The Breakdown of Cartesian Metaphysics (1987)
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction
Allow me to begin by saying, with not the least bit of false humility, that I pretend to no understanding of the field of Philosophy as such. I took just two Philosophy courses in college. I saw the professor of the first, Introduction to Philosophy, at a cocktail party about halfway through the semester and he said he was surprised to see me because he thought I was off campus that semester. He wasn't kidding, and was shocked to hear that I was even taking a class with him--so to speak. I only took the second, Medieval Philosophy, to help out a fraternity brother, who'd mistakenly bought the text books and written his name in them so the bookstore wouldn't take them back. I bought them from him for half-price and enrolled. That professor actually had a class vote at mid-term because she didn't think it fair that I be allowed to stay in the course since I'd not yet attended a single class meeting. I apparently won in a vote as tight as Gove v. Bush only because of a single fellow student's persuasive power. He told the professor: "I don't think you should take this personally, he's a History major and we have a course together that's taught by the Chairman of the Department that he never goes to either." Suffice it to say, all that follows is just armchair philosophizing and is not intended to reflect any nuanced understanding of the thickets of gobbledygook that professional philosophers have erected around their theories in order to make themselves seem to have specialized knowledge. On the other hand, I do believe that if we mow down those thickets we arrive at pretty simple ideas that all of us are competent to discuss. And so to the matter at hand...
It seems uncontroversial, even incontrovertible, to say that at least in the intellectual realm the past several centuries in the West have been the Age of Reason or of Enlightenment. We are, perhaps, at the End of this "Modern Age" -- as John Lukacs has argued -- but it is certainly the case that elite opinion in Europe, especially, and in America is and has been premised on the dogmatic acceptance of the theory that we can know the truth about the material world around us by rationally examining, testing, and thinking about it. Now, there are myriad claims wrapped up in that seemingly simple assertion -- that the material world exists, that only material exists in the world, that our perceptions of it are trustworthy, etc. -- but at its core we find the notion that: reason is a more reliable source of knowledge about existence than faith. In fact, reason can be said to be the only reliable source of knowledge. Anything that we can not prove via the operation of reason is de facto suspect, if not downright foolish.
Now, you'd think that this dismissal of faith -- a revolution when it was effected -- would have to rest on some truly iron-clad basis, but the fact is that the sufficiency of Reason has never been demonstrated, and presumably never can be. I was, and I suspect most of you were, told on nothing more than the basis of pedantic authority that Rene Descartes had solved the conundrum of how can know that we exist, that the world outside our own thoughts/senses exists, and that we can reliably reason about such questions when he made the brilliant pronouncement: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) [Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason in the Search for Truth in the Sciences (1637)]. Richard A. Watson, one of the foremost living authorities on Descartes, calls that phrase: "a statement nobody can doubt who thinks it." But the truism that we all think we exist and are capable of rational though isn't actually a rational proof of same, is it? It is just as accurate to say that no one can believe that statement to be well-reasoned who thinks about it.
Recall that if our topic is the sufficiency of Reason then that sufficiency must obviously be demonstrated by rational processes, not just by the faith-based justification that it's what we all believe. It is this box that Descartes and Cartesianism never found the way out of, as Mr. Watson himself demonstrated in his book, The Breakdown of Cartesian Metaphysics. As he shows there, within a hundred years Cartesian metaphysics had been completely disposed of, with David Hume driving the final nail in the coffin:
David Hume, like Berkeley, comes to sceptical conclusions about Cartesian ontology, after reading Bayle and Locke. Not only does he deny the ontological dualism, but he also explicitly denies the all-inclusive ontological type-distinctions between substance and modification. Foucher argues that Cartesians do not know the essence of mind and matter as they claim to; Malebranche argues that we have an idea of the essence of matter but not of mind; Locke argues that we cannot know the essence of either mind or matter; and Berkeley argues that we have a notion of the essence of mind but not of matter. Hume concludes that we have no idea, and thus no knowledge of any substance at all. [...]Countless others have tried to rescue Reason from this impasse, but without success, which is why we find ourselves, almost three hundred years after the breakdown, still discussing Descartes as if he mattered. All the Age of Reason has ever had to go on is the pretended authority of Descartes's nostrum and the hope that the intellectual classes could repeat it often enough that the masses wouldn't examine it too closely. As a matter of fact, it seems fair to say that to be an intellectual is to proceed as if Descartes's "proof" were sufficient. Whether he would have wished to be or not -- and presumably he would have not -- Descartes not only provided the foundation of the Age of Reason, but deserves to be considered the Father of Intellectualism.
David Hume, on the other hand, did not just lay Descartes to rest, but offered an exemplary model of how we might react to the insufficiency of Reason and to the awkward truth that from a rational point of view the only proper position to take towards the world is one of thoroughgoing skepticism. He concludes his Treatise with what can only be called a testament of faith:
But what have I here said, that reflections very refin'd and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron'd with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv'd of the use of every member and faculty.In short: so what if reason is itself irrational and only faith allows us to believe in its utility; faith suffices. In effect he's returned us to the pre-Rational worldview, where reason was a tool that God had given us in order to apprehend Creation. Thus is Reason cut back down to size and Faith returned to primacy.
It can hardly be a coincidence that Rationalism and Intellectualism and the theories they spawned have been far more influential, and destructive, in Descartes's France and on the European continent than they have been in Hume's Anglosphere. Having blindly clung to a metaphysic that was so clearly flawed, it's not surprising that Europeans (and American intellectuals) proved susceptible to the seductive allure of such rationalisms as Darwinism and Marxism, which offered perfectly rational explanations of how the world worked, if only you ignored the fact that we can't know it to be rational or material and that experience demonstrates otherwise. Meanwhile, in England and its former colonies -- but especially in America -- we have generally followed the example of Hume and been skeptical if not utterly hostile towards intellectuals and the claims of Reason. Perhaps that alone explains why there has never been a viable Communist party, nevermind a Marxist government in the Anglo-Saxon world and why Christianity remains so strong and Darwinism has fared so poorly in the States. Richard Hofstadter famously complained -- in his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) -- that America had been characterized throughout its history by a peculiarly vehement brand of anti-intellectualism:
The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.Of course, having to acknowledge the American love affair with inventors and other men of practical intelligence, he was forced to draw a distinction that speaks volumes:
[I]ntelligence is an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, an predictable range... Intelligence works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals, and may be quick to shear away questions of thought that do not seem to help in reaching them. [...]To exactly the extent that men can apply their God-given reason to the solve problems, we value it. At the point where some men start pretending that they can dispense truths via the operations of naught but their own minds our patience is exhausted. Switching back across the pond, think of Samuel Johnson's eloquent response to Hume's fellow wrestler with Descartes, as recounted by James Boswell:
We stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I shall never forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it thus."What does it matter if Reason ultimately collapses in on itself so long as we believe in the reality of the rock--and what kind of person wastes their time worrying about it? As a purely practical matter -- practicality being the hallmark of the intelligence that we honor, as opposed to the intellect that we scorn -- our faith in God and the more limited reason he blessed us with has served us rather well, so why bother trying to make of reason something that it's not?
Typically, it was a British philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, who best explained Intellectuals and what they were about, in his essay Rationalism in Politics:
There are some minds which give us the sense that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity and dissolving them into a succession of climacterics, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison. His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void. And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. And if, with as yet no thought of analysis, we glance below the surface, we may, perhaps, see in the temperament, if not in the character, of the Rationalist, a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.For such creatures the idea that we should take anything on faith -- especially the value of reason itself -- is unacceptable precisely because it makes us dependent on something outside of the human mind. We all know, of course, what (Who) the worst of those somethings might be, but it was Thomas Nagel, who most explicitly stated that the intellectual insistence on the metaphysical truth of Rationalism reflects a terror of what they might have to face once they accept the reality that faith trumps Reason and that rationalist metaphysics is ultimately so incoherent that it breaks down:
Even without God, the idea of a natural sympathy between the deepest truths of nature and the deepest layers of the human mind, which can be exploited to allow gradual development of a truer and truer conception of reality, makes us more at home in the universe than is secularly comfortable. The thought that the relation between mind and the world is something fundamental makes many people in this day and age nervous, I believe this is one manifestation of a fear of religion which has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life.This last propensity is on hilarious display in today's New York Times Magazine, where the Darwinist Daniel Dennett is arguing that religious belief is biologically determined. You don't have to be a trained philosopher to recognize the devastating problem with his theory, that the belief that religious belief is biologically determined must then also be biologically determined. It is in the reduction to such absurdities that the Rationalists are finally doing to themselves what Hume didn't quite manage to do to Descartes -- dispose of him once and for all -- and why Mr. Lukacs may well be right about the Modern Age -- the age during which the claim was made that Reason is superior to Faith -- coming to an end.
-Richard A. Watson (Washington University of St. Louis, Philosophy Department)
CV: Richard A. Watson (Washington University of St. Louis, Philosophy Department)
-ESSAY: Descartes on the Human Soul: Philosophy and the Demands of Christian Doctrine (Richard A. Watson, January 2000, Journal of the History of Philosophy)
-REVIEW: of Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of Renes Descartes by Richard A Watson (Steven Shapin, The Guardian)
-REVIEW: of Richard A. Watson, Cogito, Ergo, Sum: The Life of Renes Descartes (J. B. Shank, H-France)
Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY: David Hume at 300 (Howard Darmstadter, February 2021, Philosophy Now)
-ESSAY: In defence of postmodernism: Those blaming wokeness on Derrida or Foucault have totally misunderstood their work. (Patrick West, 4/14/23, spiked)
-ESSAY: The Christian Philosophy of René Descartes: Rethinking the Origins of Modern Secularism ( John F. Doherty, 4/24/23, Public Discourse)
-ESSAY: Ergoing Nowhere: Noah Harris says Descartes failed to find absolute foundations for knowledge. (Noah Harris 4/02/23, Philosophy Now)
-ESSAY: The Metaphysics of Conservatism (Edward Feser, 12 Jan 2006, Tech Central Station)
-ESSAY: Politics of Progress (James R. Harrigan, 02 May 2003, Tech Central Station)
-ESSAY: The Burke Habit: Prudence, skepticism and "unbought grace." (JEFFREY HART, December 27, 2005, Opinion Journal)
-Renes Descartes and Cartesianism (La Haye, France--March 31, 1596, Stockholm, Sweden--February 11, 1650)
-Renes Descartes (1596-1650) (kirjasto)
-Descartes' Life and Works (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
-Descartes' Epistemology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
-LINKS: Rene Descartes (Episteme)
-New Dualism Archive: A philosophical archive for the constructive study of ontological dualism
-Dualism (Catholic Encyclopedia)
-REVIEW: of Gordon Baker and Katherine J. Morris (Descartes' Dualism, (Steven Nadler)
Not Matter, but Form (Christopher Dawson The Modern Dilemma)
But today we realise that the materialistic theory of the nineteenth century was no more final than the scientific theories that it superseded. Science, which has explained so much, has ended by explaining away matter itself, and has left us with a skeleton universe of mathematical formulae. Consequently the naive materialism that regarded Matter with a capital M as the one reality is no longer acceptable, for we have come to see that the fundamental thing in the world is not Matter but Form. The universe is not just a mass of solid particles of matter governed by blind determinism and chance. It possesses an organic structure, and the further we penetrate into the nature of reality the more important does this principle of form become.
The development of quantum mechanics (WERNER HEISENBERG, Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1933)
Classical physics represents that striving to learn about Nature in which essentially we seek to draw conclusions about objective processes from observations and so ignore the consideration of the influences which every observation has on the object to be observed; classical physics, therefore, has its limits at the point from which the influence of the observation on the event can no longer be ignored.
-LECTURE: Physics and Philosophy: The Development of Philosophical Ideas Since Descartes in Comparison with the New Situation in Quantum Theory (Werner Heisenberg, 1958, Gifford Lectures)
-POEM: SchrÃƒï¿½dingerÃ¢ï¿½ï¿½s Cat: The Straight Dope
-PODCAST: In this episode Daniel Chacón has a conversation with philosopher Philip Goff, one of the most influential thinkers of our time, especially with the publication of his new book Galileo‘s Error. (DANIEL CHACON, OCT 20, 2021, Words on a Wire)
-ESSAY: Known unknowables: The ancient Sceptics used doubt as a way of investigating the world. Later thinkers undermined even that possibility (Mahdi Ranaee, 2/01/23, Aeon)
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