Descartes' Destruction of Philosophy - Some Personal Thoughts on Descartes' "Meditations"

Descartes' Inversion of Philosophy
This post is some of my thoughts on Descartes' Meditations. They assume you have read Meditations 1 and 2. If you haven't read them you can catch up on a summary here for Mediation 1 and here for Meditation 2. 

Descartes' Meditations is Another Version of Plato's Cave
Descartes' Meditations is certainly an influential and creative work in the history of philosophy, without doubt. What's interesting, though, is that upon further reflection one notices that the point of his thought experiment is not quite novel at all. He is actually pursuing the same question that has been pursued since Thales the Ionian: What is most real? 

The most famous expression of this search for that which is most real certainly has to be Plato's Allegory of the Cave from The Republic. The process of enlightenment begins with recognizing that the shadows of imagination and sense are closest to us in our experience and understanding of them, but actually least real. From there we get up from our chains and see the puppets in front of the fire, representing the works of art and designed creatures of nature. Yet, even these are not where our pursuit of truth stops, but we are drawn further out of the cave into a higher reality. Here Plato is having us see that the abstract forms are greater and more perfect than any physical reflection of them. Finally, it is only after awhile that we can glance at the sun, that which gives light to all other things, allowing us to know them. Here, that which is most metaphysically real is The One, or the ultimate form encompassing all forms. That which is most real in itself is that which is hardest for us to understand and comprehend. This is the traditional hierarchy of dependence of being expressed in the graphic here. 

A New Criteria and Foundation of Truth
Descartes' Meditations then are something akin to this process of enlightenment, the difference, though, is that the question that he is pursuing is not exactly, What is most real?, but What is most real ... to me? The question about reality is considered only in refence to his knowledge and surety of it according to his criteria of being "undoubtable." And so the question of what is most metaphysically real is substituted for the question: What am I most sure about? The problem with this is that what we are more sure about as human beings, or that which is closest to us, so to speak, is exactly that which is least real metaphysically speaking. Descartes' I Think is essentially Plato's imagination and shadow from his Divided Line and Allegory of the Cave. But just because something is more sure to us, doesn't mean it's more perfect or sure in itself, and that is the paradox which leads to this inversion of philosophy expressed in this second graphic. 

The Real Problem Here
I think Descartes true contribution or discovery for philosophy was simply a recognition that between our subjective experience of the world, and the world itself, that there is a barrier of some sort which stands between reason and things. Between the strict demonstration of a logical syllogism in the mind, and reality itself there is the barrier of the body. Our physical body and senses stand between. The question is if this a problem. Fundamentally, I argue that it is not a problem because our senses and reality are like two sides of the same coin, they are of the same reality. Thus reality bleeds into them in a spontaneous way which needs to reason or proof. This is the position of the epistemological realist. That is not to say that our mode of knowing as human beings exhausts reality, because it doesn't, but that the mode through which we do know is not a complete barrier which shuts us off from reality, as Descartes and later thinkers would have us believe. 

Yes, there is something like an act of faith and spontaneous trust which happens when we sense the world, but image how accurate it actually is. If this process by which we sense the world were false or more flawed we would not be able to live with the precision that we do, say with driving cars on the road together. Rather, we know our senses are misguided sometimes only in reference to them actually working, just as Aristotle talked about randomness only being understood in relation to a deeper order that allowed the randomness to exist. In no practical way do we ever doubt our senses.

A New Ordering of the Discovery of Truth 
Descartes does posit that this barrier of the body which exists between the ideas of the mind and the world itself is insurmountable, and thus the rest of his philosophy is built off of this assumption. Hence, in the process of determining that which is most real to the human thinking thing he again inverts the traditional order of things. Instead of Aristotle and Aquinas' notion that nothing is in the mind which is not first in the senses, for Descartes, second to his fundamental truth that he is thinking is his encountering of the clear and distinct ideas present in his mind. 

Hence, the process towards truth begins with 1) I think and then proceeds to 2) Clear and Distinct ideas. Here Descartes is drawn toward the idea of God which is present to him, and thus 3) Discovery of God, which leads to 4) A Guarantee that his senses are deceived. This new process of the exploration into what is true is the hallmark of the Rationalist school which follows Descartes. 

A System Set Up to Fail 
To continue from the last point. If one follows this new system it is bound to lead to some radical conclusions. It's like if you swallow the fishing hook, you are going to get dragged to places you didn't intend. In so many ways it is setting up a criteria and system which is bound to fail and end in skepticism. If the foundations are rotten, it doesn't matter how smart the philosopher is who tries to build on them, the building is still going to collapse. And so setting up a system in which there is an impenetrable divide between the subjectivity of a person and the world, and one which then shifts the pursuit of that which is most real to that which is most real to me, is a system that cannot be satiated. 

And so we see the Rationalist school generating three essentially spinoffs, or different directions that later philosophers take the foundations of Descartes and try to build. There's the Idealist and Pantheist philosophers, such as Berkeley, Spinoza, Malebranche who spinoff Descartes and embrace the primary of reason/mind over reality. There's the Kantian Critical philosophy which tries to find a middle way regarding these problems and balance both reason/mind and reality. And then there's the skeptical strain of Hume, Nietzsche, and others who reject reason/mind altogether. 

Either way, Modern philosophy since the 1600's has been the result of this inversion of philosophy and the hang up with the false pitting of the world and the mind against one another.