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Descartes’ debt to Teresa of Ávila, or why we should work on women in the history of philosophy

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Despite what you have heard over the years, the famous evil deceiver argument in Meditation One is not original to Descartes (1596–1650). Early modern meditators often struggle with deceptive demons. The author of the Meditations (1641) is merely giving a new spin to a common rhetorical device. Equally surprising is the fact that Descartes’ epistemological rendering of the demon trope is probably inspired by a Spanish nun, Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582), whose works have been ignored by historians of philosophy, although they were a global phenomenon during Descartes’ formative years. In this paper, I first answer the obvious question as to why previous early modernists have missed something so important as the fact that Descartes’ most famous publication relies on a well-established genre and that his deceiver argument bears a striking similarity to ideas in Teresa’s final work, El Castillo Interior (Interior Castle, 1588)? I discuss the meditative tradition at the end of which Descartes’ Meditations stands, present evidence to support the claim that Descartes was familiar with Teresa’s proposals, contrast their meditative goals, and make a point-by-point comparison between the meditative steps in Teresa’s Interior Castle and those in Descartes’ Meditations which constitute (what I call) their common deceiver strategy. My conclusion makes a case for a broader and more inclusive history of philosophy.

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  1. Thanks to Roberta Ballarin, Heather Battaly, Jamie Tappenden, Raphaelle Debenedetti, Maria Berbara, and the Folger Library.

  2. Due to space limitations, the primary materials cited here are limited. On the status of Descartes among his contemporaries, see Digby (1644), Sturm (1686, pp. 161–165). For more citations, see Mercer (2001, 27–49).

  3. Fischer (1878, Vol. 1, 147–50, 440). Fischer tells a gripping story of the Cartesian “school” and its impact on subsequent philosophy emphasizing its important for German philosophy from Kant through Hegel and Schopenhauer to sundry other German thinkers. See Fischer (1854–1877).

  4. O’Neill’s great accomplishment was to take an imprecise map sketched by her feminist predecessors and add prominent landmarks drawn in precise detail. She then motivated her students, friends, and colleagues to use her revised map to explore ever more specific areas. See O’Neill (1998a, b). Many of us working on early modern women would not have done so without O’Neill’s philosophical, scholarly, and personal support.

  5. Mercer (2014a).

  6. Prominent historians of philosophy have ignored the works of women in this period. For example, Perler (2011) presents “the history” of the passions 1270–1670 without discussing the views of a single woman although they had much to say about the passions in the period.

  7. For important studies of Descartes’ medieval and scholastic sources, see Gilson (1930, 1932) and Ariew (1992, 1999).

  8. The exercises were written 1522–1524, increasingly practiced by Jesuits, and formally approved by Pope Paul III in 1548.

  9. For more on Descartes’ adroit use of the meditative genre, see Mercer (2014b).

  10. Teresa of Ávila (1577). The Interior Castle is divided into “dwelling places” or main parts of the castle. Each dwelling place contains one or more chapters, each of which has several sections. Citations given here include dwelling place, chapter, section, and page number of the Kavanaugh and Rodriguez translation. So, I: 2, 9 (292)) is first dwelling place, second chapter, ninth section, p. 292.

  11. Teresa and her works were not universally endorsed. Although Jesuits supported her beatification (including the influential Spanish scholastic, Francis Suarez (Fuente 1881, vol. 6, p. 278), some Catholic leaders argued that no woman could have written such a book and concluded that Teresa must have been helped by the devil (Slade 1995, p. 129).

  12. Ghezzi (2000). Borgia, who was beatified in 1624, wrote a meditation that has neither the philosophical subtlety nor psychological insights of Teresa’s work. See Borgia (1620).

  13. An early translation of Teresa’s autobiography, La Vida, from Spanish into English includes a dedication to “Princess Henrietta-Maria of France, Queen of Great Britain, France and Ireland” who has committed herself to “protecting and enlarging the glory of an incomparable Saint, S. Teresa” (Teresa 1642).

  14. For example, the prominent French Cardinal and Statesman, Pierre de Bérulle, was instrumental in supporting Teresa’s Carmelite order of nuns in France and promoting her ideas. He was also a supporter of Descartes with whom he met. See Howells (2015), Gaukroger (1995, pp. 183, 186).

  15. All citations are to Descartes (1964–1976), cited by volume and page numbers; translations from Descartes (1985–1991).

  16. There is much disagreement about how to interpret the main point and arguments in Meditation One. I ignore these complications here. For an overview of the debate see Newman (2014).

  17. See the quotation from Augustine’s Confessions in Sect. 3.


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Mercer, C. Descartes’ debt to Teresa of Ávila, or why we should work on women in the history of philosophy. Philos Stud 174, 2539–2555 (2017).

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