Lecture on descartes’ metaphysical meditations 1961- 1962 English translation by

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Meditationes de prima philosophia (1st edition, 1641), or

  • Les Méditations métaphysiques touchant la première philosophie (1647, the Duc de Luynes’ translation).

    The adjective “metaphysical” is not, as one sees, in the Latin original. It is in the 16472 translation that Descartes reviewed and approved , where it plays the role of an equivalent to the Latin expression de prima philosophia, so that the French title says the same thing twice: “The Metaphysical Meditations Touching on First Philosophy.” Maybe it is in order to avoid confusion with the religious resonance of the term “Meditations” that Luynes and Descartes specify their nature right away with the adjective “metaphysical.” Maybe too, the addition is one of those liberties the Duke took in his French with the Latin of the philosopher, which the loyal Clerselier lamented , and which Descartes for his part made do with quite well. There is in Descartes an attitude of freedom that approaches insolence, a kind of de minimus non curat praetor.3

    Whatever it may be, this identity of “first philosophy” and “metaphysics” deserves to be raised. It is not an identity that interests all thinkers at all times: on the one hand, in fact, it is put into question again in contemporary German thought since Husserl4; on the other hand, it only becomes acquired knowledge since Aristotle, or more exactly from the epoch when the writings of Aristotle posed problems of classification for his disciples which couldn’t be resolved with the help of the rubrics recognized in the schools. The Ancients, in fact, divided philosophy into Logic, Physics, and Ethics. But the texts of the “corpus aristotelicum” cannot be entirely divided under these three rubrics; certain ones among them were therefore placed, without any particular title, “after the writings in physics”: meta ta phusika. However, this disposition on the library shelf became little by little a title: The Metaphysics, and thus designates the content itself of these unclassifiable texts. Now, this content is defined by Aristotle himself as prote philosophia, prima philosophia, first philosophy.

    The translation of the Greek expression is generally the one we just gave; it is this, for example, in the title of the Meditations: prima philosophia, first philosophy. In spite of a vague idea of preeminence that the term “first” implies, this first philosophy leaves one thus to believe that there would exist something like a second philosophy and that metaphysics is not all of philosophy. It would therefore be a sort of preliminary discipline, necessary (without one really knowing why) but not sufficient and a bit formal. It would leave to be built outside of itself all the riches of a natural or concrete philosophy such as epistemology, moral philosophy, political philosophy, sociology, pedagogy etc. However, everything that could be thought in each of these disciplines can only be thought from within, and based upon, the “first philosophy”: the rest is done either by a wisdom without principles or by science.

    In order, therefore, to avoid confusion with the cultural concept of philosophy that the title “first philosophy” fosters, I propose to you to translate prima philosophia as one translates summa arbor, not “the first philosophy,” but “that which is primarily philosophy,” philosophy in its primary sense, in its proper sense.

    From what now is this proper or primary sense of philosophy made? In the texts in question Aristotle speaks of “the knowledge of being as being.” 5 This expression has no clarity for us; it even surprises us with its non-natural character. Who, then, speaks of “being?” The non-knowing consciousness, the simple perception, perceives the tree, the waterfront, the sun emerging from the clouds, but not “being,” and still less “such as it is.” Science, all the sciences, establish objective systems of representation to which the confused and apparent universe of perception is reduced, in which they treat things according to determinations and not according to that aspect that they all have in common, but which in each one is the absolutely undetermined, which is that they are. Moral philosophy itself has for its object the good and the bad not “that which is” as “it is.” One could continue this enumeration for a long time.

    Philosophy, therefore, begins badly. It begins in a quite strange and obscure fashion which is not manifested in any natural human attitudes nor in any of the known languages. One must cling, externally, to historical knowledge – to the fact that philosophy, too, actually exists as an attitude of humanity towards the real, and even as a fundamental language since the Greeks – in order to resist the temptation of concerning oneself with something other than that discipline that only concerns itself with things to the extent that they are not this or that, consequently to the extent that they are not anything, but simply “in so much as they are.”

    This feeling is insurmountable as long as all "concrete" knowledge and domains will not have been reduced by philosophy to the on hê on as to this very possibility and shown to be abstract (or rather to be "nothing" in their turn) outside of it.

    It is certainly not a question of realizing this project in an hour nor even in a year, but only of fleshing it out more and more. In the present case, and in order to stay true to our beginning, I will constantly try to show you in what sense Descartes' Meditations are incomprehensible – scandalous in the whole, obscure in the details – if the commentary doesn't clarify them in light of the complete title, which is to say as metaphysical meditations. Two more reflections as severe as the preceding ones (and apparently as formal) are still necessary in this beginning.

    In the first place, the term “metaphysics,” after having been a way to classify, then a simple title to designate first philosophy, has come to constitute its definition. Thus Kant writes, for example:

    In that which concerns the name of metaphysics, there are no grounds for believing it was born by chance since it corresponds so exactly to the contents of the science: if one calls phusis nature, and if we can only arrive at concepts of nature by experience, then the science that follows this one is called metaphysics (from meta, trans, and phusika). It is a science that finds itself somewhat outside, that is to say, beyond the domain of physics.6

    By the "domain of physics," one must not understand physics itself, but really its domain, that is, nature as it shows itself, as appearance, as the simple perceived: to phusikon, in brief, what philosophy calls in general the sensible. If the library designation meta ta phusika could become the definition of the prôtè philosophia, it is because there is a strict relation between the thought of “being as it is” and the crossing (meta, trans) of this same real as it is at first given: phusikon, sensible. Thus, would philosophy be, by itself, an exceeding of the sensible? Let us retain this designation so as to be guided by it in our interpretation of the text and also so as to attempt to understand it itself.

    A second designation of first philosophy as metaphysics consists in its subdivision into metaphysica generalis and metaphysica specialis. The first, also called ontology, is the thought, already encountered, of "being such as it is." But the second specifies being as the soul of man (psuchè), as world (kosmos), and as God (theos). Thence come the three divisions of special metaphysics: psychology, cosmology, and theology. If, from this traditional structure7 of metaphysics, we return to the title of the Meditations, we affirm that they treat of the "existence of God and of the immortality of the soul" (according to the Latin title of 1641), or again of "the existence of God and of the real distinction between the soul and the body of man" (according to the French title of 1647). These are therefore "metaphysical meditations" in this sense that they treat the questions of metaphysica specialis. Still, one of these questions, the cosmological question, has disappeared. As for ontology, or general metaphysics, it does not appear in the title. Is this to say that "being such as it is" does not guide these meditations of first philosophy? And has the world simply been forgotten by Descartes to the advantage of the other two objects of special metaphysics? Let us not be in a hurry to believe this; let us only remember that the metaphysical Meditations do not respond thematically to the entire concept of metaphysics, and that we have here an obscurity to clear up if indeed it can be done.

    But more obscure still is the reason that metaphysics in the first place, as "metaphysica specialis," specifies being as psuchè, kosmos and theos. Is it simply that special metaphysics is responding to the Christian vision of the world which indeed sees in the creation, the soul, and God the three regions of "that which is?" Thus does Heidegger explain8 this Christian division of the contents of metaphysics:

    According to this [Christian faith], all that is not divine is created--the totality of creatures defining the universe. Among created things man has a special place inasmuch as everything is centered on the welfare of his soul and his own eternal existence. In keeping with the Christian belief concerning the world and existence, being in totality is divided into God, nature, and man, each of these realms having a particular discipline devoted to its study. These disciplines are theology, the object of which is the summun ens, cosmology, and psychology. Together they form the discipline called metaphysica specialis. In distinction from this, metaphysica generalis (ontology) has as its object being "in general" (ens commune).9

    In what respect then, would this religious specification of being still have a relation with the on hè on, with general metaphysics? Is it a simple superimposition of the Christian upon the Greek, and in reality a confusion due to history, a sort of cultural swirl? Or indeed is ontology itself constrained to develop as an analysis of the subject ("psychology"), of the object in totality ("cosmology"), and of the union of the two in Being itself, that is to say in God as Ens entium ("theology").

    These questions go well beyond us. They are of the first importance of those that need to be posed, and they have in no way been posed by their simply having just been raised here. For the present we expect nothing other from them than that they remind us of what order of difficulties Descartes' Meditations engage us in as "Metaphysical Meditations touching on first philosophy, in which the existence of God and the real distinction between man's soul and body are demonstrated." For it is a matter for us of penetrating these questions with the help of Descartes' text as well as of penetrating Descartes' text by always situating it at the level of these questions.

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