I am starting a project on Descartes’ Meditations. More than just in the title, Descartes’ work has a deep affinity with the tradition of meditations or spiritual exercises of his time. And beyond the traditions he was familiar with, there is the larger tradition of meditation via doubt especially among the Zen schools that resonates with Descartes’ writing and practice. Although I stumbled upon these connections after I brought my Buddhist practice together with my reading of the Meditations, I am in no way the first to think this; indeed, part of the joy so far has been to read about these connections from authors across various disciplines!
My first encounter with Descartes was at UCLA. It was my first college philosophy class. Professor Joseph Almog strolled in, rolled back his sleeves, and started right in on the Meditations. All we covered that quarter was the Meditations. In fact, I think we only covered various sections from the text primarily around the mind-body problem. And the professor taught it all without notes – just the chalkboard, his mind, our minds, the text somewhere in the background, and abstract philosophical analysis. It was breathtaking (for a naive freshman like myself)!
I took other classes where we covered the standard topics in the Meditations. I taught them in various classes and made sure students understood the role of skepticism, the reasons and arguments for foundationalism, the arguments for God’s existence and their obvious problems, and more. Students questioned me and I gave them my most definitive answers in return. Of course there were subtleties of interpretation, but this was how the Meditations were to be understood.
And from where I stand now, all of that was horribly superficial, and just wrong as a reading of Descartes.
So what happened? History and context and ideology happened. We all learn from someone, and they are informed by their context and history. And learning is constrained by the context of learning – its aims, its political and pedagogical agenda. And we are human and take stands, both intentionally and unintentionally, and that ideological formation impacts our teaching. All this is obvious once you immerse yourself in this way of thinking. And yet just today after reading an article it dawned on me how full of myself I was teaching Descartes as if I knew the work, the arguments, the problems, the answers!
The beauty of this process is belief revision: we can change what we believe. And this impacts action: we can change how we act. And this impacts speech: we can change what we say. And putting all this together requires humility: recognizing our limited or bounded understanding, and bending ourselves to change unboundedly, to unknowing mind, to not being full of ourselves, over and over again.
The inquiry continues. It must continue. Not just about Descartes. But about everything we believe and encounter in our daily lives. And I am left thinking about how to teach in the face of bounded understanding and unbounded change. What does it mean to be a teacher when all these constraints are salient? How can I empower students by guiding them, when I know their guide is positioned in this way? How can I be honest in my limited understanding, while still positioning myself as someone who has something to teach?
There are similar questions for students, whether students of philosophy, Buddhism, or any discipline at all. And there are not so simple answers to all of this. But for now – its on my mind and in my heart. Making amends for my previously limited understanding, moving forward while keeping in mind and heart the way I am formed and bound by history, context, ideology, and teachers, and reminding myself that unbounded change is the path of humility and awakening.