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What can we learn today from Descartes’ Meditations?

Date:28 February 2020
Author:Andrea Sangiacomo
Rembrandt, Philosopher in meditation (1632)
Rembrandt, Philosopher in meditation (1632)

This is the fifth year in a row that I teach Descartes’ Meditations to first year philosophy students. Over the years, my reasons to teach the Meditations shifted significantly. At the beginning, it was all about close reading of a text, trying to teach and practice what does it mean to delve deep into what is written (and what is not written). Then the Meditations became a sort of central focal point to explore a variety of debates and reactions from other people (including forgotten or neglected ones), like the eye of a philosophical cyclone. Since last year, I appreciated the text of the Mediations as real meditations, namely, as a way of practicing a meditative kind of philosophy (for lack of better term), a philosophy more concerned with what it means to experience reality in this way or that way, rather than with what a certain set of propositions means. These various interests do not necessarily conflict with one another. I’d say that they complement each other quite well. Nonetheless, these days I’m thinking about one further reason why the Meditations can teach us something very valuable, especially to younger generations of philosophers. It can provide a detox treatment for today’s epidemic of ‘content-absorption’.

By ‘content-absorption’ I mean the default and mostly implicit tendency of always looking for some kind of content to engage with in some way. Checking phones or emails every other minute is just one among many manifestations of this tendency. More generally, content-absorption has to do with being always concerned with what is in front of us, or being concerned with having something in front of us to look at. Usually, we like contents that are exciting, clear, original, easy to communicate, informative, grabbing one’s attention. Bang! The reason we like these kinds of contents is because they are much more conducive to allow one to be absorbed into them. Boring contents are not something in which most people would like to spend much time. Fuzzy contents are rather difficult to handle. Empty contents do not look like content at all.

Content-absorption is a perception disease. It shouldn’t take much reflection to realize that any content can appear only within some context or background. And yet, the more one is absorbed into the foreground content (and by ‘content’ here I mean always foreground contents, let me put subtleties aside for the sake of this blogpost), the less one can be aware of the background context. The background context, however, is the space within which the foreground content is determined and can receive its full meaning. It can be more or less explicit, more or less rich, but it has to be there in order for a foreground content to appear in the way in which it does. The less one is aware of this background context, the more distorted the meaning of the foreground content turns out to be (if any meaning remains).

My suspicion is that content-absorption is not unintended, although it might be fostered in good faith (perhaps). Forgetting about the background is something that one may have to do, especially if there is something off, something unpleasant that lurks there. In this way, content-absorption is the prototype of any form of distraction. Wanting or seeking distraction is never pleasant (although the provider of distraction might provide otherwise pleasant contents), just because the need of distraction can result only from the need of running away from something else (even if that is just unbearable boredom). Looking into this problem (what kind of problem lurks on the background of any content) should be among the most important and serious challenges that one can take up, especially if one decided to devote some time to philosophy. And yet, this challenge cannot be recognized or understood until one recovers (at least to some degree) from content-absorption.

Now, in order to get to see what is in the background of any appearing content, one has first to re-establish some clarity of vision, healing from content-absorption. This entails strengthening some qualities like proper attention, collectedness, patience and openness. More generally, one has to become able to endure the fact that sometimes contents are uninteresting, unoriginal, boring, fuzzy, unclear, worthless. One has to learn how to deal with any content (irrespectively of how it feels or looks) without getting absorbed into it, without loosing the background, the context. Content-absorption is like going to see a movie and forgetting that what one sees is just that...a movie. What I’m suggesting is that it would be important to practice ways of not forgetting that whatever one sees is just content appearing in some background scenario. This awareness is what prevents absorptions, what prevents one to be overwhelmed by the content itself. This awareness is what keeps the content in perspective. Yes, healing from content absorption might ruin the pleasure of watching movies, but it might reveal why one needed to watch movies (getting absorbed into them) in the first place.

How can Descartes’s Meditations help with healing content-absorption? If one takes the Meditations at face value, if one does them seriously and diligently, then one would end up starting by questioning the relationship between being and appearing. Does what appears also exist, and does it exist as it appears? How can I answer this question? How can I know that the answer is certain? And who is this ‘I’ who is speaking now? These sorts of questions are the springboard of the Meditations. By letting them mature in one’s experience, they can work as a way of progressively stepping back from one’s default absorption into whatever appears immediately. One can begin to discern the difference between contents that appear and the appearing of those contents itself, and then even to reflect on what does it mean for some content to appear. One does not necessarily have to follow Descartes in the way in which he answers these problems. Even when one would disagree with Descartes (and there are very good reasons for disagreeing, although not necessarily those that have been most often discussed, see here and here), Descartes’ false steps and dilemmas might be extremely helpful for the kind of mental attitude that they foster and cultivate.

Content-absorption is a mental attitude. Philosophy, if it wants to be anything serious, cannot become yet another way of fostering this attitude. Philosophy can, in its best moments, support a rather different attitude: that openness of mind that allows one to see both what is in front and the background without which what is in front could not manifest. Call it perspective, if you like. This perspective is not really about what exactly is appearing (that is just the content, if you’re concerned only with that, you suffer from content-absorption), but with the structure (the perspective, the order) of appearing as such. Descartes, of course, is not the only philosopher who could help us with the task of cultivating this attitude (Severino, for instance, is another philosopher who takes an opposite route, by reflecting on what all possible contents have in common, namely, the fact of being and thus by exploring being – and its structure – as the background of any appearing). The good thing about Descartes is that he has been around for so long now that it does not take much effort to justify why we have him in our curricula (this lofty situation is the payoff of canonicity). And Descartes can do much good, if one stops considering him as a content (of teaching, learning, research, songs, or whatever else) and just meditate:

 I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things. I shall stubbornly and firmly persist in this meditation; and, even if it is not in my power to know any truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, that is, resolutely guard against assenting to any falsehoods, so that the deceiver, however powerful and cunning he may be, will be unable to impose on me in the slightest degree. (Descartes, Meditation 1)




About the author

Andrea Sangiacomo


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