The current chapter I’m writing is focused on Nicolas Malebranche and his English follower John Norris. They’re both a lot of fun to read, but Malebranche in particular has a fun since he doesn’t spare any words to attack those he thinks are not thinking clearly, distracting others from true knowledge, or whose ideas he considers bad.
So here are a few of the passages I’d enjoyed for reasons other than their scholarly value for my PhD. For a start, here’s Malebranche having a go at the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca:
All this shows that few errors are more dangerous, or more easily communicable, than those with which Seneca’s books are filled. For these errors are refined, suited to man’s nature, and similar to that in which the demon engaged our first parents. They are clad in these books with pompous and splendid ornaments, which gain entry for them into most minds. They enter, grasp, stun, and blind them. But they blind them with a proud blindness, a dazzling blindness, a blindness accompanied by glimmering lights, not a humiliating blindness full of shadows that make one aware that one is blind and force one to admit it to others. When one is struck by this proud blindness, one places oneself among the noble and powerful minds. Even others include us in this class and admire us. Thus, nothing is more contagious than this blindness, because the vanity and sensibility of men, the corruption of their senses and passions, dispose them to search after it, to be struck by it, and excite them to impress others with it.
I do not believe then that one can find an author more appropriate than Seneca for exemplifying the nature of this contagion in an infinity of men whom we call noble and powerful minds, and for showing how strong and vigorous imaginations dominate weak and unenlightened minds – not by the strength or evidence of arguments, which are products of the mind – but by the turn and vivid manner of expression, which depend on strength of imagination. (181)
This is just one of many lengthy attacks against the Stoics (and Seneca in particular). But others don’t escape Malebranche’s ire either. Here are two short passages against Michel de Montaigne:
He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so. And so he became a gentlemanly pedant of quite singular species, rather than a reasonable, judicious, and honest man.
Montaigne’s book contains such obvious proofs of the vanity and pride of its author that it might seem useless to note them here, for one must be quite conceited in order to imagine, as he does, that people would wish to read such a thick book to have some acquaintance with our humors. He must necessarily set himself apart from the common man and regard himself as a quite extraordinary person. (186)
He goes on:
If it is a defect to speak of oneself often, it is an affront, rather a kind of stupidity, to praise oneself all the time as Montaigne does, for this is not only a sin against Christian humility but also an insult to reason. (187)
Part of the text presents an argument against wasting your time with focusing on the wrong kinds of knowledge, since they pollute your mind and take you further away from the kind of knowledge that is really valuable. Among those we should we worry about in particular are some scholars:
The rarest and most ancient histories are the ones that they glory in knowing. They do not know the genealogy of currently reigning princes, but they carefully research those of men who have been dead for four thousand years. They neglect to learn the most common histories of their own time, but they seek a perfect understanding of the fables and fictions of poets. They do not even know their own relatives, but if you wish, they will present many authorities to prove that some Roman citizen was allied with some emperor, or such other things. (297-8)
To be clear, he doesn’t think these things are entirely useless – only if they take us away from those kinds of knowledge that improve us.
Finally though, he thinks we should be weary of those who try to read too much, and read without properly understanding what they read. In particular, I think he’d dislike the kind of requirements contemporary grad students often face. Consider these this short passage for instance:
There are people thirty years of age who quote more evil books for you in their works than they could have read in several centuries, and nevertheless they hope to convince others that they have read them very closely. But most books of certain scholars are fabricated only with the help of dictionaries, and they have hardly read the indexes of the books they quote and some commonplaces gathered together from different authors.
In fairness to grad students, I think this passage is even more an indictment of the poor scholarship presented by some super popular “public intellectuals.”
The Search After Truth is a really rich work, so while I know I’ve picked out some passages that are amusing to me because Malebranche is having a go at someone, I’d not like you to think that the whole book or his way of doing philosophy relies on him being a jerk to other thinkers. In many ways he is trying to synthesise Augustinian and Cartesian philosophy. What he takes from Descartes, in particular, is a kind of moral epistemology. He thinks that if we avoid error in our thinking, we can be closer to the absolute good, that is, to God.
All quotations are from Nicolas Malebranche, 1997, The Search After Truth, trans. and ed. Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
This week went by quickly, but your morning will go by even quicker if you have a browse of this sweet reading material.
In case you missed it, I posted about Freud psychoanalysing Descartes.
Other great things to read:
Julie Sedivy on whether mind-wandering is bad for you at Nautilus // A neat collection of cool homes at the Atlantic // Jaz Hee-jeong Choi on how we can adapt society to loneliness at the Conversation // Richard Marshall reviews Mitchell Merback’s Perfection’s Therapy at 3:AM Magazine // A very cool interview with Peter Adamson on the APA Blog // Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a computer game //
Given my ongoing obsession with seventeenth century world, it might come as no surprise to anyone that I’ve started looking to the cookbooks of the era for some recipes I could make myself. After all, I could probably make a convincing case that cooking 17th century recipes is studying. Especially if the author of the cookbook is one of the philosophers relevant to my thesis – Kenelm Digby. His The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby (year) is a trove of wonderful and bizarre recipes.
For starters, the first 130ish pages of the book comprises recipes for meath and metheglin (both types of mead, if I’m not wrong), various wines, ciders, ales… I think you get the picture. Digby was certainly a fun-time guy as a party host.
What I was looking for, though, was something heartier. Something, to feed the soul, not just make it lighter. What I found instead was Tea with Eggs. Digby attributes this recipe to a Jesuit who brought it back from China around 1664, and who then gave it to Digby’s friend, Mr. Waller. Here’s the recipe:
To near a pint of the infusion take two yolks of new laid eggs, and beat them very well with as much fine Sugar as is sufficient for this quantity of Liquor; when they are very well incorporated, pour your Tea upon the Eggs and Sugar, and stir them well together. So drink it hot.
Frankly, I feel this isn’t too far from stirring a raw egg into hot soup, which I think is pretty delicious. But, tea? I’m not sure I’d be game for that. Digby goes on to outline the circumstances and benefits where such a dish might be beneficial:
This is when you come home from attending business abroad, and are very hungry, and yet have not conveniency to eat presently a competent meal. This presently difusseth and satisfieth all rawness and indigence of the stomack, and flyeth suddainly over the whole body and into the veins, and strengtheneth exceedingly, and preserves one a good while from necessity of eating.
That’s a strong pitch. Ultimately, I think I’ll just order some pizza.
I attended the (wonderful) Australasian Association of Philosophy conference at Monash last week. Just about every time I get together with philosophers, as soon as someone hears that I wrote my thesis on Kant they bring up the pretty neat fact that Kant had some rules by which one should organise their dinner parties.
I thought I’d share.
A very good write up is to be found at Siris, so I’ll let you hit that up.
If you’d like to see the deeper philosophical import of these parties, this article by Alix Cohen looks promising.
One of the reasons for which I love the history of philosophy is the trivia that comes with it. This isn’t to say that there aren’t interesting and weird facts to know about contemporary figures in philosophy. But the facts about historical figures are just, I don’t know, weirder?
Today I want to share an interesting factoid about Descartes and three dreams that changed the course of his life. According to him, the night of November 10th to 11th, 1619 was the most significant night of his life. The three dreams he had that night supposedly provided him with the purpose and drive that he needed to usher in the modern era of philosophy.
Sadly, most of Descartes’s own notes about these dreams didn’t survive . Thankfully Adrien Billet, a 17th Century biographer of Descartes’s, has preserved an account of them in his La vie de M. Descartes , and below I’m able to give you a glimpse of what he experienced that was so vivid as to change the course of a then, twenty three year old Frenchman’s life.
According to Descartes, there were three dreams. However, I think we can argue that one was actually an auditory hallucination, and I’ll explain why shortly. Let me start with the first dream, which Billet retells as follows:
After going to sleep, [Descartes’s] imagination was struck by the appearance of some phantoms who appeared to him and who frightened him so much, that thinking he was walking through the streets, he was forced to turn over on his left side in order to get to the place he wanted to go, because he felt a great weakness on his right.
This dream in itself doesn’t seem to be particularly interesting. The details we have of it are quite vague, though they seem sufficient to say simply that it was particularly vivid.
The second dream begins after Descartes rolls over.
Immediately he had a new dream in which he believed he heard a sharp and shattering noise, which he took for a clap of thunder. The fright it gave him woke him directly, and after opening his eyes, he perceived many sparkling lights scattered about the room. The same thing had often happened to him at other times and it was not very unusual for him, when he awoke in the middle of the night, to have his eyes clear enough to catch a glimpse of the objects closest to him.
There are some good reasons to think this wasn’t so much a dream, but an auditory hallucination called Exploding Head Syndrome. According to the linked wikipedia article, it is “a benign condition in which a person hears loud imagined noises or experiences an explosive feeling when falling asleep or waking up.” Prima facie this seems to fit neatly with Descartes’s description. It is classified as a “parasomnia”, that is, a type of disorder involving, among other things, abnormal movements, behaviours, emotions or perceptions, and typically occurs while falling asleep, sleeping, between sleep stages and when waking. Interestingly, the symptoms can coincide with seeing flashes of light – another thing Descartes describes. Unfortunately the Wikipedia page doesn’t mention anything about EHS being associated with vivid or lucid dreams, or anything of that sort. Nonetheless, I think that even based on the scant evidence we have, this “second dream” was actually an instance of this phenomenon.
The third dream seems to be the most significant to me, and perhaps the turbulence caused by the loud noise our protagonist heard and interpreted as his second dream helped lend significance to this dream.
In this last dream [Descartes] found a book on his table, without knowing who had put it there. He opened it, and seeing that it was an encyclopaedia (Dictionnaire), he was delighted, hoping that it could be of great use to him. At the same instant he felt under his hand another book, equally new to him, without knowing where it had come from. He found that it was an anthology of poems by different authors called the Corpus Poetarum. He was drawn by the desire to read something in it and on opening the verse,
“Quod vitae sectabor iter?” [What path of life shall I pursue?]
At the same moment he became aware of a man he did not know, who hands him a piece of poetry, beginning with Est & Non, and who praised it to him as an excellent composition. (…) He had not finished before he saw the book reappear on the other end of the table. But he found that the encyclopaedia was no longer complete as it had appeared the first time. Meanwhile, he went on to the poems of Ausonius, in the anthology of poetry through which he was leafing, and unable to find the poem which begins Est & Non, he said to the man that he knew another by the same poet which was even more beautiful than this one, and that it began Quod vitae sectabor iter? The man asked him to show it to him, and M. Descartes set about to look for it, when he came upon several copperplate engravings (graves en taille douce) of small portraits.
Before he awoke, Descartes wondered if it was a dream or a vision, ultimately deciding it was the former, and even interpreting it to himself while asleep (!).
He decided that the encyclopedia meant nothing other than all the branches of learning brought together, and that the anthology of poems, called the Corpus Poetarum, indicated in particular and in a most precise fashion Philosophy and Wisdom joined together. Indeed, he did not believe that one should be so very astonished to see that the poets, even those who write nothing but twaddle, were full of sayings more serious, more sensible, and better expressed than those found in the writings of the philosophers (…) M.Descartes continued to interpret his dream in his sleep,judging that the poem on the uncertainty of the type of life one should choose, which begins by Quod vitae sectabor iter?, indicated the good advice of a wise person, or even Moral Theology (…)
By the poets collected in the anthology he understood the Revelation and the Inspiration by which he did not despair of seeing himself favored. By the poem Est & Non, which is the Yes and the No of Pythagoras, he understood Truth and Falsity in human understanding and profane learning. Seeing that the application of all these things succeeded in suiting him so satisfactorily, he was bold enough to conclude that the Spirit of Truth had chosen to use this dream to reveal the treasures of all the disciplines of learning to him (…)
This last dream, which contained nothing but the most pleasant and agreeable things, seemed to him to indicate the future, and it was limited to those things which should happen to him in the remainder of his life. But he took the two earlier dreams as warnings concerning his past life, which might not have been as innocent in the eyes of God as it was to men. And he believed that this was the reason for the terror and fright which accompanied these two dreams.
I quote the text at length here, because I think Descartes’ own interpretation speaks quite well of the significance of the dreams he had. What strikes me as particularly interesting is that he interpreted the dream as putting him on a search for truth and distinguishing it from falsity, which foreshadows his greatest achievement in philosophy, the Meditations.
There is a further blip in these dreams make later on. The French jurist and historian, Maxime Leroy, when writing a book on Descartes sent a summary of these dreams to Freud, asking him to analyse them. The father of psychoanalysis obliged, and his response is in vol. XXI of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have institutional access to the web version, and my university’s main library which houses the works of Freud is sadly (but also, very happily!) being refurbished, and I won’t be able to get my hands on it for another two weeks.
 What is left of them, is in French in Ouvres de Descartes ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, vol X.
 I cite here at length the translation of Billet’s text found in John Benton’s translation. Benton, J. (1980) “Descartes’ Olympica”, Philosophy and Literature, vol.4 (2), pp. 163-166. In my excerpts I attempt to avoid as much as possible Billet’s own additions and instead focus on the account of the dreams themselves.
Now that I’ve finished my MA, I’ve slowly been making my way into the backlog of fiction and other things that have stacked up over the past two years. What I haven’t thought much about though is my philosophical reading list, now that I’ve cleared up some brainpower for new stuff.
The list below is mostly exploratory reading based on what I’ve had in my reading list, what I’m interested in pursuing in my PhD, and what I hope to write a paper or two about. You’ll notice that most of the reading list consists of introductory texts (two each for Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza), and the SEP and IEP entries for them. The reason for this is that while I have some background information on these three, I haven’t really kept up with any of the literature, and I find that SEP and IEP (along with the Cambridge and other types of introductory texts) can quickly catch me up.
The important thing to remember is that the secondary literature is, ahem, secondary. Reading the secondary literature without ever reading the primary sources is a good way to forget about what is genuinely interesting in the sources, and to prejudice yourself against the texts themselves.
The list below isn’t in any particular order, except perhaps, the order in which I thought of these texts.
- SEP entries on Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz
- IEP entries on Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz
- Descartes, Principles of Philosophy
- Descartes, Passions of the Soul
- Spinoza, Ethics
- Spinoza, Treatise on Theology and Politics
- Leibniz, New Essays on Human understanding
- Leibniz, Monadology
- Cambridge Companion to Descartes
- Cambridge Companion to Leibniz
- Cambridge Companion to Spinoza
- Nicholas Jolley, Leibniz
- Clarke, Desmond, Descartes: A Biography
- Henry Allison, Benedict de Spinoza