Reading Descartes, or, Reading as Tourism

I have been reading anthologized excerpts from Descartes’ Meditations (chapters I and II) and find myself wondering in what sense I can now claim to have read Descartes. Surely, reading passages from the original text comes closer to “having read Descartes” than reading, for example, the SparkNotes summary of the entire work. The word count is about the same, yet reading the passages creates experiences that resemble those experiences one should hope to encounter when reading Descartes’ ouevre in toto. In that sense, reading excerpts is more justly referred to as “having read Descartes” than knowing a lot about the ideas Descartes proposed. In confining my reading to certain passages, I will, for example, learn little about the meaning of clear and distinct ideas; I won’t encounter Descartes’ proof of God, nor learn his distinction of primary and secondary qualities or mind and body. If I stick to the SparkNotes summary, on the other hand, I won’t know what it means to Descartes to finally be able to settle down and meditate:

So today I expressly rid my mind of all worries and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time. I am here quite alone, and at least I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions. (23)

It is unlikely I shall share a laugh with Descartes about the behaviour of madmen:

Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass. (23)

I won’t quite grasp the sense of urgency or despair that haunts Descartes when he ponders the idea of a malicious demon deceiving him. I won’t experience relief when Descartes, a couple of sentences later, mentions in passing that there’s no need to worry, it’s all just epistomology:

In the meantime, I know that no danger or error will result from my plan, and that I cannot possibly go too far in my distrustful attitude. This is because the task now in hand does not involve action but merely the acquisition of knowledge. (25)

Of course, if I read the passages well, I shall also encounter the finer shades and aspects of Descartes’ arguments, something a summary cannot offer. But all of these experience-nuggets, valuable or enjoyable as they might be in comparison to a dry summary, are soon forgotten. The memory of the reading experience will fade and I will be left with little besides this:

Deceived as he may be about other things, he [Descartes] cannot help but conclude that he exists. Since his existence follows from the fact that he is thinking, he concludes that he knows at least that he is a thing that thinks. (SparkNotes)

This is what the Meditations are about, after all. This is their meaning. This is the idea that made Descartes the father of modern philosophy.

Nevertheless, something else remains from reading an original, even from reading only chunks, something I think and hope might be underestimated: the simple experience of actually having laid eyes upon the thing. Regardless of how little we remember or take from a book, at least we possess the certain knowledge that we did experience it. We get a sense of intimacy otherwise missing — we have touched the book, and we can sincerely say, “yes, I’ve been there”. In the best scenario, this amounts to joining Descartes in his meditation; at the worst, it’s a tourist trip, ticking off a great classic like a monument on a sight-seeing tour. The “tourist-reader” who pays a book a fleeting visit because he’s heard it’s a must-read may not count as a proper reader, but not every traveller can be a Rick Steves, either. And on that note, I shall leave you with a (slightly adapted) quote-mix from Mr Steves that may benefit tourist-readers on future trips:

I would like readers to read in a way that broadens their perspective. […] We can read in a way that exacerbates the problems between us and the rest of the world, or in a way that connects us with the rest of the world. I do not want to encourage and enable readers to read in a way that makes the problem worse, and a lot of people do read in a way that makes the problem worse. My readers, I think — I’d like to think — read in a way that connects them with the rest of the world and when they come home they are changed readers. […] Until next time, keep on reading! Cheerio.


3 Responses to “Reading Descartes, or, Reading as Tourism”

  1. September 23, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    Very nice. Your connection between reading excerpts and travelling really works. One hopes that both broaden the mind.

    So, does that make Sparks Notes like Disneyworld? ;)

  2. 2 legendumst
    September 23, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    I suppose reading the SparkNote is akin to buying a miniature Eiffel Tower from a local toy-store instead of flying to Paris to see the real deal. Though I must confess that I like SparkNotes a lot. How’s your chess coming along?

  3. September 23, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    I just lost my queen. Sigh. But we could have another go…

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