Socrates Meets Descartes, by Peter Kreeft

I picked up this book as the result of several intersecting strands of thought. First, thanks to my interest in Thomas Aquinas I’ve been delving into things philosophical. Second, I’ve become familiar with Peter Kreeft from his writings on Catholicism. Third, I’ve long held a kind of an intellectual grudge with respect to René Descartes. Descartes is generally known as the “Father of Modern Philosophy”; and the really new and radical element in his philosophy is doubt: doubt of the things that are as plain as the existence of the floor under my feet. In my view, to begin by doubting objective reality makes as much sense as having yourself hogtied before commencing a wrestling match. That many philosophers have followed Descartes down this garden path is simply proof of C.S. Lewis’ observation in The Magician’s Nephew: the trouble with trying to make yourself stupider than you are is that you very often succeed.

Consequently, I snagged this book when by chance I came across it: for I thought I might learn something, that I would be entertained, and that the author was trustworthy. On the former two points I was amply satisfied; on the latter I am satisfied as well, but with a qualification.

Kreeft’s book is a dialog between Socrates and Descartes in which Socrates cross-examines Descartes about the content of his book, the Discourse on Method. As such, it’s one of a series by Kreeft; apparently Socrates has previously met Marx, Machiavelli, and Sartres, and I gather he’s going to meet Kant in the future.

I’ve occasionally run across books in which a fictional interviewer questions great figures of the past, and they respond with bits from their written works. This is something different. The conceit is that Descartes has met Socrates in the Afterlife–in Purgatory, to be precise–and that as part of his purgation he must attempt to defend his philosophical work against Socrates’ questioning. It works quite well, for the most part, though I think that Kreeft gets a little too cute with it here and there.

But here’s the qualification I need to make: Socrates isn’t really Socrates–not Plato’s Socrates. The Socrates we know is primarily a literary conceit adopted by Plato as a way to convey his own philosophical ideas. The manner and philosophical style of the fictional Socrates is no doubt descriptive of the real man, and no doubt many of the ideas presented originated with him as well–Socrates was Plato’s teacher, after all. But just as Plato’s Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece, so Kreeft’s Socrates is Kreeft’s mouthpiece. This book isn’t a meeting between Descartes and Socrates as Plato presented him. Kreeft’s Socrates has clearly been doing a deal of studying since he died; he’s familiar with the history of the world, both politically and intellectually, from his day to ours, and he not infrequently argues from an Aristotelian and Thomistic point of view rather than from a Platonic or even Neo-Platonic point of view.

I’ve no real problem with this; I picked up the book rather hoping that this is just what he would do. But a reader unfamiliar with Kreeft’s work would reasonably expect (given the cover blurb) to find Descartes being cross-examined by Plato’s Socrates rather than Kreeft’s. That said, it’s hard to know how any author, however pure his motives, could have achieved that; and at least the basis for Kreeft’s criticism of Descartes is right out there in plain sight.

And of what does that criticism consist? I don’t feel able to state that in any pithy or authoritative way; I’m still very much a newbie at thinking about these things. In part, though, “Socrates” shows that despite his avowed policy of “universal doubt”, Descartes actually assumes quite a bit more than he thinks he does (including the ability to reason logically) and that a certain amount of circular reasoning in involved in his attempts to safeguard reason and objective reality. Descartes comes across as a brash young man, brilliant but a little too ready to assume that the beauty of his conclusions validates the argument by which he reached them.

Pleasingly, Socrates leaves Descartes with his contemporary Blaise Pascal, with the hint that Pascal possesses what Descartes lacks. This is pleasing because, due to Julie D‘s recommendation some while back, Kreeft’s edition of Pascal’s Pensées, was in eyeshot at the
time.

  • By Frank, August 15, 2008 @ 11:19 am

    I thoroughly enjoy the Kreeft’s Socrates books. On top of the ones you mention, I know of “The Unaborted Socrates” and “The Best Things in Life.” He may have others that I haven’t read (such as “Socrates Meets Jesus”). In these, Socrates questions different proponents of abortion. Without a single quote from Scripture, he demolishes them all. In fact, Socrates refers to himself as an abortionist-an abortionist of bad ideas.

    In TBTIL, he questions different people that he meets at a university, convincing at least 2 students to change their majors to philosophy (because pure knowledge is the most practical study in the long run).

    I’ll be adding this one to my TO-READ list.

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