lives rationally.

The topics, issues, and problems that the Meditations range over include: the nature of reality; the different modalities of human thought; doubt applied as a part of philosophical method; the nature of extended substances; different types of ideas and their sources; the existence and nature of God; the scope of the human faculties; how we fall into error and how we can avoid it; true and immutable natures we can grasp with the mind; what we can know about the external world; and the distinction and interaction between mind and body.

In our class, we will be engaging in close reading of each of the Meditations, spending one full class session and week on each of them. This will allow us to fully explore what Descartes deliberately does in all of these short but complex meditations. Taking this approach will also afford us the opportunity to thoroughly unpack and examine the arguments and explanations he provides in his texts, and to think about the implications of the claims and assumptions he makes in the Meditations.

You will notice that there is a good bit more reading involved in the Objections and Replies, and accordingly e will take a more selective approach to the those, going over the most important points made by Descartes' critics and Descartes, rather than attempting to focus on every bit of those texts.

We will be studying these topics over the course of eight weeks and eight 90-minute class sessions. That turns out, based on my experience, to be about the right amount of time to work through this material in a systematic and leisurely way together. By the end of this class, you will have a solid and well-developed understanding of all of the topics Descartes works through in his text, and some of the contemporary intellectual conversation his Meditations provoked.

For more specific overviews of the sub-topics we will be exploring, you will want to go to the Overview for each of the eight weeks of our class, where they are outlined in more detail.

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