By Kate Arenchild | Assistant News Editor

Seminar Informal Curriculum is designed to supplement classroom learning. (Courtesy of Saint Mary’s College)

On Thursday, March 8, Professor Joseph Zepeda of the Integral Program and Professor Peter Freund of the Art Department hosted a lecture titled “Just Who Do You Think You Are? Descartes in the Disciplines.” The topic centered around the Seminar 103 reading, Descartes’ “Discourse on Method.”

The lecture was part of the Seminar Informal Curriculum, designed to augment discussion in the classroom. Zepeda commented on the purpose of the program: “I think it is important that the conversation within the seminar classroom extend outside those walls.” He elaborated, “If [Collegiate Seminar] is supposed to be a signature program that really is part of the core of the [Saint Mary’s College] intellectual culture, and if that is going to be true then that needs to not be just what happens from this time to this time in these classrooms and that is it, but it needs to extend outside. [The informal curriculum] is one way to do that.”

Freund later added over email, “Ideally, Seminar teaches students how contention is productive. This utopian function takes intellectual commitment from everyone around the table.” The Informal Curriculum helps students strive towards this ideal.

Zepeda began the event. Descartes, he said, was “extremely influential, an intellectual shaper of the modern world. A significant figure both as a scientist and a mathematician, and especially as a philosopher.” Zepeda highlighted the fact that while the “Discourse on Method” reads as an intellectual biography of Descartes, that is not entirely true. He explained: “Descartes constructs this image of himself as a solitary thinker sitting alone in a heated room, and it is just the pure power of the individual mind having insight into itself that gets him started on a way to achieve real clarity and progress … That is sort of a historical fiction, to put it generously.” In reality, Descartes was deeply influenced by other thinkers, specifically Isaac Beeckman. While his ideas were original, they were not without predecessors.

Br. Nikolas Barth OFM ‘19, who is currently taking Seminar 103, which has excerpts of “Discourse on Method” in its reading list, found Zepeda’s lecture helpful. “I really enjoyed Zepeda’s exposition of Descartes because it deepened some of my struggles in understanding his philosophical moves, like the reduction of matter to merely three-dimensional ‘stuff’ and the identification of the natural and mathematical reasoning, which leaves no room for metaphysical realities.”

Zepeda left the audience with two questions.

The first was about the text: “What is the relationship in the Discourse between the stuff about itself (cogito) and the programmatic methodological scientific agenda that emerges from the Discourse?”

The second was aimed to bring the discussion outside of the text: “Is it the case that our approach to the natural world is shaped by our understanding of ourselves and our consciousness?”

The second question led directly into the talk Professor Peter Freund gave. Freund explained his connection with Descartes: “For me, Descartes’ famous dictum ‘I think therefore I am’ beautifully expresses the mainspring of art. But it’s less his conclusion that is inspiring than the underlying problem that it acknowledges. In the universe of Descartes’ Discourse on Method, there is something structurally unstable—a gap—in “being” itself that the philosopher tries to overcome by grounding the ‘I’ in ‘thinking’ (aka the “cogito”). From my point of view, art springs from this same structural deadlock. But rather than promising certainty, which is the expressed purpose of Descartes’ ‘method,’ an artistic method is a way of harnessing the fundamental gap to generate something beyond the grounding certainties of the ‘I.’” 

Freund showed the audience how he is using the artistic method to address this “fundamental gap.”

His current project revolves around creating art about Iran using digital mediums. He has created a new and unique process.

“I devised a process I call ‘poetic hacking’ as an answer to the question. I enter semantic text into the code-bed of iconic imagery and then reconfigure the resulting distortions to the images into a series of prints. Each text is researched and selected based on its real or potential associations with the image it digitally distorts. Admittedly, the project is an absurdist gesture, but one that has a rigorous technical and conceptual basis.” He showed the audience some of his pieces and explained the process.

The two presentations fit together well. Br. Barth explained: “[Freund] described the core element of an image being the absence of the primary viewer whose perspective we receive as secondary viewers or spectators. I thought the ‘gap in being’ that Prof. Freund uses as his initial point of exploration emphasized well the mysterious relationship between body and soul that Descartes fails to address sufficiently.”

The two professors come from very different fields, and their convergence on Descartes’ Discourse on Method helped bring this seminar text alive.

Participant Mikayla Cree ‘21 is not currently taking Seminar 103 but attended out of curiosity and enjoyed the talk. “The Seminar Informal Curriculum provides enriching opportunities to learn outside the classroom,” she said. “I encourage other students to pursue these opportunities!”

For more information, contact: Seminar Informal Curriculum Coordinator, Krista Varela Posell at

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