Bloomsbury Academic ($14.95)
by Scott F. Parker
Writer and philosopher Stephen Mumford takes Descartes for his model in Glimpse of Light: New Meditations on First Philosophy, and readers for whom Meditations on First Philosophy is more than just assigned reading in college will welcome Mumford’s “new meditations,” which offer another inspiring run at an ever-elusive certainty on which to ground a worldview. The very possibility of a coherent worldview—could the narrative stakes be higher?
Following Descartes, Mumford’s book consists of six meditations produced over six days, to which he adds a chapter of “Objections and Replies.” Mumford situates his meditations in the fictitious story of Benedict Chilwell, a philosopher in mid-life who is at a crossroads. Chilwell travels in winter to an island in Norway, where a friend’s cabin has been made available to him. In these details, Mumford evokes another philosopher, Wittgenstein, who built his own cabin for meditation in Norway, and who gave what could have been Chilwell’s orienting axiom: “Whoever is unwilling to descend into himself, because it is too painful, will of course remain superficial in his writing.”
Chilwell is tired of being superficial. “I’m giving myself these six days,” he tells his Norwegian friend, “to find some certainty . . . some clarity . . . for what I believe in.” If he fails: “there’s nothing to go on for.”
Why does Mumford go to the trouble of crafting a fictional narrative around his meditations, especially when he himself took the retreat on which his book is based? For that matter, why did Descartes? Meditations, after all, that foundational text of western philosophy, comprises a simple but invented narrative. A man “withdraws into solitude” to do some thinking—we are in the territory of plot. Descartes wrote his Meditations over a period of years, not in the six days recounted, and like Plato, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, his work demonstrates that philosophy is a genre of literature, and argument a form of story.
Mumford’s story goes like this: Chilwell goes to the cabin for the peace and quiet that will allow him to find sufficient support for the philosophy of realism—the idea that “things existed whether we thought of them or not.” His isolation (and therefore his meditation) is interrupted by neighbors who drop by (some more welcome than others), but it soon becomes clear, even to Chilwell, that his meditations would run out of momentum if not for the stimulation these visitors bring him. It is only in response to the questions and objections of others that he is able to develop a workable metaphysics. The story allows Mumford the opportunity to dramatize the argument’s coming to be, a comment on philosophy’s methodology, rather than present it in the abstract.
None of this would amount to much of a story, though, if Chilwell weren’t able to develop his argument for realism. The bedrock he builds his worldview on is—contra Descartes—causality, which he takes for the sine qua non of existence. Objections come readily from the directions of science and religion, but Chilwell rebuts them all to his satisfaction. The fiction is inspiring in its own right; as with Descartes’s Meditations, the reader needn’t be convinced by the argument itself to be moved by the drama of a person struggling to think clearly.