Descartes’ Ambivalent Relationship with Tradition

Descartes StampDescartes is often referred to as the “father” of modern philosophy and for good reasons.  In several of his works, Descartes speaks openly of his frustrations with his philosophical predecessors, highlighting the various ways that they contradict themselves and leave one in a state of skepticism and despair.  Although embracing fervently the scientific revolution of his day and hoping to clear away the clutter of the philosophic past, Descartes, despite his own intentions, retains much of the previous tradition.   Like Beethoven, who mediates the Classical and Romantic eras of music history, Descartes functions as a transitional figure mediating the medieval and modern periods.   Many scholars have noted that his Meditations are modeled after the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius.  (Cf. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, “Experiments in Philosophic Genre:  Descartes’ ‘Meditations’.  Rorty discusses the various meditational traditions that Descartes brings together in the Meditations).  Although literary analyses of the Meditations vary and suggest complex, multiple levels at work in the Meditations, it seems safe to say that Descartes’ concern in that work is with certainty (a common quest of the modern period) rather than spiritual growth.  In light of the new scientific discoveries of the 17th century, Descartes is convinced that he must make a break with the past (Aristotelian/medieval) tradition and build a new, more secure philosophical system on the model of geometry and compatible with modern science.[1] One of the components of his razing project involves the use of methodological doubt.  (As Gadamer highlights in Truth and Method, the search for the “right method” is a common quest of the modern philosophers).  Having shown that the various possible avenues of knowledge can be deceptive or called into question (senses, mathematical knowledge [cf. the evil demon exercise], various authorities etc.), Descartes finally arrives at his indubitable truth, viz., that he cannot doubt his own existence, as doubting presupposes thought and thought presupposes existence.  From this supposed Archimedean point, Descartes attempts to construct a philosophical system that will yield the certainty lacking in views of his predecessors.

Ironically, Descartes, though criticizing past thinkers, continues to rely on ancient and medieval theological and philosophical insights.   We see this especially in Descartes’ various arguments for the existence of God, one of which is a version of St. Anselm’s ontological argument.  In the other arguments for God’s existence, Descartes takes the causal principle as self-evident, viz. there must be at least as much formal reality in the cause of an idea as there is objective reality in the idea itself, where the objective reality of the idea is something like the intentional or representational complexity of the idea. For example, the idea of a computer contains more objective reality than the idea of a plastic screw.  In addition, Descartes even engages in a defense of God’s goodness—a kind of theodicy—by appealing to an Augustinian, Neoplatonic understanding of evil as a privation.   In meditation IV the question arises, if God a non-deceiving God and is all-powerful, why did he create us as beings capable of going astray? In other words, why not make us incapable of erring?   How does Descartes respond to these questions?  He appeals to a traditional Neoplatonic-Augustinian answer!  First, he says that evil is a privation; it is not a thing but is rather the absence of good.  Thus, God does not create evil, as evil is a form of non-being.  Second, God created a diverse universe, which contains beings of various sorts and of varying degrees of perfection depending upon how “close” or “far” they are (ontologically speaking) from God who is all-perfect.

In short, though Descartes wants in many ways to “throw off” tradition, both the form and content of the Meditations show how indebted he was to the past,


[1] Descartes does in fact separate himself from the ancient and medieval past when he replaces Aristotelian empiricism with his own version of rationalism.  That is, in Aristotelian empiricism one knows an external object by the process of abstracting a form from it.  In Descartes’ rationalism, one knows an external object by grasping it directly through intellectual intuition—as e.g., the way in which I know myself directly as an immaterial substance, a res cogitans.  With regard to external objects, we grasp these directly as well; however, we know them as something extended, a res extensa. For Descartes, material substance just is extension. Given this identity, Descartes can then explain why mathematics applies to external reality: as a quantity, extension is describable in purely mathematical terms.  Since external objects just are quantities of extension, they are also mathematically describable.

Part III: A Brief Introduction to Jean-Luc Marion’s Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes

With this [see Part II] background in place, we are now ready to examine what Marion means by the “white theology” of Descartes. A good place to begin is with a brief glance at the work’s table of contents, whose basic twofold structure offers a helpful way in to the question. Book One of Théologie blanche focuses on the loss of analogy, whereas Book Two is centered on the need to establish a foundation. The two books of the work are structured as correlatives; that is, once analogy has been lost, the need to establish a foundation arises. What causes the loss of analogy? To answer this question, Marion examines with great care a peculiar Cartesian doctrine that the majority of an earlier generation of scholars had always considered marginal or anomalous. For Marion, however, it is the fundamental teaching of Descartes, for apart from it none of his other teachings can be properly understood. In 1630 Descartes wrote a series of letters to Mersenne in which he puts forth this doctrine, namely, the doctrine of the created “eternal truths.” The doctrine holds that the eternal truths in the mind of God that render the world intelligible are in fact created—the truths are eternal and created, which sounds like a contradiction. Even if it is not an outright contradiction, it is certainly a departure from the traditional teaching that goes all the way back to Augustine. To claim that the eternal truths are created is undeniably an innovation, so the question becomes, Why does Descartes innovate in this way? The teaching is a departure from the prior tradition because according to the traditional understanding, especially in its classic Thomistic formulation, the divine ideas of possible creaturely essences in the mind of God are identical with God’s very essence, differing from it only in reason. Similarly, the truths of which the essences form components are “within” the mind of God only insofar as they are indistinguishable from the mind of God itself. Descartes wants to say that the eternal truths concerning creatures are just as much creatures as the creatures themselves. In Descartes’ novel teaching, the truths are therefore as radically different from God as the creature is from the Creator.

Why does Marion regard this peculiar doctrine as “the” central teaching of Descartes over all others? After all, Descartes only mentions this doctrine explicitly in a handful of letters. In his 1630 letter to Mersenne, Descartes begins a certain passage in French but then in mid‑sentence switches into Latin. So why the switch? Latin is the language of scholastic philosophy, and perhaps Descartes wanted to be precise, or it could be that he is quoting someone—but whom, as he doesn’t name the person? Marion suggests that Descartes is in fact quoting someone, and he adds that Descartes likely assumed that Mersenne would recognize the quotation, so it was unnecessary to identify its source. So who is the quoted author in question? None other than the Doctor Eximius of the Jesuit order, Francisco Suárez. Marion contends that Descartes is quoting Suárez every time the 1630 letter shifts into Latin, and that he does so precisely in order to contradict Suárez. For example, Descartes declares in Latin that the truth of the eternal truths is completely dependent on God’s knowledge of them, not the reverse—but the reverse is just what Suárez holds. Descartes says that the eternal truths are dependent on God’s knowledge of them for their truth, whereas Suárez holds that the truths are true regardless of whether God knows them or not. Descartes denounces this assertion as blasphemous, since it maintains that the eternal truths are independent of God and that he is therefore subject to them. By announcing that the eternal truths are created, Descartes re‑asserts God’s transcendence by refusing to admit the existence of any autonomous principles to which God must submit.

Part II: A Brief Introduction to Jean-Luc Marion’s Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes

By Derek Morrow

[Part I can be accessed here].

So why does Marion place Descartes’ “white” theology in the middle of the trilogy? To answer this question, we first need to take a step back and look at what is meant by the “gray” ontology of the first book. In that book, Marion examines The Rules for the Direction of the Mind, an early work of Descartes that was never published during his lifetime, not least because he left it unfinished in 1628. Given these peculiarities, even today the significance of the work and the relation it bears to the published corpus remains a hotly contested question among scholars. Marion argues that the Rules should be read as though Descartes were conducting a silent and unacknowledged polemic against a philosopher whose authority is still too great to risk confronting directly. On this assumption, Descartes has a distinct audience in mind as he draws up his Rules, but he never identifies this audience by name. For if he were to name the adversary, Descartes would then be required to mount an explicit refutation of the adversary’s thought, which is something he is not interested in doing for various reasons. Who is this unnamed adversary? None other than Aristotle, the hidden interlocutor of the Rules.

At first glance, this thesis may seem a bit too imaginative or far‑fetched. After all, isn’t the entire claim of a hidden interlocutor built on an argument from silence? What warrant does Marion give for this interpretation? First, by a very close textual analysis, he demonstrates that the characteristic teachings of the Rules, many of which turn up later in the published writings, take on a greater intelligibility on the assumption that they are intended to replace various corresponding teachings in Aristotle. Marion’s demonstration consists, then, in lining up the Rules of Descartes, one rule at a time, against its opposite number in the Aristotelian corpus, and then showing that Descartes contradicts Aristotle by using his own words with a meaning that Aristotle would not recognize. Through the course of this exacting comparison, which Marion carries out in extensive and convincing detail, it becomes apparent that whenever Descartes advances a characteristically “Cartesian” claim, he has Aristotle in mind—without ever naming him as such. Marion thus shows that in the Rules Descartes is conducting a dialogue with Aristotle in which he contradicts him without ever acknowledging that he is doing so. The contradiction, as such, remains forever unstated.

So Descartes’ ontology is “gray” because in the doctrine of the Rules he uses traditional Aristotelian vocabulary (thus giving the impression that he is not contradicting Aristotle), but he invests it with a meaning not found in Aristotle (which enables Descartes to contradict Aristotle without acknowledging that he is doing so). Marion calls this process of linguistic reinvestment a process of “metaphorization”—and he intends this term to be taken in its literal etymological sense, as a “carrying over” (Gr. meta-pherein) from one linguistic domain to another. Aristotle’s words haven’t changed but their meanings have, and this tacit substitution enables Descartes to avoid constructing an argument that would refute Aristotle directly, even while he borrows from Aristotle what he needs for his own purposes. In the Rules, Descartes sets about constructing a new ontology that will replace Aristotelian substance ontology, but only by a kind of bait and switch. That is, Descartes never actually demonstrates that Aristotle’s view of substance is false; instead, he brackets the issue and then illicitly and unjustifiably takes what he needs from Aristotle’s ontology in order to construct its replacement. The new Cartesian ontology is therefore “gray” because it is neither black nor white, neither Aristotelian nor unabashedly anti‑Aristotelian, but somewhere in‑between. Its lack of specificity, its parasitic relation to Aristotle, and its rhetorical avoidance of any direct confrontation with him all conspire to make the gray ontology of the Rules an implicit ontology, implicit because it promotes an anti‑Aristotelian epistemology that paradoxically lacks the fully developed ontology it needs at its core to sustain it. As its title proclaims, in this work Descartes presents “rules” that direct the mind in the search for truth; these rules draw on Aristotelian ontology and epistemology, but only to contradict them tacitly or to make use of them in ways that are incompatible with their principles. Thus while not denying the existence of substance, for example, Descartes pirates that structure and abstracts as many of the features of substance as he needs for his gray ontology. Accordingly, in the Rules Descartes transforms traditional Aristotelian ontology into an epistemology without being, into an intentionally ambiguous but new ontology—a “gray ontology” in that it is not fully Aristotle nor does it refute Aristotle.

Part I: A Brief Introduction to Jean-Luc Marion’s Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes

The following is a three-part series on Jean-Luc Marion based on a recent lecture presented at the University of Dallas by Derek Morrow. Though I have been at UD for two years, this was my first semester to met Derek, and it has been my great pleasure to get to know him and become friends. Derek is currently a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Dallas and expects to receive his PhD in May, 2007. He recently contributed a chapter to a volume on Marion’s work in phenomenology (Givenness and God: Questions of Jean-Luc Marion, Fordham University Press, 2005). He has also published a number of peer reviewed articles in the Heythrop Journal and the International Philosophical Quarterly.


Jean-Luc Marion is arguably one of the most important figures in continental philosophy and theology today. In the world of contemporary academic research and publication, it is rare indeed that a scholar should manage to establish himself as a leading authority in his field; only a select few ever manage to do so, and then only after a lifetime of careful research. Amazingly, Marion has done so not only once, but twice, and in two separate areas of philosophy, first in Descartes studies and then subsequently in phenomenology. In France, where he is professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, Sorbonne (Paris, IV), Marion is best known for his magisterial trilogy on Cartesian metaphysics, Sur l’ontologie grise de Descartes (1975), Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes (1981), and Sur le prisme métaphysique de Descartes (1986; Eng. trans.: On Descartes’ Metaphysical Prism, 1999). In addition to this trilogy he has also published two volumes of collected essays on Descartes, Questions cartésiennes: méthode et métaphysique (1991; Eng. trans.: Cartesian Questions: Method and Metaphysics, 1999) and Questions cartésiennes II: Sur l’ego et sur Dieu (1996). For this extraordinary contribution to Descartes studies he received the prestigious Grand Prix de Philosophie de l’Académie Française in 1992. Such an impressive body of work would already have been achievement enough, but Marion has gone on to publish a second trilogy of studies, this time in the field of phenomenology, Réduction et donation (1989; Eng. trans.: Reduction and Givenness, 1998), Étant donné (1997; Eng. trans.: Being Given, 2002), and De surcroît (2001; Eng. trans.: In Excess, 2002). His most recent book, Le phénomène érotique: Six méditations (2003), examines the phenomenology of love. This more recent research comprising his numerous groundbreaking studies in phenomenology is that for which he is most well known in the United States, where he holds a second academic appointment as the John Nuveen Professor of the Philosophy of Religion and Theology in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, teaching there as well in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy. Several international conferences in the past few years have been organized and dedicated exclusively to an examination of Marion’s work in phenomenology and its relation to theology. The first of these took place in Dublin, Ireland, in January 2003; a second conference entitled “Jean-Luc Marion and the Horizon of Modern Theology” was held at the University of Notre Dame in May 2004. Finally, beyond his extensive writings in Descartes and in phenomenology, Marion has also published a number of influential studies in theology. The most notable of these is Dieu sans l’être (1982; Eng. trans.: God Without Being,, 1991), which created an uproar among Thomists and Heideggerians alike for its commendation of Christian love (agape, or charity) as the preeminent phenomenological category, superior at once to the being of traditional scholastic metaphysics and to its supposed overcoming in Heidegger’s phenomenology of Being. Marion has not shied away from controversy, for he understands himself as a Christian philosopher who does not hesitate to appropriate the insights of postmodern thought whenever he finds it useful or necessary to do so. Most recently, he has expressed a desire to resume his work in theology, but whether in doing so he will continue to use the conceptual tools he has developed in phenomenology remains to be seen.

In this three part series of posts I will offer a brief introduction to the argument of Marion’s second book on Descartes, Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes (On the “Blank/White” Theology of Descartes). First, a word of explanation about the title: Why write a book on the “white” theology of Descartes? Marion is very fond of puns and wordplay (a fondness that reveals, at least on the level of style, some of his debt to postmodern modes of discourse), often incorporating them into the titles of his books. The present instance is no exception to this general rule. In French, “blanche” literally means “white,” but it also bears the idiomatic sense of “blank,” meaning unwritten or without content, as in the expression, “I gave him a blank check.” In the book’s title, Marion is using blanche in that idiomatic sense because he wants to stress that Cartesian metaphysics operates against the background of a blank theology, a theology without content. In addition, however, Marion also wants us to hear resonances of the more literal rendering, “white theology,” simply because the argument of Théologie blanche, his second book on Descartes, complements that of the first book on Descartes, which examines Cartesian “gray” ontology. Marion’s third book in the series, On Descartes’ Metaphysical Prism, “refracts” the colors of the gray ontology and the white theology through its “metaphysical prism,” and so completes the argument as well as the metaphor elaborated by the first two books.