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Descartes course materials 2015/16

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University of Warwick

PH 128 Descartes and Mill (part one – Descartes)

Kirk Surgener

Autumn 2015

Brief Module Description

Descartes is often identified as the first modern philosopher. His influence on the development of the field has been great. We will learn about two of the main areas of philosophy (epistemology and metaphysics) by paying close attention to Descartes’ greatest work: The Meditations.

Module Plan

Lecture 1: Descartes’ Life and the Philosophical Context
Lecture 2: The Attack on the Senses
Lecture 3: Dreaming and the Evil Demon
Lecture 4: Cogito Ergo Sum
Lecture 5: Mind and Body
Lecture 6: The Trademark Argument for the Existence of God
Lecture 7: The Cartesian Circle
Lecture 8: The Ontological Argument and Descartes’ Legacy.

Please note that depending on how long it takes to get through the material the general schedule may be modified as the course progresses. You seminar schedule and study questions below will remain fixed to allow you adequate time to prepare.

How to do well in this module

The secondary literature on Descartes is vast. You should certainly engage with this material when writing your assessed and unassessed work. When preparing for lectures and seminars I would recommend concentrating on the primary text – Descartes’ Meditations. This text is short and engaging, and will reward re-reading. You will also need to study it carefully to answer the compulsory study questions below.

Requirements and Assessment
Students are required to attend the weekly lectures and seminars and participate actively.
Seminars begin in week 2. Seminars present an opportunity for in-depth discussion of issues raised in the lecture and for a more precise analysis of core texts. You are required to read the core text, make notes on it and write answers to the study questions below. Answering these questions is a pre-condition of seminar attendance. Also, bring the text with you to class.

The main reading for this half of the course is Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy. Particularly recommended is the edition edited by John Cottingham for Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy.

The readings and study questions for the seminars are as follows:

Week 2 - Scepticism: Required reading: Meditation 1.
1. What will Descartes’ project be? How will he proceed? Does this project make sense?
2. What is his first reason to doubt his senses? Why isn’t this enough for him?
3. On page 13, Descartes writes ‘I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep’. Is this true? Suppose he is right – are there any beliefs that are left unaffected by this problem?
4. On page 15, Descartes gives his best reason to doubt all his beliefs. What is the argument? Does it give you a reason to doubt all your beliefs?
5. In the very end of page 14, Descartes writes ‘I have no answer to these arguments, but am finally compelled to admit that there is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised.’ What is the argument on that page that leads him to come to this conclusion?

Week 3 – Cogito Ergo Sum: Required reading: Meditation 2: paragraphs 1–4 (page 16, the first paragraph of 17), the Objections and Responses on ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ (pages 68–69 in the Cottingham edition).
1. What will Descartes aim to find in this Meditation? Why?
2. What belief can Descartes still be certain of? Why?
3. Page 68 (Fifth Replies): why does Descartes say that ‘I am walking, therefore I am’ doesn’t work? Is he right?
4. Page 68 (Second Replies): Descartes says here ‘When someone says ‘I am thinking, therefore I am’, he does not deduce the existence from thought by means of a syllogism...’. Why is it important for Descartes to reject the idea that the conclusion is a consequence of a syllogism? What is the alternative?
5. If you can be certain that you exist, is this a promising foundation to build a new, reliable, system of knowledge?

Week 4 – Mind and Body: Required reading: Meditation 2, from paragraph 5 to end of the Meditation.
1. What method will Descartes use when he begins to investigate what this ‘I’ is that is established by the Cogito?
2. What was the traditional view of the self? Why can’t he think that he is anything like that?
3. What does he discover about his nature and essence? How plausible is the conclusion?
4. On what grounds does Descartes come to this conclusion?
5. What worry is the ‘wax example’ supposed to address? N.B. this is a tough and contentious question, but give it a go.

Week 5 – The Existence of God: Required reading: Meditation 3, pages 24–32; Meditation 5 paragraphs 7–8 (bottom of 45 and top of 46). Questions:
1. What is the situation of the meditator now? What will Descartes try to establish in this Meditation? What is the method he will rely on? Why God?
2. What kind of ideas are there? What examples does Descartes give of them?
3. What is the idea of God like? How does it differ from other ideas?
4. What principle does Descartes then introduce? Is it plausible in the light of Descartes’ examples?
5. So what is the argument for the existence of God then (31-32)?
6. What is the argument in the two paragraphs in the fifth Meditation?

Assessment Methods:

This module can be assessed in the following ways:
• 1 x 2000 word essay for part-year visiting exchange students only doing PH128-12
• 1 x 2500 word essay for part-year visiting exchange students only doing PH138-15
• 100% examination for all other students (on either module code)
In addition students are required to submit 2 unassessed essays (one on Descartes, one on Mill) of 1500 words each via Tabula in line with the 2015-16 essay deadlines schedule.

Unassessed Essay:

For the Descartes portion of the module, students must submit 1 x 1500 word unassessed essay by 12 noon, Thursday, Week 5.

Choose from:
1. What is Descartes’ best sceptical argument in the first Meditation? Give reasons for your answer.
2. Descartes thinks he can be sure he exists. Why? Is he right?
3. Critically discuss Descartes’ attempt to prove the existence of God in the third Meditation.

Further Reading List:

As explained above it is essential that you carefully read the Meditations for yourself, and do this before you look at any secondary literature. There are a huge number of texts on the Meditations, some recommended ones are listed below.
These textbooks are intended to be accessible to undergraduates:
Hatfield, Gary (2003): Descartes and the Meditations (Routledge) [this is the most thorough]
Cottingham, John (2008): How to Read Descartes (Granta)
Franks, Richard (2008): Descartes’ Meditations: A Reader’s Guide (Continuum)
Prado, C.G. (2009): Starting with Descartes (Continuum)
Southwell, Gareth (2008): A Beginner’s Guide to Descartes’ Meditations (Blackwell)
Wilson, Catherine (2003): Descartes’ Meditations – an Introduction (Cambridge University Press)

Further material:

Sorell, Tom (1987): Descartes (Oxford University Press)
Cottingham, John (1986): Descartes (Blackwell)
Dicker, George (1993): Descartes – an Analytical and Historical Introduction (OUP)
Wilson, Margaret (1991): Descartes (Routledge)
Baker, Gordon & Morris, Katherine (1996): Descartes’ Dualism (Routledge)
Kenny, Anthony (1993): Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy (Thoemmes Press)
Williams, Bernard (1978): Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (Penguin)

For more advanced collections of articles, see:
Broughton, Janet & Carriero, John (2008/2011): A Companion to Descartes (Routledge)
Chappell, Vera (1997) Descartes’s Meditations – Critical Essays (Rowman & Littlefield)
Cottingham, John (1992): Cambridge Companion to Descartes (Cambridge University Press)
Gaukroger, Stephen (2006): The Blackwell Guide to Descartes’ Meditations (Blackwell)
Rorty, Amelie (1986): Essays on Descartes’ Meditations (University of California Press)

Lecture One

Lecture Two

Lecture Three

Lecture Four

Lecture Five

Lecture Six

Lecture Seven

Lecture Eight