The Senses and the Fleshless Eye: The Meditations as Cognitive Exercises

In Amelie Rorty (ed.), Essays on Descartes' Meditations. University of California Press. pp. 45–76 (1986)
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According to the reading offered here, Descartes' use of the meditative mode of writing was not a mere rhetorical device to win an audience accustomed to the spiritual retreat. His choice of the literary form of the spiritual exercise was consonant with, if not determined by, his theory of the mind and of the basis of human knowledge. Since Descartes' conception of knowledge implied the priority of the intellect over the senses, and indeed the priority of an intellect operating independently of the senses, and since, in Descartes' view, the untutored individual was likely to be nearly wholly immersed in the senses, a procedure was needed for freeing the intellect from sensory domination so that the truth might be seen. Hence, the cognitive exercises of the Meditations, modeled not on the sense- and imagination-based exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, but on the Augustinian procedure of turning away from the senses and imagination to perceive the unpicturable with the fleshless eye of the mind. In accordance with this reading, the function of Descartes' skeptical arguments is not to introduce skepticism so that it can be defeated but to aid the meditator in withdrawing the mind from the senses in order to attend to truths of the pure intellect. These truths then offer the basis for a new natural philosophy, including a new theory of the senses.

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Gary Hatfield
University of Pennsylvania


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