Meditations on First Philosophy (with Objections and Replies) | Study Guide

René Descartes

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Meditations on First Philosophy (with Objections and Replies) | Letter of Dedication | Summary



Descartes writes a letter of dedication to "these wisest and most distinguished men, the Dean and Doctors of the holy Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris." In it he declares the importance of advancing philosophical—rather than theological—arguments for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. The latter convinces an atheist and accuses the theist of religious belief at the outset, which makes such arguments circular. More specifically, Descartes thinks "all that can be known of God can be shown by reasons derived from no other source than our own mind." In other words Descartes suggests using rational arguments to understand deeper truths.

Descartes proceeds to explain that the Christian philosopher has a particular mandate to undertake such arguments, and he points out he has a duty to pursue his "method for resolving all difficulties in the sciences." According to Descartes, no one has satisfactorily proven either the existence of God or the distinction between mind and body.

Despite this confidence, however, Descartes declares he does not think every reader will grasp his arguments. First his arguments are long, with one part of an argument depending on another. Second they require the sort of open mind that can disconnect from reliance on the senses. To make each point, he enlists geometry, whose proofs are clear yet long. They also demand an attentive mind. In contrast to metaphysics, geometric proofs are meant to demonstrate clarity. On the other hand, people think philosophical proofs are not meant to demonstrate but rather to exhibit one's intellectual prowess. This is because such proofs aim at challenging truth.

Descartes concludes his letter with an appeal to the Sorbonne (former University of Paris) readers. They are not only authorities in matters of faith but also intellectual leaders. If they "take an interest in this work," then it will gain not only a wider audience than it would otherwise but also eliminate doubt in people's minds about the issues in the text. Here Descartes also asks for their corrections and amendments.


It is worth noting that Descartes's earlier work, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking for Truth in the Sciences, was written in French for a broader audience than the Meditations, which were written in Latin, the scholarly language of European philosophy. It was standard practice at the Sorbonne for a committee of censors to review a new work prior to its publication. If it was not condemned, it was considered approved by the faculty. The dedication also reflects a strategy for anticipating objections from the Scholastic (Aristotelian) tradition, which his work criticized. The approval by the most respected theologians in France would mitigate some of that response.

It is also worth noting that at least part of the expressed purpose of the letter may not be consistent with Descartes's true aim. He declares to the Sorbonne reviewers that he aims to show the book's readership is not believers—since they accept the existence of God and immortality of the soul on the Bible's authority—but unbelievers. Achieving the sought after "protection" and "authority" of the Sorbonne would, however, cover him against objections to his new mechanistic physics, which did not align with Church teachings. Regardless of his primary or actual purpose, subjecting religious belief to rational scrutiny would nevertheless support Descartes's metaphysical aims.

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