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The Breakdown of Cartesian Metaphysics ()

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. [...]

Hume argues that impressions and ideas are the only objects that do exist. When we examine our idea of substance, for example, we find that it is not an idea of an independently existing entity at all, but only a compound idea of a collection of related perceptions. [...]

Hume can be seen as making sense of the Cartesian way of ideas by retaining the epistemological likeness principle, but he does so only by abandoning the dualistic system that gives rise to difficulties. Impressions are not external objects, nor do collections of them comprise external objects. But they are not internal either; they are all -- together with ideas, which are in essence only weaker perceptions -- that exists. There is no problem of the causal interaction of substances because there are no substances. There is no essential difficulty about representation, for all entities are of the same sort. Perceptions do not in themselves point beyond to anything that must inhere in or that must cause them; they are what they are, and we can know of nothing -- and thus nothing exists -- that transcends them. All the other philosophers considered here, even, emphatically, Foucher are searching for knowledge of the essence of substances. With Hume, the search for knowledge of qualities, powers, forms, forces. and essences or natures of substances founders at last. This is because nothing remains to which these terms can be applied; all that exists, for Hume, are impressions and ideas, which are perceived openly to be what they are and nothing more. [...]

And if the abandonment of the ontological pattern of substance and modification requires that new explanatory support be given for the relations of an idea's being in the mind and of a mind's being directly acquainted with an idea -- because these relations can no longer depend on the relation between a substance and its own modifications -- Hume can be seen as offering for this explanatory role the relation of an idea to the collection of perceptions of which it is a member.[...]

Hume thus completes the breakdown of Cartesian metaphysics.
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.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determin'd to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life. But notwithstanding that my natural propensity, and the course of my animal spirits and passions reduce me to this indolent belief in the general maxims of the world, I still feel such remains of my former disposition, that I am ready to throw all my books and papers into the fire, and resolve never more to renounce the pleasures of life for the sake of reasoning and philosophy. For those are my sentiments in that splenetic humour, which governs me at present. I may, nay I must yield to the current of nature, in submitting to my senses and understanding; and in this blind submission I shew most perfectly my sceptical disposition and principles. But does it follow, that I must strive against the current of nature, which leads me to indolence and pleasure; that I must seclude myself, in some measure, from the commerce and society of men, which is so agreeable; and that I must torture my brains with subtilities and sophistries, at the very time that I cannot satisfy myself concerning the reasonableness of so painful an application, nor have any tolerable prospect of arriving by its means at truth and certainty. Under what obligation do I lie of making such an abuse of time? And to what end can it serve either for the service of mankind, or for my own private interest? No: If I must be a fool, as all those who reason or believe any thing certainly are, my follies shall at least be natural and agreeable. Where I strive against my inclination, I shall have a good reason for my resistance; and will no more be led a wandering into such dreary solitudes, and rough passages, as I have hitherto met with.
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. [...]

Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines.
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.

Now, of all worlds, the world of politics might seem the least amenable to rationalist treatment--politics, always so deeply veined with both the traditional, the circumstantial and the transitory. And, indeed, some convinced Rationalists have admitted defeat here: Clemenceau, intellectually a child of the modern Rationalist tradition (in his treatment of morals and religion, for example), was anything but a Rationalist in politics. But not all have admitted defeat. If we except religion, the greatest apparent victories of Rationalism have been in politics: it is not to be expected that whoever is prepared to carry his rationalism into the conduct of life will hesitate to carry it into the conduct of public affairs.

But what is important to observe in such a man (for it is characteristic) is not the decisions and actions he is inspired to make, but the source of his inspiration, his idea (and with him it will be a deliberate and conscious idea) of political activity. He believes, of course, in the open mind, the mind free from prejudice and its relic, habit. He believes that the unhindered human 'reason' (if only it can be brought to bear) is an infallible guide in political activity. Further, he believes in argument as the technique and operation of reason'; the truth of an opinion and the 'rational' ground (not the use) of an institution is all that matters to him. Consequently, much of his political activity consists in bringing the social, political, legal and institutional inheritance of his society before the tribunal of his intellect; and the rest is rational administration, 'reason' exercising an uncontrolled jurisdiction over the circumstances of the case. To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform. To patch up, to repair (that is, to do anything which requires a patient knowledge of the material), he regards as waste of time: and he always prefers the invention of a new device to making use of a current and well-tried expedient. He does not recognize change unless it is a self-consciously induced change, and consequently he falls easily into the error of identifying the customary and the traditional with the changeless. This is aptly illustrated by the rationalist attitude towards a tradition of ideas. There is, of course, no question either of retaining or improving such a tradition, for both these involve an attitude of submission. It must be destroyed. And to fill its place the Rationalist puts something of his own making--an ideology, the formalized abridgment of the supposed substratum of rational truth contained in the tradition.
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.

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper--namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.

My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning and design as fundamental features of the world.
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.


Grade: (A)


Richard Watson Links:

    -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:

    -PODCAST: THE LIBERAL OF THE 18TH CENTURY: Aaron Alexander Zubia joins the podcast to discuss his new book The Political Thought of David Hume: The Origins of Liberalism and the Modern Political Imagination. (Mark Bauerlein, March 14, 2024, First Things)
-ESSAY: Did the Enlightenment fail?: The Enlightenment was born out of the bloody conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries and dedicated to tolerance and moderation. The violence of the French Revolution appeared to mark its failure. (Angus Brown, 4/16/24, Englesberg Ideas)
    -ESSAY: The “blind spot” in science that’s fueling a crisis of meaning (Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser and Evan Thompson, 3/07/24, Big Think)
    -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.

And so we can no longer dismiss mind and spiritual reality as unreal or less real than the material world, for it is just in mind and in the spiritual world that the element of form is most supreme. It is the mind that is the key of the universe, not matter. In the Beginning was the Word, and it is the creative and informing power of the Word that is the foundation of reality.

    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: Schr�dinger�s 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)
    -EXCERPT: from How to Think Like a Philosopher: Scholars, Dreamers and Sages Who Can Teach Us How to Live by Peter Cave (Peter Cave, Big Think)
    -ESSAY: What You Need to Read Before You Read Kant (Anja Steinbauer, April/May 2024, Philosophy Now)