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The Polis of Meditation: Reading the Idea Dei in Descartes’ Meditation III

The following paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–17, 2013, in New York City.

Much has certainly been said about the place of otherness in René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.[1] But one could, or rather, should be more precise and determine that the majority of what has been said about otherness in Descartes’ opus magnum concerns an essential banishment of the other, not to call it an essential exclusion, at the face of the “I.” In a text that, as some would have it, inaugurates the age we call Modern and starting with its genre, critics have no problem directly drawing a line from the monological voice that gives rise to the Modern subject to the egocentricity that perhaps best characterizes an age in which the mechanization of Nature—if we are still to be called Moderns—is rapidly coinciding with its destruction. As if the question of genre in the Meditations were not one of extreme complexity, the monologue, or so the story goes, finally replaces dialogue as the genre of Modernity and the other, slowly fading away, loses its voice under the authoritarian submission to the monophonic first-person singular.

While this “traditional” approach to the Meditations, which has become academically prevailing, picks up on certain key elements, some of them indeed problematic, it misses out on an essential component of the very structure of the Meditations‘ composition. The issue is crucial, for to our knowledge there is no other volume in the Western philosophical canon that, deeply rooted in the tradition of the scholastic Summae, reaches the public from its very first edition as a work that has been explicitly read and objected to, not by an anonymous collectivity, but by identifiable others.[2] To ignore such fact, we would claim, is to precisely ignore the locus of otherness in the Meditations, for the other primordially takes on the form of the reader.

Radically innovating within the tradition of the Summae, the Meditations alter the presentation of same and other as such principles relate to the notions of author and reader. In terms of the principle of sameness, the author is made reader of the readers’ objections who, in terms of the principle of otherness, having reacted to the author as readers, become authors themselves. This becoming of author into reader and reader into author places same and other in a rather poietic relation (from the Greek poiesis), which does not lack reflexivity: Descartes’ readers are made authors by making a reading of the Meditations, and Descartes himself is made author once more by making a reading of the readings that have been presented as objections.

But what exactly does Descartes mean by reading? The question cannot be begged when encountering what could be Descartes’ most exclusive gesture as an author, that is: the gesture of defining who his readers are and who are not. Descartes unapologetically affirms: “Rather, I am not an author to those who read, except only to those who are willing to seriously meditate with me” (AT VII, 9). The almost proverbial nature of the sentence, nevertheless, requires a rigorous unpacking, for it directly links the existence of the phenomenon of authorship and, therefore, the existence of reading to a subject or subjects engaged in the exercise of meditation. Moreover, the only community that exists or can exist between author and reader consists in their encounter within the communal space delineated by the shared exercise of meditation. If, broadly speaking, one conceives the polis as the place where community occurs, the Meditations would have to do with the right of access, may we call it a type of citizenship, to the polis of meditation.

When addressing the notion of reading, we are therefore warranted, not to say urgently in need of providing a definition of the communal space between author and reader, that is: of meditation itself. For the sake of this essay, let us begin by stating that Cartesian meditation is essentially linked to subjective interiority. Access and availability to the subject’s interiority will be a conditio sine qua non of the Cartesian project, as can be seen in the rather dense and almost enigmatic encounter with madness in Meditation I.[3]

This having been said, there is perhaps no better example of how the inner self-examination of meditation operates than the “discovery” of the idea of God in Meditation III. A simple enumeration best illustrates our argument, for one can actually pinpoint how Descartes’ use of the Latin expression in me dramatically peaks in Meditation III, where it is employed thirty-one times, compared to it having been used only once in Meditation I and twice in Meditation II. The numbers, of course, are just a visible sign of the inquiry taking place, an inquiry ultimately concerning the origin of ideas, which eventually roots itself in the question of Nature and in Nature’s relation to subjective inner awareness: why do “I” seem to have certain ideas in me?

As is well known with Descartes, the ultimate ground for truth will be provided by so-called natural light. For our purposes here, natural light or lumen naturalis represents certainty’s ultimate manifestations—manifestations that the rational subject, given that his or her will must follow the intellect, cannot possibly deny. Natural light, for instance, will be held responsible for manifesting indispensable rational principles, such as the link between the reality of the efficient cause or causa efficiens and that of its effects, a principle that directly leads to establishing the examination of the idea of God as a privileged idea among all others. Given that ideas representing a substance contain more objective reality than those which do not, the idea of God in me will be considered to have more objective reality than any other, due to the fact that it represents not only a substance, but the infinite substance par excellence. Natural light will once again be responsible for manifesting the conceptual interdefinition between perfection and reality, providing Descartes with another principle that defines the increase in perfection as an increase in reality. Paired along with the impossibility of something having been brought to being out of nothing, Descartes will set his proof of the existence of God—a proof that crucially hinges on the concept of the author. Is there an idea I cannot be the author of? If there is, something outside of me, author and cause of this idea, must exist and “I” “am not alone in the world” (AT VII, 42).

Having drawn the contours of Descartes’ proof of God’s existence in a nutshell, let us now focus on the last depiction of the idea of God as what has been traditionally rendered into English as the mark of the creator in the subject (AT VII, 51). Mark is the translation of the Latin nota, a term that—aside from signifying mark or impression—interestingly enough also signifies letter. Perhaps it will be clear already where we are heading as we profit from this amphibology, for if the nota is translated as letter we can rather straightforwardly consider the examination of the idea of God as a reading of the creator’s letter in me. It is difficult not to hear the call of a comparison that summons us to isomorphically confront literary authorship with metaphysical authorship, with the metaphor of writing certainly traversing both dimensions. What is crucial for us is that the notion of reading would consequently come to the scene at the very core, perhaps, of Modernity’s best-known theological deduction.

Because it allowed Descartes to open the way toward the second half of his Meditations, the idea Dei will also allow us to get closer to providing a definition of Cartesian meditation in terms of the author/reader dyad. Just like an author’s readers are those who are willing to seriously meditate by means of the text, the author as meditating subject will only become one of God’s readers when willing to seriously meditate, by means of the inner examination called meditation, on God’s writing inside.

But to consider meditation as the ultimate activity of reading God’s writing in me demands deepening on the role of the meditating subject as author. If there is any accuracy in our definition of meditation, we would at least have to be able to sketch the backbones of what could be called a structure of summoning. The author as meditating subject would be summoning the reader to meditate through the text. At the same time, nevertheless, the author would have to be considered as summoned by God in order to commit him or herself to meditation, i.e. to the reading of God’s writing in me. The reader would ultimately be summoned by an author summoned by God, making the text itself the locus of such double summoning. The teleology of this structure of summoning, of course, would ultimately link the reader with divine summoning by means of the author’s writing. If this meditative double summoning signals the place where author and reader enter into community, then the Cartesian polis of meditation where author and reader meet is essentially theological.


1. All translations from the Meditations are my own renderings from Descartes’ 1641–42 original Latin, heretofore numbered along the standard Adam-Tannery pagination (AT).

2. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty holds a similar view when she states: “The Objections and Replies are themselves transformations of a tradition. . . . Descartes invites his opponents to speak for themselves, in their own words, for as long as they like: not a constructed dialogue but a genuine correspondence. Nor does he edit his interlocutors—not a Thommistic snippet Sed Contra followed quickly by a Responsio. Nor does he present a showy dialectical Disputatio, with a defendens and impugnans. Rather he asks respected fellow scholars to present him with their criticisms. Their objections and his replies are published together; readers can weigh and consider the merits of the arguments in privacy and at their leisure rather than immediately, at a public event.” See Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, The Structure of Descartes‘ Meditations, in Essays on Descartes’ Meditations, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1986), p. 19.

3. For a detailed analysis of this, see Juan Carlos Donado, “Chiasms in Meditation or Towards the Notion of Cartesian Fiction,” Telos 162 (Spring 2013): 113–30.

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