Friday, February 13, 2009


Reading Descartes as preparation for the discussion of Durs Grünbein's Vom Schnee, oder Descartes in Deutschland in my forthcoming course on verse novels, I discovered several passages that seemed like anticipations of post-Cartesian developments in science. This is not at all surprising, of course, given how fundamental Descartes was to the laying of the philosophical foundations of science. But I was still struck to find a passage in the Discourse on Method that sounds like a description of the Turing test. Descartes is talking about "machines" with "a likeness to our bodies" and argues that "we would still have two very certain means of recognizing that they were not ... real men":

Of these the first is, that they could never use words or other signs, composing them as we do to declare our thoughts to others. For one can well conceive that a machine may be so made as to emit words, and even that it may emit some in relation to bodily actions which cause a change in its organs, as, for example, if one were to touch it in a particular place, it may ask what one wishes to say to it; if it is touched in another place, it may cry out that it is being hurt, and so on; but not that it may arrange words in various ways to reply to the sense of everything that is said in its presence, in the way that the most unintelligent of men can do. (75)

Less surprisingly, a passage a few pages later describes how science is supposed to develop (at least in a world without "scientific revolutions" à la Thomas Kuhn):

[Descartes thought he should] urge good minds to try to go beyond this [his own results] in contributing, each according to his inclination and his capacity, to the experiments which must be made, and communicating also to the public everything they learned; so that, the last beginning where their predecessors had left off, and thereby linking the lives and the labors of many, we might all together go much further than each man could individually. (79)

Then there's this bit from the Meditations that reads like a peculiar combination of an anticipation of calculus ("infinity of parts") and an early formulation of Nietzsche's "genealogy" ("each of which depends in no way on the others"):

For the whole time of my life may be divided into an infinity of parts, each of which depends in no way upon the others ... (127)

The Meditations also includes a moment Grünbein surely enjoys, as he has mentioned "phantom pain" in his work in more than a few contexts (note that Wikipedia says that the earliest recorded reference to this phenomenon was made in 1551; the Meditations were published in 1641):

And yet I have sometimes heard people say, who have lost arms or legs, that they still sometimes seemed to feel pain in the limb which had been amputated ... (155)

The edition I have (which I bought in Glasgow last week, and which all the page references here come from) is from Penguin Classics, translated by F. E. Sutcliffe; it also includes the "Letter from the Author to the Translator of the Principles of Philosophy, to serve as a preface," which I found almost even more fascinating than the Discourse and the Meditations, as it is a looser, almost chattier text (as Descartes says in the Meditations, "my mind likes to wander"—108). It includes one extended passage on what science is for: first, the satisfaction of finding truths; secondly, the development of one's ability to "judge better"; thirdly, the resolution of disagreements (because it can "remove all causes of dispute"); and finally, the discovery of further truths (186). I was especially struck by the particular sequence of these points, with satisfaction first.

I read Descartes in SLE at Stanford, and I had actually remembered the overall arc of the text quite clearly. But I had not remembered how clearly the Meditations are framed by the conceit of doubt. Descartes begins with his heuristic of radical doubt: "The slightest ground for doubt that I find in any[thing], will suffice for me to reject [it]" (95). This leads, of course, to the Cogito: "I am, I exist, is necessarily true, every time I express it or conceive of it in my mind" (103). But I had forgotten (and, it seems to me, "we" generally forget) that Descartes concludes by dismissing that doubt: "And I must reject all the doubts of these last few days, as hyperbolical and ridiculous ..." (168).

Finally, in the "Letter from the Author ...," Descartes beautifully dismantles the cliché that experience and reading are opposed, when he says that the best way to demonstrate the validity of his argument is "through experience, that is to say, by inviting readers to read this book" (180). And then he says how this book should be read, and the passage is so exemplary that I will close this long post by quoting it in full. This is a good way to read:

I should wish [this book] to be read straight through completely, like a novel, without the reader straining his attention too much or stopping at difficulties he may encounter, in order simply to know in broad outline what the matters are of which I treat; and that afterwards, if he considers them to merit further examination, and has the curiosity to know their causes, he may read it a second time in order to observe the development of my reasonings; but that he must not then give it up in despair, if he cannot follow it completely throughout or understand all the reasonings; he has only to mark with a stroke of his pen the places where he comes across difficulties and to continue to read without interruption to the end; then if he takes up the book for the third time, I feel sure that he will find the solution of most of the difficulties that he marked before; and that, if any still remain, their solution will eventually be found in a further reading. (181)

No comments: