Reading Guide to Descartes' <em>Meditations on First Philosophy</em>, A

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Translation by C. C. Godfrey, 208 pages, 6" x 9", jacketed clothbound, notes, bibliography, index,

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Reading Guide to Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, A

Emanuela Scribano

The European Enlightenment is a period that contributed concepts that continue to be authoritative in philosophical conversation, and defined the criteria for what is important in the endeavors of human thought even in our own day. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy presents the questions that are responsible for a departure from Scholasticism and the dawn of modern philosophy. To understand Continental Philosophy, and the history that precedes the analytical tradition, one cannot overlook Descartes’ precedent.

Even into the eighteenth century philosophical bearings were considered a prerequisite to culture. But to understand the transition of philosophy into the keeping of the universities, one cannot sidestep Descartes’ union of philosophy to science. But not only this – in its beginnings, it must be noted that this chapter of the Enlightenment contains one of the most meaningful convergences of God and science. Despite the success or failure of Descartes’ conclusions of innate ideas and the undoubtability of God, the attempt and its commitments define a significant displacement of both faith and reason (even mathematics) that provides the context for recognizing, for example, the likes of Kant and Newton in the fullness of their own projects.

Emanuala Scribano’s guide to the reading of the Meditations is both a critical treatment of the content of this text as well as an historical overview of the philosophical climate and conversation of Descartes’ contemporaries. It is an accurate presentation of Descartes’ motivation and immediate influence on the culture, and in particular those aspects which succeeded in altering theology, philosophy, and physics simultaneously.

Scribano provides rich references to the Scholastic and Platonic traditions in order to better characterize the way in which nuances of thought lead to momentous shifts in general theory and the construction of concepts. Descartes tries to found an untouchable science, but one that also defends the existence of God. Hence, it is not enough to look forward from Descartes, but also behind to the patrimony of human enterprise in what regards satisfying the need of both gnosis and episteme. Scribano’s commentary is especially helpful for those already familiar with Aquinas and Aristotle, as she employs frequent juxtapositions between these and Descartes’ divergences.

Beyond the general interest and scholarship, this book is especially helpful for any liberal arts curriculum that engages original text. It assists the reader in constructing the progression and consequences of Descartes’ thought and provides a bibliography and notes that introduce the reader to the larger body of Cartesian literature. Nevertheless, Scribano’s emphasis is on the concepts and notions proper to Descartes and the novelties of his project. One might say she vindicates Descartes’ attempt without defending him. The reader is shown Descartes’ positive contribution well enough that he might disagree, or reconsider the negative reputation of his work based solely on its consequences. The book is accessible though not compromised in its clarity. It is essential for students who seek to understand Descartes in all his integrity and historical claims.

As Scribano writes, “[Descartes’] is a strange adventure of human thought,” and indispensable to a comprehensive understanding of one of the most formidable trends in human intellectual history.

Emanuela Scribano’s A Reading Guide to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is one of the very few great examples of an introduction to a philosopher’s system that has neither been compromised by the author’s interpretative bias, or preference of philosophical method, nor is it a line by line commentary. It is what the title says – a guide to the reading of one of the greatest texts in the history of philosophy. The author takes a reader on a journey through the six meditations, guiding step by step how Descartes’ advances his philosophical argument.

Even though the book is addressed to students unfamiliar with Descartes, Scribano’s book is free from oversimplifications that often accompany introductory books to philosophy. It is an fascinating read and an excellent example of Italian scholarship from which the English speaking students of the French philosopher can benefit immensely.

Scribano’s Guide has all the qualities that make a book a standard textbook used by every college and university student and a professor alike. – Zbigniew Janowski, author of the acclaimed Augustinian-Cartesian Index (St. Augustine’s Press).