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Reading Descartes

Reading Descartes - HWC205 Western Civilization II Week 3...

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HWC205: Western Civilization II Week 3, Lecture 2: Reading the Discourse on Method Guided reading --when faced with long and difficult texts there is a real risk of feeling overwhelmed --the aim of guided reading is to help students to distinguish what is most important in a text from what is less essential --make use of all the resources available to you in this course --the Patterns book guides you through each reading after first putting it in context --one result of this is the distillation of a work down to its most salient passages, which when strung together forms an excellent basis for study and essay-writing --learning to recognize what is most essential requires integrating general lectures, group discussions, and guided readings --one result of this process is the acquisition of a more critical eye and a sensitivity to language use in the text at hand --guided readings in lectures are designed to amplify certain elements of the text and say something about their wider implications Custom, Tradition and Received Ideas Creating a new basis for knowledge --Descartes heralded a shift in the foundations of our knowledge from external authority and custom to the individual ability of the self to know –the individual reasoning self became the “foundation” for certainty --this architectural metaphor was especially common for describing the task of the “new” science --as Francis Bacon argued, “There [is] but one course left . . . to try the whole thing anew upon a better plan, and to commence a total reconstruction of sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations.” p. 9: “My plan has never gone beyond trying to reform my own thoughts and building upon a foundation which is completely my own.” p. 16: “my entire plan tended simply to give me assurance and to cast aside the shifting earth and sand in order to find rock or clay.” --for Descartes and many others, knowledge based on received ideas rather than on experience or reason is an inferior form of knowledge --this was one of the constant refrains of natural philosophers during this period p. 6: “It is true that, so long as I merely considered the customs of other men, I found hardly anything there about which to be confident. . . . I learned not to believe anything too firmly of which I had been persuaded only by example and custom; and thus I little by little freed myself from many errors that can darken our natural light and render us less able to listen to reason.” --theoretically, then, rationality is natural to all humans, but this “natural light” can be obscured or “darkened” by customs and received knowledge --Descartes concludes that all his traveling and “studying in the book of the world” did not bring him any closer to certainty
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p. 6: “I resolved one day to study within myself too and to spend all the powers of my mind in choosing the paths that I should follow. . . . I remained for an entire day shut up by myself in a stove-heated room.” --in Rembrandt’s The Philosopher in Meditation
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Reading Descartes - HWC205 Western Civilization II Week 3...

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